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Biography of Martin Lings

Martin Lings (1909-2005) was a leading member of the “Traditionalist” or “Perennialist” school and an acclaimed author, editor, translator, scholar, Arabist, and poet whose work centers on the relationship between God and man through religious doctrine, scripture, symbolism, literature, and art. He was an accomplished metaphysician and essayist who often turned to a number of the world’s great spiritual traditions for examples, though he is most likely best known for his writings on Islam and its esoteric tradition, Sufism.

Lings was born in Lancashire, England, in 1909 and received both his BA (1932) and his MA (1937) from Oxford University in English literature.[1] After teaching English in Poland, he was appointed lecturer in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English at the University of Kaunas in Lithuania, where he remained until 1939. He taught English and English literature—primarily Shakespeare—at the University of Cairo from 1940 until 1951. He joined the British Library in 1955 as Keeper of the Arabic Library, eventually becoming the Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts at the British Museum and the British Library until his retirement in 1973. Lings received his PhD from the University of London in 1959.

In 1935 Lings discovered the writings of René Guénon, the French philosopher (1886-1951) who was the founder of the “Perennialist” or “Traditionalist” school of thought. Guénon’s writings provided Lings with the intellectual keys for an understanding of the errors of a modern world in which religion had become marginalized; Guénon’s writings also awakened within him the realization that there is a common inner Truth that exists within each of the great world religions—“an esoteric aspect” sometimes called the sophia perennis (perennial wisdom)—and that “each of the world’s great religions is a true religion”. Further, Guénon explained that each of the great traditional religions offers a path of prayer that leads toward re-establishing man’s original “primordial perfection and union with God”. In response, Lings realized, “I knew that I was face to face with the Truth. It was almost like being struck by lightning…. I knew that something must be done about this”.[2] 

In 1937 Martin Lings encountered some of the first articles published by Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998) in Études Traditionnelles, a French journal edited by Guénon. Lings learned that Schuon lived in Switzerland and went there to see him in January 1938. After this formative meeting Lings became a lifelong and dedicated disciple of Schuon. Lings soon thereafter traveled to Cairo to meet Guénon and for the next eleven years he earned his living by teaching English at the University of Cairo, while perfecting his Arabic language skills and also serving as Guénon’s personal secretary. This period also marked the start of Lings’ writing career, beginning with The Book of Certainty: The Sufi Doctrine of Faith, Vision, and Gnosis, which he first wrote in Arabic and then translated into English (first English edition 1952). This comprehensive account of Sufi doctrine was published under Lings’ Islamic name—Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din. The book demonstrates Lings’ comprehensive knowledge of the Koran and traditional Sufi metaphysics, as well as a deep interest in universal symbolism. It also reveals his way with English prose, which always tends toward the poetic.

While living in Cairo, Lings maintained a correspondence with a young woman he had met when she was just four and he eight years old. In 1944 this young woman, Leslie Smalley, became his wife and spiritual companion for the remainder of his life.

After the death of Guénon in 1951, and the upheavals of Egyptian nationalism, Lings and his wife returned to London where he completed his PhD while working for the British Museum. His thesis was later revised and published as A Moslem Saint of the Twentieth Century: Shaikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi (1961).[3] It is recognized as the definitive study of the life and teachings of this great Sufi master and has now been translated into languages that include French, Spanish, Persian, Urdu, and Arabic. The renowned Cambridge professor of Islamic Studies, A.J. Arberry, hailed the “important original contributions to knowledge” in the book, adding, “I know of no more lucid and convincing interpretation of Ibn Arabi’s much debated ‘pantheistic’ philosophy”.

Lings’ position at the British Museum and British Library gave him exceptional access to rare oriental manuscripts, thus allowing him to publish the most comprehensive and definitive study on the sacred art of Koranic reproduction in The Qur’anic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination (1976).[4] Martin Lings has thus presented the world with a comprehensive volume on Sufi doctrine (The Book of Certainty), a penetrating introduction to Sufism entitled What is Sufism? (1975), and three definitive studies on Islam: on the Sufi Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi, on the sacred art of the Koran, and his tour de force on the Prophet Muhammad.  Islamic Quarterly called his best-selling Muhammad: His Life Based Upon the Earliest Sources (1983), “an enthralling story that combines impeccable scholarship with a rare sense of the sacred worthy of the subject”. This book has been translated into more than a dozen languages and has received numerous awards.  

The names of Martin Lings and Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din are widely known and acclaimed throughout the Islamic world as an eminent exponent of authentic Islam, including Sufism, the heart of Islamic spirituality. But while he is best known for his brilliant expositions of Islam and Islamic mysticism, it would be a mistake to conclude that Lings’ spiritual interests and writings were limited to Islam; rather his philosophical perspective is rooted in the esoteric truths contained within every religion, truths that are illuminated by the writers in the Perennialist school. This school was founded by Guénon, continued by A.K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), and reached its fullest development with the writings of Frithjof Schuon. But Martin Lings will be remembered as one of the foremost contributors to this school of thought, together with his close friends Titus Burckhardt and Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

Lings published three books on universal wisdom during his life: a critique of the modern world, entitled Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions (1964); The Eleventh Hour: The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern World in the Light of Tradition and Prophecy (1987), in which he deals with eschatological questions; and Symbol and Archetype: A Study of the Meaning of Existence (1991), which is a masterful study of the traditional doctrine of symbols. But his indefatigable energy has resulted in the publication of three posthumous works. A Return to the Spirit: Questions and Answers (2005) is the story of his own spiritual quest and a compilation of some of the answers he has provided over the years to spiritual seekers; The Underlying Religion (2007) is an anthology of articles selected by Lings to introduce readers to the essential teachings of the Perennialist school (the preface to this anthology was written less than a month before his death); and The Holy Qur’an: Translations of Selected Verses (2007).

Martin Lings was also a poet. C.S. Lewis said of some of Lings’ poetry that it was “sheer inspiration”. Indeed, poetry was Lings’ first calling, and he was steeped in the music and eloquence of early English poetry, the verses of Dante, and, of course, the genius of Shakespeare. Yet, after encountering the spiritual message of Guénon and Schuon, and beginning upon his spiritual path, he did not feel ready to write poetry again for many years. In the introduction to his first book of poetry, he was later to write that “my poetical ambition had been absorbed into a higher ambition, the only one worth having”, meaning the spiritual quest. It was only upon the completion of a spiritual retreat of many weeks that poetry again began to flow through his pen. He had not written poetry for fifteen years. He subsequently published two books of poems, The Elements, and Other Poems and The Heralds, and Other Poems, which appear together in Collected Poems: Revised and Augmented (2001). These are all poems of introspection and wisdom, with a keen eye to the beauties of the natural world and a deep sense of the sacred. Martin Lings clearly had the soul of a born poet as well as the skill of a craftsman of fine verse, and his spiritual attainment provided the appropriate content.

His written legacy is not complete without a discussion of his unique contribution to the study of Shakespeare. Some observers, including Lings himself, might opine that his insights into the esoteric message of Shakespeare constitute one of his most important legacies. The fourth edition of his book on Shakespeare is entitled The Sacred Art of Shakespeare: To Take Upon Us the Mystery of Things (1998). In the foreword to that edition, the Prince of Wales, one of Lings’ longtime admirers, says, “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”. Lings lectured widely about the sacred and universal aspects of Shakespeare’s writings. Many of his lectures were presented under the auspices of the Temenos Academy, where he was a fellow.

Martin Lings died on May 12, 2005, at the age of ninety-six, in his home in the Kent countryside in south England.

Adapted from Michael Fitzgerald, “In Memoriam: Dr. Martin Lings”, Sacred Web, Vol. 15, 2005.

​Taken From Worldwisdom.com

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