Muhammad Hamidullah is a name that too few people are familiar with, considering his incredible accomplishments. Born in Hyderabad (in British-ruled India) in 1908, he memorized the Qur’an and completed his traditional education at Dar ul-‘Ulum and Nizam College before pursuing an MA and LLB from Osmania University.
At this point, Hamidullah moved to Bonn (Germany) and then to Sarbonne (France), quickly completing not one but two doctorates (PhD). His first dissertation explored neutrality in Islamic international law and was published in a prestigious journal in 1935; the second focused on the diplomacy of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and the early caliphs. He considered pursuing a third PhD in Leningrad, but returned to Hyderabad in 1936. At this point, his work as a scholar was just getting started.
He taught for several years at Osmania University, and in 1948 he was part of a delegation sent by the Nizam of Hyderabad to the United Nations Security Council. When India annexed Hyderabad in his absence, he obtained refuge in France. He traveled widely, helping write newly-formed Pakistan’s constitution and curriculum and teaching at the University of Istanbul (Turkey), University of Malaya (Malaysia), institutions in Madinah (Saudi Arabia), and more.
For the most part he lived a quiet, humble life in a small, cluttered apartment in Sarbonne, focusing on his research. He never married, rarely allowed himself to be photographed, avoided media attention, and did not like to talk about himself (and encouraged others to refrain from it as well). He was also active in establishing some of France’s oldest mosques and MSAs, and joined events to support the calls of liberation of Palestine, Kashmir and Algeria (and his own birthplace, Hyderabad).
In 1959, he became the first Muslim living in the French cultural context to translate the Qur’an into French. He became fluent in 22 languages; it is said that he learned Thai when he was 84. He published 130 books on various topics and in different languages, as well as hundreds of scholarly articles and essays. Some of these included ground-breaking researching, including his discovery of a very early hadith manuscript that had been forgotten.
Early in the morning on December 17, 2002—just after praying the dawn prayers—Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah passed away in his sleep in Jacksonville, Florida. He strove to build a collegial relationship with scholars of all backgrounds to modernize the study of Islam’s textual heritage. As one obituary fittingly put it, quoting an Arabic proverb: “mawt al-‘ālim, mawt al-‘ālam” or “the death of a learned person is a death that is felt by the entire world”.