Syed Mujtaba Ali was a Bengali author, journalist, travel enthusiast, academician, scholar and linguist. He lived in Bangladesh, India, Germany, Afghanistan and Egypt.
Ali was born in Karimganj in Sylhet District of Assam Province. His father Syed Sikander Ali was a sub-registrar. Mujtaba was the youngest of the three brothers. One of his brothers was Syed Murtaza Ali, a Bangladeshi writer and historian.
Mujtaba Ali passed the matriculation exam from Sylhet Government Pilot High School and intermediate exam from MC College. He went to Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan and graduated in 1926. He was among the first graduates of the university. He studied for a brief period in Aligarh Muslim University.
Later, he moved to Kabul to work in the education department (1927-1929) as a professor. From 1929 to 1932 he went to Germany with Wilhelm Humboldt scholarship and studied at the universities in Berlin and later in Bonn. He earned his PhD from University of Bonn with a dissertation on comparative religious studies on Khojas in 1932.
He learned several languages at Visva-Bharati: Sanskrit, English, French, German, Persian, Arabic, Italian, Hindi, and Gujrati. He had learned Urdu at home. Apart from languages, he also studied Sangkhya and Vedanta at Visva-Bharati.
Ali studied at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo during 1934-1935. He taught at colleges in Baroda (1936-1944) and Bogra (1949). After a brief stint at Calcutta University in 1950, he became Secretary of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and editor of its Arabic journal Thaqafatul Hind. From 1952 to 1956 he worked for All India Radio at New Delhi, Cuttack and Patna.
He then joined the faculty of Visva-Bharati University (1956-1964) as professor of German language and later of Islamic Culture. While Muztaba Ali was studying at Santiniketan, some of his writings were published in the Visva-Bharati, a handwritten magazine.
He wrote columns in different journals such as the Ananda Bazar, Desh, Satyayug, Shanibarer Chithi, Basumati, Hindustan Standard, etc. under different pseudonyms such as 'Satyapir', 'Rai Pithora', 'Omar Khaiyam', 'Tekchand', 'Priyadarshi'. He was also a regular contributor to the Mohammadi, Chaturanga, Matrbhumi, Kalantar, Al-Islah, etc.
He has thirty books to his credit, in a variety of genres: novels, short stories, essays and travelogues, etc. His travelogues, Deshe-Bideshe (1949) and Jale-Danay (1960) were particularly well received. His novels include Abishvasya (1954), Shabnam (1960) and Shahar-Iyar (1969).
Panchatantra (1952) and Mayurkanthi (1952) are humorous writings. His short stories have been compiled in Chacha Kahini (1952) and Tuni Mem (1964). Bonn University published his DPhil. dissertation The Origin of Khojahs and Their Religious Life Today (1936). He also wrote about the language issue in East Pakistan in Purba-Pakistaner Rastrabhasa.
As an intellectual, Muztaba Ali was highly esteemed in both West Bengal and Bangladesh. His short humorous writings have always been popular with readers. However, under the guise of humor, he expressed deeply felt truths. In 1972, after the liberation of the country, Ali returned to Bangladesh.
He died on 11 February 1974. Extracts from his literary works are included in the curriculum of school level, secondary, higher secondary and graduation level Bengali Literature in both Bangladesh and India, particularly in the states of West Bengal and Tripura. He was awarded Ekushey Padak in 2005 by the Government of Bangladesh.