The Polish Jew Who Became One of the 20th Century’s Major Muslim Thinkers

Feb. 28 2022

Born into a Jewish family of Lemberg (now Lviv, Ukraine) in what was then Austrian Poland, Leopold Weiss received a robust talmudic education alongside secular schooling, although, by his own telling, neither of his parents was especially devout. After some time spent in Mandate Palestine visiting relatives, Weiss grew enamored with Arab culture, eventually converting to Islam, taking the name Muhammad Asad, and becoming a confidant of Ibn Saud—king of the eponymous section of Arabia—and, years later, an advisor to the government of Pakistan. He also wrote a popular memoir and rendered the Quran into English. Martin Kramer, in an essay first published in 1999, tells his remarkable story:

[W]hile Asad obviously distanced himself from Judaism, he adhered to a set of ideals that suffused the Jewish milieu from which he emerged. His failure to impart these ideals to contemporary Islam, and a repetitious pattern of rejection by his Muslim coreligionists, made of him a wandering Muslim, whose road from Mecca traversed an uncomprehending Islam before winding back to the refuge of the West.

Weiss always presented his anti-Zionism as a simple moral imperative, . . . bolstered by a flash of insight [he] experienced near the Jaffa Gate while observing a Bedouin Arab, “silhouetted against the silver-grey sky like a figure from an old legend.” Perhaps, he fantasized, this was “one of that handful of young warriors who had accompanied young David on his flight from the dark jealousy of Saul, his king?” Then, he says, “I knew, with that clarity which sometimes bursts within us like lightening and lights up the world for the length of a heartbeat, that David and David’s time, like Abraham and Abraham’s time, were closer to their Arabian roots—and so to the Bedouin of today—than to the Jew of today, who claims to be their descendant.”

[Later on], he found a new source of inspiration, during a stay in Cairo: Shaykh Mustafa al-Maraghi (1881-1945), a brilliant reformist theologian who later became rector of al-Azhar University. This was Weiss’s first contact with Islamic reformism, and it left a profound impression upon him. Weiss concluded that the abysmal state of the Muslims could not be attributed to Islam, as its Western critics claimed, but to a misreading of Islam. When properly interpreted, in a modern light, Islam could lead Muslims forward, while offering spiritual sustenance that Judaism and Christianity had ceased to provide.

Read more at Martin Kramer

More about: Conversion, Islam, Jewish history, Saudi Arabia

How Israel Can Break the Cycle of Wars in Gaza

Last month saw yet another round of fighting between the Jewish state and Gaza-based terrorist groups. This time, it was Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) that began the conflict; in other cases, it was Hamas, which rules the territory. Such outbreaks have been numerous in the years since 2009, and although the details have varied somewhat, Israel has not yet found a way to stop them, or to save the residents of the southwestern part of the country from the constant threat of rocket fire. Yossi Kuperwasser argues that a combination of military, economic, and diplomatic pressure might present an alternative solution:

In Gaza, Jerusalem plays a key role in developing the rules that determine what the parties can and cannot do. Such rules are designed to give the Israelis the ability to deter attacks, defend territory, maintain intelligence dominance, and win decisively. These rules assure Hamas that its rule over Gaza will not be challenged and that, in between the rounds of escalation, it will be allowed to continue its military buildup, as the Israelis seldom strike first, and the government’s responses to Hamas’s limited attacks are always measured and proportionate.

The flaws in such an approach are clear: it grants Hamas the ability to develop its offensive capabilities, increase its political power, and condemn Israelis—especially those living within range of the Gaza Strip—to persistent threats from Hamas terrorists.

A far more effective [goal] would be to rid Israel of Hamas’s threat by disarming it, prohibiting its rearmament, and demonstrating conclusively that threatening Israel is indisputably against its interests. Achieving this goal will not be easy, but with proper preparation, it may be feasible at the appropriate time.

Revisiting the rule according to which Jerusalem remains tacitly committed to not ending Hamas rule in Gaza is key for changing the dynamics of this conflict. So long as Hamas knows that the Israelis will not attempt to uproot it from Gaza, it can continue arming itself and conducting periodic attacks knowing the price it will pay may be heavy—especially if Jerusalem changes the other rules mentioned—but not existential.

Read more at Middle East Quarterly

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israeli Security, Palestinian Islamic Jihad