settled into a comfortable routine. Yet he made no progress on his book: he was preoccupied and distracted, unable to put pen to paper in a summation of his travels. A quarrel with the editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung over his writer's block culminated in his resignation, and he moved to Berlin, where he took up Islamic studies and wrote as a stringer for lesser newspapers.
It was there, in September 1926, that Weiss experienced his second epiphany. He had had a flash of insight near the Jaffa Gate: the Arabs were the heirs of the biblical Hebrews, not the Jews. Now, on the Berlin subway, he had another flash. Watching the people on this train, in their finery and prosperity, he noticed that none smiled. Although positioned at the pinnacle of Western material achievement, they were unhappy. Returning to his flat, he cast a glance at a copy of the Qur'an he had been reading, and his eye settled upon the verse that reads: "You are obsessed by greed for more and more / Until you go down to your graves." And then later, in the same verse: "Nay, if you but knew it with the knowledge of certainty, / You would indeed see the hell you are in."14 All doubt that the Qur'an was a God-inspired book vanished, wrote Weiss. He went to the leader of the Berlin Islamic Society, declared his adherence to Islam, and took the name Muhammad Asad.
Why the conversion? In 1934, Asad wrote that he had no satisfactory answer. He could not say which aspect of Islam appealed to him more than another, except that Islam seemed to him "harmoniously conceived... nothing is superfluous and nothing lacking, with the result of an absolute balance and solid composure." But he still found it difficult to analyze his motives. "After all, it was a matter of love; and love is composed of many things: of our desires and our loneliness, of our high aims and our shortcomings, of our strength and our weakness."15 In the Feigenbaum family, it was more commonly thought that Asad's conversion stemmed from a hatred of his father, generalized to a contempt for the faith and people of his birth. Asad wrote to his father informing him of his conversion, but got no answer.
Some months later my sister wrote, telling me that he considered me dead...Thereupon I sent him another letter, assuring him that my acceptance of Islam did not change anything in my attitude toward him or my love for him; that, on the contrary, Islam enjoined upon me to love and honour my parents above all other people... But this letter also remained unanswered.16Asad's wife Elsa converted to Islam a few weeks later, and in January 1927 they left for Mecca, accompanied by Elsa's son from her previous marriage. On arrival, Weiss made his first pilgrimage; a moving passage at the end of The Road to Mecca describes his circumambulation of Ka'ba. Tragically, Elsa died nine days later, of a tropical disease, and her parents reclaimed her son a year later.
Asad of Arabia
So began Asad's Saudi period, which would form him as a Muslim. His six years in Saudi Arabia are recounted in The Road to Mecca in selective detail. Asad portrayed himself as a member of the inner circle of King Ibn Saud (1880-1953), dividing his time between religious study in Medina and palace politics in Riyadh. This intimacy with Ibn Saud can be confirmed in broad lines by an independent source. In late 1928, an Iraqi named Abdallah Damluji, who had been an adviser to Ibn Saud, submitted a report to the British on "Bolshevik and Soviet penetration" of the Hijaz. It represents perhaps the most succinct confirmation of the role played by Asad in Saudi Arabia:
Before concluding, I must bring attention to the person known as Asadullah von Weiss, formerly an Austrian Jew, now a Muslim, who resides presently near the holy shrine in Mecca. This Austrian Leopold von Weiss came to the Hijaz two years ago, claiming he had become a Muslim out of love for this religion and in pure belief in it. I do not know why, but his words were accepted without opposition, and he entered Mecca without impediment. He did so at a time when no one like him was allowed to do the same, the Hijaz government having recently passing a law providing that those like him must wait two years under surveillance, so that the government can be certain of their Islam before their entry into Mecca. Since that time, Leopold von Weiss has remained in Mecca, wandering the country and mixing with people of every class and with government persons. He then traveled to Medina, and stayed there and in its environs for several months. Then he was able â€” I have no idea how â€” to travel to Riyadh with King Ibn Saud last year, and he stayed in Riyadh for five months, seeing and hearing all that happened, mingling with the people and speaking with persons of the government. He does not seem to me to be a learned or professional man. His apparent purpose is to obtain news from the King, and especially from Shaykh Yusuf Yasin, secretary to the King [and editor of the official newspaper Umm al-Qura]. Asadullah uses this news to produce articles for some German and Austrian newspapers, in reply to the distasteful things written by some European newspapers on the Hijazi-Najdi court. This is the occupation of the Austrian Jew Leopold von Weiss, now Haj Asadullah the Muslim. What is the real mission which makes him endure the greatest discomforts and the worst conditions of life? On what basis rests the close intimacy between him and Shaykh Yusuf Yasin? Is there some connection between von Weiss and the Bolshevik consulate in Jidda? These are mysteries about which it is difficult to know the truth.17For British intelligence of the time, Bolshevism was an obsession, and Damluji's insinuation can be discounted. But from this account, it is clear that Asad did have exceptional access to the court of Ibn Saud. It is also clear that his status was not that of an adviser, but of a privileged observer, admitted to the court as part of the earliest Saudi efforts at public relations. Ibn Saud kept Asad close to him because this useful convert wrote flattering articles about him for various newspapers in continental Europe. (These newspapers, Asad wrote, "provide me with my livelihood.")18
According to Asad, he did finally become a secret agent of sorts: Ibn Saud employed him on a clandestine mission to Kuwait in 1929, to trace the funds and guns that were flowing to Faysal al-Dawish, a rebel against Ibn Saud's rule. Asad determined that Britain was behind the rebellion, and wrote so for the foreign papers, much to Ibn Saud's satisfaction.19 Asad also began to settle down. He married twice in Saudi Arabia: first in 1928 to a woman from the Mutayr tribe, and in 1930, following a divorce, to Munira, from a branch of the Shammar. They established a household in Medina, and she bore him a son, Talal. Arabia was his home, so he worked to persuade himself: the Arabian sky was "my sky," the same sky that "vaulted over the long trek of my ancestors, those wandering herdsmen-warriors" â€” "that small beduin tribe of Hebrews."20
Arabia's sky enchanted Asad â€” but Arabia's ruler did not. Asad had shared the hope that Ibn Saud would "bring about a revival of the Islamic idea in its fullest sense." But as Ibn Saud consolidated his power, lamented Asad, "it became evident that Ibn Saud was no more than a king â€” a king aiming no higher than so many other autocratic Eastern rulers before him." Asad's indictment grew long, and he later made it public in The Road to Mecca. True, Ibn Saud had established order, but he did so "by harsh laws and punitive measures and not by inculcating in his people a sense of civic responsibility." He had "done nothing to build up an equitable, progressive society." "He indulges and allows those around him to indulge in the most extravagant and senseless luxuries." He had "neglected the education even of his own sons and thus left them poorly equipped for the tasks that lie before them." And he was incapable of self-examination, while the "innumerable hangers-on who live off his bounty certainly do nothing to counteract this unfortunate tendency." Asad's final verdict was that Ibn Saud's life constituted a "tragic waste":
Belying the tremendous promise of his younger years, when he appeared to be a dreamer of stirring dreams, he has broken â€” perhaps without realizing it himself â€” the spirit of a high-strung nation that had been wont to look up to him as to a God-sent leader. They had expected too much of him to bear the disappointment of their expectations with equanimity; and some of the best among the people of Najd now speak in bitter terms of what they consider a betrayal of their trust.Ibn Saud, in sum, was "an eagle who never really took to wing," a king who never rose beyond "a benevolent tribal chieftain on an immensely enlarged scale."21
Disappointed with Ibn Saud, Asad commenced a quest for the ruler, state, or society which would embody his ideal Islam. He briefly pinned his hopes on the Sanusi movement in Cyrenaica:
Like so many other Muslims, I had for years pinned my hopes on Ibn Saud as the potential leader of an Islamic revival; and now that these hopes had proved futile, I could see in the entire Muslim world only one movement that genuinely strove for the fulfillment of the ideal of an Islamic society: the Sanusi movement, now fighting a last-ditch battle for survival.22According to Asad, he went on a secret mission to Cyrenaica on behalf of the Grand Sanusi, Sayyid Ahmad (1873-1932), then in exile in Saudi Arabia, to transmit plans for continuing the anti-Italian struggle to the remnant of the Sanusi forces. But the mission, in January 1931, was a futile one: Italian forces crushed the last of the Sanusi resistance later that year.23
By this time, Asad had fallen from favor. He gave no explanation in The Road to Mecca for his break with Ibn Saud, except his personal disappointment with the monarch. But other explanations also gained circulation. Some claimed that his last marriage proved his undoing: members of his wife's family were suspected of intrigues against Ibn Saud. Others pointed to his Jewish origins as a growing liability after 1929, when Arab-Jewish tensions in Palestine exploded in violence. What is certain is that he left Saudi Arabia in 1932, with the declared aim of traveling through India, Turkestan, China, and Indonesia. Passage to India
Asad began with a "lecture tour" to India. According to British intelligence sources, Asad had linked up with an Amritsar activist, one Isma'il Ghaznavi, and intended to tour India "with a view to get into touch with all important workers." Asad arrived in Karachi by ship in June 1932, and left promptly for Amritsar.24 There and in neighboring Lahore, he involved himself with the local community of Kashmiri Muslims, and in 1933 he made an appearance in Srinagar, where an intelligence report again had him spreading Bolshevik ideas.25
For Asad, the real attraction of Kashmir would have resided in its predicament as contested ground, where a British-backed maharaja ruled a discontented Muslim population. Beginning in 1931, Kashmiri Muslims in Punjab organized an extensive "agitation" in support of the Muslims in Kashmir. Hundreds of bands of Muslim volunteers crossed illegally from Punjab into Kashmir, and thousands were arrested. By early 1932, the disturbances had subsided, but the Kashmir government remained ever-wary.26 Just what Asad did in Kashmir is uncertain. But on learning of his presence, the Kashmir government immediately wanted him "externed," although the police had no evidence to substantiate the intelligence report, and there appeared to be legal obstacles to "externing" a European national.27
With or without such prompting, Asad soon retreated from Kashmir to Lahore. There he met the poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938), himself of Kashmiri descent, who persuaded Asad to remain in India and work "to elucidate the intellectual premises of the future Islamic state."28 From this point forward, Asad would be a Muslim intellectual, thinking, lecturing and writing on Islamic culture and law. In March 1934 he published a pamphlet entitled Islam at the Crossroads, his first venture into Islamic thought. This work can only be described as a diatribe against the materialism of the West â€” as Asad put it, a case of "Islam versus Western civilization." Here Asad developed themes which would become widespread later in Islamic fundamentalist thought. Asad drew a straight line between the Crusades and modern imperialism, and held Western orientalists to blame for their distortions of Islam. This text went through repeated printings and editions in India and Pakistan. More importantly, however, it appeared in an Arabic translation in Beirut in 1946. Under the Arabic title al-Islam 'ala muftariq al-turuq, it was published in numerous editions through the 1940s and 1950s. This translation had a crucial influence upon the early writings of the Islamist theoretician Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), who drew extensively upon Asad in developing the idea of "Crusaderism."
In 1936, Asad found a new benefactor. The Nizam of Hyderabad had established a journal under his patronage entitled Islamic Culture, first edited by "Mohammed" Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936), a British convert to Islam.29 Pickthall, best known for his English translation of the Qur'an, died in 1936, at which point Asad assumed the editorship of the journal. This placed Asad in touch with a wide range of orientalist and Indian Muslim scholarship, and he himself began to write scholarly pieces and translate texts.30 Intrusion of War
But another obligation began to assert itself â€” an obligation from the past. In The Road to Mecca, Asad wrote that his relationship with his father was resumed in 1935, after his father had come to "understand and appreciate the reasons for my conversion to Islam." Although they never met in person again, wrote Asad, they corresponded continuously until 1942.31 However, Asad did return to Europe in the spring of 1939, with the intention of saving his endangered family. Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, enforcing the Nuremberg Laws in May. The life of Viennese Jewry became a succession of confiscations, persecutions, pogroms, and deportations. In October 1938, Asad resigned the editorship of Islamic Culture, and then left India. In April 1939, his Austrian passport was visaed in Vienna for entry to Britain and British India.32 Afterwards he arrived in London, where he asked that this visa be extended: "I beg you to give me a prolongation of this visa till the end of this year as my parents will come in about 4 to 5 months. I have to settle many things for them."33 ("Parents" was Asad's shorthand for his father and stepmother; his own mother had died in 1919.) This evidence hints that Asad made an eleventh-hour attempt at rescuing his Jewish family before returning to India in the summer of 1939.
But whatever the scope of these efforts, they ended abruptly with the German invasion of Poland and the British declaration of war against Germany in September 1939. Asad was detained immediately in India as an enemy national, and he spent the next six years in internment camps with Germans, Austrians, and Italians who had been collected from all over British-ruled Asia. Asad's camp, he wrote, was peopled by "both Nazis and anti-Nazis as well as Fascists and anti-Fascists."34 During his internment, he established contact with his uncle in Jerusalem, Aryeh Feigenbaum, who sent him food, clothes, and money.35 Asad was only released in August 1945. By then, the worst had befallen his family in Europe: his father, stepmother, and a sister were deported from Vienna in 1942, and they perished in the camps.
Asad never wrote of his long years of detention. He was the only Muslim in his camp, and it seems he deliberately detached himself from his surroundings and the war, by thinking only of the "cultural chaos" into which Muslims had been plunged. "I can still see myself pacing day-in and day-out over the great length of our barrack room," asking himself why Muslims had failed to reach an "unambiguously agreed-upon concept of the Law."36 He would not allow Europe's war to become his war, or the suffering of the Jews to become his suffering, as he moved ever more resolutely to a consolidation of his Muslim identity.
Upon Asad's release, he wholly identified with the cause of Pakistan, which he saw not simply as a refuge, but as the framework for an ideal Islamic polity. In 1947, Asad became director of the Department of Islamic Reconstruction in the new state, and he gave himself over to formulating proposals for its constitution. Asad's purpose in these proposals is clear: it is to establish an Islamic state as a liberal, multiparty parliamentary democracy. In the 1930s and 1940s, the idea of the Islamic state, in the hands of many ideologues, had been presented as antithetical to democracy, and similar to the totalitarian states of central Europe. Asad's work challenged that trend, finding evidence in the Islamic sources for elections, parliamentary legislation, and political parties.
But his own proposals, published in March 1948 as Islamic Constitution-Making, were never implemented. "Only very few, if any, of my suggestions have been utilized in the (now abolished) Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan; perhaps only in the Preamble, adopted by the Constituent Assembly in 1949, can an echo of those suggestions be found."37 Pakistan, he later said, did not work out as Iqbal and he had hoped it would. The new state had been "an historical necessity," and without it, "Muslims would have been submerged in the much more developed and intellectually and economically stronger Hindu society." But "unfortunately it did not quite develop in the way we wanted it to. Iqbal's vision of Pakistan was quite different to that of Mohammed Ali Jinnah [1876-1948, first governor-general of Pakistan], who did not in the beginning want a separation."38 Pakistan became a state for Muslims, but its secular founders put aside its mission as an Islamic state. In 1949, Asad left domestic politics to join Pakistan's foreign service, eventually rising to the position of head of the Middle East Division of the foreign ministry. His transformation was now complete, down to his Pakistani achkan and black fur cap. In the beginning of 1952, after twenty years of continuous residence in the subcontinent, he came to New York, as Pakistan's minister plenipotentiary to the United Nations. The West Again
So began Asad's road back to the West â€” a choice that would bring him fame and sever his links to living Islam. He came to New York alone, without his wife and son, and lived in a penthouse in Manhattan, attended by a servant-driver.39 He soon found a new love, a striking contrast to his Arabian wife of over twenty years: Pola "Hamida," an American woman of Polish Catholic descent who had converted to Islam. Asad's marriage to Munira now came undone, and he married Pola Hamida before a civil judge in New York in November 1952. He would remain with her for the next forty years, and this marriage to a Western convert presaged his evolving preference for an ideal Islam, distinct from the born Muslims who practiced it.
For some months in New York, Asad also reestablished a tie to his family in Israel. At the time, Aryeh Feigenbaum's daughter, Hemdah (1916-87), was living in New York with her husband, Harry (Zvi) Zinder (1909-91), press officer at Israel's information office (and later director of the Voice of Israel). Zinder later told an Israeli journalist the story of how Asad would dine with him in out-of-the-way restaurants, or visit the Zinders' home in Forest Hills. Asad even attended the bar mitvah of the Zinders' son, and the Zinders attended his marriage to Pola Hamida. Zinder reported the contents of his table talk with Asad back to Jerusalem. Asad, he noted, remained an unequivocal enemy of Israel, but it might be possible to soften his animosity, and it would be worth the effort, given Asad's solid standing in the Pakistani foreign ministry. According to Zinder, the Mossad responded by proposing that he try to recruit Asad for pay, a proposal Zinder rejected "with both hands." "I knew he would refuse any payment," said Zinder years later, "that he would be enraged by the idea, and that he would sever all contact with me." In time, the contact weakened anyway; according to Zinder, Pola Hamida disapproved of Asad maintaining close ties with his family in particular, and Jews in general. Still, according to Zinder, Asad continued for some years to correspond with Hemdah on family matters.40
There could be no doubt from Asad's writing, and from Zinder's testimony, that Asad remained a fervent anti-Zionist. Yet for many years, Asad left the systematic indictment of the modern-day state of Israel to others. In 1947 he was fully preoccupied with the partition of India, and offered no published comment on the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel. In the years that followed the 1967 war, he spoke out more frequently, especially on Jerusalem. "We cannot ever reconcile ourselves to the view, so complacently accepted in the West, that Jerusalem is to be the capital of the State of Israel," he wrote. "In a conceivably free Palestine â€” a state in which Jews, Christians and Muslims could live side by side in full political and cultural equality â€” the Muslim community should be specifically entrusted with the custody of Jerusalem as a city open to all three communities."41 But given the fever of anti-Israel passion in the Arab world after 1967, Asad's criticism could only be described as restrained. As Pakistan was far removed from the conflict, more would not have been expected of him.
But Asad failed to meet other Pakistani expectations. One of Asad's colleagues on the Pakistani delegation made a scandal of his romance with Pola Hamida, and Pakistan's prime minister, Khwaja Nizamuddin, reportedly reacted strongly against the marriage. At the end of 1952, Asad offered his resignation, in the expectation his position would be confirmed. To his surprise, his resignation was accepted. It was not a clean break, and when Nizamuddin fell from power in the spring of 1953, the prospect of Asad's return to Pakistani service seemed real. But no offer materialized, and Asad was now pressed for funds. Acting upon the advice of an American friend, he proposed to write his story for the New York publisher Simon and Schuster, which offered him a contract and an advance.42
Asad thus began work on the book that would make him famous. The Road to Mecca, written in New York, appeared in 1954, and won widespread praise for its combination of spiritual searching and desert adventure. As a testimony of conversion to Islam, The Road to Mecca is still unsurpassed, and its continued re-publication in Western languages attests to its power, for both general readers and sympathizers of Islam. An example of its influence may be found in the testimony of a twenty-one-year-old American Jewish woman named Margaret Marcus (b. 1934). Asad's book found a place on the shelves of the public library in Mamaroneck, New York, near her home. Her parents would not let her take out the book, so she read it in the library over and over: "What he could do, I thought I could also do, only how much harder for a single woman than for a man! But I vowed to Allah that at the first opportunity, I would follow his example."43 The young woman later converted to Islam, took the name Maryam Jameelah, and moved to Pakistan, where she became one of the best-known ideologues of Islamic fundamentalism, famous for her methodical indictments of the West.44
One Western convert, however, took a dim view of Asad's book: H. St. John ("Abdullah") Philby (1885-1960). Philby, too, had converted to Islam in 1930, assuming Asad's place as the convert in the court of Ibn Saud. He, too, had dabbled in exploration and politics, and he had strong views on Asad's attempts at both. In his review of The Road to Mecca, Philby accused "Herr Weiss" of "vagueness and unusual naivetأ©." According to Philby, Asad was no more than a journalist in search of a story, a man without any flair for geographical work or political analysis.
His bazar scenes, religious festivals, desert sunsets, et hoc genus omne of local color suggest a patchwork of newspaper articles or cuttings strung together for a new[s] story, in which the leit-motiv is provided by his own gropings toward an emotional dأ©nouement.In his most damaging insinuation, Philby wrote that there was "no independent contemporary evidence" that Asad had undertaken "secret missions" for Ibn Saud or the Grand Sanusi.45
If the book's value as a record of politics and exploration was doubtful, then at least it served as a faithful personal memoir. Or did it? On many points, noted Judd Teller (1912-72) in a review in Commentary, Asad had nothing to say on matters that demanded a say in the personal memoir of any European Jew. One of these was Asad's experience of Europe's anti-Semitism, nowhere mentioned by the author.
Yet he was born in Galicia, where the Jews were caught up as scapegoats in the power struggles of the anti-Semitic Ukrainians and Poles and the dubiously tolerant Austrian government. He was brought up in Vienna, when it was the capital of European anti-Semitism. He left Berlin for his first visit to Palestine in the year when racist-nationalists assassinated Walter Rathenau. Did all this leave him untouched?46Both Philby and Teller complained of the absence of another crucial point: Asad gave no reason for his decision to leave Arabia. (Teller speculated that it stemmed from heightened Jewish-Arab tensions in Palestine.) These criticisms suggested what is now obvious: The Road to Mecca cannot be read as a document of historical truth about Arabia, Ibn Saud, or even the author's life. It is an impressionistic self-portrait that suggests more than it tells. The face of its subject is in half-shadow.
But the omissions and elisions of the book did not detract from its commercial success. The Road to Mecca was translated from English into the major languages of Europe, and the royalties must have represented a windfall. The book also created demand for Asad's services as a lecturer, and his reputation in the West reached its pinnacle.
But in Muslim lands, especially among Muslim activists, his choices raised troubling questions. The Pakistani ideologue Maulana Maududi (1903-79), in a letter written in 1961, expressed misgivings:
holds good for all Muslim women."56
His own early indictment of the West, Islam at the Crossroads, which found such an echo among fundamentalists, he himself came to regard as a "harsh book." Likewise, the once-powerful romance of the Arabs no longer held him in its grip. In 1981, he told a journalist that "it is possible that if I would come into contact with Arabs today for the first time, I would no longer be attracted by them."57 Asad still remained enamored of Islam. Yet this ideal Islam was nowhere to be found in existing Islam, and could just as well be practised in Europe. It is said that Pakistan's president from 1978, General Zia ul-Haq (1924-88) tried to persuade Asad to return to Pakistan, but without result. In 1982, Asad left Tangier for Sintra, outside of Lisbon. He later moved to Mijas on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain. He remained articulate and lucid in interviews given as late as 1988.58 In these last years, he reportedly began work on a sequel to The Road to Mecca, tentatively entitled Homecoming of the Heart. The title is said to have alluded to his contemplated return to Saudi Arabia at the invitation of Prince Salman (b. 1936), governor of Riyadh and one of Ibn Saud's sons. It is not clear whether such a return was a realistic prospect, or whether the title hinted at a more spiritual homecoming. For Asad had neither completed this work nor returned to Arabia when he died on 20 February 1992, at the age of 91. He was buried in the small Muslim cemetery in Granada.59