Converts to Islam aren’t always granted the best name. Meet some Muslim converts who aren’t afforded the headlines but are hugely influential
Martin Lings, who died 10 years ago this year, was one of those sagely figures who would make even the most cold-hearted atheist warm to religion. The prolific author, intellectual and Shakespearian scholar, with an erudite knowledge of Islam and Christianity, was a rare figure. A friend of C.S. Lewis, the author of Muhammad (a book Tony Blair said he would bring on a desert Island) and The Sacred Art of Shakespeare, the forward of which was written by Prince Charles, Lings is, without doubt, one of the most influential and pioneering figures in the Islamic world of the past century.
A man of small stature, gentleness and impeccable character, Lings intellectually dwarfed most other Muslims of his time. However, he isn’t the only white, intellectual convert to Islam who has changed the landscape over recent years. Figures such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, arguably the best known American convert scholar, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad (aka Professor Timothy Winter of Cambridge University), often referred to as the “most influential British Muslim,” the late Gai Eaton, who penned the masterpiece, Islam and the Destiny of Man, and others have played a major role in bringing Westerns to Islam, in particular, Sufism, the inner, mystical dimension of Islam.
Lings, born into a Protestant family in Burnage, Manchester, read English at Oxford University where he became a close friend of C.S. Lewis. Upon finding out that Lings had converted from Christianity to Islam in 1938, Lewis remarked “what a loss for Christianity”. While in Cairo in the 1940s, having just embraced Islam, he became heavily influenced by his teacher Rene Guenon, a French metaphysician and philosopher (and later the German philosopher Frithjof Schuon), two intellectual heavyweights, Sufis and advocates of Perennialism, who believed the same essential truth was contained within all major world religions, and thus, they were all valid paths to God.
Indeed, Lings’ writings are imbued with a sense of universalism; he wouldn’t mention one religion for too long before mentioning another, focusing particularly on Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. His teacher, Schuon, is said to have seen many visions of the Virgin Mary throughout his life and he, like Lings, remained deeply committed to Christianity, although professing Islam as their religion. Schuon and Lings often wrote about the esoteric and symbolic nature of religious concepts such as the Divine nature of Christ and the Trinity.
Whilst Lings was a master of the English language, he was more than just a writer. According to many, he was also a saint. One particular Arab scholar remarked that Martin Lings had attained deep spiritual knowledge and added: “He has organised his life around the remembrance, contemplation and worship of God.”
It was Ling’s book, The Book of Certainty that inspired Hamza Yusuf in the late 70s to embrace Islam. Ling’s book, Muhammad, according to Yusuf’s father, a Professor of Humanities in the U.S., is one of the greatest biographies in the English language. According to Lings himself (whose Muslim name was Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din) he felt the presence of the Prophet Muhammad while writing the book. Interestingly, Gai Eaton, while writing Islam and the Destiny of Man, said he felt as if the divine was aiding him write the book.
Many western converts have embraced Islam after reading the works of Eaton. Hailed as “a towering patriarch of British Islam” with his death proclaimed as “the end of an era”, he established himself as one of the foremost Muslim intellectuals in the West. It was at the hands of Martin Lings that Eaton had converted to Islam in 1951 in Cairo.
Eaton, once a rebellious youth, was tempered by Islam and, in his latter years, became more and more fervent to his faith. A true gentleman, who spoke in old-fashioned, high-end English, as did Lings, he showed that one can be both proudly British and comfortably Muslim.
Enter Hamza Yusuf. Born in Washington in 1960, Yusuf was raised in North Carolina into the Greek Orthodox Church. He married into a Mexican-American Catholic family and his wife is also a convert to Islam. Described as the West’s most influential Muslim scholar, Yusuf, who has met Pope Benedict and spoken about his experience with him, is what you might call a celebrity scholar. After giving a talk, he is often besieged by eager fans wanting to meet him.
In the 1990s he shot to fame as a young, eloquent and moving speaker, able to grip an audience with his oratory and almost encyclopaedic knowledge, moving seamlessly from the Islamic tradition to modern Western thought, philosophy and sociology. The fiery scholar, with popular talks about the antichrist and the perils of the modern world, quickly became one of the West’s most influential Muslims.
After 9/11, Yusuf found himself in a slightly precarious position amidst the rampant Islamophobia. He became a spokesman for Muslims and was even called upon by President Bush – by no means a friend of the Muslim community – to advise the US administration on what to do.
Along with Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, a scholar born into a Congregationalist family, they point a thorn in the side of Islamophobes who believe Islam is a dummies religion and has nothing to offer the modern world. Both come out staunchly against extremism, and promote Islam’s merciful, peaceful, inclusive side. With their sharp intellects, erudite knowledge of both religious and secular sciences and having studied in traditional Islamic settings in the Muslim world, they were well received.
Murad, however, is an altogether different and most interesting character. Tall, blonde and bookish, he speaks in a sophisticated manner, yet with ease and calmness. Although a lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University and an internationally respected Muslim scholar, he speaks little when he’s not on a public platform.
Murad was one of the original signatories of A Common Word Between Us and You, a letter addressed to Christian leaders in an appeal for peace and cooperation between the two religions. Keen to foster better relation between the faiths, he also met Pope Francis last year during the Catholic-Muslim Forum, the main high-level encounter between leaders of the two faiths. These types of encounters are encouraging and will come as music to the ears to Christians who are concerned about the restrictions, or, in some cases, persecution of their co-religionists by Muslim extremists in places like Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Having met Murad on a few occasions, he has a sense of stillness about him, a characteristic trait he believes is missing in far too many people in today’s world. He talks often about how people are agitated and no longer have a sense of inner contentment. But, of more interest, is his analysis of extremism.
In the essay Islamic Spirituality: The Forgotten Revolution, he says: “The Islamic world is passing through a most devastating period of transition. A history of economic and scientific change which in Europe took five hundred years, is, in the Muslim world, being squeezed into a couple of generations. Such a transition period…makes human beings very insecure. They look around for something to hold onto, that will give them an identity. In our case, that something is usually Islam.”
With so much negative publicity around converts to Islam, and Islam in general, especially following the recent attacks by ISIS, these figures are a breath of fresh air. They weren’t former prisoners, nor lost, delusional, unemployed youth, or naive, stupid youngsters with no ambition. These are the best of what British and American culture have to offer and they chose, for varying yet essentially similar reasons, to adopt a faith Orientalists ridiculed and the modern world sees as out-dated and inane.
The likes of Lings, Eaton, Yusuf and Murad have shaped the Muslim intellectual tradition in our time and have probably done more to ward off extremism among Islam’s adherents than those born into the faith.
The popular Orientalist, A.J. Arberry wrote in 1942: “If ever there was a time when the teachings of the great [Muslim] mystics were vitally necessary for the comfort of men’s hearts and the lifting up of the spirit of humanity, that time is surely now.”
The men mentioned above are perhaps four of the most prominent of all the white, Muslim convert scholars. They’ve revived many of the teachings of Islam’s leading mystics, such as Imam al-Ghazali, the 11th century influential Muslim theologian and Sufi, among many others.
They provide a riddle for the Islamophobe: white intellectuals embracing the Muslim faith who go on to become profound scholars and reject the lure of modern, secular, atheistic thought. They speak about the faith’s richness, diversity, inclusivity and it’s intellectual and spiritual tradition, a faith at ease with other faiths, who aren’t shy to speak good about Christianity.
While they certainly don’t speak for everyone, they have, without a doubt, brought masses of people to Islam with their intellectual honesty and astute analysis of the world we live in today. The frenzied discourse about Muslim converts is made far more nuanced by converts like these. Considering they promote peace not war, reconciliation not division and greater understanding not suspicion, they deserve more attention.