Arthur Jeffery began his service in Cairo in 1921 as a Professor in the newly-formed School of Oriental Studies (S.O.S.) of the American University at Cairo. The S.O.S. had been preceded by and grew out of the Language Study Center of the American Mission, a non-academic institution training missionary candidates for service in Egypt. When the Language Study Center was transformed into the School of Oriental Studies, the scope of its work was broadened. The American University at Cairo had been conceived as a "bridge of understanding," linking the Muslim world and the West. In the other faculties of the institution, Egyptian and eastern students would be introduced to the best in western educational experience. It was the conviction of the University's first President (Dr. Charles R. Watson) that there should also be a faculty in which the westerner would be introduced to the best in eastern and Islamic culture. To meet this need the S.O.S. was launched in 1921, becoming one of the four major departments of the University's work. While it continued as a center of practical language study for missionaries, businessmen and diplomats, its larger objective was to become a center of research in Islamic subjects, where scholars of the Muslim community could meet scholars of the Christian community within the atmosphere of university life.

In the staff of the newly-formed S.O.S. much of the teaching was carried by members of the various mission groups operating in Egypt, chief among them being Dr. Samuel Zwemer, Dr. Earl E. Elder, and Canon Temple Gairdner. But in addition to such part-time work the School needed the services of a competent orientalist with professorial status. After careful search Dr. Watson selected Arthur Jeffery, a young scholar then unknown in the circles of Islamic studies. At the time Mr. Jeffery was teaching at Madras Christian College, in India. It was typical of his quiet modesty that, when approached by Dr. Watson, he disclaimed the ability he felt the position offered would require. In answer to the University's invitation, Arthur Jeffery wrote that he had doubts about his own fitness for the position since he "was not yet a qualified Arabic scholar and had only a working knowledge of some half dozen languages" which he considered insufficient preparation for the position. Arthur Jeffery never lost this modesty, which was based upon both true humility of spirit and high regard for the rigorous standards of scholarship. Even when he became widely recognized as one of the most brilliant and penetrating students of Islam and headed the Department of Near and Middle East Languages at Columbia University, he never put his erudition on display, keeping it for the quiet and exacting tasks of teaching and research.

Dr. Jeffery's service in India began during the First World War. Being rejected for military service he found in the Madras Christian College an opportunity to relieve British personnel, as well as render certain types of non-military war service. In addition to his teaching he began that cultivation of linguistic and philological interests in eastern languages which became his scholarly preoccupation and his great contribution to Islamic studies. Arthur Jeffery studied at the University of Melbourne, Australia, where he received his university degrees (BA. 1918, MA. 1920), and a degree in theology (B.Th. 1926). His interest in philology dated from student days and was quickly developed in India where he took the opportunity to master several of the local languages. After joining the School of Oriental Studies, in Cairo, Near Eastern languages became his field. With his brilliant mind and indefatigable industry he developed a scholarly ability in them that placed him in the first rank of Western Orientalists. In 1929 he received his Ph.D. (with special honors) from Edinburgh University and followed this with a D. Lit. (summa cum laude) in 1938 from the same institution.

Arthur Jeffery's contributions to the development and reputation of the School of Oriental Studies were many. He was a superb and exciting teacher, never wearying of giving himself to students and rigorous in holding them to the highest standards of scholarship. To sit under his instruction was an experience never to be forgotten. As a lecturer he had the gift of taking abstruse academic subjects and making them a matter of absorbing interest, both as intellectual adventures and as gateways into understanding the life of the Muslim world. As a research scholar he produced a growing series of articles, review and studies which laid the foundation for his later and more extensive work at Columbia University.

One of his major interests was the textual criticism of the Qur'an and on this he continued to work throughout his career. His first work in this field was Materials for the History of the Text of the Qur'an published in Leiden in 1937. This was followed in 1938 by The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur'an, published by the Oriental Institute Baroda, India. Both studies were based upon work done for his doctoral dissertations.

Another outstanding contribution of Arthur Jeffery was the development of the research library at the School of Oriental Studies. Believing that primary sources are the basic materials of scholarship he gradually built up a collection of books that contain many rare and out-of-print volumes whose ensemble formed a unique instrument for Islamic study. The collection was the reflection of Dr. Jeffery's own methods, research standards, and exhaustive knowledge of available texts. He had a deep personal feeling for it and students who wanted a particular book would be directed by Dr. Jeffery to its exact location in the Library. "You will find what you want," he would say, "in the third book on the fourth shelf of the second tier on the west side of the Library."

But Dr. Jeffery's service to Cairo reached for beyond the walls of the Library and the classrooms of the University. As a minister of the Methodist Church, he was devoted to the missionary enterprise and exemplified in his own life and interests a deep Christian concern. His scholarship had a Christian purpose, for he believed that only by a painstaking and exacting study of Islamic materials could the content of that faith be understood and a Christian contribution made to those who followed it. This same scholarly Christian concern was expressed in his preaching. Drawing from his extensive knowledge of history and language, Dr. Jeffery would throw fresh illumination on the meaning of Scripture and the content of basic Christian convictions. None who heard his series in the American Mission Church on "The Apostle's Creed" can forget the penetrating and challenging views of the Christian life he presented.

In 1923, Arthur Jeffery married Miss Elsie Gordon Walker, then Secretary to the President of the American University at Cairo. Their home quickly became a center of gracious and extensive hospitality, reflecting the many and stimulating interests they shared. Here came some of the most notable scholars in the Islamic field, and here too were held monthly "Shakespeare readings" which had nothing to do with Islamics and were therefore the more delightful to those immersed in the Muslim world and its problems. Dr. Jeffery left Cairo and the School of Oriental Studies in 1938 to occupy the Chair of Near Eastern and Middle East Languages at Columbia University. His scholarship deserved this wider setting and naturally expanded the circle of his influence in teaching and research. But in his going, the American University at Cairo and the scholarly community in Egypt - both Egyptian and foreign - lost all influnce that has never been replaced.


New York, N.Y.

In his advent to Cairo, when I first came to know Arthur Jeffery, he had the reputation of having assimilated a different Indian language during each of the five years of his sojourn in Madras. He stood in a gifted succession of Australian linguists and soon added Arabic to his store. It was a slight comfort to learn that he did find Arabic one of the more difficult among the languages he mastered. Rumour had it that it was the nineteenth. (There is substantial corroboration of the rumour in the Index of Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur'an. My knowledge of him and Mrs Jeffery deepened on their visits to Jerusalem in the days before they became denizens of the American School of Oriental Research. The first such visit was to participate in a Summer School in Islamic studies in the middle twenties. The early mornings found him with books, usually a grammar, and in answer to what book it was on one such occasion came the reply "Well, before we left Cairo, I said to myself, ‘Jeffery, you are going to have a great opportunity to rub up your Aramaic verbs.’" There were no wasted opportunities; for his conception of the value of time was Australian rather than Semitic. Later on, after the establishment of the Newman School of Missions, they came again and his typed lectures on "Prolegomena to the Study of Islam" were left in Jerusalem for others less instructed to use. These lectures were given in the evenings without the typescript in the courtyard at the back of the house. People came night after night to fill our hundred and more chairs. There were friendly Muslim scholars and one such remarked as he left: "This man knows more of the beginnings of Islam than most of us."

Insistent over details, Jeffery was naturally emphatic, whether it was a conversation, or a lecture, he was one of those to whom, in things academic or spiritual, it was happily and fruitfully natural to mingle ideas with a kind of enthusiasm. He was a man truly alive with a soul on fire with thought, love and purpose.


Redhill, Surrey, England

Arthur Jeffery came to Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University in 1938. It was my good fortune to arrive at the same time and to live in the same hall at Union for the next twenty years. My wife and I count it one of the greatest privileges that have come to us that we were thus brought into close neighborly relation with the Jefferys. Their home was a rendezvous for his students, and for visiting scholars, from far and near - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and others. One met there, from time to time, some of the most eminent of foreign scholars, British, European, Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, Oriental; or outstanding students whose record is still to be made - and surely will be made. There was a certain formality about these teas, dinners, and evening gatherings. Conversation never sagged to the level of gossip of personalities. On the other hand, there was a warmth and bonhommie too, which everyone felt - especially if Dr. Jeffery could be induced to tell some of his inimitable stories, for example the famous "Copper bottom-ing-um-mum" which he told with never a slip. Elsie Jeffery was a perfect hostess, and her arrangements for even a simple tea were impeccable. I mention this because I think the "democratic" trend in social relations leaves out something that is really priceless for the student, who is still forming his outlook on life and setting up the standards he will maintain in later years. What his students got from Arthur Jeffery was not only the academic discipline of accuracy, width of range, soundness of judgment, but the person dignity and decorum of a great scholar who was also a great gentleman, always kin and sympathetic, but never sentimental. Too many of our leaders seem to believe it necessary or advisable to omit formalities. As R. W. Emerson once said - or was it said about him? - "He was a good neighbor, and kept his fences up."

Of his literary and scholarly publications, experts in his chosen field can speak with more authority than I: for example of his permanently valuable work, published in India, on The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur'an. Not everyone has seen his beautiful translation from the Qur'an, published in a de luxe edition in New York, or the anthology of Islamic religious literature recently published in the series known as "The World's Religions". He was in constant demand as a book reviewer, author of articles in journals and reference works (several not yet published, e.g. in the new edition of Hastings' One-Volume Bible Dictionary), and as a consultant and expert advisor to authors, editors, and publishers in the United States and elsewhere.

Reluctantly, but with notable success, be offered courses in the General History of Religions and Union Theological Seminary (disclaiming characteristically, his comptetence outside his own field of specialization), and in Biblical Literature, especially a very popular course on the Hebrew Psalter and one on Early Eastern Christianity, which qualified students elected to their lasting advantage. One hopes that his Haskell Lectures, which were to have been delivered at Oberlin in the spring of 1960, were fully written out and may be published post-humously. In his careful and orderly way of doing things, it would have been only natural that the lectures should be written out well in advance of delivery. His modest self-estimate was not shared by his friends and associates, and he not only headed his Department at the University but has also been Chairman of the section on History of Religions in the Joint Committee on the Ph.D. degree in the field of Religion, offered and administered by Union and Columbia.

For him religion was much more than the academic study of sacred literature (chiefly the Bible and the Qur'an), religious History (chiefly Islam and Christianity), or the analysis of theological concepts. His religion was simple and earnest, and glowed at the very core of his life as a scholar, teacher, writer, lecturer, and neighbor. You could find him at chapel in Union Seminary every morning at 8.30, and usually on Sundays at eleven, though he often went away to preach, especially at colleges and boys' schools where he was very popular and returned year after year. His sermons began, as a rule, with a story - from ancient literature, history, or tradition, whether Near Eastern, Byzantine, Arab or Egyptian. Then as he went on you began to see how the story was related to his text. Finally you caught the thrust of the whole, it meant something for you; it came home to your own private "business and bosom" (he rarely preached on public or social themes). I remember well the morning in chapel when he described Guadalcanal, three days after the American landing. For he himself had once been a missionary there, and he knew the place intimately and its people. Perhaps the best words to use are from the best definition of preaching, that by Phillips Brooks: his preaching was clearly the "imparting of truth through personality." His message was full of meaning for his hearers because it was full of meaning for himself.

Over a lifetime spent in clerical and academic circles, I cannot recall anyone else who reminds me of Arthur Jeffery, or of whom he reminded me. He was unique, in his simplicity, his charm, his devotion combined with his profound learning and clear exposition of ideas, his sometimes terrifying standards (especially for unprepared students in the qualifying doctoral examinations in languages, of which he had charge), his "meekness and gentleness" after the New Testament pattern of Christian piety. At both Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, Arthur Jeffery has been one of the brightest luminaries of our time. I do not expect ever to find his like again.


Union Theological Seminary, New York

The Muslim World, Volume 50 (1960), pp. 230-247.

Books and Articles by Arthur Jeffery
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