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Martin Lings, a Sufi Writer on Islamic Ideas, Dies at 96

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  • Tarek Fatah
    May 29, 2005 Martin Lings, a Sufi Writer on Islamic Ideas, Dies at 96 By DOUGLAS MARTIN New York Times
    Message 1 of 1 , May 31, 2005
      May 29, 2005

      Martin Lings, a Sufi Writer on Islamic Ideas, Dies at 96

      New York Times

      Martin Lings, a widely acclaimed British scholar whose books on Islamic
      philosophy, mysticism and art reflected his own deep belief in Sufism, the
      esoteric, purely spiritual dimension of Islam, died on May 12 at his home in
      Westerham, Kent County, England. He was 96.

      His publisher, Virginia Gray Henry, director of Fons Vitae Publishing,
      announced his death.

      Dr. Lings's long career was studded with accomplishments, some quite novel -
      like his 1996 book comparing his interpretation of Shakespeare's spiritual
      message to Sufism. His books on Islamic calligraphy were influential, as was
      his biography of an Algerian Sufi saint.

      He was the keeper of Oriental manuscripts at the British Museum and British
      Library and the author of a well-received biography of Muhammad that was
      based on Arabic sources from the eighth and ninth centuries and, according
      to some reviewers, read like a novel.

      The presidents of Pakistan and Egypt each presented Dr. Lings with an award
      for the book, and The Islamic Quarterly called it "an enthralling story that
      combines impeccable scholarship with a rare sense of the sacred worth of the

      His own personal intellectual and spiritual journey reflected his friendship
      with the philosophers René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, who saw modern
      history as a sorry record of decline, and man's salvation in traditional
      religion. Dr. Lings followed them in converting to Sufi Islam, about which
      he wrote the entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

      He was considered by some, including initiates he instructed, to be a Sufi
      saint, and by many non-Muslims to be a provocative intellectual.

      In the foreword to Dr. Lings's "The Sacred Art of Shakespeare: To Take Upon
      Us the Mystery of Things," Prince Charles wrote, "Lings's particular genius
      lies in his ability to convey, as perhaps no one else has ever done, the
      theatrical underpinnings of these texts, leaving readers with deep and
      lasting impressions not only of those masterpieces of dramatic artistry, but
      of the extraordinary man behind them as well."

      His later books addressed spiritual issues in broad terms, suggesting in
      one, "The Eleventh Hour: The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern World in the
      Light of Tradition and Prophecy," first published in 1987, that the end of
      time was near.

      Martin Lings was born on Jan. 24, 1909, in Lancashire. He was raised a
      Protestant, and later became an atheist, according to Zaman, a Turkish
      newspaper. He graduated from Magdalen College of Oxford University, studying
      English under C. S. Lewis, who became a close friend.

      He taught in several European universities, then became a lecturer in
      Anglo-Saxon and Middle English at the University of Kaunas in Lithuania. In
      1939, he went to Cairo to visit a close friend who shared his enthusiasm for
      the philosopher Guénon, who had moved from France to Egypt in 1930. The
      friend had become Guénon's assistant.

      When the friend died in a horseback-riding accident, Dr. Lings took over his
      responsibilities. He quickly learned Arabic to communicate with Guénon's
      Egyptian wife. He converted to Islam and became Guénon's spiritual disciple,
      adopting the philosopher's view that all the great religions share the same
      eternal wisdom.

      Dr. Lings taught English at the University of Cairo, lived near the base of
      the pyramids and each year produced a Shakespeare play.

      After savage anti-British riots, preceding Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalist
      revolution, Dr. Lings returned to Britain in 1952. He earned a doctorate
      from the School of Oriental and African Studies for his thesis on the
      Algerian Sufi, Ahmad al-Alawi. He published it in 1961 as a book, "A Sufi
      Saint of the Twentieth Century."

      The Journal of Near Eastern Studies called it "one of the most thorough and
      intimately engaging books on Sufism to be produced by a Western scholar."

      Dr. Lings studied the saint's life with Frithjof Schuon, the metaphysician
      who shared Guénon's dark pessimistic premonitions and had been Alawi's
      personal disciple. Dr. Lings became Schuon's disciple, learning Sufi methods
      as well as doctrine.

      In 1955, he joined the British Museum as assistant keeper of oriental
      printed books and manuscripts, becoming keeper in 1970. In 1973, he
      performed the same function at the British Library. This work led to his
      publishing "The Quranic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination," to coincide
      with the 1976 World of Islam Festival in London, with which he was closely

      Dr. Lings is survived by his wife, the former Leslie Smalley, whom he
      married in 1944.

      Earlier this year he traveled to Egypt, Dubai, Pakistan and Malaysia, and
      only 10 days before his death, Dr. Lings addressed 3,000 people observing
      the Prophet Muhammad's birthday in Britain.
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