Seeking a Whole Life: Muhammad Asad’s Critique of the Secular Self

hd_der_weg_nach_mekka_presse_asad4By Suzanne Schneider

Perhaps the only thing more extraordinary than Muhammad Asad’s life is the fact that he is not better known. After all, how many Jewish converts to Islam who befriended Ibn Saud, helped draft the Pakistani constitution, and became renowned religious scholars do you know?

Born Leopold Weiss to a family of Galician Jews in 1900, Asad converted to Islam in 1926 following years of living in the Middle East as a foreign correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung. He went on to become an avid proponent of Islamic modernism, publishing numerous studies and a translation of the Qur’an that stressed the rationalistic foundation of Islam. He traveled across the interwar Middle East before landing in India, where the British detained him as an “enemy alien” during the Second World War, in which he lost his father and sister to the Holocaust. He later served the Pakistani government in official roles within the Department of Islamic Reconstruction and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before becoming a diplomatic representative to the United Nations in 1952.

This extraordinary—there is no other term for it—biography is intertwined with a formidable intellectual legacy, though the latter has at times been overshadowed by the man himself. Details from his 1954 autobiography, The Road to Mecca—in which Asad describes his embrace of Islam alongside depictions of contemporary political leaders, Bedouin life and espionage missions—have often found their way into popular writing. Yet the text has rarely been the subject of scholarly analysis, nor has there been much engagement with the theoretical substance that Asad brings to the foreground in recounting his transformation.

In this article, I would like to shift the focus slightly away from the man and his adventures and toward the intellectual disquiet that figures so prominently in his conversion narrative. Asad’s decision to embrace Islam has often been spoken of as a rejection of Western materialism in favor of Eastern spirituality, or contextualized within the intellectual malaise and moral uncertainty that followed World War I. I would like to suggest that both readings are partially correct, but nonetheless miss the broader theme in Asad’s work: his sustained critique of liberalism and the secular self on which it relies.

To begin, it is helpful here to broaden the scope of our analysis slightly. Let us consider, for instance, Asad’s depiction of Central Europe following the First World War:

“They had been strange years, those early Twenties in Central Europe. The general atmosphere of social and moral insecurity had given rise to a desperate hopefulness which expressed itself in daring experiments in music, painting and the theatre, as well as in groping, often revolutionary enquiries into the morphology of culture; but hand-in-hand with this forced optimism went a spiritual emptiness, a vague, cynical relativism born out of increasing hopelessness with regard to the future of man.”

He recalls feeling that, despite differences in their political orientation, “the average European” seemed to have lost faith in everything other than material progress, leading to both ethical frustration regarding the instability of moral values and “the submission of all social and economic issues to the rule of ‘expediency’.”

Not that he was unhappy, Asad claims, as he became a fixture in the cafes of Berlin alongside “the most outstanding writers, artists, journalists, actors,  [and] producers of the day.” Still he felt dissatisfied with his lot, and welcomed an invitation from his uncle Dorian to join him in Jerusalem. It was there that he first encountered the Islamic East and felt a strong attraction toward its people, particularly the Arabs. In them, Asad saw a being for whom “the Outer and the Inner, the I and the World, are to him not opposite – and mutually opposed – entities, but only different aspects of an unchanging present.” He would eventually attribute this wholeness to Muslims in general, recognizing in them “that organic coherence of the mind and the senses which we Europeans had lost.”

After four years of traveling throughout the Middle East, Asad began to grasp that the solution for his European malaise might come from the outside. Back in Germany in 1926, with the woman who would become his first wife, Asad recounts his moment of epiphany. In the text’s well-known conversion scene, Leopold Weiss becomes convinced of the veracity of Islam following a Berlin subway ride with an assortment of well-fed and well-dressed passengers. Though seemingly well off, he nevertheless detected “an expression of hidden suffering” among his fellow riders that he linked to their living “without any faith in binding truths, without any goal beyond the desire to raise their own ‘standard of living’, without any hopes other than having more material amenities, more gadgets, and perhaps more power…” Upon returning to his home, he glanced at an open copy of the Qur’an that he had been reading, and his eye fell upon the following passage:

“You are obsessed by greed for more and more

Until you go down to your graves.

Nay, but you will come to know!

Nay, but you will come to know!

Nay, if you but knew it with the knowledge of certainty,

You would indeed see the hell you are in.

In time, indeed, you shall see it with the eye of certainty:

And on that Day you will be asked what you have done with the boon of life.”

It seemed to Asad that these verses offered an answer to the hidden suffering he encountered earlier on the subway, “an answer so decisive that all doubt was suddenly at an end. I knew now, beyond any doubt, that it was a God-inspired book I was holding in my hand.”

One scholar who has written on The Road to Mecca, Martin Kramer, understands this passage and Asad’s subsequent conversion within a broader trend to regard “Islam as a spiritual antidote to Western materialism,” positing that Islam provided those who came of age in the early twentieth century with an alternative to European progress. And while Asad went further in this regard than most, Kramer also locates his conversion along a continuum of “Jewish seekers who felt that their own faith failed to strike a balance in its encounter with capitalism.”

While there is something to be said for pointing to the hollowness of materialism as a factor that drives Asad toward Islam, this interpretation nevertheless seems to miss the larger critical project. It is not merely Asad’s rejection of capitalist greed that leads him to Islam. It is rather a longing for wholeness, a desperate hope to reunite “man’s inner and outer beings,” his spiritual and material selves, to discover “a life in which man could become one with his destiny and so with himself.” In short, his rejection of materialism is part and parcel of his critique of secular citizenship as a model that severs the public from the private, the material from the ethical, and the body from the spirit.

There are many hints of this broader critical project throughout the text, and – given secularism’s own “religious” history – it is perhaps fitting that one of them appears during a conversation with a Jesuit priest. It is on the ship bound for Alexandria that the author encounters Father Felix, “a brilliant, serious and at the same time humorous mind at work.” Soon finding themselves deep in conversation, Father Felix posits that the true meaning of Paradise, “the deepest symbol of longing,” is always a desire “to be free from destiny.” As he continues:

“The people of Paradise had no destiny; they acquired it only after they succumbed to the temptation of the flesh and thus fell into what we call Original Sin: the stumbling of the spirit over the hindering urges of the body, which are indeed only the animal remnants within man’s nature. The essential, the human, the humanly-divine part of man is his soul alone…What the Christian teaching aims at is, therefore, man’s freeing himself from the non-essential, ephemeral, carnal aspects of his life and returning to his spiritual heritage.”

It was at this point when Leopold interjects and argues that he cannot accept this “division between the ‘essential’ and the ‘non-essential’ in the structure of man, and in separating spirit and flesh.” As he continues, he “cannot agree with your denying all righteousness to physical urges, to the flesh, to earthbound destiny.” Rather, he states:

“I dream of a form of life – though I must confess I do not see it clearly as yet – in which the entire man, spirit and flesh, would strive after a deeper and deeper fulfillment of his Self – in which the spirit and the senses would not be enemies to one another, and in which man could achieve unity within himself and with the meaning of his destiny, so that on the summit of his days he could say, ‘I am my destiny.’”

What Islam came to offer Leopold Weiss was precisely this coherence of the self, the opportunity to unite his public actions with his inner ethical strivings. This was, he makes clear, made possible only because Islam offered guidance on mundane issues that resided far outside the boundaries of the modern concept of religion. In fact, Asad finds “Islam did not seem to be so much a religion in the popular sense of the word as, rather, a way of life; not so much a system of theology as a programme of personal and social behavior based on the consciousness of God.” Similarly, Islam gave no meaningful place to concepts like salvation or inherited sin, nor was asceticism “required to open a hidden gate to purity.” Rather, “there was no trace of any dualism in the consideration of man’s nature: body and soul seemed to be taken as one integral whole.”

It is worth noting here that Muhammad Asad actually did come from a tradition that poorly corresponds to the modern definition of “religion,” and wasn’t thought of in such terms until recent centuries. One could engage in a whole series of counterfactuals as to whether Asad could have issued this critique of European secularism had he lived in the Russian shtetl rather than assimilated Vienna. After all, Judaism is also a “religion” of law that rejects both asceticism and the form of mind-body dualism which is so central to Christian thought, and whose reverberations continue to pulse through the political construct of the secular self.

Perhaps exploring this element of Muhammad Asad’s work might also lead us back to a question to which Martin Kramer only begins to answer: Why were so many Jewish “seekers” drawn to Islam, in varying degrees, during the height of European progress and its emancipatory project? Can Asad’s critique of secularism teach us something about the peculiar position of the Jew within the liberal state on one hand, and the types of politics available to “religious minorities” on the other? This question is all the more crucial in light of Aamir Mufti’s insistence that “the crisis of secularism be examined from the point of view, and at the site, of minority existence.” And is there a constructive way to engage the “Jewish Question” alongside that of Asad’s critique of secularism without falling into crude assessments of how Jewish Asad “really” was or why he didn’t talk more about anti-Semitism?

In the end, of course, Asad rejects the Judaism of his parents as being both lifeless and chauvinistic, focused on the chosen-ness of the Jews rather than what God chose them to do. It was rather the Arabs of his day, those tribes who still wandered under the same desert sky that first inspired the monotheistic idea, who were the true heirs to ancient Hebrews. All this while the Zionists “threatened to transfer all the complications and insoluble problems of European life” into the Islamic heartland. In explaining his opposition to the Zionist project, Asad argues that the Jews were not truly returning to a homeland, but rather “making it into a homeland conceived on European patters and with European aims.” It is perhaps in Asad’s rejection of Zionism that we can best approach the complex relationship that bound his Jewish past to his critique of European liberalism. The Jews were not returning as Jews, but as Europeans.

Though he is frequently referred to as  Europe’s gift to Islam,” a careful reading of The Road to Mecca should push us to reconsider this formulation and the implications it mobilizes in painting Asad as a European reformer of a backward tradition. Even when deployed in the context of more nuanced studies, such as that by Murad Hofmann, this depiction is clearly suggestive of some inadequacy within Islam itself that can be best ameliorated by a “gift” from the enlightened West. And yet, the text seems to suggest quite the opposite: it seems that Europe, in Asad’s final assessment, could use a gift or two of its own.


Suzanne Schneider is currently working on a book about religious education and mass politics in Mandate Palestine. Her research concerns the development of religious modernism in both Islamic and Jewish contexts, the “reform” projects forwarded by these movements, and their relationship to the material and epistemic dimensions of European colonialism. Suzanne received her Ph.D. in 2014 from the Department of Middle East, South Asian and African Studies and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University.


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