The realm of Prophetic biographies, or seerahs, is filled with usefully sentimental volumes that complement the more technical and focused fields of study meant to preserve the Messenger’s legacy. There’s been no shortage of biographies of world history’s most influential man, but many of today’s lay Muslims seem to have coalesced more or less around the late Martin Lings’ (d. 2003, aged 96) 1983 epic, Muhammad.
The popular volume utilizes Arabic sources from the 8th and 9th centuries and has become a definitive seerah in the English-speaking world. Lings was an English convert to Islam and a scholar whose academic interests ranged from Shakespeare to Islamic thought. His command of the English language makes Muhammad an approachable, yet vigorously stylized narrative that attempts to make the past more vivid. In this it has succeeded beyond Lings’ initial expectations.
Part of the modern appeal of the book derives from its readability and novel-like fluidity. The entire volume is divided into 85 chapters, with some just two pages long. The central story here is that of the Prophet (pbuh), but the chronological unfolding of his life is treated in parallel with the story of Islam’s initial advent in 7th century Arabia. In other words, the historical and sociopolitical context that Lings pulls together in this biography makes it not just an excellent introduction to the Prophet (pbuh) himself, but to the birth and initial years of Islam. Lings helps clear up any misconceptions and confusions in this area, in addition to fleshing out what actually happened in a world that’d probably escape the recognition of most modern people.
This isn’t to say that Lings has written the “end-all-be-all” of seerahs in the English language. Far from it, as the decades since its initial publication has seen many scholarly critiques of Lings’ book and methodology. Yet Muhammad has won great acclaim in both the Muslim world and beyond, having been hailed some years back at a major Muslim conference in Pakistan as the best seerah in English.
Muslims of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds have devoted and committed themselves to live by the tremendous example of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and for the English-speakers, Lings has made a central contribution to that effect