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.

To be continued in Part 3. Part 1 is available HERE.