Dr Schimmel & her sufis

By Zubeida Mustafa

“THE BEST ambassador Pakistan could ever have in Germany.” That is how a West German official described Dr Annemarie Schimmel. She is a lot more. In her quiet but keen manner she projects what is so beautiful and mystifying in the East. In Pakistan, Dr Schimmel needs no introduction though in West Germany her admirers are confined to a small circle of orientalists and, of course, those who are in any way interested in Pakistan.

Dr Annemarie Schimmel
Dr Annemarie Schimmel
The research she has carried out on Iqbal’s works and her publications on Mir Dard, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and on Urdu literature generally have made her a familiar figure in literary circles here and even otherwise. Her frequent visits to Pakistan – in November she was here on her fifteenth trip – have also brought her in close contact with the land and the people.

A visit to Dr Schimmel’s home in Bonn’s Lennestrasse is quite an experience. It is like a journey to the orient in the heart of the West. Her living room and study are full of big and small souviners she has carried back with her from the east. The huge rilli piece pinned on the wall, the silver scrolls containing her honorary degrees from the Universities of Islamabad, Hyderabad and Peshawar, the Kufic and Naskh styles of calligraphic inscriptions and the paintings by Chughtai and other artists give an oriental touch to her home.

As she enthused about Pakistani handicrafts, Dr. Schimme! brought out a Sindhi kurta embroidered in rich hues and held it up admiringly. This little gesture, more than anything else, revealed her love for all that is traditional here.

Dr. Schimmel lives in Bonn for six months, where she is busy writing books, and for six months she teaches in Harvard. But she draws inspiration from the East as was clear to me from the discourse she went into on the colour combinations used in Sindhi embroidery. Why has someone not researched on this fascinating aspect of Sind’s handicraft, she stopped and wondered.

Dr. Schimmel’s interest in Pakistan, its languages, culture, and religion is quite fascinating. It was the Turkish language which first attracted her to the East. Gradually she was so taken up by her study of mysticism that she soon found herself learning other languages – Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Pushto, Sindhi – to keep up with “her sufis”, as she calls them. It was not just the sufis who drove her but also a quest for knowledge.

A friend had asked her to write an introduction to his book on the Makli Hills. While looking for material to acquaint herself with the subject, she discovered that most of this was in Sindhi. She simply went on_to_ learn the language. And that introduced her to yet another Sufi – Shah Abdul Latif.

Islam is another passion with Dr SchimmeL She did her doctoral research in Islamic studies. Not only the religion but also Islamic art and calligraphy fascinate her. Blended with her deep interest in sufism, her insight into Islam and Islamic culture has helped her to produce some of the best literature on Islam. One of her most outstanding publication is Mystical Dimension of Islam which was published in 1975. Her works Islamic Calligraphy and Islamic Literature in India had appeared earlier. Then came books on Dard, Shah Abdul Latif and Maulana Rumi. Her latest works which have just been published or are forthcoming are Islam in the Indian Subcontinent, Mystical Poetry in Islam and Veneration of the Holy Prophet in Islamic Literature.

 Given her deep interest in Islam, it is not surprising when people, especially Germans, ask Dr. Schimmel what her own faith is. She replies without much. ado: “I am a moderately born Christian.” And then she goes on to explain how she can look objectively at Islam without being sentimental about it.

 

feels this absence of subjective involvement gives her greater credibility and she can project more convincingly than a Muslim can all that is good in Islam. And there she is right because Islam, Sufism, Iqbal, Shah Abdul Latif and others acquire a new meaning when seen through Dr. Schimmel’s eyes.

From Dawn Archives

Published in Dawn, February 17, 1982