Annemarie Schimmel
Born(1922-04-07)7 April 1922
Died26 January 2003(2003-01-26) (aged 80)
EducationDoctorate in Islamic civilization and languages, doctorate in history of religions.
OccupationIranologist, Sindhologist, Orientalist, Islamic studies, Sufism studies, Iqbal studies

Annemarie Schimmel (7 April 1922 – 26 January 2003) was an influential German Orientalist and scholar who wrote extensively on Islam and Sufism. Internationally renowned, she was a professor at Harvard University from 1967 to 1992.

Early life and education

Glass plate in the Bonngasse; Bonn, Germany
Glass plate in the Bonngasse; Bonn, Germany

Schimmel was born to Protestant and highly cultured middle-class parents in Erfurt, Germany.[1] Her father Paul was a postal worker and her mother Anna belonged to a family with connections to seafaring and international trade.[2] Schimmel remembered her father as "a wonderful playmate, full of fun," and she recalled that her mother made her feel that she was the child of her dreams. She also remembered her childhood home as being full of poetry and literature, though her family was not an academic one.[3]

Having finished high school at age 15, she worked voluntarily for half a year in the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labor Service). She then began studying at the University of Berlin in 1939, at the age of 17, during the Third Reich (1933-1945), the period of Nazi domination in Europe. At the university, she was deeply influenced by her teacher Hans Heinrich Schaeder, who suggested that she study the Divan of Shams Tabrisi, one of the major works of Jalaluddin Rumi.[1] In November 1941 she received a doctorate with the thesis Die Stellung des Kalifen und der Qadis im spätmittelalterlichen Ägypten (The Position of the Caliph and the Qadi in Late Medieval Egypt). She was then only 19 years old. Not long after, she was drafted by the Auswärtiges Amt (German Foreign Office), where she worked for the next few years while continuing her scholarly studies in her free time.[1] After the end of World War II in Europe, in May 1945, she was detained for several months by U.S. authorities for investigation of her activities as a German foreign service worker, but she was cleared of any suspicion of collaboration with the Nazis. In 1946, at the age of 23, she became a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Marburg, Germany. She was married briefly in the 1950s, but domestic life did not suit her, and she soon returned to her scholarly studies. She earned a second doctorate at Marburg in the history of religions (Religionswissenschaft) in 1954.

Later life and scholarly career

The grave of Annemarie Schimmel and her mother, with a quotation from Ali ibn Abitaleb: "People are asleep. When they die, they wake up."
The grave of Annemarie Schimmel and her mother, with a quotation from Ali ibn Abitaleb: "People are asleep. When they die, they wake up."

In Turkey (Ankara University, 1954–1967)

A turning point in Schimmel's life came in 1954 when she was appointed Professor of the History of Religion at Ankara University. She spent five years in the capital city of Turkey teaching in Turkish and immersing herself in the culture and mystical tradition of the country. She was the first woman and the first non-Muslim to teach theology at the university.[4]

Harvard University (1967–1992)

In 1967 she inaugurated the Indo-Muslim studies program at Harvard University and remained on the faculty there for the next twenty-five years. While living in quarters on the Harvard campus, Schimmel often visited New York City, where, as a consultant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she was famed for her ability to date manuscripts and objects from the style of calligraphy in or on them. Her memory of calligraphic styles was almost photographic.[4]

During the 1980s, she served on the editorial board of the Encyclopedia of Religion, published in 16 volumes (Macmillan, 1988) under the aegis of Mircea Eliade.[4]

In 1992, upon her retirement from Harvard, she was named Professor Emerita of Indo-Muslim Culture. During this period, she was also an honorary professor at the University of Bonn.[4]

Back in Germany (1992–2003)

After leaving Harvard, she returned to Germany, where she lived in Bonn until her death in 2003.[4]


She was often asked by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike whether she was a Muslim or not. In such cases, she preferred to give an evasive answer, saying, for example, that only those who are not sure whether they are good Muslims or not can really be good Muslims.[5]

Teaching style

Schimmel taught generations of students in a unique style that included lecturing with her eyes closed and reciting long passages of mystical poetry from memory.[citation needed]

Languages, interests and expertise

She was multilingual—besides German, English, and Turkish, she spoke Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Punjabi—and her interests ranged across the Muslim landscape. She published more than fifty books and hundreds of articles on Islamic literature, mysticism, and culture, and she translated Persian, Urdu, Arabic, Sindhi, and Turkish poetry and literature into English and German.[4] Her particular fondness for cats led her to write a book about their role in Islamic literature, and her interest in mysticism resulted in a book about numerical symbolism in various cultures. Her consuming passion, however, was Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Even prominent Sufis acknowledged her as one of the foremost experts on their history and tradition.[citation needed]

Awards and honors

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For her works on Islam, Sufism, and Muhammad Iqbal, a prominent philosopher and national poet of Pakistan, the government of Pakistan honored Schimmel with its highest civil awards,

She was given other awards from many countries of the world, including the 1995 prestigious Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. This award caused a controversy in Germany, as she had defended the outrage of the Islamic world against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses (1988), a novel, in a television interview.[7] Schimmel's award speech is available online in translation, entitled "A Good Word Is Like a Good Tree."[8]

Among other awards and honors are the following.

Schimmel also received honorary degrees from three Pakistani universities (Sind, Quaid-i-Azam, and Peshawar), from the Faculty of Theology at Uppsala University, Sweden (1986)[10] , and from Selçuk University in Turkey.

Selected works

See also


  1. ^ a b c Ali Asani; William Graham; Roy Mottahedeh; Wheeler Thackston; Wolfhart Heinrichs (16 November 2004). "Annemarie Schimmel". Harvard Gazette. Archived from the original on 2010-10-14. Retrieved 3 July 2012.
  2. ^ Annemarie Schimmel, [1]. The Charles Homer Haskins Lecture, 1993. New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 1993. Autobiographical reflections and reminiscences of a lifetime of work as a scholar.
  3. ^ Annemarie Schimmel †, in: Der Islam. Volume 80, Issue 2, Page 213
  4. ^ a b c d e f Stephen Kinzer, "Annemarie Schimmel, Influential Scholar of Islam, Dies at 80," obituary, New York Times, 2 February 2003.
  5. ^ "10th Anniversary of the Death of Annemarie Schimmel: Searching for the Inner Life of Islam -". - Dialogue with the Islamic World. Retrieved 2020-11-04.
  6. ^ Obituary: Professor Annemarie Schimmel Archived May 8, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Ascherson, Neal. "The itch of guilt won't go away while Rushdie remains condemned".[dead link]
  8. ^ Schimmel, Annemarie (1996). Peace Prize Award speech: A Good Word is Like a Good Tree
  9. ^ "Mrs. Annemarie Schimmel (1922 - 2003)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 4 August 2015.
  10. ^ Uppsala University. Honorary Doctors of the Faculty of Theology.

Further reading