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A towering presence

  • Published at 12:00 am December 27th, 2018
His legacy continues with the institution named after him

Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah’s importance to language, literature, and culture cannot be overstated

Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah was a man of many talents, and December 27 would mark his 145th birth anniversary. 

He was an educator, renowned academician, a famed literary figure, and a creative publisher. He was the pride of Muslims in Bengal, and one of the most enlightened personalities of his time, instrumental in the formation of the University of Dhaka and as the founder of Ahsania Mission. Ahsanullah was also considered a great Sufi philosopher. 

His contributions to society were multi-dimensional, but the aim of this piece 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 onto Bengali language and literature.

Although the early Muslim scholars, writers, and poets wrote primarily on religious and spiritual topics, this trend changed during the 15th and 16th centuries. 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, many indigenous Muslim writers and poets later emerged and became major contributors to Bengali literature. Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah was one such Muslim scholar, and he enriched modern Bengali literature more than most others.  

Though Ahsanullah was educated in English-medium institutes in British India, he is strongly associated with Bengali language and literature. During both his service and retired life, he relentlessly wrote -- 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 transcended them from the temporal to the eternal, eventually earning them their place as one of the most creative pieces of literature. 

In order to encourage writers, he established the Makhdumi Library (1911) and the Empire Book House (1931) in Kolkata. Makhdumi Library was an early publisher of many popular books such as Bishad Shindhu (Ocean of Sorrow) by Mir Mosarraf Hussain, Anwara by Muhammad Nojibor Rahman, and many books of Kazi Nazrul Islam. 

The entire gamut of his literary thoughts originated from his deep feelings for his country, his language, and his desire to do better for humanity. 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.” 

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. 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 to arts, he was recognized as a member of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce from London in 1911. 

Ahsanullah was an incomparable ideal for the  secondary generation Bengali literature. Soon after his death, 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 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 … 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 the man himself in these words: “Knowledge by itself cannot bring about perfection in a man. One needs to co-ordinate his 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.” 

Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah lived for 92 years. He breathed his last on February 9, 1965. He will be fondly remembered on account of his important and influential contributions in the fields of language, literature, spirituality, and cultural renewal. 

Md Monirul Islam is a lecturer and researcher at Khanbahadur Ahsanullah Institute.