THE MYSTIC PEN
Mystical Dimensions of Islam/Annemarie Schimmel:
Foreword by Carl Ernst
Note: On April 7, 2011 my aunt Annemarie Schimmel would have turned 89. One of her seminal works, MYSTICAL DIMENSIONS OF ISLAM, has just been reissued. Copyright © 1975 by the University of North Carolina Press. Foreword © 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher (www.uncpress.unc.edu) – Katherine Schimmel Baki
Mystical Dimensions of Islam, from its first appearance in 1975, has become the standard English-language handbook on the subject of Sufism or Islamic mysticism. Readers have appreciated the way this book combines careful and wide-ranging scholarship with a direct and approachable style, making it an excellent introduction to the subject. In the Foreword, Annemarie Schimmel has described the dauntingly difficult character of Islamic mysticism as a subject of academic research. At the same time, she has acknowledged that it was the repeated demands of her students at Harvard that caused her to put her lectures into book form. What was it about this book that has made it such a classic?
Most academics would agree that there is no other scholar in the last half of the twentieth century who had so great an impact on the study of Islamic mysticism as Annemarie Schimmel (1921-2003), formerly Professor of Indo-Muslim studies at Harvard University. To mention only a few of her achievements, she earned two doctorates from German universities, the first from Berlin in Arabic and Islamic studies at the age of 19, and the second, 10 years later, from Marburg in the history of religion. Her work embraced many other languages of Islamic civilization besides Arabic, including Persian, Turkish, Urdu, and other languages of South Asia. She authored over 80 books and countless articles on all aspects of Islamic culture, but it was clearly Sufism that was her first love. She has produced autobiographical writings in both English and German,[i] and there are two academic festschrifts dedicated to her scholarship.[ii]
Schimmel’s deep familiarity with the subject, and her obviously sympathetic approach, clearly distinguished this book from the learned but pedantic publications on Sufism which had previously characterized the subject in English-language scholarship. While R. A. Nicholson and A. J. Arberry had been careful and dedicated scholars in this field, they had their limitations, including a somewhat remote scholarly perspective based in classical European Orientalism.[iii] Unlike armchair scholars, throughout her career Schimmel traveled extensively and had numerous close friendships in Muslim countries. She had an extensive grasp of modern scholarship on Islamic Studies in numerous languages, which she combined with an encyclopedic knowledge of texts that she could quote from memory. She relied upon the formidable tools of philology and history for research, and she used the comparative language of the phenomenology of religion to explain her insights thematically. She was able to discuss this complex material in a lively and engaging fashion, which made even the most obscure references intriguing and fascinating. Her discussions of the history of European scholarship on the study of Islam and Sufism were absorbing even as she delineated the eccentricities of her predecessors. This book is particularly rich in its discussion of spirituality of the Prophet Muhammad, the poetry of Rumi and other Persian Sufis, the feminine element in Sufism, and the extensive presence of Sufism in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. In short, Mystical Dimensions of Islam is an excellent example of how a well-honed classroom presentation can become the basis for a book that can appeal to a wide range of readers – both inside and outside of the classroom.
Given the penchant of German Orientalists for daunting displays of intimidating philological minutiae, it was remarkable that Schimmel not only translated poetry (including the poetry of John Donne) into German verse, but also wrote her own poetry in both German and English. Other European translators of the texts of Islamic mysticism wavered between painfully literal versions intended for students and effusive versions in high Victorian style. Introducing his collection of translations of the poetry of Rumi, Arberry grimly remarked that his versions would be “as literal as possible, with a minimal concession to readability”![iv] Such was not the case with Annemarie Schimmel. Moreover, in contrast to the markedly anti-Islamic attitudes that characterized much of European scholarship in the twentieth century, Schimmel had a deeply intuitive appreciation of the spiritual importance of the Prophet Muhammad, which she discussed in many studies. Schimmel’s aesthetic and literary approach to Islamic culture drew upon the rich heritage of German Romanticism, going back to Goethe and his profound and underappreciated response to the Persian poet Hafiz, in the collection of German poems known as the West-Eastern Divan, begun in 1814.[v]She also paid particular attention to the role of the outstanding early German translator of Oriental poetry, Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). No doubt, Schimmel had an extraordinary command over the languages of the Middle East and South Asia, but her poetic sensibility and aesthetic engagement made her work appealing and influential.
I first met Annemarie Schimmel in the spring of 1976, when I was a graduate student at Harvard University (shortly after this book had was first published). In addition to taking her graduate seminars, I sat in on her lecture course on Sufism, where she delivered her remarks much in the same vein as this book. As was her custom, she would begin to lecture by closing her eyes and playing with the bangles on her wrists. She commonly did this in public lectures, confounding listeners who expected her to be following detailed notes, but instead she appeared to be reading them from the insides of her eyelids. Despite the generally overheated Cambridge lecture halls that she preferred, which encouraged the sleep-deprived to nap, these classes were absorbing demonstrations of the erudition and sympathetic approach that she was famous for. I had the privilege of serving as Schimmel’s teaching assistant for her Sufism course in 1980, and subsequently I have often taught this book in my own courses. I continue to refer to it for basic references and indeed for many of the conceptual issues that underlie Islamic mysticism.
Schimmel held her classes to high standards, impersonally correcting grammatical and interpretive errors while at the same time being thoroughly supportive. At one point I took her seminar on Indo-Persian mystical texts, where we read the discourses of the famous Chishti saint of northern India, Shaykh Nasir al-Din Mahmud Chiragh-i Dihli (d. 1356). The class had reached a section where the author had begun to comment on certain verses from the Qur’an, which meant that lengthy Arabic passages occurred in the middle of the Persian text. A student who was still in the elementary stage of Arabic stopped in confusion. “His Arabic is not yet fully watered,” she commented, turning to a more advanced student to continue the text.
What is the relevance of Schimmel’s work in the post-9/11 era? Her writings do not address terrorism or the conflicts that followed the end of the Cold War. Instead, she focused on the mystical interpretation of prophecy, the aesthetics of calligraphy, and the expression of spirituality in both the classical tongues of Arabic and Persian and the local languages of the Near East and South Asia. Those subjects in fact are extremely important both historically and today for the way that most Muslims relate to the Islamic tradition. While it seems that, in a post-9/11 world, most journalistic accounts of Islam and public discourse about Muslims in general focus on Islamic fundamentalism, most scholars of Islam would agree that Sufi-style spirituality still draws the loyalty of the majority of Muslims today. The difference is that Sufism is characterized by personal connections to God, the Prophet, and the saints, rather than just authoritarian appeals to scripture. Schimmel’s coverage of a wide range of Muslim cultures also draws attention to the way in which one needs to break down the notion of Islamic civilization into multiple locations. Especially now, in the current climate of undifferentiated hostility towards Islam, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the example that Annemarie Schimmel provided of the possibility of a rigorous yet sympathetic engagement with Islamic civilization. She was exceptional in providing the example of how to be a bridge between cultures. Her efforts were deeply appreciated by Muslims in many different countries.
Inevitably there have been new advances in the study of Sufism that have been carried out by researchers from many different countries and a variety of languages, and thus there are doubtless a number of features in Mystical Dimensions of Islam that are subject to improvement. Schimmel herself produced an expanded German translation of this book in 1985.[vi] What has been left out of this extensive survey? Characteristically, Schimmel remarked that her work avoided “sociology,” perhaps acknowledging that she focused on the poetic and the ideal rather than the realm of society and politics where Sufism has in fact been contested and transformed; her adoption of Evelyn Underhill’s highly personal approach to mysticism gave little consideration to mysticism’s social history. Reviewers have noted that the book did not cover the extensive history of Sufism in East and West Africa, it provided more attention to Eastern areas (Turkish, Persian, and Indian) than Arab regions, and it did not reflect on problems of Orientalism in Sufi studies or contemporary Sufi groups moving outside of traditional Islamic identifications. Two other introductions to Sufism written in recent years from a historical and scholarly perspective, including one by the present author, have attempted to address some of those issues.[vii] Yet it is evident that the rich detail and extraordinary erudition of Schimmel’s Mystical Dimensions of Islam, combined with its remarkable aesthetic and even spiritual engagement with the Sufi mystical tradition, make it a classic that will be hard to supersede.
Carl W. Ernst
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
[i] Annemarie Schimmel, “A Life of Learning,” Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 1993, ACLS Occasional Paper, No. 21 (American Council of Learned Societies, 1993), available online athttp://www.acls.org/programs/Default.aspx?id=1144 (accessed May 2, 2010); Annemarie Schimmel, Morgenland und Abendland: mein west-östliches Leben (München : C.H. Beck, 2002). There is also a series of interviews with Schimmel available in Spiegelungen des Islam: die Grande Dame der Orientalistik im Gespräch mit Felizitas von Schönborn (Berlin: Edition q in der Quintessenz-Verlags-Gmb, 2002).
[ii] Gott ist schön und Er liebt die Schönheit / God Is Beautiful and He Loves Beauty: Festschrift für Annemarie Schimmel zum 7. April 1992, dargebracht von Schülern, Freunden und Kollegen, ed. Alma Giese and J. Christoph Bürgel (Bern: Peter Lang, 1994); Annemarie Schimmel Festschrift, Journal of Turkish Studies 18 (1994).
[iii] Reynold Alleyne Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam (London: J. Bell, 1914); A. J. Arberry, Sufism: an Account of the Mystics of Islam (London: Allen & Unwin, 1950).
[iv] A. J. Arberry, trans., Mystical Poems of Rumi, ed. Ehsan Yarshater (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 32 (originally published in 1968).
[v] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Der West-östliche Divan (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1971); id., West-Eastern Divan, trans. Edward Dowden (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1914), available online at http://www.archive.org/details/westeasterndivan00goetuoft (accessed May 2, 2010). See Hamid Tafazoli, “Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von,” Encyclopedia Iranica, available online at http://www.iranica.com/articles/goethe (accessed May 2, 2010).
[vi] Annemarie Schimmel, Mystische Dimensionen des Islam: Die Geschichte des Sufismus(Munich: Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1985; reprint ed., Baden-Baden: Insel Verlag, 1995).
[vii] Carl W. Ernst, Guide to Sufism (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997); Alexander Knysh,Islamic Mysticism: A Short History (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2000). In addition, other authors have offered insider presentations of Sufism as the normative “heart of Islam.” See William C. Chittick, Sufism: A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford: OneWorld Publications, 2000); Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition(San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008).
Katherine is the host of the Mystic Pen Series. She holds an undergraduate degree from Berklee College of Music and a graduate degree from Harvard University. Her research interests are focused on both the significance and the impact of the aural and visual in cultures and societies around the world (as told through art and music) along with the nature of artistic creation itself. Her area of specialty is the transmission of Near Eastern motifs in Italian art.
ALL ARTICLES BY KATHERINE SCHIMMEL
ART – PHOTOGRAPHY
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CARR – From the Heartland: Up Close and Personal With Visionary Robert O. Carr, Founder and CEO of Heartland Payment Systems
CHARBONNEAU – A Cruise along the Inside Track:: With Le Mobile’s Sound Recording Legend Guy Charbonneau
ESOSITO – The Forgotten Children of Abraham: Islamic Scholar John L. Esposito Talks about Faith, Pluralism, and the Challenges Facing Islam Today