Home Muhammad Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah: A Tribute | The star of the day

Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah: A Tribute | The star of the day

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Dr Shahiduallah and Mufazzal Haider Chaudhury at an event (late 1960s). Photo courtesy: Tanvir Haider Chaudhury

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Dr Shahiduallah and Mufazzal Haider Chaudhury at an event (late 1960s). Photo courtesy: Tanvir Haider Chaudhury

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Dr. Shahidullah is one of the greatest linguists that the South Asian region has produced. This is a universally recognized fact and one can easily use it as the opening statement of an article about him. This venerable scholar, whose bust photograph most often displayed a white beard and a fez on his head, was once referred to as the “great old man of Pakistani linguistics” (in the overview volume of Shahidullah, ed. by Anwar Shah dil). But it never lent itself to becoming a bone of contention in South Asia, where countries have changed names and identities over the past century, some more than once. Big three namely India, Pakistan and Bangladesh can claim him equally, as he was born (July 10, 1885) in undivided India, adopted then East Pakistan as his home and unfortunately did not not lived two more years to find the birth of Bangladesh, which I am sure had been part of his dream for a long time.

Shahidullah in its early days.

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Shahidullah in its early days.

His original home was the village of Peyara in the then district of 24 Parganas, now North 24 Parganas, in the southernmost part of West Bengal. He comes from a traditionally religious family, following the practices of the Sufi faith. He was the son of ‘Munshi’ Mafizuddin Ahmed and Marguba Khatun. His father was a guardian, attached to the Pir Gorachand shrine. His father’s happy decision for his son to receive a modern education has been a blessing to Bengali society and culture.

It seems that life foreordained Shahidullah to become a polyglot and a linguist. In his early years he was exposed to Arabic, Persian and Urdu at home, then at school, where Sanskrit was the only classical language available for study, he had to take it . And he started to like the language. So much so that he pursued the study of Sanskrit in his intermediate arts (then called early arts) and made it his main course of study (with distinction) during his graduate years. In his early school years, he says, “learning languages ​​became an obsession for me. When other boys spent their time flying kites, tops and the like, I spent it to learn languages.” (Amar Sahitya Jiban). One might want to hazard a guess that the similarities (Persian and Sanskrit, for example) and contrasts (Arabic and Sanskrit) in the components and structures of the languages ​​he was learning may have intrigued him, and probably increased his eager to learn more about this subject. absolute human faculty. The theoretical framework in his time was historical and comparative linguistics, a field in which he would later do important work.

Poverty caused interruptions in his studies after his early arts (1906), and he eventually graduated from City College, Calcutta, with reasonable grades in 1910. He was probably the first Indian Muslim student to pursue study of Sanskrit so far. And he was ready, and he had the right, to push further, that is to say to approach Sanskrit in his master’s course at the University of Calcutta, then the only university in the Bengali-speaking regions.

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He faced a rude obstacle to his plans, a Brahmin (most Sanskritists then usually were) teacher of the Vedas in the Department of Sanskrit named Pt. Satyabrata Samashramee, refused to approve the admission of a Muslim boy in this department of the University and threatened to commit suicide by fasting if allowed. People were stunned, but the University authorities, led by the powerful Sir Asutosh Mukherjee, were powerless against such blackmail. The Bengalee newspaper, edited by Surendranath Banerjee (1848-1925) wrote that “Pundits should be thrown into the Ganges”. But the brahmin must not budge from his dark resolve. He wouldn’t teach the Vedas to a Muslim boy. It can be added here that much later, a Bengali girl, this time a Christian, was not allowed to enter the classrooms of the same department but had to sit on a chair outside its doors to listen to the lessons. His name was Sukumari Bhattacharya, who later turned out to be a great Sanskrit scholar. It should also be added that things have changed now. Today, a number of Muslim girls and boys are studying Sanskrit in postgraduate classes at universities in West Bengal, and it is no surprise if any of them top the exams.

Shahidullah in his study room. Photo: Mohammad Taqiullah

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Shahidullah in his study room. Photo: Mohammad Taqiullah

Sir Asutosh, who would also offer his help to Shahidullah later on, finally found a way out. He proposed to Shahidullah to be admitted to the new Department of Comparative Philology (founded in 1904), which the latter did. And, considering everything, we think it was one of the best choices he made in his learning life. Comparative philology, then a completely new discipline in India (the University’s department was also the first of its kind in Asia), would open up a much wider horizon for Shahidullah, and being tied to Sanskrit alone would not suit his polyglot temperament. . I am sure he thoroughly reveled in the linguistic feast offered to him in his department, and it created a new Shahidullah, far more welcome and beneficial to the university than a mere Sanskrit scholar.

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As was the case in a colonized country, excellent results in a somewhat esoteric discipline were not the promise of a guaranteed good career. He got a law degree with his master’s degree (1912), but that didn’t help much either. He has already had to interrupt his higher studies and accept a teaching position at the Jessore district school. Even after getting her master’s degree, her situation did not improve. A short stint as a director in a Muslim orphanage, practicing law at the Basirhat court in his district – were strenuous attempts to find a secure career. In the meantime, he had to turn down a scholarship for higher education in Germany because, according to some, he was unable to obtain medical clearance.

Sir Asutosh came to her aid once again. He reminded Shahidullah of the law saying that “Shahidullah, the bar is not your place, you have to come back to the university.”, and appointed him a researcher in the department of Bengali, at the university, to help the work of Dinesh Chandra Sen, then head of the department. But an offer of an additional 50 rupees is said to have made him leave his alma mater to join the Bengali and Sanskrit department of the newly established University of Dhaka (then Dhaka) in 1921. This determined the place where his ultimate refuge and place of work was going to be. The loss of Calcutta was, without a doubt, a huge gain for Dhaka.

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In Dhaka, Shahidullah seems to have found security and opportunities to expand his activities and interests in many directions. But first let’s cover his linguistic work. It has already been noted that Shahidullah, like Suniti Kumar Chatterjee (1890-1977), his junior in the department, had to work within the framework of comparative and historical linguistics – “philology” in short. Here his major work was ‘Outline of a Historical Grammar of the Bengali Language’, which was published a year before S.K. Chatterjee’s larger work The Origin and Development of the Bengali Languages ​​(1926). In it, Shahidullah’s original contribution was his emphasis on the non-Aryan connections of the Bengali language. He also did pioneering research in Bengali phonetics, at the University of Paris in 1928, for which he received the “Experimental Phonetics Diploma”. His stays in Paris also earned him a doctorate from the University of the Sorbonne, for his study of the dialect of Charya songs. His articles on the Apabhramsa verse of Ramasharman, the linguistic characteristics of the Asokan edicts, Mundari and Bangla, the Aryanization of Ceylon, the origins of Bangla and Ceylonese, the language of Pashto, the Sumerian language and Urdu and a hundred others, including the dialect of the district where he was born, south 24 Parganas. We are surprised by the range of his centers of interest and his investigations, but also by his rather original declarations on the subjects chosen.

Purba Pakistaner Anchalik Bhashar Abhidhan book cover.

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Purba Pakistaner Anchalik Bhashar Abhidhan book cover.

A noted Bengali scholar, Haraprashad Shastri (1853-1931) was then the head of the Bengali-Sanskrit department at Dacca University, and his association stimulated Shahidullah to broaden his scope. Archeology and folklore were brought into its ever-widening orbit. On the one hand, he wrote articles like “The Gita and the truth about Shrikrishna”, “Bharata, Kanva and Vishwamitra”, “A different version of Shrimadbhagabadgita, etc. East Bengal, where one of its richest deposits in the world was located, by founding a “Lokasahitya Samgraha Samiti” in the Department. The Samiti started collecting items of folklore from different parts of East Bengal, supported by a ‘scarce’ stipend from the University. I’m sure the rich collection of tales, proverbs, ballads, oral history, etc. which was published in East Bengal at the beginning of the Pakistani period, undoubtedly came from the impetus given by Shahidullah. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee assesses the contribution of his elder thus: “I have always appreciated his “scientific” approach [temperament], it is a well-reasoned judgment in its discussion of literature and linguistics. He brought new insights into our common areas of interest, phonetics and philology, some of which I gladly accepted, some of which I could not.” Shahidullah’s most valuable contribution was, according to Chatterjee, “Important deliberations on the language and culture of Bengal, and, furthermore, to ensure the contribution of Muslim Bengalis.”