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 (1922-2003)

by Katherine Schimmel Abdel Baki

I walk
And the blood of my feet
Transforms the stones into roses.
I walk
And the tears of my eyes
Water the desert shrubs,
Everyday the same sun,
scorching, merciless, white,
And at nightfall the wind, cutting my heart and my hope.

I walk out of myself
and the desert is you.
the paths are throbbing like veins,
and tenderly touches my hand
your skin, soft as sand.

I wander through you,
drinking the salty water that flows from your eyes,
sleeping at night in your arms
when you cover my weary limbs with your garment of stars.
And I am
one with the beats of your heart,
one with your breath, with the wind.

— Annemarie Schimmel

As a young child I hardly knew anything about the scholarly life of my father’s second cousin, Annemarie Schimmel, related to him by a shared gene pool from his German father’s side and continuing on down the line to my sister and then finally on to me. All I knew was that she was one of the world’s leading scholars of Indo-Muslim culture, an area to which I had not been exposed as a child growing up in what was then a much more homogeneous and somewhat sleepy suburb of Boston.

 

Annemarie Schimmel

My aunt Annemarie was my first introduction to non-Western parts of the world, and, as such, my sister and I were always fascinated by stories of her travels to far away lands and exotic cultures. That she never forgot to bring us miniature museum-worthy treasures from hidden corners of the world only further endeared her to us children and stoked our imagination about people who spoke Arabic, Turkish, or Urdu and worshipped a merciful god called Allah. The mere fact that she had published more books and manuscripts than I could count, was fluent in almost as many languages (if you count the Indian dialects) as there are hours in the day and had more doctorate degrees (seven in total) than one might encounter in an entire Near Eastern Studies department hardly seemed as surprising as it should have.

 

Dr. Annemarie Schimmel with Cousin, Dr. Paul Schimmel.
Photo taken in Germany

We were not even startled when we once learned of the time that my father had stumbled upon a forgotten manuscript of an unpublished book she had written. When asked about the manuscript, she mildly quipped, “Why, I had completely forgotten that I had written that.” We were amused, but not surprised, for such stories were not uncommon amongst those who knew her. Through the eyes of a child, she was the aunt with the desert-dry humor, who came to visit in winter and left in summer, whose idea of hell was “crossing Mass Avenue in Harvard Square” (I came to appreciate this later when I moved Cambridge), and who often thrilled us by spontaneously meowing in our ears just like a cat.

Her life’s work on the great Sufi poet-philosopher, Maulana Jalaloddin Rumi (1207-1273), whose mausoleum she visited often in Konya, Turkey, along with her enormous contributions to the study of Islam and in particular the more mystical, elusive aspects of that religion, stayed well outside my grasp until many years later when I pursued a graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies and therefore had the chance to take some of her courses at Harvard before she retired in 1992. It was within this context that I could witness first-hand what all the fuss was about. She lived and breathed her subject to such an extraordinary degree, that her razor sharp intellect became as legendary as her highly unique lecturing style.

I can still remember the first lecture I attended. With eyes closed, both hands clasped tightly around her stylish handbag, she delivered the entire one hour lecture before a packed hall, never pausing even once to search for a word, to check the time or to even glance around to see who was attending. Not a single cough, clearing of the throat or whispering between neighboring students could be heard. The whole class was sitting upright and on the edge of the wooden chairs, as if no one could afford to miss a single word she said. At precisely the appointed hour, her eyes suddenly opened and she ended her talk by exiting the room just as quietly as she had entered. The room instantly filled with animated chatter and students suddenly seemed transported into a higher realm. It is not an experience that one can forget.

 
Her work and travels spanned three continents and generated enough scholarly manuscripts and debates to fill a small reading room at a university library. The underlying message of her life’s work was always the same: the Western world needed to be gently awakened toward a greater understanding and appreciation of what she considered to be a wrongly tainted and poorly understood religion. “I think that all of you who have worked in the history of religion would be aware that Islam is usually treated rather badly or briefly because most historians of religion and most people in general think it rather a primitive religion with very little interest. But I think if you approach it from a different angle, it can yield highly interesting results,” is how she began her first lecture of her Harvard class on “The Phenomenology of Islam.” In her view Islam was not to be studied as some strange or awkwardly dangling curiosity in the pristine field of religious studies but was instead to be approached by the Western scholar with the utmost of care and purest of intention. Like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), whom she often quoted, she too had a strong belief that poetry could bridge the gap between cultures and pave the way for a more tolerant and harmonious world view.

I have thought that the long, sometimes difficult, path that she followed throughout her life was similar to the Sufi path of perfection in which suffering, solitude, and hard work combined with a passionate love for the Divine are always present and necessary in order to get to the next spiritual level. This is especially true in Annemarie’s case if one considers the political and economic atmosphere of her early, formative years. Post-war Germany was experiencing an increasingly grim political situation. The periods 1922-1923 marked a time of civil unrest and general nervousness as unchecked inflation ballooned into catastrophic hyperinflation, ultimately leading to the sharp decline and worthlessness of the German mark. As Europe and much of the world watched, Germany reeled. But despite the dire economic situation in 1920’s Germany, we now know the worst was yet to come.

 
Born on April 7th, 1922, in the enchanting central German town of Erfurt, Annemarie Brigitte Schimmel was the only child of older, highly cultured, middle class class parents who showered her with endless amounts of love and immersed her fully in great literature and foreign languages at a very early age. Her father Paul, who had a genuine interest in religious mystical literature, would read to her in classical French and German, while her mother’s side of the family recounted tale after tale of their adventures on the high seas between Germany, Cape Horn, and India. Annemarie later recalled that those early stories of such exotic places fueled her interest for that part of the world, encouraging an already intense interest in other cultures.

I have always known that my aunt was an unusually gifted learner and that her gift was evident to all those who knew her from very early on. It was remarkable that at the age of seven she chose to spend her time correcting what she believed to be spelling mistakes in a 19th Century book of (old German) fairy tales, whose tale of “Padmanaba and Hasan” had come to fascinate her. And later, she skipped two grades in secondary school, began her studies at the University of Berlin in 1939 at the age of seventeen, graduated with a doctorate in 1941 with a dissertation on late medieval Egypt, and then proceeded to earn a second doctorate by the time she was twenty-three. Over the course of her lifetime, she received numerous honorary degrees as her world recognition grew. Perhaps the greatest indication of her future success though lay in her driving thirst for learning coupled with a photographic memory and a highly intuitive grasp of the subtle complexities of the subjects she studied.

 
Who knew at that time that a little girl’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge would eventually lead to her winning the highly prestigious Peace Prize of the German Book-Trade Association? This prize was given in acknowledgement for her lifetime contributions towards promoting greater understanding between East and West, thus achieving the ultimate expression of one of her favorite Rückert sayings, “Weltpoesie ist Weltversohnung,” or “global poetry alone is leading to the reconciliation of worlds,” a saying to which she referred during her Peace Prize speech before the President of Germany in 1995. Who knew that a few years earlier she would be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (strangely, the same year as her cousin Dr. Paul Schimmel was) and would also become the first female president of the International Association of the Study of Religion?

Even Annemarie herself could not have predicted all the twists and turns in her path toward greater knowledge and enlightenment. The five years she spent in Turkey studying, teaching, writing, and delighting in the “jasmine musk” that permeated the air after a long hard rain, only helped her to understand fully the essence of the mystic soul and just how magical a place Rumi’s Konya must have been. Could she have known that a fascination with Urdu and the hauntingly beautiful writings of Pakistan’s own divinely inspired poet and Indo-Muslim thinker, Mohammad Iqbal, would eventually inspire her to take more than thirty trips there and that each trip would bring her so much happiness as she explored its diverse countryside, absorbed its culture, and visited old friends?

 
Nor could she have predicted that her journey into a poet’s soul through his writings, his people, and his land would somehow lead to her receiving the country’s highest civil distinction, the Hilal-e-Imtiyaz, and result in her having a boulevard named after her in Lahore. It was through her understanding of Pakistani culture and her gifted Urdu translations that she would be offered the Ozai-Dhuranni Minute-Rice chair at Harvard in 1965, a chair which she initially declined to accept as she greatly underestimated her own capabilities. Therefore, it only seems natural that a few years before her death she would achieve the, “ultimate dream of all historians of religion” when she would be asked to give the famous Gifford Lectures on Religion.

But her foray into university life and academia was anything but uneventful. As we unveil her life’s story in the upcoming months, through the voices of her close colleagues and friends, we will hopefully arrive at a better understanding of one of the last century’s great scholars and of the continuing legacy she left behind.