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The distinguished and self-effacing historian, Dr Muhammad Abdul Jabbar Beg, M.A., Ph.D, F.R.A.S, died in Cambridge on 10 December 2014.  He had a distinguished academic career, which began as a lecturer in Islamic History in the Department of Theology at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, the National University of Malaysia, from 1974-78. He then served as an Associate Professor in the Department of Arabic Studies and Islamic Civilisation until 1985.  His next post was  Associate Professor at the University of Brunei Darussalam. He returned to Cambridge in 1990, becoming a Visiting Scholar at the University as well as  Lecturer in Middle Eastern History at the University of the Third Age.  He described these years as a ‘relaunching’ of his academic career,  and his scholarly output included several articles to the Encylopaedia of Islam (Leiden) – see for example the entry ‘Sai’gh‘ (goldsmiths).

In 2006 Dr Beg published  Essays on the origins of Islamic Civilisation, a seminal work in which he also reverted to his first love,  social history of the early Islamic period –  the subject of his doctorate from the University of Cambridge (1971).  His  preface to the Essays conveys an aspect of his personality  and professionalism:  ‘During the last quarter of 2003 I sent a typed copy of this work … to Professor Emeritus Clifford Edmund Bosworth of Manchester University for his comments and suggestions. Professor Bosworth, more than any scholar knows the strengths and weakness of this work, and therefore I was delighted when it was returned to me with no comments. In September 2004 I submitted this modest work to Professor Peter Avery of King’s College, Cambridge for his scrutiny and comments. He returned the manuscript in March 2005 with a letter of recommendation to British publishers. To all my friends in Malaysia, United Kingdom and elsewhere especially R. M. Healey I express my thanks for their past advice and assistance’.  Dr Beg carried his learning lightly, always ready to acknowledge his sources and intellectual debts; the traits of  showmanship and pomposity were singularly absent from his character.The Essays display wide reading and erudition, whether it be in architectural history, the seerah, numismatics, urban development, social structures, early Islamic science or music.

For example, writing on music Dr Beg noted, ‘The best known singers, in Medinese society during the Prophet’s life were Hamamh, Zaynab and Sirin. Listening to singing (sama al-ghina) was less popular than listening to instrumental music (sama al-alat). The sound of the lute (‘ud) was appreciated by some of his disciples…An Arab proverb reads, ‘Superior music is a food for the soul’…some companions of the Prophet Muhammad including Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas, Abd Allah b. Jaffer b. Abi Talib and al-Ahwas b. Muhammad b. Abd Allah were well-known for their appreciation of music and singing. Among the descendents of the Prophet, Sukainah bin al-Husain was a patron of music during the Ummayad period’ (Essays, p. 236-237).  We also owe to Dr Beg insights into Abbasid period market economics: ‘It appears from the meagre economic data of the 8th century CE that the cost of food was relatively cheap at the time that (the city of) Wasit was built… a jug of butter (zubd) sold for two dirhams; twelve chicken were priced at a dirham; twenty four baby chicken sold for a dirham; twelve pounds of cheese for a dirham; forty pounds of bread for a dirham; 150 pints of milk for a dirham; and one hundred pounds of fish for a dirham’.  Dr Beg then added laconically, ‘Prices were relatively low in Wasit during the Eighth century’ (Essays, p. 185-186).

Dr Beg did not offer historiographic models or classificatory schemes à la Toynbee or Marshall Hodgson. He was more like Professsor Hamidullah,  a chronicler with deep Islamic awareness and the Arabic language skills to delve into the primary sources.  He said of his approach, ‘I believe in the theory that a study of history helps scholars to trace the origin of things’. He  also belonged to the small group of twentieth century scholars who were both committed Muslims but  also conscious of the need to provide a balanced account.  Much like Abul A’la Maududi in khilafat wa malukiyat and Malek Bennabi in Vocation de l’Islam, Dr Beg was prepared to desacralise early Islamic history, for example in a critical assessment of Mu’awiyah – see his ‘The Reign of Mu’awiyah, A critical survey’  (Islamic Culture, Hyderabad Deccan, 1977). Dr Beg notes that  ‘Mu’awiyah amassed huge wealth and in his later life became the richest of the Arabs. To him, wealth was a source of political power and in pursuit of this he made gifts to his potential political allies’ (Essays, p. 87). He also refers to him as ‘King Mu’awiyah’ to highlight the rupture from the rightly guided caliphs (Essays, p. 200). Dr Beg also recounts the ‘ghastly incident’ of the execution of Hujr bin Adiyy al-Kindi, ‘for political reasons’, though also recognising Mu’awiyah’s ‘far-sightedness in constructing shipyards’.

Among Dr Beg’s first publications, perhaps based on his Cambridge doctoral thesis, were Workers in the Hammamat (public baths) (1972/73) and  The serfs of Islamic society in the Abbasid period (1975).  His other publications include:  Arabic Loan Words in Malay: a comparative study (1977), Islamic and Western concepts of civilization (1979), The image of Islamic civilization: A compendium of interpretations of the civilization of Islam during the last Islamic century (1300-1400 Hijrah) (1980), Indo-Sanskrit loan-words in Malay (1981), Two lectures on Islamic civilization (1982), Persian and Turkish loan-words in Malay (1982),  Two lectures in Islamic civilisation (1983),Wisdom Of Islamic Civilization – A Miscellany Of Islamic Quotations (1986), Historic Cities of Asia – An introduction to Asian cities from antiquity to pre-modern times (Ed. 1986), Brief Lives Of The Companions Of Prophet Muhammad: The Sahabah In Islamic History (2002), Social Mobility in Islamic Civilization: in the Middle East (2006), The Middle East in the Twentieth Century : A Chronology of Events (2006), Essays On The Origins Of Islamic Civilization (2006), A Short Encyclopaedia Of The Companions Of The Prophet Muhammad In The Context Of The Early Islamic History (2007), Biographical Dictionary Of The Companions Of The Prophet Muhammad (2008), Islam And Modern Civilization (2008), and A Journey Through Islamic History: A Timeline of Key Events (2012, co-authored with Yasmina Hashim). His recent works were published by the Markfield Islamic titles publisher,  Kube.

The writer of this brief appreciation last met Dr Beg in the Market Square in Cambridge in February 2013.  It was by the second-hand book stall, where he was chatting with the book barrow owner Frank. They were on first name terms – obviously old friends. There was no show of self-importance or status – a scholar and a gentleman to the end.

Jamil Sherif, December 2014

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