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 Annemarie Schimmel

by Katherine Schimmel Baki



Dr. William A. Graham

My first introduction to Dr. Graham came many years ago through Annemarie who proudly introduced him to me as a treasured friend and fellow scholar of Islam and religious studies. At the time of our first meeting I was unaware of any of the details of his scholarly life and was only impressed by what I could easily judge at the time — he had an all encompassing warmth and grace that was hard to forget. Years later I would be reminded again of these qualities but this time it would be through the animated voices of his graduate students who would always carry a look of high admiration mixed with a deep affection whenever they spoke of him. If you know Dr. Graham though, it is easy to understand why he has the heart and respect of the academic community he so passionately serves.

I have often felt that it is not only a university’s ability to attract and keep great scholars that determines its institutional fate but it is also how those scholars relate to the overall student population that ultimately determines the success of all three. Dr. Graham is one of those rare scholars who has not only had a profound impact on the lives of his students but has also found the time to foster the growth of key departments within the university in a multitude of meaningful ways. After receiving his Ph.D. in Comparative History and Islamic Studies in 1973 he joined the Harvard faculty and has spent his entire academic career at Harvard demonstrating a tireless enthusiasm to every aspect of his field.

In addition to publishing some very significant works in the area of religious studies (his book, Divine Word and Prophetic Word in Early Islam (1977) won the History of Religions Prize (1978), awarded by the American Council of Learned Societies) and keeping up with a teaching schedule that includes core undergraduate classes and graduate seminars, he has also held multiple academic posts in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, such as Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion, Director of the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Chair of the Council on Graduate Studies in Religion for the United States and Canada, and Dean of the Harvard Divinity School, positions which all require a high degree of leadership skill coupled with vast amounts of time. Nonetheless, when I approached him to do this interview he was all too willing to participate and it was once again made clear just how generous of spirit he is and how much he valued his friendship with Annemarie.

WRR: Dr. Graham, I first want to thank you for taking time out from your very busy schedule as you agree to be interviewed on your own personal recollections of your dear friend and colleague, Dr. Annemarie Schimmel. You have not only had a very long and distinguished professional career at Harvard, spanning more than three decades, but you also know Harvard from the more intimate perspective of being a long-time graduate student as you received your Masters and PhD there as well. How did you first learn of Annemarie and the work she was doing and what were the events surrounding your first encounter with her?

I first met Annemarie when she came to Harvard to lecture (and, as I learned later, to discuss coming here permanently on a new appointment) in the Spring term of 1966-67. I was not even studying Islam at that time, but Sanskrit and Indian Studies. She was giving a lecture on Muhammad Iqbal over at the Cronkite Graduate Center at Radcliffe, and I went to hear her, as I was reading some Iqbal in translation at the time for a seminar in History of Religion with Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Annemarie spoke of Iqbal in even more glowing terms than in her book, Gabriel’s Wing, which I was reading at the time, and I was struck by her seemingly infinite capacity for total recall of anything she had ever read. This was an impression that I had many, many times thereafter, for as long as I knew her.

WRR: As you know, Annemarie had an almost otherworldly ability to translate grammatically complex texts into many different languages, all the while fully capturing the spiritual essence of that text. Her favorite Sufi poet/spiritual master to translate and write about, of course, was Jalaluddin Rumi. If I am correct, she would have been about seventeen when she was at the University of Berlin and it was through her highly regarded teacher, Hans Heinrich Schaeder, that she was first led to study Rumi’s Divan. I have often thought that she fell madly in love with his poetry because of two powerful elements he incorporated, great humor and passion. He had a wonderful way of making linguistic puns or plays on words which are really quite clever, and he was a highly lyrical writer (not unlike herself) whose absolute devotion to his beloved led him to write what would become some of the most cherished Sufi poetry of all time. What do you believe it was about Rumi’s poetry that grabbed hold of the heart of seventeen-year-old Annemarie and never let go?

I rather think that you have captured one likely explanation better than I could, but I would say that the combination of Rumi’s capacity for lyric beauty in his verse and a vast command of the sources of Muslim tradition and faith were likely highly attractive for Annemarie, who herself had the soul of a poet and mystic and the encyclopaedic knowledge of an incredibly widely read scholar.

WRR: Over the course of your relationship with Annemarie, what personality traits stick out in your mind as being the greatest determinants of her outstanding career?

One was certainly her amazing capacity for fascination with religious and aesthetic sensibilities. Another was her aforementioned encyclopaedic learning and seemingly photographic memory. Still another, related to both of the foregoing, was her remarkable ability to master diverse languages, especially their vocabularies. She never spoke foreign languages with native fluency (Turkish is probably an exception to this; you need to ask native speakers who knew her), but her command of massive vocabularies in every language she read, spoke, or wrote, was daunting to anyone who worked with her very long.

Finally, she had an almost inexhaustible curiosity about other people of all types and an incredible ability to spend hours socializing and discussing a vast range of topics: intellectual, artistic, or religious. I must say that sports and other mundane physical pursuits never interested her at all, so far as I know, but she simply operated at a cruising altitude that was far above most mortal’s day-to-day concerns. What redeemed her from abstraction was of course her love of cats and good food.

WRR: Looking back upon on her many contributions to the field of Indo-Muslim studies it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of her academic output. I can’t help but wonder sometimes how different everything would have been had Wilfred Cantwell Smith not convinced her to accept the Minute-Rice chair at Harvard in 1967. In your opinion, how did she shape the very departments you later came to chair?


Annemarie Schimmel

Annemarie was so utterly sui generis among colleagues that she was rarely involved in shaping departmental policy matters or even appointments. But she did do Harvard a great good deed when she, so far as I know, pushed to get Wolfhart Heinrichs considered for a vacant senior Arabist’s position in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations; he has been our senior Arabic literature specialist and a wonderful colleague for over twenty-five years, and he is now the Jewett Professor of Arabic here. Probably our most versatile linguist in the same department, Professor Wheeler Thackston (whose early retirement last month we have just celebrated), was a student of Annemarie’s, and his presence for over thirty years as our Persian literature specialist and teacher of Persian, Arabic, Kurdish, many of the Turkic languages of Central Asia, and almost anything else a student wanted to try in NELC, has been a huge factor in the strength of NELC, particularly as a graduate training ground in Islamic languages and cultures.

Equally important in many ways was her mentoring of our colleague, Professor Ali Asani, who began to work with Annemarie as an undergraduate in the College in the mid seventies and who went on to follow in her footsteps in the study of Indo-Muslim literature, religion, and culture; he is still teaching here today as our Urdu, Sindhi, and general Indo-Muslim specialist. While Annemarie during her long tenure at Harvard shaped the training of many other students now teaching around the world in a variety of Islamics fields, I think that it has been through the aforementioned scholars that she has had her greatest influence on the shape of Harvard’s Islamic studies programs over the past three decades.

WRR: As you know, Annemarie had a wonderful, almost child-like sense of humor. Do you have any stories to share with us regarding this aspect of her personality?

Annemarie was a person blessed with strong opinions as well as great learning. She got considerable pleasure, I think, in making sometimes barbed, but generally good-humored comments about the amazing array of people she came into contact with all the time. She also had strong feelings about places and institutions and a kind of love-hate relationship with many of them. She could regale you with her stories of being, as she put it modestly, “ein Wunderkind” as a child in pre-War Germany and a university student and lecturer in Germany during and after the War. She had amusing stories about everyone with whom she had worked. She loved to poke fun at Harvard’s eccentricities or shortcomings.

Her love-hate relationship with the Harvard Faculty Club was summed up in her conviction that if you ate there, you were almost certain to be served “the Harvard cow,” her term for the rare beef she found off putting in portion, size, and bloodiness. I always felt her mother had an even better sense of humor than did Annemarie, but Annemarie was never at a loss to coin a funny phrase or characterization of the eccentricities that she found all around her wherever she went. She loved and respected Wilfred Smith as a scholar, but she could not get over his abstemiousness and what she considered excessive piety, and she often commented on both.

Most of us suspected that her occasional characterization of some blossoming young talent in Islamic studies in Europe as “one of my B+ students” was also something she applied to all of us who had studied with her at some time. She had high standards, but she could joke about them, too, in herself and in others. But her humor was never uncomplex, unless it was involved with her beloved limericks, where she became almost childlike in her glee over a well-turned nonsense rhyme in a good limerick.

WRR: And her teaching style?

The only word I have for it is “einmalig” — truly unique. In lecturing, which she did in any class other than a reading course in texts, she would close her eyes and (as her students liked to say) “read off the back of her eyelids” for fifty minutes. Her apparent nearly total recall of whatever she had read extended to poetry and prose, as well as the birth and death dates (if known) of every Muslim saint or personality who ever lived, not to mention thousands of persons and events from Western, Indian, and other histories as well.

She could recite from memory massive numbers of lines from poets and scriptures. Doing a reading course, as I did in Sufi texts along with Wheeler Thackston in my first year of work in Islamics after going abroad in 1967 for a year of intensive Arabic, was something you never forgot: her ability to cite five or ten loci classici for any technical term you were having trouble with in Sarraj, Qushairi, or some other mystical text was simply amazing. She could draw indifferently from Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, Sindhi, or other Muslim mystical-text corpora to explain anything that came up. And her wide reading outside of religion in Ibn Khaldun or Mamluk historians or Turkish modernists was also always to hand when she needed it. Her style was an old-fashioned one pedagogically, but for those who spent time in her classrooms, they could never forget the experience of being exposed to avalanches of information and opinions.

Critical analysis was not her favorite thing; she preferred aesthetic evocation and appreciation, careful linguistic translation and explanation, and literary, calligraphic, or musical imagery as the stuff of contemplation. To work with her through the reservoir of unidentified Arabic calligraphic specimens in the bowels of Harvard’s Fine Arts library and museum was to delight with her in discovery, recognition, and recovery of things that she had long since made her own. Because she was as much a citizen of the Islamic world of every century and most regional cultures since the time of the Prophet as she was a citizen of the modern Western world of Europe or the U.S., she was at home in a hundred places, and she could make her students see that this might be possible in some more limited way for them as well.

WRR: I don’t want to close this discussion without touching on some of your own very significant work in the field. Your research interests have focused on early Islamic religious history as well as the textual traditions and problems in the history of world religions. You have been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards and have had the rare opportunity to hold multiple posts at the university such as Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages (1997-2002), Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard (1987-1990), Director of the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies (1990-1996), Chair of the Council on Graduate Studies in Religion for the United States and Canada, and currently Dean of the Harvard Divinity School. Forgive me if I’ve missed anything.

You have somehow managed to find the time to serve as head tutor in the Study of Religion, to be the Allston Burr Senior Tutor in Winthrop House, Chair of the Core Curriculum Committee on Foreign Cultures and along with your wife Barbara, to be co-Master of Currier House, a post you both held for twelve years. Despite the enormous demands on your time you have not neglected to find the time to teach, mentor students, and actively to publish impressive scholarly works, many of which have become invaluable resources in the field today. Was there a particular moment in your life when you suddenly knew that you wanted to do what you are doing, devoting your life to educating and mentoring others? Or was your foray into academia more of a gradual awakening, something you never could have predicted to turn out the way it did, evolving slowly over time?

I did not expect to speak about myself, especially not in tandem with someone as special and unusual as Annemarie Schimmel. I literally stumbled into the fields in which I have eventually worked primarily: first into the history of religion, when I could not find a history program in comparative cultural studies and entered the Harvard PhD program in comparative religion instead, having never taken a religion course; then second, when I interrupted these studies begun as a student of Sanskrit and Indian religion to take a special opportunity to study Arabic intensively in the Middle East, which led me to the study of Islam.

I knew from my junior year in college, I think, that I wanted to devote my life to college teaching; the “oriental” interests came later, after five years of Western literary and historical studies. I have always had an interest in a variety of fields and never felt that I could claim to be a full specialist in any one area, even within Islamic studies. That has been both the strength and weakness of my work, I am sure. But through it all, I have enjoyed immensely the teaching and mentoring of so many wonderful students, the friendship, stimulation, and support of great colleagues, and the opportunities to think about academic policy, practice, and yes, even administration (for our educational institutions and formal structures, as much as we scholars like to disparage them, have great capacity to make possible the work we do as scholars and teachers).

WRR: Your book, Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion, (1987) has become an invaluable source in the field of religious studies and touches on an area that I find particularly compelling and relevant to understanding the Middle East today.

I think that you will agree that the concept of sacred space is very different from East to West and that the Adhan, or Islamic call to prayer, is a perfect example of not only a living sacred text but also of how a civilization with roots steeped in a strong oral tradition differs markedly from one that is not. You will find for instance that throughout the Middle East sacred space may be found virtually anywhere, by the side of the road, in a field, in the quiet corner of a restaurant. Ordinary space becomes sacred space five times a day, or by the number of times the adhan is broadcast from minaret to minaret. Thus in Islam, physical space is deemed worthy of prayer by the purity of the believer’s intention and is where he or she happens to be standing when the call to prayer is heard. The momentary suspension of time and even space may be observed as Muslims from all walks of life stop what they are doing to kneel on the ground and pray in unison.

It is a remarkable phenomenon and it is a great example I think of how ritual prayer, acted out communally, becomes a powerful socio-religious unifying force. This is something that is pretty much outside of the Western religious experience where the closet equivalent would be the ringing of the church bell to call the congregation to prayer. I am wondering then if it is possible to truly understand Islam both as a religion and as a cultural force without fully understanding the impact of this sacred oral dynamic.

Obviously, I expect, for anyone who has read any of my work on the oral dimensions of the Qur’an in Muslim life knows I feel that Islamic practice, faith, and culture have been strongly imprinted with and inspired by the pervading presence of the recited scripture of the Qur’an and the huge tradition of oral learning and transmission of knowledge. However, I have to say that what is so evident in Islam in this regard is also present historically in virtually every religious tradition.

In the modern world we have lost, or are losing, much of the oral traditions of reading, memorization, worship, meditation, and the like that have largely characterized religious and even cultural life over most of human history in most, if not all, human societies. In this regard, Islam is only perhaps a limited case for something that has been characteristic of human beings and their societies in every cultural and religious tradition. Similarly, we have lost or are increasingly losing, a sensibility to sacrality of particular places in the modern world, and this is a loss not only for Muslims but also for most other persons.

WRR: As you are already aware, we are a nation that has witnessed many changes to our own religious landscape over the last fifty years or so. As more and more immigrants have chosen to call America home and raise their children here, we are now a nation full of second and third generation immigrants who bring with them various religious beliefs and practices.

It would seem that through this country’s introduction to other non-western religions as evidenced by an increasingly diverse student body at schools and universities, we are all getting a chance to discover the true meaning of religious pluralism. However, despite America’s nod toward religions of non-western parts of the world, there are still many challenges and questions facing us as a nation in the years ahead if we truly want to embrace a more pluralistic view. With this in mind, what do you identify as being the greatest challenges we face in the next 100 years as “one nation under God?”

I think our greatest challenge is developing and sustaining the capacity to be both citizens of a secular, non-sectarian, and pluralistic republic and also persons of individual faith (of many different kinds) who are tolerant of others’ faith and respectful of others’ sincerely and goodwill. It is the intolerance of religious zealotry, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or whatever, that threatens our ability to sustain the remarkable separation of religion and state that has characterized this country and, I believe, made it as successful an experiment in democracy and freedom as it has been, whatever its shortcomings and failures along the way.

WRR: Annemarie felt very strongly about the biased treatment of Islam in Western scholarly circles and tried very hard to illuminate the underlying “kernel” of truth to all who were interested. If you had the power to change one aspect of the Western perception of Islam what would it be?

For me it would be the assumption that Islam is inherently a violent religious tradition in which no distinction is made between religion and politics and in which militant jihad is a central ideal. This is a fundamentally warped reading of the thinking of the majority of Muslims today and of the history of Islamic societies over the past 1400 years. Sadly, secular and religious extremists in the Muslim-majority world have seized most of the bandwidth of public discourse and the media, while the vast majority of more moderate Muslims are not able to make their voices heard.

Western support for tyrannical governments in the 20th century Islamic world has driven many people into the arms of the extremists who identify the West with oppression of the Muslims and claim to be offering a way to return to a truer Islamic practice and politics that can provide some hope for a better future. These are not good times in the Islamic world, and our own country has done little but provide aid and support to both the tyrants and the extremists by our poverty of intelligent and principled policies in the Muslim-majority world.