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Leopold Weiss, the Jew Who Helped Invent the Modern Islamic State

‘Europe’s gift to Islam’ was born in Austria-Hungary 116 years ago this week. His ideas on the intersection of politics and religion are more relevant than ever.

Shalom Goldman
July 01, 2016
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia and MOSH
Photo illustration by TabletPhotos courtesy of Wikipedia and MOSH
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia and MOSH
Photo illustration by TabletPhotos courtesy of Wikipedia and MOSH

In 1961 the eminent Muslim scholar Muhammad Asad, then living in Europe, published The Principles of State and Government in Islam. The central question posed in that book is whether Islam is opposed to the mixing of religion and politics—as is the modern West. Though Asad’s answers to this question are subtle and non-categorical, his overall conclusion is that in majority-Muslim states a mixture of politics and religion is necessary. Society must bind itself to the will of God, Asad stated, and “the organization of an Islamic state or states is an indispensable condition of Islamic life in the true sense of the word.”

This was not the first time that Asad, who had been publishing books and articles since the mid-1930s, called for the infusion of religion into politics. In his highly influential 1934 essay “Islam at the Crossroads,” Asad articulated a set of principles about the relationship between the Muslim world and the West that served as the basis of his later conversations with Muhammad Iqbal and other Islamist activists. He envisioned, in Pakistan and elsewhere, the emergence of Muslim states thoroughly modern but inspired and informed by religious principles.

Asad’s vision of an Islamic state bears little resemblance to the militant, anti-Western version propagated by ISIS today; he conceived of an Islamic state based on modern interpretations of the Quran and the Islamic legal traditions, a state grounded in democratic principles, where women would be treated as equals and the civil rights of non-Muslims respected.

Perhaps that’s not surprising, given Asad’s roots. He was born at the turn of the 20th century in Austria-Hungary—in what is now Ukraine—as Leopold (Aryeh) Weiss. His grandparents were Orthodox Jews; his paternal grandfather was a rabbi. Weiss’ parents were secularized and assimilated to European culture. His father was a successful lawyer in Vienna. As a child Weiss had a basic Jewish education and a working knowledge of Hebrew. Educated at German universities and imbued with liberal values, he lived in the bohemian quarters of the Weimar Republic at the height of its cultural awakening and became a journalist, covering the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. A visit to relatives in Jerusalem and a subsequent long sojourn in Arabia caused him to “fall in love with the Arabs.” Increasingly disillusioned with the West, and rejecting the Marxism adopted by many of his European contemporaries as “purely materialist,” Weiss converted to Islam in 1926. He expressed his new identity with the name Muhammad Asad: Asad, meaning “lion,” was the equivalent of both his Hebrew name Aryeh and his Latin-derived name Leopold.

I first learned of Asad in 1978, when I spent a term at the University of Tunis as a graduate student in Arabic language and Islamic culture. I had been searching for an accessible English translation of the Quran when one of my teachers mentioned that The Message of the Qur’an, the long-awaited interpretation by the renowned scholar Muhammad Asad, would soon be published. Turning to me—the only person in the class with a recognizably Jewish name—my Tunisian professor noted that the translator was a Jew who had converted to Islam and become one of the great authorities on Islam’s holy book.

Intrigued by this unlikely story, I researched Asad’s life and discovered that for the past 13 years, he’d been living in Tangiers. Through an American friend living in Tangiers, I sent Asad a note requesting an interview. Asad didn’t respond to me directly, but he told our mutual acquaintance. “Shalom Goldman? Sounds like a rabbi. Tell Goldman that I have no intention of returning to Judaism.”

I had no intention of bringing Asad “back to Judaism” but could find no way to convince him of that. In 1978, over half a century after his 1926 conversion, he remained wary of Jewish interlocutors who might challenge him on religious grounds, especially if he suspected those interlocutors had ties to Israel. Yet he never lost completely his connections to Europe and to his family. He tried, unsuccessfully, to help his parents and sister escape the Nazis, and he remained in touch with relatives who emigrated to Palestine in 1939—even as Asad became one of the chief architects of modern political Islam and a leading antagonist of the Jewish state.


Asad counted among his friends European artists and intellectuals as well as two of the century’s most renowned Islamists, Muhammad Iqbal and Abu-Ala Maududi. Yet for decades Asad’s reputation as a political thinker was overshadowed by his monumental contribution to the field of Qur’anic scholarship. His 1980 English translation, The Message of the Qur’an, is considered the authoritative English translation by many scholars within the Islamic world. In it, Asad comments frequently on politics and government, and his conclusions in the commentary are quite consistent with his earlier overtly political writings.

Asad began his travels in Egypt and then went to Palestine where he visited relatives who had extended an invitation. These relatives were two maternal uncles, both of whom were prominent physicians. One was a psychoanalyst—the first to practice that profession in Palestine; the other was an ophthalmologist. Through them Weiss met and interviewed the Zionist leadership of the time. To these leaders—Chaim Weizmann and Arthur Ruppin among them—Weiss posed sharp and critical questions about Zionist intentions concerning the Arabs of Palestine. Some years later he wrote that “I conceived from the outset a strong objection to Zionism. I considered it immoral that immigrants, assisted by a foreign Great Power, should come from abroad with the avowed intention of attaining to majority in the country and thus to dispossess the people whose country it has been since time immemorial.”

Weiss visited kibbutzim and urban communities—but it seems that nothing in Zionist activity appealed to him. Quite the contrary, Zionism and its followers repelled him, and his articles to that effect in the German and Austrian press further distanced him from his Jewish co-religionists in general and from his family in particular. In Jerusalem Weiss found an anti-Zionist ally in Jacob Israel De Haan, the journalist and activist, who was the bane of the Zionist movement. Only a few months after his meetings with Weiss and other vocal and influential opponents of the new Yishuv, De Haan was assassinated in the first political murder within the Jewish community of Palestine.

Asad’s conversion to Islam in 1926 was linked to his rejection of Zionism. He saw Zionism as “tribal” and linked to colonialism. In his later writings Zionism is depicted as an aspect of the “chosen people” concept, a concept Asad often mentions with derision in his Quran commentary. For Asad, Islam is “universalist” and Judaism is “particularistic.”

Soon after his conversion, Asad went on the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. He was accompanied by his European wife Elsa and her son by her first marriage. In Saudi Arabia, Asad, using his journalistic connections and skills and the prestige he accrued as a European convert to Islam, became a confidant of King Abdul Aziz. During his six years in the kingdom, Asad served as adviser to the Saudi royal court. But that relationship turned sour when Asad criticized corrupt Saudi officials and suggested that the government adopt more “pious”—and less extravagant—modes of behavior. As to the connections between Wahabi teachings and the Saudi royalty, Asad made this observation, one that embodies his critical approach to religion and government: “The history of the Wahhabis is the history of a religious idea which rose on the wings of enthusiasm and longing—and them sank down into the lowlands of pharisaic self-righteousness. For all virtue destroys itself as soon as its ceases to be longing and humility.”

After six years in Saudi Arabia Asad traveled to India, where in 1932 he met the philosopher and poet Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), who encouraged the young convert to stay and help (in Asad’s phrasing) “to elucidate the intellectual premises of the future Islamic state and in tandem with this to serve as scholarly bridge between South Asian Islam and the English-speaking West.”

It was in India, at Iqbal’s urging, that Asad wrote “Islam at the Crossroads,” the 1934 essay addressed to fellow Muslims. In that essay Asad described his journey to Islam. He made no mention of his Jewish background or of his radical rejection of Zionism. He told his readers almost nothing about his own past other than that he, unlike his readers, had had to “discover” Islam. And since his conversion he had endeavored, he wrote, “to learn as much as I could about Islam. I studied the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet, I studied the language of Islam and its history, and a good deal of what has been written about and against it. I spent over five years in Arabia, mostly in Medina, so that I might experience something of the original surroundings in which this religion was preached by the Arabian Prophet. … Those studies and comparisons created in me the firm conviction that Islam, as a spiritual and social phenomenon, is still, in spite of the drawbacks caused by the deficiencies of the Muslims, by far the greatest driving force mankind has ever experienced; and all my interest became, since then, centered around the problem of its regeneration.”

The phrase “in spite of all the drawbacks caused by the deficiencies of Muslims” is worth noting. Yes, Asad implies, there are numerous problems in Muslim-majority countries. But these problems are not the result of living according to Islam. Rather, they are the result of the failure of Muslims to live up to the standards of their own tradition. Islam at the Crossroads, published in English, was soon translated into Urdu and later into Arabic. It had enormous influence in both languages and is still on sale throughout the Muslim world.


At the beginning of WWII Asad, who had an Austrian passport and was suspected of anti-British agitation, was imprisoned by the British in Lahore. He was to spend the duration of the war in a prison camp, where he worked on scholarly projects, primarily English translations of classical Islamic texts. In the British detention camp Asad was soon joined by his Saudi-born wife Munira and their son Talal Asad (now a renowned anthropologist who teaches at CUNY). He was able to receive mail from family members and learned that his father and sister, stuck in Vienna, were unable to escape the Nazis. In a memoir published in the 1980s Asad wrote, “My father disappeared in Theresienstandt. After the Anschluss I had supplied him with a visa to the Punjab, but he did not want to flee without his daughter. When I also sent my sister a visa she lost the letter. She died in Auschwitz.” Other than in this terse statement and others like it, Asad did not, as far as I can ascertain, address the fate of Europe’s Jews. In his voluminous correspondence and published writings there is little mention of the fate of his family and of the Jewish world from which he had sprung.

A few years after Asad’s death, his son, Talal Asad, told of his father’s grief on learning of the fate of his father and sister:

My father was an intellectual type, not particularly emotional. The only time in my life that I remember seeing him actually cry was when he was informed at the end of the war that his father and his sister had perished in the death camps. That was the only time he asked me not to join him on his evening stroll, the only time he wanted to be alone.


With the 1947 partition of India Asad and his family became citizens of Pakistan, and Asad became a confidant and adviser to the founders of the new state. At the request of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the political founder of Pakistan, Asad compiled a document on “suggestions for an Islamic Constitution for an Islamic State.” Soon after independence was declared, Jinnah established the DIR, the Department of Islamic Reconstruction, with Asad at its head. Among the DIR’s tasks: to draft Pakistan’s Constitution and to propose the frameworks of the new state’s educational and social systems, “all along Islamic lines.” Asad drew up documents describing these plans and circulated them among Pakistan religious scholars.

His project was, in Asad’s words, an attempt “to establish an Islamic state as a liberal, multiparty parliamentary democracy.” He found evidence for these principles in the Quran and in later Islamic sources, of which he was an acknowledged master. Most significant among Asad’s ideas about the Pakistani Constitution was his proposal for a Supreme Court. Asad’s proposal “provided a means whereby disputes regarding the Sharia provision in specific cases might be resolved. In an article in the journal Arafat (titled “Islamic Constitution Making”), Asad proposed that a “Supreme Tribunal” be empowered to adjudicate disagreements between the head of state and the executive council. But many in the political and religious elites opposed this idea as it displayed too direct an influence of Western ideas.

Also controversial was Asad’s proposal that the political rights of non-Muslims be enshrined in the constitution, though he agreed with the more conservative members of the Ulema that the head of government should be a Muslim. Also, Asad advocated for women’s participation in the political process. In its 1992 obituary of Asad the British newspaper the Independent noted that he “was a powerful advocate of the rights of women. It was Asad’s insistence that the constitution of Pakistan allow for the election of a woman leader that opened the way for Benazir Bhutto.”

But none of Asad’s suggestions were implemented. Muhammad Ali Jinnah died of tuberculosis within a year of the establishment of Pakistan, and the issue of the new state’s constitution was put off indefinitely. After Jinnah’s the new government terminated the Department of Islamic Reconstruction, and Asad was transferred to the Foreign Ministry. There, in the early 1950s, he served as the head of the Pakistani delegation to the United Nations.

It was during those years in New York City that Asad reestablished connections with some of his Jewish relatives, including relatives who lived in Israel. And it was in New York that he wrote The Road to Mecca, an autobiography published by Simon and Schuster in 1954 and very positively reviewed in the leading journals and newspapers of the day. The New York Times reviewer called it an “intensely interesting and moving book.” Disillusioned with the Pakistani politics, he then made the transition to the world of Islamic scholarship, moved to Europe, and between 1964 and 1980 produced what many today deem the finest translation of the Quran into English, accompanied by an extensive scholarly commentary.

But though he retreated into a life of scholarly endeavor, Asad continued to write about the relationship between religion and politics, and it was through those writings and through his commentary on the Quran that he exerted wide influence. In his 1961 book The Principles of State and Government in Islam, he argued for an Islamic from of government, but he warned fellow-Muslims against accepting the claims of those who wanted to return to the norms and forms of the distant past. These thinkers he dubbed “reactionaries” who claimed that the only authentic Islamic polity was one that seeks to slavishly imitate the era of the Prophet and the early Caliphate. These actors, according to Asad, sought to distort the concept of jihad and make it an instrument of empire.

Asad wrote, “By representing the idea of jihad, in clear contradiction to all Qur’anic injunctions, as an instrument of aggressive expansion of Muslim rule over non-Muslim territories, they sow fear in the hearts of non-Muslims and fill many righteous Muslims with disgust at the thought of the injustice which such a tendency so obviously implies. And, finally, by claiming (again, without any warrant in Qur’an or Sunnah) that the shari’ah imposes on us the duty to discriminate, in all social aspects of life, between the Muslim and non-Muslim minorities, they make it impossible for the minorities to bear with equanimity the thought that the country in which they live might become an Islamic state.”


Asad did not think that Sharia should be applied with uniformity throughout the Muslim world: “One may safely say that there is not only one form of the Islamic state, but many, and it is for the Muslims of every period to discover the forms most suitable to their needs.” Shariah, according to Asad “cannot provide detailed legislation for every contingency of life. Consequently, the Law-Giver meant us Muslims to provide for the necessary additional legislation of our ijtihad (independent reasoning) in consonance with the spirit of Islam.”

In The Message of the Qur’an, published in sections between 1964 and 1980, he returned to the political and religious ideas that he articulated and espoused in the 1930s and ’40s. One example stands out: In his commentary on Surat-al-Imran (3:159), “And take counsel with them in all matters of public concern, then, when thou hast decided on a course of action, place they trust in God: for, verily, God loves those who place their trust in Him,” Asad writes, “This injunction, implying government by consent and council, must be regarded as one of the fundamental clauses of all Qur’anic legislation relating to statecraft.”

Particularly disturbing to Asad was the takfiri idea—the tendency to brand Muslim political antagonists as “infidels.” In the 1980s and early ’90s Asad had the opportunity to observe the emergence of takfiri politics on the world stage, a development he found deeply disturbing. Yet though he calls for tolerance of the “lesser monotheisms,” he never misses an opportunity to point out the ways in which the Quran is “correcting” the mistakes of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Christianity is taken to task for distorting the “actual” history of Jesus, and Judaism is blamed for promulgating teachings that don’t embrace all of humanity.

In Asad’s thought, Judaism and Zionism were inextricably joined. In contrast to his life-long advocacy for the establishment of “Islamic states,” Asad rejected the concept of the “Jewish state” soon after his extended encounter with it in the mid-1920s, and his views on Zionism never changed. He viewed Zionism as a form of colonialism, and after the Israeli conquest of Jerusalem in 1967 Asad descried Israeli policies that he described as limiting Muslim access to the city’s holy places. In interviews late in life, including one shortly before his death in 1992, he returned often to this topic.

In 2011, two decades after Asad’s death, his son spoke at a conference in Saudi Arabia dedicated to Asad’s legacy. Seeking to distance his father from present-day claims about what constitutes a true Islamic state, he claimed his father was not a political thinker, but rather “a religious thinker for whom the Quran and Sunnah together formed what he called the most perfect plan for human living.” It was in this connection that he wrote on the idea of the Islamic state and prepared suggestions for an Islamic constitution in Pakistan in the early years of its existence. He believed that reasoned discourse was central to the way Muslims should treat disagreements between themselves. He did not attempt to establish a movement but sought influence through that same “reasoned discourse that he called on others to employ.”

And in the following year, 2012, Asad’s widow Pola Hamida (his third wife), assisted by the Pakistani scholar M. Ikram Chaghatai, published Home-coming of the Heart, a compilation of previously unpublished writing by and about Asad. Within that volume is Hamida’s memoir of the mid-1950s, the period in which Asad left the Pakistani U.N. delegation and wrote his best-selling book The Road to Mecca. Hamida notes that Asad’s political adversaries among the Pakistani elites spread the rumor that Asad, living in New York City, had “abandoned Islam and reverted to Judaism.” To clear his name of this accusation Asad wrote detailed and lengthy letters to Pakistani newspapers, where the controversy about him raged for a few months in 1954. Subsequently Asad was “exonerated” of this charge of apostasy and his good name restored. When I read of this episode I was able to make better sense of Asad’s reply to my 1978 greeting to him, a reply in which he said, “Tell Goldman I have no intention of returning to Judaism.”

Today, Asad has many readers and followers, particularly among the 200 million Muslim citizens of India. One can see and hear them interviewed in Georg Misch’s 2008 riveting documentary film A Road to Mecca: The Journey of Muhammad Asad. For these followers, Asad’s opinions and recommendations are more relevant than ever.


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Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.