Muhammad Asad was an Austrian-Hungarian-Jewish revert to Islam born in 1900 as Leopold Weiss whose forefathers were rabbinical clerics. His life is an example of devotion to Islamic scholarship that has impacted all corners of the Muslim World, including the early years of Pakistan.
Prime Minister Imran Khan credits Muhammad Asad as a motivating factor that set him on the religious path. Many Pakistanis might not know that Muhammad Asad was the first person to officially become a Pakistani citizen and the first one to get a Pakistani passport.
Asad spent most of his adult life in the Middle East and South Asia and reverted to Islam in 1926. 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.
He arrived in Karachi in June 1932 and then traveled onwards to Lahore where he met our ideological father and great thinker Allama Muhammad Iqbal. He persuaded Asad to remain in India and join the freedom movement that would eventually lead to the partition of India in 1947 and the birth of a new nation, Pakistan. Later, the Allama would also ask him to help draft the Islamic foundations of the emerging state.
Furthermore, due to the suggestion of Allama Iqbal, Asad translated selections from Sahih Bukhari into English, the first such translation ever made. He wrote and spoke extensively about Islam and its conception of the state and government and the West’s relations with Islam. The idea of Pakistan as a symbol of the renewal of the Islamic world predominantly captivated Asad.
Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah created a Department of Islamic Reconstruction in 1947 for the purpose to establish Pakistan as an Islamic state and appointed Muhammad Asad as its director.
At the time of independence, Pakistan didn’t have an embassy in Saudi Arabia to facilitate pilgrims and so, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan wanted to send Muhammad Asad to Saudi Arabia in 1947 on an official visit to represent Pakistan. However, Asad had no travel documents valid for a visit to Saudi Arabia, as Pakistan had no passport laws at the time, and thus, he took up this matter with Shaheed-e-Millat. On Liaquat Ali Khan’s special order, the first passport was issued by the Pakistani government to Asad, which he kept until he died in 1992.
Muhammad Asad played an instrumental and pioneering role in establishing friendly relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that live on till this day. His ties with the Saudi royal family not only helped Pakistani diplomacy but also his scholarly work of writing an English translation and interpretation of the Quran.
An example of Asad’s visionary thinking was his proposal to create a League of Muslim Nations while he was a member of the Pakistan Foreign Ministry during the late 1940s and early 1950s. This was years before the establishment of the Organisation of Islamic Conference in 1969.
Asad reveals that when he returned to Karachi from Ankara on an official visit in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, he found notes on the desk of the Shaheed-e-Millat for a public speech which he intended to deliver the next morning about League of Muslim Nations and Constitution. This demonstrates the intellectual influence and strength of Asad that he convinced our first Prime Minister on the importance of Muslim unity. Sadly, his tour report of several Muslim countries to advocate the idea of a League of Muslim Nations ended up as a file in the archives of the Foreign Ministry and relegated to the dustbin of history.
Muhammad Asad was a strong proponent of Palestinian rights and opposed Zionism even before reverting to Islam. In an interview, he stated, “I felt from the very first moment that the aim of Jewish colonization of Palestine, by doing wrong to the Arabs, was immoral.” On numerous occasions, Asad challenged Zionist leaders such as Dr. Chaim Weizmann, pushing them to explain how Jews can claim to have more rights than Palestinian Arabs who had lived in the region for two thousand years.
I believe Pakistan owes a debt of gratitude to Muhammad Asad as a builder and intellectual co-founder of this country in its early years. We must honor his zeal for the concept of Pakistan as a symbol of the rejuvenation of the Islamic world and try to make this a reality collectively and as individual citizens. Moreover, Muhammad Asad deserves commemoration for his contributions to Pakistan on Independence Day and Pakistan Day but shamefully, he remains a blank page in our history.