The Mystic Pen

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

Hosted by Katherine Schimmel Baki 

The Mystic Pen

by Katherine Schimmel Baki

Lecture 3


 Dr. Carol Armstrong ©

 “I am the tree and you are its branches”
John 15-5

I climb onto the long, narrow leather seat filled with the heady anticipation that comes with being a young, unrestrained child in the back seat of my father’s lean, shiny, four-door sedan. On this particular day, we are headed to Cambridge to a moderate-sized apartment geographically situated to take ideal advantage of both the Charles River and Harvard Square. It is a cheerful place…at least in the spring, which is when we tend to visit.

To reach our destination, I have a thirty-minute ride to look forward to. And as the car weaves in and out of various narrow roads full of more bumps and divots than any car or passenger should have to endure in a well funded part of town, my father passes the time by giving me a short lesson in the history of Cambridge. As he launches into a delightful monologue on the various buildings, roads and the unique architectural details of some of Cambridge’s finest, I slip into a blissful reverie. For I love hearing him speak, and take great pleasure in the gentle rise and fall of his voice, and the sense of security that his voice brings to me on this warm, sunny day.

Today we are picking up Annemarie to take her to Sunday dinner at our house. It is an event that I always look forward to. For we all know, her departure will come all too soon and will be announced much like winter is. Only instead of the customary flocks of birds which band together in the coolness of a late fall sky, her departure will be marked by the predictable flurry of boxes, suitcases and degrees, and the cheerful voices of students making their way off campus toward home, or somewhere else, punctuated by the distant roar of a 747 lifting off Logan’s runway.

Dr. Carol Armstrong©

If summer began when Annemarie left for Germany, spring began when Annemarie came to Harvard each and every year. Her unique schedule of only teaching during the mildest semester of the year was due to a special arrangement she had worked out with the university’s administration prior to her being hired in the late 1960s.

It was a very favorable deal, for she was formally relieved of having to teach for the rest of the year. I have heard that an exception was made for her because she was very vocal about her thorough dislike of Cambridge in the winter. This is especially true when talking about Massachusetts Avenue, a busy thoroughfare which cuts through the heart of Harvard Square and which she had to cross at least twice a day in order to get on and off campus. Crossing over Mass Ave, as it is often called, was likened in her view, to that of hell. She made this point on numerous occasions to anyone who happened to bring the name of the avenue up.

And so the story goes that she had refused to teach at Harvard when offered a position unless some kind of arrangement could be worked out so that she could avoid ‘hell in the winter-time.’ Eager to have her as a professor in their burgeoning department of Near Eastern Studies, the university made the exception, allowing her to come for the spring semester and then leave for the rest of the year where she would continue to teach in Germany and spend the rest of time traveling the world.

Perhaps it is because of this unusual arrangement that I have come to associate springtime with Annemarie and Annemarie with spring. Along with the fact that I enrolled in the last courses she ever taught at Harvard, fragrant, but bittersweet, spring is forever etched into the very mantle of my being. But perhaps it is mainly due to the fact that her birthday falls in April, and that as a small child I had come to associate it with her happy visits to our home and the gaily colored eggs that Easter brings to a small, wide-eyed child.

“Meow,” she candidly greets me after sidling into the car and settling in.

“Meow,” I reply, amused by her playful demeanor and eager to reconnect with her again. She senses my anticipation almost immediately and out of the corner of her pale blue eyes, stares in my general direction without turning her head by the slightest of degrees. “Come here little kitty cat and let me see you,” she softly muses, as I inch closer to her until I am able to press my cheek firmly against hers in a sign of what can only be described as extreme affection.

She returns my gesture by pressing her cheek against mine, letting me feel the warmth of her face. And then, without removing her cheek from mine she emits a long series of purrs. Just like a cat. This is how we always greeted one another. And I have never greeted anyone in the same way since.

Mihrimah Cami, Istanbul

In this beautiful gem of a lecture that follows, we are once again transported into another realm while being introduced to the important role of trees, gardens, and animals in Islamic religious and cultural thought. But her message is, as always, central, as she manages to highlight its historical relevance and bring to light a level of sensitivity that is, I suppose on some level, divinely inspired.

Once again I am deeply indebted to Dr. Carol Armstrong whose photos and thoughts are equally compelling, to Richard Grant whose work I featured in the previous Mystic Pen, and to Phoenix Ancient Art (, whose outstanding collection of Near Eastern art reminds me of all that is beautiful in this world…to humankind’s eternal quest to be understood and its pressing need to express itself down through the ages. For the current lecture they have kindly provided two wonderful images of Islamic art objects that currently reside in their gallery, and which underscore the central message of Annemarie’s lecture, illustrating so beautifully the importance of gardens and animals in the everyday life of a Muslim. I hope you enjoy.


Dr. Carol Armstrong©


“And this brings us to something that is very characteristic of the Islamic world view, everything, according to the Qur’an, is praising the lord”

We spoke a little bit at the end about the concept of the tree...being from ancient Near Eastern times onward the real representation of the power of life. The tree of life is an old concept known from Babylonia and from the Bible and it is not surprising that this concept should have continued into the Islamic tradition. The Qur’an knows the good word as a good tree and many of the thinkers in the Islamic world have configured the whole world to a tree or also the human being to a tree.

There is a whole work by Ibn ‘Arabi, the great Sufi, about the Shajarat al-kone, about the tree of existence, and there is also the technical term, which is very typical, ‘the shajara’ that is the tree of continuation, the tree of decadency in a Sufi order. And when you have ever been in a Sufi bargha, they show you perhaps the shajara of the master, which really looks like an enormous tree branching out–coming from the Prophet–then branching out into the various groups and the various family members and so representing the living tree of the tradition.

‘The plane tree with its leaves that look like hands because they are five pointed, is often seen as lifting its hands in prayer just as if it were a human being.’

The power of life that is found in the tree is, of course, also inherited by the thought of the tree, and you know from various traditions that it is often customary to take twigs of branches of the tree to beat someone–not for evil purposes–but rather to convey the power of life that is inherent in these parts. For instance, in the carnival sessions in ancient Rome and also in Christianity in the Catholic area this has been done as much as it was during the processions in Cairo when the pilgrims went out to Mecca. It is a very interesting kind of survival of an extremely old belief in the fertility-granting power of the tree.

Vancouver Redwood sprouting new growth, Cleo Schimmel

We could, of course, dwell here upon the use of various trees in the imagery of Islamic poetry, the cypress tree, slim and beautiful, always appears as a symbol of the slim and beautiful beloved. The Senobar, the pine tree, stands for powerful people and the plane tree with its leaves that look like hands because they are five-pointed, is often seen as lifting its hands in prayer just as if it were a human being. And this brings us to something that is very characteristic of the Islamic world view, everything, according to the Qur’an, is praising the lord and is imploring his help and so the plane tree, with its hands stretched out and open, is just one model of the constant adoration, the constant worship in which everything created is involved. And these ideas have been elaborated by poets and mystics alike, and thus the whole of nature is seen as being in the service of God. Just like the earth bows down, prostrates itself humbly before Him, thus trees and plants are also involved in this constant adoration and also in imploring God's help.


Mosque Lantern with Blue and Red inlay Mamluk, (Syrian or Egyptian) Mosque lantern, 13th-early 14th Century, 26 cm tall. Courtesy of Phoenix Ancient Art [1]

“The garden is an earthly replica of Paradise…”

That brings us to the whole concept of gardens and plants. The garden is an earthly replica of the paradise as much as we can see paradise as the spiritualization of the garden of which the Muslims were so fond. When you live in an area that is arid, in which every trace of green is greeted as a sign of life, then one understands why the concept of the garden with some water in it plays such an enormous role in the Muslim civilization.

And there were Muslim dynasties such as the Ikhshidid dynasty (Egyptian, 935 - 969) and others who were particularly fond in building up gardens. And the great centers of Islamic civilization–whether it was in Spain, in Cordova, or in Delhi, in Argra in India, or in medieval Egypt or in Shiraz in Iran–they all boasted large gardens and the rulers could not do enough to embellish these gardens, which were indeed reminiscent of paradise. And thus, whenever you read a Persian spring poem in which all of nature is involved in praising god by its own silent voice, then you always have before you a small image of paradise for which the believers hoped.

Richard Grant©


“It was said that when the Prophet performed his heavenly journey, his Miraj from Mecca into the immediate presence of God, he was sweating, and the drops of his perspiration that fell down on earth became roses. And hence every rose carries the beautiful fragrance of the Prophet and is therefore loved by the believers.”

It is very natural that several plants are carrying a special sanctity and special power. One is a wild root which is used against the evil eye…At some later point we have also plants, which are connected in some legendary way with the Prophet of Islam. In Afghanistan we find a flower that’s called paganbagwardu, ‘the flower of the Prophet,’ because it has five sides as if it were imprints of his finger, as though he had touched it and sanctified it.

It is, of course, no doubt that among all the flowers that are mentioned in folklore and in high culture, the rose is the one that plays the greatest role in Islam as it does in other religions. The rose–thanks to its beauty and fragrance–has often served to represent the divine beauty. And there is a tradition, according to which the Prophet, whenever he saw a red rose, he would kiss it and would put it on his eyes seeing the red rose as a sign of God’s glory.

Because, as we shall see later – red, radiant red - is the color of God’s ‘cloak of glory,’ the Rida’ Kibryat. This is one explanation why the rose is so dear to Muslim thinkers and poets and mystics. The other explanation is more fanciful, but has permeated especially poetry in the eastern Islamic lands to an enormous extent. It was said that when the Prophet performed his heavenly journey, his Miraj from Mecca, into the immediate presence of God, he was sweating, and the drops of his perspiration that fell down on earth became roses. And hence every rose carries the beautiful fragrance of the Prophet and is therefore loved by the believers. This is a lovely etiological legend and as I said it has permeated poetry to a very large extent.

Every other flower in the garden could be seen in some religious connection. The violet for instance, wearing a dark blue purple garment as it were, and as a very modest flower is often seen as an ascetic who sits modestly with his head lowered on the green prayer rug, namely the lawn. And the tulip in its red garment can be seen either as a beautiful and coquettish human being, or else (especially in the popular tradition of Iran and Turkey) as wearing a blood-stained cloak, the tulip can become, as Elaine (Indecipherable) has called it, the “fleur du France–the flower of suffering,” because it is so steeped in blood as if it had performed his (The Prophet’s) ablution with its own blood or had been killed in the battlefield.

Every poet in the Muslim world has interpreted the flower either in the traditional way or in his own way, and thus for Muhammad Iqbal the Indo-Pakistan poet philosopher of our century, the tulip is a representation of the flame of Sinai, which appeared to Moses in the middle of the desert and so it is his favorite flower the flower of the revelation of God’s greatness.

The lily can become a sword, the very sharp edges of its petal remind the believer of a miraculous sword or else it is seen as praising God with ten tongues in silent adoration. And it is this idea of the silent adoration of all flowers and all trees, which has been uttered time and again by the great poets of the East.

It is absolutely logical that this idea should have grown out of the Qur’anic verses in which the prayer of the plant and everything created is described and when you try to understand some of the Islamic mentality, then you have to keep in mind that this silent adoration is one of the great and most important aspects of the life of piety. It is comparatively easy, as you can well understand, to see all these beautiful aspects in flowers and plants and trees because representing the power of life and being beautiful, in any case, it was easy to deal with them.


Lynx Incense burner Stylized cast bronze incense burner, in the shape of a feline lion or lynx. Islamic, 11th Century AD . 27cmx27cm. Courtesy of Phoenix Ancient Art [2]

“…This is something that always happens in the history of religion, that the sacred and the taboo, the prohibited, finally change place.”

It is a little bit different when we come to the animal world because in quite a number of cases we really cannot see the origin of the veneration or the aversion to an animal. In many cases–in primitive–in so-called primitive societies, the animal was a totem tier, which was connected to a clan and had a very special relationship with these people. This is certainly not the case among the Arabs. But, in Central Asian Turkish people we find this idea of the totem animal and the great wolf or the bear or the steer and their roles in Turkish culture remained certainly important at least in Turkish nomenclature. And the grey wolf has played a great role in Turkish mythology into our century.

The other way of dealing with animals is that in the history of religion. We often have the change of an object that was sacred in and to a previous religion, being considered unclean and polluted by the following religion that vanquished the previous one. We have this case, for instance in Germany, where the horse, especially the white horse, was sacred to the old Germans, while Christianity prohibited the eating of horse meat as something reminiscent of pagan cults.

The most famous case in this respect is that of the pig. We all know that the Qur’an distinctively prohibits the eating of pork and modernists have often claimed that this is just for hygienic reasons because the meat is often dangerous and not very healthy to eat. This is a modern, rational explanation, which may have some true aspects to it. But the real reason for the prohibition of pork in the Semitic world is the fact that in North Canaan, the boar was a sacred animal and when the revelation of Judaism came, the boar was declared to be unholy, dangerous and not to be touched. This is something that always happens in the history of religion, that the sacred and the taboo, the prohibited, finally change place. The aversion to pork went over to Islam, and probably without many being aware of the real roots of it.

But, we have also to remember that the boars of the Middle East are certainly very unpleasant animals to look at. And often when I think of the prohibition of pork I remember the old villager who came to Ankara where in our zoo we had one wild boar. It was an extremely ugly, enormous creature, and I still see this old man standing there in front of the cage, and saying, “Praise be to God who has prohibited us to eat such ugly creatures.” (Gales of laughter fill the classroom!)

And I think his expression told much about what the normal simple believer feels when looking at the animal. And it is a problem in our times, when so many Muslim families come to the West, especially to the Anglo-Saxon countries when their children in kindergarten, or school, learn so many nursery rhymes about three little piggies and things like that. How shall they react to this kind of cultural shock? For it is a cultural shock for the parents when their children learn this kind (of thing), and learn that little piggies are delightful little creatures. It seems like a minor problem, but it shows you that even in these minor problems, the acculturation of a Muslim immigrant can face some very unexpected problems.

Lions and Cats…

Annemarie and cat Annemarie as a small child, Erfurt, Germany.

And great saints have often been called ‘golden lions in the thicket of this world’ or similar things.

Among the other animals, it is natural that the lion plays a great role as the representation of power, of strength, of glory, and it is not in vain that ‘Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet was called ‘Haydar’, the lion, an old Arabic name, and then received the epithets, the assadullah, ‘the lion of god’ and many of the surnames of ‘Ali, which you read in the literature like, Qazanfar, all mean in Arabic, lion. Just as in Persian and in Turkish, he is often called with names connected with Aslan, the lion. And great saints have often been called golden lions in the thicket of this world or similar things.

The little sister, or according to Islamic legend, the aunt of the lion is the cat, and Islam is probably the religion in which the cat plays–at least on a theoretical level–an extremely important role, because the Prophet himself was fond of cats and contrary to the dog, the cat is a pure animal. And if a cat touches the water for ablution, or drinks from it, the water can still be used for ablution. And when a cat passes between praying Muslims, then it still does not hinder the ritual prayer because as I said it’s pure, and the pure nature of the cat is one of the important aspects of Islamic culture.

Of course, here too, as in so many other things, we have the ambivalence of the animal and there are certainly as many stories about the cat as a pious aesthetic who at the first possible moment breaks all his vows and devours the mice to whom he has told all kinds of pious stories. The lion cat, the fraudulent cat, there’s a common place in the oriental folklore, especially in Iran, and numberless stories are told about the way, how she performed the prayer and how she counts her prayer beads just in order to cheat the poor little mice.

But, nevertheless, the fact that she is a pure animal and the Prophet has put his hand on her, thanking her for her help, has given birth to many, many legends. And when you see a cat, most of them have four black lines or dark lines on their foreheads, then you should know that those are imprints of the Prophet’s hand when he patted the cat of his friend Abu Hurayrah. And when you are aware that a cat never falls on its back, then it comes only because the Prophet petted the cat’s back, which will never be hurt by this miracle.

Thus, cats play a remarkable role in Islamic folklore, the most interesting aspect is perhaps a Sufi order, a beggars’ order, rather, in North Africa–the Hadaawa-a very strange group of Mandekans–in the high Atlas and in other parts of Morocco, who have a regular cat cult. For them, the cat is a kind of totem animal. They live with the cats; the cats are treated exactly like human beings. They learn how to beg for the Mandekans, and when they die, they are buried exactly like one of the Sufis themselves.

However, once a year, something happens that is reminiscent of the old totemic custom. Some cats are grabbed and torn to pieces and eaten just as in primitive and olden times when the people would once in awhile eat their totem animal in order to incorporate its power into themselves.

The Hadaawa are to my knowledge, the only group in Islam in which such a survival of ancient ideas can be found, so it is worthy of mention that here we have leftovers of old totemic ideas.


Contrary to the cat, which is clean and pure and does not defile the water, ablution, or the praying people, the dog is much less accepted. It is…

To be continued…



Image of mask©

[1]For a wonderful description of the Mamluk mosque lantern please go to:

[2] For further reading on the Bronze incense burner please go to:

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