Kassim Ahmad: The passing of a great Malay intellectual

Rosli Dahlan
Free Malaysia Today
10th October 2017

Today, we mourn the passing of a great Malay intellectual, a towering Malaysian who stood firm in his belief to his last breath. At 10am on Oct 10, Kassim Ahmad passed away in Kulim Hospital after slipping into a coma two days ago.

Kassim was known as a non-conformist thinker, who was seen as being highly critical of the religious authorities, and more recently of Jabatan Agama Wilayah Persekutuan (Jawi).

His books were banned and Jawi considered him to be a heretic. It is unknown to many that Kassim who was born on Sept 9, 1933 was the son of an Islamic religious teacher, Ahmad Ishak. Kassim’s religious knowledge therefore was not skin deep.

On Feb 16, 2014, Kassim was invited to speak at the Perdana Foundation in Putrajaya. The topic was “Hadis: Satu Penilaian Semula” and “Hadis: Jawapan kepada Pengkritik”.

The media reported about his speech. And following the media coverage, Jawi proceeded to persecute Kassim relentlessly. On March 26, 2014, Jawi officers raided Kassim’s house in Kulim, Kedah.

They showed up outside his house in 13 vehicles, broke down his front door, humiliated him before his wife and grandchildren, videotaped and photographed him without his consent, wrongfully arrested and detained him, and bundled him into a van for a six-hour ride to Penang Airport where they forced him to board a flight to Kuala Lumpur.

He was interrogated through the night, and on the next day, produced in the Putrajaya Shariah Court.

The charges levelled against him were defective. His wife, who rushed to Kuala Lumpur from Kedah was not allowed to post bail for him. Kassim had to look for two Wilayah Persekutuan residents to bail him instead. In the meantime his illegal detention continued. Jawi did all these to a feeble, 82-year-old man.

Kassim could have had it easy by admitting to the Shariah criminal charges against him and paid the fine. But he would not have it that way. He decided to fight for what he believed in. Thus, began the long and arduous journey to seek his vindication.

While defending himself in the Shariah Court, he sought leave for judicial review in the civil High Court to declare that Jawi’s actions and prosecution against him were illegal.

The High Court at first instance dismissed his request for leave. He appealed to the Court of Appeal and succeeded. The High Court then dismissed his judicial review. Again he appealed to the Court of Appeal.

On Dec 21, 2015, the Court of Appeal stated in no uncertain terms that Jawi’s actions and prosecution against Kassim were illegal and directed the religious department to pay costs and damages to him.

Despite this, Jawi did not withdraw the charges against Kassim and dragged the case on for two more years. Jawi sought to appeal to the Federal Court and failed on March 7 this year. Again, Jawi refused to back down.

On August 7, Jawi’s prosecution officers appeared in the Shariah Criminal Court and gave the excuse that they could not withdraw the charges against Kassim because the office of the Ketua Pendakwa Syarie had become vacant.

As Kassim’s Shariah counsel, I had to put up a strong argument for the dismissal of the charges. Finally, the Shariah judge agreed and released Kassim. Until today, Jawi has not paid the costs and damages to Kassim as ordered.

Throughout this ordeal, Kassim remained steadfast but his health kept deteriorating. His daughter, Soraya, and son, Shauqi blamed Jawi for Kassim’s deteriorating health when he was made to travel from Kulim to Putrajaya on every court date. Now they want Jawi to be held accountable for their actions.

On August 7, the day when Kassim was finally freed by the Shariah Court, there was no jubilance in him. There was only relief that the long, painful ordeal had finally come to an end.

He told me and his family that Jawi must pay damages to him not so much because he wanted the money but as a reminder that they had committed wrong on an 82-year-old man whose only sin was that he had exercised his freedom of thought.

Kassim could not accept that a man’s mind could be caged by any authority. Kassim believed that Man was created to have free will.

Today, I mourn the death of Kassim, whom I had developed a deep respect for his resilience, his intellectual honesty and his tenacity. Malays and Malaysians have lost one of their greatest thinkers.

Innalillahi Wa Inna Ilaihi Rajiun

Rosli Dahlan was lawyer and friend to Kassim Ahmad.

  1. #1 by good coolie on Thursday, 12 October 2017 - 1:22 pm

    Dying breed, these “sosialis” fellows. Gold glitters not to them. They, like lanterns, light the way in developed darkness.

    Those who know, and remember, are proud of this Malaysian, “saudara” Kassim.


  2. #2 by good coolie on Friday, 13 October 2017 - 2:06 pm

    Now, what about Kassims’s magnum opus, “Hadis: Satu Penilaian Semula”? Why was there not open discussion about this religious work within the Muslim society at least? Why was it banned? Are we, some thirty years later, still so immature that we, the common people, cannot read and discuss the points raised in Kassim’s book?

  3. #3 by good coolie on Tuesday, 17 October 2017 - 12:30 pm

    When we suppress the availability of any book, we are actually saying that this is done to protect people from being unduly influenced by the book. However, underlying this is the presupposition that the reader cannot make an independent decision as to the correctness of the views expressed in the book. The reader is “infantilised”.

    This attitude is not new to human history, especially as to books relating to religion. Being a Roman Catholic, I am aware of the Church’s suppression, in the past, of books expressing alternative understandings of Christian beliefs. The point is that that kind of obscurantism was fighting a losing battle. One cannot stop different opinions from being expressed, especially in this modern world.

    The late Kassim Ahmad must be re-read in the light of resurgence in extremist religious ideologies in the Islamic world. If that world is to retake its place at the forefront of ethical progress, ideas have to be freely and fearlessly discussed, and diversity of opinion is not something to be feared.

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