Early life of 'Gyantaposh'

Last updated: 6 October 2017 From the section Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah

Muhammad Shahidullah was born in a devoutly religious family with a long history and noble tradition. His forefathers were khadims (wardens) of the local shrine of Sayed Abbas Ali Makki in Haroa, West Bengal. According to oral tradition, Sayed Abbas Ali Makki came from Makkah, Saudi Arabia, to India to preach Islam in the early decades of the 14th century. In Bengal Abbas Ali Makki came to be known as Pir Gorachand and he was revered both by the Hindus and the Muslims, particularly in the districts of Burdwan and the 24 Parganas in West Bengal.

The deteriorating socio-economic conditions in Bengal forced Shahidullah's forefathers to seek other ways of subsistence. One of Shahidullah's paternal grandfathers, Golam Abed - he was the uncle of Munshi Mafizuddin Ahmed, Shahidullah's dad - joined the Vice-regal Secretariat as the Mir Munshi (Chief Secretary). From that moment onward the family became known as the 'Mir family'.

Muhammad Shahidullah is the sixth child of Munshi Mafizuddin Ahmed and Hurunnessa. At a young age Shahidullah left his village in Peyara near Basirhat and moved to Howrah (located west of Kolkata, across the Hoogli River) where his father had settled and worked as a clerk in the office of the Howrah District Board.

Pressure was always on young Shahidullah to one day take over as khadim of Pir Gorachand shrine. However, Muhammad Shahidullah broke away from tradition and decided to choose a different path to this hereditary service by devoting himself to the study of language. Hungry for knowledge, Muhammad Shahidullah became popularly known as 'Gyantaposh' (one who ardently desires of attaining knowledge).

Born in a middle class Bengali family, Shahidullah imbibed all the characteristic features of the middle class Bengali society. This society, mostly landed gentry, was firmly rooted to the inherited tradition. Adventurism of any sort was against it nature. Conventionalism, if not conservatism, has sustained the fabric of the middle class society. This is by and large true of the middle class all over the world. Shahidullah was the product of this milieu.

Shahidullah, like his contemporaries, well combined in his personality liberalism which was inducted through English education with the inherited values, particularly religious. The destabilising influence of the followers of Henry L. Vivian Derozio (1809 - 1831) was by then a matter of history. Sufism was Shahidullah's family inheritance. The basic tenets of sufism are the oneness of god and that there is no absolute reality but god. (Sufism, incidentally, had great influence on the Bengali life in general). Shahidullah was deeply religious but free from any prejudice. He participated in all religious meetings and congregations. He attended meetings of the Ramkrishna Mission. He was also interested in Buddhism. This interest may be due to his studies in the language of the Asokan edicts in particular and the Middle Indic in general. Nevertheless, it gave a new dimension to the character of the man.

Subhadra Kumar Sen, author of "Muhammad Shahidullah" (1998)


First Muslim student to graduate with honours in Sanskrit

As with the custom in those days, Muhammad Shahidullah had his initial schooling in the village. He was first admitted to the Belileous Middle English School. However, eventually he passed his Middle English School Examination in 1899 from the Pancanantala ME School where he offered Sanskrit as the third or "classical" language. He learnt Sanskrit so well that throughout his school life he never stood second in the subject. At a very early age Shahidullah developed an interest in languages. While still in school he started to learn Persian, Urdu, Hindi and Oriya on his own.

In 1904 Muhammad Shahidullah passed his finals - known as the University Entrance Examination at that time - from Howrah Zila (District) School in the first division. He had been admitted to the Calcutta Madrasa. There was no college department in the Madrasa so the students had to attend the Presidency College in Kolkata for their studies. In 1906 Shahidullah passed the First Arts Examination (equivalent to HSC) with Sanskrit as one of his subjects. Subsequently he joined the Hoogly College as a Bachelor of Arts (BA) student with double Honours in Sanskrit and English. At the advice of Harinath De, the then Principal of the College, Muhammad Shahidullah dropped English and concentrated only on Sanskrit.

Throughout his two-year stay there Muhammad Shahidullah was afflicted with malaria so he gave up studies and moved to Jessore (in present day Bangladesh) to work as an assistant teacher for a short while. In 1909 Muhammad Shahidullah appeared at the BA Examination as a private candidate from Jessore. This time, he secured the pass mark in all the subjects but fell agonisingly short of the overall (or aggregate) total required to be declared pass by only one mark. He returned to Kolkata and was admitted to the City College. Finally in 1910 he graduated with BA degree with Honours in Sanskrit ranking second class and securing the highest mark in the Vedic paper. Muhammad Shahidullah became the first Muslim student to have graduated BA with Honours in Sanskrit.

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.

Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah

"Shahidullah Affair" controversy

After graduation Muhammad Shahidullah duly enrolled himself in the Post-Graduate Department of Sanskrit in the University of Calcutta for the Master of Arts (MA) course. The department was relatively new. It was started few years earlier with a view to fostering the study of Vedas, which had been in decline and for which little opportunity was available elsewhere.

When the New Regulations were adopted under the Indian Universities Act of 1904, the University had felt greatly the lack of any facilities whatsoever for higher teaching of Sanskrit under its own auspices. First, the teaching of the Vedas had been sadly neglected so far and some arrangement for the revival of Vedic studies was very much necessary. Secondly, it was essential that the University should take the lead in teaching several branches of Sanskrit according to modern scientific methods.

In 1907 the University appointed Satyabrata Samasramy (1846-1911) who had devoted a life-time to the Vedic studies, to deliver lectures to advanced students on the Vedas and along with several other reputed scholars in Sanskrit for teaching in different branches of Sanskrit learning.


But Muhammad Shahidullah was to receive a rude shock. Some teachers of the department refused to teach Vedas and Vedanta to a Muslim student. Muhammad Shahidullah tried to convince the teachers but they refused to listen and the Calcutta University Syndicate regretted its inability to take any action in this matter. This refusal created an uproar and became known as the "Shahidullah Affair".

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.

Maulana Muhammad Ali, Editor of The Comrade

Today, these orthodox pundits should be thrown into the Ganges.

Suren Banerjee, Editor of The Bengali

Proficient in 18 languages!

A victim of circumstances, unfortunately for Muhammad Shahidullah the reluctant teachers won the battle. The Calcutta University Senate was compelled to open a new department on Comparative Philology and Muhammad Shahidullah became the first and only student of the department. Since Comparative Philology "was not a bread and butter subject" few other students were attracted to it.

The number of students attending the lectures on Comparative Philology was limited. There were four hours lectures on Comparative Philology in a week. The two out of the four lectures were shared in common with the students of the Sanskrit Department. Some students of the Department of Comparative Philology complained of the existing arrangement as inadequate to cover the course and prayed for two hours more that could entirely be devoted to them. Additional lectures for two hours' a week exclusively for the students of Comparative Philology were granted by the Syndicate.


Muhammad Shahidullah eventually took his MA Examination in June 1912 and passed when the result was declared on 30 December 1912.

...for the first time in the history of the University, one of our graduates, a Muhammedan [i.e. Muslim], I am glad to say, took the M.A. degree in Comparative Philology in 1912 and he has been followed by other successful candidates this year...

Vice-Chancellor Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee addresses the Senate and congratulates Muhammad Shahidullah for becoming the first person to take and pass the MA examination in Comparative Philology

Though Muhammad Shahidullah was not allowed to study Sanskrit in MA, as a student of comparative philology he gained valuable insight into different ways of learning foreign languages. This helped Muhammad Shahidullah become proficient in 18 languages by the end of his illustrious career. These included Bangla, Urdu, Arabic, Farsi, Sanskrit, English, German, and French amongst others.

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.


It is a matter of pride for Pakistan that Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah can claim knowledge of as many as eighteen languages, among them English and French.

Anwar S. Dil, co-author of "Shahidullah Presentation Volume" (1966)

Another feature of Shahidullah's middle class upbringing is noticed in his choice of his profession. Linguistics, then, was a little-known subject outside the University circle. Naturally, it then - perhaps as it is even today - was not at all an economically viable discipline. It offered very little scope for employment. Additionally the financial state of the Calcutta University was then very unstable. It had to depend entirely on the grants released by the Government which varied from year to year. Under the circumstances a young man who stepped out of the University with an M. A. diploma in Comparative Philology, had a very uncertain future before him. Had Shahidullah been troubled by the considerations of mere creature comfort he would have joined the Bar. True he did have a short stint in the Basirhat Court. But as soon as the opportunity came he hung up his 'gown'.

Subhadra Kumar Sen, author of "Muhammad Shahidullah" (1998)

Law graduate

In 1913 the Government of India offered a scholarship for the scientific study of Sanskrit in Europe. The state scholarship was initiated by the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee. Muhammad Shahidullah was awarded the scholarship and formally admitted to the University of Freiburg in Germany after receiving recommendation from Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee and the patronage of Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury, a Member of the Calcutta University Senate. However, once again, luck was not on his side. Muhammad Shahidullah was disqualified in the medical test and the Principal of the Medical College refused to issue him a medical certificate. Thus Muhammad Shahidullah missed the scholarship.

Not one to give, Muhammad Shahidullah joined the Law classes following the general trend of the young graduates of his time. Some of his illustrious classmates included Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy (later Prime Minister of Pakistan and founding member of Awami League), Ramesh Chandra Majumdar (later Indian historian of great repute), Sushil Kumar De (later his counterpart at Department of Bengali and Sanskrit at Dhaka University) and Maulana Mohammad Akram Khan (later founder of first Bengali newspaper The Azad). Muhammad Shahidullah passed his Law (LLB) degree from Calcutta University with second division two years later in 1914.

  • Ashutosh Mukherjee (29 June 1864 - 25 May 1924) Prolific Bengali educator and the second Indian Vice Chancellor of the University of Calcutta.
  • Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury ()
  • Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy ()
  • Ramesh Chandra Majumdar ()
  • Sushil Kumar De ()
  • Maulana Mohammad Akram Khan ()

It may appear strange that Shahidullah studied LLB after having an MA degree in Comparative Philology, but he did so to acquire knowledge.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)