June 3, 2015
Kassim Ahmad –The Long Agony of a Public Intellectual
Note: I must thank Conrad, my journey man in intellectual discourse, for drawing my attention to an outstanding article in three parts on (Dr.) Kassim Ahmad by academician Dr. Clive Kessler. This article is a comprehensive account of the trials and tribulations of Kedah’s most prominent public intellectual and my senior at the University of Malaya whose legal battle with JAKIM I covered in this blog last year (2014).
Dr Kessler’s is an inspiring and at the same time a moving story of a Malaysian who is never afraid to speak his mind on matters relating on politics, Islam, freedom and justice. (Dr.) Kassim is a stout and uncompromising defender of the right to dissent and the pursuit of unencumbered scholarship. Dr. Kessler, the scholar who is himself a public intellectual of repute, said in his conclusion :
“Beyond his own story of lonely determination, the issues that he and the official treatment of him raise will not go away. They are of the highest importance… As with al-Hallaj —— but now in very different and supposedly far more advanced times —— they involve the nature of religious faith, thinking and reason and the rights of citizens to live their own lives in their own heads, free from being bothered by government officialdom, and to talk to their fellow citizens about their ideas…Ultimately, at stake here is the question of a triple freedom: freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and also freedom in religion.
In my humble opinion, my friend and fellow Kedahan, now 80+ years, embodies the spirit of the great Ulysses as depicted in the last two stanzas of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic poem which go like this:
Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate , but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
I know that (Dr.) Kassim Ahmad (I affectionately call him Pak Kassim) will strive, find and not yield. For him it is a journey of struggle and toil in search the truth. Here is a story of a humble and God respecting man of true grit and unshakeable convictions. –Din Merican
A Tribute to (Dr.) Kassim Ahmad
by Dr Clive Kessler
Part 1 A Seminar on “Thoughts of Kassim Ahmad””
The long, one might say lifelong, agony of Kassim Ahmad continues. The latest episode in this saga of official harassment is now being played out in the courts.
The continuing 2014 episode: A Seminar in Putrajaya
Earlier this year, in February, Kassim Ahmad gave a talk, presumably at the invitation of Tun Dr. Mahathir himself, at the former Prime Minister’s Perdana Leadership Foundation Headquarters at the national capital, Putrajaya.
The subject was a restatement of Kassim Ahmad’s well-known and long-standing views: about the primacy of the Quran itself to Islam; its direct accessibility to intelligent interpretation by reasonable Muslims of good faith; the mystification and distortion of the original Quranic message that Kassim (not uniquely) holds has taken place as a result of the often arcane, esoteric, sophistic and exclusionary interpretive efforts of the officially credentialled ulama —— and the consequent emergence within Islam of a powerful clerical elite and a doctrinally dubious, even illicit, clericalism.
Dubious and illicit, since the emergence of such a caste or “estate” of religious “experts” asserting a monopoly upon legitimate exegetic entitlement and religious truth arguably puts in doubt, even question, the core Islamic principle that there may and shall be no intermediaries between the believer and the Almighty.
Reports of the Perdana Foundation event appeared in the usual media outlets, including Malaysiakini, The Malaysian Insider and The Malay Mail Online.
A powerful response was not long in coming. Officers of the federal religious department JAKIM (or Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia), a division within the Prime Minister’s Department, but not one that is conspicuous for its support for Prime Minister Najib’s “Movement of Global Moderates” initiative!) came to Kassim’s home in Kulim, Kedah in the dark of night, demanded and then made a forcible entry, arrested Kassim and removed him to their own jurisdiction, very far from Kulim, to interrogate him.
That they did, to a physically frail man of over 80 years of age, at considerable length. Kassim, through his lawyers, is contesting their action.On a variety of grounds.
These involve questions of the relation of state and federal jurisdiction, of the relation between the Common Law or civil and Syari’ah law traditions and their implementing bureaucratic authorities and instrumentalities, and also fundamental constitutional questions about the rights of individuals.
The courts, so far, have been prepared to treat questions of disputed jurisdiction. But so long at those matters are being sorted out, they are reluctant to open up and enter into deliberating upon the basic constitutional questions: the wider question of the fundamental rights of citizens in matters of belief, conscience and speech.
As the matter is now publicly understood, Kassim Ahmad faces at least three charges. These in effect involve causing offence to Islam, of questioning and opposing the status and standing of the ulama as duly authorised officials of Islam and as exclusive and definitive arbiters of correct Islamic practice, and also —— a little mysteriously —— what is referred to as one further indictment that remains sealed and must for the meantime remain confidential (though one assumes that its nature and terms must be known to the accused himself, Kassim Ahmad).
What can this be and mean? Only one thing, it would appear. Or so one must surmise. Namely, that a further charge has been prepared against Kassim, on the basis of the specific and substantive views that he expressed.
A charge either of making himself an apostate (murtad) or else of placing himself outside the bounds of proper belief, of kufr —— of an explicit adherence to and the knowing promotion of infidel beliefs and convictions. Those who have prepared this further, still undisclosed charge are in that case probably acting upon the view that it is improper to say or suggest that another Muslim is in effect a kafir (heretic) or murtad (apostate) before such a charge is proven. So it must remain confidential.
This shows some decent sensibility. But there is more to the matter than that.Holding that already prepared charge in readiness, in reserve, would also have the effect of exerting enormous pressure upon the accused to accept some sort of “plea bargain”: to agree, on the two open counts, to a charge of offending Islam and the ulama as a state-organised collective entity —— as the bureaucratic custodians of “correctly understood Islam”, or simply “religious officialdom” —— in order to avoid being formally declared and branded as a heretic and apostate.
With others such a stratagem might work. But not, I expect, with Kassim.Frail though he may be physically, he is a man of enormous will and determination. He is stubborn, meaning by nature and character unyielding in upholding his own pride and dignity. It is hard to see Kassim ever consenting to such a deal.
Meanwhile, as the matter proceeds through the courts, all mention of Kassim’s lecture earlier this year has been removed and expunged from the Perdana Leadership Foundation’s elegant official website.
Who is Kassim Ahmad?
Hardly anybody these days knows, or any more remembers, who Kassim Ahmad is. Press reports on his official travails and difficulties always repeat the same lazy typification: bekas aktvis sosial, “former social activist”. The man is much more than that, and deserves to be known and acknowledged, even honoured, for who he is and what he has done.
Born in 1933, Kassim Ahmad began his “public” life and career as a student activist at the old University of Malaya in Singapore, where in the 1950s he was one of the young “progressives” who called for a revision and opening up of the existing, derivatively colonial curriculum.
But he was not merely a campus activist.He was also a scholar of prodigious talent and ability.For example, when I was working in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the evolution of Kelantan political society in the nineteenth century, I found much that was of value to me in Kassim Ahmad’s MA thesis. This was a critical annotated edition of the Sha’er Musoh Kelantan [= “Epic of the Kelantan War”] that Kassim had submitted in 1961.
That was the beginning. From there Kassim went on to become a lecturer in Malay Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. But always the activist, the engaged thinker, and as a man rooted in the culture of the Alam Melayu or wider Malay world and its evolving political dynamics, Kassim found the idea of the expansion of Malaysia into the new Federation of Malaysia questionable —— and said so, emphatically.
He was soon branded as a Sukarnoist, an apologist for Indonesian Konfrontasi, or “Confrontation” against Malaysia, and identified as an enemy to the nation and a threat to national security.
He returned to Malaysia, and though the pool of talented and qualified people was not large, he was considered unacceptable for a university appointment. For while he was found work, by old friends, as a research officer at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, where he produced an elegant, meticulously edited and prepared edition of the Hikayat Hang Tuah.
But for him, literature was not just dead words on a page. He became one of the central protagonists in one of the great literary debates and cultural polemics of the 1960s: over the question whether Hang Tuah, who, out of conventional loyalty, had been ready to kill his friend Hang Jebat because of the ill-founded envy of the ruler, was still to be treated as a model for emulation by modern, progressive young Malays —— or whether Hang Jebat, with his doomed personal loyalty to his best friend, was more worthy of admiration.
The question became the subject at the time of a learned article in the famous Dutch academic journal, the so-called Bijdragen voor de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde [Transactions in Linguistic, Geographical and Ethnographic Knowledge], produced by the Royal Dutch Institute in Leiden. Under the heading of “The Rise and Fall of a National Hero”, the noted Professor P. E. de Josselin de Jong traced the eclipse, on a course charted by Kassim Ahmad, of Hang Tuah’s reputation in those important debates and polemics.
During a large part of the 1960s and 1970s Kassim pursued a modest livelihood as a school-teacher. But his life, as a man of ideas and commitment and action, was centred upon, and within, the old Parti Raykat or (at times) Parti Sosialis Rakyat, with all its internal controversies about doctrine and ideology, direction and strategy.
That remained the case until, in the great round-up of those deemed a radical threat to the nation after the death of Tun Razak, Kassim was detained under the notorious ISA: Internal Security Act.
Of the many who were detained at the time, few, it seems, took it harder, and found the experience more corrosive of their former confidence, than Kassim. Others were, by nature, more flexible, and so could accommodate better to the humiliating conditions. Not Kassim.
He was too proud to be flexible, and too much the master of his own mind and thinking to be able to pretend that he thought what he did not. He has written of those years in his prison memoir Universiti Kedua/A Second University (both Malay and English-language editions, 1983).
During his detention, Kassim became seriously interested in Islam, Islamic thought and intellectual history, Islamic philosophy, and the explicit and also implied or “immanent” social and cultural theory offered by Islam. He wrote a book on the subject: Teori Sosial Moden Islam, Fajar Bakti, 1984.
This was followed, in a course of developments that is traced below in the essay entitled “Milestones”, by two more specific works in this area: Hadis: Satu Penilaian Semula [= Hadith: A Revaluation], 1986 and Hadis: Jawapan Kepada Pengkritik [= Hadith: A Reply to My Critics], 1992.
Kassim’s detention came to an end with the accession of Dr. Mahathir to the prime ministership.This was no special favour. Few people these days recall the great optimism, enthusiasm and sense of reforming zeal, and the hope of opening up long-blocked possibilities, that accompanied Dr. Mahathir’s assumption of national leadership.
As part of that “new liberating spirit”, Dr. Mahathir released a very large number of ISA political detainees. But, among them, it might be said —— in a way that will later become clear in “Milestones” —— that there was a special affinity or congruence between the ideas of Dr. Mahathir and Kassim Ahmad.
Both were strong believers in the idea that Muslims, all Muslims who could do so, had the obligation to educate themselves, both generally and in matters of religion. That all who did so had the right, the ability and also the duty —— once they had begun to educate and emancipate themselves as Muslims —— to decide many religious matters for themselves. By thinking things through for themselves.
Both were, in that sense, de facto “protestants” in a religious tradition that had not experienced a fully developed protestant challenge or “reformation”. Both believe in the sovereignty of the intellect and conscience of the educated Muslim of good faith. Both felt and said that Muslims of this radically individualistic intellectual orientation did not really need the ulama, or any self-protecting clerical “estate”, to tell them what or how to think or to resolve all difficult religious questions for them. Both took the view that, once the ulama as a group had come into being and consolidated their own position, their interests and outlook often became those of the exclusive social group of which they were members —— and not necessarily the proper or correct or best-advised outlook for Islam as a whole, for Muslims generally.
Both became, in that sense, in some measure “anti-clericalist Muslims”: Muslims for whom the ulama, with their often casuistic reasoning and ways, were not always, or perhaps ever, the best exemplars or defenders of Islam. Nor even, for the both of them, were the ulama always right. Often they were not. And their fallibility had to be kept in kind, both men held, especially when the ulama called for near automatic deference and unquestioning assent.
That said, Dr. Mahathir had a full, varied and richly diverse life, especially after 1981. In a world of power. The powerless Kassim’s life after his release from detention in 1981 was more bounded and closely focused, largely upon his religious ideas.He promoted those ideas, sometimes with Dr. Mahathir’s encouragement and support, and was also made to suffer for them.
So, while one may liken both Dr. Mahathir and Kassim Ahmad to Islamic “protestants”, their fates have been very different. In his own passionate “witnessing” of his beliefs, in his public struggle to promote, uphold and defend them, Kassim has been turned into a modern-day Malaysian al-Hallaj.
The great thinker al-Hallaj was hounded for years and in the end (in 922CE/309AH) gruesomely put to death for his commitment to the idea “ana al-haqq”: meaning, not as the punitive conservatives interpret it “I am the truth” or God incarnate (in some quasi-Christian fashion), but rather, “the truth is within me, it is to be found within my own thinking self, my own free mind”.
Let us hope that Kassim’s public career concludes not cruelly, as did al-Hallaj’s, but with the belated and overdue bestowal of some generous part of the recognition and honour that he is owed, that his contributions have amply earned for him.
Part 2: Milestones
I have been following the tribulations of Kassim Ahmad for some time now .Ever since I came as a Visiting Professor to UKM: Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in late 1985 and was told of some remarkable but disquieting recent developments there.
The university, upon the recommendation of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology (some of whose members had long been sympathetic to the man and his ideas), had been persuaded to award Kassim an honorary doctorate. (It is on that basis that he is often referred to as Dr. Kassim Ahmad.)
But it had been a fraught event.His academic sponsors at UKM had also wanted to hold a public seminar to discuss Kassim’s ideas about and proposals for a “revaluation of the hadith”: the often casual sayings that in the Sunnah are attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and which have subsequently been routinely invoked in developing Islamic law, to clarify and amplify the meaning of the Quran.
But, after much action and counteraction, intervention and counter-intervention, the seminar had to be cancelled —- though Kassim was allowed to speak at the ceremony at which his doctorate was conferred.
He elaborated briefly upon the Latin Poet Horace’s and then Kant’s idea, or slogan, Sapere aude! Dare to know. Use your mind! Think!
I first wrote about the confrontation at UKM over Kassim’s proposed hadith revaluation seminar in a paper for a Conference on Malay Civilization held in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1980s.
In it, and long before the idea of “culture wars” has been made popular as a conservative catch-cry in the USA, I drew upon Bismarck’s struggles for political domination in late nineteenth century Germany to characterise what had gone on at UKM, and was beginning to occur throughout Malaysia, as a Kulturkampf: as a war of and about and within culture, as a deep conflict about national cultural form and identity and direction under the impact of the new, post-1970s neo-traditionalist (and clericalist) Islamisation.
Later I returned to the subject, in an essay (ironically!) entitled “Milestones”. The remainder of this series about Kassim Ahmad and his fate consists largely of the text of that essay, in its revised form of about 2007.
“Milestones”? The name is an ironic reference to the work of the emblematic Islamist thinker and martyr-figure Syed Qutb, Ma’alim fi’l-Tariq [= Signposts or Milestones along the Road].
Towards desecularisation: a notable milestone along the way
There are milestones along the road, but we do not always heed them adequately in the course of our journey. We are speeding along, to where we don’t at time much care, so long as we are, or seem to be, making “good progress” …
I have written elsewhere about Malaysia’s “long march to desecularisation”, about the half-century-long struggle, ever since merdeka in 1957, to negate the expectations and reverse the achievement of those who designed the so-called Merdeka Constitution of 1957.
That constitution rested upon the assumption that the country was launched on an evolutionary trajectory towards becoming a largely secular, modern and democratic society, since this was the destination to which those engaging with modernity (and what other basis for national politics might there possibly be?) were headed.
The conviction informing the political negotiations and constitution-making that were the basis for the country’s independence was that its interests, and those of its culturally diverse and religiously pluralistic people, would be best served —— and indeed might only be safeguarded —— by such a course of national evolution.
This was the underlying basis of the not unreasonable hopes then held that the new nation would make “good progress” and thereby make good the promise of “progress” itself. Yet things were not to prove so simple.
The undoing of those “progressivist” assumptions and, more deeply, of popular confidence in their apparent obviousness, “naturalness” and seeming inevitability, has been the work of several political generations: those of the 1957-1969 “liberal era”, especially the leaders of PAS with their then “trinitarian” emphasis on the safeguarding of “religion, people and homeland” and, with them, the distinctive identity and political future of the nation’s core Malay people; of the early NEP champions of the 1970s who sought to undercut and co-opt PAS support by adopting the presuppositions of PAS’s critique of the pre-1970s UMNO as the basis for a new UMNO and national politics; of the new, and often decidedly “shari’ah-minded” Islamists emerging from ABIM in the 1970s and asserting themselves within and through PAS from the 1980s; of those involved, on both sides of the barricades, of Tun Dr. Mahathir’s ambitious but in many ways ungrounded modernist or anticlericalist “counter-Islamisation” of the 1990s; and of the new generation Malay Islamists, essentially children of the NEP, many of whom came to political maturity in the context of the post-1997 Reformasi upheavals and who have since become the pioneers of a “new generation” of distinctively middle-class and professional Islamic activists.
This shift, not simply of political direction but in the basic underlying assumptions about national politics and its possibilities, has been the outcome of what has been a central, perhaps even dominant, dynamic of post-independence politics: the fifty-year “Islamisation policy auction”, in which (until it joined the Pakatan Rakyat anti-UMNO-BN opposition coalition) PAS always, and with great tactical acuity, sought to target UMNO ambivalences and weaknesses in its policy towards Islam and so to portray, even highlight, them as evidence of UMNO “insincerity” and “hypocrisy” in matters Islamic.
In response, the UMNO always scrambled to cover up and catch up, to ensure that it was not “left behind” floundering in PAS’s wake, so that it might appear not less but only differently committed to a politics (what it held was, unlike PAS’s, a feasible politics) of Malaysian Islamisation.
But whenever the UMNO seemed to have closed the gap, and often as the electoral cycle was about to enter a new round or was ready to move to new ground, PAS would simply “raise the stakes”, so to speak, by suddenly (and usually quite decisively) making explicit what, to that stage, had been only a tacit component or implicit basis of its Islamist political agenda.
With that, the UMNO would again be left grasping politically at thin air as Islamic parity with PAS again escaped its hands. It would find itself holding to, trusting in, and committed to “marketing” a “religious product” that was not only less substantial than PAS’s but also less compelling, since its appeared to have been fashioned out of cornered expediency and desperate opportunism rather than genuine conviction.
The UMNO always claimed —— as it sought to minimise the political and ideological gap, to neutralise its religious disadvantage —— that it wanted basically the same things that PAS was seeking and, to great and enthusiastic popular acclaim, trumpeting, but that it believed in proceeding (and believed it more effective to proceed) gradually and by indirect measures rather than openly, explicitly, and by the most direct route and confronting means.
Its stance often resembled that of St. Augustine who, as he began to reconsider his ways, famously pleaded for chastity “but not quite yet” —— gradualist, patiently incremental, and often given to reluctance and foot-dragging. UMNO, like PAS, wanted an Islamised state and Islamised law —— but not just yet, not quite so fast!
It was a politics in which the UMNO could never catch up, because even when it matched the measures PAS had been urging, it could never promote them, and therefore itself on that basis, with the same conviction, plausibility and apparent Islamic authenticity.
Not merely a reluctant and unenthusiastic Islamiser, UMNO was often left looking hypocritical and, much worse, seemingly lacking in any understanding of the difference between commitment and hypocrisy —— a major, even disabling, disadvantage within an Islamic framework of moral and political discourse that so prizes sincerity and roundly deplores expedient “lip-service” lacking in support from heart and hands. He who is suspected, and widely regarded as guilty, of hypocrisy can never successfully plead his own sincerity.
This has been the fate, in all its various successive incarnations, of the UMNO’s Islamic politics. It is the problem that the UMNO, with a conspicuous lack of success, has been wrestling with as long as anyone can remember.
The UKM confrontation
Along the long journey towards the desecularisation, or undoing and reversing the assumption of the seeming “naturalness” of the secularisation, of Malaysian society there were, I imagine, quite a number of significant milestones. One of them occurred in late 1985 when the noted Malay writer, controversialist and critic Kassim Ahmad, at the time when he was to be awarded an honorary doctorate by UKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia), proposed to offer a seminar or series of lectures on the question of “Revaluing the Hadith”.
I arrived as an academic visitor at UKM a little later and heard much at the time about what had happened. Kassim proposed to look historically at the hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, as part of the sunnah or record of his sayings and doings that can be employed as sources for interpreting, clarifying or elaborating Islamic law), at the wider hadith literature, and at their status as a source of law —— and in that way to encourage a historically informed critical understanding of the nature and growth of Islamic law, culture and society.
His plan, as it was explained to me, had been not only to look at the hadith themselves as products of time and circumstance; after all, the traditional hadith scholarship which he intended to review and contest did just that. This was the method and methodology of hadith studies in Islamic historical jurisprudence as practised by Muslim scholars, the ulama.
Kassim intended further to consider, in a modern historically and sociologically informed way that went beyond and even challenged the approach of the ulama to these questions, how the hadith became a source of law, a basis of shari’ah and fiqh; and, beyond that, to examine how a form of legal reasoning, scholarship and culture had emerged from the study of hadith and their evaluation as the exclusive expertise —— one might even say as an intellectual monopoly —— of in effect a clerical “class” or specialised “estate” in Islamic society and civilization, the ulama, with their own special concerns, approach and interests (interests based within, but which might routinely differ from, those of the ummah as a whole).
There is, of course, nothing terribly radical per se in any such “historicising” intention or project; it is the approach of modern historical scholarship itself including research into Islamic civilization by noted Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike. But there was a concern, even fear, among some at UKM and beyond of Kassim’s individual nature and reputation as a “fiery radical”; more, there was a concern among those who consider themselves the modern-day successors and inheritors of the classical ulama (and, ultimately, of the Prophet Muhammad himself, since they asserted that the ulama are the pewaris Nabi) that others outside their circles —— people lacking their own special and custom-hallowed expertise, and also invoking new kinds of expert knowledge of possibly dubious standing and appropriateness —— might intrude into this field.
They feared, it seems, being personally exposed and challenged; they feared, no less genuinely, that new forms of scholarship of dubious propriety might be deployed to impugn and undermine their own standing and thereby that of traditional Islamic scholarship itself; and, as always happens when the ulama and their clericalist allies are challenged, they feared —— both self-interestedly and on grounds of protecting the “general good” as they understand it —— the “confusion” that might be created among the believing multitudes if their own authority were to be questioned.
The consequence that they sincerely fear, from such questioning and from any opening the debate to new participants commanding new forms of knowledge, is that orthodox and conventional religious scholarship —— which has hitherto been able to set its own terms for all the debates and controversies in which its exponents agree to engage —— will be contextualised, even “relativised” and marginalised, should its custodians, the ulama, choose or consent to become involved in these new kinds of disputation; and that, in their eyes at least, the status of Islam itself will consequently be endangered.
So, while, in modern economic theory, the idea of the “invisible hand” enables people to argue that they can serve, and may best and indeed can only serve, others by serving their own self-interest, the ulama work by a different or opposite logic: one that impels them to want to defend Islam with unimpeachable sincerity and the purest of altruism but which, while they are doing so, enables them, with that same compelling sincerity and the authority that it bestows, to protect, as part of that general and overwhelmingly desirable objective, their own special position within Islam and their privileges of religious status, including the rights of authoritative intellectual monopoly grounded in it.
To make a long story short, members of the Faculty of Islamic Studies at UKM, with some powerful outside backing, protested against the holding of Kassim Ahmad’s seminar and lectures and demanded their cancellation. The ensuing dispute rose up through and from the university to the Ministry and ultimately to Cabinet, where the then Minister for Education (and later Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) defended, and persuaded the government to uphold, the right of the university and its Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences to hold such scholarly discussions, seminars and lectures, even if the subject or the occurrence was distasteful to the leadership of the Faculty of Islamic Studies.
But victory was not so easily assured. Those who wished to block the event had a final card to play. That of state, not federal, authority, and of royal prerogative. The mosque at UKM, its management committee and its surrounding parish do not fall, it was suggested, within the normal “grid” of local religious administration under the UMNO-led state government but under the personal authority, as royal head of the Islamic religion in his state, of the Sultan of Selangor. An appeal was made to the palace bureaucracy of the Sultan who upheld the complaints of those opposed to Kassim Ahmad, his seminar and lectures and his wider intellectual agenda. The event was cancelled, the seminar and lectures were never held.
The upshot was that Kassim Ahmad then wrote a book on the revaluation of the hadith, quite a well-written, serious and plausible effort in many ways: a book of some novelty and with a hint of “scandal” in the Malaysian context, and certainly a more impressive scholarly exercise that much of what is published by the majority of Malaysian academics in the various fields of “humane studies” and by the nation’s most prominent religious scholars, but hardly of any great originality or unorthodoxy in the wider world of Islamic legal scholarship or the modern historical study of Islamic civilization.
At that point the debate fell silent for a while. Kassim was awarded his honorary doctorate anyway and he went on to publish his book, his first book as things turned out, on the hadith issue. Always one to take a strong position, especially when under attack, he then made what proved a damaging move.
In his eagerness to assert that the Quran makes sense by itself, and can do so to everyday believers so long as they use their reason and good sense (and so, by implication, don’t need the added resource of the hadith as a guide or basis for interpretation, or the intermediary assistance and authority of the ulama to “know and show” how to use the hadith to make sense of the divine message of the Quran), Kassim became an enthusiastic follower of one Rashad Khalifa: an Egyptian computer engineer who had taken up residence in Tucson, Arizona in the USA where he also served as imam in a local mosque.
Rashad Khalifa claimed to have used computers to show that the Quran is constructed around an invariable but hitherto unrecognised structure based on the number 19. If this were so it was a discovery with amazing implications.
It would have shown that “the miracle of the Quran” [mu’jizat al-Qur’an] was an even greater miracle than anybody had previously suspected or ever been able to imagine. It would have provided proof of an unprecedented and perhaps irrefutable kind of the foundational Muslim claim that the Quran as it had come down to today’s believers and now exists is not only perfect in its origins but also perfect, perfectly uncorrupted and preserved, in its human transmission over the centuries since Allah launched it, via the Archangel Gabriel and through the Prophet Muhammad, into human history.
And it would have shown that, with foresight of truly staggering implications, Allah had placed or encoded in the Quran itself a hidden, embedded, arcane key that could only be detected, after they had in due course been humanly discovered and invented, by modern computers; and which, yet further, by becoming detectable in this way, was now accessible to all Muslims of good conscience and reason and modern intellect but which was not accessible to the ulama, locked away as they long were and still are in their traditional world of classical Quranic and hadith scholarship and its familiar techniques and narrow intellectual horizons.
So much for the ulama, then.Rashad Khalifa’s work showed, or so its devotees such as Kassim Ahmad maintained, that the ulama had not only been “overtaken by history” and modern scholarship but were now —— and had been demonstrably made by Rashad Khalifa’s work —— “objectively irrelevant”. Who needed them any more? They had no legitimate role, and if they ever had then certainly no longer; the claims on which such a role were conventionally based had been exploded …
The problems that soon followed were twofold. First, some telling criticisms of Rashad Khalifa’s work, approach and conclusions were made by computer-literate scholars who wanted to affirm more orthodox opinion and to back those whose position within the ummah of the Muslim faithful whom orthodox opinion sustained and upheld. Second, awestruck by the far-reaching implications of his own ideas and apparent discoveries, Rashad Khalifa began to believe some things about himself and his role and status in Islamic history that verged upon, even succumbed to, the heretical.
Angered by these implications, a devout Muslim of orthodox commitments and loyalty approached Rashad Khalifa in his mosque and stabbed him. With his death his astounding ideas lost not only their great proponent and publicist but also much of their remaining credibility. With that the debate in Malaysia too fell silent, for a while.
Part 3: “Milestones”
An Evening at IKIM
But, despite the collapse of Rashad Khalifa’s position and the ignominious murder of its author, it was not quite the end of the matter.
Several years later, some time in the early 1990s, Kassim Ahmad received some high-level encouragement to open up once more the debate about hadith and, by implication, the role, including the special position and claims to special authority, of the ulama as a group or “clerical estate” in Islam generally and specifically in modernising Muslim societies such as Malaysia.
The congruence or “fit” between these ideas, if they were sustainable, and those of Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir is obvious. Dr. Mahathir’s core initiative was to emphasise Islam, modernisation, and, as part of the same overall cultural complex or “package”, modern understandings of Islam. If the resistance to him and his, and the UMNO’s, religious “project” came from the religious traditionalists and their allies, deeply entrenched not only within PAS but also the UMNO itself, then an argument that might decisively defeat and delegitimise that clericalist opposition was, it seems, worth considering.
Anything that would put his traditionalist and traditionalising Islamist adversaries on the defensive, and possibly seize the political initiative from them, was worth a try. So the hadith controversy had, was allowed, a brief second life.
At a political moment when these issues were very much in the air, and prominent in the minds of some leading Malaysians, it was decided that the hadith question with its related, and to some very troubling, implications about “the special position of the ulama in Islam” might have a another hearing: not the trench and guerrilla warfare of the original UKM confrontation but something more dignified and also controlled —— from above, rather than by unruly dissenting academics.
Accordingly it was arranged that a public forum would be held under impeccable auspices, and that it would be taped for later broadcasting, in edited form, via national television on RTM1’s long-running and very popular Thursday evening religious programme Forum Perdana Hal Ehwal Islam.
The event itself was staged in the elegant public auditorium of the then quite newly established and salubriously housed government entity IKIM: Institut Kefahaman Islam or Institute of Islamic Understanding.
A so-called “think-tank”, it was yet another of those handsomely funded institutions that Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir created to develop an alternative Islamic agenda and project a rival Islamic worldview to those of PAS and the clericalist traditionalists —— but which in the end, because they were placed under the leadership of people who simply did not understand with sufficient cultural and historical depth what the task and challenge facing them were, never had any possibility of addressing them successfully.
The people placed in charge of these wondrous new creations were simply intellectually inadequate to the challenge they faced, they lacked the deeply grounded knowledge even to grasp what was involved, let alone take on that challenge and see the task through to successful completion.
They never knew and understood what they had to know and understand if they were to accomplish, or even plausibly begin, the historic task that was expected of them, So, in the end, these institutions, including the Islamic University [UIA/IIU] and others too, fell by default into other hands. They ended up being “gifted” by Dr. Mahathir’s government as resources to the very forces that their creation had been intended to oppose and contest.
Yet these were early days for IKIM and for Dr. Mahathir’s hopes of it. The forum was organised. Kassim Ahmad had the chance to state his case, as did two notable and knowledgeable opponents. After their presentations and some direct exchanges, amounting to a tough and quite hostile cross-examination of Kassim Ahmad by his critics, the forum was opened up, in accordance with the Forum Perdana Islam format, to questions and comments from the floor.
Eventually I took the opportunity to make a point. I decided to refer to and then quote some lines from the work of the great Pakistani-Canadian Islamic scholar, the late Professor Fazlur Rahman who, perhaps more than any other individual in the twentieth century, had sought, with some considerable success, to bridge, as a pious Muslim, the worlds of classical Islamic scholarship and the modern academic study of the Islamic tradition.
By doing so I sought, after the torrid cross-examination of Kassim Ahmad, to restate the same position in different words, now with the backing, prestige and authority, grounded within the Islamic tradition, of a truly great scholar and moral leader.
I referred to Prof. Fazlur Rahman’s Islamic Methodology in History (1965) and then to his Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition (1982).
These are two landmark studies —— milestones, one might even say, or perhaps better, benchmarks —— of Islamic modernism and modernist Islam at their highest point. In the latter work, Fazlur Rahman remarks that the
“proliferation of hadiths resulted in the cessation of an orderly growth in legal thought in particular and in religious thought in general” ; as a result, “it came to pass that a vibrant and revolutionary religious document like the Qur’an was buried under the debris of grammar and rhetoric. Ironically, the Qur’an was never taught by itself, most probably through the fear that a meaningful study of the Qur’an by itself might upset the status quo, not only educational and theological, but social as well” .
To help, or rather begin, addressing the problems created by this proliferation of often dubious hadith and the effect that a long traditions of sophistic hadith scholarship had had for the study of the Qur’an itself, Prof. Fazlur averred that
“the first essential step … is for the Muslim to distinguish clearly between normative Islam and historical Islam . To do so, “we must make a thorough study, a historically systematic study, of the development of Islamic disciplines. This has to be primarily a critical study that will show us … the career of Islam at the hands of Muslims … the need for a critical study of our intellectual Islamic past is ever more urgent because, owing to a peculiar psychological complex we have developed vis-à-vis the West, we have come to defend that past as though it were our God. Our sensitivities to the various parts or aspects of this past, of course, differ, although almost all of it has become generally sacred to us. The greatest sensitivity surrounds the Hadith, although it is generally accepted that, except the Qur’an, all else is liable to the corrupting hand of history. Indeed, a critique of Hadith should not only remove a big mental block but should promote fresh thinking about Islam” .
“A historical critique of theological developments in Islam,” Prof. Fazlur added, “is the first step towards a reconstruction of Islamic theology . This critique … should reveal the extent of the dislocation between the world view of the Qur’an and various schools of theological speculation in Islam and point the way to a new theology” [151-152].
Having alluded generally to Prof. Fazlur Rahman’s career and ideas, I cited explicitly his words that “the greatest sensitivity surrounds the Hadith, although it is generally accepted that, except the Qur’an, all else is liable to the corrupting hand of history. Indeed, a critique of Hadith should not only remove a big mental block but should promote fresh thinking about Islam.” I then posed the question to the more outspoken of Kassim Ahmad’s two critical interlocutors on the Forum Perdana panel how he responded, in this present context, to Prof. Fazlur’s principled and informed position.
When challenged to address himself to these words from Fazlur Rahman (which in essence, if far more diplomatically, stated a position similar to that of Kassim Ahmad), Dr. Othman al-Muhammady responded very precisely that, in his view, “Fazlur Rahman had been a great man in the history of Islam, but his aqidah [the integrity of his faith] was questionable and his influence had been damaging and remained dangerous”.
It remains only to note three things. First, that Dr. Othman al-Muhammady was one of the featured speakers, perhaps the central speaker, at the Muslim Professional Forum’s symposium in September 2005 that targeted “Liberal Islam: A Clear and Present Danger”.
Second, that, with those legally resonant words in that subtitle, the symposium was branding modernist Muslims and the proponents of Islamic modernism as promoters of sedition and treason.
And third, that at the same time when Dr. Othman al-Muhammady was acting as the guiding spirit and prime mover of the onslaught upon liberal Islam as “a clear and present danger”, he was appointed to serve as a Commissioner of Suhakam, the official, statutory Malaysian Human Rights Commission of the government of Malaysia.
What are people, including those of the Fazlur Rahman intellectual “lineage” and scholarly tradition in Islam, to make of this bizarre appointment and the thinking behind it? Who knows? Many may simply remark, in a formula of conventional piety, “WaAllahu’alam …”, that only God truly knows, knows the truth. The Truth is ever with Allah.
Here on earth, meanwhile, one may suggest that the brutal verdict which Dr. Othman al-Muhammady was happy to place upon Fazlur Rahman —— against the integrity and grounding of his faith, and scorning his influence upon and place in modern Islamic intellectual history —— offers a very telling insight into the meanness, the vindictive nature, of the emblematic leaders of the “new Islamism” when they find themselves cornered and effectively challenged.
Meanwhile, though the Truth may be with God alone, as mere humans those of that modernist tradition may and should endeavour —— since it is a truly wondrous and wonderful part of their fitrah or divinely created human ontology —— to use in good faith their human power of reason, always, of course, in well-guided ways.
What does well-guided mean? The question is whether people may, in good faith and reason, seek out and seek to combine wisdom from a variety of sources. Or whether, when matters are contested —— which is when they truly matter —— there is one sole and unique source of guidance to which believers must turn and whose admonitions, almost always of a restrictive nature and intention, all must accept as authoritative: the guidance ever so insistently proffered by the exclusivist and exclusionary clericalist monopoly.
Which choice people should make is not for me to say. I simply note that the choice is theirs and that it is there. Of those who would deny that fact, and seek to deny others that choice, one may simply, and legitimately, ask that they clarify their motives and intended agenda.
For the record, Dr. Othman al-Muhammady died in early 2013. But his ideas and influence are far from dead. Very recently I saw in the Malay press a column praising him and his work that was written by Senator Dato Dr. Mashitah Ibrahim, an Islamic International University doctoral graduate in Islamic Studies who is a Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department. In the context of delivering her praise, she noted that a book honouring Dr. Othman al-Muhammady and his work has recently been launched by the Deputy Prime Minister (“Inteligensia Muslim kontemporari,” Sinar Harian, 1 August 2014).
And meanwhile, as Kassim Ahmad is dragged out of his house and into police stations in the dark morning hours and dragged through the courts, it is clear that even in the year 2014 his story is not yet over. So long as he lives, as his will lives, I dare say, he will not let it end.
Beyond his own story of lonely determination, the issues that he and the official treatment of him raise will not go away. They are of the highest importance.
As with al-Hallaj —— but now in very different and supposedly far more advanced times —— they involve the nature of religious faith, thinking and reason and the rights of citizens to live their own lives in their own heads, free from being bothered by government officialdom, and to talk to their fellow citizens about their ideas.
Ultimately, at stake here is the question of a triple freedom: freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and also freedom in religion.