It was 18 years ago, on 20th February 1992, that one of the greatest Muslim scholars of the 20th century, Muhammad Asad passed away. He was the most prominent rationalist (Mu'atzillah) scholar of the 20th century. His major contribution to Islamic literature is his translation of the Qur'an into English, one of the most readable one that is famous for its chaste language.
I wouldn’t write about his life because you may find biographical information on him easily, on the Internet. I feel honoured that he chose to be a Pakistani citizen. He was one of the first to be issued a Pakistani passport (Pakistanis used British passport in the early days but Asad refused to receive one as a Pakistani citizen).
After the creation of the state of Pakistan, he was appointed Director of the Department of Religious Reconstruction and was charged with the responsibility of making recommendations for an Islamic constitution for the state of Pakistan. Some of his suggestions were made part of the Objectives Resolution – actually he is credited with drafting the resolution that was passed by the Constituent Assembly in 1949 as a preamble to the Constitution.
He was appointed Pakistan's Minister Plenipotentiary to United Nations. In 1952, he resigned from the Foreign Service. In 1954, his autobiography, Road to Mecca was published from New York. The book was an instant success. It describes the spiritual journey he went through and is written using the 'stream of consciousness' technique. It narrates simultaneously three journeys made at different times and describes the post WWI Arabia. As an historical adventure it echoes T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom The first chapter of the book equals if not surpasses in its description of desert life, the works by Thesiger.
In 1980, Message of the Qur'an (translation of and commentary on the Qur’an) was published. It was criticised by the orthodox scholars for its over-emphasis on rationalist interpretation. Asad too became very critical of the ways of Muslims in the later half of the 20th century. Just before he died, he is said to have remarked, "I fell in love with Islam but overestimated the Muslims".
In 2008, the Austrian government named the main square outside UN building in Vienna after him. But the Muslim world has generally failed to recognise him. Of course, his view to restrict Shari'a to Quran and Hadith, his rationalist approach and his views on hijab can not be easily accepted by the orthodox Muslims but these issues have been debated by different Muslim schools of thought since the 8th century. The failure to recognise him reflects intolerance among Muslim societies. I’ll finish by quoting Dr Murad Hofmann:
“Does anybody encourage Western people to understand and adopt Islam more than him with his Road to Mecca? Which other man of intellectual calibre in the 20th century - Muhammad Iqbal, al-Mawdudi, Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutub, Fathi Osman, the Hathout Brothers, Rashid al-Ghannouchi, Anwar Ibrahim, Jeffrey Lang - promise to have more lasting effect than Asad? We do not have enough Muslim intellectuals to disregard our geniuses.”
I'm sure with a growing need to rediscover reason in faith; the time is not far off when Asad's status as an ardent rationalist will be recognised among the Muslims in the East.