Obituary: Professor C. F. Beckingham
Thursday 15 October 1998
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.
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