December 17 marks fifteen years since the passing of Muhammad Hamidullah, manuscript editor and professor of Islamic law and history. Through him, as well as other manuscript editors of his generation, an educated public came to know the richness of Islamic intellectual life prior to the introduction of the printing press in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. His life and long, prolific career in various fields of Islamic studies should be of particular interest to those concerned with ideas of cultural heritage and conservation as well as religious tradition, reconciliation and reform. A discussion of his legacy is made all the more necessary at a time when both South Asia, the region of his origin, and the United States, his final resting place, have been threatened by vicious, murderous attacks orchestrated by hateful forces seeking to ignite religious and sectarian strife – forces that Hamidullah worked hard to delegitimize and stamp out through his vision of a human civilization indissolubly linked trough a shared heritage of accumulated knowledge.
Hyderabad and Saʿīdiyya Library
Born in Hyderabad Deccan in 1908, Hamidullah was the latest in a long line of legal experts in the Shāfiʿī school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, Hamidullah’s uncle and Mufti of the Hyderabadi High Court, Muhammad Saʿīd al-Shāfiʿī al-Madrasi (d. 1895), financed the purchase and copying of rare manuscripts for sale from major booksellers throughout the Middle East. They amassed over time one of the largest personal libraries in the sub-continent, the Saʿīdiyya Library as it came to be known, that continues to benefit scholars in all major disciplines in the study of Islam all over the world.
“Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, Hamidullah’s uncle and Mufti of the Hyderabadi High Court, Muhammad Saʿīd al-Shāfiʿī al-Madrasi (d. 1895), financed the purchase and copying of rare manuscripts for sale from major booksellers throughout the Middle East. They amassed over time one of the largest personal libraries in the sub-continent, the Saʿīdiyya Library as it came to be known,..”
Included among the most important of its rare holdings is The Virtues of Abū Ḥanīfa and his Two Companions Abū Yūsuf and Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan by ḥāfiẓ Muḥammad al-Dhahabī (d. 1348). It was partially edited by the last Ottoman deputy sheikh ül-Islam Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari (d. 1951) and chiefly edited by Abū al-Wafāʾ al-Afghānī (d. 1975), one of Hamidullah’s teachers in the art of manuscript editing with whom he studied at the Jamia Nizamia, one of the oldest Sunni Islamic seminaries in India. Published in 1947 by the Committee for the Revival of Ḥanafī Scholarship based in Hyderabad, it was translated into English in 2010 by Khalid Williams for Visions of Reality Books. Another rarity is the single extant copy of Regulations for the People of the religions (Aḥkām ahl al-dhimma) by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350), the first annotated edition of which was produced by the Lebanese scholar Subhi Salih (d. 1986), an advocate of Christian-Muslim reconciliation who during its civil war was considered a “symbol of national unity and an advocate of dialogue between the Lebanese factions.” Salih and Hamidullah worked closely together in France in the 1950s both as graduates of the Sorbonne and active contributors to French academia. They were also community leaders for the Institute of Islamic Culture in Paris, and Hamidullah acquainted Salih with the manuscript and wrote a detailed introduction to Salih’s edition published in 1961.
Bonn and Sorbonne Dissertations
Graduating in 1930 with a degree in International Law from Osmania University, the first modern Urdu-language university, Hamidullah moved to Europe to complete his legal studies and manuscript research as well as to work as a European correspondent for the British-Indian journal Islamic Culture, whose chief editors were the Qurʾan translators Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (d. 1936) and Muhammad Asad Leopold Weiss (d. 1992), father of the distinguished anthropologist Talal Asad.
Their lasting influence on Hamidullah is most readily apparent in his decades-spanning series of articles on translating the Qurʾan into different languages, along with his 1958 French translation Le Coran in collaboration with the translator and trained priest Michel Léturmy (d. 2000), published by the French Book Club with a preface by the famed orientalist and advocate of Catholic-Muslim reconciliation Louis Massignon (d. 1962). It remains the most popular French translation of the Qurʾan to this day.
Hamidullah’s 1933 dissertation from the University of Bonn, Germany, was titled Neutrality in Islamic International Law and his 1935 Sorbonne dissertation was on diplomatic documents from the prophetic era and period of the first four caliphs. Both dissertations required extensive analysis of manuscripts, and while working towards these degrees, he produced an as yet unpublished translation into German of the sixteenth century Persian travelogue about China, the Khataynama, discovered among the archived papers of the Bonn University Semitic philologist, Hebrew Bible editor, expert on the Cairo Geniza, and Lutheran pastor Paul Kahle (d. 1964).
“Hamidullah’s 1933 dissertation from the University of Bonn, Germany, was titled Neutrality in Islamic International Law and his 1935 Sorbonne dissertation was on diplomatic documents from the prophetic era and period of the first four caliphs. “
Early Contributions to Manuscript Studies
One of Hamidullah’s earliest contributions to manuscript editing and publication is his 1938 publication entitled The First Written Constitution in the World, among the first scholarly studies of the Charter of Medina, a document delineating the rights and duties of the multi-religious confederation in Medina, accepted as authentically dating back to the time of the prophet Muhammad. Here, just as in his work on the diplomatic documents from the Prophetic era, it is important to note Hamidullah’s respect for the sources and the historical-critical method that prevented him from accepting as authentic letters like the various apocryphal covenants and charters of privileges. The philologist and manuscript expert Ahmad Zaki Pasha (d. 1934) had already presented evidence for forgeries of this type, the British historian Norman Calder and other orientalists also rejected them, and Hamidullah dedicated a great deal of his writing and his own lived experience to proving that the human rights of Christians or any other religious minority, along with the responsibility of the majority to protect and defend those rights, is in no way dependent on spurious documents.
“One of Hamidullah’s earliest contributions to manuscript editing and publication is his 1938 publication entitled The First Written Constitution in the World, among the first scholarly studies of the Charter of Medina,…”His credentials made him one of the more qualified members of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan formed after its declaration of independence in 1947 in order to write the new nation’s constitution. He eventually left the Assembly after its failure to secure the amendments raised by minority members and the undermining of civilian control of the military. In spite of numerous offers over the years, he refused to take Pakistani citizenship and maintained permanent residence in Paris, where he viewed laïcité, when properly put into practice in its prohibition of government influence on religious affairs, as being more Islamic than many conceptualizations of Islamic governance promulgated at the time.
Laïcité, Islam, and Democracy
While extremists among Muslims and non-Muslims were claiming the incompatibility of Islam and democracy, Hamidullah employed his training in classical Islamic law and modern international law to prove just the opposite. He argued that developments in Muslim jurisprudential thought presaged the political doctrines of democratic representation and the fraternity and equality of man undergirding intergovernmental organizations to which many Muslim-majority states belong such as the United Nations and the British Commonwealth of Nations. Citing Shāh Walī Allāh’s (d. 1762) al-Budūr al-bāzigha (Full moon appearing on the horizon), wherein the drawing of clear distinctions between religious and political authorities was regarded as a necessity under changing historical circumstances, Hamidullah refuted extremists who considered the separation of religion and state un-Islamic.
“He condemned both communism’s prohibition on religious proselytizing as well as the Stalinist rejection of reformism in favor of radical violent revolutionary activity and concomitant methods now utilized by various Sunni and Shiʿi militant groups.”He viewed this separation as having already been evident in the time of the Shiʿi Buyids and Sunni Seljuqs with their tripartite division of roles between the sultan as political authority, the caliph as religious authority and ethical-spiritual affairs handled by the numerous Sufi fraternities. He condemned both communism’s prohibition on religious proselytizing as well as the Stalinist rejection of reformism in favor of radical violent revolutionary activity and concomitant methods now utilized by various Sunni and Shiʿi militant groups. With respect to economics and social welfare, Hamidullah understood the Islamic legal tradition to express support for international free trade coupled with various provisions for social security that, in times of need, increase beyond just offering the minimum amount of water required to keep someone from dying.
Muhammad Hamidullah’s religious commitments in no way prevented him from developing strong relationships and producing important academic works in partnership with scholars of various backgrounds. In addition to the translation work with Massignon, Leturmy and Kahle, Hamidullah co-wrote the Religious Guide of France with influential Reformed pastor Marc Boegner (d. 1970), Chief Rabbi of France Jacob Kaplan (d. 1994), and Cardinal Maurice Feltin (d. 1975). With French Arabist Charles Pellat (d. 1992), Hamidullah co-edited one of the earliest extant Arabic manuscripts on popular astronomy, the Kitāb al-anwāʾ of Ibn Qutayba (d. 276/889).
Originally commissioned by UNESCO, Hamidullah translated from Arabic to French the Kitāb al-siyar al-kabīr by the early Hanafi jurist Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan al-Shaybānī (d. 189/805) with the commentary of Shams al-aʾimma al-Sarakhsī (d. 483/1090). The earliest and most detailed discussion of diplomatic and wartime relations between nations in Islamic law, Shaybanī’s book in many ways predicts the codification of international law in Europe centuries later by Hugo Grotius (d. 1645), whose own work was prompted by the Dutch East India Company’s encroachment into territories most often ruled by Muslims and its role in the Dutch war of independence from Spain.
Also in his oeuvre of critical annotated editions is a portion of the biography of the prophet Muḥammad by Ibn Isḥāq (d. 159/770), an edition and several translations of the hadith collection attributed to Hammām b. Munabbih (d. 101/719) thought to be the earliest extant hadith compilation, and a history of the antiquities gifted between Muslim and non-Muslim rulers as part of diplomatic relations by qadi Ibn Zubayr al-Ghassānī (d. 563/1168) revised by Salah al-Din Munajjed (d. 2010), director of the Arab League’s Institute of Islamic Manuscripts. In his introduction to the latter work, Munajjed wrote the following: “As for the editor, al-ustadh Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, he is one of the senior scholars who in his books, lectures, and articles, dedicated his life to bringing greater awareness to the beauties of the Arabic and Islamic heritage.”
Ultra-conservative groups in Turkey, motivated in equal parts by ethno-nationalism and religious zealotry, accused him and other foreign Muslim scholars-in-residence of being reformcular (reformers), used as a derogatory term to refer to heretics seeking to corrupt Islam via calls for modernization. The evidence they provided for their claim was Hamidullah’s refusal to reduce the sources at his disposal to what they deemed orthodox, as is the habit of all conservative traditionalisms, whether Sunni, Shiʿi or Ibadi. Hamidullah collaborated with Ahmad Bekir and Hassan Hanafi in publishing a critical edition of the Kitāb al-muʿtamad, an early work on the philosophical principles of Islamic jurisprudence (uṣūl al-fiqh) written by the Muʿtazili jurist Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī (d. 436/1044), influential in the development of the discipline among Sunnis and an important part of the Yemeni Zaydi curriculum for many centuries. Hamidullah used his introduction to this work as an opportunity to refute those reactionary ʿused h who rejected the validity of the Muʿtazili intellectual heritage. The relatively liberal opinions of his junior co-editor and student at the Sorbonne, Hassan Hanafi, would infuriate Azhari conservative traditionalists who claimed the faith was in need of protecting from Hanafi’s “Islamic left.” In the name of protecting the “late Sunni tradition,” sixty Azhari scholars signed a statement declaring Hanafi an apostate and the far-right leaders of the Azhari Scholars Front called for his execution.
Beyond Strict Legalism
“From 1954 until his retirement from professorial duties, he was a research fellow with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris and a visiting professor in India, Germany, France, Turkey, and Malaysia.”Hamidullah’s life and work, spent digging up the gold of a diverse and rich heritage, provides the strongest refutation of intolerant traditionalism. From 1954 until his retirement from professorial duties, he was a research fellow with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris and a visiting professor in India, Germany, France, Turkey, and Malaysia. Although his early religious training was in the Shafiʿi school of thought (madhhab) of his forefathers, he contributed to a greater awareness of major works in the Hanafi, Muʿtazili, and Hanbali schools. Steeped in classical Sunni Islamic seminary (madrasa) learning, he also wrote articles on Zayd b. ʿAli (d. 122/740) the eponymous founder of the second-largest Shiʿi madhhab, the legal philosophy of Averroes, the reformist ideas of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897), as well as a detailed study of early Iranian Jaʿfarī Shiʿi legal scholars (fuqahāʾ) which he presented at a conference in Mashhad celebrating the millennial anniversary of Shaykh Tusi (d. 460/1067), considered the founder of systematized Shiʿi fiqh and author of one of the earliest books on comparative jurisprudence, Kitāb al-khilāf.
Hamidullah, in spite of his academic focus, was not a strict legalist, and in fact was himself a disciple of Muhammad Abdul Qadeer Siddiqui (d. 1962), founder of the Qadri–Qadeeri Sufi order and the first head of the Islamic Studies Department at Osmania University, whose influence was felt on all major religious subjects including devotional poetry set to music (qawwali) and whose devotees reached as far as Yemen. He was a mentor to the German scholar of Sufism, Annemarie Schimmel (d. 2003) as well as the Pakistani Rumi scholar Afza Iqbal (d. 1994) who translated into English The Emergence of Islam, Hamidullah’s last major lecture series given in Pakistan in 1979.
End of Life in Jacksonville, FL
“From late 1996 until his death in 2002, Muhammad Hamidullah left Paris to live in Jacksonville, Florida with relatives and receive treatment for a debilitating illness leaving him almost completely deaf.”From late 1996 until his death in 2002, Muhammad Hamidullah left Paris to live in Jacksonville, Florida with relatives and receive treatment for a debilitating illness leaving him almost completely deaf. When I visited the local Islamic Center of Northeast Florida two years ago, only a few of the older members of the congregation could remember those years when on certain days an elderly senior scholar, with great effort and in a weak voice, would give brief talks after prayers.
Sadly, just a week ago this same center was under threat by a radicalized Islamophobic extremist who had amassed a sizeable arsenal of firearms and plotted a mass shooting at the center, to be committed during the main Friday congregation so as to inflict the highest number of casualties. Exploiting the concept of “tradition” to justify intolerance and violence is common among countless extremist groups like the far-right white supremacist traditionalist Americans or those Azhari clerics calling for the murder of Hassan Hanafi and those thinkers he influenced like Nasr Abu Zayd (d. 2010). The terms “reform,” “heritage,” “normative,” “orthodox,” “mainstream,” “conservative,” and “progressive” are also equally made malleable by opportunists of every stripe.
Muhammad Hamidullah, on the other hand, should be remembered for his collegiality with scholars of all backgrounds and for an intellectual output that sought to preserve, contextualize, and familiarize the public to the best of all branches of the Islamic textual heritage. He represents one strand of a more enlightened approach to tradition that has continued efforts at sociocultural reform since the mid-twentieth century in the face of a rising fascistic intolerance attempting to snuff out its illuminating influence.
 David D. Grafton, The Christians of Lebanon: Political Rights in Islamic Law (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2003), 131.
 See Muhammad Hamidullah, Majmūʿat al-wathāʾiq al-siyāsiyya lil-ʿahd al-nabawī wa-al-khilāfat al-rāshida (Beirut: Dār al-Nafāʾis, 1985), 31-5; Anwar Jindi, Aḥmad Zakī al-mulaqqab bi-shaykh al-ʿurūba: ḥayātuhu, ārāʾuhu, āthāruh (Cairo: al-Muʾassasat al-Miṣriyya al-ʿĀmma lil-Taʾlīf wa-al-Tarjama wa-al-Ṭibāʿa wa-al-Nashr, 1963), 197-9; Norman Calder, Studies in Early Muslim Jurisprudence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 141-5.
 Hamidullah, Islam and Communism: A Study in Comparative Thought (Hyderabad (Deccan): Habib &, 1979), 4-5.
 Ibid., 6-7.
 Ibid., 3, 9-11.
 Ibid., 17-8.
 Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Munajjid, “Introduction,” introduction to Kitāb al-dhakhāʾir wa-al-tuḥaf, by al-Rashīd Ibn al-Zubayr, ed. Muḥammad Ḥamīdullah (Kuwait: Maṭbaʿat al-Ḥukūma bi-al-Kuwayt, 1959).
 Hassan Ansari and Sabine Schmidtke, “The Muʿtazilī and Zaydī Reception of Abū l-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī’s Kitāb al-Muʿtamad fī Uṣūl al-Fiqh: A Bibliographical Note,” Islamic Law and Society 20, no. 1-2 (2013): 90-109, doi:10.1163/15685195-0003a0003.