April 23, 2004

Becoming Muslim

About the author:

Muhammad Asad, Leopold Weiss, was born in Livow, Austria (later Poland)
in 1900, and at the age of 22 made his visit to the Middle East. He later
became an outstanding foreign correspondent for the Franfurtur Zeitung, and
after his conversion to Islam travelled and worked throughout the Muslim world,
from North Africa to as far East as Afghanistan. After years of devoted study
he became one of the leading Muslim scholars of our age. After the establishment
of Pakistan, he was appointed the Director of the Department of Islamic Reconstruction,
West Punjab and later on became Pakistan’s Alternate Representative at the
United Nations. Muhammad Asad’s two important books are: Islam at the Crossroads
and Road to Mecca. He also produced a monthly journal Arafat. At present he
is working upon an English translation of the Holy Qur’an. [Asad completed
his translation and has passed away. -MSA-USC]

In 1922 I left my native country, Austria, to travel through Africa and Asia
as a Special Correspondent to some of the leading Continental newspapers, and
spent from that year onward nearly the whole of my time in the Islamic East.
My interest in the nations with which I came into contact was in the beginning
that of an outsider only. I saw before me a social order and an outlook on life
fundamentally different from the European; and from the very first there grew
in me a sympathy for the more tranquil — I should rather say: more mechanised
mode of living in Europe. This sympathy gradually led me to an investigation
of the reasons for such a difference, and I became interested in the religious
teachings of the Muslims. At the time in question, that interest was not strong
enough to draw me into the fold of Islam, but it opened to me a new vista of
a progressive human society, of real brotherly feeling. The reality, however,
of presentday Muslim life appeared to be very far from the ideal possibilities
given in the religious teachings of Islam. Whatever, in Islam, had been progress
and movement, had turned, among the Muslims, into indolence and stagnation;
whatever there had been of generosity and readiness for self-sacrifice, had
become, among the present-day Muslims, perverted into narrow-mindedness and
love of an easy life.

Prompted by this discovery and puzzled by the obvious incongruency between
Once and Now, I tried to approach the problem before me from a more intimate
point of view: that is, I tried to imagine myself as being within the circle
of Islam. It was a purely intellectual experiment; and it revealed to me, within
a very short time, the right solution. I realised that the one and only reason
for the social and cultural decay of the Muslims consisted in the fact that
they had gradually ceased to follow the teachings of Islam in spirit. Islam
was still there; but it was a body without soul. The very element which once
had stood for the strength of the Muslim world was now responsible for its weakness:
Islamic society had been built, from the very outset, on religious foundations
alone, and the weakening of the foundations has necessarily weakened the cultural
structure — and possibly might cause its ultimate disappearance.

The more I understood how concrete and how immensely practical the teachings
of Islam are, the more eager became my questioning as to why the Muslims had
abandoned their full application to real life. I discussed this problem with
many thinking Mulsims in almost all the countries between the Libyan Desert
and the Pamirs, between the Bosphorus and the Arabian Sea. It almost became
an obsession which ultimately overshadowed all my other intellectual interests
in the world of Islam. The questioning steadily grew in emphasis — until I,
a non-Muslim, talked to Muslims as if I were to defend Islam from their negligence
and indolence. The progress was imperceptible to me, until one day — it was
in autumn 1925, in the mountains of Afghanistan — a young provincial Governor
said to me: “But you are a Muslim, only you don’t know it yourself.”
I was struck by these words and remained silent. But when I came back to Europe
once again, in 1926, I saw that the only logical consequence of my attitude
was to embrace Islam.

So much about the circumstances of my becoming a Muslim. Since then I was asked,
time and again: “Why did you embrace Islam ? What was it that attracted
you particularly ?” — and I must confess: I don’t know of any satisfactory
answer. It was not any particular teaching that attracted me, but the whole
wonderful, inexplicably coherent structure of moral teaching and practical life
programme. I could not say, even now, which aspect of it appeals to me more
than any other. Islam appears to me like a perfect work of architecture. All
its parts are harmoniously conceived to complement and support each other: nothing
is superfluous and nothing lacking, with the result of an absolute balance and
solid composure. Probably this feeling that everything in the teachings and
postulates of Islam is “in its proper place,” has created the strongest
impression on me. There might have been, along with it, other impressions also
which today it is difficult for me to analyse. 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. So
it was in my case. Islam came over me like a robber who enters a house by night;
but, unlike a robber, it entered to remain for good.

Ever since then I endeavoured to learn as much as I could about Islam. I studied
the Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him);
I studied the language of Islam and its history, and a good deal of what has
been written about it and against it. I spent over five years in the Hijaz and
Najd, mostly in al-Madinah, so that I might experience something of the original
surroundings in which this religion was preached by the Arabian Prophet. As
the Hijaz is the meeting centre of Muslims from many countries, I was able to
compare most of the different religious and social views prevalent in the Islamic
world in our days. Those studies and comparisons created in me the firm
conviction that Islam, as a spiritual and social phenomenon, is still in spite
of all 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, centred around the problem of its regeneration.

From “Islam, Our Choice”

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