Muhammad Asad – A little note to IRF and IKRAM

Education Prof Madya Dr Rafidah Hanim Religious Rights Viewpoints

(The article first appeared on 25th September 2014)

There is no doubt that countless Muslims passionately desire a socio-political development on Islamic lines, but there is also no doubt that in the mental climate of the modern world it has become almost axiomatic among many educated people that RELIGION OUGHT NOT TO INTERFERE WITH POLITICAL LIFE.

And while the principle of secularism is automatically identified with progress, every suggestion to consider practical politics and socioeconomic planning under the aspects of religion is dismissed out of hand as reactionary, or at best as ‘impractical idealism’. Apparently many educated Muslims share this view today and in this, as in so many other phases of our contemporary life, the influence of Western thought is unmistakable.”

These were not my words.

They were penned down by Muhammad Asad in 1961 in his book The Principles of State and Government in Islam. The book was a collection of his ideas as he was preparing for the outline of the constitution of Pakistan which, in his own words described it as “Islamic in the full sense of the word, and would also take the practical requirement of our time”.


Muhammad Asad was born as Leopold Weiss in Poland in 1900. He was a gifted writer, traveller and linguist with a thorough knowledge of the Bible and the Talmud and with deep roots in European culture. His grandfather was a Jewish rabbi.

His younger days were spent in the era of lively debates centered on psychoanalysis, logical positivism, linguistic analysis and semantics. This was the period when the distinctive voices of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler and Ludwig Wittgenstein filled the air and echoed round the world. Ludwig Wittgenstein for example was an influential philosophers then, and regarded by some as the most important since Immanuel Kant.


His journey to Islam, which he described in detail in his autobiography, The Road to Mecca, evoked all the senses and emotions in me on the meaning of being a Muslim. I read the book during my pilgrimage to Mecca last year, and I always prayed that I would always see Quran, the way Muhammad Asad did. He was travelling in a Berlin subway train with his wife to be, Elsa when he noticed the well dressed, well fed Europeans passengers whom he thought had something in similar, their expressions, as if they were suffering torments of hell. He shared his views with Elsa, who agreed of his observation. As he reached home, he glanced the copy of Quran he had been reading earlier on the table and was about to close it when his eyes fell on the verses from surah At-Takathur, which would change his destiny of life forever. The ayat read:

You are obsessed by greed for more and more

Until you go down to your graves.

Nay, but you will come to know!

And once again: 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.

Muhammad Asad wrote “For a moment I was speechless. I think that the book shook in my hands. Then I handed it to Elsa. ‘Read this. Is it not an answer to what we saw in the subway?’

“It was 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: for although it had been placed before man over thirteen centuries ago, it clearly anticipated something that could have become true only in this complicated, mechanized, phantom-ridden age of ours.”

That was how Leopold Weiss became a Muslim. He converted to Islam in Berlin itself, married Elsa who converted herself, in that part of the world which was buzzing with Nietzsche’s moral relativism theory and the spiritual nihilism fostered by psychoanalysis. Coming from this background, one would have expected that Muhammad Asad would offer a thing or two from these western philosophical thinkers to be incorporated in Islamic governance, as we are now witnessing some Muslims trying to revive the teachings of Nietzsche, Kant and Locke, forcing them into the secular model of Malaysia.

Alas, no!

In The Principles of State and Government in Islam, Muhammad Asad stated that the goal of Islam must be the Islamic state and that Islam does imply the establishment of God’s will on Earth. Muhammad Asad’s philosophies on this were: complete submission to God’s sovereignty, obeying the code of life as laid down by Quran and Hadis, social life to be governed by the Islamic pattern, the state to have ultimate authority and a rejection of all forms of secularisation.

In another of his book, Islam at The Crossroadshe pleaded for Muslims to avoid a blind imitation of Western social forms and values, and to try to preserve instead their Islamic heritage which once upon a time had been responsible for the glorious, many-sided historical phenomenon comprised in the term ‘Muslim civilization’. 


One interesting note is that Muhammad Asad had sternly warned of the misapplication of western terms.

One, he said, should always remember that when the European or American speaks of democracy, liberalism, socialism, theocracy and so forth, he uses these terms within the historical experience.

I personally find that there is a step up effort in trying to label Islamic state as a ‘theocratic state’ in order to remind people of the grim history of the Dark and Middle Ages that gave birth to Renaissance. Unfortunately, some young Islamists are also starting to use the term to denote rejection of any Islamic scholar (ulama) dominant in government.

Muhammad Asad stated that the question as to whether Islam aims at “theocracy” cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. One might say “yes” if by theocracy he means a social system in which all temporal legislation flows from what the community considers as being a Divine Law.

But the answer must be an emphatic “no” if one identifies theocracy from the medieval Europe definition, that is to have a priestly hierarchy with supreme political power………for the simple reason that in Islam there’s no priesthood and clergy, and consequently no institution equivalent to Christian Church as every Muslim has the right to perform each and every religious function with no ‘medium’ in between.

Thus the term “theocracy” as commonly used in the west is entirely meaningless within the Islamic environment.

This misapplication of terms, was also highlighted by Khalid Baig, who was the author of First Things First (FTF) column, in the famous Impact International magazine. One of the chapters in his book with similar title as his column (FTF), is Islamic Renaissance. The book was published in 2005, 2 years before the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) was born. He had explained at length the true legacy of Renaissance which refers to the events occurring between 14th and 16th centuries in Europe.

He had warned, that our choice of words colours our thinking. Those who are talking about Islamic Renaissance are trying to get the European experiences to guide their efforts. Islam calls for islah and tajdid – self reform and renewal. Dictionary may translate Renaissance into tajdid but history tells us otherwise. When we talk about tajdid and islah, we think the likes of Sayyidina Umar Abd Aziz, Hassan Basri, Imam Ghazali and many more Islamic scholars. When we talk about Renaissance, the names that come into our mind are Plato, Petrarch, Machiavelli and the likes. Khalid concluded that the difference between the two lists is like that between day and night.

Almost 10 years down the road, we’ve seen in Malaysia how IRF has paved the ways for the 2nd list of names to colour their articles, theories and discussion on the secular state, disguised as an Islamic NGO.


On this note, my thoughts are drawn to the numerous forums either entirely organised by a Muslim NGO, or moderated by one. In the past, IRF with the help of Penang Institute had organized multiple forums, that promoted secular and pluralisme ideas. The latest is Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy on 28th September.

However, I was very concerned of one particular forum which was on the issue “ Should Government Control Religious Affairs” organised by IDEAS and PROHAM and moderated by Tuan Haji Zaid Kamarudin from IKRAM. I was rather disappointed that a respected figure from IKRAM found it fit to help moderate the forum, especially when none of the panellists were expert in Islam or from Islamic authorities, when the topics presented concerned the conversion of Muslims, and the Malay Bible issues. To my astonishment, two Frenchmen were invited, Prof Valentine Zuber, reputed to be the specialist in religious tolerance and Mr Yves Teyssier, advisor for religious affair for France government.

On what business, do we have as Muslims to support any forum that challenges the rights of Islam, through questions of which the answers are so ever clear in the Quran?   Why are we helping to promote values derived from those championing the secular state, although on the pre-text of specialising in religious tolerance, but in France, it’s within the realm of a secular state nevertheless?

In which dhoruri, or urgent need, Tuan Haji Zaid Kamarudin had been compelled to facilitate this type of forum in Malaysia? Furthermore, this turned out to be a series of forums, where Professor Zuber had also been invited for a dialogue on Secularism and Religion: the French and Singaporean Approaches, in Singapore, the day before. A slowly but surely effort perhaps to secularize the whole South East Asia.

I have looked at the mission stated in IKRAM website where the first and foremost listed is“Melaksanakan dakwah dalam usaha meyakinkan masyarakat bahawa Islam adalah satu-satunya sistem hidup yang mampu menyelesaikan semua permasalahan”.

But the involvement of Tuan Haji Zaid Kamaruddin in Negara-Ku and Gerakan Bertindak Malaysia, in the capacity as the Vice President of IKRAM, does not reflect so.

We have seen how Muhammad Asad had abandoned the secular values he had experienced first-hand, at the peak of the nihilism era (e.g Muhammad Asad was born the same year Nietzsche died), working very hard, in full faith of his newly found religion Islam, to instead bring the Law of Allah to the fore, governing the state. Why are we embracing those rejected values? Why can’t we see the beauty of Islam, the way Muhammad Asad did?

Leopold Weiss took the names Muhammad, to honor the Prophet, and Asad—meaning “lion”. He had shown his true characteristics of a lion, championing the cause of Islam as he not only wrote books, translated saheh Bukhari and helped form Pakistan Islamic State constitution, he had also  completed writing The Message of the Qur’an, the most popular tafseer in English language,  at the age of 80, a delicate work which he started at the age of 64.

When will we ever be the lion, to reach his stature, when we are playing around with imported values and norms not accepted by Islam?


  3. Nietzsche and Islam by Roy Jackson
  4. Road to Mecca by Muhammad Asad
  5. The Principles of State and Government in Islam by Muhammad Asad

Excerpted from : Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia

Prof Madya Dr Rafidah Hanim Mokhtar
International Women’s Alliance for Family Institution and Quality Education (WAFIQ)

(The writer is a former Chief of Information for Wanita ISMA)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *