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Professor Schimmel will always be missed !
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Obituary: Professor Annemarie Schimmel
Pakistan didn’t even wait for me to die
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
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
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. *
News and Views of Muslims in the United Kingdom
Subj: [ShamsiClan] The sad news !
Date: 1/29/03 7:14:27 AM Eastern Standard Time
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Aoun Shamsi)
Reply-to: <A HREF="mailto:email@example.com">
From: Annie Shamsi [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Wednesday, January 29, 2003 11:22 AM
To: Aoun Shamsi
Subject: Professor Annemarie Schimmel
I was truly saddened to learn of the passing away of Professor Annemarie
Schimmel. There are so few remaining great figures as her whose work
confidently spans such a range of domains. I remember meeting her about
five years ago. She had arrived in London as the guest of a prominent
Urdu literary organisation. Although frail at the time, she managed to
deliver a remarkable and inspiring lecture. I was introduced to her
afterwards and remember being unable to say anything of substance as I
stood in awe of this great lady. However she was a lovely character, I
became entirely comfortable as we chatted. And it was amazing to me that
after all I had read of her, she was also a down to earth, friendly and
approachable human being. May God bless her soul. Amen.
Here is one of her many translations of Rumi's poems:
"We worship Thee!" -- that is the garden's prayer
in winter time.
"We ask Thy help!" -- that is its cry then
in time of spring.
"We worship Thee" -- that means: I come to beg,
Don't leave me in this sorrow, Lord, make wide
the door of joy!
"We ask Thee, Lord, for help" -- that is, the fullness
of ripe, sweet fruit.
Now break my branches and my twigs -- protect me,
My Lord, My God!
(Diwan-i Shams-i Tabrizi, 2046)
-- from : "Rumi's World" *--
"The Life and Work of the Great Sufi Poet"
By Annemarie Schimmel,
Shambhala Dragon Editions, Boston, 2001