Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Homeless: the Malay Left Rehabilitated?

Reviewed by Hishamuddin Rais The Edge June 2008

When I was in secondary school in 1969, I used to pin on my locker a self-made mini poster of Sidang Roh, Kassim Ahmad’s controversial poem, as decorative art. It was Kassim too who introduced me to Yusuf in A Common Story, about a kampong boy who went away to study at a university in cosmopolitan Singapore. Yusof I thought was almost the alter ego of Kassim. He was the narrator of the young kampong boy in angst over religion and worldly affairs.

I was young, innocent and growing up, looking for ideas and reference points when I stumbled into Kassim, whom I thought then was an engaging Malay intellectual. When I entered University of Malaya in 1971, Kassim was already the party chief of the Kepala Lembu [Cows Head] (the popular name for Party Sosialis Rakyat Malaya. Kassim was often invited to participate in various student activities. Without fail, I attended almost all his forum and debates. Unfortunately, I came to realize that the Kassim I admired was not an eloquent speaker; he was boring and unimpressive in person.

Reading Mencari Jalan Pulang, Kassim’s autobiography, one is left with a similar impression. The engaging Malay intellectual I once thought I knew does not sum up his life experience by making coherent the events that mattered to him. This is the writer who reedited the Hikayat Hang Tuah and brilliantly introduced Jebat as the icon for a progressive Malay society, but he does not reevaluate and to furnish us with the participant’s details of what really happened while he was the main player in the Malaysian political landscape. One would have thought he might at least give readers his version of those events – or Kassim Ahmad’s definitive interpretations.

His growing up in rural Kedah, the poverty that surrounded him; growing up during the Japanese Occupation; the war of liberation against the British; these are major events that must have played a major part in shaping his proto-left leanings, but all are dealt with a touch and go manner.

There is no penetrating analysis of what brought about the birth of Kassim Ahmad, the homo sapien that took over the leadership of Party Rakyat from Malay nationalist Ahmad Boestamam. Nor is there ‘cerita dalama’ [inside story] to explain why he decided to turn a broad-based Malay nationalist party into a scientific –socialist one. Readers would want to find out the historical internal debates amongst his ‘comrades’ or party memebrs when he ‘ousted’ Ahamad Boestamam – the first Prime Minister we never had.

I remember clearly the major schism that developed in the Malay left as the result of Kassim’s scientific socialism, his Marxist-Leninist and also Maoist school of thought. In my second year at the University of Malaya as a member of the Kelab Sosialis, I was no longer a fellow traveler. Though I could still follow the ideological debates, reading material had become limited. Thus I was hoping some of the convoluted debates of that era would be clarified here, but there is nothing about them in Mencai Jalan Pulang.

Kassim touches on the Asian, African and Latin American struggles for independence against the background of the Cold War, but without his own ideological and critical analysis. The Sino-Soviet conflict, as I recall, was the cause of the major debates among Kelab Sosialis members, but it is not on the orbit that Kassim has chosen for this book.

The subtitle of Mencari Jalan Pulang, Daripada Sosialisma Kepada Islam, aptly describes a confused soul who was sesat jalan – lost on his way to a nowhere place, headed in a nowhere direction. Why did he become a born –again Muslim after he had embraced scientific socialism as an ideology? What was his criticism of Marxism? The pertinent question was answered by a Palestinian comrade whom Kassim and I knew well: the fear of death is lingering as one gets older. I can subscribe to part of that argument, but a shallow understanding of that ideology may be the core reason, because Kassim almost turns name-dropper in Mencari Jalan Pulang – names of ancient and modern thinkers are liberally sprinkled, so much so one begins to wonder if Kassim really understood what all those were about.

Sometimes in the early seventies, I read Kassim’s review of Maxime Rodinson’s Muhammad. It was an elegant, rationalist study of the life of the Prophet by the French Marxist historian and sociologist. In conclusion, Rodinson regarded Muhammad as our Arab brother. Kassim, in concluding his review, considered Rodinson a brother too. I should conclude my review of Kassim’s autobiography by saying that may be Kassim after all his sesat years is trying to be a brother.

Kassim Ahmad’s rebuttal:

8 July, 2008

This is obviously a case of an ex-fellow-traveler not wanting to be an ex when confronted with the reality and truth of his error. It has been well-said that truth is bitter, but it is the truth that will set you free, as Prophet Jesus said. What courage Hishamuddin had arrogated to himself by claiming that I did not know what I was doing when I criticized Marxism and that I was confused, and further landed myself in this confusion because of the fear death, “as one grows old”! What a profound observation!

I was 53 years old when I published my Hadis – Satu Penilaian Semula, a book that shook the foundations of Muslim orthodox theology which after twenty-years is still being debated. Was I afraid of death when I wrote that book? If orthodox ulamas have their way, I would be an apostate, not meriting a decent Muslim burial! What a way of choosing to die for this fearer of death!

Marxism was a revolutionary doctrine in those days, and young people, anywhere, should be imbued with revolutionary fervor. In the University in the early 70-ties, Hishamuddin was one, indicating, rather flatteringly in his review, how he followed my intellectual development However, it must be said, that many fail to see through Marxism’s fundamental error, being a materialist doctrine, rooted in the old classical materialism of the Greeks and carried forward as a false philosophical strain into modern Western philosophy. Anyhow, Marxism is history today, and Hishamuddin and his likes had better accept this reality and bitter truth. Any intellectual worthy of the name must be prepared to confront the truth and deal with it.

That said, however, the valid legacies of Marxism and socialism are there to be carried forward to the New Just World that is being borne, as I said in my book.

This anarchist reviewer is, however, not interested in truth. I hear that he runs a philosophical class somewhere in Bangsar. One of these days, I might attend the class and listen to his definition of truth. I am not likely to waste my time with such likes, though. My memoir explains briefly, but clearly, my almost life-long intellectual journey, including my early ideological make-up and my short, rather naïve, idealistic plunge into scientific socialism, but the ideologically-blocked, Hishamuddin included, can and will never see the truth. Obviously, he has not read the book carefully, having concluded before he began that the writer was a confused person, lost and homeless.

That, sadly, is the truth of the matter of Hishamuddin’s critical review of my book; not that I dislike criticism, having had to handle criticism at every step of my life. What is dislike in his review is falsehood and dishonesty masquerading behind a facade of intellectualism.


Burung Hantu said...

Tuan Kassim,

1) What's materialist doctrine?

2) Hishamuddin Rais is surely anarchist as you say. At some point I think he hadn't solve his identity crisis yet. He's the one who should be called "sesat jalan - lost on his way to a nowhere place, headed in a nowhere direction".

3) Each time you published a book people always call you "sesat". Wait till you published you next book, if you don't believe me!

4) I didn't know that you ousted Ahmad Boestaman! Hehe

5) Is PKR becoming a socialist party? A scientific-socialist one? Why don't DAP join PKR then?

5) My mom's once mistakenly voted for your old party - Kepala Lembu. My late dad, who at that time was UMNO branch secretary questioned her on why she chosen your party instead of UMNO, and my illiterate mom said, "I thought that's your party!". Lol...

6) Yours;

"Beri aku lidah
Aku mau berkata-kata
Seperti laut yang menghempas
Di pantai merdeka."

Anonymous said...

Thank God!
Now I know who Hishamuddin Rais is. He is not more than a stupid so called 'thinker'.

moloyue said...

Manusia yang mempunyai ego yang besar tidak akan berjumpa dengan Kebenaran.

Akmal Hisham Abdul Rahim said...


Saya sudah pun membaca buku anda (Mencari Jalan Pulang). Menarik.

Kassim Ahmad said...

Dear Respected Readers,

Thank youi for the appreciation, which I value highly.
A materialist doctrine is a supposition that the world is primarily made of matter and that consciousness, soul or spirit is secondary to matter. Thus, according to this doctrine, Man is not free to re-make the world. On the other hand, the Quran teaches us that Man is vicegerent of God on Earth. He is ruler and therefore able to chart his own destiny.

AzAzura said...

Dear Mr Kassim Ahmad ,
I just stop by to say how much my mother in her 50's adore your works especially she knew your daughter from back then in Penang.She still keep "risalah masalah teori sosial moden islam" and wonder where she can get more of your works.
I, after reading your blog, thinks you are a brilliant writer who encourage and stimulates my thinking.
Hope you will publish books in the future.
Praying for your health and happiness.

Burung Hantu said...


You should e-mail Mr Kassim directly for faster answer at kassim03@streamyx.com

Probably you should buy your mom Mr Kassim's memoir book "Mencari Jalan Pulang". Mr Kassim other books are difficult to find because either government banned the books or out of stocks.

I also hope Mr Kassim reprinted his books because most bookstores don't have the stocks. For banned books, probably Mr Kassim should negotiate with overseas publisher where his books are not banned and the cost of printing are lower.

Anonymous said...

I agree with 'burung hantu'. But please do not forget, friends, that we can get access freely one of Dr. Kassim's most popular and controversial writing Hadith, A Re-Evaluation (electronic version) at http://www.quran.org/library/articles/ahmad0.htm

This book had a major impact on my thinking. What a big change in life, that when we think correctly, our beliefs developed accordingly, leading to right speeches and actions!

Mr Belimbing said...

I got pdf version for the Hadith: A Re-evaluation. E-mail me if you want a copy at mrbelimbing@gmail.com

AzAzura said...

"not that I dislike criticism, having had to handle criticism at every step of my life. What is dislike in his review is falsehood and dishonesty masquerading behind a facade of intellectualism. "

and Mr Kassim Ahmad, after reading your book Mencari Jalan Pulang from "Permulaan" to "selamat tinggal, dunia lama!," I have to let you know how much I respect you and look up to you.You are a good person.
Az Azura

Kassim Ahmad said...

Dear Az Azura,

Thank you. Sometimes in the silence of my study, I cry, thinking amidst so much stupidity and evil, there are people, like your good self, who recognize and uphold the truth. The words would just come out of my mouth: "Bless be Allah, the Lord of the Worlds!"

lekiu said...

I used to adore Marxism. It appealed to my sense of idealism. The egalitarian theory it espoused validated my anger at capitalism.

Although deep down I still believe in an egalitarian society, I have come to accept, bitterly though, that human greed and being selfish is what makes human successful. The utopian idea remains a public wish of contestants of Miss Universe.

I remember reading a debate about Hadis, Satu Penilian Semula which was published in Utusan Malaysia or was it in Berita Harian back in the 80s'. I was a teenager back then. It was simply riveting.

It is sad that in this country, intellectual discourse touching on religious issues would be stifled by the powers that be by accusing the other as an apostate.

I look foward to read your new book.

Anonymous said...

mamat yang atas tu jangan sesekali hentam Hishamuddin Rais bodoh,
siapakah Hishamuddin Rais kalau dia bukan seorang thinker yang berhaluan progresif?
dia dikenali sebagai tokoh pemimpin universiti di seluruh Malaysia pada 70-an kerana dia Che GUevara of Malaysia yang mempunyai cita-cita...
fikirlah,siapa lagi yang berhak dikira sebagai thinker? awak ke?

Anonymous said...

Now I know a follower of 'thinker' Hishamuddin Rais. Nice to meet you, anonymous!

dct said...

I have not met Kassim Ahmad in person. But,I came to know him as a 'revisionist', a 'pseudo-socialist' during my student days at the University of Malaya, in the early Seventies.
True(?)enough, he abandoned his belief in Marxism later to join UMNO.

Kassim Ahmad said...

1. To critisize and reject what is wrong is the true sign of a seeker of truth and justice. To condemn a seeker of truth is to condemn yourself, for God created you in the image of Truth.
2. God informs us in the Quran that there are only three types of human beings, i.e. (a) Truth upholder, i.e. believer, (b) falsehood upholder, i.e. disbeliever, and (c) Falsehood upholder, but masquerading as truth upholder, i.e. hypocrite.
To which group do you belong?

drmajezan said...

I think Kassim heavily copied Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra for his Sidang Ruh.It is blasphemy to say tuhan sudah mati,only Kassim who likes to utter those words.There is a religion where god is dead,Kassim is its prophet.

Hope that the old man coming back to islam,dont speculate and making hadits into a polemic.Checking Ibnu Sirrin for hadits matrix,using 11 parameters to authentize hadits plzz.

Are you the Sultan of hadits Sir?

Anonymous said...


I think you have NO idea whatsoever reg Sidang Ruh. You have ZERO info of the poet himself for you to declare "There is a religion where god is dead,Kassim is its prophet".

If you are a thinker, I personally feel you are one HELL of a SHALLOW thinker to begin with! I hope you are not a product of Al Azhar or UIAM!

By the way, do you believe in God via the Quran alone or via Quran & hadits?