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A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century: Shaikh Ahmad Al-'Alawi, his spiritual heritage and legacy [Paperback]

Martin Lings
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

31 Dec 1993
'Almost a prerequisite for any serious study of Sufism in European languages': this was the verdict of Seyyed Hossein Nasr in his review of the first edition of the book. According to the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, it is 'one of the most thorough and intimately engaging books on Sufism to be produced by a Western scholar'. Certainly there is nothing second-hand about it. The author lets Sufis speak for themselves and, in a series of unusual and absorbing texts mainly translated from Arabic, he gives a vivid picture of life in a North African Sufi order. Against this background stands the unforgettable figure of the Algerian Shaikh who was head of the order from 1909 until his death in 1934. The last few chapters are mainly devoted to his writings, which include some penetrating aphorisms, and which end with a small anthology of his remarkable mystic poems.

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A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century: Shaikh Ahmad Al-'Alawi, his spiritual heritage and legacy + What is Sufism? (Islamic Texts Society) + Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources
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Product details

  • Paperback: 242 pages
  • Publisher: The Islamic Texts Society; 3rd edition (31 Dec 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0946621500
  • ISBN-13: 978-0946621507
  • Product Dimensions: 1.9 x 14 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 194,845 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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'A masterly study of a man whose sanctity recalled the golden age of medieval mystics. In this well documented book Dr Lings draws on many rare sources...and has made some important original contributions.' -- A. J. Arberry

'Even for those Westerners lacking even a basic knowledge of Islam, this book will benefit any sincere seeker of the spiritual path.' -- Muslim World Book Review

'What Martin Lings adds by way of commentary is of the greatest significance and may serve as a key to a deeper understanding of Islam as a whole.' -- Titus Burckhardt

From the Publisher

‘A masterly study of a man whose sanctity recalled the golden age of medieval mystics. In this well documented book Dr Lings draws on many rare sources...and has made some important original contributions.’ A. J. Arberry

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
This book gives an insight into the realities of Sufism on a day to day basis. The text also consists of different accounts of the sheikh's life from his doctor and himself. I would suggest that it is more suitable for the more advanced reader.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From a novice... 23 Dec 2002
By Gregory Scarborough - Published on Amazon.com
Though I don't know much about such things as whether this book is good in comparison to others, I can give my personal opinion. The first half of the book is more or less a biography, which is both entertaining and inspirational for anyone who likes to read about people and their lives...one interesting side note is that they compare his greatness to that of Ramana Maharshi. In any case...the second half of the book is absolutly amazing, and anyone who is new to the language the sufis use to explain universal truths will say "wow" more than once while reading this book...I would read a page or two and it would be interesting, and then I would suddenly read something that shifted me, made me give thanks and put the book down. This book is not for those who see themself as the judge..it is for those who are thankful for being gifted even the slightest desire to want to know and be with God. You will find something useful here. Peace.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book about a Sage by a Sage. 6 Mar 2009
By Ishroq - Published on Amazon.com
A very clear and intimate introduction to a saintly personality, Martin Lings' A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century is an important work on Islamic mysticism. It recounts in clear fashion the life of a twentieth century Sufi Saint, Shaykh Ahmad al-`Alawi. In this book, Martin Lings made a figure, relatively unknown to scholarship outside the Islamic world, better known. More importantly however, as the author himself remarks, the purpose of the book "goes far beyond academic orientalism"(p. 9) so as to allow a general audience access to its subject matter and therefore can be read without any sort of background in Islam. As the author puts it, only one quality is presupposed in the reader, namely, "a sincere interest in the `things of the Spirit'" (p. 9).

The book intends to provide insight to the reader about the `character' and life of the Shaykh al-`Alawi, through both people who knew him as well as through the corpus of writings that he left behind him. The structure of the book is divided into three parts, each part not only telling of aspects of the Shaykh's life, but also shedding light on the deeper reality of those aspects that he lived and breathed. Thus the author begins the first part with a section entitled a `seen from the outside', which speaks of how the Shaykh was seen by people outside his `circle', particularly by his French physician Dr Marcel Carret. Lings then moves to a sectioned entitled `seen from within', wherein the Shaykh is viewed from within his circle, which includes his disciples as well as himself. What is interesting here is the movement made by the author from the outer to the inner, which is itself symbolic of the journey of the inner way that the Shaykh, as is made clear, very much lived. Part two expounds in brief fashion what the Lings calls "the Doctrine", of both the inner way in general and the Shaykh in particular through quotations and excerpts from his writings. Mention is made of the doctrine of `wahdat al-wujud' (Oneness of Being), which holds a most central place in the mystical tradition of Islam but also of all other orthodox mystical traditions. Alongside the doctrine of the `Oneness of Being', other aspects of the Shaykh's doctrine are mentioned such as, `The Three Worlds' the `hierarchies of Being', the `Great Peace' (the attainment of which is the goal of the inner way), in which important themes such as prophethood vs. sainthood are discussed. Regarding the latter, Lings says it was a problem which was solved once and for all by Ibn `Arabi when he wrote "The Messenger is more universal in virtue of his sainthood then he is in virtue of his apostle-prophethood" (p. 261). The third part then deals with some selections from the Shaykh's aphorisms and poetry, with important commentaries on the former by Lings himself, which provide valuable insight into his familiarity with the subject he is dealing.

The text, in addition to introducing the remarkable personality of the Shaykh al-`Alawi to the average person, sets out to correct certain misunderstandings of orientalist scholarship. Beginning with the second chapter entitled `The Origins of Sufism' certain problems arise that the author attempts to solve. Many works on Sufism, except for a number of noteworthy exceptions, that begin `from the outside'- precisely because they are from the `outside'- have failed to see the Islamic `origins' of Sufism, apparently because of the doctrines that the later generations of Muslims formed and developed. The answer to this problem lies in what a tenth century Sufi of Bukhara said, "Then (after the second generation of Islam) desire diminished and purpose flagged: and with this came the spate of questions and answers, books, and treatises" (p. 43). Moreover, as the author shows, most the Quranic verses and sayings of the Prophet, as well as the verses regarding all supererogatory rituals, prayers, and litanies - all of which occupy such a central place in Sufism - were among the earliest to be revealed, which is enough, for the author, to indicate that "a strong mystical element was present from the outset" (p. 40). The development that occurred did not introduce anything new nor change or modify the fundamentals of Sufism. Rather, it came about from, as Lings' puts it, the "inevitable movement from concentrated synthesis to differentiated analysis" (p. 43), which was an unavoidable movement that took place in varying disciplines and methods to address the "analogous change that was taking place in human souls" as they distanced from the Center (p. 43). Historically based as well as `qualitatively insightful' arguments are developed and adduced by the author to make this point.

Furthermore, the same must be said with the parts dealing with the doctrine of `wahdat al-wujud' and the path of gnosis being superior to, although embracing, the path of Love. For "it is Love within the general framework of Knowledge" (p. 46) as the author says. In this section a few words are also said by the author, mainly in his footnotes, about some of the misunderstandings of some orientalists about the `wahdat al-wujud' of the Sufis; dealing with its incorrect and often misleading translations - which themselves are the effect of an inaccurate understanding - of pantheism or `existentialist monism' and the like. Against the accusations of the Sufis as `falling into the pantheistic abyss' or even some of them as being `dualists'(p. 53) Martin Lings suggests that the point of view or better yet the `standpoint' of the Sufis should be considered; he says in his footnote, "The truth is that all the Sufis are `dualist' or `pluralist' at lower level; but it is impossible that any of them should have believed that at the highest level there is anything other than the Divine Oneness" (p. 126) and that explicit verses of the Quran like "Everything perisheth except His Face" (28:88) should be considered carefully. Unfortunately however, the general tendency has continued and misunderstanding still being entertained, namely, the accusation that scholars `from within' tend to read certain things, specifically certain doctrines, from the later periods into the former ones. Such charges though completely fall to the ground if it is understood that the `formulations' in question, intrinsic and essential meaning was very clear from the outset of Islam; one only has to take a look at a Quranic verse like, "He is the First and the Last and the Outwardly Manifest and Inwardly Hidden" (57:3) to pause and reflect about if they really understood the situation. New knowledge, in the Islamic tradition, can never be introduced due to the fact that the Quran contains all knowledge in `principal'; the findings of the later Muslims were, in a sense, a way of making explicit what were implicit in the Quran all along.

In brief, throughout the book, from the whole structure of its style, to the content of the chapters, to the language used to convey the content in such exquisite a manner, the entire `approach' to the book beginning with the fine introduction and ending with the beautiful poetry of the Shaykh, Martin Lings' `lived' participation in the Tradition that the Shaykh himself was apart of, resonates through the entirety of this book. It serves as an excellent and well written introduction to the life and thought of a twentieth century Sufi Saint and conveys to the reader with a `sincere interest' that the quest for the timeless Truth can still be made today as it was made in the `good old days gone by', a quest that the author himself undertook in his own life. As a good man once said, `it is a book about a Sage by a Sage'.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exellelent introduction to Sufism 26 Sep 2005
By Gogol - Published on Amazon.com
A fine introduction to Sufism by Mr Martin Lings, one of the great writers on Islam and Sufism in recent years. The book is a biography of the Algerian Sheikh Ahmed al-Alawi the late grand Sheikh of the Alawiyye branch of the Shadhiliyye order one of the largets Sufi orders in Africa. The book begins with an introduction to Sufism for a doctor who has come to treat the Sheikh at his 'Zawiya' (Sufi meeting place)His impressions are unique in itself as a Frenchman and member of the colonialist class who in general looked upon the native Algerians and especially their religious leaders with contempt, although he does not enter the order he is left on reflection of his meeting with the Sheikh a profound feeling that he has truly been in the presence of a man of great spiritual light (describing him on first encounter as being similar to the traditional images of Christ)The book then gives a brief history of Sufism, the Alawiyye order and its founder Sheikh al-Alawi before chapter 2 goes on to explain the doctrine of the Sufi order. Chapter 3 is a translation of some of the Sheikhs works including his poetry.

For anyone who has read the works of Thomas Merton, His Holiness the Dalai Lama or has any interest in Islam or Sufism this book will certainly be welcome on their bookshelf, truly a book for those of a spiritual heart.
5.0 out of 5 stars A Must Read 1 April 2013
By Kenneth Dunn - Published on Amazon.com
This is a must read for anyone who is interested in the study of Sufism. This book makes such a complex topic so very readable...I urge everyone to read it. I have read it now.......about 4 times. You won't be disappointed....a truly beautiful book....The Christian Mystic...Father Thomas Merton was also an avid reader of this book.
5.0 out of 5 stars Shaikh al Alawi has been regarded as a revivalist of the twentieth century by some scholars. Now I know why! Very impressive. 5 Jan 2013
By Saalik - a traveller passing through - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Following intensive research, the purchase of this book has been a part of the process of building a library of Islamic literature, that relates particularly to seeking the path of excellence in spirituality, purification of the heart, ascetism, and an appreciation and understanding of the experiences of those who have followed this very path previously. The goal, God willing, in turn is to be inspired and motivated to seek success in a journey of personal development. Hence, this book is a piece of the puzzle of the big picture. I have been very pleased with this book.
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