Obituary: Remembering M A J Beg, renowned Muslim historian

24th Dec 2014

Muhammad Abdul Jabbar Beg died on December 10, in Cambridge at the age of 70.

He served as a lecturer and Associate Professor at the National University of Malaysia (12 years), University of Brunei (4 years), University of the Third Age, Cambridge (5 years).

Born on October 10, 1944, in Dinajpur (British India, now Bangladesh) into a notable Muslim family, Beg started writing at an early age. He excelled academically at both Carmichael College (Rangpur) and Rajshahi University (BA Honours in History, 1965, MA in History, 1966).

Trained by renowned historians like Safiuddin Joarder, M A Bari, AKM Yaqub Ali and Shamsuddin Miah, he received Government scholarship to join Cambridge University where he completed a PhD in Islamic History in 1971. In the same year, he obtained British citizenship and worked for a short period at the Pakistan High Commission in London and the British Museum. Beg was fluent in Bengali, Arabic and English, and familiar with Urdu, Malaysian and Indonesian.

He wrote extensively on Islamic history, culture, biography, civilizational studies and linguistics. In addition to 300 biographies of Sahabah (Brief Lives of the Companions of Prophet Muhammad: The Sahabah in Islamic History (2002), more than 25 articles in the prestigious Encyclopaedia of Islam (Brill, 2nd Ed.) and Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World (Oxford), two hundred articles and reviews published in journals, he recently completed a comprehensive biography of the Prophet. He made a clear distinction between hagiography and history; for example, he considered al-Isfahani’s Kitab al-Aghani as hagiography but Ibn al-Athir’s al-Kamil fi Ta’rikh as history. He also espoused Pan-Islamic political and cultural view and was keen to raise awareness of Islamic history and the lives of great Muslim personalities.

His notable publications include Arabic Loan Words in Malay: A Comparative Study (1977), Islamic and Western Concepts of Civilization (1980), Social Mobility in Islamic Civilization (2006), The Middle East in the Twentieth Century (2006), Essays on the Origins of Islamic Civilization (2006), A Short Encyclopaedia of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (2007), Wisdom Of Islamic Civilization (2007), Biographical Dictionary of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (2008), and A Journey through Islamic History (co-authored, 2012). His unpublished manuscripts include his doctoral thesis (on Abbasid social history), Islam in Malaysia and a critical biography of Abd al-Aziz ibn Sa’ud.

Beg was connected with many institutions and organisations including Royal Asiatic Society, Middle East Studies Association and Cambridge University. He was a regular contributor to Impact International (UK), Muslim World Book Review (UK), The MESA Bulletin (USA) and Muslim Education Quarterly (Cambridge).

He is survived by his wife, a son and daughter. His funeral prayer took place at Cambridge Mosque and he was laid to rest at the local cemetery.

Muhammad Khan, author of The Muslim 100 (2008)

2 Responses to “Obituary: Remembering M A J Beg, renowned Muslim historian”

R.M.HealeyJanuary 5, 2015

Although I am a non-Muslim, I worked with Dr Beg for twenty years as a proof reader and copy editor on just about all of his publications, many of which were updated versions of earlier published work that had originally appeared while he was an academic in the Far East. This being so, I must be the only non-Muslim to have a thorough knowledge of his contribution to Islamic Studies, which was, in my opinion, wide ranging and meticulous in its approach.

We saw each other regularly in Cambridge–usually in the University postgraduate centre and Public Library, in the auction rooms of Cheffins, but sadly also in his final years, at Addenbrookes, and just once at his home, a few weeks before his untimely death. In all our conversations he wore his immense learning lightly and he was always anxious to encourage me in my own historical and biographical research.
I shall miss our meetings and regular telephone calls and though I am not qualified to judge his scholarship, I am sure fellow Islamic historians will join with me in acknowledging his integrity and passion for Islamic history and culture.

Reply

    M M KhanJanuary 5, 2015

    Dear Mr Healey

    Thank you for your comment. Really appreciate this. I am very keen to contact you to obtain more information about your work with Dr Beg for a possible commemoration volume in the future. Please kindly contact me via editor@muslimnews.co.uk

    Thank you
    M M Khan

    Reply

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