Scholar Kassim Ahmad says his age is not an obstacle to his legal battle against the religious authorities. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Hasnoor Hussain, January 18, 2015.
Hounded by Islamic authorities and taken to court for having different religious views, Muslim scholar and activist Dr Kassim Ahmad, who is facing charges for allegedly insulting Islam, has vowed to fight to the end.
The 82-year-old Malay scholar’s slight, frail frame belies a tenacity to stand up for his views and beliefs. He believes that God willing, he will be the victor in court.
“I am an incorrigible optimist. I am a fighter. I won’t give up. You fight, you lose. You fight again and you lose again. Then you will win… like a child learning to walk has to fall down and get up again,” he told The Malaysian Insider recently at his home in Kulim.
He said his age was not an obstacle for him to continue his legal battle although going to court in Kuala Lumpur was tiring.
On January 6, Kassim lost his first appeal to challenge the Federal Territory Islamic Religious Department (Jawi) that charged him with insulting Islam.
The Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled that his case fell under the Shariah Court, dismissing his judicial review application to challenge his arrest and prosecution in the Shariah Court for allegedly insulting Islam and disobeying the religious authorities over his participation at a seminar.
Kassim was first charged in March last year at a Shariah lower court in Putrajaya with insulting Islam and defying religious authorities at the seminar entitled “The Thoughts of Kassim Ahmad: A Review”, which was organised by the Perdana Leadership Foundation.
However, the prosecution later produced Kassim in the Shariah High Court. Kassim had pleaded not guilty to both charges.
Kassim had apparently accused some ulama (religious scholars) in Malaysia of imitating the “priesthood caste” system. He riled up Muslims on both sides of the divide when he questioned the use of hadith to interpret the Quran, and described Prophet Muhammad as “just a messenger of Allah”.
In his lecture titled “The nation’s direction in the next 30 years”, Kassim also questioned the hijab (Islamic headscarf) worn by Muslim women, saying that “the hair is not part of the aurat” (parts of the body which need to be covered, according to Islamic teachings).
Kassim said his lawyer had filed his appeal to the Shariah High Court and he would leave it to him to make the arguments in court.
“If I am younger, they (the authorities) would have gotten it from me… Without wanting to boast, I can take them on. I just have to use the Quran, the highest authority in Islam. History will vindicate me,” he said.
The former Malay Studies lecturer at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies lamented that people in Malaysia were losing their freedom to think and voice their views, and that the authorities were becoming more narrow-minded.
“From my experience, religious people in the country are narrow-minded. This was never in Prophet Muhammad’s nature. They are doing what the prophet never did in his life.
“It is as if they are talking on God’s behalf and nobody dares question them,” he said.
Kassim also asked if it was so wrong that he wrote a book that presented his interpretation of Islam, which was different from the mainstream interpretation prescribed by the authorities.
The book he referred to was the banned “Hadis: Satu Penilaian Semula” (Hadith: A Revaluation) published in 1986 which earned him the label “anti-hadith”.
The situation Kassim is facing now is rather similar to what he went through those years ago with the book.
“It was like the sky over Malaysia was crashing down at the time. There were daily debates about my book for two months. Half of the people supported me while the other half opposed me.
“I have no intention of inciting anybody, even when I spoke at the seminar. People might not believe me, but I have been studying the Quran since I was 17,” he said, adding that he has a collection of 23 Quranic “tafsir” (commentaries).
Kassim said that about four months ago, former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, whom he had known for decades, asked him how he knew all those things about religion.
“I told him it was because I read books lah,” he said, laughing.
When he was attacked for his views following the seminar last year, Dr Mahathir – the patron of the foundation which organised the event – was the only prominent person who defended him against a barrage of criticism.
The elder statesman, known for his wit and unbending will, said Kassim was labelled “anti-hadith” because detractors failed to debate with him on religious issues.
As he faces his legal challenges, Kassim finds there are people who respect him for standing up for his views and even some who want to help him.
“My lawyer recently showed me a letter written by two doctors. I will not mention their names. One of them is American, whom I do not know personally.
“He said he did not think I will get justice in Malaysia and offered me and my family lodgings in Washington. He suggested that I seek asylum in the United States and he is willing to finance me.
“I was touched by the offer but I am not taking it. I will fight my case and I believe I will win, with God’s will,” he said.
In the meantime, Kassim is working on translating the Quran into Malay, a project he started in 1995 that is now half-finished.
He said he was also encouraged to write his autobiography by Tan Sri Dr Rais Yatim, the former Information, Communications and Culture minister, who phoned him about three months ago.
“He offered to finance the project. He also said if I want to get my old books republished, he could help, even for the banned ones that could be published overseas,” he said.
Kassim said he was planning to devote the next three years on his projects and then, if he was still alive after that, he wanted to enjoy the fruits of his labour.
“My writing is important,” said the man, who is also a poet. – January 18, 2015.