Prof. Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah
By: Zafar Bangash
The world of Islam has lost a great scholar in Professor Muhammad Hamidullah, who passed away quietly in Jacksonville, Florida, USA, on December 17, 2002. He was 94. His funeral prayer was led by his friend, Dr Yusuf Zia Kavakci, and he was laid to rest in the Muslim cemetery in Jacksonville. Professor Muhammad Hamidullah went to rest after breakfast, having performed the Fajr prayer earlier that morning; he did not wake up.
His life spanned many decades of research and writing. He was born in Hyderabad, Deccan, on February 19, 1908. He started his publishing career at the age of 16 in 1924. In 1935 he obtained a PhD from the Sorbonne (Paris, France). In 1936, he returned to Hyderabad to resume his teaching career at the Usmania University. From 1946 to 1948 Professor Hamidullah was actively involved in the struggle against Indian occupation; after the fall of Kashmir to an Indian military invasion he went into exile in France. In 1996, he moved to the US, where a grandniece, looked after him (he was not married). Professor Hamidullah was fluent in 22 language besides Urdu, his mother tongue; he was the first Muslim to translate the Qur’an into French.
Professor Hamidullah was best known for his original work on the Sirah of the Prophet (sws), especially relating to the political, administrative and military aspects of his blessed life. The late professor was a pioneer in this field, doing painstaking research to dig out original manuscripts to confirm or reject what others had written about the noble Messenger (sws). The author of more than 250 books and papers on Islam, Islamic history, the Sirah and the Qur’an, Professor Hamidullah went to original sources that were often buried in dusty libraries in the Muslim world. He discovered the earliest hadith manuscript in a Damascus library, and translated and published it in Urdu under the title Sahifah Hammam. His book Rasul-i-Akram ki Siyasi Zindagi (‘The Political Life of the Noble Messenger’) is at present the best original work available on political aspects of the Sirah. Similarly his book ‘Ahd i Nabawi kay Maydan i Jang (‘The Battles of the Prophetic Period’) is a masterpiece of incisive analysis and detailed description of what really transpired in the battles fought during the time of the Prophet (sws). His great strength was that he was not satisfied to rely on others’ work; he took great pains to visit the places mentioned in such works. For instance, before he published his book on the Prophet’s battles, he made a detailed study of the battle-field locations, drew maps, and provided answers to critical questions that other scholars had not bothered about.
‘Ahd i Nabawi kay Maydan i Jang was first published as a manuscript in Majmu‘ah-i-‘Ilmiyyah, the magazine of Usmania University of Hyderabad, Deccan, in 1940. It was widely acclaimed; after many reprints in simple form it was eventually published as a book. Among his other works are The Prophet of Islam: Life and Achievements (in French); Muhammad Rasulullah (sws) (English); ‘Ahd i Nabawi mayn Nizam i Hukamrani (Urdu); and Khutba i Bahawapur (Urdu). He also wrote many original works in French and translated others into various European languages.
His first brush with political activism was in his native Hyderabad, Deccan, which bore the onslaught of the Indian army from 1946 to 1948. When the state lost its independence to Indian military invasion and occupation, the scholar in him refused to accept this humiliation; he went into exile instead. In 1955 and 1956 he was invited to help draft Pakistan’s first constitution. Professor Hamidullah readily accepted the offer and devoted his immense talents to the task, but resigned because he soon discovered that the feudal lords and western-educated bureaucrats who dominated Pakistani politics were more concerned about safeguarding their vested interests then worrying about the Islamic content of the constitution. He returned to France to resume his research and teaching. In 1985 he was awarded Pakistan’s highest civilian award, but the quintessential scholar refused to use the money for himself, choosing instead to hand over the cash for Islamic research.
He will be sorely missed because he did so much original work on the Sirah. A fitting tribute to him would be for us to continue the work that he pioneered, rather than simply heaping accolades on him without building on his intellectual contribution.