On The Passing Of Martin Lings
As I put down Martin Lings’ book, I made a short prayer that God bless this man. The next day, I learned of his passing.
By Ibrahim N. Abusharif, May 13, 2005
One of the damned things about this world now is the ease with which we can go through a day and not feel the dimming of light. Our sense of sacred connection is so co-opted by Starbuck casualness, essential spiritual accoutrements within us are disabled from perceiving the depth of loss that humanity suffered recently with the passing of Martin Lings. In Islamic tradition (and I’m pretty sure the tradition is widespread), when a great person dies, whether a saint or scholar or sage, the whole world is somehow effected, even the fish in the sea.
The night before Mr. Lings passed, I happened to have been reading one of his books that my wife had ordered and just received, Symbol and Archetype: A Study in the Meaning of Existence. Once again, I was awestruck by the ease with which Mr. Lings was able to convey tiers of profundity in a short passage (even one sentence) and to do so with uncanny consistency. His translation of verses from the Quran are, in themselves, masterpieces of High English, which none before him could achieve, and not for lack of trying. As I put down the book, I made a short prayer that God bless this man. The next day, I learned of his passing.
Mr. Lings was among the early lights of my life. More than two decades ago, I read his gripping narrative on the life of the Prophet (Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources). I remember reading almost all of it in one sitting. Had it not been for my need to sleep, I would not have stopped. Shortly thereafter, though, I finished, and when I put the book down I finally understood what it meant to “taste the sweetness” in having love of the Prophet and of prophethood in general. It would be but the first book of Mr. Lings that would be transforming.
A University of Chicago graduate student, whose first name is Ibrahim, handed me Mr. Lings’ book, A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century. He told me, “Read this. You’ll like it.” I didn’t touch the book until a couple of years ago, about 21 years later, in fact. I then started. No exaggeration, it took me a full year to read it. It was so packed, I could not dare dishonor it with cursory handling. I compare the experience with a long epiphany. For some months, before being accosted by the world again, it was hard for me to look at things the same flat way that our era trains us to do. Purpose was everywhere, hidden right there in plain sight.
The “tyranny of quantity” once again shows its cracks: one man inspiring so many to reclaim the esoteric and also to love the Last Prophet. The sbiqn (the “foremost” in faith and certitude) are few in our times, as the Quran says. It seems that they’re even fewer now.
I end this very short personal tribute as I started, with an indictment of the ethos of the times: the shame of our day is the postmodern flattening of existence, the demotion of anything special, anything transcending and capable of a lasting narrative. We’re trapped in the glorified Soup Cans of Andy Warhol, his canvas celebration of banality and caustic attempt at making what is ordinary appear special, which, after all, is a backdoor, slinking strike against “special,” the concept and possibility. Jagger sings “Paint it Black,” and so they do.
God’s mercy be upon Mr. Lings.
(Martin Lings was born in Lancashire in 1909. After a classical education he read English at Oxford where he was a pupil and later a close friend of C. S. Lewis. In 1935 he went to Lithuania where he lectured on Anglo-Saxon and Middle English and subsequently he went to Egypt and and lectured mainly on Shakespeare at Cairo University. In 1952 he returned to England and took a degree in Arabic and in 1955 he joined the staff of the British Museum where from 1970⻖73 he was Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts. For the following year he held the same post in the newly founded British Library. In addition to writing many books he is also the author of the chapter Mystical Poetryђ in Abbasid Belles-Lettres, which is Volume 2 of The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, and the chapter on ‘The Nature and Origin of Sufism’ in Vol.19 of World Spirituality, as well as articles for Studies in Comparative Religion, Sophia, The New Encyclopaedia of Islam and the Encyclopaedia Britannica.)
Originally published on the altMuslim website and reprinted with permission of the editor.