IT was mid-1980s when this writer had the opportunity to attend Prof Annemarie Schimmel’s lecture at Karachi’s Goethe Institute. The topic was, if I remember correctly, Women in Sufi Poetry.

After a brief introduction by the director of the institute, the world-renowned German scholar stepped up to the rostrum, closed her eyes — as she usually did during her lectures, perhaps to recollect her thoughts — and began in a mellow voice her lecture, extempore and spontaneous, without help of any notes, taking the audience smoothly along with her on a journey through various territories and different periods of history where Muslim sufi women, such as Rabi’a Basri, spread the word of God in their own ways. The lecture was, perhaps, a part of her book that appeared later on in the German language and was translated into English under the title My Soul is a Woman: the Feminine in Islam.

Schimmel’s repute as internationally acknowledged scholar who spent almost her entire adult life in studying and writing about Islam, its culture and history was hard-earned. Disciplined and hard-working, she would rise early and, as she said in an interview, by 7:30 in the morning she would be at her typewriter. She is referred to, sometimes enviously, as a scholar who heaps up footnotes and references from works written in different languages, including English, German, French, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, even Sindhi and Urdu.

The tremendous body of research works that she produced, over 50 books and hundreds of research papers, is a testimony to her erudition and meticulousness as well as her varied and unique scholarly pursuits. Schimmel’s works largely concern Islam’s mystical traditions, German-South Asian cultural relations, German literature’s Oriental Movement and this movement’s representatives, such as Goethe and Friedrich Ruckert (1788-1866) along with Maulana Rumi. But she is also remembered as an orientalist who was an expert in many varied fields: Islamic studies, Islamic mysticism, Sindhology, Iranology, Iqbal studies, history of Indo-Pak, Islamic culture, calligraphy, the Prophet of Islam and Persian poets, such as, Rumi, Sa’adi, Hafiz and Ghalib. She was also known for determining the era when a manuscript could have been penned by examining the style used by a calligrapher.

What makes her stand out is her unbiased approach towards Islam and, unlike some orientalists, she did not try to make her research suit colonial agenda or political interests of the West. On a deeper level, she was a true ambassador of the East to the West and vice versa, a bridge linking the East with the West in an intangible way.

Prof Dr Annemarie Schimmel was born on April 7, 1922, in Erfurt, Germany. Having completed her early education, she headed to Berlin University from where she obtained a PhD in Islamic studies in 1941, that is, at the age of 19. Here she came across a Divan of Jalaluddin Rumi and thus began her lifelong journey of research that gave us a long list of exceptional works by her on Islamic sufism, culture, literature and history.

During the Second World War, Schimmel was selected to work at the German foreign office, but she continued her studies in spare time. After the war ended, she became a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Marburg University, Germany. Schimmel earned her second doctorate in the History of Religions. She was appointed to the Chair of History of Religion at Ankara University, Turkey (now Turkiye). In 1967, Schimmel accepted the invitation to join Harvard University as the first lecturer on Indo-Muslim culture. In 1970, Professor Schimmel became the fourth woman granted a tenure at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The courses she taught were, among others, Islamic calligraphy, Ghalib’s Persian poetry and Maulana Rumi.

As Muhammad Ikram Chaghatai has mentioned in his intro to Rhine to Indus: Collection of A. Schimmel’s Writings, she travelled frequently to some countries that had more relevance to her research and studies, such as, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But she had a special liking for Pakistan and some poets from Pakistan, including Allama Iqbal and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai. Her deep interest in Iqbal’s poetry had begun earlier when as a student she was introduced to Payam-i-Mashriq and Javed Nama by Hanns Meinke (1884-1972), a teacher of hers who had received signed copies of these works from Iqbal, writes Muhammad Ikram Chaghatai. Meinke, a poet much inspired by Islamic sufism and Rumi’s poetry, had translated some Persian poems of Iqbal into German. Her books Muhammad Iqbal: Poet and Philosopher, Gabriel’s Wings: Study into the Religious Ideas of Sir Muhammad Iqbal, Classical Urdu Literature: From the Beginning to Iqbal and quite a few papers reflect her fascination for Iqbal’s poetry.

Prof Annemarie Schimmel closed her eyes forever on Jan 26, 2003, in Bonn, Germany.

drraufprekh@yahoo.pom

Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2024

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