Early life of 'Gyantaposh'

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)


Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah has seven sons and two daughters. His third son A.K.M. Zakiyullah established a school named 'Dr. Shahidullah Gyanpith' in Hazi Osman Goni Road, Alu bazaar (Old Dhaka) and a research library named ’Dr. Shahidullah Memorial Library and Language Research Center’ in Senpara Parbata, Mirpur-10, Dhaka. Another of his son Dr. Abul Bayan M. Naqiyyullah (M.S) studied in George Washington University in Washington DC, USA and settled in Cairo, Egypt after serving as a pathologist in Saudi Arabia. He married an Egyptian women and has two sons and three daughters.

Another of Dr. Shahidullah's son, A.K.M. Bashirullah - known popularly by his alias Murtaja Baseer - is considered as one of the most stylish and foremost painters in Bangladesh.

  • Abul Bayan M. Naqiyyullah ()
  • Murtaja Baseer (aka A. K. M. Bashirullah) ()

People think that Dr. Shahidullah was against my decision to become [an artist], but that is not right. He disagreed but never stood in the way. My father said in explanation: "When I was living in Paris, I witnessed the life of a painter haunted by poverty and meted out inhuman treatment by his fellow countrymen. The life of an artist is never easy. So, I do not want you to embrace this troubled fate. First, you should complete your education and then go for art. In fact, I would rather you go to Aligarh".

Initially my objective was not to become a painter. I was closely engaged to a political party and I tried to go by the party's rules. The Communist Party ordered me to work towards a political organisation. I got admitted to art school. When I was a student of class nine, I became a member of the Student Federation. Then I did many portraits of Marx, Engles, Lenin, Stalin and other renowned leftists. When my father saw that I wished to be admitted to art school, he asked me to go to Shantiniketan. But I did not agree with him. Then one day he gave me money for admission and called me to his library. There was a mahogany cabinet where he kept valuable books. There were two books, which had colourful photographs of the Louvre Museum. That cabinet was always locked. I liked those two books, especially the nude paintings in them. I was taken aback when my father handed over the books which were priceless aesthetically.

My father sent me to Italy in 1956 for higher education in art. On my return home in 1959, I prepared for a solo exhibition in Karachi. My father was in the Urdu Development Board then. He invited the then Education Minister Habibur Rahman to inaugurate my exhibition and wrote on the invitation card, "Introducing my son, Murtaja Baseer - Artist". American Friends of the Middle East arranged the exhibition.

In Florence, Italy, I was included in an exhibition of nine painters from East Pakistan in 1957. A review was published in the Pakistan Observer, where I was referred to as 'Murtaja Rashid'. My father immediately wrote a letter to the editor of Pakistan Observer pointing out that my name had been spelt wrong. In the letter, he appreciated my works and wrote out my correct name. Afterwards, I changed my name to ‘Murtaja Baseer’. My father was very displeased with me. When he wrote to me, he addressed me as A.K.M. Bashirullah alias Murtaja Baseer. He hardly used Murtaja Baseer. Fortunately, he always treated me as an artist.

When my father visited our ancestral home in Chobbish Pargana (West Bengal), I requested him to buy some tubes of colours which he bought for me. In 1961, I was living in Lahore and requested him to send some canvases for me. He was kind enough to send those canvases to me as well. Often he asked me to come back to Dhaka and settle down.

At the end of 1961, I came back to Dhaka and did a solo exhibition, organised by the Congress for Cultural Freedom. On that occasion, Bangla Academy organised a seminar on 'Modern Man and Modern Art'. The chief orator was A.K. Brohi and my father attended the programme. During a conversation Brohi asked my father to comment on me as a modern painter. My father confessed, "My son is as complicated as modern art is to me".

That night my father came to my room and said, "Art should be a thing of beauty as I had seen in the galleries of Paris. Why do your works look bizarre? However, I have to admit that one of your paintings called Dead Lizard really fascinated me". I explained to my father that this 'dead lizard' represented our decadent society. "You and I both are meta-physical". My father agreed with my opinion.

Murtaja Baseer recalls how his father Dr. Shahidullah encouraged him to pursue a career as an artist


Temporarily unable to continue his studies due to his illness, Muhammad Shahidullah began his professional career by working as an assistant teacher in Jessore Zila School in 1908. He held this position for a year. In 1914, after completing his M.A. and Law courses, Muhammad Shahidullah was appointed Head Master of Sitakunda High School in Chittagong. The following year he gave up that position and returned to his native place. Since he could not get any job at that time he started to practice law at Bashirgat Subdivisional Court in his home district of 24 (Chobbish) Parganas. He was elected vice-chairman of the town’s municipality.

Shahidullah was never happy in the stifling uncongenial atmosphere of the Judge's Court. It was not his place. He was a complete misfit there - a fish out of water. He was aching to pursue his studies more vigorously, to undertake serious research projects. He was torn within.


Subhadra Kumar Sen

Research Assistant at Calcutta University

After five years of practising law Muhammad Shahidullah left the bar when a chance meeting with Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee encouraged him to return to the academic circle.

Shahidullah, the Bar is not for you, please join us in the university.

Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee's plea to Muhammad Shahidullah

Fully realising the sad predicament of this young scholar Sir Ashutosh offered Muhammad Shahidullah a research assistant role at Rs. 200 per month. Thus, on 1 June 1919 Muhammad Shahidullah worked as Sharatchandra Lahiri Research Fellow under Dinesh Chandra Sen, head of the Department of Bengali, at the University of Calcutta. This was just the break Muhammad Shahidullah was looking for. Thereafter he never looked back.

  • Dinesh Chandra Sen ()

Bengali Philology now occupies a very prominent position in the higher studies of this University. It occupies a place in the Department of Comparative Philology as also in the newly established Department of Indian Vernaculars. Shahidullah was the first amongst our graduates to take the Degree of Master of Arts in Comparative Philology. Since then he has been engaged in original research in Bengali Philology and has published a number of very important papers. To me personally it is very gratifying that for a work of this description we have been able to secure the services of a competent Muhammedan gentleman. Maulavi Muhammad Shahidullah took Honours in Sanskrit at the B.A. Examination and he was most anxious to proceed to the Degree of Master of Arts in Sanskrit but our orthodox Pundits did not agree to deliver lectures to him on the Vedas. He, therefore, took Comparative Philology. He is acquainted with a number of languages, among which are Pali, Sanskrit and Persian. I recommend that the appointment be sanctioned.

Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee recommends Muhammad Shahidullah to the University's Syndicate for the assistant role

First chair of Department of Bengali at Dhaka University

Two years later, on 2 June 1921, Muhammad Shahidullah joined the newly established University of Dhaka as a lecturer in the Department of Bengali and Sanskrit. Officially he assumed the responsibility from 1 July 1921 but he joined the University a month in advance upon the request of Mahamahopadhyaya Hara Prasad Shastri, a well known indologist and scholar of great repute.

This was the most important period of his life from an academic point of view. From 1921 to 1954 Muhammad Shahidullah was associated with the Department in one capacity or another barring the period of sabbatical (1926 - 28). He was the sole Lecturer in the Bengali language for the first four years. In 1924 Charu Chandra Banerjee joined as the second lecturer in Bengali. Meantime, Muhammad Shahidullah researched on the origins of the Bangla language and in 1925 was able to prove that Bangla originated from Gaudi or Magdhi Prakrit.

  • Mahamahopadhyaya Hara Prasad Shastri ()
  • Charu Chandra Banerjee ()

Mahamahopadhyaya Hara Prasad Shastri entrusted Shahidullah with the drafting of the syllabus for the M. A. Course in Bengali. This gave Shahidullah the opportunity to show the range and depth of his scholarship. Shahidullah understood that if Bengali studies had to mature as an academic discipline in the European sense of the term proper and adequate weightage should be given to both the linguistic and the literary aspects. Thus the study of Bengali literature must begin from the oldest period of the Bengali language, i.e. the Charya songs (circa 1000 A. D.). The language of these songs structurally differs significantly from that of modern Bengali. Hence philological study should form as important a component as literary criticism or aesthetics. The clarity of the academic vision as reflected in the drafted syllabus was appreciated by Shastri and it was adopted without any significant change. As a matter of fact the syllabus continued unchanged for many many years.

Travels to Europe and becomes first Indian Muslim to receive doctorate degree

In September 1926 Muhammad Shahidullah took study leave for two years and sailed 6,000 miles to Europe for higher studies mostly in France and marginally in Germany. He enrolled in the University of Sorbonne in Paris, France, and studied Vedic and Buddhist Sanskrit, Tibetan and Old Persian languages. Among his teachers were Jules Bloch, Anloine Mcillet, Benveniste, Jean Pruzuluski, Bacot, and Renou. At the same time Muhammad Shahidullah joined Archive de la Parole for special training in Phonetics under H.Pernot. Eventually he settled down to work on his thesis. His thesis was the first full-length comprehensive linguistic study of the Dohas of Kanha and Saraha, the dialects of the Charyapada. For the preparation of his thesis he had to study modern languages like Maithili, Panjabi, Gujarati, Sindhi, Marathi, Lahnda. Kashmiri. Nepali, Sinhalese and old languages like Avestan and the Prakrits.

Shahidullah has the rare privilege to prepare his thesis under Jules Bloch - the greatest scholar of Indo-Aryan linguistics of the time.


In 1928 Shahidullah submitted his thesis entitled "Les Chants Mystiques de Kanha et de Saraha" (Songs of the mystics Kanha and Saraha). The thesis was accepted by the University of Sorbonne and the doctorate (PhD) was conferred on him. The 43-year-old became the first Indian Muslim to receive the doctorate degree. He also submitted a research paper in Phonetics on the sound system of Bengali entitled "Les sons du Bengali" and received a Diploma in Phonetics from the University of Paris.

After successfully completing his study in Paris, Muhammad Shahidullah went to (Albert Ludwig) University of Freiburg in Germany to study Vedic Sanskrit and the Prakrits. Professor Leumann was his teacher.

His great thirst for knowledge did not allow him rest for a single moment. He kept late hours at night for study even at old age.


In August 1928 Dr. Shahidullah returned home and started teaching once again at Dhaka University. During 1934 - 1935 Batakrishna Ghosh was appointed a temporary lecturer in the University as Sushil Kumar De had taken leave for the rest of the session to work on a critical edition of the Mahabharata at the invitation of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. Dr. Shahidullah filled the role of the Head of the Bengali and Sanskrit Department in Sushil Kumar De's absence.

In 1937 the Department for Bengali and Sanskrit was split into two separate departments and Dr. Shahidullah became the head of the Bangla Department whilst his counterpart Dr. Sushil Kumar De was assigned the responsibility of the Sanskrit Department. The year 1937 also saw the introduction of Bengali as a subject in the Honours course as well as in the M.A. Course. The introduction of Bengali in the Honours Course had been started at the Calcutta University much later.

In 1944 Dr. Shahidullah retired as Reader and Head of the Department of Bengali. His role as the Head of the Bengali Department was filled by Manamohan Ghosh who came from the University of Calcutta. But Ghosh only worked for three years and Ganesh Chandra Bose was appointed as his successor.

Working beyond retirement

Dr. Shahidullah continued to work despite his retirement. He became principal of Bogra Azizul Huq College after retirement. He then rejoined the Bangla Department of DU in 1948 as a supernumerary teacher and taught there for six years as departmental head and dean of the faculty of arts. He retired for the second time on 15 November 1954 and Muhammad Abdul Hai succeeded him. But his connection with the University did not cease. From 1953 to 1956 he was a Part-time Lecturer in French in the Department of International Relations. Earlier, from 1922 to 1924, he was a Part-time Lecturer in the Law Faculty of the University.

In 1954 the Rajshahi University was founded. In 1955 Vice Chancellor I. H. Juberi appointed Dr. Shahidullah as Professor and Head of the Department of Bengali and requested him to organise the Department. He discharged his responsibility to the satisfaction of all concerned and held the position till 1958.

Shahidullah's career as a university teacher spreads over nearly four decades. He has produced many brilliant and many more not-so brilliant students. But he had succeeded in one thing (and that I believe to be his unique achievement as a teacher of Bengali language and literature). He infused in his students and through his students to others a deep love for the Bengali language, life and culture. And this was clearly evident in the events of 21st February [Ekushey February] of that eventful year [1952]. His students as he rightly observed to Sukumar Sen in a private conversation had literally and freely shed their blood for the sake of their mother-tongue. Shahidullah for his scholarship became a cult figure in the academic world of Bangladesh and India. But he was held in equal esteem by the common people also. This was perhaps his most singular achievement.

Subhadra Kumar Sen