Dr Martin Lings (Photo: Creative Commons)
Enduring Utterances: Collected Lectures. By Martin Lings. London: The Matheson Trust. Pp139. PB. 2014. £7.99.
Dr Martin Lings was born in 1909 in Burnage, located on the outskirts of the northern English city of Manchester, into a Protestant family. He attended Clifton College before enrolling at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read English literature and became a student and associate of C S Lewis (1898-1963), a notable British novelist and literary figure. It was during this period that he came across the writings of Rene Jean-Marie Joseph Guenon (1886-1951), a French metaphysician and prolific writer, who converted to Islam and took the name of Abd al-Wahid Yahya al-Shadhili. He then met another European convert to Islam, Frithjof Schuon (Isa Nur al-Din Ahmad), who was a Swiss metaphysician and writer, and subsequently converted to Islam, taking the Muslim name of Abu Bakr Siraj al-Din. Thereafter he moved to Cairo where he met Guenon and taught English at the University of Cairo and attained considerable fluency in Arabic.
He returned to England during the early 1950s and earned a degree in Arabic followed by a doctorate in Islamic Studies from the University of London. The subject of his thesis was the life and teachings of Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi (1869-1934) of Algeria, which earned him considerable academic acclaim, and worked as a Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts at the British Museum and British Library. However, it was his The Life of Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (1983) which earned him international recognition and awards from several Muslim countries including Egypt and Pakistan.
As a specialist on the life and works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), his The Secret of Shakespeare (1966) was an invaluable contribution. In his foreword to this book, HRH The Prince of Wales wrote, ‘It is a book which I found hard to put down as it is clearly written from an intimate, personal awareness of the meaning of the symbols which Shakespeare uses to describe the inner drama of the journey of the soul contained, as it is, within the outer early drama of the plays.’
Lings’ was a prolific writer on Islam, Qur’anic themes, Sufism and traditional thought. However, unlike many other exponents of traditional wisdom, he was much more close to orthodox Islam. He was not only intimately acquainted with the Qur’an, Prophetic traditions and Islamic jurisprudence but also lived by the dictates of his faith and its teachings until his death. He died at the age of 96 and was laid to rest in his garden in Westerham, Kent.
The book under review consists of transcripts of 10 lectures delivered by Lings’ from 1993 to 2001. Edited and introduced by Trevor Banyard, in this book, Lings’ attempted to answer a number of pertinent and equally challenging questions, namely is Islam a tolerant faith? What is the meaning and purpose of Divine guidance? What is our ultimate fate and destiny? How do we explain the presence of evil and injustice? What is the value of beauty and art? And what is spirituality and gnosis, and are they relevant in an increasingly materialistic age?
For example, in answering the question: what is Islam? He stated that it was nothing but ‘submission to God’ based on the teachings of the Qur’an and the Prophet, adding that ‘One of the basic themes of Islam is that one must not take anything for granted; one’s hearing, one’s sight, one’s speech are things for which one must be profoundly thankful, whereas these things man has come to take for granted. And this is one aspect of the primordiality of Islam. As the last religion, Islam claims to be the primordial religion, and this wonderment recalls the wonderment of the first men who were created on Earth and who took nothing for granted, and who saw the marvels of creation and marvelled at them spontaneously’. (p68)
Again, according to Lings’, ‘It is a characteristic of Islam that you will find a tremendous veneration for all the Prophets, and above all, for the Messengers. In Christianity one does not find that, and one does not find that in Judaism, because there is not so much mention of the Prophets; but in Islam one finds a very great veneration and love for Prophets such as Aaron, for example – who means practically nothing to the average Christian – Joseph, David, Solomon. David and Solomon are counted as Prophets in Islam; in Judaism they are kings of Israel, they are not counted as Prophets. And of course Zachariah, John the Baptist – they are among the Prophets who are venerated in Islam.’ (p64)
Likewise, Lings’ considered modern notions of ‘progress’ and ‘advancement’ to be anything but progression because ‘the passage of time always produces the contrary of progress. The Prophet said, for example, ‘No time cometh upon you but is followed by a worse…’ There is a verse in the Qur’an referring to a certain people, of which the meaning is: A long time passed over them, so that their hearts were hardened, meaning that the inevitable result of the passage of time is the hardening of hearts.’ (p66) The cure for such hearts, according to Lings’, is the enduring message of peace, wisdom and spirituality in Islam, otherwise known as Tasawwuf, which provides nourishment for the body (material) and the heart (spiritual) alike.
This is an interesting and illuminating little book dealing with issues of fundamental importance for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Although written from a traditionalist perspective, Martin Lings’ profound understanding and awareness of the spiritual challenges and difficulties facing humanity deserves more attention in an increasingly materialistic and nihilistic age.
By Muhammad Khan, author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and is currently completing a book on The Muslim Heritage of the West (Kube Publishing, forthcoming).