Published in Mar-Apr 2020
I don’t remember the first time I spoke to Professor Sharif al Mujahid, but it was probably in 2006. I was working on a project for DAWN’s 60th birthday which required us to create a comic strip based on an incident from Mr Jinnah’s childhood.
Despite the fact that we had several books at hand (many of which were either edited or written by Sharif sahab, as I came to call him later), our CEO, Hameed Haroon, was resolute: “You have to speak to Sharif al Mujahid!”, signalling that Sharif sahab was the ultimate authority on all things Jinnah – and the Pakistan Movement – and must therefore be consulted.
I must confess that at the time, I did not realise what an institution Sharif sahab was. We spoke on the phone briefly, and I verified a few facts. He was cordial and to the point. After the comic was published, he called to congratulate the team. Later on, as time progressed, we began to speak more frequently and met on a few occasions. As several advertising campaigns for The Dawn Media Group centred on Mr Jinnah and the Pakistan Movement, Sharif sahab soon became our go-to person to double-check even the smallest fact.
Muhammad Ali Siddiqi, DAWN’s Readers’ Editor and an author, mentions in his tribute to Sharif sahab: “DAWN staff members found it convenient to ring him up even at midnight rather than consult reference books.” This not only speaks volumes about Sharif sahab’s reputation as a historian, but also of how generous he was with his time.
Sharif sahab was born in 1926 in Madras; his interest in history surfaced in his early years and he earned a BA in history in 1949 from the University of Madras. Later, he attended Stanford University, McGill and specialised in mass communications at Syracuse University. His career in journalism started in 1945, as he began contributing articles to publications such as the Civil and Military Gazette and Montreal Star; his articles were a staple in DAWN for at least 60 years, especially on days such as Mr Jinnah’s birthday (December 25) and his death anniversary (September 11).
In 1955, he established the Journalism Department at the University of Karachi, which he headed until 1972. He also taught at several international universities and established communications and media studies departments at the International Islamic University in Malaysia and at Islamabad University in his later years.
Despite an illustrious career in academia, in 1976, he was appointed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as Founder and Director of the Quaid-i-Azam Academy, which came into being to mark Mr Jinnah’s birth centenary. He stayed there until 1989, when he retired, and it is during this time that he wrote and edited an impressive body of work on the Pakistan Movement and, more specifically, on the life and times of Mr Jinnah.
Of these, one of his most notable works is Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah: Studies In Interpretation which sparked controversy. Akbar S. Ahmed, author of Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin explains why in this book’s preface. “In the study of Jinnah a hagiographical perspective is officially encouraged; criticism, however mild, is severely discouraged. In the 1980s Sharif al Mujahid discovered this to his cost. A genuine admirer of the Quaid, he hinted at the mildest of criticisms in the most guarded of whispers in his book. He was almost suspended from his job. The full weight of martial law regulations were prepared to be hurled at him. He was saved at the last minute by the intervention of S. S. Pirzada, another Jinnah devotee who was influential in General Zia’s regime.”
This did not deter Sharif sahab from continuing his research and he published several books afterwards. The most notable among them could be considered In Quest of Jinnah: Diary, Notes and Correspondence of Hector Bolitho (the author of Mr Jinnah’s official biography, commissioned by the Government of Pakistan), which he edited, and termed “explosive” as it contained several controversial accounts that had never been published before. In the preface to this book, which was published in 2007, Sharif sahab wrote: “I had retrieved Bolitho’s diary way back in October 1984, but decided to postpone publication until the arrival of fair weather. Only a short while before, my Jinnah: Studies in Interpretation had provoked Z.A. Suleri, editor of the Pakistan Times, to mount a campaign against it... calling for a ban on the book and my dismissal as the Quaid-i-Azam Academy’s Director. To cut a long story short, the authorities did step in, but I was able to weather the engulfing storm.” Clearly, even after 26 years, the incident still rankled him.
For his efforts, he received the Aizaz-e-Kamal/Fazilat and Sitara-e-Imtiaz in 2001 and 2006. Yet, despite his many accomplishments, Sharif sahab was a humble man; he never talked about himself and he was never condescending; it was almost as if he felt that it was his life’s mission to impart his knowledge about Pakistan and Mr Jinnah to anyone who showed an interest.
I remember that we had several sessions during which we had to caption photographs taken from DAWN’s archives, whereby hundreds of photographs were scrutinised for ‘clues’ in order to decipher when and where they were taken and who the subjects were. Despite his age, Sharif sahab was extremely alert. His estimations regarding these photographs stemmed from knowledge – and logic. “Well, Mr Jinnah is wearing a shalwar and not a chooridar pajama or a suit; therefore this photo must date from the late forties,” he would conclude. Or, “This is either the Madras or Patna Session; look at his face – he has become very skinny.” Even better: “Jinnah didn’t wear a sola topi after 1946 – so this picture had to be taken before that.”
His comments would make me think that he had known Mr Jinnah extremely well which was not the case (he had met him only a couple of times) and although he was undoubtedly an ardent admirer of Mr Jinnah and his ideology, this came through in a very subtle manner and not through over-the-top, pompous or verbose proclamations.
Siddiqi describes Sharif sahab affectionately. “He was my teacher initially; sometimes I would type his articles for DAWN, and I benefitted by learning how to use words in the correct manner. After I joined DAWN, we remained in touch; it was a long association and he became a friend and mentor. I saw his commitment to his job. He was a voracious reader; obviously you cannot become a scholar unless you read. He was a very well-read man and the most oft-quoted author in Pakistan and abroad with regard to the Freedom Movement.”
Sharif sahab leaves behind his wife, Shakila Khanum and four daughters Dr Shazia Mujahid Jamil, Dr Nooreen Mujahid Khalid, Nabila Mujahid and Dr Nadia Mujahid; all four daughters were highly educated and Dr Nooreen remembers her father with great affection. “He was a friend to all of us and educated us; when he saw me doing nothing, he would tell me never to waste time.”
These are words that Sharif sahab lived by – he did not believe in wasting time. Dr Noreen remembers that during his days at the Quaid-i-Azam Academy, he would frequently opt to stay there during the week, and only come home on the weekend. Even when unwell, he spent his time reading or writing.
With his passing, Pakistan has lost a rare man; a sincere, hardworking and accomplished individual, who, despite not being adequately financially rewarded for his efforts, made it his mission to chronicle the country’s history in his quest of bringing Mr Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan to the fore.
In essence, Sharif sahab was someone who served his country in a way that not many can lay claim to. And what makes him even more rare is the fact that he did all this in a quiet, diligent and matter of fact way. In many ways, he lived his life in the manner Mr Jinnah prescribed: “with faith, discipline and selfless devotion to duty.”