Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah: The great scholar
The late Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah (1885-1969) was our national pride because of his many glorious contributions to our national heritage, language and culture. As a celebrated philologist, Dr. Shahidullah made our national language Bangla significant and meaningful by discovering its root and at the same time by reforming its terms and terminology. His thoughts on our national identity and educational, religious, political and social reconstruction enlighten us even today.
Acquiring eloquence in 18 classical languages Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah was an example of endless effort and scholarship. He picked up quite a few languages in his school life -- Urdu and Persian to maintain family tradition, Bengali, English and Sanskrit at school to fulfill academic requirement and Hindi and Udiya from neighbours in Howrah. "For fear of the Arabic teacher, I took Sanskrit instead of Arabic at secondary school level. The teacher had no good terms with the students." He wrote later on. However, the teacher showed new paths to the young Muslim boy to become a student of various languages.
Dr. Shahidullah passed the Entrance examination in 1904 and FA in 1906 taking Sanskrit as a second language. He was admitted to Hooghly College in degree class with honours in Sanskrit. But he fell ill and gave up studies for two years. At last he passed the Honours Examination from Calcutta City College in 1910. He was admitted to the Sanskrit department in the Calcutta University for the MA course. But some teachers of the department refused to teach Vedas and Vedanta to a Muslim student. This refusal created the "Shahidullah Affair."
The editor of The Comrade, Maulana Muhammad Ali, wrote: "Students of the Classics would no doubt be attracted by the inexhaustible mines of literature and philosophy in Sanskrit and Arabic. And while we hope that Muslims scholars would learn Sanskrit in larger numbers than we do at present, we trust such incidents as the 'Shahidullah Affair,' when a Pundit of Calcutta University refused to teach a Muslim student, would not recur." Mr. Suren Banerjee, editor of The Bengali, wrote. "Today, these orthodox pundits should be thrown into the Ganges."
But unfortunately the orthodoxy won the game. The Calcutta University Senate was compelled to open a new department on Comparative Philology. Muhammad Shahidullah was the first and only student of the department, and he passed MA in 1912. Though he was not allowed to study Sanskrit in MA, it showed him the way of learning different languages as a student of comparative philology.
With the recommendation of the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University, Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, and the patronage of Nawab Ali Choudhury, Shahidullah was awarded a state scholarship to study Sanskrit in Germany. But unfortunately he was refused a medical certificate. He passed the LLB examination from the Calcutta University in 1914. It may appear strange that Shahidullah studied LLB after having an MA degree in comparative philology, but he did so to acquire knowledge.
Shahidullah joined the bar at Bashirhat Subdivisional Court and practiced there until 1919 when he got a message from Sir Ashutosh Mukherjje, who wrote: "Shahidullah, the Bar is not for you, please join us in the university." He became the research assistant of Dinesh Chandra Sen in the Calcutta University. Later, he joined Dhaka University when it was established in 1921.
While serving in the Department of Bengali and Sanskrit in the University of Dhaka in 1926, he took study leave for two years and attended the Sorbonne University in Paris. He studied Vedic and Buddhist Sanskrit, Tibetan and Old Persian languages. He worked on a thesis paper titled "Les chants mystics" (Songs of the mystics), and simultaneously studied phonetics in the institute of Archive Della Parole, where he submitted a research paper entitled, "Les sons du Bengali," and was awarded a special diploma. After submitting his thesis paper to the Sorbonne University he went to the Fribourg University in Germany to study Vedic Sanskrit and Prakrirt. His great thirst for knowledge did not allow him rest for a single moment. He kept late hours at night for study even at old age.
Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah was not only a mine of knowledge but also an ideal teacher, and was devoted to profession. It is pertinent to mention here that the vast knowledge he acquired made him a simple, well-versed and dignified person. His main aim in life was to attain perfection through acquisition of knowledge, both spiritual and mundane.
The writer is a former secretary and Chairman National Board of Revenue. E-mail: email@example.com