Controversial Muslim Thinker and Politics

February 23, 2014

Controversial Muslim Thinker sets the cat among the canaries, again

by Terence Netto@

COMMENT They say politics makes for strange bedfellows. It looks like religion also does the same. Consider thinker Kassim Ahmad’s ties to former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad – on Islamic exegesis, the two are birds of a feather.

kassim thinkerThe Controversial Muslim Thinker

This is best understood in the context of Voltaire’s famous criticism of Christian belief and practice at the onset of the Enlightenment in the 18th century – that incantations can kill a flock of sheep if administered with a certain quantity of arsenic.

In other words, faith should not be blind and unexamined beliefs are for bovines, not homo-sapiens.

In 1986, Kassim published a book – ‘Hadis: Satu Penilaian Semula (Hadith: A Reappraisal)’ – that espoused a subversive idea.This was that certain bases of Islamic practice and belief cannot sustain critical scrutiny. The book proposed the Quran as sole basis for sound Muslim belief and best practices.

That view Kassim reiterated to a conference which reviewed his thought held last Sunday at the Perdana Leadership Foundation, a think-tank associated with Mahathir (right).

The former Premier officiated at the conference’s opening and days later, after controversy flared over what Kassim had said, allowed that Kassim was a thinker whose opinions are easily misunderstood.

Like the publication of his book 28 years ago, Kassim’s latest musings have caused a furore. Its magnitude can be gauged in the days to come as Islamic authorities mull action against him.

It’s a safe bet, though, that none of them will take him on in a debate because they know that Kassim is a formidable foe to joust with; he will not easily recant his views.

Kassim blames Anwar Ibrahim – the Education Minister in the mid-1980s – for squelching the debate that ‘Hadis’ was obviously intended to provoke.Till today, Kassim nurses an enduring antipathy towards Anwar for the turn of events following publication of Kassim’s book in early 1986.

The ironies in history

Although all this occurred 28 years ago, the passage of decades has not had a becalming effect on the visceral feelings the controversy evoked at that time.

As recently as the middle of 2012, Kassim remained choleric at the mention of Anwar’s name, denouncing the Pakatan Rakyat leader with a vituperation that was ugly to behold.

It is not clear that Anwar had anything to do with the banning of Kassim’s book or with foreclosure of the debate.What’s less incontestable is that had the book not been banned, matters to do with Islamic thought and understanding in Malaysia would plausibly have transcended the present moment where some peninsula Muslim Malaysians insist that the term ‘Allah’ is exclusive to them.

In one of those ironies in which history abounds, in the debate over the ‘Allah’ issue, Anwar (left) is not opposed to non-Muslim use of the term – provided it is not abused – whereas Mahathir is for prohibition of the term to non-Muslims.

Kassim’s position on the issue is not known, but judging from what can be deduced of the man’s intellect, it would be a huge surprise if he agreed with Mahathir’s stance.

There is a strong strain of the iconoclast in Kassim, evident from half a century ago when he suggested that Malay folklore was wrong to view Hang Tuah as a hero because the real hero was Tuah’s friend, Hang Jebat, whom Tuah had killed.

Because of his tendency to examine the received wisdom on a subject, it wasn’t surprising that Kassim, who tuned 80 last September, gave vent at last Sunday’s conference to views that were even more controversial than the ones he aired in his 1986 work.

In what was purported to be his final testament – rendered at the conference themed ‘Thoughts of Kassim Ahmad: A Review’ – the man who started his intellectual journey as a cultural iconoclast and doctrinaire socialist, invited Muslims to return to the teachings of the Islamic faith as revealed in the Quran.

He said that believers would find Quranic teachings to be cognate with natural law (undang-undang alamiah).Kassim also espoused the view that Muslims do not need, like he claimed Christians did, a “priestly caste” to know what God commands of them and to perceive those commands’ consonance with what natural law tells them.

He argued that the female practice of wearing a headscarf (tudung) was a wrong interpretation of the Quranic stricture against bodily exposure, claiming that hair on a woman’s head is not included in the ‘aurat’ that is required by the Quran to be covered. He said that head hair must be aired for health (natural law) reasons.

An interesting tack to take

Thus, he took an example from nature to elucidate a Quranic teaching, demonstrating in the process the supposed truth of his argument that sound interpretation of Quranic revelation would necessarily be found to be compatible with what natural law teaches.

This is an interesting tack to take and is at variance to the asharite (God is power/God is will) school of Islamic thought. The asharite has been the dominant school since the 12th century when it gained the upper hand over the mutazilite (God is also reason) school of Islamic interpretation.

Since the victory of the asharite school, Islam’s answer to what is called “the Socratic puzzle” has been emphatic.But, pray, what is the Socratic puzzle?

It is a question that is so abstruse, it gives philosophy a bad name: Is a good action good because it is approved by God? Or is it approved by God because it is good?

In other words, do the categories of good and evil, right and wrong, have an existence independent of the divine will?

To this, the answer of the Asharite school is: An action is good because it is approved by Allah.

The asharites hold that there is no independent criterion of morality outside the will of Allah. And since the Quran is an absolutely literal and accurate account of that will – indeed in a deep sense, the Quran itself actually incarnates that will – there is no independent criterion of morality outside the text of the Quran.

In other words, if the Quran says something that seems morally offensive, it is morality that is mistaken, not the Quran.

The Mutazilites are inclined to find an interpretation of the Quran that accords with what natural law teaches. This is because they believe that there is an objective moral order to the universe and that this is discoverable through reason. That is why the Mutazilities are called rationalists.

Because these are febrile questions of religious interpretation and philosophy, and apt to foment divisive and emotional effects on believers – Voltaire advised that discussion of complex religious questions be held behind closed doors and out of the hearing of servants – Muslim thinkers approach them with circumspection.

Now and then, one or the other of them saunters on to the turf and inevitable detonations ensue.

Last Sunday, Kassim Ahmad walked into a blast-prone area and set off subversive ripples of resonance. He is likely to enjoy immunity because he did it at the Perdana Leadership Foundation

Last year about this time, Ibrahim Ali (right) escaped a sedition rap for threatening to burn bibles after Mahathir offered extenuations on the Perkasa chief’s behalf, following former attorney-general Abu Talib Othman’s admonishing incumbent AG Abdul Gani Patail against dilly-dallying on pressing charges.

This time round, Mahathir’s extenuations on behalf of Kassim are likely to have intellectually more beneficent uses.

The irony is that Kassim – like the man he detests, Anwar Ibrahim – is not likely to think much of the argument that the term ‘Allah’ ought to be the exclusive preserve of Peninsula Muslims; more certainly, he will laugh Mahathir’s reservation of the term for Peninsula Malays, to scorn.Not just politics, religion, too, makes for strange bedfellows.

13 thoughts on “Controversial Muslim Thinker and Politics

  1. I simply takdak faham how could Kassim Ahmad can pair up with Madhater. One is akin to Hunter S Thompson, the founder of Gonzo journalism & the other is akin to Richard Nixon himself.

    Anyway, if you guys are into the lyrics, you would understand what this song is all about

  2. bravo Netto:

    ”Voltaire advised that discussion of complex religious questions be held behind closed doors and out of the hearing of servants – Muslim thinkers approach them with circumspection.” – this should be made into a law in Malaysia to prevent the easily confusable umnob malay muslims from losing their faith.

  3. Kasim is a muslim thinker? Isthis a joke.

    Kasim admit he doesnt read or understand classical Arabic langauge,a pre requisite for understanding Quran(tafsir).Kasim admit he learn Quran from translation text.

    What is his contribution in Islam? Asking the Muslim to reinterprated Quran.At the same time he didnt respect Muhammad as the Messanger of Allah.?
    If you ask any of the Muslim scholar like Qardawi or Tariq Ramadhan,they said just ignore him.

  4. The Machiavellian and utterly cynical Dr M said famously that
    there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in politics.
    In other words, use ’em and discard ’em (like what he did to AAB and increasingly likely, to the 1PM).

    Contrast this with great and principled people like Nelson Mandela, who publicly defended those who had helped him in the past, including his allies from the South African Communist Party (such as Joe Slovo) whilst on his tour of the USA, after his release from prison in the early 1990s. “A friend in need is a friend indeed”.

  5. As for Dr M’s actions and pronouncements:

    All easily accounted for if you focus on his ultimate aims i.e.
    1. prevent DSAI from becoming PM of Malaysia, at all costs
    2. push his son to get on the UMNO Supreme Council and eventually become the PM
    3. keep Najib the 1PM from bankrupting Malaysia by replacing him with a more pliable puppet (who will follow his economic and political advice).
    4. preserve his “legacy” and its focus on reaching “developed nation” status by 2020

    Not so easy, as DSAI is a formidable political operator himself;
    the son does not match the father in skills; the FLOM and the 1PM will try their very best to stay in power and enjoy the perks of power
    (at all costs, including national bankruptcy),
    and aim #4 is fading by the day

  6. Dear Din,

    Forget about religions. They caused of millions of deaths and untold miseries. Religions are still perpetuating conflicts and wars Religions have retarded progress in development, science etc. We can all rely on science and technology to better our lives – water, electricity, transport, fridges, computers, hp, TV etc

    Religion is a mafia organization. The problem is secularism is not well organized or institutionalised. We should have a holiday for Secularism like Christmas, Birthday of Muhammad etc

    Look at how the faithfuls park their cars in Bangsar Mosque, St Francis Church Jalan Gasing, Temples etc They block traffic and do not have consideration for others

    If you believe in God or Allah, pray to God DIRECTLY when you are ready and comfortable and in the privacy of your house, in any language, in any direction. If God or Allah does not understand, then God or Allah is not Almighty, Omniscient and Immanent.

    If Allah only understand Arabic, then Allah is just an Arabic God. Not an Universal God. So with similar Gods.

    We are wasting a lot of money time and effort in religions. Look at the Arab Spring – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen etc Read about Mohamed Bouazizi the street vendor who burned himself cos the Police/ Municipal officers abused their power and he could not make a decent living. Did Ben Ali want Bouazizi to be a thief or robber???

    Look at Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand I was watching the whole day on Ukraine in CNN BBC Alja etc on Sunday 23 Feb 2014. I did some thinking and analysis too.

    The leaders did NOT listen to the complaints & plight of the people. The leaders just pilfer, pilfer and pilfer. Look at the palatial Mansion of Victor Yanukovych in TV!!! But Putrajaya Palace is even more opulent!!!! Poverty, rising cost of living (due to greed of the rich corp) corruption, injustice are the main causes # # #

    Don’t say it cannot happen in Malaysia. On the ground you hear people complaining escalating costs of houses and foods and essentials. Malaysians are saying the govt is OVER-charging them for cars!!!

    Look at our politicians who are immorally rich and then they said their children are very smart. The Cabinet of Mahathir is probably the richest in the world in modern times

    To have peace and security the govt of the day must provide the people an affordable house, a job, amenities etc If you fail, step down and apologize like the Japanese Ministers. Do not create trouble. Do not threaten or intimidate the people. People do not protest or demonstrate for fun. They got better things to do. Look at Saddam or Gadafi who thought they were invincible Don’t say your supporters don’t want you to step down. Don’t say there are many things to do.

    Dictators use Police & Army to frighten off the people to protest against their wrong doings and corruption. The Police/Army will shoot to kill and assault the people. James Madison the 4th US President said,  “The arms that are used to defend the country will finally be used against the people.”

    Politicians say one thing during election campaign; another when in office; another in mid-term and another on leaving office. (Deng Xiaoping)


    Correct me if I am wrong

  7. Waste of time? That’s a commodity most don’t have, Abnizar.
    I have plenty, because my God is not yours nor anybody else’s. Never have been, never will be. Why? So much for freedom of Conscience, much less Consciousness..

    I think the ‘Priestly Caste’ in the article is wrongly emphasized. The Christians call it the Pharisee Syndrome. What Datuk Kassim was emphasizing was the ‘CASTE’ – not the ‘Priests’ – which every organized religion needs to function. Holy – is to set apart for and by God; Caste – is to set apart for and by Man. A corruption of Holiness. Nada?

    You can call the hierarchy whatever you want, but there’s basically a need for ‘Structure’. Without which, there’s Anarchy. In a nutshell Kassim has been wrongly labelled and vilified. If anything, he’s challenging the status quo, at his own peril – but within his Conscience. He is an Anarchist – but in a constructive kinda way.

    After reading Reza Aslan’s treatise on “How to win a Cosmic War – Confronting Radical Religion” – in which the author makes a tenuous, but plausible distinction between an “Islamist” and a “Jihadist” – i have to say that Submission to any human being – especially to self-proclaimed deified Prophets is anti-Scripture. The Revelation itself becomes an appendix to ‘Traditions’ of Fallible Man. For example: to me, ‘Catholic’ as read in the Nicene Creed means Universal (spiritually), which is it’s true meaning.

    So Sdr Kassim is just asking the right questions and pushing the ‘wrong’ buttons’. I empathize with him, even if we belong to a different religion altogether. Of course the blinkered Submitters out there will call me Kafir and all sorts of savory names. Cheers.

  8. The pairing of Kassim with Mahathir is indeed strange on the surface but not so much if you understand that for Mahathir, its not religion that is ultimate but politics – HIS politics and hence his way, and his power. So his willingness to sacrifice religion at the altar of his politics is in no way conflicting in fact its HIGHLY CONSISTENT. He wants to change Islam so to suit HIM, HIS WAY and if the Hadiths gets in the way, then all and dandy throw it away. I would not be surprise if he think he can reinterpret the Quran himself and feels absolutely paramount in the wisdom of his interpretation over anyone else, certaintly his wish has ALWAYS BEEN to be all-powerful over the Ultamas.

  9. In politics there are strange bedfellows. Today we see DAP jumping into bed with PAS. Whatever happened to irreconcilable differences? It is a ground for divorce in New York. Also not intending to consummate to begin with would make the marriage a fraud.

  10. Ok la Pak Bean………I know you reminisce the good old time where even melayus wear beautiful dresses. Singapore & Ipoh were heaven………Hahahahaha! Please don’t get heart attack

  11. The British claims Australia, NZ, Canada to be theirs. Remember the White Dominions The British claimed Malaysia belongs to them! The French claims Tahiti to be theirs.

    If you are strong you can claim any land on earth

    Muhammad claimed that Allah and his Apostle own the world. Land boundaries are always questioned Sea boundaries are even more difficult Who drew the rules for defining boundaries???

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