The dying art of letter-writing and Dr Hamidullah’s letters

WE may term letter-writing a dying art today. I mean the real letter, handwritten on a piece of paper and sent through what is known as ‘snail mail’ in today’s technologically adva­nced world as communicating with someone is proverbially just a few clicks away.

Some may even say sending letters in a conventional way is waste of time now. But Lord Morley was perhaps a bit cynical when he said of letter-writing that it was “the most delightful way of wasting time”. Well, maybe. But some cranky old men like this writer may say that social media is the fastest, cheapest and meanest way of wasting time.

Email and other modern communication techniques may have consigned the conventional letters to the grave, but you would perhaps agree that receiving a letter through the post has a thrill of its own. And, as the Arabic proverb goes, a letter is half as good as meeting someone personally. An old-fashioned letter may offer the sincerity, originality of expression and creativity that most of the emails lack. And, the old-fashioned, handwritten, delivered-in-post letters are known for their depth and the real inner feelings.

Some of the intellectuals who were prolific letter writers too opened up a whole new world of thought. Their personal letters offer glimpses of their personal life as well as their inner thoughts and deeper feelings that we could hardly find in their formal writings.

One such example is Dr Muhammad Hamidullah. He was as prolific when it came to writing letters: in addition to over 170 books in several languages — including French, English, Arabic, Urdu and Persian — Dr Hamidullah penned thousands of letters to his friends, relatives and the seekers of knowledge who wrote to him and they included students, researchers, teachers, scholars and intellectuals.

Replying to a letter was a ritual that Muhammad Hamidullah sahib religiously followed. Hardly, if ever, there was any letter that he did not reply to. Though some of the letters that he received might have been a distraction for him and would have cost him the most precious of his assets: time. Dr Hamidullah spent almost every moment of his waking hours reading, writing, editing, teaching and thinking. He never married and lived in a very modest Paris apartment, brimming with books, research papers, manuscripts and other original and extremely rare material on Islam. Dr Hamidullah was the first Muslim to have translated the Holy Quran into French. This translation has run into about 20 editions.

His research in several languages on Hadith, the Islamic law, Islamic history and other related subjects is considered original, monumental and authentic. During his stay in France for about half a century, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of non-Muslims, mostly French, embraced Islam through his teachings.

Although common readers may not be aware of Dr Muhammad Hamidullah’s works and the value they carry, scholars have done some wonderful job to bring to light Hamidullah’s life and his works through their books and articles. For instance, Rashid Sheikh’s Dr Muhammad Hamid­ullah: Hayat, Khidmaat, Mak­toobaat (2014), Muhammad Alam Mukhtar-i-Haq’s Nigarishaat-i-Dr Hamidullah (2012) (in three volumes) and July-June 2004 issue of Maarif-e-Islami, a research journal published by Allama Iqbal Open University, have captured the most vital information on Dr Hamidullah’s contribution to research on Islam and his life.

Now Dr Rafiuddin Hashmi has come up with a collection of Dr Hamidullah’s hitherto unpublished letters. Titled Makateeb-i-Dr Muhammad Hamidullah and subtitled Banaam Muhammad Tufail (Paris), the book offers 76 letters that Dr Hamidullah wrote to Tufail. Muhammad Tufail was a friend of Hamidullah’s and a civil servant. To distinguish him from Muhammad Tufail, the celebrated editor of Nuqoosh, Lahore (who died in 1986), the word ‘Paris’ has been added to the title as Tufail, the civil servant, had settled in Paris after his retirement and died there in 2006.

Additionally, the book has an appendix that includes 26 letters written by Muhammad Tufail (Paris) to Dr Rafiuddin Hashmi and seven letters written by Abdur Rahman Bazmi to Muhammad Tufail (Paris). In addition to the facsimile of some letters the book offers the translation of Dr Hamidullah’s interview published in the January-March 2003 issue of Impact International, London.

Some of the letters included in the book carry invaluable information on history, Islam and related topics. Others offer some personal info and are evidence of Hamidullah’s unrelenting passion to serve Islam and Muslims. Tufail had written to Hashmi sahib that Hamidullah had spared everything for the service of Islam and Muslims in France. As put by Mirza Muhammad Munavver, Hamidullah had spent most of his adult life in acquiring knowledge and spreading it. Dr Muhammad Hamidullah died in the USA on December 17, 2002.

Published by Qirtas, Karachi, the book shows that letter-writing is a noble art and the old-fashioned letters have something to offer that emails don’t.

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Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2021

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