Obituary: Professor C. F. Beckingham

CHARLES FRASER Beckingham spent the greater part of his academic career as Professor of Islamic Studies, first at Manchester University (1958-65), and then at London University (1965-81).

He was admired at both institutions for his thorough scholarship, his special talent for teaching in an easy, candid and relaxed manner, and his skill in running a department efficiently, yet unobtrusively. But all those who knew Beckingham closely, both students and colleagues, gradually came to realise that, when all his work was done in his own academic department, he had other formidable resources which he hardly ever spoke about.

Beckingham had started his career as a student of English, before he developed his interest in Semitic languages and Islamic history. He had a rigorous and systematic interest in reading which never flagged all his life.

Another formidable resource, however, which distinguished Beckingham and endeared him to others, was his rare personal integrity. Whenever he saw potential, he did not leave a stone unturned in furthering the career of a student or a colleague. He was one of those perpetual builders, never sparing in his moral support. His great sense of humour, for which he was well known, permeates his works and lives in them after him.

Charles Beckingham was born in Houghton, Huntingdonshire, the son of an artist, Arthur Beckingham, who must have instilled in his son, at an early stage, the love of languages. "It was not unusual for people of my father's generation," Beckingham used to say, "to speak both German and French." After attending Huntingdon Grammar School, Beckingham went up to Queens' College, Cambridge, where he read English. As he had done Latin and Greek at school, and continued to read the two languages later, Beckingham gave the impression at times that he had read Classics at university.

After graduation, Beckingham worked for the Department of Printed Books in the British Museum (1936-46), but was seconded to military and naval Intelligence during the years 1942-46, hence his contribution to The Admiralty Handbook of Western Arabia (1946).

In 1951 Beckingham joined Manchester University as lecturer in Islamic History; there his competence and experience were acknowledged by rapid promotions to Senior Lecturer in 1955, and to Professor of Islamic Studies in 1958, a post he held until 1965. In the mid-Fifties he spent a sabbatical leave in Cyprus studying the history of the Turkish community, helped by his wife Margery who knew Turkish as well as he did. Cycling, with its thrills and rigours, became his preferred means of transport on the island.

In 1965 Beckingham joined the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), at London University, as Professor of Islamic Studies. Between 1969 and 1972 he was Head of the Department of the Near and Middle East at the school. Upon his retirement in 1981, he became Emeritus Professor, and two years later, in 1983, he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. In 1969-72 he served as President of the Hakluyt Society, and in 1967- 70 as President of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Charles Beckingham wrote extensively on travel literature in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and just as extensively collaborated with other scholars in the field. He cleared the decks for all this, one might say, when he edited and wrote the introduction to an Atlas of the Arab World and the Middle East (1960). He described his substantial volume Between Islam and Christendom (1983), which brings together 25 of his lectures and articles, as dealing mostly "with the history of travel". But Beckingham makes it his task, in practically all that he wrote, to "distinguish what was trustworthy from what was mythical", and to distinguish between "European knowledge of, or illusions about, Islam".

His compelling interest in the legendary Prester John (variously referred to as a king and a priest in the Far East, or king of Abyssinia) was a mark of his desire to account for the mythical and enigmatic. Prester John was the subject of his inaugural lecture at Soas, The Achievements of Prester John (1966). In 1982 he published a joint work, with his colleague Edward Ullendorff, The Hebrew letters of Prester John, and in 1996 Prester John, the Mongols and the Ten Lost Tribes, edited jointly with Bernard Hamilton.

When Professor Sir Hamilton Gibb became too ill, in the early Seventies, to finish his translation and annotation of The Travels of Ibn Battuta (the 14th- century Arab traveller), he asked Beckingham, who had already been giving assistance to Gibb, to continue the work. Beckingham could not refuse the request, but suggested that he might take on an assistant. "No!" exclaimed Gibb. "You would then spend your time in discussing points of detail, and not doing much work." Beckingham took up the work single-handed, and went on to publish a translation and annotation of the last part of the voyage, volume iv of The Travels of Ibn Battuta, AD 1325-1354 (1994).

Charles Beckingham was a man of wide and varied interests, among them his love of reading and music. His knowledge of Italian drew him to opera, and particularly opera sung in Italian. When he moved to East Sussex in recent years, one of the attractions of the place to him was its proximity to Glyndebourne.

J. A. Abu-Haidar

Charles Fraser Beckingham, Islamic scholar: born Houghton, Huntingdonshire 18 February 1914; Lecturer in Islamic History, Manchester University 1951- 55, Senior Lecturer 1955-58, Professor of Islamic Studies 1958-65; Professor of Islamic Studies, London University 1965-81 (Emeritus); FBA 1983; married 1946 Margery Ansell (died 1966; one daughter); died Lewes, East Sussex 30 September 1998.

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project