INTERVIEW WITH KASSIM AHMAD* (Part 2)
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 Tomes January 16, 2002.]
Writes of Passage
By Rosihan Zain
Part Two of Two Parts)
RZ: You were once detained under 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 don't think I would have learnt what I did learn if I had not. Yet I lost many years there, many years that I could use to better things, perhaps? I don’t know. But I am glad and grateful that I was able to distil the essential meaning of life from those experiences.
RZ: And your thoughts on the need for 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 not to be deemed 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 collide.
RZ: 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 abuse by the executive.
RZ: And going on to Islam, an issue that has seen some controversy between you and the religious authorities. You deny accusations of being anti-hadith, and have even answered such accusations. Why do you think some parties are still labelling you as such? May I quote a published 1995 newsreport regarding some statements made by the director of the Islamic affairs division in the Prime Ministers's Department Brig-Jen (R) Datuk Abdul Hamid Zainal Abidin:
On Kassim's 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 Co versus the Islamic Centre, but Kassim and Co versus the whole ummah," Abdul Hamid said. Comment 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 first book. That book was polemical and written in strong language. But had they read 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. What goes through is acceptable; what gets stuck is obviously to be rejected.
Secondly, the religious authorities are scared to death of having to overhaul some of their dear teachings that they have inherited over many generations. Remember the Pope in 1661 decreeing how the heavens should behave and outlawing Copernicanism, which stated that the planets orbited the sun, and not vice-versa! Do they 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!
RZ: 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 and on my organization's part, 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.
RZ: That is certainly quite heartening to know, that our religious guardians are slowly engaging in discussion. But there is of course the question of sincerity on the part of Islamic authorities. No truth nor good can be derived if there is little sincerity in such dialogue...
KA: Enough of our intelligentsia must stand up to voice the truth and expose falsehood and take 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 they will continue to suffer. Look at the mess and the helplessness the Muslim world is in now.
RZ: After the expulsion of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from Umno, you wrote an article on DSAI which appeared in the NST. You said that he was influencing decisions to ban your book, Hadis: Satu Penilaian Semula. You also accused him of other things. What do you believe had 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 fulfil that promise. He therefore fell on the way. If I were in Dr. Mahathir's shoes, I would have removed him long before. I wrote not one but three articles on him. I know too much about him, but let me have some reserves for my forthcoming book.
RZ: How do you feel about scholarly pursuit in Islam when you lack academic credentials in Islamic Studies. Your critics have been using this to de-base 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 they have no qualifications on. So, what is the greatest virtue here, for the scholar and writer?
KA: It is only pedants who insist on academic qualifications and a 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 and 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?
RZ: Finally, which author/book/work of art do you count as your greater influences?
A 14. Many lives, 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.
RZ: Rashad Khalifa? Why him? This is me being unnecessarily picky, but I thought his theories on the Quranic numerical code was said to be a fraud? Correct me if I’m wrong...
KA: Rashad’s translation of the Quran and his writings clarify for me many things that were not clear before. His call for Muslims to return to the Quran is essentially correct. I myself do not agree with him all the way, but, tell me, of a scholar or leader who is perfect! We should be grateful for a scholar or leader who has given us something good. Of his errors, we should be forgiving enough to overlook.
RZ: By the way Dr Kassim, I’m going to get a lot of flak from people by doing this: Based on the fact that you’re still tenacious in your search despite the numerous obstacles you had faced, I’m thinking of grandly labelling you as ‘Intelektual Melayu Terakhir’—well at least where 20th century Malaysia is concerned. What do you say to that?
KA: Please don't. Don't draw unnecessary antagonism towards youself. 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 biograhies 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 judgement. If I were concerned with what people think of me, I wouldn't 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./"
* This interview was done by Literary Page editor, Rosihan Zain, and published on 16 January, 2002.