February 5, 2016
A Dissent on Kassim Ahmad’s ‘Man – What is Man?’
by Terence Netto
Stand First: Kassim gets it wrong from the start.
In his disquisition entitled ‘Man – What is Man?’, Kassim Ahmad says that the bible’s description of man as a being made in the image and likeness of God and the Quran’s positing of the same being as God’s viceregent on earth (Arabic: Khalifah) are variations on the same theme: God is magnificent creator and man is obedient servant/custodian.
Din Merican’s use of Hamlet’s musings on the puzzle of man in the epigraph to Kassim’s disquisition is fortuitous for its intimation of how Kassim has got it badly wrong by conflating the biblical and Quranic descriptions of man’s nature and destiny.
Thanks, Pak Kassim. Your latest piece is educational and eye opening. I hear your call. Know thyself and you will not be lost.
MAN is chosen by God to be His vicegerent (patih) on Earth; instead he chooses to be a degenerate, full of hate, rancour, and bitterness. I don’t blame Hamlet (William Shakespeare) for his dim view of Man.–Din Merican
The biblical version and the outcome it portends are best rendered by Blaise Pascal’s formulation: “Man is neither angel nor beast and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast.”
Pascal’s dictum is perceptive in its grasp of the divided nature of man and man’s need of redemptive grace. The tragic sense of life, as conveyed in Shakespearean and classical Greek drama, is integral to this worldview.
Consider the Quranic view of man’s nature and destiny.
God “created man from dry clay … breathed of my spirit into him” (Sura 5: 26-9). It is this breath of God which makes human beings distinct from other beings: despite the literal earthiness of human nature, Muslims insist that people have a God-given capacity to know and perform God’s will. Muslims thus claim that their attitude towards human nature is neither optimistic nor pessimistic but realistic.
Consider the corollaries of this worldview: there is no conflict between flesh and spirit, no dichotomy between the spiritual and the political (mosque and state), and no cause for the tragic sense of life, and consequently, no sense of the service of tragedy in the grasp of history, which as Alfred North Whitehead correctly concluded, is peace – the purification of emotions. (Ever wondered why Muslim societies are so turbulent!?)
Kassim Ahmad has contributed immensely to the national discourse in Malaysia on the importance of religion in public life and morality.
But he suffers from the weakness of the perennial ideologue: a quest for system over empiricism, constructs over reality, ersatz formulations over nuanced ones.
Heedless is he of Honore Balzac’s warning: “It’s not sufficient to be a man; one must be a system.”