The Mystic Pen

Remembering the Extraordinary Life of Indo-Muslim Scholar,
Dr. Annemarie Schimmel (1922-2003)

Hosted by Katherine Schimmel Baki 

The Mystic Pen —

Remembering the Life

of Dr. Annemarie Schimmel

by Katherine Schimmel Baki

Carol Armstrong

Author’s New Year’s Message:

As we begin the New Year, I am reminded of how far we need to go toward achieving world harmony. And how many years ago, as a student in Middle Eastern Studies, I found myself asking the very same question I ask myself today: “Why?”

I am always inspired and humbled by the work of people such as Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea, Penguin, 2007), whose life’s work in Afghanistan has allowed for the building of schools and the education of hundreds of female children in that country; the tireless work of Harriet Fulbright, President of the William J. and Harriet Fulbright Center, whose central message of peace we will be covering in our new series, A Wild Peace; and the brilliant work of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prizewinner, Economist Muhammad Yunus: Banker to the Poor. I also love the question Wild River Review author Jessica Falcone asks in the title of her piece, What Would the Buddha Do?

For if we do not ask, we will not know.

Yet, there is still so much to be done. I recently attended a Bar Mitzvah ceremony for a neighbor of mine, and was touched by the Rabbi’s central message, “Do not expect God to change the world. Change yourself first and the world will follow.” This is very similar of course to Gandhi’s central message, “Be the change you want to see.”

With this thought, I am brought back to my graduate student days and to time spent with a spiritually enlightened woman who also happens to be a practicing Sufi. Her focused meditations for the world, along with those of the Sufi International Order, have surely been etched into the universe by now, as a permanent vibrational record of their pure intent, goodness and work toward promoting the world harmony we so desperately need.

As we all know, there are many paths to the same river, but in the end, there is only one ocean. And as we head into unchartered waters in the year ahead, my wish for the world and for each and every one of you is that harmony and peace prevail in your lives and that your actions reflect kindness, tolerance, and understanding for your fellow human beings. May we all be the change we want to see.

Sufism and The Light of the Soul:
The Lotus, The Mountain, and the Eternal Quest for Spiritual Enlightenment

Azimat Schreiber-Cohn

Talking with Sally Azimat Schreiber-Cohn, Student of Pir Valayat Kahn and Islamic Scholar,
Anne Marie Schimmel

On a cool spring day, full of the heady sweet, sweet smell of newborn grass, I take a long deep breath. This is what green should smell like. Small, verdant blades poke out of the heavy mud that now squishes and crunches under my feet in Harvard Yard. I am on my way to Annemarie’s course, “The Phenomenology of Islam,” when I hear a familiar voice calling my name. She is an Iraqi and a Baha’i, a follower of the spiritual teachings of Baha’ullah (1817-1892).

Her family had left Iraq some twenty years before after being systematically persecuted in one way or another by Saddam Hussein’s regime. As she now runs towards me from across the yard, I think briefly of her suffering, and that of her family’s. Her sister, who now resides in the United States, wears their personal story of torture and imprisonment permanently on her face. She was not born blind and scarred; she acquired both after spending ten years in an Iraqi prison and being given an “acid” bath.

On this beautiful spring day I can’t help but think, “Is unkindness toward our fellow humans encoded in our DNA?” Is it the natural result of a survival gene that’s lost some of its usefulness? How else would we have evolved to view anyone outside of our clan as a threat to our own social group/survival? Why else can we not all get along? Is not the path to spiritual perfection an absolute separation from this state of being?

As she rapidly approaches all the sadness slides away and my thoughts shift to the excitement of the new semester. “There’s someone I really wants you to meet,” she says. “Azimat, a dear friend at the Harvard Divinity School…a practicing Sufi.”

When I first meet Sally, or Azimat, as her friends more often call her, she is perched on the edge of her seat in the front row of Annemarie’s classroom. She has a large notebook, overflowing with notes, planted firmly on her lap. As she reaches down to pull out a voice recorder, we are formally introduced and I am struck instantly by the overwhelming luminosity of her face. Her skin is like cream, her face a beautiful heart shape, though it reminds me more of the crescent moon as it glows from an internal light source located somewhere deep inside. She appears almost ageless, her pale grey-blue eyes twinkling like reflected light on water, shimmering with every word she speaks. It is a quality that I have seen only a few times before in people who spend long periods of time meditating. We share an instant rapport, and I have the distinct feeling I will know her for a very long time.

As the semester wears on, Azimat and I spend much time together discussing meditation and transcendence. We are equally convinced that transcendence is an experience that is hard to quantify, but that one may attain a state conducive to it through various means such as meditation, the chanting of certain sounds, repetitive rhythms and pure intent. We also realize that transcendence might occur without doing any of these things. Azimat tells me of how in her Sufi practice she would focus on a particular sound or intention and how this would lead to a heightened meditative state. Our discussion then moves to the role of sound and vibration, and on the elicitation of trance-like states through certain frequencies and repetitive rhythms. I learn that she is a student of Pir Valayat Khan, whose writings I am quite familiar with. We pass hours and hours discussing such subjects, and as time goes on, I begin to realize that I have only begun to scratch the surface of her vast knowledge.

Now, many years later, she enthusiastically agrees to be interviewed from her home in Marblehead, Massachusetts, cast against the backdrop of the churning Atlantic.

Pir Valayat Kahn

WRR: Azimat, I am so grateful to be able to reconnect with you and to hear your thoughts on both Annemarie and your 40-year history pursuing the Sufi path.

Azimat: It is a delight to discuss these things with you also. I remember with great clarity the first time I walked into the classroom in Sever Hall where Professor Schimmel was to give her first lecture. The brick building along the quadrangle in Harvard yard and across from Widener Library is a somewhat imposing structure, but as I would discover, the classroom inside was really quite simple, filled with old wooden chairs that contained foldout desks for writing.

There was an ordinary wooden podium placed squarely in the front of the room where Professor Schimmel was to deliver her lecture. Green chalkboards covered the front wall and off to the right side, long windows overlooked Harvard yard giving students a view of the rolling green beyond. I arrived early for this first class. At the appointed hour, I witnessed Professor Schimmel enter the room and step to the front of the room. I stood up and asked her if it would be all right to record the lecture.

“Yes,” she replied, in a simple, kind way, and then proceeded to introduce her course on the History of Sufism. She closed her eyes and began the lecture, opening them only to write a name on the green chalkboard. I was surprised by how much her way of lecturing was just as I had heard it would be, her simple manner, the way she entered the room with a quiet, unassuming presence, how she offered her wisdom: a stream of knowledge pouring with ease upon each of us. She ended the lecture, opened her eyes, and departed as easily and simply as she had entered.

WRR: This is my recollection of her as well. I think that if a person didn’t know her they could easily be fooled by her soft, sweet appearance, which spoke nothing of the colossal intellect within.

Yes, exactly. And from this experience, a part of me is re-awakened to the proper way in which to treat a human being…in this case it is a woman who taught me…a woman who was so profoundly respected all over the world and who still consciously chose to walk with a simple, unencumbered dignity. To me, this was just huge.

WRR: You have always been very interested in the role of women in Sufi circles which is something that Professor Schimmel drew from quite a bit.

Yes, by the end of that course it became obvious to me that Professor Schimmel was quite clear about highlighting the places and times within the history of Sufism that women were fully involved participants along the Sufi path and were included in Sufi circles. She spoke often of the well-known Rabi’a al Adawiya, of course, but more than that she devoted a whole section of her course to the special status and role that women played in both Islam and in Sufism. And because of this, she was unusually adept at dispelling common Western-based misperceptions.

WRR: Can you elaborate on this?

I was fortunate enough to audit a very small class of hers on Sufi texts written in older forms of Arabic. One day I asked if there were more texts discussing the role of Sufi women throughout history. She said she was sorry to say that the only list she could offer was the material on Sufi women at the end of Margaret Smith’s book on Rabi’a (al-Adawiyya).

Then she lit up. “Oh,” she said, “there is a new book coming out, for which I’ve written the introduction: The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought, (Murata, SUNY 1992).”And she then explained how Sachiko Murata had traced male descriptions of the soul in Islam including in Sufism and had found many examples of the soul being described as female. In other words, “My soul is a woman.” This saying became the title of Annemarie’s book: My Soul is a Woman: The Feminine in Islam (Schimmel and Ray, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003).

WRR: I am remembering an amusing story that you once told me about your early days at the Divinity School in which you couldn’t answer the question of which religion you belonged to…

At the beginning of the first year at Harvard Divinity School, I filled out a form that asked about my religious affiliation. I wrote that I felt a connection to many religions but did not belong to any particular one. I also wrote that although I was affiliated with the Sufi Order International, we do not consider it to be a religion, but rather the development of a way of life.

A short time later, I received a request to speak with a particular person in the administration office. A very kind woman on staff informed me that there would be a gathering of new students who would be meeting other students of the same religious affiliation or denomination. There would be tables with signs for Congregationalists, Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Jewish students, Native Americans, Unitarian Universalists, and Worshipers of Nature and so on. Many groups, she said, would have large numbers of students at their tables. Since I was the only Sufi in the incoming class and felt a connection with a number of religions, I might want to consider choosing a group with which to meet. Did I want to gather with one of the larger groups? Or did I feel comfortable meeting with a very small group, consisting of perhaps three people?

Ahmed Murshad

She explained that since she understood about a connection between Islam, Baha’ism and Sufism, then perhaps I could choose to meet with a very small group of three people – a Muslim woman at the Divinity School, a Baha’i woman, and myself. It was an interesting question. I chose the small group and that is where I met the Bahai woman who introduced me to you, of course.

WRR: I have always been interested in your own work as a practicing Sufi, which has involved years of practice and study. Could you elaborate on that?

I had been practicing Hatha Yoga once a week and was feeling the benefits of a meditative approach to life. Around that time, two poet friends, who had read Jalaloddin Rumi, asked if I had heard of the Sufis. From that time on, I was interested in finding out about these…mystics…the Sufis. I first met an American Sufi teacher in Boston–Murshid Samuel L. Lewis (Sufi Ahmed Murshad)¬¬¬¬–who was giving a few classes on his way back to San Francisco. To me, this slight, gray-haired man seemed to have more inner strength than anyone I had ever met before.

Through him I learned the seemingly simple practice of walking in rhythm with one’s own breathing–with a 4/4 rhythm; 4 steps as you breath in and 4 steps as you breath out. (hash b-dam, hash b-dam, hash b-dam). He said that one could walk long distances without tiring. This can be done for instance, when swinging one’s steps to the natural rhythm of the breath. His rich legacy in the walks has stayed with me to this day.

I remember that even at the age of 29, when Murshid S.A.M. was 74, I could just barely keep up with his pace walking across Central Park. The essence of his work, had been (and continues to be), a combination of learning about the inner life and (I’d say struggling with) certain aspects of living. What I’m in the process of absorbing and integrating from what I’ve learned is that this is the everyday process of growing. And since I’m still living, I’m still learning.

WRR: Whom did Murshid S.A.M study with?

Murshid S.A.M’s primary/initial Sufi teacher was Hazrat Inayat Khan and it was through Murshid S.A.M. that I learned about the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan with whom he had taken Sufi initiation. Later, and after Murshid S.A.M. passed on, I met Pir Vilayat Khan who was the eldest son of Inayat Khan and the head of the Sufi Order International. It was with Pir Vilayat that I took Sufi initiation in the early 1970’s.

WRR: A Sufi Initiation being...

An Initiation, or bayt in Sufi terms, can be described as an inner link between teacher and student which connects the student with the inner living stream of transmission through the teacher’s teacher back through time, and it connects here on earth and in the hereafter.

In the words of Hazrat Inayat Khan, this link “is more delicate than a thin thread and at the same time much stronger than steel wire.”

The step I took in initiation deepened the process I had already begun. An example of this relationship is: Jalaloddin Rumi with his beloved teacher Shams. I then further deepened my training by attending seminars and retreats and by teaching local classes along with certain daily practices.

What has continued to draw me to the teachings and to this path is the heart’s longing…a feeling in the center of the chest that is yearning for a connection with the Divine Presence. And during or through these processes and in many different and surprising ways, that “cup of my heart’s yearning” is filled.

Hazrat Inayat Kahn

I remember in the earlier days of my training, I had heard Pir Vilayat mention at seminars and often at retreats, about the light of the soul. I thought, “That’s nice; I wonder what he’s talking about.”

He would liken the soul’s light to pre-dawn light reflected on a pristine snowy landscape high up on a mountain. The experience of that type of light occurred to me after I had taken several individually guided retreats. The seeker unveils and then veils the soul (descends down the mountain of consciousness) into the physical plane of existence.

Now, in my everyday life, if I would want to have a way of beginning to consciously re-connect with that aspect of the soul’s light, as in meditation for instance, and then when I allow that to inform a particular aspect of my life, it would be a familiar journey.

Photo by Todd Adams

WRR: The idea of the soul’s light being akin to the pre-dawn light found on a snowy mountaintop is beautiful and I think it makes for a wonderful analogy. When I viewed the picture of Pir Vilayat’s meditation room in his home in France, I noticed that the room was still glowing with an abundance of his light. To me this is the perfect evidence of what he was talking about. It is a reminder of how our corporeal body is only a simple garment for the real essence or kernel within. But you have also experienced what Pir Vilayat has called, “alchemical retreats”…

Yes, on a particular seven-day individual nature retreat something else occurred where, after feeling strongly the vibration of the electromagnetic field of the body…I was able to ‘feel’ the nature of that light. This was what Pir Vilayat referred to as “alchemical retreats” in which one moved in phases to unveil the soul. This is what the alchemists called “the minor mysteries.”

WRR: Pir Vilayat Khan was truly a remarkable person who was endowed with an enormous spiritual capacity and a talent for inspiring those around him. His father, Hazrat Inayat Khan was a well-known performer in India. When we met, you discussed some of the ways in which Hazrat Inayat Khan had taken certain vibrations or frequencies and used those frequencies to get to a higher level of consciousness in meditation; and that Pir Vilayat seemed to follow that same pattern in his teachings.

Yes, Pir Vilayat’s father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was the founder of our order. And while being a devout Muslim, he was also a master of classical Indian music–a highly unusual occurrence. He sang and played the vina, and was highly praised throughout India. Pir Vilayat Khan was his elder son and was born in London. He studied cello and loved to play the instrument, but because of his schedule did not have time to practice as much as he would have liked.

Pir Vilayat offered the many levels of himself around the world, often traveling to give seminars and meditation camps in different countries, throughout Europe, the United States, and India. In traveling, he was, in a way, carrying forward a mode of teaching begun by his father. Inayat Khan’s Muslim family had mastered Indian music, his Sufi teacher, Abu Hashim Madani Chishti, had asked on his deathbed for Inayat to carry the message of Sufism to the West in order to harmonize East and West. Through his gift of music, Inayat Khan once said, he was traveling to different countries to tune the note of each country.

WRR: So sound, or vibration, plays an important role in his teachings…

The teachings of Inayat Khan on music and the mysticism of sound resonate throughout his work. He often describes them using ancient Hindu terminology. An understanding of sound, or sound as vibration, is a primary energy behind all of creation:

“The Life Absolute from which has sprung all that is felt, seen, and perceived, and into which all again merges in time, is a silent, motionless and eternal life which among the Sufis is called Zat. Every motion that springs forth from this silent life is a vibration and a creator of vibrations. Within one vibration are created many vibrations…

The mineral, vegetable, animal, and human kingdoms are the gradual changes of vibrations, and the vibrations of each plane differ from one another in their weight, breadth, length, color, effect, sound, and rhythm. A human being is not only formed of vibrations, but s/he lives and moves in them; they surround him as the fish is surrounded by water, and s/he contains them within him/her as the tank contains water.” (Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Mysticism of Sound, Vol.II, The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan, p. 13.)

Becoming more conscious of sound and one’s own participation in making sound is, for Inayat Khan, part of the cultivation of the traveler on the Sufi Path, for: Harmony is the source of manifestation, the cause of its existence, and the medium between God and man (Ibid p.23).

For example, Inayat Khan speaks of the value of cultivating one’s natural voice in speech or song, as being a way of communicating the energy of one’s spirit. He encourages developing awareness by asking this question: Are the tone, pitch, and rhythm of one’s voice appropriate to each situation?

Inayat Khan also speaks of the effects of music:

What is wonderful about music is that it helps man to concentrate or meditate independently of thought; and therefore music seems to be the bridge over the gulf between form and the formless. (p. 151, bottom.)

Pir Vilayat often used music and sound in his teaching. He even played parts of Bach’s B-minor mass and said that in his younger years, he listened to a recording of it over and over again to heal his heart from the loss of someone dear to him.

WRR: Pir Vilayat had a keen interest in not only providing a forum for representatives of all religions to meet and try to understand each other’s sensibilities - known as the Congress of Religions (an event he held each spring near Paris) - but he also sought to unite spiritual teachers with scientists. To that end, he held many seminars and meditation camps over the years both in the United States and in the Swiss Alps. His camps were always attended by hundreds of people, so he had a very wide spiritual appeal.

Indeed he was very inspiring as I experienced in his seminars and retreats. These were profoundly meaningful times for me. Generally, my time with Pir Vilayat was as part of these group events. Yet in the earlier days, when he was younger, he made opportunities for students to share moments of everyday life with him…Once, during a seminar in Cambridge, a group of us were going to lunch at a restaurant with him. He was already there with one or two others when I arrived. But, he looked at me and said, “If you ever want a Sufi name, your name would be Azimat. Every time I look at you I see ecstasy.”

WRR: I know exactly what he meant when he said that as I have noticed the very same thing in you! Did Pir Vilayat Khan and Annemarie ever have a chance to meet?

Yes. In 1991 he came to Boston to give a seminar. I was surprised when he asked me if I thought he might attend one of Annemarie Schimmel’s classes with me. I believe he said that he had met her in London at a conference on Sufism that he had heard about her lectures for years, and would like to experience one.

She agreed, and we attended her class on The History of Sufism. She was outside of the classroom sitting on a bench when we arrived. They greeted each other in what appeared to be bows, and they may even have exchanged a few words. She gave her lecture in the usual way, with closed eyes, speaking without notes. Afterward, outside the classroom they had another brief exchange. When we departed, Pir Vilayat commented that, yes her unique lecture style was just as he had he heard.

But, there is another way in which Annemarie’s work connects with the Sufi Order International. Pir-Zia Inayat Khan, Pir Vilayat’s elder son, who became the head of the order after Pir Vilayat died, has recently received his doctorate from Duke University in the history of religions with a focus on Sufism. His advisor was Prof. Carl W. Ernst, who received his doctorate at Harvard, having studied with Annemarie.

Pir-Zia Inayat Kahn

WRR: Things do have a way of coming full circle, don’t they?

I remember the last time I saw Pir Vilayat before he died on June 17, 2004. Those of us in the Sufi Order International knew he had challenges with his health, and I decided to follow his request that I go to Europe to see him.

At his residence, Fazil Manzil or “home of blessing,” in Suresnes, France, the home in which he had grown up, numbers of initiates from Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world gathered.

Even though he walked to his seat very slowly, with two crutches, once he got settled to talk and lead a meditation, his energy was transformed. He was even more energetic than his usual high-energetic self. I remember he began by saying something like - even though my body is a wreck, I’ve learned to transform pain into joy. For me, the light in his being and in his eyes was brighter than ever. In that visit, I glimpsed a spiritual model - a human who embodied one way to meet difficulties. And I received that for which I had come…one last glance from my dear Pir Vilayat.

WRR: I am curious to know, did you feel that you had a spiritual calling as a child?

As a child growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, I don’t remember having a feeling of a spiritual calling. I had come to pray to God each night on my own. I am not sure how this happened. Perhaps my mother pointed me in that direction. She was raised by a devout Czech Catholic mother who had an intimate relationship with God (the God to whom I prayed was someone who cared about people and the world and was someone I could talk to). My usual prayer back then went something like this: “Dear God, please take care of my mother and father, my brother...” and I then extended it to other family members and to other individuals as I got older.

Although my parents did not attend church, they felt it was important that my brother and I attend one. When I was four, he and I began attending a Presbyterian Sunday school. Later, my mother told me they selected that Sunday school because it was considered to be very good. At five and a half, I missed my ride home. My parents worried that I could get lost, so they enrolled us in a closer church, which was Lutheran. So I was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran Church. I also have early childhood memories of my father (who was an architect) talking about the Greek Philosophers, the Buddha, and even Zoroaster. I remember feeling respectful of them all. Throughout my childhood, when discussions of religion came up, my father would say that my brother and I could be anything we wanted when we grew up, but that we would be brought up in a tradition that was broad and open to other points of view.

WRR: This is exactly how Annemarie was raised. In her memoirs she gratefully acknowledges how flexible and open-minded her parents were, and how she is sure this made a difference in the way she grew to view the world. As you know, we first met in one of Annemarie’s classes. Was your first introduction to Annemarie at Harvard, or were you aware of her work in Sufism prior to that time?

From the time I became involved in Sufism in the early 1970’s, it felt as if I had always known Annemarie Schimmel. The seminars of my Sufi teacher, Pir Vilayat Khan, may have first introduced me to her. But later I was reminded of her again through a growing number of friends familiar with Sufism. It is as if her person and her work were embedded in a substratum of knowledge shared by the people I encountered as I moved along the path.

This feeling is similar to one that I experienced in a meditation guided by Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. In that meditation, people were guided to take the point of view of a lotus blossom floating on the surface of a pond. From this view, one’s long stem reaches down…down into the cool, deep mud at the bottom of the pond. Later, as one becomes aware of one’s own roots, one finds that the roots actually spread, touching the roots of other lotus plants. Finally, the student, a meditator, comes to the realization that his/her individual roots are connected by a vast intermeshing network to which all the individual lotus plants in the pond are also connected. In a similar way, my life on the Sufi path has been nourished before I met Annemarie – by a kind of inter-meshing, living matrix energized by her living. Therefore, she is really the substrate of my life in Sufism. My life was and continues to be informed by Annemarie Schimmel’s life and work.

WRR: There is an old Arabic saying: Kullum Sha’abun Wahid, or “We are all one people,” which I have in Arabic on a small, rectangular magnet, bearing a picture of the world on it. Now I too will think of the stem of the lotus floating on the pond, its roots gently moving below the surface, swaying this way and that, each ripple affecting another part of the pond. And in that brief moment, I will imagine the fingertips of all humankind touching.

Give me a ney so I can sing…
For singing is the essence of being.
For long after the world ceases to exist,
The sounds of the world remains.

Photo by Todd Adams

Credits and Useful Links:

1) Sufi Order International website, (among other things), contains an archive of the recent web cast’s of Pir-Zia, in which he is presenting material toward building a new mythology for the world.

2) Allahudin's Website for Cold Mountain Music along with his books, etc.

3) The Ruhaniat website: (Murshid S.A.M.'s lineage including teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan) - Contains a list of the lineage of Hazrat Inayat Khan; and follows on with Murshid S.A.M who has a particular lineage of his own from connecting with other Sufi orders, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.

For information on Mysticism of Sound & Music course offerings, please contact Suluk Academy at 518-794-7834, extension 128, or email