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Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

13 January 2020
The Faculty is sad to report the death of Malcolm Lyons on 18th December, 2019, at the age of 90. Charles Melville has written an obituary for this celebrated Cambridge scholar.


Malcolm Lyons matriculated in 1946, aged 17, with a scholarship to read Classics, which retained his interest and affection despite his switch to a second degree in Arabic, for which he returned to Pembroke and Cambridge in 1951, after national service. In this, he was similar to Arthur J. Arberry (and others), who began their career as Classicists and ended as Orientalists – exemplifying the fact that in those days, Arabic was basically taught as a ‘dead language’ and in terms of Latin grammar (cf. W. Wright’s famous Arabic Grammar). Malcolm was certainly a brilliant student, gaining double first class honours in both Classics (1949) and Arabic & Persian (1953) – in two years! He became Assistant Lecturer in Arabic (1954-59), Lecturer (1959-84), Reader in Medieval Islamic Studies (1984-85) and Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic (1985-96), following the retirement of Bob Sergeant.

Malcolm Lyons’ scholarly output was prodigious and varied in its scope and range; his Classical background was reflected in the series of publications and commentaries on Arabic translations of Greek texts, starting with Hippocrates’ Regimen of Acute Diseases, the first of the ‘Arabic Technical and Scientific Texts’, which he established, published by W. Heffer & Sons in 1966, and followed by several more volumes of Aristotle (notably his pioneering edition of Ars Rhetorica), Themistius’ Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, and various works of Hippocrates and Galen. This was work that few scholars had the linguistic skills or knowledge to produce.

Classical Arabic poetry was the mainstay of his achievement. After an early work, the Poetic Vocabulary of Michael Trad: A study in Lebanese colloquial poetry (Beirut, 1968), he became a founding editor of the Journal of Arabic Literature (1970), to which he contributed many learned articles. His monograph on classical Arabic poetry, Identification and Identity (Warminster, 1999), is unique for the chronological sweep of the texts he drew on. He had a long interest in Arabian epic literature, culminating in his magnus opus, The Arabian Epic. Heroic and oral story-telling (3 vols, CUP, 1995), leading inexorably to his celebrated and monumental translation of the 1001 Nights, The Arabian Nights (3 vols, Penguin, 2008), both works spawning many shorter offshoots and further studies, not least The Man of Wiles (Edinburgh, 2012).

This was not all, however; Malcolm’s interest in the Arab world and its heroic figures first led to a two-volume edition and translation of excerpts from Ibn al-Furat’s chronicle, under the title Ayyubids, Mamluks and Crusaders (Heffers, 1971), together with Ursula Lyons, his wife (since 1961) and collaborator also in the translation of the Nights and mainstay of his existence. His other major publication in this field – and the one that reached the widest audience, was his book, Saladin. The politics of Holy War (CUP, 1982 and subsequently a ‘Canto’ imprint paperback). He generously associated its authorship with David Jackson.

Apart from this impressive scholarly legacy, what remains is a fond memory of a truly eccentric character, with no time for nonsense and a dedication to excellence. Malcolm wore his undoubted brilliance very lightly. He had a mercurial, impish sense of humour and an understandable horror of committee meetings and any form of administration; a golfer of distinction, he often won the Interfaculty Golf competition to the glory of the Arabic Department. RIP.

-- Charles Melville, Emeritus Professor of Persian History and Fellow of Pembroke College

Professor Lyons' funeral service will be held in Pembroke Chapel at 11.00am on Wednesday 15th January. It will be followed by a reception in the Old Library.