Seerah in English: Martin Lings’ “Muhammed: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources”

A Book Review of Muhammad : His Life Based On The Earliest Sources by Martin Lings

The word seerah linguistically means a path. In referring to a person’s life, it refers to the path they have traversed. The seerah of the Prophet ﷺ is its own genre of literature: a realm of study with principles, codification, and systems. It encompasses all of that which is associated with the life and times of the Prophet ﷺ. Within seerah literature, there are different sub-genres, including the shama’il (collection of Hadiths about the appearance, mannerisms, belongings, etc. of the Prophet ﷺ), wives of the Prophet ﷺ, comparative literature looking at the Mecca and Medina years, military expeditions, and much more.

The late Martin Lings’ (also known as Abu Bakr Siraj al-Din) Muhammad ﷺ: His Life Based On The Earliest Sources is among the seerah books written in English that have received widespread acclaim. Originally published in 1983, the book continues to be among highly-ranked seerah literature in the English language and read by scholars and laypeople alike. The book stands out from the rest as Lings (d. 2005), a Shakespearean scholar, spares no rhetorical device in his prose. For example, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf has said of his work,

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. [1]

Shaykh Abdul Nasir Jangda also considers Lings’ book — while acknowledging some of the scholarly objections — to be one of the most “flowing, and very emotionally, intimately written narratives of the life of the Prophet ﷺ” in modern English. [2] It has a certain cadence that is lacking in other books that often suffer from the limitations of translation. The change of language from Arabic to English distills the art of writing into its sedimentary parts, and filters authors through translators’ technical abilities. This makes Lings’ work, originally written in English for an English-speaking audience, especially attractive and more so for those who enjoy a high literary style.

The book flows like a story, as though the reader is overlooking the events unfolding in front of them. Like other seerah literature, Lings begins by describing pre-Islamic Arabia and the major events of the lives of the Prophet’s forefathers, and the rise of idolatry. In chronological order, each short chapter, sometimes just one or two pages, describes an incident or aspect of Prophet’s ﷺ life or that of one of the well-known Companions.

At times, Lings combines poetic reflections of the human condition in order to set the stage for events in the seerah. To appreciate Ling’s prose, the following passage describing the practices of pre-modern Arabs, setting the background for a chapter on the Prophet’s ﷺ early childhood when he was sent out to the desert with his wet-nurse Halimah, is worth quoting in full:

In the desert a man was conscious of being the lord of space, and in virtue of that lordship he escaped in a sense from the domination of time. By striking camp he sloughed off his yesterdays; and tomorrow seemed less of a fatality if its where as well as its when had yet to come. But the townsman was a prisoner; and to be fixed in one place, yesterday, today, tomorrow – was to be a target for time, the ruiner of all things. Towns were places of corruption. Sloth and slovenliness lurked in the shadow of their walls, ready to take the edge off a man’s alertness and vigilance. Everything decayed there, even language, one of man’s most precious possessions. Few of the Arabs could read, but beauty of speech was a virtue which all Arab parents desired for their children. A man’s worth was largely assessed by his eloquence, and the crown of eloquence was poetry. To have a great poet in the family was indeed something to be proud of; and the best poets were nearly always from one or another of the desert tribes, for it was in the desert that the spoken language was nearest to poetry. So the bond with the desert had to be renewed in every generation – fresh air for the breast, pure Arabic for the tongue, freedom for the soul; and many of the sons of Quraysh were kept as long as eight years in the desert, so that it might make a lasting impression upon them, though a lesser number of years was enough for that. [3]

Word of Caution

Lings’ poetic license and inaccuracies regarding certain passages and sourcing have been thoroughly critiqued by Shaykh Gibril Fouad Haddad in a paper available here. In some instances, such as his description of the icons in the Kaa’ba, Lings adds detail with sourceless speculation (like a Christian being “encouraged to paint” inside by the Quraysh). In other places, there are mistranslations or dubious misinterpretations. Shaykh Gibril praises the positive qualities of the book, but also provides a table with problematic passages in the book and his commentary with corrections. His paper serves as a valuable source to cross-reference before or while perusing the book.

Muhammad : His Life Based On The Earliest Sources by Martin Lings is a beautiful place to further personal engagement with the seerah, but one should also keep in mind Shaykh Abdul Nasir’s advice: “Independent reading is important, but soul-to-soul transmission of authentic and academically sound information is of utmost importance.”[2]

Allah knows best.

Works Cited

[1] Yusuf, Hamza. “A Spiritual Giant in an Age of Dwarfed Terrestrial Aspirations”, Q-News.
[2] Jangda, Abdul Nasir, host. “Intro – Pt 2.” Seerah, episode 2, Qalam Institute, 20 May 2016, https://www.qalaminstitute.org/2011/09/seerah-life-of-the-prophet-intro-pt-2/
[3] Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Inner Traditions; Revised edition (October 6, 2006). pp. 23.

Photo by Adli Wahid on Unsplash

Amazon link to the book here. This is not a sponsored post. 


About the Author: Heraa Hashmi is best known for her project, Muslims Condemn. She is a law student based in the US with a background in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and Linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

3 thoughts on “Seerah in English: Martin Lings’ “Muhammed: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources”

  1. This is one of the most beautiful books of all time. Reading it is a spiritual experience. I read a critique of some of its flaws and inaccuracies and I appreciated it since after all no writer or scholar is perfect. But it seems overall the accuracy and attention to detail in the book by far outweighs the shortcomings.

    Like

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