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.