Islamic scholar Lings discusses the afterlife
By Mao Chapman
LAHORE: A slow figure in a magnificent white turban, ushered through the throng near the door, is led to a seat beside the small podium. The room is already crowded but still they come – moving along the rows of chairs, crowding the emergency exit, sliding round the walls for that blessed square of empty floor, choking every inch from the small lecture theatre. The figure sits, an absent minded hand strokes a white beard, and he sinks into solitary repose, a lonely stillness at the centre of a pressing, chattering, swelling audience. The stillness is unusual, unnatural, speaking of age – but for two pitch-black pools of fierce intelligence staring back at the faces of Lahore’s regular social soup, this time served with extra academic noodles and seasoned with student chic.
Sufi scholars, academics, the intellectually curious, the well-to-do and others had joined students at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) on Friday to listen to the eminent Islamic scholar Dr Martin Lings give a rare public talk.
As the room filled, some were forced to watch from the corridor outside, straining to hear the unlikely northern English accent coming from the sonorous robed scholar, also known as Abu Bakr Siraj al-Din, the name Mr Lings adopted when he first entered Islam in 1938. Today (Saturday) is his 95th birthday.
Born in Lancashire, UK, in 1909, Mr Lings has dedicated much of his life to writing what are regarded as some of the finest works on aspects of Islam in English. His book on the Prophet (peace be upon him), Muhammad – His Life Based On The Earliest Sources, which includes some first-time translation and Mr Ling’s characteristic compelling narrative style, is regarded as a major contribution to Islamic literature in English.
Though a regular visitor to Pakistan, Mr Lings does not give public talks often. Many academics of his age do not give public talks at all. But Mr Lings retains a lucidity of thought and ability to communicate (albeit with a microphone) that caused the little LUMS lecture hall to fill far beyond capacity, spilling out beyond the doors. One or two were candid about their enthusiasm. “That might have been the last chance to see him,” whispered one female student when Mr Lings had finished, “But he was fantastic.”
Mr Lings’ address, measured in tone and laced with humour, discussed the Doctrine of the Afterlife in Islam. Drawing on a wide knowledge of Hadiths—sayings of the Prophet (peace)—in Arabic and English, Mr Lings elaborated the idea that attaining a place in Paradise was a question of becoming closer to God. He stressed the ontological nature of this question – every Muslim is close to God because, quoting a Hadith, he said, “God comes even between a man and his own heart.” What is necessary is an understanding of this proximity, which few achieve and many seek.
During his address Mr Lings’, described by the LUMS host as a “true poet-scholar”, afforded his audience glimpses of the prosaic skill that is said to enliven his writing. He skilfully emphasised what he saw as a need for every soul to go through a period of preparation before entering Paradise so that it might be “capable of causing other spirits in Paradise to wonder, ‘Who is this who comes among us?’ Hell, he said, could act as this period of preparation, for a sentence to Hell need not be forever (even if it feels like it). When Mr Lings was asked what, if all souls would go to Heaven after being purified in Hell anyway, was the point of doing good in this life, a ripple of laughter passed over the audience. “Hell is a terrible thing ... a person who asks a question like that has no imagination whatsoever.” Not so Mr Lings.
Mr Lings’ conscious attempt to use his intelligence and reason to consider spiritual matters made for a talk that needed no theatrics from his frail figure to make engaging. His talk was laced with Sufi perspectives such as the diaspora of religions as God’s response to the different needs of different peoples, and a humility that elicited only a “I don’t compel anyone to believe this,” when challenged on a point of belief. Taking questions with an incisive grace, Mr Lings took questions carefully and slowly and, perhaps, was forced to show his age when he was forced only to answer a small number. A standing ovation saw him walk from the room.