Professor Ghulam Azam

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My Journey Through Life Part 8

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(Abridged Translated version of the author’s original Bangla Memoir Jibone Ja Dekhlam)


Translated and Edited by Dr Salman Al-Azami


Copyright – The Ghulam Azam Foundation


Chapter Eight

University Education

I passed my Higher Secondary Exams (IA) in May 1944. In undivided Bengal all the general colleges of Dhaka city and all Islamic Intermediate Colleges of Bengal were under the Dhaka Board; the rest were under the Kolkata Board. Seven out of the first ten winners of first grade scholarship in Dhaka Board were from Islamic Intermediate College – myself included. All of us who passed from this college that year enrolled in Dhaka University, which was the only university in East Bengal. There were five colleges in Bengal at that time known as ‘premier colleges’ of which four were from East Bengal. The four premier colleges in East Bengal were Comilla Victoria College, Barisal BM College, Rangpur Carmichael College and Mymensingh MM College. The only premier college in West Bengal was Kolkata Presidency College.

Which Subject to Study?

Many people nowadays plan long ahead which subjects they would study. There was no such plan at least by me at that time. My father always emphasised one thing – to master Bangla, English and Arabic, which according to him was the mantra of success in all aspects of life. There was no plan about my future career, so the question arose which subject I should choose to study at university. It was mandatory for scholarship holders to study a three-year Bachelor’s degree with honours, without which the scholarship would be cancelled.  To help in making a decision I, along with some friends, approached our favourite English teacher Syed Mainul Ahsan at his residence in Nazimuddin Road. I was thinking of studying either English Literature or Political Science for my degree, but our English professor spoke for ten minutes encouraging us to study Arabic. The logic he attempted to give was to take a subject that would enable us to get high marks that would lead us to a good government job.

Hindus at that time were much more advanced than Muslims in education, for which reason it was difficult to compete with them in the job market, particularly in the academic sector, so the government sector would be preferable. As a Muslim-majority state the Muslim government of East Bengal were keen to have people from the community in government positions, but it was difficult to exceed the Hindus by competing with them. He said, “As you are good students you should target the civil service and studying Arabic will give you more opportunity to score highly and do better in the competition.” He suggested that subjects like English, Economics, Political Science etc. can be taken as minor subjects. The Pakistan movement had not found much momentum then and there was no sign of the establishment of Pakistan – a separate state for Muslims – so in that situation we found his arguments logical and we all decided to study Arabic. I chose English and Political Science as my minor subjects.

Choosing a Student Halls

Dhaka University has been a residential university since its inception, so the majority of its students stay in one of the student halls. Those who don’t stay in halls also need to be attached to one of the halls. Both residents and non-residents of a hall could vote in the hall union elections. There were four student halls at that time, two for Hindus and two for Muslims. The university started with two halls – Salimullah Muslim Hall and Jagannath (Hindu) Hall and later Fazlul Haque Muslim Hall and Dhaka (Hindu) Hall were opened.

I didn’t choose Salimullah Muslim Hall despite its reputation and beautiful architecture; I didn’t like the halls being scattered in different places. I decided to stay in Fazlul Haque Muslim Hall as it was near the building where the classes were held. Thus my university life began as a resident of Fazlul Haque Muslim Hall in July 1944. The provost of the Hall at that time was Dr Mahmud Hossain, who was a Reader in the History department and later became the Vice Chancellor of the university. I last met him in 1957 while he was working at Karachi University. He loved his students very much and used to speak to them frankly. He was originally from Delhi and was once elected in Pakistan Parliament as a representative of East Pakistan. His elder brother was the renowned educationalist Dr Zakir Hossain who founded Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. He was also the Vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University and became the President of India during the premiership of Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru.

There were two house tutors in Fazlul Haque Muslim Hall. One of them, Dr Mazharul Haque, was a lecturer in Economics (and later became a prominent economist). Dr Haque called me in his office one day and asked me, “Why did a talented student like you choose to study a degree in Arabic? Generally only those from madrasah background study Arabic and some choose it as an easy subject to get a university degree. You did the opposite. You chose English and Political Science as your minor subjects, but Arabic as your major subject. I am surprised!” When I related the reasoning behind my decision he commented, “It was the wrong advice from your English teacher.”

University Lectures

I was very enthusiastic about the lectures in university as I had a very good impression of university lecturers. The distribution of marks in my degree was 800 for honours in Arabic, 300 each for the two minor subjects English and Political Science, and 100 for Bangla – compulsory for all students in the university. All teachers in English, Bangla and Political Science were Hindus and their lectures were very enjoyable. I used to note down the summary of these lectures with great care, which would be very useful during my exams. Teachers would ask questions in class that also contributed well towards my notes. Our English teacher took five days to talk about Shakespeare before introducing his works. Similarly our English poetry teacher would first talk about poets like Wordsworth, Tennyson, Byron and so on before discussing their poems. The lectures of Political Science were also very interesting and I could feel that I was learning something. A lot could be learned from my Bangla teachers as well. I would ensure that I never missed any lectures of these three subjects. It became my passion to attend all lectures irrespective of any other commitments and take down notes of each lecture. I never missed a lecture even when I was actively involved with the hall union. If I ever missed a session due to illness, I would make sure that I copied class notes from the better students in class.

The lectures I felt most uncomfortable with were my Arabic classes. The only class I enjoyed was Islamic Philosophy, taught by an Indian professor named Syed Jilani. Those who taught Arabic poetry and prose hardly gave lectures, but would merely read out English translations of the texts and give us dictations. It was not helpful to learn Arabic at all. I had expected them to give lectures in Arabic, as done by the English teachers in English classes, but it was not to be. They never gave lectures in Arabic and would just read out the Arabic of textbooks.  There were no printed translations of the Arabic texts at that time as no publisher found it a lucrative business proposition. Therefore, teachers would read out the notes they had written and we would copy them. I used to consider it a complete waste of time as I could get the meanings of words from the dictionary myself. Although the Arabic grammar teacher was good, what use is there in grammar if it doesn’t facilitate language learning? Grammar does not teach a language, it merely corrects the mistakes. Without competence in language I found the grammar lessons meaningless. There was a textbook by Abdur Rahman Awqabi who tried to copy the style of the Qur’an in his book. The teacher used to recite the book as if he was reciting the Qur’an. Hearing this, some badly-behaved students used to say, Subhan Alla[1], Marhaba[2] etc. The teacher never felt embarrassed that the students were making fun of him. He never spoke anything about its content other than dictating its translation to us. This continued for six months and my irritation towards my Arabic classes continued to rise.

I strongly felt that taking Arabic as a major subject was of no use. I felt no progress in my command over the Arabic language since I left college. I tried to explore the possibility of changing my major subject.  The other two options I had for a major subject were English and Political Science. I felt more inclined towards political science and approached the head of the department Professor D N Banerjee. He was happy that I wished to major in his subject, but told me that it was too late for that year, so I had to wait until July the following year to enrol in the department. I became very worried. I was neither ready to lose another year from my academic life, nor was I happy to continue with Arabic. I also came to know that if I chose pass course degree[3] instead of an honours degree then I would lose my scholarship and would also need to pay fees for my studies, which were exempted due to my scholarship. I went back home to Chandina for the winter vacation with this dilemma.

I was unsure how my father would react to my decision. He had been exceptionally glad when I chose to major in Arabic. I was not certain whether or not he would allow me to leave the subject. The other problem was that he would now have to pay for my educational expenses as I would lose my scholarship. I took a good few days to prepare myself how to approach my father. I was so anxious that my food and sleep were affected. My father noticed this condition of mine and asked me one day why I looked so tense. I couldn’t say a word and tears began to roll down my cheeks. My father became very concerned. I then told him everything. It was a big relief when he replied; I was overwhelmed by his confidence in me. He said, “I only want you to do well in your studies. Financial losses don’t factor to me at all. It is not possible to study a subject without feeling comfortable about it. Whatever decision you take I will support you.” I felt a heavy burden released from my shoulders and I decided at once that I would not lose another year and would complete my degree in pass course and then do a master’s degree.

University Environment

The two-storied hall building of Fazlul Haque Muslim Hall (now three-storied) had student accommodation on three sides and the southern side had a big gate, which had the offices and residences of the two house tutors on its two sides. There was a pond on the western side of the hall and on its other side was the Dhaka Hall for Hindus (now Shahidullah Hall). There was no scope to take shower inside the halls at that time, so students used to bathe in the pond.

I really liked the hall environment. There was a wonderful tradition of juniors respecting the seniors, for example, by letting the seniors sit on the dining table first, making way for them while walking, giving the seniors priority while having bath in the pond and letting them jump the queues for the toilet. The environment was so nice that the seniors would often forfeit their advantages and would affectionately let the juniors enjoy a particular privilege. If they would take the privilege due to time constraints they would never forget to thank the juniors for their generosity. Good students used to get special treatment and juniors used to greet them with special respect. This type of environment is unthinkable in modern times. Even the teachers hardly get this type of respect. While attending the 40th anniversary of Fazlul Haque Muslim Hall in 1979, I asked the then provost Dr Mohabbat Ali what type of respect he received from his students compared to the older days. He replied in a sad voice, “I just somehow manage to maintain my dignity”.

Although boys and girls would study in the same class, the seating environment was such that there was little scope of free mixing. One could hardly see male and female students chatting in the campus. Girls would usually walk together from one building to another. There were more Hindu girls than Muslims and they could be easily distinguished by the way they used to wear their saris. Muslim girls would always cover their heads, while unmarried Hindu girls would keep them open. Although married Hindu girls would cover their heads, they would also have sindoor [4] on their heads.

Cultural Activities

Debate and speech competitions organized by the cultural units of hall unions were very popular and the competitions used to be very lively. The influence of English literature was so high that even science students would quote Shakespeare, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Byron, Bernard Shaw, Keats etc. in their speeches. It is worth mentioning that all speech competitions were in English. The concept of cultural functions did not mean the dominance of dance, music and drama that is seen in modern times. In plays boys would dress as girls who could rarely be seen singing on stage. In music, Qawwali[5] used to be the most popular genre. Songs were the most prominent item during the cultural programmes for the inauguration of newly elected hall unions. There would be dance as well, but no female over the age of 10 was allowed to dance. There was no hint of vulgarity in the university and hall campuses. Education was always the main focus.

[1] Glory be to Allah; generally used by Muslims to express awe.

[2] Used as a greeting in Arabic. In Bangla it is mostly used to congratulate someone.

[3] Degree without honours.

[4] Red pigment made from powdered red lead, especially as applied as a dot on the forehead or in the parting of the hair of married Hindu women.

[5] A form of sufi devotional music

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