Martin Lings aka Abu Bakar Sirajuddin, the author of Muhammad: His Life Based on Earliest Sources, passed away some 7 years ago. Although the book is not free from criticisms, is arguably the best English-language biography on the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ out there today.
A good friend recently forwarded me an article, in which Hamza Yusuf pays tribute to Martin Lings.
I remember purchasing a small metaphysical treatise by an author with a foreign name way back in 1976 as I was browsing the shelves in a small spiritual bookstore located amidst a beautiful garden in Ojai, California. The title was The Book of Certainty: The Sufi Doctrine of Faith, Vision and Gnosis, and the author was Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din. At the time, I knew nothing of Islam, let alone who the author was, yet the title intrigued me. It was, in essence, what I was searching for – certainty. I read as much of the book as I could but recall not understanding very much. It quoted extensively from the Quran and offered highly esoteric commentaries in a language quite foreign to me. I set it aside, but my curiosity had been piqued that shortly thereafter, in a life-altering transaction, I purchased a Quran and began to read a very personal revelation that would compel me to convert to the religion of Islam.
After more than a decade abroad seeking sacred knowledge, I returned to the United States and was soon teaching courses on Islam. Not long after I was asked to teach a series of lectures based upon the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him. I agreed but needed a text in English for the students. I began looking for a sound biography of the Prophet that was written in an English style that did justice to the story. Surprisingly, for a man who the American historian Michael Hart ranked the single most influential human being who every lived, hardly anything serious biographical literature was available other than poorly written works published in far-off places or polemics and misrepresentations. I was somewhat despondent and then I discovered the finely produced Muhammad: his life based on the earliest sources, by Dr Martin Lings. I knew who he was because I had been warned that I should be careful when reading his books. What I didn’t know at the time was that Dr. Martin Lings and Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din, the man whose book led me to the Quran, were one and the same person. Nevertheless, I decided to read the book and assess it for myself.
I was quickly immersed in a story told by a master storyteller whose English oft-times sang and always soared. The Prophet’s life was masterfully narrated through a series of short chapters in a prose as engaging and poetic as Lytton Strachey’s in Eminent Victorians, only the subject matter was not on an eminent Victorian but rather written by one who appeared to be. My father, a fine critic of English literature, remarked after reading it that unfortunately the prejudice Westerners have for the topic has prevented it from being recognised as one of the great biographies of the English language.
He also touched on the issue of orthodox and heterodox thoughts with regards to the Islamic tradition, in relation to some of Martin Lings’ controversial views. Worth the read.
Link to full article below, in PDF format.