Born to Jewish parents in 1900 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Leopold Weiss converted to Islam in 1926, changed his name to Muhammad Asad, and became a famous Muslim of the twentieth century. Asad is best known for his iconic autobiography, The Road to Mecca, which tells the remarkable story of how a young Jew from central Europe left the religion of his birth for Islam before proceeding to live for several years in the deserts of central Arabia. In later years Asad moved to British India, witnessed first-hand the creation of Pakistan, and represented the country at the inaugural United Nations Assembly. By the time of his death in southern Spain in 1992, Asad had lived in almost a dozen countries, East and West. But Asad was no mere wanderer or convert; he was first and foremost an intellectual. His long career stretches almost the entire twentieth century and offers a window into the many social, political, and intellectual currents of modern Islam. Asad’s writings traverse many fields of the modern Islamic tradition, including Qur’an and hadith sciences, political theory, and Islamic legal theory. A small but significant trend of Western converts, including Murad Hoffman, Muhammad Knut Berstrom, Maryam Jameela, and Jonathan Brown, have spoken of the role that Asad played in their journeys to the faith. 

Yet, Asad remains a somewhat marginal figure. We still have yet to see a major study of Asad in English. Nor do we hear his name when we talk of some of the major Muslim thinkers of the last century. Few are aware of his second biography, Homecoming of the Heart, covering his post-Arabia years from 1932. Indeed, our main source for Asad’s life remains Asad himself, even if this is – slowly – starting to change. In Muslim circles, the neglect is even greater. We struggle to find Muslim PhD students or academics engaging his ideas, or Islamic institutes founded in his name. One hardly, if ever, hears Asad’s name in a Friday khutbah.

Muhammad Asad is a richer, more creative, and far more complex Muslim thinker than is commonly recognised. He has a great deal to teach us today, almost three decades after his death. While the broad contours of Asad’s life are known, there remains much that we still do not know. Much of what we think we know about Asad, meanwhile, does not stand up to scrutiny. But above all, Asad is relevant. Asad’s life and thought raises themes of identity, belonging, reform, and the future of Islam that speak no less to our time than his own.

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