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'What's Knowledge Got to do With Religion?' 1st Muslim Woman to Get Sanskrit PhD in a Fix Over BHU Row

Salma Mahfooz, renowned Sanskrit scholar from the Aligarh Muslim University, says she cannot comprehend the protests over a Muslim professor being appointed to teach Sanskrit at Banaras Hindu University.

Eram Agha | News18.comEramAgha

Updated:November 23, 2019, 3:25 PM IST
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'What's Knowledge Got to do With Religion?' 1st Muslim Woman to Get Sanskrit PhD in a Fix Over BHU Row
Sanskrit professor Salma Mahfooz.

Aligarh: Some may find Panini's Ashtadhyayi, an ancient grammar text in Sanskrit, complex, but it has never appeared daunting to Salma Mahfooz, renowned Sanskrit scholar from the Aligarh Muslim University. Her ease with the language astounded many a scholars, who nurtured her enthusiasm for the language and motivated her to translate that ease into scholarship.

Mahfooz's PhD thesis on categorisation of Indian heroines of Sanskrit literature, signed by her then chairman Ram Suresh Tripathi, announces with pride – ‘Bharat Natya Shastra ke Nayika bhed. Dr Salma Mahfouz swayam vidushi aur vishwa ki pratham Muslim mahila hai jinhone Sanskrit me PhD prapt kari.’

Ease and Discomfort of Sanskrit

While Sanskrit never posed a difficulty for her, the recent controversy around the language being taught by a non-Muslim has left Mahfooz in a fix. She has heard about a protest by Banaras Hindu University students over a Muslim professor being appointed to teach Sanskrit. "I can't comprehend these controversies. I'd just say, let things be and keep watching. But I don't know what one’s religion has to do with scholarship in any language. I am the first Muslim woman in the world to be awarded a PhD in Sanskrit. I taught Geeta, Veda, Upanishads and other texts but that didn't stop me from Hajj, Umra and Namaz, Roza," she says.

Mahooz, who has guided as many as 15 students in PhD thesis ranging from the role of Bhishma in Mahabharata to Sudhandhu krata: Vasavadatta: Ekta Aloknatmak Adhyayan, said, “Not just the Hindu students, I have also taught Sanskrit to Muslims. I believe, mazhab apni jagah hai, taleem apni jagah (you cannot mix religion with education and upbringing)."

For now, the professor of Sanskrit wants to stay away from the controversie. "Umr toh ho gayi hai meri… (I’ve aged). I don't want to say much on this issue. But maybe we live in different times now. Otherwise why would there be so much noise over a language? After all, a language is a language."

‘Was Taught by a Visionary’

Mahfooz was taught the classical Indian language by Pandit Ayodhya Das till class six. "A lot depends on how the language is taught. Pandit Ayodhya-ji was brilliant in teaching the language. He made learning easy. I learnt it by rote learning the ‘dhaatu’ and ‘roop’.”

She herself does not know how the language became part of her knowledge. "I just kept performing well and my chairman in AMU, Ram Suresh Tripathi, told me don't give up on this language. If you continue with the same interest, you will become the first Muslim woman to get a PhD in Sanskrit. The idea was soon realised when I became the PhD in the language."

She fondly remembers the role of Sanskrit scholar Baldev Upadhyay who was there for her viva voce. Though her interaction with another great scholar Rewa Prasad Dwivedi was not so encouraging.

Crediting the founder of Aligarh Muslim University, Mahfooz said, "If Pandit Ayodhya-ji taught me well, I must also acknowledge the role of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. He was a visionary and established the centre for learning Sanskrit in the AMU. With that I translated my primary interest into a thesis.”

Mahfooz taught in Bijnore College. She also to Iraq for a comparative study on Hinduism and Islam. "The language plays a crucial role in finding similarities, and Sanskrit gave me the opportunity to pursue the scholarship in Iraq as well," she said.

She was inducted in the AMU after her return. She also served as the chairman of the university and has produced scholarly works on Dara Shikoh.

In 1978, there was a UGC-funded project on Sanskrit and Dara Shikoh. In 1986, under the direction of academic SP Singh, she carried out project on Sirre Akbar, which was Dara Shikoh’s effort towards finding a common mystical language between Islam and Hinduism. Dara completed the translation of 50 upanishads from their original Sanskrit into Persian in 1657. His translation is called Sirr-e-Akbar (The Greatest Mystery).

Under Mahfooz’s guidance, big conferences were held on Sanskrit in AMUs Women's College in 2001. That year was celebrated as the Sanskrit year in the university. In 2004, she held a conference on the contribution of women to Sanskrit and it was attended by renowned scholars.

Mahfooz was honoured with Aligarh Ratna in 2015. An award of eminence in the region, it was given to her by BJP leader Sheila Gautam. She also received Vidya Ratna by Congress leader Ameeta Singh.

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