HOME quranic-i hadith warning nasīha nawāfil dhikr ref main
About Martin Lings

†† One of the damned things about this world is the ease with which we can go through a day and not feel the dimming of light. Our sense of sacred connection is so co-opted by Starbuck casualness, essential spiritual accoutrements within us are disabled from perceiving the depth of loss that humanity suffered recently with the passing of Martin Lings. In Islamic tradition (and I'm pretty sure the tradition is widespread), when a great person dies, whether a saint or scholar or sage, the whole world is somehow effected, even the fish in the sea. The night before Mr. Lings passed, I happened to have been reading one of his books that my wife had ordered and just received, Symbol and Archetype: A Study in the Meaning of Existence. Once again, I was awestruck by the ease with which Mr. Lings was able to convey tiers of profundity in a short passage (even one sentence) and to do so with uncanny consistency. His translation of verses from the Quran are, in themselves, masterpieces of High English, which none before him could achieve, and not for lack of trying. As I put down the book, I made a short prayer that God bless this man. The next day, I learned of his passing.

Mr. Lings was among the early lights of my life. More than two decades ago, I read his gripping narrative on the life of the Prophet (Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources). I remember reading almost all of it in one sitting. Had it not been for my need to sleep, I would not have stopped. Shortly thereafter, though, I finished, and when I put the book down I finally understood what it meant to "taste the sweetness" in having love of the Prophet and of prophethood in general. It would be but the first book of Mr. Lings that would be transforming.

About 21 years ago, a University of Chicago graduate student handed me Mr. Lings' book, Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century. He told me, "Read this. You'll like it." I didn't touch the book until a couple of years ago. I then started. No exaggeration, it took me a full year to read it. It was so packed, I could not dare dishonor it with cursory handling. I compare the experience with a long epiphany. For some months, before being accosted by the world again, it was difficult for me to look at things the same flat way that our era trains us to do. Purpose was everywhere, hidden right there in plain sight.

The "tyranny of quantity" once again shows its cracks: one man inspiring so many to reclaim the esoteric and also to love the Last Prophet. The "s‚biqŻn" (the "foremost" in faith and certitude) are few in our times, as the Quran says. It seems that they're even fewer now.

I end this very short personal tribute as I started, with an indictment of the ethos of the times: the shame of our day is the postmodern flattening of existence, the demotion of anything special, anything transcending and capable of a lasting narrative. We're trapped in the glorified Soup Cans of Andy Warhol, his paintings that celebrate banality, his caustic attempt at making what is ordinary appear special, which, after all, is a backdoor, slinking strike against "special," the concept and the possibility. Jagger sings "Paint it Black," and so they do.

God's mercy be upon Mr. Lings.

(By Ibrahim N. Abusharif, with kind permission
- from the fromclay.blogspot.com )

Obituary Martin Lings
The Times, January 24, 1909 - May 12, 2005

British scholar and convert to Islam who studied Sufi spirituality and wrote an acclaimed life of the Prophet Muhammad

MARTIN LINGS was the author of a number of definitive studies on Islamic philosophy, mysticism and art, as well as an indefatigable lecturer whose creative energies endured to the very last day of his life.

He was born in Lancashire in 1909 and studied English literature at Oxford, where he took his BA in 1932 and MA in 1937, before going on to become a lecturer in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English at the University of Kaunas in Lithuania, 1935-39.

In 1939, after a trip to Egypt to study Islam and Arabic, and an encounter with Sufis of the Shadhiliyya order, he converted to Islam. He remained in Egypt during the 1940s, sitting out the Second World War teaching Shakespeare to Egyptian students at the University of Cairo, where he was lecturer in English from 1940 to 1951. At the same time he devoted himself to the French mystical philosopher René Guénon, who had expatriated himself to Cairo from Paris. Guénon, an exponent of what subsequently became known as the "Traditionalist School”, had also converted to Islam, and Lings became his personal assistant and spiritual disciple during this Egyptian decade.

In Cairo he also composed his definitive account of Sufi doctrine in Arabic, which he later translated into English and published under the title of The Book of Certainty: The Sufi Doctrine of Faith, Wisdom and Gnosis (1952), taking his Muslim name (Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din) as his nom de plume.

On his return to Britain in the early 1950s, Lings studied Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, where he obtained his doctorate in 1959. He went on to become Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts in the British Museum and British Library, a position which he held for nearly two decades until 1973. In this capacity he published two catalogues, a Second Supplementary Catalogue of Arabic Printed Books in the British Museum (1959) and a Third Supplementary Catalogue of Arabic Printed Books in the British Library (1976).

Lings used the ready access to rare manuscripts which his position at the British Library afforded him to good purpose in other works, such as Islamic Calligraphy and Illumination (1971) and The Qur'anic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination (1976).

He consolidated his reputation as a leading historian of Islamic mysticism or Sufism with the publication of his PhD thesis: A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century: Shaikh Ahmad al-'Alawi (1961). This definitive and highly sympathetic account of an important modern Muslim mystic has appeared in numerous editions and translations (French, Spanish, Persian, Urdu and Arabic, among others). It was immediately reviewed by the great Cambridge professor of Islamic studies, A. J. Arberry, who highlighted the "important original contributions to knowledge” made by Lings, adding: "I know of no more lucid and convincing interpretation of Ibn Arabi's much debated ‘pantheistic' philosophy.”

Lings's own world view reflected his combined interests in comparative religion and spiritual traditions worldwide as interpreted by Frithjof Schuon, the well-known exponent of the Traditionalist School and advocate of that universal wisdom known as the sophia perennis. In a number of his publications — such as Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions (1964); The Eleventh Hour: The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern World in the Light of Tradition and Prophecy (1989); and Symbol and Archetype: A Study of the Meaning of Existence (1991) — Lings closely followed the thought of Schuon, whom he adopted as a Sufi master. Lings himself later assumed the position of sheikh or spiritual guide of one branch of the Shadhiliyya Sufi order.

That Lings's breadth of learning in Islamic studies was indeed worthy of comparison with any of the other great scholars of his generation — figures such as Louis Massignon, R. A. Nicholson, Henry Corbin and Annemarie Schimmel — was confirmed beyond all doubt by the publication of his classic biography: Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (1983). Written from the perspective of a scholar-historian who was also a practising Muslim, this work is widely recognised as the most readable account of the life of the Prophet to date. It has been translated into more than ten languages and won a number of prizes in the Muslim world. (Lings received an award from President Mubarak of Egypt for the work in 1990.) One reviewer of the book, Professor Hamid Dabashi, of Columbia, University, referred to the "alchemy” of the text: "In reading Lings's Muhammad, we detect an alchemical effect in his narration and composition which so evenly combines scholarly accuracy with poetic passion. Lings is a scholar poet.” Another reviewer, Asma Afsaruddin, of Harvard University, underlined the "gift for narration wedded to impeccable scholarship” that Lings displays in the work.

Equally extraordinary were Lings's skills as an ecumenical, cross-cultural communicator who was equally at home in the language of English belles lettres, upon which he spoke with the same ease and erudition as he discoursed on Arabic codicology and calligraphy. This skill is brilliantly displayed in his work on Shakespeare in the Light of Sacred Art (1966). In his foreword to the third revised edition (1996) of this work, entitled The Secret of Shakespeare, the Prince of Wales (a longtime admirer of Lings) draws attention to the author's persuasive eloquence, admitting that: "I found it hard to put down as it is clearly written from an intimate, personal awareness of the meaning of the symbols which Shakespeare used to describe the inner drama of the journey of the soul contained, as it is, within the outer earthly drama of the plays.”

As a lecturer Martin Lings had a wonderful knack of converting sceptics by his unassuming modesty and charming meekness, rather than by force of erudition. His unpretentious piety was animated by the sanctity of the Sufi saints to which he devoted all his great powers of eloquence, but it was his English poetic spirit which inspired this piety that made him one of the greatest scholars of Islamic mysticism of this generation.

Lings is survived by his wife Lesley, whom he married in 1944.

Martin Lings, scholar of Islam, was born on January 24, 1909. He died on May 12, 2005, aged 96.


Obituary Martin Lings
by Hasan Gai Eaton

The Guardian, Friday May 27, 2005

Islamic scholar concerned with spiritual crisis


Martin Lings (Abu Bakr Siraj Ad-Din), who has died aged 96, was a public-school educated Englishman who converted to Islam, spent many years as keeper of oriental manuscripts and printed books at the British Museum, and is best known as the author of a life of Muhammad. Only 10 days before his death, he addressed an audience of 3,000 at the Wembley conference centre on the occasion of the prophet's birthday; earlier this year, he travelled to Egypt, Dubai, Pakistan and Malaysia.

Lings was born in Burnage, Lancashire, but spent his early childhood in the United States, where his father's work had taken him. On his return to England, he went to Clifton College, Bristol, where he became head boy, and read English at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he became a close friend of CS Lewis. In 1935, he went to Lithuania to lecture on Anglo-Saxon and Middle English.

He travelled to Egypt in 1940, originally to visit a friend who was lecturing at Cairo University. During the visit, his friend died in a riding accident and Lings was offered the post. It was at about this time that he converted to Islam, and was soon imbued with the Sufi dimension of the religion. He found the critique of modern civilisation by the French Muslim writer, René Guénon, particularly convincing and shared his "universalism"*, within the context of Islam.

In 1944, Lings married Lesley Smalley, and their home in a village at the foot of the pyramids provided a refuge for both Egyptian and foreign visitors. The highlight of the year was Lings's annual production of a Shakespeare play. His passion inspired the student cast, one of whom became an Egyptian film star. His understanding of Shakespeare's spiritual significance led, 40 years later, to his book, The Secret Of Shakespeare: His Greatest Plays Seen In The Light Of Sacred Art.

Lings might have been content to remain in Egypt for the rest of his life, but political events intervened. Abdul Nasser's nationalist revolution was preceded by savage anti-British riots, in which three of Lings's colleagues were killed, and the British university staff were dismissed without recompense.

Back in London in 1952, and without a job, Lings decided to study, while Lesley, a physiotherapist, went back to work. After taking a BA in Arabic studies, he received his doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) for a thesis on the great Algerian Sufi, Ahmad al-Alawi. This was the basis for one of his most influential books, A Sufi Saint Of The Twentieth Century, recognised as a unique view of Islamic spirituality seen from within.

In 1955, he joined the staff of the British Museum as assistant keeper of oriental printed books and manuscripts; he was keeper from 1970 to 1973, when he was seconded to the British Library. This work focused his interest in Qur'anic calligraphy and he published a classic work on the subject, The Qur'anic Art Of Calligraphy And Illumination, to coincide with the 1976 World of Islam Festival, with which he was closely involved.

From then on, he wrote constantly. For Muslims, his masterpiece was Muhammad: His Life Based On The Earliest Sources (1983), for which he was decorated by Zia al-Haq, then president of Pakistan.

Among his 12 books was The Eleventh Hour (1987), a profound study of the spiritual crisis of the modern world, for which he had prepared the ground with Ancient Beliefs And Modern Superstitions (1965), and What Is Sufism? (1975), a corrective to many mis- understandings about this aspect of Islam. Symbol And Archetype: A Study Of The Meaning Of Existence (1991) demonstrated his grasp of traditional symbolism.

His interest in the symbolism of colours found expression in his talent for gardening. From his home in Kent, he would search far and wide for a particular specimen, seeking, for example, a shade of blue that perfectly reflected the perfection of heaven.

Lings remained serene, tolerant and patient to the end. His wife survives him.

- Martin Lings (Abu Bakr Siraj Ad-Din),
Islamic scholar, born January 24 1909; died May 12 2005

*Someone commented on this by saying:
“There is no universalism within in Islam in the sense of perenialism - believeing other religions to be valid pathways to God is kufr.”

To which we had earlier given the following statement:
“To see similarities with the eternal principles of other religions, which have to be there because the divine message is universal (see Quran: God sent prophets to all nations), does NOT imply that one sees all religions as being equally valid and that it would not matter which one to follow! ... ” < more >


A Shaykh dies; By Irfan Yusuf







back to main

home: www.livingislam.org/