Ancient Arabia: Languages and Cultures

Obituary of Professor A.F.L. Beeston

16-AFLB-at-OI Please note: The Ancient Arabia Languages and Cultures (AALC) project was a one year project funded by the University of Oxford's John Fell Fund, and came to an end in 2011. This website acts as a historical record of the project, and is no longer actively updated.

Professor A.F.L. Beeston, or "Freddie" as he was universally known, died on 29th. September 1995, at the age of 84. Earlier in the year he had been diagnosed as having cancer but neither the disease nor the rigours of the treatment had diminished his passionate enjoyment of life, his delight in his innumerable friends and in meeting new people, and his fascination with the world around him. In recent years he had continued to produce work of great quality and shortly before his death he and Robert Hoyland had completed a new edition and translation of Jāḥiẓ's Epistle on the Turks. He was about to set off by train to a conference in Jena, to return to Oxford for two days and then to travel, again by train, to Pisa for another meeting. When I met him the day before his death he was bubbling over with good humour and enjoyment of life. He collapsed and died very suddenly just outside St. John's College, Oxford, of which he had been a fellow, and then emeritus fellow, for 40 years and which he loved deeply.

Alfred Felix Landon Beeston was born in 1911 in south London and was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. Even at school he had "an inclination for specializing in something unusual and exotic" and at the age of 14 taught himself the rudiments of Arabic and South Arabian, practising the latter by trying to read the inscriptions on display in the British Museum. At Oxford, he read Arabic and Persian under the formidable D.S. Margoliouth, while continuing his studies in South Arabian as an undergraduate and eventually writing his doctoral thesis on Sabaic inscriptions.

In 1935 he joined the staff of the Bodleian Library which he served for almost twenty years, eventually as Keeper of the Oriental Department and Sublibrarian. Here, among much other work, he produced the monumental Catalogue of ... Additional Persian Manuscripts and acquired a number of extremely important Arabic and Persian manuscripts for the library.

When, in 1955, H.A.R. Gibb resigned the Laudian Chair of Arabic at Oxford in order to go to Harvard, Freddie was invited to apply for the post. With considerable diffidence he did so and, rather to his surprise, was appointed. He held the chair until his retirement in 1978, and during this time he, and those working with him in the faculty, revolutionised the study of Arabic at Oxford, bringing modern Arabic literature into the syllabus for the first time. By the 1960s, the number of students applying for the course had increased more than fourfold.

Unlike most professors at Oxford, Freddie did a great deal of undergraduate teaching. He was an inspiring teacher who took enormous pains to help his students understand and enjoy the subject. It is no accident that of the 18 books he wrote or collaborated on, many are in the best sense didactic. His lectures, delivered in his inimitable tantalisingly hesitant manner and punctuated by appalling coughing fits were nevertheless spell-binding. All those who heard him speak on the pre-Islamic poetry will recall how, as he read, translated and interpreted each line a vivid picture of pre-Islamic Arabia emerged in fascinating detail. There seemed to be no aspect of it that he could not draw on to illuminate the text. He never got through all the set poems by the end of term, but that was irrelevant in comparison to what one had learnt. Similarly, his classes on Ibn Khaldun drew clarity and meaning out of the obscurest passages and in the process taught us invaluable lessons in critical method.

In his research Freddie made major contributions in three distinct fields: Arabic and general Semitic philology, Arabic literature, and pre-Islamic Arabia, as well minor forays into many others. In the field of Arabic philology one could pick out his book The Arabic Language Today and the series of articles in which he unravelled the complicated problems of Arabian sibilants, among much else. In the realm of Arabic literature one could point to his editions of Baššar and Jāḥiẓ and his masterly Baiḍāwī's Commentary on Sūrah 12 of the Qurʾān. But it was in his work on pre-Islamic Arabia that he made what is probably his most important contribution. His Sabaic Grammar (with its predecessor A Descriptive Grammar of Epigraphic South Arabian) and the Sabaic Dictionary, on which he collaborated with Jacques Ryckmans, Walter W. Müller and Maḥmūd al-Ghūl, are extraordinary achievements. He also collaborated with MuÌammad Bāfaqīh, Maḥmūd al-Ghūl and Christian Robin on an introduction, in Arabic, to South Arabian epigraphy, with a large selection of texts translated and annotated, which is still the only textbook available on the subject and is invaluable for Arab students. As well as books, he wrote a large number of articles and reviews. He could sometimes be terrifying in the latter but he was never spiteful and never had fun at other's expense. He was always just, even though sometimes, like everyone, he made mistakes. His watchword was "error must be corrected" and if he was in error, he accepted correction gratefully. He had a thirst for knowledge and was completely without vanity.

He was one of the founders of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, which for nearly thirty years has provided an annual forum for reports and discussion on the latest research in Arabia, and he was probably its most regular participant. For many years, in the days after the Seminar, he would invite the small band of South Arabian epigraphists to St. John's so that they could discuss in detail the work on which they were engaged. He also had an extensive correspondence not only with colleagues but with a wide range of people interested in Arabia, taking enormous trouble over enquiries of all sorts.

Everyone who knew Freddie will remember his kindness, his modesty and his enjoyment of life. He was always at home whether dining with princes or playing darts in the Lamb and Flag with the college servants. Despite a life-long shyness, he was an immensely sociable man, for whom conversation was a pleasure rather than small talk, and who was never embarrassed by a companionable silence. To talk to Freddie was to be constantly surprised by the range of his knowledge and interests — from wild-flowers to Welsh and from Anglo-Saxon kingship to a comparison of the novels of Mrs Gaskell and Mrs. Oliphant. He read voraciously and seems to have made notes about every book he read.

Many will recall with affection Freddie's deep and varied learning, his monumental manner of speech, and his sometimes alarming sartorial insouciance (though in full academic dress he could look magnificent). But what will be remembered most about him will be his modesty, his interest in other people, his fascination with everything around him and his kindness. In him we have lost not only a great scholar but a very dear friend.

Michael Macdonald, Oriental Institute, Oxford

Further Reading:

A.F.L. Beeston (1911-1995): personal reminiscences of a friend and scholar - Walter W. Müller