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

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