May 12 was a sad day for Muslims. Across the world, Muslims mourned the passing of one of the greatest scholars of classical Islam. This shaykh, known to his Muslim readership as Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din, wrote one of the definitive books on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. He also wrote 11 other books, including one with the defiant title of Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions.
I remember first hearing about Shaykh Abu Bakr. One of my father’s good friends mentioned the shaykh and praised his biographical work on the prophet. Some years later, I bought a set of 20 tapes of lectures by an American Imam named Hamza Yusuf. The lectures were based on a study of the shaykh’s biographical work.
I joined millions of Muslims around the world in mourning the death of Shaykh Abu Bakr. Yet hardly any western newspaper mentioned his passing. It was as if the event went unnoticed. Britain’s left-leaning The Guardian newspaper did publish a short obituary. Much of the material for this article has been taken from that obituary, written by British author Gai Eaton.
I am not aware of any other western newspaper which mentioned his passing.
So who was this mysterious shaykh that most Muslims have heard of and most non-Muslims seem to ignore? Was this Shaykh Abu Bakr the leader of a terrorist outfit from Indonesia or Iraq? Was he a nasty beedy-eyed chap of Middle Eastern appearance who gave speeches in rolling Arabic?
Shaykh Abu Bakr was born on January 24, 1909. He was born in a place called Burnage in Lancashire. His parents christened him "Martin". His family name was Lings. Out of respect for the deceased and those who mourn him, I will refer to him simply as “the Shaykh” (the term Shaykh is commonly used as a title for spiritual elders).
The Shaykh spent his early years in the United States. Later, he returned to England where he attended Clifton College, Bristol. He was head prefect at this exclusive English private school (or public school for any UK readers).
The Shaykh’s tertiary studies commenced at Magdalen College, Oxford. He studied English, and became a close friend of the famous C.S.Lewis. In 1935, the Shaykh taught English courses in Lithuania.
In 1940, during the early years of World War II, the Shaykh travelled to Egypt to visit a friend who lectured in Cairo. As fate would have it, the Shaykh’s friend died in a motor accident, and the Shaykh was offered the teaching post. He stayed in Egypt until the early 1950s.
At this time, Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power and whipped up nationalist frenzy among young Egyptian students. Three of the Shaykh’s colleagues were killed. The Shaykh and his other colleagues of British origin were summarily dismissed. After 17 years of living in a village at the foot of the Pyramids, the Shaykh and his wife, Lesley Smalley, returned to England.
The post-war period was one of economic downturn for England and the rest of Europe. Work was hard to come by, and the Shaykh was forced to resume his studies. He followed up his BA in Arabic studies with a PhD thesis on the life of Algerian Sufi Ahmed al-Alawi. His wife, a physiotherapist, returned to work.
In 1954, the Shaykh found employment at the British Museum as assistant keeper of Oriental printed books and manuscripts. He held this position for about three decades, and the quiet reclusive work situation allowed the Shaykh to enter his most productive period of writing.
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