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.
Schimmel was born to Protestant and highly cultured middle-class parents in Erfurt, Germany.Her father Paul was a postal worker and her mother Anna belonged to a family with connections to seafaring and international trade. 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.
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. 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.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
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. 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. 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. 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. After leaving Harvard, she returned to Germany, where she lived in Bonn until her death in 2003. Despite her love for Islamic cultures, she remained a devout Lutheran all her life
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. 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. 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.