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Annemarie Schimmel Building Bridges between East and West
Mar 1, 2014

This is an article on the life, works, and efforts of Cemile (the Beautiful), as Annemarie Schimmel (d. 2003) was called in the East. Who was Annemarie Schimmel? How did she influence the Occident and the Orient, and what was the magnitude of her achievements?

Annemarie Schimmel was born in Erfurt, Germany, in 1922. She grew up in a home full of talk about mysticism and philosophy. She was one of the young Germans of the 19th and 20th centuries who fell asleep with the Stories of 1001 Nights. Her father, a postal worker, was deeply interested in mysticism. During the Nazi era, the young Annemarie discovered her passion for the Arabic language and Arab culture. Once a week, she received private lessons in Arabic and Islamic Studies by Hans Ellenberg, whom she called Efendi. Already, at the age of 19, she had completed her doctorate on the subject, "The Position of the Caliph and the Qadis in Late Medieval Egypt." She published more than 120 books and studied and translated, among other things, Arabic and Persian poets such as Mawlana Rumi, Ibn Ataullah, Hallaj, Yunus Emre, and Muhammad Iqbal, who wrote about mysticism and the love of God. As an Islamic scholar, she is still highly esteemed in the East and the West. Here is just one example:


In passion deep my heart fell -
Just look, what love has made of me!
I gave my head to strife and pain -
Just look, what love has made of me!
I silently weep to myself,
While love stains me in blood,
Can't be sober, can't be confused -
Just look, what love has made of me!
Yunus Emre

The languages she knew included Turkish, Persian, Urdu, Turkmen, French, Pashto, Hindi, Kurdish, Swedish, and also Arabic, which she was able to speak in more than 10 dialects. Besides her talent for learning languages, she was also a gifted speaker and gave lectures in Turkish, Persian, and Arabic that sometimes lasted hours.

She had a special passion for ornamentation, calligraphy, and architecture. Almost all of her published books are illustrated and many a chapter is introduced with calligraphic verses from the Qur'an. One of her books is titled, In the name of Allah the All-Merciful.

Annemarie Schimmel has received many awards and honors: honorary doctorates from the universities of Konya, Islamabad, and Sind; the Hilal-i Imtiyaz Medal (the highest award in Pakistan); the Gold Medal of the city of Istanbul; the Arts and Science Medal of the Republic of Turkey; the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade; and the Federal Cross of Merit. Thanks to her strong commitment for a better understanding between nations, her advice was taken seriously all over the world. Since her death, she has not been forgotten; in the Pakistani metropolis of Lahore, for instance, a main road was named after her - the Hiyaban-i Annemarie Schimmel Road. In Iran, she is much appreciated and often quoted. In Turkey, she became immortal as the unforgettable Cemile.

The bridge builder

"Nowadays broader circles of our society realize that a certain understanding of other cultures is needed to avoid the dangerous generalizations the media are replete with. It is a must to learn about the history of the 'other.' In my opinion, it is very important that we also address the intellectual history of Islam, recognize its outstanding cultural achievements, and strive to find common ground, even if it is sometimes difficult."

During her life as a scholar, Annemarie Schimmel focused intensively on improving understanding between Islam and the West. With her in-depth analysis, she communicated the ideological and artistic content of Islamic culture, and especially its beauty and intellectual wealth - not only to German or European readers, but also to Americans and other cultures. She was always committed to dialogue, and made an effort - through media, literature, and face-to-face meetings - to get Christians interested in Islamic culture and Muslims interested in Christian culture. In the verses of famous Islamic poets and mystics she met the "true" Islam, which is embedded in believers' hearts and waiting to be discovered.

For her, the first prerequisite for dialogue is knowledge of one's own culture and the other culture, be a person Christian, Jewish, or Buddhist.

"Without mutual knowledge there is no mutual understanding, without understanding there is no mutual respect and no trust, and without trust, there is no peace, but the risk of a clash."

Annemarie Schimmel would never have entered a dialogue without knowledge about the culture of her counterpart. In her view, people should keep and practice their religions. They should take it seriously, but at the same time, try to get to know other cultures and values and to accept them. In many conversations and interviews, she regretted that the Christian and the Islamic cultures knew so little about each other, because if they knew, they would surely appreciate each other - which she experienced over and over again during her long stays in Islamic countries. According to her, even brief conversations with taxi drivers can be very valuable in this regard.

She became friends with countless people from other cultures. Her image of Islam was not shaped primarily by her years of occupation with Islamic literature and art, but rather by the encounters with Muslim friends around the world and from all walks of life, who invited and received her lovingly in their houses and made her familiar with their culture.

Ms. Schimmel traveled with her mother from Edirne to Konya and Gaziantep, throughout Anatolia. They met with many people, from all layers of society, every one of whom taught them another personal piece of Turkish culture.

"We have to get to know other cultures better. You never finish with it; there is always something new to learn and to do: reading, giving lectures, and just keeping people informed. Everybody who knows Islam knows that Islam and terrorism have nothing in common," she said in an interview. She relied on a quote of St. Augustine's, "Res tantum cognoscitur quantum diligitur" (You only understand what you love), and on an Arabic proverb, which is mentioned in the prose works of Rumi: "Man is the enemy of what he does not know."

Only a few Christians know that in Islam, Jesus is considered a forerunner to Muhammad and therefore enjoys the highest esteem in the eyes of Muslims, whereas Muhammad has a negative image in the West, peace be upon them both. Ms. Schimmel complained about this. In her book Jesus and Mary in Islamic Mysticism, she noted that Jesus is mentioned in the Qur'an in 15 chapters and a total of 93 verses, and that Mary is the only woman who is mentioned in the Qur'an by name - and thus is of great importance to all Muslim women.

Her greatest concern was a dialogue of equals. In Germany, she regretted and criticized that, for a long time, Catholic bishops had no other dialogue partners than Turkish engineers and distributors. She deemed this fact a main obstacle to understanding. Therefore she encouraged the German government to educate Imams and German-Islamic theologians. Eight years after her death, her wish came true. In April, 2011, the inauguration of the Centre for Islamic Theology at Tübingen took place - a milestone for interfaith dialogue in Germany.

Ms. Schimmel made the Turkish culture known in Germany and the German culture known in Islamic countries. During a five-year stay in Turkey, she wrote innumerable articles under her pseudonym, Cemile Kıratlı, for the magazines Hayat and Istanbul Dergisi. She did not forget her roots, but at the same time tried to absorb other cultures.

Annemarie Schimmel died in Bonn, in 2003, at the age of 81. Before her death, she said she was looking forward to finally seeing the hereafter with her own eyes, rather than only reading about it. Her last wish was that at her funeral, the opening chapter of the Qur'an be recited. Friends have engraved her life motto in both German and Persian on her grave stone: "People sleep, and when they die, they wake up."


In her pursuit of understanding, Annemarie Schimmel was a role model for all people. It is important for our society to respect her efforts and follow her example. It is important that the Christian and the Islamic cultures get to know each other better in the future, because this is the only way prejudices and misunderstandings can be reduced. Annemarie Schimmel, Herder, Goethe, Klee, Rilke, Rumi, Yunus Emre, and Iqbal have proved the fact that there are no impenetrable barriers between cultures and religions.

"Then one day - Inshallah, God willing - we will find, as Goethe did, a way that will enrich both sides: the Orient through the encounter with the deep-rooted European culture and us through the knowledge of an infinitely rich past and a versatile oriental culture that comes to light in literature and grammar, in the heights of mysticism, but also in the most beautiful flowers of the arabesques. And then perhaps we may one day say (as Goethe put it once so well): Orient and Occident can no longer be separated."

A few examples from Schimmel's works: As Through A Veil : Mystical Poetry in Islam (1982); Mystical Dimensions of Islam (1975); Islam: An Introduction (1992); My Soul Is A Woman: The Feminine in Islam (1997); A Two-Colored Brocade: The Imagery of Persian Poetry (1992); Mohammad Iqbal, Poet and Philosopher (1960); Calligraphy and Islamic Culture (1990); A Dance of Sparks: Imagery of Fire in Ghalib's Poetry (1983)