Muhammad Asad Festival in Vienna

The Austrian capital has named one of its squares as Muhammad Asad Platz as part of its two-day programme on European Year of Intercultural Dialogue focusing on Islam and its relationship with Europe. The programme commemorated the life and work of Asad, described as a great Austrian visionary, who earned international recognition by building bridges between the religions. University Professor Talal Asad (Muhammad Asad’s son) and Anas Schakfeh, President of the Islamic Community of Austria, spoke on the occasion of the inauguration of Muhammad Asad Platz, the first square in Vienna to be named after a Muslim. Mayor of Vienna, Michael Haup, hosted a reception, followed by the screening of a film — ‘The Road to Makkah: the Journey of Muhammad Asad.’ The film looks at today’s relations between Islam and the West from a new point of view. The journey starts in Lviv and leads to Vienna, Berlin, Palestine, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the US and Spain. This documentary is remarkable for bringing Asad alive, thanks to original, subtitled interviews with relatives and friends of Asad, writes DR. MURAD WILFRIED HOFMANN.



Muhammad Asad (born in 1900 in Lvov, Ukrainia – died in 1992 in Mijas, Spain) came to life as Leopold Weiss, in an Austrian Jewish academic family. During World War I he came to Vienna in order to study, e.g. biology and philosophy, and – being under age – unsuccessfully attempted to join fighting in Italy. In the early 20s he moved to Berlin, at the time the intellectual center of Europe, engaging in diverse activities of an artistic and journalistic nature. There he acted, e.g., as assistant to the movie pioneer, Friedrich Murnau, and sensationally interviewed Maxim Gorki, travelling incognito. As a result, the leading newspaper in Germany, Frankfurter

Zeitung, in 1922 dispatched him as their correspondent to Palestine. Even though himself of Jewish background, he violently opposed Zionist settlers, definitely siding with the Palestinian Arabs. In fact, in his first book, Unromantic Orient (Unromantisches Morgenland) he showed his unusual love for all things Arabic.

In 1926, together with his German wife, Elsa Schiemann, he accepted Islam and ‘Muhammad Asad’ as his Muslim name. Alas, in 1927 already, having contracted malaria, Elsa died during their first and only Hajj. Asad now stayed on in Saudi Arabia, until 1932, becoming a close collaborator of King ´Abd al-Aziz Al Saud and marrying a noble Arab lady, Munira bint Husayn ash-Shammari who gave him his (only) son, Talal Asad, later professor of anthropology in New York.

In 1932, the Pakistani poet-philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal, took Asad along to India where, in 1934, he published his first book, Islam at the Crossroads, a devastating critique of Western materialist consumerism. At the time, Asad wrote a lucid commented translation of Sahih al-Bukhari. Alas, in World War II Asad, now a German citizen was interned by the British and – during the violent separation of Pakistan from India, lost most of his al-Bukhari manuscript.

Now in Lahore, Asad became a leading thinker for the young Muslim State of Pakistan, serving, e.g., as Director of the Department for Islamic instruction and, in the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, as head of the Near and Middle East Department.

In 1952, Asad – now a Pakistani citizen – for a short while even became the representative of Pakistan to the United Nations in New York. Here, divorcing his Saudi wife, he married the Polish-American Muslima, Pola Hamida.

Leaving the foreign service, Asad now entered his astonishing career as a writer, first publishing, from Switzerland, The Road to Makkah, in 1954, a world best-seller ever since. This was followed, in 1961, by The Principles of State and Government in Islam as a still definite treatment of the constructive relationship between Islam, Democracy and Human Rights.

Living from 1964 until 1983 in Tangier, Morocco, Asad worked on his commented translation of the Qur’an into Shakespearean English, named The Message of the Qur`an. Rightly so, it is the only modern Qur’an translation that has been translated into further languages, i.e. Turkish, Swedish and (currently) German.

Rather than printing it, the Saudis at the time even burned Asad`s translation because they opposed his explanation of ginns, the miraj, and hijab. (In the mean-time, last not least thanks to Shaykh Zaki Yamani, Asad posthumously has become persona grata again in Saudi Arabia.)

Having dealt with Muslim Politics, the Qur’an, and the Sunnah, Asad in his last book dealt with Fiqh, i.e., Muslim Jurisprudence (This Law of Ours and other Essays, 1987). Having lived, from 1983, in Lisbon (Portugal) and Mijas (near Malaga, in Spain) Muhammad Asad died there on 20 February, 1992, and was buried in the Muslim cemetery of Granada, in the 15th century the last stronghold of Islam in Spain.

On April 13 and 14, 2008, the Muslim community of Austria managed to stage an impressive Muhammad Asad memorial in Vienna, opening with a Muhammad Asad film premiere. This documentary is remarkable for bringing Asad alive, thanks to original, subtitled interviews (in Ukrainian, German, Arabic, Urdu, and Spanish) with relatives and friends of Asad. (I am quoted saying that “Muhammad Asad was Europe`s gift to Islam.”)

The second day, the prestigious square in front of the United Nations Center in Vienna, in a touching ceremony, was named “Muhammad Asad Platz”. This was followed by a reception given by the Lord Mayor of Vienna and a public panel discussion with, e.g., Talal Asad, the German Muslima, Amena Shakir, and myself – this in recognition of the fact that I had met Asad and that he had written an introduction to my first book, Diary of a German Muslim (1985).

This wonderful Muhammad Asad memorial should, of course, rather been held in Berlin, given that Asad had been much more active there than in Vienna. But then, the current German government is stupid enough to see in Islam a security threat only.

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