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

The undated photograph incorporated in this graphics shows Muhammad Asad at a Radio Pakistan studio. (AN graphics)
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Updated 13 August 2021

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

  • Leopold Weiss, born to a Jewish family in the Polish city of Lwów, then under the Austrian Empire, spent most of his adult life in the Middle East and South Asia
  • He arrived in India in 1932 and was persuaded to join the freedom movement by Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet and ideological father

ISLAMABAD/WARSAW: Leopold Weiss, born to a Jewish family in the Polish city of Lwów, 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 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 Austrian Empire, Palestine, the Saudi cities of Makkah and Medina, and ends in India and what is present day Pakistan.
Indeed, Asad, who spent most of his adult life in the Middle East and South Asia and in 1926 converted to Islam and changed his name.
His interest in the Indian subcontinent was sparked during a stay in Saudi Arabia in the late 1920s where he met Indian expats and decided to travel to the region.
He arrived by ship in Karachi in June 1932, and then went onwards to Lahore where he met Allama Mohammad Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet and ideological father.
Iqbal convinced 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 World War II 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 six 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 Spanish Andalusia 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.
“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 has 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 Abdulaziz 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 six years without interruption ... It was a wonderful experience, a wonderful time … He was one of the most outstanding men I have known.”

Muhammad Asad during his stay in Saudi Arabia in 1928. (Photo courtesy of Mischief Films via AN)

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, adding that Asad had also known Prince Faisal, King Abdulaziz’s son and successor to the throne.
The personal ties with Saudi Arabia not only served the cause of Pakistani diplomacy but also Asad’s most important work — an English translation and interpretation of the Qur’an that he started to work on in the 1960s, with support from Prince Faisal.
In 1980, Asad published the full translation and commentary titled “The Message of the Qur’an,” which to date remains one of the most popular English versions of the holy scripture.
The volume was the culmination of a love affair with Islam and the Muslim world that began much earlier — in Palestine.

A still from "Der Weg nach Mekka," a 2008 documentary film directed by Georg Misch, shows a poster picturing Muhammad Asad during Independence Day celebrations in Pakistan. (Photo courtesy of Mischief Films via AN)

Asad was invited by his maternal uncle, a psychiatrist, to visit Jerusalem in 1922 and it is there that he learnt Arabic and became a Middle East correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung, where he wrote against zionism, British rule, and Muslim and Arab nationalism.
“I became averse to the idea of zionism from the very first moment of my contact with it,” Asad said in the IIS interview. “I felt from the very first moment that the aim of Jewish colonization of Palestine, by doing wrong to the Arabs, was immoral.”
Asad converted to Islam in the presence of an Indian imam, Abdul Jabbar Kheiri, the head of the Muslim community in Berlin. It was also Kheiri who suggested he change his name.
Asad recounted Kheiri’s words in the IIS interview: “He said ‘wait, your name is Leopold, Leo ... Lion. In Arabic it is Asad. Let your name be Muhammad Asad.’ And so I became Muhammad Asad, from that day on.”
It was a beautiful fit: Lwów, the name of the city of Asad’s birth, comes from the word “lew,” which also means lion.

Daughter of donkey cart vendor beats ruling party candidate in Pakistan local polls

Updated 01 July 2022

Daughter of donkey cart vendor beats ruling party candidate in Pakistan local polls

  • Parveen Sheikh faced opposition from her family when she announced contesting June 26 local elections
  • Sheikh Sheikh bagged 430 votes while runner-up Manthar Sheikh got 190 votes for Khairpur municipal seat

KARACHI: When Parveen Sheikh last month revealed plans to contest local elections from her impoverished neighborhood of Saleemabad in southern Pakistan, most people in her family and larger community opposed the idea, and many even ridiculed her. 

What chance, they said, did a poor woman have in elections in an area where female candidates were a rarity and few women went out to vote?

The mother of six, however, traveled alone on May 15 to the election office in her hometown of Khairpur and submitted nomination papers as an independent candidate for a municipal committee seat. 

On June 26, she surprised her community once again when she bagged a clean victory over her rival, a candidate of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the ruling party of Sindh. Sheikh got 430 votes while the runner-up, Manthar Sheikh, got 190.

Around 24,500 candidates contested the June 26 elections for 7,164 local body seats in 14 districts of Sindh. 

“I showed resilience, asked no one and just submitted my [nomination] forms,” Sheikh told Arab News in a phone interview. 

The newly elected councilor had the support of another woman, Shehnaz Sheikh, under whose mentorship Sheikh had been working on small community welfare projects for the last three years.

“Madam Shehnaz told me, ‘If you want to contest, then stand firm’. She raised my morale and encouraged me,” Sheikh said of her mentor, who financially supports poor laborers in arranging the weddings of their daughters, helps them start small businesses and installs water supply pipelines in poor communities.  

It was Shehnaz who helped Sheikh design her election campaign and gather community backing.

“When I would go to my people, visit their homes, they would say ‘you’re our child. We will vote for you, no more for the feudal lords’,” Sheikh said. 

Soon, her husband and brother also came out to support her “but only after they saw I was getting immense respect from the people,” Sheikh said. “Our laborers and women came to my help and did door-to-door campaigns with me as late as 2am in the night.” 

Sheikh, who is the wife of a constable at the federal income tax department and the daughter of a donkey-cart vendor who sells food and toys, said her hometown had no electricity, water or sewerage system.

Resolving the problems of her impoverished community, she added, was now her top priority.

“I could not study beyond primary [5th grade], because we could not afford it. None of my nine siblings studied either,” said Sheikh, who used to sell clothes on a cart to make ends meet. 

“My elder daughter, Saman Sheikh, and other children are studying because I know the importance of education. As a councilor, I will work for the education of women and provide people with drinking water.” 

In a message to “electables,” or longtime politicians from the area, she said they needed to recognize that people no longer wanted to be ruled by feudal lords and it was time for them to “change their mindsets” according to the demands of the public. 

“Don’t consider the poor inferior,” she said. “When you give respect to the poor, it doesn’t reduce yours but instead makes you more respectable in the eyes of the people.”

Sheikh said her victory had also proved one didn’t need support or funding from a major political party to win.

“When I won, I was crying and my father was also crying as it was unbelievable,” she said.

When asked if she had a message for other women, Sheikh said:

“The basic thing is your spirit, which must always remain high. And when the people are with you, no one can defeat you.”

Pakistan increases prices of petroleum products for third time in one month

Updated 30 June 2022

Pakistan increases prices of petroleum products for third time in one month

  • The government has justified the decision on the bases of exchange rate fluctuations, rising prices in international market
  • The prices of petrol and high-speed diesel in Pakistan have now surged to Rs248.74 and Rs276.54 per liter, respectively

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s finance division announced on Thursday it had increased the prices of petroleum products for the third time in a month, as the country faces double-digit inflation and the government strives to keep the economy afloat.

Pakistan’s new administration has swallowed the bitter pill of raising petroleum prices three times during the course of this month in a desperate hope to revive a stalled $6 billion loan program offered by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The IMF had suspended the loan facility in February after the previous administration of ousted prime minister Imran Khan went against its terms and conditions by announcing subsidies worth billions of rupees for the fuel and power sectors.

Pakistan is actively seeking external finances amid a mounting import bill since its foreign currency reserves have tumbled and its current account deficit has ballooned.

“In view of the fluctuations in petroleum prices in the international market and exchange rate variation, the Government has decided to apply petroleum levy partially and revise the existing prices of petroleum products,” the finance division said in a press release.

It further noted the price of petrol had been increased by Rs14.85 per liter, high-speed diesel by Rs13.23 per liter, kerosene by Rs18.83 per liter, and light diesel oil by Rs18.68 per liter.

The finance division said the new prices of petroleum products would be in place from July 1.

After the latest hike, the price of petrol in Pakistan has surged to Rs248.74 per liter, high-speed diesel to Rs276.54 per liter, kerosene to Rs230.26per liter and light diesel oil to Rs226.15 per liter.

FIFA lifts Pakistan suspension after more than a year

Updated 30 June 2022

FIFA lifts Pakistan suspension after more than a year

  • The suspension was imposed in April 2021 after a hostile takeover of Pakistan Football Federation
  • FIFA says Pakistan can still face suspension or other sanctions mentioned in its statute book

ISLAMABAD: International football governing body FIFA announced on Thursday it had lifted a suspension imposed on the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) in April 2021 due to third-party interference.

FIFA suspended the PFF last year after a dispute broke out among Pakistani football officials that was later resolved by the country’s top court whose decision was not recognized by the international body.

A group of local officials took over the PFF headquarters in Lahore by force in March 2021, sidelining the FIFA-recognized normalization committee (NC) while blaming it for not holding the federation’s elections in a long time.

FIFA barred Pakistan from participating in international competitions soon after the development, though it has now reversed its decision.

“The decision [to lift the suspension] was taken after FIFA received confirmation that the normalization committee of the PFF had regained full control of the PFF’s premises and was in a position to manage its finances,” its statement said.

FIFA informed it had warned the PFF that “undue interference in its affairs or action that could hinder the fulfilment of the mandate of the normalization committee” might lead to Pakistan being suspended again or result in further sanctions provided in the FIFA statute.

It added since the normalization committee could not realistically fulfill its original mandate until June 30, 2022, its tenure had been extended to June 30, 2023.

“This will enable [the committee] to finally carry out the tasks assigned to it in full,” the statement noted.

Government to form commission to investigate energy sector losses during ex-PM Khan’s rule

Updated 30 June 2022

Government to form commission to investigate energy sector losses during ex-PM Khan’s rule

  • Pakistan has been witnessing prolonged power outages amid a rising domestic demand for electricity
  • Hiked fuel prices in international market have made low-cost power generation difficult for the country

ISLAMABAD: The government has decided to form a commission to probe the handling of Pakistan’s fuel and power sectors by the previous administration of ousted prime minister Imran Khan, as it blames the current energy crisis in the country on some of the decisions taken in the last four years.

The announcement to establish the commission was made by Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a senior member of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, during a joint press conference with federal minister for planning and development Ahsan Iqbal.

Pakistan has been witnessing frequent and prolonged power outages amid a rising domestic demand for electricity and as hiked fuel prices in the international market have made low-cost power generation difficult for the country.

Pakistan has slashed fuel subsidies for a third time in a month in a bid to control the fiscal deficit and secure International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout money.

Ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan had given the subsidy in his last days in power to cool down public sentiment in the face of double-digit inflation, a move the IMF said deviated from the terms of the 2019 deal.

“The prime minister [Shehbaz Sharif] has decided to form a commission that will objectively look into the losses incurred in the fuel and power sectors in the last four years and present a report to the people of Pakistan so they become aware of these developments and understand why electricity and gas have become more expensive in the country and who are the individuals responsible for it,” Abbasi said.

“It has also been decided that the commission’s proceedings will be open to the media and the public,” he added.

The PML-N leader said the previous government had “destroyed” the energy sector of the country.

He also said its policies had led to the depletion of Pakistan’s foreign currency reserves, added to its circular debt and increased economic woes.

The planning minister blamed Khan and his cabinet members for not making long term fuel procurement contracts on cheaper rates in time.

Pakistan's monthly fuel oil imports are set to hit a four-year high in June, latest Refinitiv data shows, as the country struggles to buy liquefied natural gas (LNG) for power generation amid a heatwave that is driving demand.

Pakistan had cut fuel oil imports since the second half of 2018 as LNG prices were low, but it had to at times switch back to oil since July 2021 because of sky-high LNG prices.

The country's fuel oil imports could climb to about 700,000 tonnes this month, after hitting 630,000 tonnes in May, according to Refinitiv estimates. Imports last peaked at 680,000 tonnes in May 2018 and 741,000 tonnes in June 2017.

Pakistan rupee gains by 0.13% after China inflows, hopes of IMF deal

Updated 30 June 2022

Pakistan rupee gains by 0.13% after China inflows, hopes of IMF deal

  • Statistics reveal Pakistan’s national currency depreciated by 30% against US dollar in the outgoing fiscal year
  • Analysts warn against political uncertainty and its adverse impact on Pakistan’s economy and currency

KARACHI: Pakistan’s rupee continued to gain against the US dollar on Thursday, appreciating by 0.13% as the market reacted to “positive vibes” from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and increase in forex reserves in the wake of the inflows from China, currency dealers and analysts said.

The rupee increased in value against the dollar by Rs0.27 before closing at Rs204.85 in the interbank market.

Pakistan’s national currency has taken a battering during the outgoing fiscal year 2021-22, losing its value by a whopping 30% and touching an all-time low of Rs211.93 against the US dollar on June 22, according to the central bank’s data.

Pakistan’s fast-depleting foreign exchange reserves, a huge import bill and delay in the revival of a $6 billion loan from the IMF have caused the rupee to rapidly depreciate over the past few weeks.

On Tuesday, Pakistan received a Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies (MEFP) from the IMF for the combined 7th and 8th reviews, the development being considered an important one for the resumption of the loan facility.

“Since positive vibes are coming from the IMF front, the rupee is constantly gaining value against the dollar,” Zafar Paracha, senior currency analyst, told Arab News.

“Today, it was trading at Rs203.50 and was expected to close at Rs203,” he continued. “However, the demand pushed the value of the rupee toward the lower side by the end of the day.”

Paracha said after the recent development on the IMF front, the business sentiment had changed and a downward trend in the value of dollar had been observed in the market.

“Besides, exporters are also selling their dollars in the market while importers are holding back due to currency fluctuations,” he noted, explaining that the demand for the dollar was slow and the supply was high, which was causing the rupee to appreciate.

Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves increased last week when China deposited RMB15 billion (roughly $2.3 billion) into Pakistan’s central bank, a few days after some Chinese banks signed a loan agreement with Pakistan.

Inflows from China and progress in Islamabad’s talks with the IMF had caused the rupee to gain strength, currency dealers said.

“The government has played a key role in its talks with the IMF and it is expected that the authorities will sign an agreement with the fund in July 2022,” Malik Bostan, president of the Forex Association of Pakistan, told Arab News, adding that inflows of $2.3 billion from China had also contributed to the appreciation of the Pakistani rupee.

Bostan said reports of former finance minister Ishaq Dar’s arrival in Pakistan next month had also changed the market sentiment and induced exporters to sell their dollars.

“Dar is known for keeping the dollar in check, so exporters have started selling their dollar holdings,” he added. “Due to this, dollar sales have increased by around 30%.”

Dealers and analysts said the country was expected to receive financial support from friendly countries such as Saudi Arabia and other donors after the completion of the IMF review.

However, they warned against political uncertainty in the country and its adverse impact on Pakistan’s economy and currency.