Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah
By S. Arif Hussaini
IRVINE, CALIFORNIA — By any measure the most outstanding Islamic scholar of the twentieth century, Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, 94, passed away in Jacksonville, Florida on December 17, 2002.
Dr. Hamidullah was my law professor for almost four years, over half a century back at the Osmania University in Hyderabad State.
Since there were only three students in his LL.M class, we used to visit his house, instead of the far-away university campus, to receive his lectures and guidance.
That brought us a little closer, but his academic attainments and stature, and the torrent of knowledge gushing forth from his lips inspired so much of respect for him that none of us could take the liberty of being frivolous just because we were sitting in the guest room of his modest family house.
Matter of fact, there was just no room for any frivolity in his entire life. He had no time for it.
That explains his ability to produce over 100 weighty works on various aspects of Islam in addition to more than 1000 scholarly papers.
He was more prolific, despite adhering meticulously to the dictates of scholarship, than many pop fiction writers referred to by literary critics as pulp producers.
What surprised me most was his ability to learn foreign languages. He was learning Indonesian while I used to visit his house to receive his tutoring. Often I saw an Indonesian teacher in his sitting room. He told me that he wanted to learn the languages of all Muslim societies so that he could study their books on Islam in their own languages, particularly as translations of such books into international languages were often not available.
Apart from his mother tongue, Urdu, the Eastern languages that he mastered included Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Of the Western languages, he acquired complete command on were English, French, German and Italian.
According to his grand-niece, Sadida Athaulla, at whose house in Florida he breathed his last, he could converse in 22 languages and that he had learned Thai at the age of 85.
That reminds me of my own experience with Thai. While serving at our embassy in Bangkok, I spent over a year on learning that language but I had to gave up the effort as I couldn’t handle its syntax and the pronunciation of some of its alphabets.
Then it was superimposing itself over the smattering of Indonesian which I had earlier acquired in Jakarta.
Dr. Hamidullah had, on the other hand, the unique faculty of storing his knowledge of languages in separate compartments of his brain, one for each. He rarely mixed the words of one while using the other.
While composing the script of the first book in Urdu on the principles of company law, I consulted him on Urdu equivalents of certain English fiscal terms. He would give them to me almost directly – a facility God had bestowed upon him.
Each time I consulted him, I couldn’t help marveling at the appropriateness of the words he would suggest with an uncanny ease, particularly as I would approach him only after poring over dictionaries for hours.
Of his works, the translation of the Quran into French is perhaps the most celebrated. Some two dozen editions of it have already been published.
His other popular works are:
1. ‘Muslim Conduct of State’
2. ‘Introduction to Islam’, and
3. ‘Bahawalpur Lectures’.
All of these have gone into numerous prints. The Bahawalpur Lectures, a veritable treasure chest of knowledge on different facets of Islam, has been translated into English by the late Dr. Afzal Iqbal, a former ambassador of Pakistan and an author himself of some twenty books connected with Islam.
The lectures were delivered extempore at the Bahawalpur University and their tapes were later transcribed and published.
Going through this book (half a dozen prints of it have already been brought out), I was awestruck by the depth of the knowledge of Prof. Hamidullah and his unique ability to communicate complex themes in the simplest manner.
The question and answer session at the end of each lecture, reproduced verbatim in the book, is highly educative, inasmuch as the Professor has provided convincing answers to the queries of even the cynics and agnostics.
Dr. Aslam Abdullah, an Islamic scholar and editor of Muslim Observer has correctly summed up the personality of Dr. Hamidullah in the following words: “I had the opportunity to visit him a few years ago in Wilkes Barre [Pennsylania]. At his feet I learned the lesson of humility and anonymity. I learned the art of patience and total service and dedication to Islam. He had no grudge against those who harmed him. He even prayed for those who often tried to humiliate him for his opinion.” Simplicity and humility are often the qualities of all great men. Dr. Hamidullah excelled many of them in this respect. Although for many students of Islam, Dr. Hamidullah was a Paris landmark not to be missed, he lived there in a sixth-floor flat of a modest building which had no elevator; one had to climb 114 steps to reach his door.
He declined the highest civil award of Pakistan offered by President Zia as it went against his inherent humility and self-effacing character. He donated to the Islamic Research Institute, Islamabad, the cash award of one million rupees bestowed upon him for his services to Islam during the 15th century Hijra celebrations.
Considering his weak health, PM Nawaz Sharif, on a visit to Paris, offered to provide him with certain facilities. He decline the offer declaring that they would, particularly the caregivers, hamper his lifestyle. He preferred to prepare his own meals and attend to other household chores. He lived alone and his simple living placed few demands on his time. He always donned inexpensive sherwani, kurta, pajama and fur (Jinnah) cap even in Europe.
Sadequain, the world renowned painter, was the only other person I knew who stuck similarly to his national costume even in Paris.
Dr. Hamidullah’s strong loyalty to the concept of an independent Hyderabad State, made him decline all overtures by various rulers of Pakistan to accept that state’s citizenship. He rejected similarly the citizenship of India too. He had traveled abroad on a document issued by the Hyderabad State but the State was annexed and liquidated by India in September, 1948. His travel document thus became invalid and he was provided refuge as a stateless person by the Government of France.
The refugee travel document issued to him by French authorities did not admit of his remaining out of France for more than five months. He never married as he did not want his spouse to be subjected to such a restriction. He was himself quite comfortable with the arrangement as he found himself surrounded in Paris with large libraries and distinguished seats of learning.
A Ph.D. from Bonn University and a D.Litt from Sorbonne, Paris, he worked for 24 years (1954-78) as a research scholar at the French National Center for Scientific Research. He was also a visiting Professor at the University of Istanbul.
Six years back he was hospitalized for hypothermia. His brother’s grand-daughter, Sadida, prevailed upon him to move to her place in the US for medical treatment. He breathed his last without any pang at Sadida’s place during his nap after Fajr prayers and breakfast.
That was the death of a great scholar, a great man of character, and above all a great benefactor of the Muslim Umma. May Allah rest his soul in peace.