Tuesday 16 February 2010

A Brief Note on Critical Muslims in Malaysia

In contrast to neighbouring Indonesia the Islamic intellectual scene in Malaysia seems much more subdued if not barren. That is not to say there are no critical, innovative or controversial thinkers to be found. Aside from intellectuals with outspoken views on political issues such as Chandra Muzaffar and a younger generation of maverick scholars with a high profile internet presence like Farish Noor, a prospective PhD research student drew my attention to the writings of Kassim Ahmad, a literary scholar, erstwhile lecturer in Malay studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and a former leader of Parti Rakyat Malaysia (1965-1980), who spent five years in jail under Malaysia's very stringent Internal Security Act (ISA).

Born in 1933, in the state of Kedah, Kassim Ahmad first caused controversy in 1950s with his radical re-reading of a Malay literary classic Hikayat Hang Tuah, about the legendary seafarer Hang Tuah, a prominent laksmana or admiral from the Sultanate of Malacca.

His notoriety only increased with the publication of Hadith: A Re-evaluation. First appearing in Malay in 1986, an English translation was released in 1996. In this book he joins the ongoing debate among scholars and intellectuals on the reliability of the existing Hadith collections. As a scriptural source containing the so-called 'Traditions of the Prophet', it is only secondary to the Qur'an, and questioning its authenticity has grave implications for most branches of traditional Islamic learning.

Like so many other Muslim scholars willing to venture into critical engagement with the Islamic heritage it put him at odds with more traditionalist-minded Muslims who were especially suspicious of his socialist past. However, as the subtitle of his autobiography Mencari Jalan Pulang: Daripada Sosialisme kepada Islam (Finding the Way Home: From Socialism to Islam) indicates he has drifted back towards his Muslim roots and was able to rehabilitate himself with the establishment to the extent that former Prime Minister Mahathir penned an introduction to the book.

No comments: