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Professor Schimmel will always be missed !
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part5
Annemarie Schimmel Award for championing a Muslim cause
that you may come to know one another.
Annemarie Schimmel, Professor of Indo-Muslim Culture at Harvard University,
has enough honorary degrees, awards and publications (at least five, twenty
six and eighty respectively) to keep an entire faculty going. But few people
outside the cosseted walls of academia had heard of her until she spoke out
against Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.
Millions of Muslims, precious few of them academics of any distinction, had
debated, argued, and protested that the book, published in 1989, was a highly
offensive slur on the religion of Islam. But the bastions of Western
liberalism, the media, the arts and the seats of learning, were adamant that
freedom of expression was paramount, and that responsibility of expression
was a secondary consideration. And then the talented historian and
polylingual Professor Schimmel, entered the debate.
By doing so, by insisting that Muslims (not just a few, but the entire body
of Islam and its beloved Prophet, in particular) were the victims of a
carefully devised piece of literature, Professor Schimmel effectively took on
the establishment. Her position, based on years of expertise in Islamic
literature and history (she is an authority on Rumi and translated part of
Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddima into German), was authoritative and unwavering. She
challenged many misconceptions of Islam as well as broaching greater
understanding between Muslims and Christians.
Muslims, for political reasons, or for financial or family considerations,
are often reluctant to assert their faith. Too few of us put our reputation
on the line for issues our non-Muslim peers may consider to be subjective,
personal and outdated. Which is why when a Muslim cause is defended or
championed, the rest of the world sits up and takes note, our sense of
self-worth is restored, and we resolve to try harder.
The Muslim News
Islam and the West
Penang (Malaysia), 9 October 1995/K/JC/14961c-is
At an international workshop on "Images of Islam: Terrorizing the Truth," the
President of the International Progress Organization, Dr. Hans Koechler,
presented the campaign against Professor Annemarie Schimmel as a typical case
of the anti-Islamic bias of important sectors of Western Society. In his
presentation to the workshop, Professor Koechler focused on the historical
causes of stereotypes of Islam in Europe and on the West's tendency to create
a new "enemy stereotype" after the vanishing of the Soviet threat.
The participants of the workshop unanimously adopted a declaration of
solidarity with Professor Annemarie Schimmel. The statement commends the
German President, the German Book Trade, sections of the German media, and
some German intellectuals for standing by Professor Schimmel, and urges them
not to submit to the demand of anti-Schimmel protesters. To surrender to
those forces in German and Western society "would be a defeat for all those
groups and individuals who are committed to the promotion of healthier and
more harmonious relations between Western and Muslim societies."
The workshop concluded its deliberations earlier today with the adoption of a
programme of action in the fields of education and information. Fifty
journalists, University professors and political personalities from 15
countries participated in the workshop which was organized by Just World
Trust (Penang/Malaysia) under the direction of Dr. Chandra Muzaffar.
Among the participants and signatories of the declaration are Mr. Amien Rais,
Indonesian opposition leader, Professors of the Universities of Harvard and
Princeton (USA), former US Congressman Paul Findley, the Middle East
correspondent of the Neue Züricher Zeitung, Mr. Viktor Kocher, and leading
intellectuals and University Professors from Europe and the Muslim World.
Annemarie Schimmel's Acceptance Speech
" Honourable assembly, Your Honour Mr. President. I am very grateful for the
guiding speech by which you honoured me and in which you emphasised so
strongly the importance of tolerance and of understanding foreign
civilisations, which are indispensable to our foreign politics. When I learnt
to my great surprise and joy that I had been awarded the Peace Prize, nobody
would have imagined that during the following months a campaign would unfold
- a campaign of such force that it seemed to destroy my life's work, which
was and is devoted to a better understanding between East and West.2 This
hurt me to the very core of my heart and mind, and I hope that those who
attacked me without even knowing me in person or having read my works will
never have to undergo a torture like that.
I learnt one thing: the methods and ways of scholarship and poetry are one
thing, those of journalism and politics something else. Both sides however
agree on one point: that is the central role of the word, the free word, in
......I will help in my own way to defend the freedom of speech, of the
word. In the 1950s my Pakistani poet friend Fez wrote from prison;
"Speak! for your lips are still free,
speak! for your tongue is still yours,
speak! your straight body is still yours,
speak! for your life is still yours,
See, how in the Blacksmith's forge
the flames are sharp, the iron is red,
The locks' mouth begin to open,
every rind in the chain becomes wide!
Speak a little time is plenty
before body's and tongues's death.
Speak truth is still alive,
speak out whatever is to be said."
And this leads me to the very subject of my address. Sometimes I thought: if
Friedrich Ruckert (1788-1866) were still alive he would certainly deserve the
Peace Prize, as his motto was: "Weltpoesie (global poetry) alone is
Weltversohnung (leading to the reconciliation of worlds)". During his
lifetime, he produced thousands of masterly poetical translations from dozens
of languages and knew that poetry, "the mother tongue of the human race",
connects people as it is part of all civilisations.
But in the period when Ruckert spoke of poetry as the medium of global
reconciliation, and that means, of peace, people had a different relationship
with the non-Western world from what we have now. Amazed and shocked, the
West had observed in the 8th and 9th centuries the Muslim conquest of the
Mediterranean, but thanks to the Arabs who ruled Andalusia for centuries, it
has also inherited the foundations of modern science; medical works by Rhazes
and Avicenna were considered standard works in Europe to the beginning of
modern times; the writings of Averroes played a role in theological
discussions and prepared the way towards the Enlightenment. The translations
of Toledo, where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived peacefully together, made
Arab learning the poetry of the West. The Catelan scholar Ramon Lull, again,
taught the mutual respect of religions which, in his opinion, should end not
only in discussion but lead to a common enterprise - that is to foster peace.
After the siege of Vienna by the Turks in 1529, bloody dramas about the Turks
were part and parcel of a widespread anti-Turkish, and that meant
anti-Islamic literature, but at the same time, Europe came to know another
aspect of the East thanks to objective reports by travellers and merchants.
The first French translation of the Arabian Nights at the beginning of the
10th century showed the West an oriental world of fairies, jinnies and
sensual attractions which inspired generations of poets, painters, and
musicians; at the same time Arabic and Islamic studies as well as Indology
gained an independent status among the sciences thanks to the Enlightenment.
Scholarly studies and translations triggered off a current of orientalising
poetry, which was headed by Goethe, whose West-Oestrlicher Divan with its
"notes and dissertations" is an unsurpassed analysis of Islamic culture.
But when Ruckert published his first poems inspired by Persian poetry in 1820
(one year after Goethe's Divan) people listened to the tales "when far away
in Turkey people fight each other" (as Goethe says in Faust).
As for us, we are not only informed day after day of news events but rather
are entangled by the mass media to watch pictures of the Muslim world, to
which we owe so much. This culture appears strange and alien to most
Europeans, and is constantly blamed because it seems to have no reformation,
no Enlightenment, and is therefore considered "incapable of changing" as
Jacob Burckhardt claimed a century ago with a deadly aversion. But do not
most people know that the Islamic world between Indonesia and West Africa
presents us with most diverse culture expressions, although it has the common
basis in the firm belief in the One and Unique God and the acceptance of
Muhammad as the last Prophet? To look at the Islamic world as something
monolithic is as if we would overlook in the West the difference between
Greek orthodox Christianity and North American Freechurches. But in times
where we are constantly flooded with condensed, brief information, it seems
next to impossible to differentiate, and to recognise the softer shades and
positive aspects of Islam as it is lived.
"Man is the enemy of what he does not know." says the Greek as well as the
Arabic proverb. Maulana Rumi, the great mystical poet of the 13th century,
tells in his Persian prose work that a little boy complained to his mother of
a black figure that appears time and again to frighten him; finally the
mother advises him to address the terrible apparition, as one can recognise
someone's character by his answer. For the word, as Persian poets like to
repeat, discloses the speaker's character by its "smell", just as an almond
cake stuffed with garlic discloses its true character although it may
outwardly look quite appetising.
"A good word is like a good tree." Thus says the Quran, and in most religions
the word is regarded as the creative power; it is the carrier of revelation:
God's word incarnate in Christianity, or His word inlibrate in Islam. The
word is a good entrusted to man, which he should preserve and which he must
not weaken, falsify, or kill by talking too much. For it has a power of its
own which we cannot gauge, it is this power of the word upon which rests the
extraordinary responsibility of the poet and even more of the translator who
by a single wrong nuance can cause dangerous misunderstandings.
The ancient Arabs believed that the poets' words were like arrows, and even
in the Gulf War the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain used poets to propagate his
will to victory. The power of poetry is much greater in the Islamic world
than with us; we are touched by music, the Muslim mostly by the sound of
I have discovered Istanbul corner by corner through the verses which Turkish
poets had sung for five centuries about this wonderful city; I have learnt to
love the culture of Pakistan through the songs that resound in all of its
provinces, and when one of my Harvard students had the misfortune to be among
the American hostages in Tehran, he experienced a great change in his
jailers' attitude when he recited Persian poetry; here, suddenly, a common
idiom emerged and helped to bridge deep ideological differences.
I agree with Herder's words: "It is from poetry that we gain a deeper
knowledge of times and nations than we do from the deceptive miserable way of
political and martial history."
The long dirges which Urdu poets in 19th century India wrote in memory of the
martyrdom of Hussain, the prophet's grandson, served at the same time to
criticise the British colonial power in coded words. We have to decode them
to understand their explosive political message.
For centuries poets have complained about exile and jail. It is sufficient to
mention the contemporary Iraqi poet al-Dayati:
"I dreamt, and separation,
oh beloved, was pain
for I am homeless
I die in a foreign town
die alone, oh my beloved,
without a fatherland."
Hermann Hesse, whose Morgenlandfahrt is well-known to all of us, said in his
Peace Prize speech in 1955: "It is not the poets' affair to accommodate to
any actual reality and to glorify it, but rather to show beyond it the
possibility of beauty, of love, and of peace." Did not the Lebanese poet
Adonis intend the same thing when he wrote during the horrors of the Lebanese
"Take a rose, spread it out as a pillow
after a little while
weakness will devour you
in murky dirt
heavy bombs will make you
after a little while
Take a rose and call it songs
and sing it for the world"
The later poetry of Islamic peoples is largely influenced by mysticism, but
one should not, as is usual, equate mysticism with obscurantism, with fleeing
from reality or as something that has no meaning for post-Enlightenment
people. Many of the great mystics were rebels against what they regarded as
injustice, against corrupt states, against hairsplitting jurists who, as the
great thinker Al-Ghazali in the 11th century wrote in his autobiography,
"knew the tiniest details of the divorce laws but knew nothing of God's
living presence". Such an attitude of mystics is found in all religious
traditions; in Christianity, male and female saints actively tried to change
the fate of their countries, and the same is true for the Chassidim in
Eastern Europe as we understand from Martin Buber's books. Because they
emphasised spiritual values, these people often came to criticise the society
intensely and became fighters for social justice.
The history of Islam contains numerous names of such mystics, whose lives
were devoted to the realisation of their love of God and mankind. The
greatest among them is al-Hallaj, who was executed in Baghdad in 922, in part
because of his daring religious claims but in part because of his political
activities. He remains a symbol for the Muslims to this day, hated by the
traditional orthodox, admired by those who regard him not only as the
representative of pure love of God but also as a fighter against the
establishment. His parable of the moth that casts itself in the flame to gain
new life through dying inspired Goethe's famous poem "Selige Sehnsucht". The
apotheosis of this "martyr of Divine love" whose name is conjured up by
progressive writers in all Islamic countries is a scene in Iqbal's Persian
epic, Javidname, where Hallaj warns the modern poets:
"You do exactly what I once did - beware!
You bring resurrection to the dead - beware!"
That is, resurrection from a fossilised world of legalism, and this is by
denying human responsibility but as a fulfilment of man's real role in the
world. Does not the Quran state that God has honoured humans by entrusting to
them a precious good (Sura 33:72)? Iqbal's, the spiritual father of Pakistan,
is perhaps the best example of a modern interpretation of Islam. His poetry
was on everyone's lips in India in the 1930s, for the largely illiterate
masses could be reached only by the poetical word which can be memorised
easily. Iqbal (whose works, incidentially are banned in Saudia Arabia) had
under the influence of Goethe and Rumi, tried to postulate a dynamic Islam;
he was aware that the human being is called on to improve God's earth in
cooperation with the Creator, and that one should exhaust the never-ending
possibilities of interpreting the Quran in order to survive changing
circumstances. But he also taught that one never should rely exclusively upon
intellect, as much as modern technology and progress can be admired and man
is called on to participate in it. In a central poem of his, "Message of the
East", his answer to Goethe's "Divan", he writes that science and love, that
is critical analysis and loving synthesis, must work together to create
positive values for the future.
This brings us to a point which appears increasingly important to me - this
is the problem of lovingly understanding foreign civilisations. Unfortunately
the word "understanding" seems to be equated today with an uncritical
acceptance and general forgiveness. Yet, true understanding grows from a
knowledge of historical facts and many people lack such a knowledge.
Spiritual and political situations however develop out of historical facts
which one has to know first before correctly judging a situation.
St. Augustine said "one understands something only as far as one loves it"
and our mediaeval theologians knew that "love is the intellect of the eye."
One can of course claim that such a love makes the lover blind, but I believe
that such a deep love also opens one's eyes, for we see all beloved beings'
sins and mistakes with much deeper grief then those of an unknown person. We
spent our lives in studying the world of Islam in its manifold facets and
tried to show its positive aspects to a public that has barely an idea of
this complex world. Therefore for us it is a much more terrible shock to
follow the developments that appeared in some parts of the Islamic world
during the last decades.
In a civilisation whose traditional greeting is Salam "Peace" (like the
Hebrew Shalom) we observe at the moment a horrifying narrowing and stiffening
of dogmatic and legalistic positions. At the beginning we believed that this
could be explained as an attempt to shut the floodgates against the
increasing influence of the West, in order to be such that the believers
follow the straight path shown by the Prophet Muhammad. Now, however it looks
different: in large areas we are confronted with sheer power politics, with
ideologies which utilise Islam more or less as a catchword, and have very
little in common with its religious foundations.
At least I have not discovered in the Quran or in the Traditions anything
that orders or allows terrorism or the taking of hostages. On the contrary,
the Golden Rule is valid everywhere in the world of Islam. No thinking
individual can appreciate acts of terror wherever they appear and in
whichever ideology they are rooted, and nobody would be happier than we,
whatever our special field of research may be, when death sentences or
imprisionment of persons of deviant opinions or critical thinkers would no
longer be pronounced. Many of the radical fundamentalists seem to forget that
the Quran says la ikhra fid-din "no compulsion in religion" and that the
Prophet warned against declaring anyone a kafir, an infidel. The
fundamentalists try to recruit followers among the unemployed, rootless youth
whom they supply with a few simple formulas to manipulate them easily. But
such a politically misused Islam is something completely different from lived
Islam; it is, as Tahe Ben Jalloun writes, a caricature of true Islam, "for it
stands for a political doctrine which was nonexistent until now in the
But the image of the West in the media of the different Islamic countries is
also often distorted, and we need to enlighten both sides. Strangely enough
even liberal Muslim intellectuals are but little aware of their own history
and the works that Muslims in other parts of the world have created; they are
most grateful when they are gently led to recognise the great traditions of
their own civilisations which nowadays often seem to be forgotten under a
crust of centuries-old developments and yet could help them find their own
way into a modern future that is genuinely their own. Gently, I said, and not
by lifting one's index finger like a teacher for that can result immediately
in a negative reaction to suspected "cultural colonialism".
I speak from experience after giving innumerable lectures during the last 40
years in different oriental countries. During those years that I, a young
non-Muslim woman, was occupying the chair of History of Religions in the new
faculty of Islamic theology in Ankara (at a time when there were barely any
chairs for women in German universities) I had also to teach `Church History
and Dogmatics'. And that was very important. For we usually forget the great
role Jesus, the "Spirit of God" and his mother play in the Quran and Muslim
piety. Once in a while we should remember a sentence which Novalis in his
novel "Heinrich von Ofterdingen" (published 1801) put in the mouth of the
imprisioned Saracen woman in Jerusalem: "Full of respect, our princes
honoured the tomb of your saint whom we too regard as a divine Prophet. How
beautiful would it have been if his sacred tomb had become the cradle of a
happy understanding and the reason for eternal beneficial alliances ..."
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam knew the ideal of eschatological peace where
lion and lamb lie together in the time of the just ruler. But peace is
nothing static. The UNESCO Declaration about "The role of religion in the
promotion of a culture of peace" (Dec. 1994) says: "Peace is a journey, a
never ending process." There is nothing that is not kept alive by the
principles of change and polarity; a heart that no longer beats is dead.
Peace too is a process of living growth which begins in each of us. The
Muslim mystics considered the constant struggle with their lower qualities
the real jihad: "the greater war in the way of God" and when their souls had
finally reached peace they were capable of working for peace in the world.
One may think that the picture of Islam which I offer is too idealistic, far
away from hard political realities, but as a historian of religion I learned
that one has to compare ideal with ideal. The Swedish Lutheran Bishop Tor
Andrae (d.1948) a leading Islamologist, wrote in his biography of Muhammad:
"A religious faith has the same right as every other spiritual movement to be
judged according to what it really intends and not according to how human
weakness and contemptibleness have stained this ideal".
My picture of Islam has emerged not only from a decades-long interest in
Islamic literature and art, but even more from the friendship with Muslims
all over the world and from all levels of the population, who accepted me
into their families and acquainted me with the poetry of their languages. I
owe them an enormous gratitude, a small part of which I want to acknowledge
today. People like Mevlude Genc, the Turkish woman in Solingen who forgave
those who caused the loss of many of her family members, are representatives
of that tolerant Islam which I have known for so many years. I am so grateful
to my parents who educated me in an atmosphere of religious freedom,
permeated by poetry, as well as to my teachers, colleagues and students each
of whom has expanded my horizons in his or her special way.
I am most grateful to the Borsenverein whose election committee had the
courage to elect me into the illustrious circle of the recipients of the
Peace Prize, although Ibn Khaldun, the great North African philosopher of
history in the 14th century says in the headline of one of his chapters that
"the scholar is one who among all people is least acquainted with the ways of
The scholar's duty is to explain cultures to himself and to others. Martin
Buber pointed out in this place in 1953 that the acceptance of the other is
the basis of dialogue. That is also true of the relations between the West
and the Islamic world, as much as Islam appears to be the enemy after the end
of the East-West conflict. Yet, like Buber, I still believe in true dialogue,
which, as he says, consists in the acceptance of the other as he is, for only
thus differences can be overcome - though not taken out completely - in a
This Peace Prize is an honour - which I had never dared dream of, and it will
be an incentive to continue and increase my efforts for a better
understanding between the Occident and the Orient as long as my strength will
last. The words which the President of the Federal Republic of Germany has
addressed to me will strengthen me on this path. But first and last I owe my
thanks to Him about whom Goethe says in his "West-Ostlicher Divan":
"The East belongs to God
The West belongs to God
north and southern lands
rest in the peace of His hands,
He, the sole just ruler,
intends the right things for every one,
Among His hundred names
- be this one glorified and praised
1. The above speech was delivered to an assembly of writers, publishers and
public officials, including the President of the Federal Republic of Germany,
Roman Herzog, on the occasion of the bestowal of the German Book Trade's
annual Peace Prize to Annemarie Schimmel. The speech was translated from
German and published in the London-based weekly, Q-News. JUST has reproduced
the speech with the kind permission of Q-News.
2. When the award of the Peace Prize to Schimmel was first announced in April
1995, two hundred German and European intellectuals protested on the grounds
that she was a supporter of so-called Islamic fundamentalism. A number of
other groups and individuals in Germany and elsewhere, however, came to her
defence and rejected the malicious allegations against Schimmel. JUST was one
of those organisations that submitted a petition to the German government on