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Ziauddin Shakeb obituary

Mahamid Ahmed
·3-min read

My grandfather Ziauddin Shakeb, who has died aged 87 of pulmonary oedema, was a historian of Indo-Persian relations and a world-renowned expert on Persian and Arabic manuscripts, working as a consultant at Christie’s auction house in London for 30 years. He was born in India and moved to the UK in 1980 to take up a post at Soas University of London.

He helped to lay the foundations of Deccan studies – the study of the histories, languages, arts and culture of the Deccan, an ancient area that covers much of modern-day south and west India. Living in Hyderabad, he compiled, translated and catalogued thousands of old manuscripts in Persian and Urdu, and created the Mughal record room in the city, now known as the Telangana state archives.

In 1977 he published A Descriptive Catalogue of the Documents Pertaining to the Reign of Shah Jahan, 1628-1658, a key piece of work that led to an invitation to teach at Soas. From 1980 to 1987 he was a lecturer in the department of Indology, teaching Indian history and Indo-Islamic art history.

In London, where he had settled with his wife and family in Queen’s Park, he continued to archive and catalogue Mughal manuscripts, including the Batala Collection of Mughal Documents for the British Library in 1990. He worked for Christie’s from 1981 till 2015, as a consultant in the department of Indian and Islamic Manuscripts and Miniatures.

Born Mohammed Ziauddin Ahmed, in Hyderabad, he was the son of Mohammed Musheeruddin Ahmed, an Islamic scholar and head teacher, and Obaida Khanum, a housewife. He was educated in the city at Asafia high school and at Osmania University, and then took an MA at Aligarh Muslim University and a PhD in 1976 at the University of Pune, on the relationship between the Golconda kingdom and Iran in the 16th and 17th century. In the 1950s, my grandfather was an Urdu poet and used “Shakeb” (meaning patience) as a pen name; he came to be known widely by this name, and added it formally in the 1960s.

Shakeb was also an authority on Indian poets including Mirza Ghalib and Allama Iqbal, publishing books and organising conferences in Delhi, Tehran and London. He would regularly start conversations with friends with a poem or couplet, and even after he became ill he would read for hours on end and enjoy classical poetry.

In 2018 he was described as keeping “the Urdu candles burning in London for the past 50 years”. His love for the language meant he contributed to numerous programmes for BBC Urdu at the BBC World Service, and created the postgraduate syllabus for Urdu at Middlesex University as their director for Urdu teacher training. He was determined that the second generation spoke fluent Urdu at home – a value he instilled in me, my siblings, cousins and many friends.

My grandfather was a family man, and regularly travelled to India to take care of his mother, who died in 2014 at the age of 103. He is survived by his wife, Farhat Ahmed, whom he married in Hyderabad in 1966, two daughters, Yusra and Kulsum, a son, Manzoor, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.