Hear it? secularism is both enduring & audible

I am a patriot, a plain Kassim Ahmad, who a long time ago politely refused an UMNO offer for a datoship.Being from a poor oppressed classed, I began early as a rebel (with causes, of course!) and soon became the leader of the Malayan People’s Socialist Party (1968-1984). In 1984, seeing the collapse of international socialism in the world I left the party and made a strong patriotic statement by joining UMNO in 1986. My aim of reform could not take off. I am still an UMNO member, albeit very critical of UMNO.


On the same day when my UMNO memberhip application was approved, my widely discussed book Hadis – Satu Penilaian Semula was released. After two months of extensive discussions, including an ABIM-organized public dialogue, it was banned by the religious establishment in the country.

Several state muftis penned books to rebut my book, repeating their old and tired arguments, which I have already refuted in the first place. However, I wrote another book entitled, Hadis – Jawapan kepada Pengkritik (1992), briefly dismissing the muftis’ several books, but at the same time giving more details about the Quran.


This started the movement for the review of Hadith as well as for going back to the Quran, not only in Malaysia, but internationally. Hadis – Satu Penilaian Semula has since been translated into English and Arabic. I am glad to say that today the Turkish Government is undertaking a major project of Hadith re-evaluation.

I admit that I was a rebel, and still is. At the core of Malaysia’s problems is corrupt UMNO, the backbone of its ruling BN Government. In 1946 when UMNO was first formed it was a poor idealistic Malay party embraced en mass by the Malays in their enthusiasm and quest for Merdeka.
To cut the story short, via the bloody May 13, via great Razak’s Mageran (the Council for the Regeneration of the Country) and his extraordinary vision, Malaysia is what it is today, one of the most progressive countries among the developing world.

At the same time, as it is wont in human affairs, deterioration sets in, as complacancy grows among the ruling elite. UMNO became corrupt, and has perhaps reached the point of no return today. In this atmosphere of gloom when financial scandles abound, pessimism is in the air. Oh Lord! Do we need a second Mageran, ask the thinking part of Malaysia?

The people ask, “What are we to do? Can anything be done? Such voices rise from the depth of the soul of the people, voiced by their intellectuals, the likes of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Dr. M Bakri Musa, HRH Sultan of Johor, HRH Sultan of Perak Dr. Nazrin Shah and HRH the Crown Prince of Johor Tunku Ismail.
Yes, indeed. What is to be done? Can corrupt UMNO be reformed? Can weak Pakatan Rakyat take over? Where is our Saviour? Where is our Imam Mahdi? When is the Second-Coming (of Jesus Christ)?

Unfortunately, all these wailings are of no avail. Man has been created as God’s vicegerent on earth, to rule the earth and change it to His liking. Oh Man! Rise up to your calling! “I created you free,” God said. So wait no more! Act!

Enumerate the things you must do in order of importance. First, you must reform UMNO. Once the difficult task of reforming of UMNO is over, all other problems will be resolved: wastage in manpower in Government, increasing productivity by optimum use of assets, trimming the Government, the need for good governance, increasing salaries of lower-rung Government servants, overcoming periodic floods in some states, eliminating traffic jams by decreasing private cars and increasing and improving public transport, and doing away with tolls, and such like actions to make life more comfortable for all Malaysians.

As the debate continues to swirl around secularism, albeit with ebbing intensity, but still provoking a loose nerve or two, an intriguing question demands an answer. Is India secular because Gandhi was secular, or was Gandhi secular because India is secular? What precisely do we mean by secularism?

The western definition has two origins: the French Revolution, which separated church from state; and communism, which erased religion from political and social life. Between Voltaire and Karl Marx, religion was marginalized into the grey space of “unreason” from Europe to China, with ramifications that extended far beyond the extent of state power.

Indian secularism is a very different story. It neither ignores nor excludes religion. It insists on equality of all faiths, irrespective of its following. The religion of those in power at any point of that rolling dice called time does not matter, for Indian secularism is far more than the law. It is a fundamental social right.

India, therefore, is a country with “audible secularism”. You can be a Muslim in Washington and London, and go to a mosque of your choice, but you will not be able to hear the call to prayer. In India, dawn is welcomed with the wafting lilt of the azaan, followed by the music of temple bells, the harmony of the Granth Sahib being recited in a gurdwara, and the peal from the church.

Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda, who was only six years older than the former, helped nurture the philosophy of India into the principles of the modern Indian democratic state. As Vivekananda often said, the sun shone equally on Hindu and Buddhist, Muslim and Christian. No one was superior or inferior. His message had clarity: help, do not fight; peace, not dissension. If you were born a Hindu, he preached, be a good Hindu; if born a Muslim, be a good Muslim: for if you were true to your faith you would be a good Indian. From individual moral strength would emerge a powerful India; a nation would be built through the home. The challenge before Hinduism, a Vedantic way of life, was to rescue its inherent rationality from layers of superstition and “mumbo-jumbo”. Those who believed in regressive practices like child marriage or untouchability were doling out ditch-water instead of amrit.

Gandhi began his epic quest for freedom by saying that politics without religion was immoral. This brought him to the approving attention of Muslim leaders, who believed in their faith as a private and public resource. Gandhi’s belief system overlapped seamlessly with Indian Sufi Islam, which reminded Muslims of the Quran’s instruction that there could be no coercion in faith (Verse 2:256), and that Muslims should respect the pluralism of prophets and accommodation. This was the Islam of the influential 13th century scholar Ibn al-Arabi, who urged Muslims to practise their faith, but not condemn the rest.

When Gandhi made Ram Rajya the symbol of his secularism, he was not suggesting a single-faith destiny. The Muslim League mocked Ram Rajya only because it had moved away from the fundamentals of Indian culture. Gandhi’s vision was inspired by love; the League preached the polemics of hate and claimed supremacy for one faith above others. It poisoned a thousand years of history to divide our geography. Perhaps Jinnah was able to distort religion only because, as an agnostic from the intellectual traditions of Europe, he had no understanding of any faith, either his own or that of Gandhi.

Jinnah left for Pakistan, but the fear of another Jinnah never quite left the Congress, even after Independence. And so, our secularism shifted from equality of all faiths before the law to a dualism. The most startling example is in the legislation that brought gender reform to Hindu society by the mid-1950s. When Jawaharlal Nehru was asked by Taya Zinkin, correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, why he hadn’t pushed through similar reform for Muslim women, he admitted ruefully that the time was not right. The time had still not become right when the Shah Bano case, over a husband’s refusal to give a pittance as alimony, stirred the nation in the 1980s.

Nevertheless, change has come in India, even if slowly, and through piecemeal fits and starts. The democratic and modernizing impulses of India are too strong to permit stagnation or regression. Gandhi is an icon of every political formation apart from Communists because he fashioned a future from the deep roots of India’s civilizational past. His legacy endures, while the separatism of Jinnah has disintegrated into evident chaos. An ideology of partition will constantly search for fresh pastures to divide, creating multiple civil wars that break structures at both the macro and micro levels; while the sagacity of shared space will propel the unity that can promise prosperity.

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