Martin Lings

Islamic scholar and master of Sufism
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The Independent Online

Martin Lings was one of the most eloquent and serene Western voices in the Islamic world. Through his rich and varied oeuvre, translated into more than a dozen languages, Lings transmitted a certain vision of the sacred as embodied in Sufism, the esoteric, spiritual dimension of Islam.

Martin Lings, English and Islamic scholar: born Burnage, Lancashire 24 January 1909; Lecturer in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, University of Kaunas 1935-39; Lecturer in English Literature, University of Cairo 1940-51; Assistant Keeper, Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts, British Museum (from 1973 British Library) 1955-70, Deputy Keeper 1970-71, Keeper 1971-73 (Emeritus); married 1944 Lesley Smalley; died Westerham, Kent 11 May 2005.

Martin Lings was one of the most eloquent and serene Western voices in the Islamic world. Through his rich and varied oeuvre, translated into more than a dozen languages, Lings transmitted a certain vision of the sacred as embodied in Sufism, the esoteric, spiritual dimension of Islam.

He combined vast knowledge with meticulous scholarship, a poetic sensibility and an elegant expression, which made the most profound subjects accessible, and enthralled the large audiences who flocked to his lectures. His intellectual power was tempered with the gentleness and the humility of the Sufi, and in old age he had acquired the aura of one who had striven all his life towards sanctity.

Lings was born in 1909 in Lancashire. After Clifton College in Bristol, he went to Magdalen College, Oxford, and read English under C.S. Lewis, who recognised his gifted student's spiritual ardour. Young Martin was intensely pious and spent the hours he was not working in prayer, specifically to the Virgin Mary, requesting her guidance in finding his spiritual path. After Oxford he travelled in Europe, lecturing at various universities including Kaunas in Lithuania, and in 1940 went to Egypt to teach English Literature at the University of Cairo. He stayed 11 years, mastered the Arabic language, and on his return to London in the 1950s took a degree followed by a doctorate in Arabic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

It was in Cairo that Lings met the French philosopher René Guénon, one of the guiding lights of what became known as the Traditionalist School of philosophy, one aspect of which is the critique of the modern world, with its excessive materialism and loss of the sacred. Lings became Guénon's assistant and devotee, and through him discovered "Sophia Perennis", the eternal wisdom whose principles are enshrined in the world's great religions and spiritual traditions, from Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Hinduism to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and in the light of which he would live his whole life.

But the decisive encounter of Martin Lings's life, one which would define his path and work, was with the Swiss-German philosopher and Sufi master Frithjof Schuon, under whose guidance Lings converted to Islam. His attraction was to Sufism, which is the esoteric essence of the religion. He was initiated by Schuon into the path of the Shadhiliyya Tariqa (the Sufi fraternity) of which the Algerian Sheikh Ahmad Al-Alawi was a great representative. Later Lings wrote his PhD on Al-Alawi and also a superb biography, A Moslem Saint of the Twentieth Century (1961, revised as A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century, 1971). Lings rose to become a spiritual master himself, following Schuon's death 10 years ago.

In 1944 Lings married his childhood friend Lesley Smalley, who followed the same spiritual itinerary. On their return from Cairo they settled in London, and Martin became first Assistant and later the Keeper of Oriental Books and Manuscripts of the British Museum, where he stayed until his retirement in the early 1970s.

He spent the last 30 years of his life writing books, and lecturing all over the world, to a growing following. Among his numerous books are the magisterial Muhammad: his life based on the earliest sources (1983), Shakespeare in the Light of Sacred Art (1966, reissued as The Secret of Shakespeare, 1984, with an introduction by the Prince of Wales), in which the roots of Shakespeare's oeuvre are traced to the Platonic and Scholastic traditions, and the splendid The Quranic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination (1976, republished as Splendours of Qur'an Calligraphy and Illumination, 2004). Lings's final work was Mecca, a history of the sacred city from pre-Abrahamic times to today, published last year.

At the time when so much nonsense is talked about "the clashes of civilisations" and Islam is under siege, the work of Martin Lings shines like a beacon. He lived in a modest cottage in the middle of woods in Kent. A keen and original gardener, he created a small but ravishing garden with a view over the undulating country all around. He was laid to rest among the flowers and plants he had lovingly cultivated.

Shusha Guppy



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