Martin Lings, a Sufi Writer on Islamic Ideas, Dies at 96
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: May 29, 2005
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.
Martin Lings's biography of Muhammad used eighth-century sources.
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 subject."
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
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
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.