The year was 1999. Having finishing off post graduate studies in India, I returned to Bangladesh. Suddenly my interest in philosophy has grown. I was trying to deal with big questions, such as, Does God exist, What’s a successful life? etc.
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 a few commentaries in a Bangla weekly. I knew he was a well-known atheist; mullahs hated him, called him a ‘murtad’ (an apostate).
Following his death, our 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. He donated his body for medical research. Prof. Shariff’s family honored his will. His body was donated 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.