Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, An Essay By Ayaz Abdal
An objection/argument often raised against Islam is that there is a dearth of good researchers and scholars (and too many mullahs). Another argument frequently bandied about Islam is that there is an absence of a personality that may be used as a model for the modern Islamic scholar. However, those who present this argument may not be aware of the name and the literary accomplishments of Dr. Hamidullah.
Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah was born in 1908 in Hyderabad Deccan, and descended from an illustrious literary family; his great grandfather, Muhammad Ghaws Sharfu’l-Mulk (d. 1822), has written more than 30 books, including a commentary on the Quran in seven volumes in Arabic, Persian and Urdu. His maternal grandfather too is the author of a large number of books, amongst them, a tafsir.
Dr. Hamidullah was the youngest amongst the three brothers and five sisters, who were all well versed in Arabic, Persian and Urdu as well as in Islamic learning. He received his early education at home, first from his sisters and then from his father. Later, he was admitted to the Madrasah Nizamiyyah or Jamia Nizammiya where he passed the examination for the degree of Mawlvi Kamil with honors, in 1924. At the same time, when he was only 16, he started his publishing career. Aware of his father’s antipathy towards English education, the young Hamidullah secretly sat for the matriculation examination and, when the results were declared, topped the list of successful candidates.
Hamidullah took admission in Osmania University in 1924 and passed the B.A., LL.B., and M.A. examinations in the First division. He was awarded a fellowship by Osmania University to pursue doctoral studies in Islamic International Law. He was regarded as a student who understood the importance of time and never missed a class. Only once did he come late to his class, by only half an hour — the day his mother died. He traveled to several Islamic as well as European countries in order to collect information for his research. He was awarded a D.Phil. by Bonn University in 1932. He was appointed an honorary lecturer in Arabic and Urdu at Bonn University. After spending some time in Germany, he went to Paris where he registered at the Sorbonne for another doctoral degree. In a short period of only eleven months, the Sorbonne conferred on him the degree of D. Lit.
The original purpose for his journey to Europe was to collect data for his doctoral thesis. However, he was offered various lucrative positions at Bonn and Sorbonne Universities after receiving their degrees. Since his journey to Europe was on Government funds, a precondition was to return to teach at Osmania University, and even though he was made attractive offers, he opted to fulfill his promise to return to Osmania. When he came back to Osmania, for a few months, there was no immediate position available, but later he was appointed as a Reader. When Hyderabad fell in 1948, he went to Paris and joined the Sorbonne where he worked until the end of his life.
Justice M.B. Ahmed, Secretary of the first Constitution Assembly of Pakistan, went to Paris to request his assistance to design the first constitution. Dr. Hamidullah was asked about his conditions and remuneration. He replied, “I have just one condition, do not stop me when I will decide to go back to Paris’. He refused to answer any other question regarding his remuneration. When he landed in Karachi, he was offered quarters at the Prime Minister’s House, but he decided to live at his cousin’s house at Khudadad Colony. He refused to receive a single penny from the Government of Pakistan for the services he provided. After designing the basic structure of the first Constitution and the Objectives Resolution, he decided to leave. When the Government requested him to stay he said, “Do not waste my time, I don’t see any intention and will to work’. How prescient he was!
Perhaps his most talked about work was ‘Khutbaat-e-Bahawalpur’ (The Bahawalpur Lectures). These are a series of lectures and subsequent question and answer sessions. This book not only provides the history of Quran and Hadith but the introduction of the stringent rules used to verify the validity of the Hadith. It introduces the basics of Islamic jurisprudence, Ijtehad and Islam’s view of International Law. It also provides details of the principles of governance, systems of defense, wars, education, foreign policy, history, courts and finance during the time of the Prophet. More importantly, it also explains the principle of preaching of Islam and the way it handled non-Muslims during those days. His works like ‘Neutrality in Muslim International Law and Muslim Conduct of State’ or simply ‘The Muslim Conduct of State’ were regarded as one of the first in any Western language. During those times, the authoritative book on the subject was L.F.L. Oppenheim’s ‘International Law’. Dr. Hamidullah used the book as a model. Based on its topic list, he researched Fiqah and, in fact, the whole Islamic knowledge base including history, seerat, Muslim weapon systems, memoirs of Muslim sailors, travelogues, etc. to present the same topics from an Islamic perspective. He did not stop his research at this point but there were eight more editions of his book from 1941 to his death, and with each came new additions and details. It will be worthwhile to mention that Dr. Hamidullah was fluent in 22 languages including Urdu, Arabic, Persian, French, English, etc., and learned Thai at the age of 84!
After this, he turned his interest towards the history of Hadith. The biggest objection raised by scholars about Hadith is that it is not historically proven, as most of the collections were first published in the third century. Prior to that, they were transmitted through memory and it is possible that they were corrupted. With his research, he proved that writing and compilation of Hadith was started at the time of the Prophet, and later transmitted to Tabieens (followers of Sahabas). In 1942, he started his research on the sources of Bukhari. One of his major sources was Imam Abdul Razzaq Sanaani. He found out that it was in written form as a manuscript and was published. Razzaq’s teacher was Moammer Bin Rashid whose written collection is now published too. There were two sources of Ibne Rashid; ‘Saheefa-e-Saadiq’ by Abdullah bin Umro bin Alaas who compiled a written collection of 500 hadith at the time of the Prophet. Another was ‘Sahifa Hamman bin Munibah’ who was a student of Hazrat Abu Hurrairah. Through this, he proved that Bukhari’s collection was not just hearsay but written collections from the earliest sources.
A natural by-product of researching Hadith is to have an interest in Seerat. His French book of Seerat is a unique book on this topic. Usually the pattern is to describe what happened where. Hamidullah went a step further. When a war happened at a certain place, he asked, why that location? Why with that tribe? Why were only certain tribes asked for help? This was only possible after understanding the whole chemistry of tribal society and their intertwined relationships. Some of the answers came after in-depth research of almost 35-40 years.
For example, the Prophet selected Umro bin Ummaya Al Dummri as his first ambassador to Nijashi. But why Umro? None of the seerat books provides the answer. For this, he researched the history of the Bano Dummra tribe. He discovered the relationship the tribe had with Nijashi’s family for the past 250 years. Nijashi had a dispute with a relative in his youth. He had to leave Habsha and had to take shelter at Bano Dummra with an elder of Umro. That shed a new light on the strategy of the Prophet on selecting of his first ambassador.
A publisher gave him an ancient book of Botany by Abu Hanifa Dinori called ‘Al Nibaat’ for editing. Only one volume was available and the other was lost. Although he edited the book but while writing his notes, he realized that when Muslims wrote about Medicine, they referred heavily to this book. Arabic Dictionaries also referred to this book. He started the ancient Arabic Dictionaries and then the book of medicines by Zakaria Razi and other authors, and finally was able to recreate the entire second volume. Nobody believed that a person could be able to do it in one lifetime.
Lastly, I want to give a very small example for his penchant for research. ‘Izhar ul Haque’ is a famous book by Maulana Rehmat ullah Keeranvi. The book is a critique of Christianity and the Bible. In his advertisement, the publisher mentioned that [the] London Times had written that had this book been translated and published in the West, it could have ended Christianity. Dr. Hamidullah wrote to him that he has gone through all the issues of the said newspaper from the 1800s and could not find this claim. He asked the publisher to please provide his source.
The questions and answers at the end of ‘Khutbaat-e-Bahawalpur’ provide an excellent source about his thought process. Somebody asked him about the right way of Salat. He explained one sect of Ahl-e-Sunnah prays with hands folded, and another one and Ahl-e-Tashih pray while hands unfolded. The Hambali sect of Ahl-e-Sunnah also prays with hands unfolded. He told a story of his school when his headmaster came and asked the students who is Sunni and who is Shia. Then he told the students never to fight about who you are and how you pray. There is a reason for the difference. The Prophet prayed both ways in different times. Allah loved him so much that he saved his every Sunnah until Qiyamat. This is the reason why Muslim prays in different ways. Another question was raised about the Imamat of Umm-e-Warqa leading the prayers. Men used to pray behind her. There were some doubts about whether it was early Islam. However, he researched and found out that she led the prayers until the times of Hazrat Omar Farooq. He then presented his opinion that this was an exception to the common rule due to necessities. He gave his personal experience about an Afghan student. Her fellow Dutch student fell in love with her. He converted to Islam and got married. He not just accepted Islam but was a follower in the true spirit. He wanted to learn Salat and asked his wife to be his Imam so he can learn properly. The girl asked Hamidullah whether it is allowed. Hamidullah laughed and said that if you have gone to a maulvi, he would have given a different answer, but the rule of exception applies over here, and yes, you could be his Imam too so he can learn Salat properly.
In the same series of lectures, he also proved that during the time of the Prophet, there was a system of insurance.
He lived his entire life in a one-room apartment full of books. After retirement, he continued his research. One day, he found out that somebody had stolen his cheque book and cleaned his bank account. He did not know what to do. Some days later, he was found him unconscious in his room. It was later discovered that he had not eaten for three days, as he had no money. When this news broke out his grandniece took him to Florida where he breathed his last in 2002.
The above lines cannot describe the amount of research he has done and the information available in his books. However, I truly believe that in order to understand Islam in its true spirit, it is necessary to read his books and follow his principles, not accepting anything as fact until it is properly researched using logic and common sense.
Source: Ayaz Abdal’s Blog