27 December is the 145th birth anniversary Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah. He was a man of many talents – an educator, renowned academician, a famed literary figure and creative publisher. He was the pride of the Muslims in Bengal and one of the most enlightened personalities of his time. He was instrumental in the formation of the University of Dhaka and popularly known as the founder of Ahsania Mission. Ahsanullah is considered a great Sufi philosopher. His contributions to society were multi-dimensional; but the aim of this writing is to remember and acknowledge his contributions to Bengali language and literature. Ahsanullah was made fellow by the Bangla Academy (1960) for his lifetime contribution to Bengali Language and Literature.
The practice of Bengali Muslim literature was started from medieval period. Although the early Muslim scholars, writers and poets wrote primarily on religious and spiritual topics, this trend changed during the fifteen and sixteen centuries, thanks to the efforts of prominent Muslim writers such as Shah Muhammad Saghir, Syed sultan and Alaol. Those scholars and writers produced a large number of works on Islamic, historical, cultural, philosophical and mystical topics, as well as aspects of comparative religion and mythology. The medieval Muslim writers and poets contributed substantially to the development of Bengali literature under the patronage of the Muslim rulers, even though only a fraction of their writing has survived. As a result of the contribution of those writers to the development of Bengali language and literature, many indigenous Muslim writers and poets later emerged and became some of the major contributors to Bengali literature. Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah was one such Muslim scholar, writer and publisher of the twentieth century, and he enriched modern Bengali literature more than any other.Ahsanullah was born into a respectable middleclass Muslim family of a village named Nalta Sharif in present day Satkhira district of Bangladesh on December 27, 1873. He passed his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1894 and awarded a Master of Arts in philosophy by the Culcutta University in 1895. After getting his master's degree, he joined as a supernumerary teacher at the Rajshahi Collegiate School under the education department of the government of Bengal in 1896. In 1924 he was promoted to the post of Assistant Director of the Education Department of undivided Bengal and Assam. The entire service life of Ahsanullah was spent in the Department of Education. Despite his busy schedule, Ahsanullah found time to write.
Though Ahsanullah was educated by English medium in British India, he strongly devoted to Bengali language and literature. During both his service and retired life, Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah relentlessly tried his hand on literature and creative writings. He wrote more than hundreds of books on philosophy, spirituality, history, literature, Muslim traditions and the principles of Islam. The very skill of his writing and the novelty in the presentation of the subject matters which had an unmistakable individualistic touch transcended them from the temporal to the eternal, eventually earning them the honour of creative literature. By involving himself with the activities of various literary organisations, he also made literary endeavours and practice easy for others.
In order to encourage writers he established the Makhdumi Library (1911) and the Empire Book House (1931) at Kolkata. That was a very daring step by him to inspire Muslim writers in the history of Bengali publication. Makhdumi Library was one of the most remarkable publisher and many popular books were published by it such as Bengali epic novel Bishad Shindhu (Ocean of Sorrow) by Mir Mosarraf Hussain, Anwara by Muhammad Nojibor Rahman and many books of Kazi Nazrul Islam. Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah was directly involved with the literary movements of the time. He was instrumental in the formation of the Bengal Muslim Literary Society (Bangiya Mussalman Sahitto Samity). In 1914 the Annual Literary Conference of Bangiya Mussalman Sahitto Samity was held under his presiding. During the years 1917-1918, Ahsanullah was the vice-president of the Literary Association of the Muslim in Bengal.
Some of his outstanding publications included- the Physics (1905), Teacher’s Manual (1915), Bangabhasha-O-Muslim Shahitya or Bengali language and Muslim literature (1918), Islam - O- Adarsha Mahapurush or Islam and the Ideal Great Man (1926), History of the Muslim world (1931), Shikshakhetre Bongio Mussalman or Muslims of Bengal in education (1931), Vokter Potro or Letters towards eternal love (1936), Amar Jibondhara or autobiography (1946), Sufi (1947),Shristitatta or the origins of creation (1949), Geety Guccho or Book of verses (1949), Islamer Bano-O-Paramhangsher Ukti or the message of Islam and the sayings of Paramhangsha (1956), etc.
The entire gamut of literary thoughts of Ahsanullah originated from his deep feelings for his country, his language and his desire to do better for the human kind. In Ahsanullah’s own words- “Social service should ideally be the prime objective of literature. But unfortunately, violation of this aim is noticed on many occasions. Literature should be aimed at refining the taste, not corrupting the taste. With the help of literature, we have to clear the path of future development of our society” (Bangabhasha O Mussalman Shahitya-1918). He also said: “A nation which does not have its own literature does not have self-esteem. The development of such a nation will always be a forlorn prospect. If one is to introduce oneself as a true Muslim and an equal to the rest of the world, then one has to uphold one's mother tongue with a nationalistic fervour. For restoring the very existence of the nation, the development of the Bengali language is a must.”
For his excellence in knowledge, his contribution in cultural fields, and especially for his remarkable contribution in arts, he was awarded as the member of ‘Royal society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce’ from London in 1911. Bangla Academy, the symbol of the movement and of Bengali nationalism awarded him an honorary fellowship for his "unique and versatile contribution in the field of Bengali literature" in 1960. He was the First fellow of this Academy.Ahsanullah was an ambidextrous contributor to language and literature. He was an incomparable ideal for the secondary generation Bengali literature. Soon after the death of Khanbahadur Ahsanullah, The renowned Daily Azad newspaper paid him this glowing tribute: "many creations of Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah's action-packed life will remain ever alive to the nation… The fact that he was blessed with a long life and could spend every moment of that life in silently serving the cause of Islam and the Muslim people was in itself, an act of blessing from the Almighty. With his death, an irredeemable void has been created in the society." In assessing this saintly personality, Dr. Waqil Ahmed said: "It is my belief that the huge volume of writings left behind by Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah never fell short of sensible thoughts and deep insights into subject-matters. On the contrary, his thought-provoking essays were always in keeping with the intellectual and the idealistic demands of the time".
Ahsanullah’s philosophy and approach to life was beautifully summarized by him in these words: ‘Knowledge by itself cannot bring about perfection in a man. One needs to co-ordinate his body, mind and soul. That is knowledge which caters to the body, mind and soul. The perfect knowledge is that which reduces the distance between the Creator and the created and establishes union between them. The seed of love is implanted in every heart which blossoms if one cultivates purity in character and attainment.’ That was not only his belief, he practiced it in real life.
Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah lived for 92 years. He breathed his last on February 9, 1965. He will be fondly remembered in times to come on account of his important and influential contributions in the fields of language, literature, spirituality and cultural renewal.
The writer is a researcher at Khanbahadur Ahsanullah Institute