INTERVIEW WITH KASSIM AHMAD*
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD
Kassim Ahmad is a remarkable man, a poet and an intellectual unfazed by allegations of apostasy.
[Publisehd in The New Straits Times, January 16, 2002.]
Writes of Passage
By Rosihan Zain
(Part One of Two Parts)
The mention of Kassim Ahmad evokes an amazingly consistent if somewhat impulsive reaction from local Muslims. “You mean the anti-hadith guy?” If Muslims in the country agreed to other things in life as unanimously, things would be a lot mre pleasant.
Kassim is perhaps Malaysia’s most politically-charged poet. For 16 years, he was chairman of Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM). He resigned in 1984 and joined UMNO, of which he is still a member till today. He is equally driven by intellectual pursuits into Islamic and Malay consciousness, the socio-religious fabric that forms much of the country today. There is, of course, the fact that Kassim was one an ISA detainee. With the entire Islamic civilization under severe world scrutiny, his mixed bag of credentials makes him a particularly interesting figure to talk to right now.
Politics pervades poetry, the pulpit, Parliament and in our case, even the pasar malam . Yet, as Kassim would attest, it was not so much disagreement that threatens the downfall of the ummah (community), but rather society’s inability to tolerate differing views.
What many Muslims fail to see is that above the fatwas of halal or haram is the need to build a strong tradition of mature and tolerant intellectualism, more so when God and Truth are monopolized for political advantage.
We caught up with Kassim to see beyond the coffee-shop rumours about him being an apostate, his reformist ideas which apparently threaten the ummah’s stability, and of course, to find out more about his current literary pursuits.
Purely by coincidence, we held this interview with one of Malaysia’s most controversial Islamic thinkers during a time when Yasser Arafat was barred from attending midnight mass in Bethlehem, Newsweek was coimg out with yet another special issue tirelessly glorifying America, and 19 members of Al-Ma’aunah were convicted for treason.
For Muslims, there is a war happening on all fronts, but Kassim believes that the real war is not waged on the frontlines – it is waged in the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.
RZ: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Just to start the discussion, might we ask whether you are currently working to publish another work? If so, what is it all about?
KA: Firstly, thank you for giving me this rare opportunity to speak my mind on my work. Currently, I am working on several things. But 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.
Two reasons why I am doing this. I am not satisfied with the existing translations from the literary point of view. I consider the Quran a great literary composition and I want to do justice to that in Malay.
Secondly, the existing translations put much extraneous matter (the opinions of the translators) into the text. This confuses and covers up its real meanings. Moreover, 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!
RZ: This translation of yours sounds like it’s going to attract some attention—more controversy from Dr Kassim Ahmad? Do you see dark angry clouds looming ahead on the JAKIM 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, 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!
Another work I am doing is my autobiography. Both, God-willing, should be completed before 2005.
RZ: 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 17 years and my support for Iraq and for President Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. Also, I like writing. It will be a kind of me interlocuting with myself and with others whose thoughts have attracted or repulsed me.
RZ: Your collection of poetry and short stories Kemarau Di Lembah is still talked about until today. Back then, some said you were an atheist by virtue of some lines in your poems (like “Sidang Ruh”). 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 its 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. But, of course, there were still rationalists among us who appreciated that poem. That made life somewhat tolerable, even enjoyable and inspiring!
RZ: 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 the religion of Islam. This is, in fact, good. But the problem is most of them do not read the Quran in the language they understand, and so do not understand the true teachings of Islam. For their knowledge of their religion, they depend on the clergy, who are no better than the Christian priesthood of the European Middle Ages. Muslims must go back to the Quran. Only the Quran can resolve this Muslim dilemma.
RZ: 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 used 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.
RZ: Are there any particular poems (that you had written) which you hold in higher regard than others. If this is so, why?
KA: In that collection, I like many of the poems, especially "Sidang Ruh" [Soul Conference], "Jalan Ke Parlimen" [Road to parliament], "Penyairmu", "Iman", "Mimpi" [Dreams], "Pidato" [Oration], and "Dua Catatan" [Two Dreams]. I like them because of their expressions and their insistent immediacy.
RZ: But it’s been a long time since Kemarau Di Lembah. You’re not planning to come out with a new collection?
KA: Yes, I am -- the few-and-far-between verses that I have written since those times. Once a friend asked me about this, and I jokingly replied that I have since written footnotes to my poems.
RZ: Would you care to confirm that your being nominated as Penyair Gapena some years back faced some criticism? That many disagreed with you 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 honourary 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 “ Sasterawan Negara" award. That never came. I take it philosophically. I believe that one must do one's duty regardless of material rewards. Not that I reject material rewards, but I do not do things just for them.
RZ. It is clear that from your student years, you were very much into issues of politics and religion. On a more personal note, what experiences which really pulled you into politics and religion?
KA: I came from a poor family and neighbourhood in northern Kedah. My father was religious teacher who doubled as a small padi farmer. My mother made kuih pau in the dead of night to supplement family income and helped my father in the field. I have therefore great sympathy for the poor and I vowed to myself, when very young, that I would fight for them. That drew me into politics and into 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 my understanding of 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!
RZ: Art, Politics and Religion: would you care to comment 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 I have found current world leaders, in a position to influence world events, of this mental mould. That is why you find me optimistic in spite of the current universal chaos.
RZ: On your personal political beliefs. You were more known as a socialist then, but these days no longer. 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 seventies that it was dated and with some serious philosophical flaws. I, in fact, wrote an essay to criticize Marxism around that time (Dewan Bahasa, Disember, 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, [A Islamic Tehory of social Justice] (1984) and a long essay “Bermaknanya Kehidupan” [The Menaing of Life] published in Pemikir (Disember, 1997) to expound this.