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 Annemarie 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 civilization who passed away in February, 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 Institute, 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 London.
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 café 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 Annemarie Schimmel. She was in her mid eighties, in good health, with a mind whose clarity was astounding.
She was recognized by the Islamic world for her knowledge of Islamic civilization. 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 President of the National 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 Sitara-e-Quaid-e-Azam.
She was so completely at ease with her subject that she hardly realized 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.
Annemarie 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, her 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 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 Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. 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” Jalauddin 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 “Javidnamah.” 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 who 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.
Annemarie Schimmel was not into the politics of orientology as most of us who are busy thinking about civilizational 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 “practicing” 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.
30 May 2003
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