The New Straits Times Interview with Kassim Ahmad
NST: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. To start the discussion, might we ask whether you are currently working to publish another work? If so, what is it about?
KA: Thank you for giving me this rare opportunity to speak my mind on my work. Currently I am working on several things. Two are major. One is a translation of the Quran into Malay. I know enough Arabic and other ancillary disciplines to enable me to do this, but most important of all, I have the deep and compelling interest to undertake this difficult task.
I am doing this for two reasons. I am not satisfied with the existing translations from the literary point of view. The Quran is a great literary composition and I want to do justice to that in Malay. The other is that existing translations put much extraneous matters (the opinions of the translators) into the text. This confuses and covers up its real meanings. The Quran contains flashes of deep insight into the nature of God, Man and the Universe that are mostly not understood and therefore not shown in the translations. I hope to remedy these shortcomings, even if a little!
NST: This translation of yours sounds like it is going to attract some attention – more controversy from Kassim Ahmad? Do you see dark angry clouds looming ahead on the JAKIM [Religious Authority] horizon?
KA: I do what I think I should do, not how others would react to it. Anyway, I think in the years to come, the tempo of change will be very rapid. Religious authorities, and not only religious authorities, indeed all of us will have to adapt to these changes. Otherwise we shall become extinct! Anyway I hope by then many of my present critics will have made peace with me! So you see what an incorrigible optimist I am!
I am also working on my autobiography. Both, God-willing, should be completed before 2005.
NST: This is definitely something many will look forward to (or dread!). Is there a need for this autobiography – a need to explain certain chapters of your life?
KA: Yes, there is a need to explain certain public things, such as my leaving the party that I led for 18 years and my support for
NST: Your collection of poetry and short stories Kemarau Di Lembah (Drought in the Valley) is still talked about until today. Back then some said you were an atheist by virtue of some of the lines in your poems like Sidang Ruh (Conversations of the Soul). It caused quite a stir when it appeared. Looking back from your own viewpoint, what was the reaction from the public like back then?
KA: The reaction was altogether to be expected, given the emotional and psychological make-up of the general Malay-Muslim population. What was disappointing was the continuing exploitation by my political opponents then, even after my clarification.
It should be noted that the poem, “Sidang Ruh,” is quite clear taken in its entirety. I was far from being an atheist in that poem. I was only criticizing the hypocrisy and gullibility of many people. Of course, there were still the rationalists among us who appreciated that poem. That made life somewhat tolerable, even enjoyable and inspiring!
NST: What do you mean by “given the emotional and psychological make-up of the general Malay-Muslim population?” I know they can be quite close-minded, conservative bores.
KA: Muslims, Malays included, are known for their strong attachment to their religion of Islam. This is in fact good. The problem is that most of them do not read the Quran in the language that they can understand, and so they do not understand the true teachings of Islam. Muslims depend on the clergy, who are no better than the Christian priesthood of the European Middle Ages for the knowledge of their religion. Muslims must go back to the Quran. Only the Quran can resolve this Muslim dilemma.
NST: That last verse in Sidang Ruh, “nanti akan padamlah dengan sendirinya/lampu dari menara tinggi/karena dibawahnya orang kian mabuk/dan Tuhan sudah mati…” Was that an attempt at shooting down Nietzschean thought?
KA: I simply use the metaphor to characterize the precarious morality of the present age. It was not aimed at Nietzsche, except if you take it as a double irony.
NST: Are there any particular poems of yours that you hold in higher regard than others. If so, why?
KA: In that collection, I like many of the poems, especially Sidang Ruh, Jalan Ke Parlimen (Road to Parliament), Penyairmu (Your Poet), Iman (Faith), Mimpi (Dreams), Pidato (Speeches) and Dua Catatan (Two Notations). I like them because of their expressions and their insistent immediacy.
NST: It has been a long time since Kemarau Di Lembah. You are not planning to come out with a new collection?
KA: Yes, I am, the few and far between verses that I have written since then. Once a friend asked me about this, and I jokingly replied that I have since written footnotes to my poems.
NST: Would you care to confirm that your being nominated as Penyair Gapena [Malaysian Literary Prize] some years back faced some criticism? Many disagreed with your receiving the award? If so, your comments, please!
KA: Isn’t it nice that in spite of everything, there are still some people courageous enough to speak the truth and to do what is right? I remember what a beautiful speech Baha made at the presentation. Similarly, I remember with fondness Rustam’s academic oration when I was awarded the honorary title of Doctor of Letters by the UKM. This is what makes life meaningful. Praise be to God! I even know from my friends that they proposed me some years ago for the Anugerah Sasterawan Negara [National Literary Award] award. That never came about. I take it philosophically. I believe that one must do one’s duty regardless of the material rewards. Not that I reject material rewards, but I do not do things just for them.
NST: It is clear that from your student years you were very much into politics and religion. On a more personal note, what experiences that really pulled you into politics and religion?
KA: I came from a poor family in a neighborhood in northern Kedah. My father was religious teacher who doubled as a small-time padi (rice) farmer. My mother made kuih pau (cakes) in the dead of night to supplement the family income and helped my father in the field. I have therefore great sympathy for the poor and I vowed to myself when I was very young that I would fight for them. That drew me into politics and socialism. My stubbornness I inherit from my father; the gentler part of me from my mother.
As for religion, I have a great passion for truth and it is my understanding that Islam has always been a religion of truth. As my life testifies, I have tried to live a life of truth and justice, as I see it. God be praised for that!
NST: Art, Politics and Religion: Would you care to give your thoughts on the relationship between the three.
KA: I approach them at the level of unity. All three, to me, must serve the cause of humanity, the cause of God, in religious language. I am happy that current world leaders are of this mental mould. That is why I am optimistic in spite of the current universal chaos.
NST: On your personal political beliefs, you were more known as a socialist then, but no longer so these days. Is that view entirely right? And if you consider yourself totally refuting socialism now, what brought about this change?
KA: Socialism was the ideology of the oppressed in those days. I came to realize in the 1970s that it was dated and had some serious philosophical flaws. In fact I wrote an essay around that time critical of Marxism (Dewan Bahasa, December, 1975). My commitment to social justice is however, unchanged, which I incorporate into my present Islamic humanism. I also wrote a book (Teori Sosial Moden Islam, 1984) and a long essay “Bermaknanya Kehidupan” [Meaning of Life], published in Pemikir [Thought] (December, 1997) to expound this.
NST: You were once detained under the ISA and later described your harrowing experiences during detention in a book. How has the experience affected you down the years?
KA: Man has to learn through trial and error. Was it wrong for me to have joined the socialist party? Yes and no! I do not think that I would have learnt what I did learn if I did not join the party. Yet I lost many years then, many years that I could put to better use perhaps. I do not know, but I am glad and grateful that I was able to distil the essential meaning of life from those experiences.
NST: Your thoughts on the need for the ISA?
KA: Believe it or not, I re-read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and found in its last articles (29 & 30) that those individual rights are deemed not absolute. They have to be taken in the context in the rights of the community. But what made me change was what I found in the Quran in the experiences of Moses when he asked to follow and learn from a spiritual teacher in Egypt. (See Quran, 18: 60-82) This account proves that a greater good must prevail over a smaller good, if the two were to collide.
NST: But the argument is that such powers are abused for political advantages.
KA: Of course, they have been abused. They should not be. One must distinguish between the necessity of a law and its abuses by the executive.
NST: Going back to the topic of Islam, this is an issue that has generated some controversy between you and the religious authorities. You deny the accusation of being anti-hadith, and have even answered such accusations. Why do you think some parties are still labeling you as such? May I quote a 1995 published news report regarding some statements made by the Director of the Islamic Affairs Division in the Prime Minister’s Department, Brig-Jen (R) Datuk Abdul Hamid Zainal Abidin: On Kassims position that he was not anti-hadith as alleged, Abdul Hamid said it was expected of Kassim to deny it. “The problem with him is that he says something and does something else. This is not an issue between Kassim and company versus the Islamic Center, but Kassim and company versus the whole ummah,” Abdul Hamid said. Your comments please!
KA Of course what the good Abdul Hamid says is not true. This is not a game I am playing. It is a very serious matter. I am answerable to God for what I wrote in that book.
I think, firstly, they misread my book. It was polemical and written in strong language. But had they read it carefully and taken the book as a whole, as they should have done, they would have understood my point. My point was very simple. Put the Quran on the top of every teaching, including the Hadith. The hadith that matches the Quran are acceptable; what gets stuck must obviously to be rejected.
Secondly, the religious authorities are scared to death of having to overhaul some of the teachings dear to them that they have inherited over many generations. Remember the Pope decreeing in 1661 how the heavens should behave and outlawing Copernicanism, which stated that the planets orbited around the sun, and not vice-versa! Do these ulama want a repeat of European history in Islam?
They are of course afraid of losing their credibility and their jobs. At least that is what they imagine the danger to be! But they should realize that by holding on to obsolete medieval teachings, they are endangering the very structure of collective Muslim life. In a real sense, this has been destroyed already. Can’t they see that? We are actually collecting the scattered pieces to rebuild anew!
NST Your request for a dialogue has also been denied on several grounds. Care to elaborate your thoughts on the refusal of the religious authorities to meet you for a discussion?
KA: Apart from religious prejudices, there were powerful political forces that were against such a dialogue for the reasons stated above. However, I am happy to say that JAKIM has agreed to meet and dialogue with us. The dialogue, the first of which was held on 13 March this year, is in progress. On my part as well as my organization’s, we want to make this dialogue fruitful and a success, and we have a plan to achieve that. I hope the religious authorities would cooperate and bear with us.
NST That is certainly quite heartening to know that our religious guardians are slowly engaging in discussion. There is of course the question of sincerity on the part of the Islamic authorities. No truth or good can be derived if there is little sincerity in such dialogues.
KA Enough of our intelligentsia must stand up to voice the truth and expose falsehood as well as take an active part in the movement for Muslim regeneration. Although I think quite a number has done so, many more should. We should realize that it is everyone’s fight. Otherwise the lot of Muslims will not improve and we will continue to suffer. Look at the mess and the helplessness the Muslim world is in now.
NST After the expulsion of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from UMNO, you wrote an article on him which appeared in the NST. You said that he was influencing decisions to ban your book, Hadis: Satu Penilaian Semula (Hadith: A Re-Evaluation). You also accused him of other things. What do you believe really transpired behind the events of the time? Would you care to share with us some of your experiences with Anwar?
KA Anwar is an extremely unfortunate episode in our political history. He was a man who promised much at the beginning, but who had not the moral and intellectual stamina to fulfill that promise. He therefore fell on the way. If I were in Dr. Mahathir’s shoes, I would have removed him long ago. I wrote not one but three articles on him. I know too much about him, but let me reserve some for my forthcoming book!
NST How do you feel about scholarly pursuits in Islam when you lack academic credentials in Islamic Studies. Your critics have been using this to debunk your theories. Also as a writer – writers handle a variety of subjects and areas in their work – it is always contentious about what makes them an authority to talk about matters in which they have no qualifications. So, what is the greatest virtue here for the scholar and writer?
KA Only pedants insist on academic qualifications and strings of degrees! Of what use are these if you are not committed to truth and justice? I am not altogether ignorant of Arabic grammar, and I have studied (on my own) Islamic history, theology, jurisprudence, philosophy, and Quranic exegeses. Apart from that, I make it my business to study political science and political economy. So what does that make me compared to my critics? I am far above them, am I not?
NST Finally, which authors, books and work of art influence you greatly?
KA Many individuals, authors and books have had great influence on me. On the literary level, Wordsworth, Keats, Shakespeare, Thomas Mann, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, Yeats, T.S. Elliot, Keris Mas, Tongkat Warrant, Chairil Anwar and Pramudia. On the philosophical-intellectual level, Prophet Muhammad’s life, the writings and thoughts of of Mulla Sadra, Iqbal, Ali Shariati, Ibni Sina, Plato, Hamka, Abdullah Munshi, Malek Bennabi, Hassan Hanafi, Robert Briffault (who wrote the The Making of Humanity, a profound book), Rashad Khalifa, Saddam Hussein, our own Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, and the American philosopher, economist and writer, Lyndon LaRouche, Jr. Above all, the Quran has had a great continuing influence in the development of my thinking. I am a voracious reader. I want to read and re-read more books, but now I haven’t the time.
NST Rashad Khalifa? Why him? This is my being unnecessarily picky, but I thought his theories on the Quranic numerical code was said to be a fraud? Correct me if I am wrong.
KA Rashad’s translation of the Quran and his writings clarify for me many things that were not clear to me before. His call for Muslims to return to the Quran is essentially correct. I do not agree with him all the way, but tell me which scholar or leader is perfect? We should be grateful for a scholar or leader who has given us something good. Of his or her errors, we should be forgiving enough to overlook them.
NST By the way Dr. Kassim, I am going to get a lot of flak from people by doing this interview. Based on the fact that you are still tenacious in your search despite the numerous obstacles you had faced, I am thinking of grandly labeling you as “Intelektual Melayu Terakhir” [The Last Malay Intellect] – well at least where 20th century Malaysia is concerned. What do you say to that?
KA Please don’t. Do not draw unnecessary antagonism towards yourself. You have done enough to ask those question that you have asked me to enlighten interested readers. Very many people misunderstand me simply because they prefer the easy way out. They do not bother to read what I write; they prefer to listen to coffee-shop talk. But sooner or later, they will know the truth. In my case, I go to great trouble before I form a definite view on scholars and leaders, as in the case of the late Dr. Rashad Khalifa, President Saddam Hussein and Lyndon H. LaRouche. I read their biographies and their major works before I form my views.
I am not too concerned with what people think of me. I am concerned about God’s judgment. If I were concerned with what people think of me, I would not have done many of the things that I have done. I am satisfied with what I have done, God be praised for that! As soon as I finish what I am doing, I am ready to meet my Creator. I should say I am ready even now!
Let me end by quoting from W. S. Landor: “I strove with none, for none was worth my strife/ Nature I love and, next to Nature, Art:/ I warm'd both hands before the fire of life;/ It sinks, and I am ready to depart.”