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Essad Bey

Farid Hafez
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Essad Bey


bestselling author, was born Lev (Leo) Noussimbaum to a Jewish family in Baku, Azerbaijan, and while he later converted to Islam, his life and works received much more editorial attention from Jewish people than Muslims. In 2005 Tom Reiss, a journalist for The New York Times, published the first comprehensive biography of Essad Bey and his relevant historical and cultural background. The book, The Orientalist, serves as one of the preeminent sources of information regarding Bey’s life and work, and has been translated into dozens of languages.

Essad Bey’s interest in Islam began at the age of ten, and he later became a Muslim at the age of eighteen while living and working as a writer in Berlin, Germany. In 1923 he became a founding member of the Islamische Gemeinde (Islamic Community) in Berlin and helped to establish the student union Islamia in 1924. The famous Islam-Institut, which is home to the most comprehensive archive on Muslim life in Germany, emerged from the latter institution (Motadel, 2009).

Reiss, who was Jewish himself, helped to expand the understanding of the influence of Judaism on Bey’s identity and life. For Reiss, Essad Bey represented a “Jewish Orientalism” in line with authors such as Benjamin Disraeli, Arminius Vambery, and William Gifford Palgrave, all of who attempted to set themselves apart from who they saw as assimilationist Jewish peers. According to Reiss, Essad Bey idealized a shared and harmonious Jewish-Muslim past.

When Bey converted to Islam (and simultaneously changed his name), he did so at the embassy of the Ottoman Empire in Berlin (Reiss, 2005) among numerous other Jewish converts, including Hamid Hugo Marcus (Motadel, 2009) and the famous Muhammad Asad, also known as Leopold Weiss (Asad, 2009). Essad Bey regularly published in pan-Islamist periodicals such as Islam-Echo (Höpp, 1997). He also wore a fez, a type of hat that served as a symbol of pan-Islamism at that time (Motadel, 2009) and as an identity marker of the vanished Ottoman Empire (Reiss, 2005). Bey was a member of a pan-Islamist group in Berlin (Höpp, n.d.), gave talks on the idea of the caliphate, and was rejected by many Muslims, particularly those from the newly established Republic of Turkey who maintained more nationalist sympathies (Reiss, 2005). Unpopular among his Muslim peers, Essad Bey was also targeted by the Nazis in 1930, who labeled him as one of the “Jewish history swindlers” (Reiss, 2005).

By the age of thirty Essad Bey had written sixteen books. One of which, Ali and Nino, became a world bestseller, but was met with controversy and disputed authorship, as Bey wrote it under the pseudonym Kurban Said. Bey wrote the worldwide first biography on Stalin (Montefiore, 2008) and also wrote biographies of Lenin, Czar Nicolas II, Queen Elizabeth I, and Reza Shah.

He also wrote a biography on the last prophet of Islam, Muḥammad, which appears as quite a modernist reading of Muḥammad’s life. He followed a pattern of reading the desert in a glorified way, a trend which Orientalist Tilmann Nagel views as linked to the idea of Islam as the religion of the pure desert, which arrived in Europe in the Romantic period. Based on the idea of the desert of the Prophet as an untarnished place, it became the space of purity with clear sight for the human destiny (Nagel, 2010). Similar to other converts to Islam, such as Muhammad Asad in his autobiography The Road to Mecca (1952), Essad Bey was fascinated with the idea of the Arab lifestyle portrayed as an original and authentic human one.

In a positivist reading of the history of Islam, Essad Bey presents Islam as “comprehensive,” but it seems as though he was highly influenced by his times, the concurring ideologies of fascism and communism, Orientalist thought, as well as his own pan-Islamist beliefs (Bey, 2002). The profanization of the Prophet and Islam as such is something that can be found within Orientalist as well as Islamist discourses (Ali, 1997; Euben and Zaman, 2009). Essad Bey fully embraced such a reading, calling the prophet a propagandist, social reformer, party leader, revolutionary diplomat, and focused ruler, similar to other later Orientalists such as Marxist Maxime Rodinson (Bey, 2002). Additionally, Bey argued that the Islamic state is one of theocratic despotism, theocratic democracy, Republic of God theocratic socialism, and a just state of God (Bey, 2002). More essentially, he believed that Islam was basically a “heightened positivism” (Bey, 2002). His pan-Islamist political reading of Islam becomes obvious in his biography on Muḥammad, which also led to criticism particularly from Muslims, who disliked Essad Bey’s depiction of Islam as a political religion.

As a pan-Islamist, Essad Bey praised Sultan Abdulhamid, who tried to return the spirit of Islam to the Islamic empire. He quotes Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afġānī as the first pan-Islamist propagator of the slogan: “Muslims of the world, unite!” (Bey and Von Weisl, 1936). After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, he sought refuge with Ibn Saʿūd, then king of Najd, Asir, and Hijaz (Bey, 2002). In praise of the Ikhwān movement of Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, Essad Bey purportedly claimed “The Islam of the Caliphate is dead, but the Islam of the desert is alive” (Bey and Von Weisl, 1936, p. 33).

Essad Bey died in Positano, southern Italy in 1942, after fleeing the Nazi takeover of Germany.


  • Ali, Muhammad Mohar. Sīrat Al-Nabi and the Orientalists, with Special Reference to the Writings of William Muir, D. S. Margoliouth and W. Montgomery Watt, from the Background to the Beginning of the Prophet’s Mission. Medina, Saudi Arabia: King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, 1997.
  • Asad, Muhammad. Der Weg nach Mekka. Düsseldorf, Germany: Patmos, 2009.
  • Bey, Essad. Mohammed: A Biography. Berlin: Komet, 2002.
  • Bey, Essad, and Wolfgang Von Weisl. Allah ist gross. Niedergang und Aufstieg der islamischen Welt von Abdul Hamid bis Ibn Saud. Leipzig and Vienna: Dr. Rolf Passer, 1936.
  • Euben, Roxanne L., and Muhammad Qasim Zaman. Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press 2009.
  • Höpp, Gerhard. “Mohammed Essad Bey: Nur Orient für Europäer?” Asien, Afrika, Lateinamerika 25, no. 1 (1997): 75–97.
  • Höpp, Gerhard. Noussimbaum wird Essad-Bey. Annäherung an eine Biographie zwischen den Kulturen. Berlin: Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (n.d.).
  • Kermani, Navid. “Krieg führen, Koran lesen, beten. Essad-Beys Geschichte des Islam—ein irritierendes und doch wunderbares Buch.” Zeit Online (2002).
  • Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Der junge Stalin. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2008.
  • Motadel, David. “Islamische Bürgerlichkeit—das soziokulturelle Milieu der muslimischen Minderheit in Berlin 1918–1939.” In Tel Aviver Jahrbuch für Deutsche Geschichte, vol. 37: Juden und Muslime in Deutschland. Recht, Religion, Identität. Gefälligkeitsübersetzung (Jews and Muslims in Germany: Law, Religion, Identity), edited by José Brunner and Shai Lavi, pp. 103–121. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2009.
  • Nagel, Tilmann. Mohammed. Zwanzig Kapitel über den Propheten der Muslime. Munich: Oldenbourg, 2010.
  • Reiss, Tom. The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life. New York: Random House, 2005.
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Mohammed. Translated from the French by Anne Carter. New York: Pantheon Books, 1971.
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