A Dissent on Kassim Ahmad’s ‘Man – What is Man?’

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.”

14 thoughts on “A Dissent on Kassim Ahmad’s ‘Man – What is Man?’

  1. Inche Kassim mentions that “in a beautiful allegory in the second chapter of the Quran, the angels protested against the creation of Man, saying that Man is a shedder of blood and spreader of corruption in the world. God simply said that He knew better. (See Quran, 2: 30)”.

    I wonder how would the angles know that Man is a shedder of blood and spreader of corruption when man was non-existent or yet to be created? It is purveying matters like these and believing in them, that makes man unintelligent or over intelligent.

    To know a semblance of truth (to oneself) one needs three basic ingredients -commonsense (and with that), rationality and even more importantly, years of living. The longer you live the more you get know the peccadillos of man, his Faith and his God.

    Man could be equally corrupt without Faith and God. The long-living life benefit is that you would have seen people from both camps and you are better placed to pass judgments.

  2. Me don’t understand what this is all about.
    Here’s to us ‘soulish creatures’ then:

    Btw, i think the Imago Dei comment by Sdr Kassim, will be read literally by almost anyone without understanding of Biblical exegesis. Therefore, it is best to desist casual mention of biblical phrases without extensive accompanying hermeneutics. Otherwise, most folk (including scatological Christians) with continue to see a Big Omnipotent Bearded Man in the Sky – out to exact vengeance on us created creatures, in the guise of Divine Justice. Zeus or Apollo like.

    Having seen Michelangelo’s Creation on ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, i was sure he didn’t mean it that way.. And although the Eschatological themes in both Islam and Christianity may be similar – the outcomes are irreconcilable. Did i say this before? Islam is not a Redemptive Religion, even if it is ultimately Salvific?
    Nope. Not splitting hairs.

    Gnothi Seuton = ‘Know Thyself’ in Greek.

  3. Mr Terence Netto ,your philosophy on this topic is so deep to the extent some of your readers inluding me do not fully understand what you are trying to say.Bravo sir for making life a little more complicated than its already is.

  4. Since we now know so much about Man, I would like Kassim Ahmad to write about “Angels….what are Angels?”

    This is not a flippant request because the Angels actually had the temerity to “protest” against the Almighty God who was about to embark on His ultimate pet project, creating His “vicegerents” no less. So these “creatures” who are neither man nor beast nor devils are a worthy subject to engage the minds of intellectuals?

    By the way, I thought only God Himself and Himself alone knows the future? It seems, according to the Holy Quran, Angels too knows the future? And since they already knew what the future is going to be, (as far as Man being the shedder of blood, etc,), what was the point of “protesting” against something that is going to happen anyway? Perhaps critical thinking was not the strong points of God’s pre-human creations. It must have been an interesting event to watch when the Angels “protested” which usually involved some arguments.

    And don’t forget it was an Angel who revealed the Quran to Prophet Mohammad and therefore the Angels have made it clear to Man, via the Prophet, that the Angels were not in favour of God creating Man in the first place. And therefore if Man were to blame anyone, then blame God for not listening to the Angels’ protest which was useless anyway because God had already foreordained the future.

  5. /// Abdul Jalil February 5, 2016 at 8:14 pm
    Mr Terence Netto ,your philosophy on this topic is so deep to the extent some of your readers inluding me do not fully understand what you are trying to say.Bravo sir for making life a little more complicated than its already is. ///

    AJ, for once I agree with you.

    In ‘The God Delusion’ Richard Dawkins says that positing a god to explain the universe backfires because a god who could create and manage a universe must be very complex indeed. The existence of such a god would leave us with even more explaining to do than we had before.

  6. Wyane

    Just to correct a few things about your comments.The devil,i.e Satan,was an angel himself.God did show glimses of the future to his prophets as stated in the Quran and he could have shown the angels glimses of what men were going to be in the future at their initial creation.However what confuse me if this life is suppose to be just a mere test for mankind and God already know the future,this test is just a waste of time if God already know the future and the result of the test for each human being.He could have skip the test and go straight to the reward and punishment bit.Therefore there must be a different explaination on why we are here.

  7. Well yes, dissenting is a good thing, after all we have diverse living things , people and those in the animal kingdom, all with different belief system, cultures, views & interpretations of life….

    So but , Mr Netto, we also need to hear from your dissenting view on the miracles of the creation of Man by the One Above : My poser in the earlier thread ” Man is the combination of the permanent and the impermanent ” both at one and the same time” ……Who, but only a Supremely Intelligent Force could have achieved this ? ( The Omnipotent, the Omniscient ) –

    UNLESS , YOU THINK IT IS SOMEONE INCARNATE REPRESENTING ‘ GOD ” on earth , who did it ? – Its outstandingly Miraculous , indeed astounding , that no other than the Omnipotent or Supremely Intelligent Force , NONE , no body can ever achieve this (ie: the two-halves in one Man, the Permanent and the Impermanent ) ?

    So, no one is actually ‘conflating ‘ anything as you suggest – why not, why cannot this Miraculously created Man, EACH INDIVIDUALLY BE a ‘ Vicegerent” of God, on earth ? Unless you think only the one Reincarnate that has EQUAL powers with God ?

    Why and how is a Man the Combination of the permanent and the Impermanent ……?

  8. When it comes to these two Abrahamic faiths, what it comes down to is this: Do the ends justify the means or the means justify the ends ? I’ll leave readers to decide which is appropriate to which faith.

    I do wonder though, what exactly Netto thinks of the Biblical nature of man ? I doubt Abraham would disagree with Kassim Ahmad’s interpretation.

  9. How about this : one hundred billion cells in the baby’s brain at birth, by adulthood it reaches a trillion…….Is it pure chance or a random happening, OR , would anyone believe it to be a Miracle of Creation ? –

    Mind you, in just one atom there are millions of energy particles…….so mysteries of Creation is beyond human comprehension , to think of all living forms like Man and human lives, the animal kingdom, and plant life……and billions of galaxies – if by Coincidence, Scientists are quite sure , ALL planets will spiral into chaos and cause unimaginable Collisions…..? ( just a thought )

  10. Five birds are seated on a tree branch. One is shot down. How many are there remaining? Mathematical answer four. Logical answer none.

    Baby having one hundred billion cells in brain at birth, and it reaching a trillion by adulthood is only a mathematical count at best. Logic and logical reasoning is the very basis of sound human thought. The bird story amply demonstrates this. Scriptures are appendages man can live with or without. Often, fanciful fables and injunctions foisted upon man to take note of and comply with, can blunt his power of critical thinking to detrimental effects as we can witness around us.

  11. Ha…ha….HE …HE.. , interesting …..

    Agreed ‘ none ‘ is the right answer, because all flew away….

    But…..’ Scriptures are appendages man can live with or without …. ‘ , of course , up to each individual !

    But (also ) wrong, because , the one hundred billion cells ( each cell containing thousands of atoms, which again contains millions of energy-particles in each atomic particle) ARE SCIENTIFIC facts –

    Question is : whether billions of cells in the brain cavity of man, happened by itself , by chance or a random happening (if one wants to believe that ) , OR , simply to be in Awe of this Supremely Intelligent Force , WHO must have been the ‘architect ‘ of the Living Universe , is to do with Scriptures……

    Up to you….HE…..HE……?

  12. There we go again………Creation or Evolution?

    Evolution – not much negatives to argue about. Creation (thought wise) while being superb can also be an immensive destructive force. Missiles, Drones, Napalm and Nuclear bombs can kill the entire humanity along with the creators.

    Evolution (thinking) is much more calmer and saner to the mind and soul. No strong negative emotions aroused as it is detached from religious scriptures. Therein may lie the difference in learning and thought shaping. Anyway the arguments for one or the other is so polemical that the bottom can never be hit because it is a deep running bottomless pit.

    Good to banter in good spirit.

  13. HE , thank you – yes, the calmer aspect of creation : Evolution, but I would reject the idea of Man descending from the chimps….

    No, I am not trying to be pedantic , my own path in the journey of my life……has led me to be more definitive for my own conviction : I FOUND IN ALL MY WANDERINGS , THAT IN FACT DISCOVERIES IN THE SCIENCES ‘ FORTIFIES ‘ , RATHER THAN DETRACT ” SPIRITUALITY ” – ( Please read Maurice Bucaille’s ‘ Why I am a Muslim ” in the episode of the discovery of the Pharoah Ramses !! , in Moses crossing of the Red Sea , through Forensic science )

    So, only that much I can say, or have to say……glad though that we can accomplish a much calmer discourse, best regards ……

  14. 1. The Quran’s language is replete with metaphors. Angels are forces of good; the devils, the opposite.
    2. It is true that the Devil was a fallen angels. Having disobeyed God, he fell.
    3. Before the creation of Man, there were only beasts. The angels protested God’s intention to create Man, His vicegerent, because they thought Man would be no better that beasts, shedder of blood and causer of destruction.
    4. God, being All-knowing, sees the good side of Man, the builder of civilizations, The angels do not know the future. God’s optimism about Man has been vindicated.
    5. The Quran foretells that Man would create Paradise on Earth. (Quran, 9: 111).
    — Kassim Ahmad

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