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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Professor Annemarie Schimmel - khaled ahmed

Obituary: Professor Annemarie Schimmel

'Pakistan didn't even wait for me to die'

Khaled Ahmed

The road along the Lahore canal, from the Mall to Jail Road, was named
after Goethe; but the road across the canal was dedicated to
Annemarrie Schimmel. The twin roads are a befitting symbol of
Pakistan's special relationship with Germany created by Pakistan's
national poet during his academic sojourn there in the beginning of
the 20th century. Schimmel used to say laughingly: "Pakistan didn't
even wait for me to die before naming a road after me"

The first disciple of Rumi in our times was Allama Iqbal. In his
Persian magnum opus "Javidnamah", Rumi was his Virgil. Annemarie
Schimmel, the greatest living authority on Islamic culture and
civilisation who passed away yesterday, loved Iqbal and Rumi with
equal intensity. When she came to Lahore in 1996 to deliver a lecture
on "Islam and the West" at the Goethe Institut, she was hardly in her
room at Hotel Avari for 10 minutes when the phone bell rang and
someone requested her for a meeting. She said she was booked for every
hour of the day until June 1997, which included her Iqbal Lecture in

She had delivered a lecture on Rahman Baba in Peshawar in Pashtu,
which, together with Sindhi, she thought more difficult than her first
love, Turkish. (Linguists are agreed that Turkish is one of the most
difficult languages to learn.) She loved Sindh, admired its
intellectuals, tolerant culture, and its great poet Shah Abdul Latif
on whom she wrote a book. She remembered fondly Sindh's foremost
intellectual, Allama I.I. Kazi and his disciple Pir Hisamuddin Rashdi,
and visited the Makli tombs many times. Sitting in a cafe in Bonn
once, journalist Tony Rosini told me in a whisper that she wanted to
be buried at Makli.

In 1982, she had requested the government of Pakistan to name a road
after Goethe, the German national poet that Iqbal admired, on the
occasion of his 150th birth anniversary. But Pakistan went one better.
The road along the Lahore canal, from the Mall to Jail Road, was named
after Goethe; but the road across the canal was dedicated to
Annemarrie Schimmel. The twin roads are a befitting symbol of
Pakistan's special relationship with Germany created by Pakistan's
national poet during his academic sojourn there in the beginning of
the 20th century. Schimmel used to say laughingly: "Pakistan didn't
even wait for me to die". She was in her mid eighties, in good health,
with a mind whose clarity was astounding.

She was recognised by the Islamic world for her knowledge of Islamic
civilisation. When she went to Egypt lecturing in Arabic about
classical Arab poetry, she was received by President Hosni Mubarak.
She lectured in Yemen, Syria and Morocco, talking about a heritage
that most Arabs have forgotten. In Tunis, she introduced the
revivalist thought of Allama Iqbal; in Teheran, she spoke in Persian
about the love of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in Rumi, disabusing today's
revolutionary Islamists of the misconceptions made current about the
great Sufis of the past. She was in Uzbekistan talking to the Uzbeks
about their great Muslim heritage. "If an Uzbek speaks slowly I can
understand him, and I can answer in Osmanli", she used to say.

Her first love was Pakistan and Pakistan responded to her in equal
measure. She fondly remembered the Governor of the State Bank of
Pakistan, Mumtaz Hassan, the great teacher of philosophy M.M. Sharif,
the historian S.M. Ikram, the scholar Khalifa Abdul Hakim and Pir
Hisamuddin Rashdi, who welcomed her again and again to Pakistan when
she was young. She recalled her Urdu lecture on Iqbal in Government
College Lahore in 1963 on the invitation of Bazm-e-Iqbal. Befittingly,
Allama Iqbal's son, Dr Javid Iqbal, is a devotee who often visited her
at her residence on Lennestrasse in Bonn. When national awards were
set up, she received the highest of them, Hilal-e-Imtiaz and

She was so completely at ease with her subject that she hardly
realised that she was working so hard, teaching at Bonn University
since 1961, and at Harvard University since 1970. The Islamic world
did not ignore her work. She received the First Class Award for Art
and Science from Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak, and a Gold Medal
from Turkey for her services to Turkish cultural heritage. Austria
gave her the prestigious Hammar-Purgstall prize; Los Angeles had given
her the Della Vida award for Excellence in Islamic Studies; Germany
bestowed upon her the famous Ruecart Medal and Voss Medal for
Translation; and the Union of German Publishers recently gave her
their highest Peace Prize which she treasured. There are many other
German awards that celebrated her work in the promotion of
understanding between religions.

Annemarrie Schimmel was born in Erfurt, a town that fell to East
Germany after the Second World War, in the family of a civil servant
who greatly loved poetry and philosophy. She recalled reading the
German classics at home, including the poetry of Rilke. Her interest
in the Orient grew out of the classical trend of treating oriental
themes in German poetry and drama. When she was seven, the parents
already knew she was a special child on whom normal laws of upbringing
couldn't be applied. At 15, she was able to get hold of a teacher of
Arabic who had a taste in Arabic classical poetry. Her second love was
Turkish which she learned before she went to the university. Her
subject led her to Persian, which she learned enough to be smitten by
the poetry of Rumi.

She regretted that she didn't learn English well (sic!) since she was
busy passing two classes in a term. (She was an extremely articulate
speaker in English.) One is not surprised that when she finally
finished her doctorate, she was only 19, a German record at a time
when women were not encouraged in higher learning. (She once remarked
that the bias still existed because she was not given a chair at the
University of Bonn.) The topic of her PhD dissertation was "Position
of Caliph and Qazi in Mameluke Egypt". She recalled that her father
was killed four days before the war came to an end, and while she
studied, she had to do six months of forced labour and work six days a
week in a factory. After the war, she went to West Germany,
interpreting and translating in Turkish for the Foreign Office and
working on her thesis for teaching. Marburg University took her in as
a professor of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, history of Islamic art and
religion after her graduation when she was only 23!

In 1949, she did another PhD in history of religions and went to
Sweden to pursue theological and oriental studies for two months. In
1952, she was able to travel in Turkey, keen to visit Konia where her
"murshid" Jalaluddin Rumi lay buried. She said that Konia was a sleepy
little town where the genius of Rumi was easily invoked. In 1953, she
was again at Ankara University lecturing on Islamic art and religion
in Turkish. The university offered her, a non-Muslim, the chair of
history of religion and she stayed there for five years, writing her
books in Turkish, including a Turkish version of Allama Iqbal's

She had written hundreds of books and papers as far apart in subject
matter as the mystery of numbers in Arabic, Arabic Names and Persian
Sufi poet Qurat-ul-Ain Tahira whom she called the first Muslim
feminist. Her first book to be known in Pakistan was "Gabriel's Wing"
but it was published in Holland and was not properly distributed in
Pakistan. It is surprising that Pakistani publishers have not tried to
get the publishing rights of her great books like "Islam in the Indian
Subcontinent" printed 20 years ago, and others like "Deciphering the
Science of God" and "Mystery of Numbers" and "Gifford Lectures on
Islam". She translated hundreds of Islamic classics, as is manifest
from the awards she received.

Her work in German will probably take a long time in reaching the
international audience (for instance her beautifully produced work on
imagery in Persian poetry) but what she published in English is lying
with such obscure publishers in Europe and the United States that it
has no way of reaching the Pakistani market. She remained a recluse in
matters of publishing; her publishers seldom wrote to her because of
bad marketing. "I don't care that I haven't made money from my books;
I have enough to live on", she used to say thoughtfully. Her house in
Lennestrasse was full of rare manuscripts on Islam but she gradually
began to give them away to institutions, like Bonn University, as she
thought they would take care of them and make good use of them.

Annemarrie Schimmel was not into the politics of orientology as most
of us who are busy thinking about civilisational conflict are inclined
to think. While she considered Edward Said's critique of Western
orientalism justified, she believed it was misapplied to German and
Russian orientology. Her interest in Islam sprang from her great
reverence for its intellectual and spiritual genius. She was a
"practising" scholar who admired Massignon and was deeply involved in
the philosophical aspects of the religion of Islam. She believed that
Iqbal was the only Muslim genius who responded intellectually to
Goethe's "West-Eastern Divan". She was the only western intellectual
who responded to the true spirit of Islam. Her poems in German and
English were published in two volumes and proved that her interest was
not merely restricted to bloodless research. She was of no use to
those who study a religion only to find fault with it. She has passed
away but her work on and love for Islam will continue to illuminate
the true path. *


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