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Studies in Islamic History, Art and Architecture |Tribute to Professor Syed Mahmudul Hasan

I have been in regular contact with Professor Syed Mahmudul Hasan for nearly five years now. I first came across his writings in the course of my research on the topic of ‘Muslim Heritage of Bengal’. After reading his Muslim Monuments of Bangladesh (Dhaka: Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, 2003) and Khan Jahan: Patron Saint of the Sundarbans (Dhaka: Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, 2004), I contacted Dr Hasan and subsequently obtained copies of his other publications.

 

In 2009, soon after the death of Dr Nazimuddin Ahmed, I contributed an article entitled, ‘Pioneers of Islam in Bengal’, for inclusion in the Nazimuddin Ahmed Commemoration Volume, which Dr Hasan had been preparing as a tribute to his friend. This volume was published in 2011 under the auspices of the Islamic Arts Organisation, Dhaka. As I continued to discuss aspects of Muslim history, culture and heritage with Dr Hasan, his depth of knowledge, understanding and commitment impressed me the most.

 

It is an honour for me to contribute this article to pay a fitting tribute to a dedicated scholar, historian, archaeologist and prolific writer of Dr Hasan’s stature.

 

Early Years

Syed Mahmudul Hasan hails from a notable Syed family of Murshidabad. Born on January 1, 1935, he traced his ancestry back to a Syed Hasan of the Persian province of Balkh (now located in Afghanistan). He came to India during the reign of Mughal Emperor Jahangir and was granted a plot of land in Murshidabad where he settled. The descendants of Syed Hasan worked as administrators in Fateh Singh Pargana (see A Rare Farman of Emperor of Jahangir by Syed Mahmudul Hasan, Abdul Karim Commemoration Volume, 2009 for more information).

 

One of the prominent descendants of Syed Hasan was Syed Muhammad Mir Hasan who was the grandfather of Syed Mahmudul Hasan. Mir Hasan was a Record Keeper of Murshidabad Collectorate in British India and he was well versed in Persian. He edited a book of Persian verses under the title of Diwan-i-Waisi and Dr Muhammad Shahidullah has referred to this Diwan in his book, Islam Prasanga (About Islam). Inspired by his father, Syed Zahirul Hasan, the father of Syed Mahmudul Hasan, went onto study at Calcutta University where he obtained BA and BL degrees. He began his career as a linguist before joining Bengal Civil Service. He died in Manikganj in 1951, whilst he was serving as a Magistrate.

Education and Early Career

Syed Mahmudul Hasan was only 16 when his father died. He was studying at Manikganj Government High School at the time. As a hardworking student, he passed his Matriculation Examination in the same year with flying colours. Two years later, he passed his Intermediate of Arts in Islamic History and Culture, Arabic and Economics in the First Division from Jaggannath College, Dhaka. This enabled him to secure a place at Dhaka University to study for a BA Honours degree in Islamic History and Culture. He enrolled at Dhaka University at a time when the Muslims of Bengal were experiencing considerable social, political, economic and cultural challenges and difficulties. British rule of India had come to an abrupt end in 1947 leading to the creation of two independent countries, namely Pakistan and India.

 

The Muslims of Bengal were in the forefront of the Pakistan Movement because, they felt, they would be sidelined and dominated by the Hindu majority in an independent India. However, the Muslims of Bengal were lagging behind their Hindu counterparts in educational attainment. They also suffered from political and economic disadvantage, which also impeded their social and cultural progress and advancement. To make matters worse, the religious scholars (ulama) remained firmly rooted to the past with no clear vision for the future.

 

This state of affairs prompted prominent leaders, scholars and reformers like Nawab Sir Salimullah Khan Bahadur, Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury, AK Fazul Haq, Husain Shaheed Suhrawardy, Mawlana Muhammad Akram Khan, Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah and Maulvi Abdul Karim of Sylhet, among others, to take steps to awaken the Muslims of Bengal from their slumber. The establishment of Dhaka University in 1921 was one of the major fruits of their labour as it enabled generations of students (including Syed Mahmudul Hasan) to pursue higher education in Dhaka rather than having to move to West Bengal to study at Calcutta University.

 

Soon after joining Dhaka University, Syed Mahmudul Hasan focused his attention to his studies. Islamic History and Culture as a subject fascinated him from an early age, partly due to his father’s profound influence on him and partly as a result of his encounter with such inspirational teachers like Professors ABM Habibullah, Muhammad Sirajul Islam, Mumtazur Rahman Tarafdar and S. M. Imamuddin. It is worth saying a few words here about these prominent teachers of Syed Mahmudul Hasan.

 

Dr Habibullah was born in 1911 in Burdwan District of West Bengal. He completed his early education at Hughli Madrasah and Dhaka Islamic Intermediate College before obtaining his BA Honours degree in History from Hughli Muhsin College in 1931, followed by an MA in the same subject from Calcutta University in 1933. He subsequently wrote a thesis on the Foundation of Muslim Rule in India and the University of London awarded him PhD degree. Dr Habibullah joined Dhaka University as a teacher in 1950, three years before Syed Mahmudul Hasan enrolled there as a student. By contrast, Dr Sirajul Islam was born in 1928 in Malda District of West Bengal. After completing his early education in his locality, he obtained his Intermediate of Arts and BA from Rajshahi Government College in 1943 and 1946, respectively. A year later, he secured First Class First in his MA examination in Islamic History and Culture from Calcutta University. More than a decade later, he obtained his PhD in History of Art and Architecture from the University of Berlin. Like Dr Habibullah, Sirajul Islam was a popular teacher of Islamic History, Culture, Art and Architecture at Dhaka University.

 

Syed Mahmudul Hasan’s other prominent teacher at Dhaka University was Mumtazur Rahman Tarafdar. Born in 1928 in Bogra District in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), he successfully completed his early education in his locality before moving to Dhaka University where he studied for his BA, MA and PhD degrees in 1949, 1951 and 1961, respectively. His doctoral thesis was later published under the title of Husain Shahi Bengal and it established his reputation as a researcher and academic. Dr S. M. Imamuddin was another notable teacher of Syed Mahmudul Hasan. He was born in Bihar and obtained his MA and PhD degrees in Islamic History and Culture from Calcutta University. He later obtained another PhD degree in Islamic History of Spain from the University of Madrid and authored several books on the subject. Syed Mahmudul Hasan attended Dr Imamuddin’s lectures on the history and culture of Andalusia (Islamic Spain).

 

Inspired by these teachers, Syed Mahmudul Hasan completed his BA Honours degree in Islamic History and Culture in 1956 and, a year later, passed his MA in the same subject specialising in Islamic Art.

 

Teaching Career and Influence

Soon after obtaining his Master’s degree, Syed Mahmudul Hasan became a teacher at Dhaka University, his alma mater, and taught there for three years before joining East Pakistan Junior Educational Service (EPJES) as a lecturer at Dhaka Government College in 1961. His time at Dhaka University and Dhaka Government College enabled him to teach aspects of Islamic History, Culture and Art to undergraduate students and gained valuable experience as a young academic. He read extensively during this period and became increasingly influenced by the writings of prominent scholars and historians like Ahmad Hasan Dani, Shamsuddin Ahmed, Muhammad Abdur Rahim, Abdul Karim and Muhammad Mohar Ali, among others.

 

Dani was born in Central India and obtained his PhD from the University of London. He authored nearly 30 books on history, culture, inscriptions, architecture and archaeology, and became one of the subcontinent’s leading authorities on these subjects. Shamsuddin Ahmed was a leading epigraphist and became well known for his seminal contribution, Inscriptions of Bengal (1960), while Muhammad Abdur Rahim and Abdul Karim obtained their PhD degrees from the University of London and wrote prolifically on Muslim history and culture of Bengal. Mohar Ali followed suit and gained his PhD in cultural history of Bengal before authoring his seminal work, History of the Muslims of Bengal (3 volumes, Riyadh: Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University, 1985).

 

Reading the scholarly contributions of these great scholars fired Syed Mahmudul Hasan’s imagination. Keen to pursue his academic interests further, in 1962, the Government of Pakistan awarded him a scholarship to study for a PhD at the University of London.

Doctoral Research in London   

In London, Syed Mahmudul Hasan enrolled for a doctoral degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies. His supervisor was Professor K. de B. Codrington, who was the Professor of Indian Archaeology at the University of London at the time. Mahmudul Hasan decided to research pre-Mughal architecture of Bengal because, in his own words, ‘My interest in pre-Mughal Bengal architecture dates back to 1957 when as a final year student of Muslim art and architecture I visited the ancient sites of Gaud and Hazrat Pandua. The immense possibility of working in the unexplored field of Muslim architecture of Bengal was laid bare to me by my teacher Mr (now Dr) Serajul Islam, Senior Lecturer (now Reader) in Islamic History and Culture, University of Dacca, who was conducting the study-tour to these forsaken and forgotten metropolitan cities of Bengal. Subsequent visits to places of archaeological interest throughout Indo-Pak subcontinent gave me an opportunity to undertake field study of Muslim monuments in a comparative spirit.’ (Mosque Architecture of Pre-Mughal Bengal, Dacca, 1971, p.xii)

 

Between 1962 and 1965, Mahmudul Hasan pursued his research under the tutelage of Professor Codrington. In the process, he investigated the origin and development of mosque architecture of Bengal from late half of thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. To accomplish this task, the young researcher made use of all available information including ancient and medieval travel accounts, artistic sketches and impressions, archaeological surveys, historical accounts, antiquarian scrapbooks, visitor’s observations and records, records of geographical and statistical data, and of course published books, articles and reviews. In so doing the researcher was not only able to undertake a systematic review of previous scholarship on the subject, but also carry out a ‘comparative study of the monuments of Bengal with those of the other parts of the Indo-Pak subcontinent on the one hand and Islamic Persia on the other…facilitated by …several visits to the places of archaeological importance in and outside this subcontinent.’ (Ibid, p.ix)

 

Syed Mahmudul Hasan’s doctoral thesis was a product of many years of meticulous and painstaking research undertaken at home and abroad, using available sources and unpublished, original documents and architectural artefacts. He was able to survey some of the first Sultanate mosques of Bengal and throw light on their architectural styles, calligraphic designs, decorative motives and methods. And in so doing he successfully reconstructed the archaeological history of pre-Mughal Muslim Bengal. This was a remarkable achievement which later inspired many other academics (like Perween Hasan) to explore this subject further, but the credit for reconstructing an important part of Bengal’s Muslim architectural heritage must go to none other than Syed Mahmudul Hasan.

 

This thesis was later revised and updated by Syed Mahmudul Hasan and it was published in 1971 by Dr Hasan Zaman, the Director of The Academy for Pakistan Affairs in Dacca (reprinted by University Press Limited in 1979). Whilst in London, Mahmudul Hasan participated in field archaeology in Wiltshire, England and also completed a Diploma in Museology.
Career after 1965

After completing his studies in London, in 1965 Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan returned to Dhaka. In due course he was posted to Chittagong Government College as a lecturer and he taught there for three years. Then, in 1968, he was transferred from Chittagong to Dhaka College as an Assistant Professor of Islamic History and Culture where he taught for six years. He was subsequently promoted as Associate Professor in the Department of Islamic History and Culture at Dhaka University for one year. This was a politically, economically and culturally turbulent period as East Pakistan became an independent Bangladesh after many years of struggle, upheaval, uncertainty and crises. During such a difficult period in the history of Bangladesh, Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan remained committed to his profession as an academic and writer.

 

After completing his short tenure at Dhaka University, Dr Hasan returned to his Government service as Associate Professor at Jagannath College. Thanks to his ongoing research work and publications, he was subsequently promoted to the rank of Professor and Senior Professor, and for a short period he also taught at Eden Girls College. He eventually retired from Government service in 1993 as Professor at Jagannath College and joined People’s University of Bangladesh, a private institution, in 1996 and has continued to teach there to this day.

 

During his teaching career, Dr Hasan also taught at the Islamic University of Technology for several years and helped establish three major institutions including as Director of Research and Publication, Shilpakala Academy from 1976 to 1978; Executive Director of Research Centre for Islamic Art and Culture from 1981 to 1982, and Executive Director of Bangladesh Folk Arts and Crafts Foundation, Sonargaon from 1982 to 1983. In addition to this, from 1984 to 1985 he served in his capacity as a Secretary to the Ministry of Education’s National Commission for Islami Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO).

Major Literary Contributions

Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan has not only been a successful academic, research scholar and institution-builder, but also a prolific writer, translator and editor. To date, he has authored, edited or translated more than 85 books and monographs, of which 75 are in Bengali and 15 are in English, and one bilingual. In addition to this, he has published nearly 100 articles in journals and periodicals in Bangladesh and abroad, of which 70 are in English and the remainder are in Bengali. The subjects of his books, monographs, articles and reviews are Islamic history, culture, art, architecture, calligraphy and crafts.

 

However, two of his most important and widely read books are Mosque Architecture of Pre-Mughal Bengal (1971) and Muslim Monuments of Bangladesh (2003). The former is based on his PhD thesis originally titled ‘Development of Mosque Architecture with Special Reference to Pre-Mughal Bengal’ and was submitted to the University of London in 1965. It was later revised and updated, and published in 1971. This book is a comprehensive and critical study of mosque architecture during the Sultanate period in Bengal and one of the first attempts by a Muslim scholar of Bangladesh to undertake such a challenging, difficult but equally important task. In the words of the author, “The study of pre-Mughal architecture of Bengal is beset with predicaments, hardly equalled by any other school of Indo-Muslim architecture. Human agencies combined with pitiless climatic wear and tear help razing the splendid monuments of Gaud and Hazrat Pandua to the ground. Desperate and destructive steps were pitilessly and ruthlessly taken to level down the vestiges of the grandeur and magnificence of the two forgotten cities of Bengal, Gaud and Hazrat Pandua…The reconstruction of pre-Mughal architecture of Bengal as represented mainly by the picturesque and venerable ruins of Gaud and Hazrat Pandua, in the absence of proper exploration and excavation, presents a prohibitive, though delightful task.” (p.i)

 

Based on historical references as well as travel accounts, archaeological surveys, geographical and statistical data, excavation reports and private explorations, this book is the product of “painstaking research undertaken for a number of years with all the available and hitherto inaccessible, known and unpublished resources, and provides original and up-to-date information in many spheres of pre-Mughal architecture of Bengal, including the publication of several new inscriptions and architectural objects” (p.iii)

 

The book consists of six important chapters, tracing the origin and evolution of mosques before going onto provide on a detailed exploration of mosque architecture during the Sultanate period, followed by a perceptive conclusion wherein the author stated, “In ambitious planning, balanced and harmonious adjustment of various elements, introduction of new and distinctive features, revival of old architectural ideas and decorative techniques, persistent attachment to indigenous sources for its ornamental and building motifs, gaudy colour scheme of encaustic tile decoration, delicate and lace-like stone chiselling, sophisticated carved brick ornamentation, the Mosque architecture of pre-Mughal Bengal undoubtedly made a profound contribution in the history of world architecture in general and Indo-Muslim architecture in particular” (p.208). The book also includes seven appendices and an extensive bibliography of all the sources the author had consulted during his research.

 

Like the Mosque Architecture of Pre-Mughal Bengal, the Muslim Monuments of Bangladesh is another important book by Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan. Unlike the former, this book is aimed at the general readers and soon after its publication in 2003, it became one of his most widely read books. Based o his extensive study and research on the subject of Muslim history, culture, calligraphy, art and architecture of the subcontinent and Bengal in particular, in this book, the author has provided a comprehensive survey of mosques, madrasahs, khanqahs, palaces and other similar buildings and monuments of Bangladesh from the beginning of Sultanate rule up to the present time, focusing on those edifices that are historically and culturally important.

 

The Muslim Monuments of Bangladesh is a large size book of nearly 400 pages and it includes images of the buildings, thus adding to the value and attraction of the book. Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan is fond of this book as it is the product of more than 30 years of study of Muslim history, culture, art and architecture of Bengal. That is why he singled out this book as one of his most important contributions along with his Mosque Architecture of Pre-Mughal Bengal. His other notable publications include the following:

 

  1. Masjid: Desh-Dehantore (Mosques: Home and Abroad) was published in 2011 by Gyan Bitaroni, Dhaka. This book provides a survey of mosques around the world with pictures of each building. The author collected information from a range of sources before summarising the information country-wise, starting with India and concluding with Central Asian countries. The book consists of more than 250 pages.

 

  1. Gaud-Pandua is another important book by Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan. Published in 2008 and consisting of nearly 200 pages, in this book the author provides a detailed historical and archaeological survey of the Muslim cities of Gaud and Pandua for the benefit of the readers. The book is enhanced by some eye-catching pictures of the historic mosques and monuments of Gaud and Pandua.

 

  1. Islamic Art was edited by Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan with the help of Dr Nazimuddin Ahmed, his late friend and colleague. Published in 2007 by Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, this book consists of 10 articles by prominent scholars of Bangladesh including 3 appendices.

 

  1. Kichu Smriti Kichu Katha is an autobiographical work by Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan. It was published in 2010 by Bandhon Publications and consists of 160 pages. In this book the author provides a detailed account of his family history, early childhood, education and subsequent career up to the year 2009.

 

  1. Masjider Nagari Dhaka is a small but very valuable contribution by Dr Hasan. In this book, the author has provided an interesting and useful survey of the mosques of Dhaka with accompanying pictures. Dhaka is famous as the ‘city of mosques’ and this book shows why the capital of Bangladesh deserves this title more than any other Asian Muslim cities.

 

  1. Khan Jahan: Patron Saint of Sundarbhan is a small but research-orientated book by Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan. Published by Islamic Foundation Bangladesh in 2004, in this book the author has provided an authoritative account of the life, work and contribution of the founder of historic city-state of Bagerhat in Khulna.

 

  1. Nazimuddin Ahmed Commemoration Volume was edited by Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan in memory of Dr Nazimuddin Ahmed, his late friend and colleague. This volume consists of more than 500 pages and includes articles by prominent scholars, home and abroad, on aspects of Islamic history, culture, art and architecture. This volume was published in 2011 by the Islamic Arts Organisation, Dhaka.

 

In addition to the above, Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan has written and published another 70 books in Bengali and English. He has also translated several books from English into Bengali including Muslim Calligraphy by M. Ziauddin, Muhammad at Mecca by William M. Watt, The Spirit of Islam by Syed Ameer Ali, Islam: A Way of Life by Philip K. Hitti and Desert King by David Howarth.

 

As pointed out earlier, Dr Hasan has also published nearly 70 research articles in English and 20 in Bengali in journals and periodicals, home and abroad, on the subjects of Islamic history, culture, art and architecture.

 

Other Contribution and Achievements

Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan is not only a gifted scholar, archaeologist and writer but also a regular lecturer at seminars, home and abroad. During nearly fifty years of career as a teacher and academic, he participated in numerous national and international seminars and symposia including:

 

1982: International Seminar on Islamic Art, organised by Islamic Art Foundation in London.

 

1983: International Council of Museums Conference in London.

 

1984: International Visitors Program sponsored by US State Department for a month, visiting many American universities, museums and art galleries.

 

1985: Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation seminar held in Islamabad, Pakistan.

 

2005: International Conference on Bengal Art organised by International Centre for the Study of Bengal Art, Dhaka and Birla Institute at Ranchi, India.

 

In addition to the above events, Dr Hasan visited Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, USA, Canada, Iran, Iraq, Nepal Pakistan and India to attend seminars and conferences during his distinguished academic career.

He was also instrumental in setting up the Islamic Arts Organisation in Dhaka in 2007. He has continued to serve as a President of this institution up to the present. After being registered by the Ministry of Social Welfare of Bangladesh, the organisation intends to establish an Islamic Art Gallery and Museum in Dhaka, the first of its kind in Bangladesh, which will provide a clear picture to the people of Bangladesh of their invisible past.

 

In recognition of his numerous achievements and contribution, Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan received the following awards, citations and honours:

 

1979: Bank Consortium Literary Prize for writing Muslim Citrakala which was published by Bangla Academy.

 

1984: United Nations Social and Economic Council Peace Prize for writing Islamic books, through Dayemi Complex in Dhaka.

 

2002: Recognition Award presented by the Department of Islamic History and Culture, Dhaka University.

 

2005: Elected Fellow, International Centre for the Study of Bengal Art, Dhaka.

 

2006: Literary Prize for writing Gaud-Pandua by Itihas Parishad, Dhaka.

 

2009: Recognition Award presented by the Numismatic Society of Bangladesh.

 

2009: Recognition Award presented by Jagannath University for contribution to history, culture and art.

 

Concluding Remarks

Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan has successfully combined his career as an academic, writer and founder of institutions with his role as a family man. He married in 1958 and worked hard to establish his career and family. He has three sons who are highly educated in their own right, pursuing their careers in the USA and Dhaka, while he has continued to live in the capital of Bangladesh with his wife and extended family, pursuing research and writing – his real passion in life!

 

As a devout Muslim, in 1993, he performed the sacred pilgrimage to Makkah (Hajj) with his wife and also visited Madinah to pay homage to the blessed Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). Since Dr Syed Mahmudul Hasan is a great admirer of the Prophet of Islam, he translated Professor William Montgomery Watt’s Muhammad at Mecca into Bengali for the benefit of the people of Bangladesh, in addition to writing a rebuttal of Salman Rushdie’s gross misrepresentation of the blessed Prophet, his family and prominent Companions.
Undoubtedly, Dr Hasan is a dedicated scholar and true seeker of knowledge. Even as he approaches his eighth birthday, he continues to study up to eight hours a day. Needless to say, this is dedication and commitment at its best!  I am delighted to pay tribute to this remarkable, prolific and industrious scholar, archaeologist and writer of Bangladesh, and of the subcontinent as a whole. If this article inspires young people of Bangladesh to raise their aspirations and emulate great scholars like Professor Syed Mahmudul Hasan, then I will feel my effort has not been in vain.

 

By Muhammad Mojlum Khan

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