Austrian who held Pakistan’s first passport — and helped seal ties with Saudi Arabia

Sat, 2020-08-15 02:22

ISLAMABAD/WARSAW: Leopold Weiss, born to a Jewish family in the then Polish city of Lwow (now Lviv, in Ukraine) was a journalist who ardently advocated the Palestinian cause, a friend to the founding monarch of Saudi Arabia, and the translator of one of the most popular English versions of the Qur’an.
He later converted to Islam in 1926, becoming Muhammad Asad, and was also the first person to officially become a Pakistani citizen.
“Muhammad Asad was the first citizen of Pakistan; he was the first one to get a Pakistani passport,” Dr. Ikram Chughtai, a prominent Pakistani historian, told Arab News.
The journey of how Asad came to carry the first Pakistani passport winds through the then Polish part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Palestine, Makkah and Madinah, and ends in India and what is present day Pakistan.
His interest in the Indian subcontinent was sparked during a trip to Saudi Arabia in 1927, where he met Indian expats and decided to travel to the region. He arrived by ship in Karachi in June 1932, and then went on to Lahore where he met Allama Mohammad Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet and ideological father.
Iqbal persuaded Asad to stay in India and join the freedom movement that would lead to the partition of India in 1947 and the birth of a new nation, Pakistan, after independence from British rule. Later, Iqbal would also ask him to help draft the Islamic foundations of the emerging state.
In 1939, when the Second World War broke out, Asad, who still held an Austrian passport, was arrested by British authorities after Austria joined Nazi Germany against the allied powers. He spent the next 6 years in internment camps with Germans and Austrians captured across British-ruled territories in Asia.
“I was the only Muslim, and the Muslim soldiers who watched me wanted to let me escape, but I steered away from that,” Asad told German journalist Karl Guenter Simon, who interviewed him and his wife at their final home in Spain in 1988.
Upon his release, Asad devoted himself to shaping the framework of a Muslim state for Pakistan, soon becoming involved in a diplomatic mission to Saudi Arabia.


• Leopold Weiss, born to a Jewish family in the then Polish city of Lwow, spent most of his life in the Mideast and South Asia.

• He arrived in India in 1932 and was persuaded to join the freedom movement by Iqbal, Pakistan’s ideological father.

“After its formation, Pakistan had no embassy in the (Saudi) Kingdom,” Chughtai, the historian, said. “All matters related to Pakistani pilgrims were looked after by the country’s mission in Cairo. Pakistan wanted to send Muhammad Asad to Saudi Arabia in 1947 on an official visit to represent the newly formed state.”
But Asad had no travel documents valid for a visit to Saudi Arabia, as Pakistan had no passport laws at the time.
“Asad then went to Liaquat Ali Khan,” Chughtai said, referring to Pakistan’s first prime minister. “On Ali Khan’s special instruction, he was given the first passport issued by the Pakistani government. He kept that passport until his death in 1992.”
Asad’s lifelong association with Saudi Arabia began in 1927 during a Hajj trip to Makkah where he met and befriended King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the first ruler of the Kingdom.
“The king invited me to stay in his realm,” Asad said in what is believed to be his last television interview, to the Islamic Information Service (IIS). “And I stayed for 6 years without interruption … It was a wonderful experience, a wonderful time … He was one of the most outstanding men I have known.”
Asad remained close to the Saudi royal family and, many years later, would use this affinity to help forge Saudi-Pakistani ties. “Muhammad Asad was the pioneer in the establishment of friendly relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. He was very close to Prince Faisal who was the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia at that time,” Chughtai said, alluding to King Abdul Aziz’s son and successor to the throne.

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