Fragile figure in eye of storm

October 13, 1995

Retired Harvard professor Annemarie Schimmel tells Jennie Brookman why she defended Islamic fury against Salman Rushdie.

Annemarie Schimmel seems an unlikely person to have caused the biggest controversy in the 48-year history of the prestigious peace prize awarded by the German book trade. But this retired professor of Islamic studies with a passion for oriental mystical poetry and a penchant for porcelain cats has been subject to increasingly vituperative attacks in Germany since the announcement in May that she is to receive this year's prize during the Frankfurt Book Fair on Sunday.

Apart from Schimmel, other winners of the Pounds 10,000 prize awarded annually by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, have caused controversy. In 1968 the decision to award the prize to Leopold Sedar Senghor, the author who at the time was president of Senegal, was attacked by critics who claimed he had not done enough to prevent human rights' violations there. There were also protests against 1980 winner Ernesto Cardenal, the author and priest who was a member of the Sandanista movement in Nicaragua.

The 1995 prize to Schimmel is in recognition of her lifetime's work advocating understanding between Islamic and Christian cultures. The problem is that some people think her advocacy of Islamic culture goes too far.

"The prize was meant to be an honour but now I can hardly bear to think about it. The almost daily destruction of me has been terrible," says the frail, 73-year-old academic in her modest apartment near Bonn University, which she has rented since 1961.

When she was asked in a television interview about the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, the novelist whose 1988 book, Satanic Verses, unleashed a torrent of Islamic fury, she said Rushdie had injured the feelings of Muslims and while she did not support the death sentence on Rushdie, she had seen "grown men weep" when they learnt of the contents of Rushdie's novel. She appealed for an understanding of the Muslims' point of view.

This was taken to be a vindication of fundamentalism and prompted Gernot Rotter, professor of contemporary middle eastern studies at the University of Hamburg and a former student of Schimmel's to appeal to the German book trade association to rethink their decision. "A peace prize is for peace," he wrote in the leading liberal weekly Die Zeit newspaper. "When the winner is touched by even a shadow of understanding for the death penalty then the decision should be reconsidered by both sides."

In the months leading up to the award ceremony in St Paul's Church, Frankfurt, the protests have gathered strength. A group of prominent publishers and political commentators wrote an open letter to the German head of state, president Roman Herzog, appealing to him to refuse to award Schimmel the prize. They wrote that Schimmel was a "welcome guest in totalitarian religious states such as Iran" and that her works contained not a single expression of condemnation for the human rights violations in such countries.

The letter also claimed that her television outburst against Rushdie was not a one-off slip of the tongue. Early in 1989 she is said to have made provocative remarks about Rushdie to a private gathering in Aachen remarks since disputed by other members of the gathering as well as by Schimmel herself.

Islamic scholars and colleagues are dismayed by the portrayal of Schimmel, especially "ludicrous" claims that she is a fundamentalist. "These people obviously have not read her books," says Ali Asani, who succeeded Schimmel as professor of Indo-Muslim culture at Harvard University. "Anyone who knows anything about her work knows she is far from being a fundamentalist. Her lecture tour in Iran this year was on Islamic mystical poets who are opposed by the new legalistic Islam."

Akbar Ahmed, visiting Iqbal fellow at Selwyn College, Cambridge, agrees that Schimmel has fallen victim to western preconceived ideas about Islam. "People only see one face of Islam but it has a very deep core of mysticism and sufism and a lot of her work has focused on this. In Pakistan people know her as one of the few interested in understanding Islam not knocking or promoting it."

In Pakistan Annemarie Schimmel has almost a cult status. She is well-known to the general public, as well as in academic circles, as an expert on Mohammed Iqbal, the mystical and nationalistic poet considered the spiritual father of Pakistan. She has a street named after her in Lahore and has selected a place to be buried there.

But even Schimmel's closest colleagues are not surprised by her ability to rile the academic and political establishment. One friend said: "She was a child prodigy. She has a photographic memory, reads about 35 languages, is incomprehensibly prolific and lives in a world of scholarship and aestheticism. But like all geniuses she has a certain narrowness and self-centredness that can sometimes wound people. I can quite imagine her saying some of the extreme things attributed to her, but she won't really have meant it. It's just the way she is."

Her conversation sometimes reveals this impatience. She likes to translate her books herself because otherwise "you have to go though them sentence by sentence so they understand". And she has never had a secretary because "she would want to come between nine and five and I could not possibly organise my life around that".

At 15 she found an Arabic teacher, a year later she graduated from high school, two years earlier than her contemporaries. In 1941, aged only 19, she gained her first doctorate in oriental studies.

During the war she worked as a translator in the foreign office. "Everyone mentions that implying I must have been a big Nazi," she says with a view to the present media uproar about her. "But in fact I was the only girl in my age group who was not taken into the party. They left me alone, thank heavens."

In 1946 she took her second doctorate in comparative religion and began her teaching career at Marburg University. In 1954 she was called to the University of Ankara where she taught comparative history of religion to young Muslims. "It was wonderful. I learned so much from their reactions."

Then in 1958 she went to Pakistan for the first time to study the works of Mohammed Iqbal, also producing translations of his work. In 1961 she returned to Germany to an assistant professorship at the University of Bonn. In the 1960s Schimmel also felt that her career was hindered because she was a woman. "I remember a professor at Bonn telling me if I had been a man I would have got a chair."

But Germany's loss was Harvard's gain. She was recruited in 1967 and stayed until her retirement in 1992.

Richard Frye, emeritus professor of Iranian studies at Harvard, who was responsible for luring her to Cambridge, Massachusetts, has a slightly different interpretation of events. "I have worked in Berlin and Hamburg and it is true that it is a boys' club. That is how people got appointed to chairs. But the real reason she did not get a chair there is because she is populist. She likes writing in newspapers and journals and moving in diplomatic circles and that rubbed many of her colleagues up the wrong way."

As well as her best-known books, The Mystical Dimensions of Islam, a history of the Islamic mystical movement of sufism, or Muhammad Iqbal: poet and philosopher, she has also written The Mystery of Numbers, a cultural comparison of numerical systems, and Oriental Cats, combining her passion for literature and her love of cats.

She believes it is her "unmodern" religious outlook which has fuelled the campaign against her. Others describe her as a spiritual person, sometimes trance-like. She describes herself simply as a liberal and a Christian. "Many people think Christianity is outdated, that rational people don't need vague religious ideas."

Even some of her friends say her unmodern political outlook has led her to be injudicious about her contacts with political leaders, particularly with Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the former general and president of Pakistan who sanctioned the execution of president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Schimmel claims this is "all cooked up": "I would not call it a friendship. I refused to go to Pakistan for two years after Bhutto's execution. Then later once a year when I was in Pakistan he (Zia ul-Haq) invited me for lunch and he used to ask me about literature. He said 'I'm an ignoramus, tell me about it'." Yet despite this, Schimmel always maintained contacts with the Bhuttos prime minister Benazir Bhutto was a student of hers at Harvard and she met her again in April.

Her love of Pakistan, and its love of her, is founded in literature yet political elements seem unavoidable. "Pakistan is a country that does not really know its destiny. It was founded on religious grounds and then it took them decades to find a constitution that was both Islamic and modern. I went around and told them about their common heritage of Indo-Pakistani Muslims. So they knew I was trying to give them a basis for their raison d'etre."

Like many others, Schimmel explains the rise of fundamentalism in the East as a result of bad social conditions, unemployment, illiteracy and a reaction to what is seen as neo-colonialism. "One is afraid of losing one's own ground so one takes a strong stand. But this intolerance is really nothing Islamic."

Despite recent accusations that she is an apologist for fundamentalism, she argues that "even in Iran there are movements against the present regime but they have not yet come to the fore and I think they are movements we should be supporting."

She believes fundamentalism, like other political movements in history, will reach its peak and then fall suddenly. "I believe in the dialectics of history. We saw it with the re-unification of Germany. None of us had expected to see that in our lifetime."

Such talk shows there is little chance of Annemarie Schimmel bowing to pressure from her critics and turning down the prize. Afterwards she wants to get on with her latest project on the role of Jesus and Mary in sufism and oriental poetry. "It's very important that people hear that Jesus and Mary have a very high rank in Islamic thought. I hope that will also go some way to fostering understanding."

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