Remembering one of Malaysia’s best sons, Mohd. Kamal Hassan (1942-2023)

By Md. Mahmudul Hasan

The passing of Emeritus Professor Mohd. Kamal Hassan on 23 February 2023 caused a shockwave of sadness especially among the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) community. He stood as a shining role model and exemplar to many at the IIUM. When the sad news of Prof Kamal Hassan’s passing reached me, I tried to regain my composure saying that I could not afford to let emotion stand in the way of writing an obituary of this exceptional figure who was a source of inspiration for many. 

I hold people of substance in high esteem but rarely get starstruck. I can bump into a superstar celebrity or politician easily without letting my emotions run high. I know very well that interactions or photo opportunities with renowned people will not make me important if there is nothing important within myself. I have developed this personal trait over a long period of time. I established communication with many famous people early in life and have always been fascinated by the human side of their character, not by their origins, positions or profiles. It was the human side of Prof Kamal Hassan’s character and personality – nourished by his Islamic sensibility and sense of belonging to his country – that gained the love and respect of all who came in contact with him, including myself.  

I had heard about Prof Kamal Hassan years before I moved to Malaysia in June 2010, and I interacted with him at a human-to-human level. His sincerity, quest for knowledge acquisition and dissemination, and treatment of others with respect were some of the qualities that fascinated us. I had plenty of in-person and long-distance conversations with him, and I never felt any artificial distance or barrier between him and me despite the gaps in age and social status between us.

Prof Kamal Hassan was a mover and shaker in the field of knowledge and Islamic awakening with little interest in recognition or glory for himself. He was critical to the founding of the International Islamic University Malaysia, authored its concept paper and then became its 3rd Rector. He held many other important positions – inside and outside Malaysia – including the Chair of Islam in Southeast Asia at Georgetown University, USA and later in life the Chairman of the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia [IKIM]). What is more, he was one of Malaysia’s five National Distinguished Professors (Profesor Ulung). With such a long list of impressive credentials, he was the epitome of humility, gentleness, modesty, politeness, altruism and simplicity.

In his speeches and writings, Prof Kamal Hassan often highlighted the importance of inculcating the abovementioned values in the world of education and in the heart and soul of academics. He deplored the tendency among many in learned circles to seek adulation and recognition of success as well as material or financial rewards as compensation for their endeavours. In his regard, he often referred to the thoughts of classical Islamic scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111). As he says in an unpublished essay entitled “Islamisation of Human Knowledge as the Most Important Mission of IIUM”.

“Therefore, Muslim academics and scholars, especially those working in an Islamic university, should be wary of what al-Ghazali calls ‘al-muhlikat’, the destructive matters of life which are mainly due to the “diseases of the heart”, such as the love of the world, greed, envy, rancor, ostentation, seeking human recognition or status, arrogance, pride, egoism, self-glorification, looking down on others, conceit, self-delusion, etc.”

I testify to his reluctance to claim credit for his accomplishments. I wrote a book chapter entitled, “Mohd. Kamal Hassan’s Educational Ideas and IIUM” (currently under review) where I used the term ‘polymath’ to describe him. I showed him the draft mainly for information verification. He vehemently objected to the term ‘polymath’ being applied to him. The dictionary meaning of the word is “a person of great learning in several fields of study.” I don’t think anyone who read his works or listened to his speeches would doubt that he was a polymath. He was a polyglot and multidisciplinary scholar with profound knowledge of Islamic sciences, western philosophy and the contemporary world. After reading an earlier draft of my work “Iqbal’s and Hassan’s Complaints” (2020) that was published in the prestigious US-based journal The Muslim World, Prof Kamal Hassan wrote to me: “Personally I sincerely do not think that you could compare me to the great Islamic poet-philosopher of the 20th Century.  I could be compared to the house “boy” who would run errands for the great master or would be called to pour hot tea with salt in his cup” (July 28, 2019). 

On the evening of March 3, 2014, I organised an important talk on “Islamicisation of Human Knowledge” at the IIUM’s Experimental Hall for Prof Kamal Hassan to speak about integrating Islam in the humanities and social sciences. The event drew a huge crowd of students mainly from what is now renamed AHAS Kulliyyah (faculty) of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences. We were all captivated and enthralled by the fact that, in his deliberation, a professor of Usuluddin and Comparative Religion was effortlessly straddling between Islam and western thought. As a student of English literature, I was particularly amazed by his interest in, and command of, the subject. Given his wealth of knowledge that spanned many disciplines and given his varied expertise, I have no hesitation to call him a polymath.

At the IIUM, I teach a subject called “Islamic Literature in English” in which Prof Kamal Hassan’s poem “Complaining to Iqbal: Dialogue with the Dead” (2002) – his preferred title “SMS to Sir Muhammad Iqbal” – is an important text. Virtual teaching and learning platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic provided me with the opportunity to request him to meet my students online. I made the request knowing that he would not have to travel from Bangi to IIUM Gombak campus for that purpose. Prof Kamal Hassan readily agreed. In two consecutive semesters, he ungrudgingly obliged my students and myself by discussing his work and sharing his knowledge with us.

I had innumerable interactions with Prof Kamal Hassan and benefitted from his scholarship, penetrating insights and life experiences. Politics often crept into our discussion, and he told me many things that he would not say in public. One thing became clear to me that Prof Kamal Hassan had profound admiration for the 10th Prime Minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, and told me about the latter’s honesty and contribution. While deploring aspects of political culture in Malaysia, he once said to me, “Corruption didn’t touch Anwar.”

The main masjid at IIUM Gombak campus was one common venue for my informal sessions with Prof Kamal Hassan. If I wanted to ask him any questions, I would wait for him to finish zuhr prayers and then have discussions with him. The last time it happened was on October 4, 2022. I was delighted to see him in the IIUM masjid after months. We had a long chat and both of us laughed after he made some funny remarks. In that sense, my discussion sessions with him had a happy ending. The first thing I asked him was about his health. He told me that lately he had had some insomnia/sleep-related problems which by that time was resolved “by the grace of God.” Then he commented on my essay “Are Friday Khutbahs Fit for Purpose?” (2022) and shared with me his thoughts about khutbah practices in Malaysia.

He was hale and hearty when my essay “Mohd. Kamal Hassan embodies integration of knowledge” and my research work “Iqbal’s and Hassan’s Complaints” (2020) were published. I wrote those two pieces with the awareness that he would be reading them. Therefore, I applied caution and avoided expressions that could make him unnecessarily self-conscious. An obituary of a person is usually written after their death and they do not see it in print. Since Prof Kamal Hassan is no longer around, in this essay I have exercised my writerly liberty and reminisced about my acquaintance and intellectual engagement with this great man without resorting to self-censorship.

On a final note, Prof Kamal Hassan began his speech at the aforementioned 2014 event at IIUM’s Experimental Hall saying that I was like his son and the students who were present, like his grandchildren. Years later, on October 31, 2020, he emailed me a number of his unpublished works with the following note: “Dear Dr Mahmud, sorry to give you so much in such a short time. But I know they will be in good and virtuous hands.” I understand the implications for me of these two statements and seek God’s help so that I can live up to them.

May God grant Prof Kamal Hassan the everlasting bliss of paradise and give his family sublime patience! May God bless us with ability, dedication and commitment to maintain and build on his legacy! ***

(Dr Md. Mahmudul Hasan teaches English and postcolonial literature at International Islamic University Malaysia)

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