HE knew 10 languages and wrote in seven. Of his over 150 books, Introduction to Islam is perhaps the most popular one. It has been translated into 22 languages. His translation, with commentary, of the Quran into French, was the first such effort in French by a Muslim and has since seen some 20 editions. His French translation of the holy book and his untiring efforts made a large number of Europeans, especially French, convert to Islam. Many put that figure close to 30,000, which might be an exaggeration. He had earned two doctorates from European universities and taught there for decades, devoting almost his entire life to serving Islam and the Muslim world.
As for the Hadith, in addition to writing a two-volume work on the life of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in French and a large number of research papers on different aspects of the Prophet's life in several languages, the greatest scholarly discovery that he ever made was an over 1,300-year-old manuscript of a collection of Hadiths. He found the extremely rare document in a Berlin library's darker recesses and brought it to light.
Believed to be the earliest written collection of Hadith, the document, known as Sahifah Hammam Ibn Munabbih, was prepared by Abu Hurairah (d. 58 H./677) for his pupils. The name of this great scholar, who lived an ascetic life in Paris, was Dr Muhammad Hamidullah.
I had read some of Dr Hamidullah's books and was inspired especially by his Khutbaat-i-Bahawalpur, which has been translated into English titled The Emergence of Islam. So on hearing the sad news of his death in December 2002, I wanted to share the grief with my students at a private university. My comments to them drew blank stares. When they told me they did not know who Dr Hamidullah, the great scholar, was, I asked if they knew who Amitabh Bachchan was. There was a loud and unanimous aye.
Dr Muhammad Hamidullah was born on Feb 19, 1908 in Hyderabad Deccan. His father, Abu Muhammad Khalilullah, was also a writer and scholar. His grandfather, Muhammad Sibghatullah, a writer of 29 Arabic, 24 Persian and 14 Urdu books, is known as a great scholar. Having obtained MA in Islamic Jurisprudence and LLB from Usmania University in 1930, Muhammad Hamidullah got a DPhil from Bonn University, Germany, and DLitt from Sorbonne University, Paris. Returning to his native city in 1935, he served as lecturer and assistant professor at Usmania University till 1948.
That year India annexed the Hyderabad state and Dr Hamidullah with Dr Yousuf Hussain went to Europe to represent the case of the state. On his way back, Hamidullah stayed in Paris for good. In Paris, he joined the National Centre of Scientific Research and began teaching at universities of Germany, France and Turkey as a visiting professor.
In 1949, many scholars were invited to advise the government of Pakistan on the preparation of a constitution. The scholars invited included Allama Muhammad Asad and Dr Hamidullah. It is a pity that they both left the country after awhile, probably disappointed by the dilly-dallying of the bureaucracy. But during his brief stay in Pakistan, he sincerely tried to serve the country and even helped establish a 'Hyderabad government in exile' in Karachi. This act was discouraged by our foreign ministry and the chapter was closed forever. Dr Hamidullah settled down in Paris though he was not a French citizen and had no passport. He remained stateless till the very end. In fact, he had been declared an international refugee and had become, so to speak, a cosmopolitan citizen.
Dr Sahib's works in English include The battlefields of Prophet Muhammad, The first written constitution in the world, The Muslim conduct of state, Muhammad Rasulullah, The Muslim woman, Why fast?, The earliest codification of Hadith and many more. He was very unassuming about his amazing research work that he did single-handedly in seven languages. Some of his works are considered groundbreaking, such as the earliest manuscript of Hadith.
His lectures delivered at Bahawalpur's Islamia University in 1980 deal with some basic aspects of Islam and its early history. Delivered extempore, these lectures are based on years of research and are packed with some rare information yet are in a simple language. Transcribed and published in Urdu as Khutbaat-i-Bahawalpur, these lectures give details, among other things, of how the Quran and Hadith were compiled and codified.
His other works are in French, German, Arabic, Persian and Turkish.
His works, scientific and research-based, give Orientalists and European readers a different perspective of Islam that is much different from the one touted through one-sided portrayal of Islam, emphasising only Sufi traditions, whirling dervishes and Gnostic ideas. Dr Hamidullah in his writings shatters the myths that shroud Islam and he makes the readers see how a humanistic, scientific and logical religion Islam is. He was a silent soldier of Islam and a unique scholar of the Islamic world. Though he served Islam and academics in many ways and his discovery of the earliest written Hadith was apparently the greatest contribution in this regard, he also edited, translated and published the original Arabic sources and presented them before the academicians in their own languages.
It was heartening that immediately after his death not only his works were reprinted, but he was paid glowing tributes by scholars from India and Pakistan in their books on him. Some magazines brought out special issues on him. Notable among them are 'Muaarif-i-Islami', 'Dawah', 'Fikr-o-nazar', 'Oriental College Magazine' and 'Shadab'. On his life and works three books were compiled and published Dr Muhammad Hamidullah by Muhammad Rashid Shaikh, Asaar-i-Doctor Muhammad Hamidullah by Safdar Hussain and Mujaddid-i-uloom-o-seerat by Ghatreef Shahbaz. Similarly, Syed Qasim Mahmood, Muhammad Alam Mukhtar-i-Haq and some scholars compiled his essays and research articles and published them in book form. But one feels that Doctor sahib's hundreds of articles that are scattered or beyond the reach of the common reader need to be collected and published because a scholar of his stature is rare to be found even among scholars and his every word is precious and needs to be preserved.
He died on Dec 17, 2002 in Jacksonville, Florida, USA, and was buried in the Chapel Hill graveyard of Florida.