Saturday, June 18, 2005


May 12 was a sad day for Muslims. Across the world, Muslims mourned the passing of one of the greatest scholars of classical Islam. This shaykh, known to his Muslim readership as Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din, wrote one of the definitive books on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. He also wrote 11 other books, including one with the defiant title of Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions.

I remember first hearing about Shaykh Abu Bakr. One of my father’s good friends mentioned the shaykh and praised his biographical work on the prophet. Some years later, I bought a set of 20 tapes of lectures by an American Imam named Hamza Yusuf. The lectures were based on a study of the shaykh’s biographical work.

I joined millions of Muslims around the world in mourning the death of Shaykh Abu Bakr. Yet hardly any western newspaper mentioned his passing. It was as if the event went unnoticed. Britain’s left-leaning The Guardian newspaper did publish a short obituary. Much of the material for this article has been taken from that obituary, written by British author Gai Eaton.

I am not aware of any other western newspaper which mentioned his passing.

So who was this mysterious shaykh that most Muslims have heard of and most non-Muslims seem to ignore? Was this Shaykh Abu Bakr the leader of a terrorist outfit from Indonesia or Iraq? Was he a nasty beedy-eyed chap of Middle Eastern appearance who gave speeches in rolling Arabic?

Shaykh Abu Bakr was born on January 24, 1909. He was born in a place called Burnage in Lancashire. His parents christened him "Martin". His family name was Lings. Out of respect for the deceased and those who mourn him, I will refer to him simply as “the Shaykh” (the term Shaykh is commonly used as a title for spiritual elders).

The Shaykh spent his early years in the United States. Later, he returned to England where he attended Clifton College, Bristol. He was head prefect at this exclusive English private school (or public school for any UK readers).

The Shaykh’s tertiary studies commenced at Magdalen College, Oxford. He studied English, and became a close friend of the famous C.S.Lewis. In 1935, the Shaykh taught English courses in Lithuania.

In 1940, during the early years of World War II, the Shaykh travelled to Egypt to visit a friend who lectured in Cairo. As fate would have it, the Shaykh’s friend died in a motor accident, and the Shaykh was offered the teaching post. He stayed in Egypt until the early 1950s.

At this time, Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power and whipped up nationalist frenzy among young Egyptian students. Three of the Shaykh’s colleagues were killed. The Shaykh and his other colleagues of British origin were summarily dismissed. After 17 years of living in a village at the foot of the Pyramids, the Shaykh and his wife, Lesley Smalley, returned to England.

The post-war period was one of economic downturn for England and the rest of Europe. Work was hard to come by, and the Shaykh was forced to resume his studies. He followed up his BA in Arabic studies with a PhD thesis on the life of Algerian Sufi Ahmed al-Alawi. His wife, a physiotherapist, returned to work.

In 1954, the Shaykh found employment at the British Museum as assistant keeper of Oriental printed books and manuscripts. He held this position for about three decades, and the quiet reclusive work situation allowed the Shaykh to enter his most productive period of writing.

In 1983, the Shaykh published his best-known work. Muhammad: His Life Based On the Earliest Sources is regarded as a masterpiece of English and Islamic scholarship. Millions of copies have been sold across the world, and a copy can be found in just about any Muslim household where English is spoken.

Apart from writing and reading, the Shaykh was an avid gardener. His home in Kent was a place where plants and flowers from across the world bloomed. The Shaykh was also passionate about Shakespeare, carrying on a passion he had developed while teaching in Egypt, where his students under his direction would perform a Shakespeare play each year. During the mid-90s the Shaykh wrote a book on the spiritual side of Shakespeare’s work.

Shaykh Martin’s books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. The UK-based newspaper, The Independent, described Shaykh Martin as “One of the most eloquent and serene Western voices in the Islamic world”. The British Muslim magazine Q-News carries on its website photos of the Shaykh delivering a series of lectures on Shakespeare and Islam in November 2004 at the Globe Theatre, the place where Shakespeare first made a name for himself.

Some readers will find it strange that Muslims would mourn the passing of someone who, by all accounts, might be considered little more than just another eccentric English academic. Yet the fact remains that Western and European scholarship forms an essential part of the corpus of Islamic discourse. When Muslims think of travel writing, two names immediately come to mind. One is Michael Wolfe, the other William Dalrymple. Only one is known to be a Muslim.

The Imam Hamza Yusuf Hanson is an American Muslim of Greek heritage. Another Greek Muslim of British heritage, Yusuf Islam, has made an outstanding contribution to Islamic musical expression, just as he did when he was known as Cat Stevens. He has teamed up with musicians, Muslim and non-Muslim, from such far away places as Turkey, South Africa and Malaysia.

In the fields of spirituality (tasawwuf) and legal sciences (fiqh), it would be impossible to speak of 20th century developments without mentioning the name of an American by the name of Nuh Ha Mim Keller. And in Australia, the only published textbook on Islamic law has been written by Jamila Hussain, an Anglo-Australian Muslim teacher at the University of Technology, Sydney.

All of these writers, scholars and artists, including Shaykh Martin Lings, are proof that the modern Muslim mind has allowed itself to be open to influences from all cultures. As the prophet himself is quoted as saying: "Knowledge is the lost property of the believer. Let him take possession of it regardless of where it is found".

Muslims respected Martin Lings, notwithstanding the humiliation he received at the hands of a popular Muslim political figure like Gamal Abdel Nasser. The passing of a scion of British aristocracy, a former head student at an English public school, a Shakespearean scholar and an avid gardener brought together Muslims to pray for his soul in mosques and homes across the world, from Sarajevo to Sydney and from Oslo to Cape Town. May God bless and honour Shaykh Martin with the highest station of paradise. May God provide comfort to the Shaykh's family and loved ones and to the millions of Muslims who mourn his passing.

(This article was published at Online Opinion on June 16 2005. The book is available for purchase in Sydney and online from the Andalus Bookstore.)

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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