Ockley was born at Exeter. He was educated at Queens' College, Cambridge, and graduated B.A. in 1697, MA. in 1701, and B.D. in 1710. He became fellow of Jesus College and vicar of Swavesey, and in 1711 was chosen Adams Professor of Arabic in the university. He had a large family, and his latter days were embittered by pecuniary embarrassments, which form the subject of a chapter in Isaac D'Israeli's Calamities of Authors.
Ockley maintained that a knowledge of Oriental literature was essential to the proper study of theology, and in the preface to his first book, the Introductio ad linguas orientates (1706), he urges the importance of the study.
He died at Swavesey.
- The History of the Saracens, is his main work. It was published in two volumes, 1708-1718, and long enjoyed a great reputation; unfortunately Ockley took as his main authority an MS. in the Bodleian of Pseudo-Al-Waqidi's Futúh al-Shám, which is rather historical romance than history.
- A translation of Leon Modena's History of the Present Jews throughout the World (1707).
- The Improvement of Human Reason, exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan (1708), an English translation of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, a 12th-century philosophical novel by Ibn Tufayl.
- Translated from Arabic the Second Book of Esdras
- Sentences of Ali son-in-law of Mahomet, and his fourth successor. Translated from an Arabic manuscript in the Bodleian library at Oxford. London, B. Lintot, 1717.