Muhammad Asad: The Story of a Story of a Story

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by Toheed Ahmad*


Feeding the poor and needy is an act that draws us closer to Allah. We earn His forgiveness, mercies and blessings through this act of charity.

“Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah?s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night. (Bukhari)


(Muhammad Asad (1900-1992), an Austrian born Jew who converted to Islam, was an accomplished scholar of Arabic and Persian. He spent several years in Saudi Arabia, where he befriended the royal family, and then moved on to British India and lived mainly in Lahore, Abbottabad, Srinagar and Dalhousie. Upon a suggestion of Allama Iqbal, he translated selections from Sahih Bukhari Sharif into English, the first such translation ever made. He wrote and spoke extensively on the subject of Islam and its conception of state and government and West’s relations with Islam. He was particularly fascinated with the idea of Pakistan as a symbol of rejuvenation of the Islamic world. During the Great War the British interned him as enemy citizen. Upon independence he moved to Pakistan where he was picked up for the Foreign Service and served at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and at the Pakistan Mission to UN in New York, a job he resigned in 1952. He wrote several books most notable of which is ‘The Road to Makkah’ and the English translation of the Holy Quran. Today Pakistan has forgotten this ‘intellectual co-founder of Pakistan.’

He was born as Leopold Weiss in the Polish speaking small town of Lwow (in eastern Austro-Hungarian Empire, located today in Ukraine) to an orthodox Jewish family. His grandfather was the Rabbi of the town, while his father refused to follow the family calling and became a lawyer. Years later he converted to Islam, and worked with Allama Iqbal and some other pioneers of the freedom movement and earned the sobriquet of “intellectual co-founder of Pakistan.”

When he was a child his family moved to the Imperial capital city of Vienna where he was raised and educated. Asad graduated from Vienna University specializing in History of Art and Philosophy. Years later, together with his Saudi wife and child, he migrated as a common refugee from Dalhousie in eastern Punjab and camped with hundreds of thousands of other refugees at Walton in Lahore.

The restless soul that Asad was, he started his career as a correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung daily. At age 23, he went on a reporting trip to the Levant where he visited Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. His dispatches were published in book form in 1924 as Unromantisches Morgenland, which was translated into English in 2004 as The Unromantic Orient. In 1924-26 he made a second trip to the Middle East and this took him to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia as well. Years later, he served as Director of Islamic Reconstruction Department set up by the government of Punjab in Lahore to advise the newly independent country on the requirements of a modern Islamic state.

The years between 1927-1932 he spent ‘discovering’ the Arabian peninsula, where he socialized with the family of King Abdul Aziz. The king used to address him as ‘my son’ and Princes Faisal, Khalid, Fahd and others were his close friends. Years later, he was summoned by the first Prime Minister of Pakistan to Karachi who told Asad that “You are among the very few people in Pakistan who have a good insight into the Middle East situation; and you have, I am aware full command over Arabic and Persian. We need men like you in the Foreign Service. I would strongly suggest that you join it.” He signed up and soon earned the distinction of earning the first passport issued by the government of Pakistan.

Asad accepted, and spent the next three years at the Foreign Ministry, housed then at Mohatta Palace in Karachi, and as Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan’s Mission to the UN in New York. The famous Ahmed Ali Shah (Patras) Bukhari was his immediate boss who could not see eye-to-eye with this polyglot scholar-diplomat and conspired to get Asad to resign his job in 1952.

Asad got down to writing his memoirs, which was published by Simon & Schuster in 1954 as The Road to Makkah. This “spiritual autobiography” was an instant success and came to be recognized among the best sellers of the twentieth century. The book principally recounts the experiences of his Saudi Arabian days where he divided his time between Najd and Hijaz with long camel rides across the peninsula. Abdullah Philby, a British Muslim and an expert of the Arabic language (father of the double agent Kim Philby) was one of his rivals at the court of Saud bin Abdul Aziz. In his review of “The Road to Mecca,” Philby accused Asad of “vagueness and naiveté” and considered him as a journalist looking always for a story and a man without any flair for geographical work or political analysis. (After meeting Asad in Lisbon in 1987, Khalid Ahmed wrote that “Asad did not think that Philby was a believer, nor did he trust the loyalty he showed to Ibn Saud.”)

In  Hijaz  he  met  with  several  Indian  Muslim  pilgrims  notably the Qasuri brothers one of whom was Maulana Abdullah Qasuri, the grandfather of ex-foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Qasuri. They persuaded Asad to visit India. Different motives have been assigned to his reasons for quitting Saudi Arabia including his rivalry with and Philby, and a change of assignment by his “spy masters.” The Saudi Arabian kingdom was formally declared in September 1932; the same month Asad sailed out to Karachi. According to Ikram Chughtai, “Asad had come to India with a programme but one can hardly say what it was. As soon as he entered India, the British government was alarmed, its intelligence agencies became vigilant and kept him under constant observation everywhere. It means that his intended programme was repugnant to the colonial interests of the British government.” Chughtai has quoted Sir Mohammed Yamin Khan (1886- 966) mentioning in his autobiography Nama-e- A’maal (Lahore 1970) some British Intelligence Reports that Asad was consorting with the Russian Consul in Jeddah and later was in contact with Russians during his travels to Srinagar where he “was secretly involved in accelerating the Kashmiri Muslims movement against the atrocities of the Hindu Maharaja.” (Chughtai, ed. Muhammad Asad – Europe’s Gift to Islam, Vol. I, page 324).

He spent just two days in Karachi and took a train to Lahore where he put up with Maulana Abdullah Qasuri near Sheranwala Gate. Khaled Ahmed goes on to say that Asad told him “that when he converted to Islam he simply translated his name into Arabic; Leopold became Asad. In Lahore he was struck by the fact that the locality was named after ‘lions’ that decorated the (Sheranwala) Gate. He studied the Quran at Maulana Abdul Qadir Qasuri’s seminary and became popular among the Muslim intelligentsia of Lahore as a converted gora Muslim. In 1934, upon invitation of Anjuman-e-Hiumayat-e-Islam Asad gave two lectures themed around his conversion to Islam at the Muslim High School. According to Asad himself, these lectures made him popular in Lahore and he got requests from Muslim organizations in Delhi, Bombay and Madras to deliver the same in their cities. Feeling that he could not accept all these invitations, he decided to work these lectures into a small book called Islam at the Crossroads.

“Being a European” writes Chughtai, “he had an edge over other critics of Western materialism. He knew all the merits and demerits of these two prominent civilizations and his comparative study is tinged with his positive way of thinking. Undoubtedly, it may be ranked among the best contributions made to the reconstruction of Muslim religious thought”. He quotes Allama Iqbal’s praise for this book: “This work is extremely interesting. I have no doubt that coming as it does from a highly cultured European convert to Islam it will prove an eye-opener to our younger generation.” Praising the book, Marmaduke Pickthal is quoted to have written, “it is a notable contribution to what we may call the literature of Muslim regeneration and that fact that he is a European by birth and education, a widely traveled and observant man, makes his achievement the more remarkable. Basically the book was written to show;

i)                    The fundamental differences between Islam and the Western civilization,

ii)                   That an imitation of Western concepts and social ways by the Muslims must inevitably destroy the continuity of Islam as a social programme and a culture-producing factor.

iii)                 The role of Sunnah in the ideological structure of Islam,

iv)                 That there can be no future for Islam and Muslim society unless must be different, from the ways of the rest of the world.”

In 1934 he was introduced to Allama Iqbal who dissuaded him from traveling on to Eastern Turkestan, China and Indonesia and to remain in India to help elucidate the intellectual premises of the future Islamic state. Asad recalled Iqbal telling him that he had liked his book Islam at the Crossroads but that he did not agree with his concept of ijtihad, which though desirable and useful, could, in this age of decline, be dangerous, would deepen the ideological and group differences in Islam and heighten intellectual confusion which would result in the destruction of our social order. Asad disagreed arguing that regardless of the opposition of the mullahs, Muslims should not fear their weaknesses but should worry about losing the dynamism of the faith. Iqbal smiled and asked Asad to return the next day. Their friendship lasted till Allama’s death in 1938. Iqbal suggested that Asad translate a selection of ahadees from Sahih Bukhari Sharif which was hitherto not available in English, and would benefit the hundreds of thousands of Muslims of India who read English but did not know the Arabic language. Asad took up the challenge and published his pioneering work after extensive travels with his Saudi wife Munira and son Talal between Lahore, Srinagar, Abbottabad and Dalhousie, in 1935.

When the Second Great War broke out, Hitler occupied Austria, which greatly worried Asad for the safety of his father, stepmother, brother and sister. With the help of his friends in Lahore he tried to get them British visas so that they could travel to safety in India. Things did not work out. Because of his Austrian passport, Asad himself was interned as an enemy citizen. His father and stepmother died in a Nazi concentration camp while his brother and sister were able to flee Vienna. Asad was released at the end of the War in 1945. In those, the heady days of an “unprecedented cyclonic revolution” as Mr. Jinnah called them, Asad threw in his lot with the Pakistan Movement and launched his journal Arafat from Dalhousie. He was the editor, publisher and the sole contributor. “Arafat was a ‘journalistic monologue,” writes Chughtai, adding that “It was his private venture and he used it as vehicle for his own conclusions, as he believed that it ‘be more fruitful to present to the Muslim public a coherent, if tentative, picture of one man’s impressions than to give them a multitude of views, possibly conflicting with another, and certainly proposing widely different steps for our future.”

Let’s read this two paragraph from ‘Notes and Comments,’ a feature which was introduced with the May 1947 issue of Arafat, penned by an accomplished journalist in effortless prose: “The exciting times in which we are living require that Arafat should deal not only with fundamental questions of Islam, but should also, occasionally, comment on one or another of the many problems which, though not calling for a full-length discussion, are nevertheless of importance to the Muslim community. This want, it is hoped, will to some extent be met by our ‘Notes and Comments’. True to its policy, Arafat will not enter into polemics about the ever-changing issues of day-to-day politics – which are better left to our dailies and weeklies – but will endeavour, instead, to draw the readers’ attention to matters of lasting import.

“That a strengthening of the natural connection between Muslims in India and those in other countries is very much needed. Is amply demonstrated by the fact that our historic struggle for Pakistan has not so far been appreciated by the Muslims abroad as it should be, and that many of them are still inclined to regard the Congress as the true vanguard of Asiatic freedom and the Muslim League as a mere ‘spanner in the works.’ This colossal misunderstanding of the true facts of the situation is, no doubt, largely due to the fact that Congress propaganda abroad has throughout been much more efficient than League propaganda, with the result that the Muslim point of view has never received its due share of attention outside India. Only very few non-Indian Muslims seem to realize that the struggle between the ideas of Pakistan and Akhund Hindustan is not just an ‘Indian problem,’ but involves the future of Islam itself; for we are standing on the threshold of the decision as to whether Islam should be an autonomous, society-building force in the lives of almost a hundred million Muslims – a quarter of the whole Muslim world – or merely an empty word. A glaring illustration of this lack of understanding was provided by the participation of several Muslim countries in the Congress-sponsored Asian Relations Conference at Congress India the position of moral leadership of Asia to which Japan and China have aspired, and secondly, to isolate the Muslim League by direct contact between the Congress and Muslim countries of Western Asia. The Muslim League, recognizing these tactics, has denounced the Conference and decided to boycott it.’ But though this boycott had been known for months past, the Arab League, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran and Indonesia had no qualms in sending delegates to Delhi, and did not pay a second thought to the possibility of thus stabbing their Muslim brethren in India in the back; a somewhat strange attitude in view of the Indian Muslims’ traditional, passionate sympathy with, and active support to every Muslim cause –be it Palestine or Egypt, Turkey or Indonesia, Afghanistan or Arabia.” These words of the intellectual co-founder of Pakistan ring true today.

In September 1947, at the request of the government of Pakistan, Asad gave seven daily radio broadcasts in English, their Urdu translation was put out the same evening. These were published as a booklet titled Calling All Muslims. In its introduction Asad expressed the hope “that this small contribution of mine may offer a further documentation of a period so incisive for the birth of Pakistan and, through it, for the Muslim world as a whole.” The booklet has been reproduced in Europe’s Gift to Islam. To get a flavour of these radio addresses, let’s hear an extract from his first broadcast: “Many thousands of you who are now listening to me have probably never heard of my existence, not to speak of my work, and are perhaps asking themselves in wonderment, ‘What right has this man to address us, with the intention, it seems, of giving us advice?’ To such of my friends I should like to say this: I am not addressing you by virtue of any special ‘right’ in this connection. I am speaking to you as one of the many millions who believe that the word la ilaha ill’Allah is the greatest truth ever revealed to mankind, and that everybody who believes in this word is duty-bound to contribute his or her best towards the welfare of all mankind. In other words, my voice is no more than the voice of a humble servant of Islam who feels that in this crisis of our existence no one has the right to keep from social service. It is in response to this call of Islamic duty that I have taken it upon myself to speak to you on some of the tremendous moral and civic problems which will decide the future of the Millat and of Pakistan.” Indeed Asad’s heart was beating to the tune of Pakistan.

His articles on Towards an Islamic Constitution and Islamic Constitution Making drew a lot of interest among the proponents of Pakistan and were later expanded into a book called The Principles of State and Government in Islam first published in 1961 by University of California Press. In the Author’s Note of the book, Asad states “the past thousand years or so of Muslim history can offer us no guidance in our desire to achieve a polity which would really deserve the epithet ‘Islamic.’ Nor is the confusion lessened by the influences of which the Muslim world has been subjected in recent times…And so, the Muslims’ longing for a truly Islamic polity stands today, despite – or perhaps because of it – its intensity, under the sign of utter confusion… There is, I am convinced, only one way for us Muslims to come out of this confusion: we must look for guidance to no other sources than the Quran and the Sunnah, and to rely on no other authority other than the explicit Word of God and the explicit teachings of His Last Prophet.”

In the last chapter of the book, entitled ‘Conclusion’, Asad avers that “I have not attempted to set forth in this book anything like a blueprint for the constitution of a state. I have merely tried to bring out some of the self-evident injunctions of Islam relevant to the problem of state and government, to discuss the modalities of their application to present- day needs, and to draw attention to the legal provisions which must under all circumstances be included in a constitution that claims to be Islamic.” Later he notes that “The ideology of Islam is as practicable or as impracticable as we Muslims choose to make it. It will remain impracticable if we continue confine our concept of Islamic Law to the fiqhi concepts of our past.” Asad calls upon Muslims to have “the courage and imagination to approach (Islamic Law) with fresh and unprejudiced minds and exclude from its orbit all conventional fiqhi ‘deductions’.” Elsewhere Asad used an interesting metaphor of an old clothes shop to elaborate this view: “Much of our current fiqh resembles now nothing so much as a vast old clothes shop where ancient thought-garments, almost unrecognizable as to their original purport are mechanically bought and consists in praising the old tailor’s skills”. (Preface to Muhammad Asad; Europe’s Gift to Islam).

In today’s heated political debate on the question of hijab those opposed to the feminine veiling in Turkey, France and Germany cite Asad as authority. This is another example of his disagreement with the fiqhi conclusions prevalent in many Islamic societies. Asad advocated modernity and championed the rights of women and wrote. “Many people think that if you put a veil over a woman’s face and cover her, that is the way to Islam. It is not. In the time of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, no hijab existed except for the Prophet’s wives and it is wrong inference to say that this holds good for all Muslim women.”

Asad spent the summer of 1947 together with Munira and Talal in a rented bungalow in the cool of Dalhousie, a hill resort located in Gurdaspur District whose Muslim population had expected to be included in Pakistan. But in the evening of 14 August, a few hours before partition, Asad wrote, “we were shocked to see the Hindu Superintendent of Police hoist the Indian flag over the Municipal headquarter building of Dalhousie. Still we thought that the SP was perhaps misinformed or that it was a manifestation of a Hindu’s desire. Till then we did not know that the famous jurist Sir Cyril Radcliff had committed a great crime.” Having come under fire, Muslims panicked and prepared to migrate to Pakistan. Asad and family were lucky to get on to a convoy of buses, which escorted by two jeeploads of Gurkha troops, set out for Lahore. Here the Asad family camped with thousands of other refugees at Walton near Lahore.

Asad wrote a detailed account of this experience and the details of his India-Pakistan years in the sequel to  The Road to Makkah which he called Homecoming of the Heart. Convinced that he could not write another book with the same emotional energy and of the same stylistic intensity as The Road to Makkah, he kept postponing the writing of this sequel, and when he finally came down to it, could only cover the period from his arrival in Karachi in 1932 till 1952, when he resigned from the Pakistan Foreign Service because of his marriage with a non-Pakistani Polish-American Muslim convert Pola. It was Pola who wrote the last chapters of the book. Though it was never published in the original, Mr. Ikram Chughtai has recently published the Urdu translation of The Homecoming of the Heart covering the years 1932-1992, under the title of Banda-e-Sahrai.

Soon after his arrival in Lahore, Asad was called by Nawab of Mamdot, the first Chief Minister of Western Punjab who sought advice on the possible ideological contours of the new country. Asad suggested setting up of an organization to examine this issue. Mamdot agreed and thus he came to design, set up and head the Department of Islamic Reconstruction. Explaining the aims and objectives of the Department in an interview broadcast over Radio Pakistan in October 1947, Asad observed that it was the only government department of its time anywhere in the Muslim world to carry the word ‘Islamic’ in its title. He added, “All that we are expected to do – all that we can legitimately do – is to help the community to co-ordinate its spiritual and intellectual resources and to revive the moral strength of which the Millat must be capable by virtue of its being the Millat of Islam; in other words to help the Millat to re-create the Islamic atmosphere so necessary for a revival of Islamic life in its practical aspects.”

A few weeks later the Chief Minister asked him to draw up a Memorandum on the lines of his article Towards Islamic Constitution which would be published by the government of Punjab and may come to the notice of the Central government. The Memorandum was soon written and published. It generated sufficient interest in the capital city that led to Asad being called to Karachi to meet with Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan who advised him to write in more detail on the subject of Islamic Constitution. Asad quotes the Premier telling him that, “We cannot embark on constitution making at this difficult juncture when the country is faced with so many challenges to its existence. Kashmir had been occupied by India and our Pashtun brethren had failed to liberate Srinagar. Militarily India was much stronger while we are yet to erect the basic structure of our government for which a lot of effort and time is required. We cannot cope with it all in one go. While I agree that constitution making is important and will have far reaching consequences but for the moment we will have to postpone it.” Asad agreed.

In September and December 1948, Asad took time off from his duties at the Department of Islamic Reconstruction and visited the military front lines of the Indo-Pakistan conflict in Kashmir at quite some risk to his life. He was present with the area commander Maj. Gen Hameed who had prepared to assault Poonch in occupied Kashmir when Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s orders were received for the troops to stop further action. This came as a shock to everyone at the frontline. Ascribing this decision to Foreign Minister Zafarullah Khan, Asad notes that this emboldened Nehru and led him to immediately refuse to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir.

I suspect that only a handful of our diplomats, serving or retired, would know of Asad’s sojourn in the Foreign Service of Pakistan, and only the oldest surviving officers would be aware of its details. In the Homecoming of the Heart Asad, devotes three chapters to this phase of his life, which remains largely hidden from public view as the book was never published, and has only recently been made available in Urdu translation. Mr. Chughtai was kind enough to lend me a copy of the English original, which I will use to present some glimpses of Asad as a Pakistani diplomat. “In January 1948,” writes Asad, “Liaquat Ali Khan called me again to Karachi – this time not to remonstrate with me about my proposals but to place before me a proposal of his own. ‘You are one of the few people in Pakistan with an intimate first-hand knowledge of the Middle East; and you have, I am aware, full command of Arabic and Persian. We need a man like you in the Foreign Service. I would strongly suggest that you join it and, for the time being, put aside your work on Islamic Reconstruction. Would you consider this suggestion?’

“Coming as it did from the Prime Minister of Pakistan, this request could not easily be rejected. However deeply my emotions were bound with the Department of Islamic Reconstruction, I realized that Liaquat Ali Khan had made a strong point. Pakistan’s Middle East policies were, as yet, erratic. No clear-cut aim was discernable in them. We were, of course, committed to supporting the independence movement within the Muslim countries that were as yet subjected to foreign rule; but beyond that we seemed to be floundering without any definite direction. The prospect of being able to contribute something tangible to a formulation of Pakistan’s foreign policy in the Middle East was extremely appealing, the more so as the past years of my life had given me an intimate – and perhaps – unique – insight into what was going on in that part of the world and what its people felt and wanted. And there was an additional temptation at the thought of coming once again face to face with a world so much wider than the one in which I had been immersed for so many years.” Asad decided to accept the offer and met with Sir Terence Creagh-Cohen ICS, an Irishman who upon partition opted for Pakistan and was put in charge of organizing the Foreign Service who informed him that he would have to pass – ‘as pure formality’ – an examination by the Civil Service Commission.

Here is Asad’s account of the examination.   “On the appointed day of the examination I presented myself before the Commission. Its chairman was Hassan Suharwardy, a brother of the then Chief Minister of East Pakistan.  Here was a professor of history at one of Pakistan’s universities – not merely learned in the academic sense but possessed of a deep culture and a wide range of intellectual interests. About eight or ten other candidates for the Foreign Service were already in the room when I entered, all of them very young men. Hasan Suharwardy took them one by one in the order in which they had presented themselves and put to them questions relating to geography and modern history. I had to laugh when he asked one of them, ‘What is the name of the capital of Ethiopia?’  and was answered by the candidate’s perplexed silence. Suharwardy glanced at me briefly and proceeded with the next candidate: ‘Can you tell me the name of the last Emperor of France?’ Again silence. And so it went on and on, with the young men answering the simple questions correctly or incorrectly or not at all; and every time Suharwardy noted his remarks against the candidate’s name.

“Finally my turn came. Professor Suharwardy smiled and said, ‘I know you by reputation, Asad Sahib, and so I will not bother you with schoolbook questions. However, since I have to examine you for form’s sake, could you tell me something about European politics, say between the end of the Seven Year’s War and the post-Napoleonic period?” Asad says that he was familiar with the subject ever since his school days and so his reply soon developed into a lecture. He was told that not only had he passed but was placed at number one position in that year’s batch. A few days later, he met Sir Creagh-Cohen in the corridor who told him that he had assigned Asad the third position in the seniority list of Foreign Service officers immediately after the Permanent Secretary and the Joint Secretary, but he was not sure that his suggestion will be accepted by the higher-ups: ‘I am afraid that the colour of your skin will be a disadvantage to you.’ And so it happened. Several more Civil Service men – all of them with somewhat darker complexion than mine and with proper antecedents in the Indian Civil Service, were placed ahead of me.” The Prime Minister ordered that he be posted as Deputy Secretary in charge of Middle East Division (then comprising of the whole Arab world, including North Africa, as well as Iran).

He drafted along a memorandum for the Foreign Minister outlining his policy proposals. The gist of the memorandum, in Asad’s words, was: “Since Pakistan had been established on a purely ideological basis– non-nationalist, non-racial groupment of peoples bound together solely by their adherence to a common religious and cultural ideal – it had to pursue a dynamic policy with a view to the Muslim world as a whole. If it did not conform to this essential demand arising from its very nature, Pakistan was bound to lose its ideological coherence and thus, in time, its raison d’etre; and it was, I pointed out, precisely our total failure in this respect that had placed us at so great a disadvantage vis-à-vis our main adversary, India, and had brought about, among other things, the loss of Kashmir. In order to counteract that failure Pakistan must embark on a two-pronged foreign policy: on the one hand, we should immediately set about to work, in cooperation with the Arab states, for the creation of something like a League of Muslim Nations; and on the other hand, we should aim with all our strength at expanding our influence over all of the Persian Gulf, which was politically as well as economically our pre- destined life-line. In view of the fact that the British had withdrawn from the Gulf at the end of the Second World War, we should supplant them there instead of allowing ourselves, as we had hitherto been doing, to be overawed by the British shadow in that area. After all, I pointed out, Great Britain was now so exhausted that it could act only in submission to the power of the United States – and why could we not turn to the power of the latter? The United States could not well aim at Persian Gulf policy of its own without overstretching its political and military lines of communication, and so Washington would certainly approve of our endeavours in the interests of the ‘Free World’. In short we should cease to be slaves of the slaves, and should go straight to the source of power.”

He was called by the Foreign Secretary Ikramullah who said, “I have read your memorandum, and I am shocked! Asad, you simply cannot criticize the Foreign Minister and, yes, the Prime Minister in this way!” To which Asad replied, “Well, I am doing it. At the most I shall be placed against the wall and shot for my impertinence – or, rather what you Civil Service people regard as impertinence. Do, please, send it on to the Foreign Minister.” Ikramullah signed, saying, “On your head be it, then.”  After a couple of days, Asad came to know that the Foreign Minister was not in the least offended and sent the memorandum on to the Prime Minister who called Asad to discuss his policy proposals. “You have been harsh on us, Asad,” he was told. “You know, of course, that we are nowadays negotiating a broad alliance in our part of the world; is that not activity enough for you?” Asad notes that the Prime Minister was referring to the talks that were going on at that time between ourselves and the United States, Britain, turkey, Iraq and Iran, aiming at the establishment of some sort of cordon sanitaire around the south-western flank of Soviet Russia. “I had always felt that this plan– known among the participants as ‘the Baghdad Pact’ – was not only useless but also highly dangerous for Pakistan because it was bound to force Soviet Russia into open hostility towards us and, consequently, into an even tighter, more active alliance with our main enemy, India. Until that morning I had not regarded myself as placed high enough to object openly to a plan of such magnitude, and so I had remained silent. Now, however, I felt free to enlarge upon it; and I did so with all the insistence at my disposal. When I finished, Liaquat Ali Khan said neither ‘Yes’ nor ‘No’ but turned straightaway to the proposals set out in the memorandum.”

“You  suggest  that  we  should engage ourselves actively in  the affairs of the Persian Gulf and should make our influence felt there both politically and economically. But don’t you realize how difficult our economic situation is at present?” To this Asad replied, “Sir, I am convinced that in this respect we could – and should – turn to the United States for economic assistance. If we place the prospect of Pakistan’s gaining real influence in the Persian Gulf before the Americans, and if we persuade them that such an expansion of our political influence is the only realistic alternative to the chimera of a ‘Baghdad Pact’ – don’t you think, Sir, that they would be bound to assist us in our endeavours? After all, they are as deeply concerned as we are about preventing a Russian breakthrough to the warm waters of the Gulf – and if this can be achieved by political instead of military means, the better for the United States and for Pakistan,” “You have a point there. We shall think about it,” the Prime Minister replied, and moved on to the proposal of a League of Muslim Nations and asked Asad to elaborate. “As this had always been a pet subject of mine, I had no difficulty in expounding it in detail.” A few days later Asad was asked to travel to the Middle East and sound out the reactions of the individual governments on the idea of a League of Muslim Nations. “ I could not remember when I had been as happy as I was now,” Asad noted.

To prepare for the visit, Asad demanded a passport. The officer in charge asked him, “What shall I enter as your nationality?” An astonished Asad replied, “Pakistani naturally.” He was told, “But, sir, as yet there is no such thing as a Pakistani nationality. A citizenship bill is now pending before the National Assembly, but it will take some months before it is passed. In the meantime we have an informal agreement with Britain which authorizes us to mark every new passport as ‘British subject’.” “Nonsense,” Asad snorted. Saying “I have never been a British subject and do not intend to become one now. Write citizen of Pakistan.”  “I can’t do that, it would be illegal,” said the Passport Officer. “Shall I mark it as Austrian citizen,” he enquired. “Worse and worse” was Asad’s response. “Do you seriously suggest that I should go on an official tour as a representative of the Government of Pakistan, with a passport saying that I am the citizen of a foreign country?” he enquired. The poor Passport Officer must have been at the end of his wits and knowledge. Asad sought an appointment with the Prime Minister to raise this issue.

During their meeting the Prime Minister called over the Passport Officer and ordered him to make out a passport for Asad as ‘citizen of Pakistan.’ “And so I obtained the very first passport marked ‘citizen of Pakistan’,” recalled Asad joyously.

Asad visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. Cairo was the only capital, which gave a cold shoulder to the idea of a League of Muslim nations. He was in Ankara when the news came that Liaquat Ali Khan had been assassinated. “I saw immediately that this was the end of my Middle East tour and a full stop to our plans for a League of Muslim Nations,” Asad noted. He flew back to Karachi but was late for the funeral. “On my return I learned that before he had set out on his last tragic journey, Liaquat had made some notes for a public speech which he intended to deliver the next morning. Those notes were found on his desk. They consisted of only a few words, all of them heavily underlined in red: ‘League of Muslim Nations’ and ‘Constitution’ – apparently relating to the speech that was never delivered. Since then I have often asked myself: Was there a connection between Liaquat Ali’s death and the purport of those notes? Was I, thus, indirectly responsible for his death? I do not know,” writes a mournful Asad. His tour report was submitted to the Foreign Minister, who Asad notes, “read it through carefully and then put it aside. My search after Muslim unity became a file in the archives of the Foreign Ministry.”

Soon orders were issued posting Asad to Buenos Aires where he was to establish a Pakistan Embassy. Asad protested to the Foreign Secretary, “But Ikramullah Sahib, I am a Middle East man – my field is the Arab world, or at least the Muslim world! What have I got to do with South America?” He was directed to see the Foreign Minister, who insisted on compliance with the posting order. “In that case, sir, I am now going straight back to my office to write out my resignation from the Foreign Service,” was Asad’s response, at which Zafarullah Khan said, “Don’t be too hasty, Asad. I will think it over.” The posting order was cancelled.

In his book Bandai-e-Sahrai, Ikram Chughtai mentions a secret visit of Asad to Saudi Arabia, which is not mentioned in Homecoming of the Heart. Soon after partition, Jawaharlal Nehru had visited Saudi Arabia where he was received with slogans of Rasool us Salaam (Messenger of Peace). Apparently he was able to prevail upon the Saudis not to accept a Pakistan Embassy in the kingdom. Personally I feel that the Qadiani connection of Foreign Minister Zafarullah Khan may also have contributed to this Saudi decision. So for the first four years after independence Pakistan only had a small Hajj mission in Jeddah while the Ambassador from Cairo was concurrently accredited to Saudi Arabia. In May 1951, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan decided to send a delegation to plead with the Saudis. National Assembly Speaker Maulvi Tamizuddin was chosen to lead it and Muhammad Asad was made its secretary (obviously not only because of his capacity as head of the Middle East division in the Foreign Ministry but also because of his strong links with the Saudi royal family). Ambassador Abdul Sattar Ishaq Seth joined from Cairo and AJK President’s secretary Hafiz Muhammad Yaqub Hashmi and a few others were included in the delegation. The delegation was successful in getting the required permission for a resident Pakistani mission in Jeddah. Writing in Nawa-e-Waqt daily of 27 August 1982, Hafiz Yaqub Hashmi attributes this success to Asad without whose presence they may not have been able to get an audience with King Saud bin Abdul Aziz. In a letter to Sadiq Qureshi dated 23 September 1982, Asad did not deny this trip but regretted that since he did not have document of that visit and because of official secrets restriction (which he thought should no more apply) he could not say much about this delegation’s mission. “All I can say,” Asad added, “ is that the then Foreign Minister Faisal, a dear old personal friend of mine, participated in the negotiations because of which it was not difficult to remove all misunderstandings.”

In December 1951, Asad received orders posting him as Deputy Permanent Representative to  the  Pakistan  Mission  to  UN  in  New York. Around the same time, Prof. Ahmad Shah Bukhari, Principal, Government College, Lahore was nominated the Ambassador/Permanent Representative (which led to Asad, who was expecting to be nominate as Head of the Permanent Mission, to write that “once again it seemed, the light colour of my skin had stood in my way”). The UN was holding a special session in Paris where Asad acted as acting head of Mission as Ambassador Bukhari was busy setting up the newly acquired Pakistan House in New York. The delegation was put up at Hotel Plaza Athenee, “then the most luxurious hotel in Paris….a truly extravagant show in view of Pakistan’s economic condition.” The show went on in London where Asad stopped on the way to New York for a few days to meet Talal who was studying architecture, and he was put up by the High commission at Dorchester which he termed “an extravagance which seemed dictated by an exaggerated notion of ‘prestige’ on the part of Pakistan’s diplomatic representatives” (a show that goes on unchecked till now).

In New York, he met and fell in love with the unhappily married Pola, an American Muslim of Polish origin, who then worked at Voice of America. She accepted his marriage proposal. Asad wrote a letter to inform and ask Munira and Talal to persuade his mother to accept his father’s decision to re-marry. In accordance with the regulations of the Foreign Service of Pakistan, Asad applied for Karachi’s permission to marry, and with the request also appended a letter of resignation. It would then be up to the government of Pakistan to accept either of the two letters. Asad writes, “Since recently a very junior member of our Foreign Service had been granted permission to marry a German girl, I was sure that I would be accorded the same treatment. To make doubly sure, I requested Zafarullah Khan – who had known Pola for well over a year before I made my appearance on the scene and had often lunched with her during his many visits to New York – to put in a word with the Governor-General, which he promised to do.” Asad and Pola planned to fly to Mexico where Pola could get a quick divorce.

Asad’s letter sent Munira into a rage and she complained to Pakistan’s High Commissioner in London that her husband was going to abandon her. Asad writes, “She raised such a scandal that the High commissioner not only saw fit to address me a highly offensive letter of ‘admonition’, but also – quite unwarrantably – wrote to the Governor-General Khwaja Nazimuddin asking him to intervene directly in the matter. It goes without saying that all this proved highly damaging to my position in the Foreign Service, to the delight not only of Ahmad Shah Bukhari but many other envious or ambitious people. And then there appeared the ‘fine Italian hand’ of Zafarullah Khan, who had his own particular interests in mind.” His marriage was denied and resignation accepted. That was the end of the year 1952. This is where Asad left his memoir, which after his death in Spain in 1992, was filled in by Pola.

In the meanwhile, Asad was being advised by friends to write down the account of his wanderings in Saudi Arabia and his conversion to Islam. In the first chapter of The Road to Makkah, which was titled

‘The Story of a Story’, he gives an account of his conversation with an unnamed American friend who was “an man of considerable intellectual attainments and a scholarly bent of mind” where he had pointed out the following two characteristics of the Western view of Islam: “i) Could it perhaps be that the old Greco-Roman mode of thought which divided the world into Greeks and Romans on one side and ‘barbarians’ on the other was still so thoroughly ingrained in the Western mind that it was unable to concede, even theoretically, positive value to anything that lay outside its own cultural orbit? ii) To find a truly convincing explanation of this prejudice one has to look far backward into history and try to comprehend the psychological background of the earliest relations between Western and Muslim worlds. What Occidentals think and feel about Islam today is rooted in impressions that were born during the Crusades” (he described the Crusades period of the turn of the first millenium of the Christian era as the early childhood of Western civilization, which is human being’s most formative age – and asks, are not nations and civilizations but collective individuals?). And so began Asad’s journey on The Road to Makkah. In 1973 he contributed a postscript to anew edition of the book at the end of which he wrote: “As I lay down my pen, I gaze at the two photographs on the wall before me: two kings, two men, two epochs: the vanished Arabia of millennial solitude, strong in its faith and simple in its ways – and the Arabia of the oil wells, projecting its existence and its uncertainties into a wholly incalculable future. Two kings, two epochs….and above all that question for which as yet no answer has been found: How will Arab life – Muslim life – fare and develop in this century dominated by technology, the technology of other people’s making..?” A question that should also haunt us today!

The  English ‘translation’ of  the  Quran  called The  Message  of the Quran is a monumental achievement of Asad. For the non-native speakers of English it is always problematic to translate literature into English. This holds true of all languages. The problem aggravates when translation is attempted between languages as diverse as Arabic and English, and especially so, when the text attempted is of divine origin. In a review article, the British Muslim Hassan Gai Eaton noted, “There is always the danger that those who aim to honour the original by adopting poetic language in their ‘translation’ will fall short of conveying the message in so far as it can be conveyed without extensive notes. This is where Muhammad Asad triumphs. The title of his rendition is ‘The Message of the Quran’ and that is precisely what it offers. Moreover, the explanatory notes are, to a large extent, based on the great commentaries written by some of the wisest Islamic scholars over the centuries. These commentaries are inaccessible to those who do not have Arabic, and even Arabic speakers have difficulty with them, but they are essential for a full understanding of the text. A ‘translation’ without explanatory notes is inevitably open to misunderstanding or misuse.  It is said that a group of young converts to Islam in America who had decided to rob a bank set themselves to find, in an English text, a Quranic verse that would justify their action. No doubt they found none. The story may be apocryphal, but it makes a point.”

Asad briefly returned to Pakistan in 1957, at the invitation of the Punjab University to organize an International Islamic Colloquium in Lahore. Because of some misunderstanding with the Vice-Chancellor Mian Afzal Hussain, especially concerning organizational issues of the Colloquium, Asad became unhappy and decided to leave Lahore on a bitter note. His favourite country had disappointed him. Presidents Ayub Khan and Zia ul Haq invited him to Pakistan, but Asad regretted citing his occupation with the colossal task in hand of Quran ‘translation.’ Except for a few newspaper articles nothing much has been appearing in Pakistani media on this giant of a man. I have been looking in vain for an article on him in the Pakistan Day and Independence Day special editions of our newspapers. The Municipality of Vienna named a major road right in front of the UN buildings in Vienna after Asad. Do we have any place or thing in Pakistan named after him? I fear that most of his books on sale in Pakistan are pirated editions and nothing is going to his heir Talal, who lives a retired life in New York. The Austrian government sponsored a documentary film on Asad, which has been recently seen in the German-speaking world. Hopefully, one day, it will be shown here so that more people can appreciate the role of this ‘intellectual co- founder of Pakistan.’


1.   Muhammad Asad’s books:

i. The Unromantic Orient; translated from German by Elma Ruth Harder

ii. Islam at the Crossroads

iii. Sahih Al-Bukhari: The Early Years of Islam

iv. The Road to Makkah

v. Calling all Muslims

vi. The Principles of State and Government in Islam

vii. This Law of Ours

viii. Meditations

ix. The Message of the Quran

2.   Muhammad Asad: Europe’s Gift to Islam, 2 volumes, ed. M. Ikram Chughtai, The Truth Society and Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, 2006

3.   Muhammad Asad: Banda-e-Sahrai, Urdu tr.  Homecoming of the Heart, by M.Ikram Chughtai, The Truth Society, Lahore, 2009

4.   Muhammad Asad: A European Bedouin, Urdu, ed. M. Ikram Chughtai, Pakistan Writers Cooperative Society, Lahore, 2009

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