(originally written on 24th Februray, 2008, on the ninth death anniversary of Prof. Ahmed Shariff)
The year was nineteen ninety-nine. Finishing off Master’s degree from India, I had returned Bangladesh a year ago, and was preparing myself for graduate studies in the USA. Because of reasons—personal as well as non-personal—for the first time in life, interest in philosophy was rapidly growing in me.
I was enthralled after reading the story of Aroj Ali Matubbor, a home grown philosopher without any formal education. Prof. Ahmed Sharif had just passed away at that time.
Although I was familiar with his name, I did not yet read much of Ahmed Sharif other than learning that, he was an atheist who the mullahs called a ‘murtad’, which means—in their words—a deviant muslim. Following his death, national dailies published articles on and about Ahmed Sharif—mostly of recollective nature—written by many noted intellectuals of our time. Ahmed Sharif became an enthusiastic subject for me.
Prior to the death, Sharif made a will in that, his body does not need any funeral rituals and, instead, be donated for medical research. His family honored Sharif’s will: His body was donated for medical research and his two eyes were transferred to the two blind persons, of which one was a young Hafiz in Quran.
What, however, had struck my mind was a different thing. From the writings of his colleagues—including those who did not share many of his thoughts on God and religion—I was highly impressed to learn that, although a dedicated atheist until death, Prof. Ahmed Sharif was thoroughly a man of unprecedented honesty and integrity. Prof. Anisuzzaman, for example, recalled that as a teacher Ahmed Shariff was not only outspoken; he was punctual and very loyal to his duties.
Prof. Ahmed Sharif striven to cultivate values of science, reason and inquisitiveness in his students’ mind. He would always encourage his students to think beyond the hole: To ask questions fearlessly, especially about subjects which, to many, were taboos.
That a person without any belief in God and religion could also be honest and good – was a new discovery for me. How could it be possible? The question was bugging me constantly. Admittedly, Ahmed Sharif had profound impact later on my philosophical transition from belief to skepticism over the years.
As I studied more, I discovered that the belief in God or religion, not necessarily, is not the only source of ethics; and people, even without belief in God, could also be good, honest and lead a happy life. In fact, “It is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason,” as was once said by Mary Wollstonecraft.
Born in 1921 in Chittagong, Ahmed Sharif spent most of student and professional life in Dhaka. He’s regarded as an authority on the medieval Bangla literature, although in his thoughts and writings, Prof. Ahmed Sharif was far ahead than many of today’s modernists. Author of more than fifty thought-provoking books, Prof. Sharif was a true rebel and a rationalist who—despite all the odds and hostilities from the reactionary forces—never hesitated to act according to his beliefs. No wonder, his students include such eminent intellectuals as Dr. Humayun Azad, author Ahmed Sofa, educationalist Abdullah Abu Sayeed, eminent dramatist Dr. Salim Al Din—to name a few.
“Our first and foremost identity is that we are human beings; our last identity is that we are human beings. Our aim should not be to remain a Hindu-Buddhist-Christian-Muslim, but to live as a human being,” wrote Ahmed Sharif in his personal diary, one of his last pieces, published posthumously in the weekly 2000. That, succinctly, sums up the whole philosophy of Sharif.
More than anything else, Dr. Sharif was a rationalist human being. That is how, I believe, the history would always remember this unparalleled thinker of Bangali origin.
Hats off to Ahmed Sharif on this 24th February, 2009, his tenth death anniversary.
P.S. Here are links to two more articles (by Dr. Nehal Karim) on Ahmed Shariff published in the Daily Star & the daily New Age in Bangladesh:
About the writer: Jahed Ahmed is employed in the New York State Dept. of Agriculture and Markets. He is involved with www.mukto-mona.com, a South Asian network of humanists and freethinkers, and the Muktanwesha, a science and reason based magazine published from Dhaka. E-mail: [email protected]