The scholarship was founded in 1988 in honour of Annemarie Schimmel, the great woman scholar who had dedicated her life to the study of Islamic culture. Many will be familiar with her name and some will know her works. Few, perhaps will be aware of the details of her extraordinary life.
Annemarie Schimmel was born in Erfurt, a town in central Germany in 1922. An only child, she grew up in a loving home steeped in the German classics, especially poetry. She seems at an early age to have been conscious of her destiny. She writes: “It was absolutely clear to me when I was seven years old that I had to study something that had to do with Eastern languages and cultures. I have never even thought of doing anything else”. At fifteen she abandoned piano lessons for the study of Arabic that opened the door to a new world.
She received a doctorate in Islamic Languages and Civilization from the University of Berlin when she was only nineteen. At twenty three, she became the Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Marburg where she went on to earn a second doctorate in the History of Religions.
A turning point in her life came in 1954 when she was appointed Professor of the History of Religion at the University of Ankara. There she spent five years teaching in Turkish and immersing herself in the culture and mystical tradition of the country.
Annemarie Schimmel was an early admirer of Muhammad Iqbal and translated the Javidnama into German verse. In 1958 she made the first of many visits to Pakistan, a country that became central to her work. It is not too much to say that she is venerated there. The government has honoured her with the Hilal-e-Imtiaz, its highest civil award, and a fine tree-lined avenue in Lahore is named after her.
The recipient of many international distinctions and honorary degrees, Annemarie Schimmel ended her academic career as Professor of Indo-Muslim Culture at Harvard, where she taught from 1970 to 1992. Following her retirement, she was elected Honorary Professor at the University of Bonn.
Today she is recognized as one of the world’s greatest authorities on Islam. The range of her knowledge is legendary, spanning religion, literature and art. Her command of languages was prodigious: fluent in German, English and French as well as Swedish and Italian. To the classic Eastern languages, Arabic, Persian and Turkish, she added Urdu, Sindhi, Punjabi and Pushto. In her seventies, the steady flow of books, translations and lectures continued. Her journeys seemed to grow longer and more frequent: over Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, to Iran and Uzbekistan, always returning to Pakistan, where she hoped to be buried at Makli among her beloved Sufis.
As a person, her deceptively frail appearance concealed an iron resolve. Her teasing humour and childlike enthusiasm for new experiences made her an endearing companion. Cat lover and poet, she wore her profound learning lightly. It would be hard to imagine a finer exemplar for aspiring young women scholars.
It took two to create the Scholarship: the inspirer and the inspired.
Zoë Hersov’s academic background includes degrees in history (in the US and France) and theology (in England). In her twenties, when she was at home with small children, she did research on women and work and contributed to a number of books on the subject. Later, as a mature student of theology, she became interested in Islam and pursued further studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
When her last child left for university in 1984, her husband accepted a professorship at a medical school in the US where they lived for seven years. As a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School, Zoë Hersov had the opportunity to attend Annemarie Schimmel’s lectures. They became friends and had long talks about Islam and Pakistan.
At the same time, Zoë Hersov was invited to join the Commission on Women and Work in Asia and came to know Dr. Mira Phailbus, the representative from Pakistan. Her invitation to visit Kinnaird College for Women brought a new dimension to Ms Hersov’s life. She stayed in Kinnaird on numerous occasions, conducting workshops and speaking to girls about their futures. She met parents too, who gave her insight into how women’s higher education and careers could fit in with the conventions of family life.
In 1986, Zoë Hersov’s mother died and she came into an inheritance. As a girl her mother had been unable to take up a scholarship at a prestigious school in London because her family was so poor. Her mother’s love of learning, the unforgettable encounter with Annemarie Schimmel and her own experience of intelligent, able young women in Pakistan, came together to inspire the creation of the Annemarie Schimmel Scholarship.
In recognition of her services for the education of Pakistani women and promotion of East West dialogue, of the Government of Pakistan has honored her with the prestigious award of Sitara-e-Imtiaz.
Over the years, a wide variety of scholars have been sent to the United Kingdom. They will go on, God willing, to make a significant contribution to their fields in Pakistan in the future.
“All work is seed sown; it grows and spreads, and sows itself a new”.
The present moment in global affairs is witness to growing tensions between Islam and the West. Strong anti-Western feelings are rife within the Muslim world, where many see the 'war on terror' as a pretext to further demonize Islam and (re)colonize various Muslim countries. In the heat of such emotions, what is frequently lost sight of, is that there are numerous individuals in the West who are not only committed to peace, but also actively highlighting, in different ways, the profound vision(s) of the Islamic message.
The late Annemarie Schimmel was one of the last generation of those great 'Orientalist' scholars who devoted their lives to the study and dissemination of different aspects of Islam. While many of these 'Orientalists' have subsequently been criticized for sundry Eurocentric biases, Schimmel's work never lost its credibility or appeal in either the postcolonial Muslim world, or the West. Just a few months ago, before she died, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Tehran Women's University. In Pakistan, she has been decorated by the government and her books awarded many prestigious prizes.
By giving voice to the ideas of some of the best Muslim minds, particularly through poetry and culture, Schimmel played a key role in informing the West about Islam. Her writings on Rumi and Iqbal are infused with a genuine passion for the subjects, but also remain firmly anchored in impeccable research, and a firm grasp of Farsi and Urdu (and a host of other languages). Beyond the books on Iqbal and Rumi, her voluminous opus spanned the classic Mystical Dimensions of Islam, And Muhammad is His Messenger, Islamic Calligraphy, to the more whimsical, but nevertheless scholarly reflections, on Islamic Names and Oriental Cats. These were just some of her many books, which alongwith hundreds of research articles, are testimony to her scholarship and a life time devoted to communicating this knowledge to the West and for future generations of researchers across the world.
Such scholarly 'gifts' about Islam, given by Schimmel to the west are well known, but less well known is her connection to another sort of gift of knowledge given to Pakistan. The Annemarie Schimmel Scholarship (AMSS) was established by Zoe Hersov, a close friend and admirer of Schimmel. They met during the time Schimmel was teaching at Harvard. Zoe Hersov is committed to stronger ties between Islam and Christianity and for more than forty years, has tirelessly promoted Christian-Muslim dialogue in Britain and the U.S.A. While not a professional academic with a university post, alongwith raising a large family, she has been intellectually involved in engaging the west towards a deeper appreciation of Islam. A scholar herself, she has degrees in history and theology. She has written articles for academic journals, and has published translations of texts on the Quran from French, all stemming from her desire to bring Islam and the west closer.
Zoe Hersov donated a personal inheritance to underwrite the Scholarship, inspired by Schimmel's work and personality, and as a tribute to Schimmel and their friendship, she graciously named it after her. Reflecting the deep affection of both these women for Pakistan, every year AMSS sponsors one Pakistani woman (sometimes two) for post-graduate study in Britain. Apart from its generous, fully funded support, the AMSS is unique in two ways. First, there is, as such, no age limit. The only provisos are a demonstrable and genuine financial need, and a commitment of returning to Pakistan and actively contributing towards national development.
The other unique feature is, in a way, a tribute to Schimmel's vast erudition. Apart from a few subjects, including journalism (with which most genuine scholars have little patience!), the scholarship is open to virtually any discipline from the sciences, humanities and the arts. The AMSS started in 1990 and since then, Schimmel Scholars have received advanced training, and produced research in fields as diverse as Islamic Art, Public Health, Linguistics, Nursing, English Literature, Applied Psychology and Social Development. As the 2002 AMS Scholars set out to do post graduate work in Orthodontics and Environmental Studies, the 1996 Scholar received her Ph. D in Laser Physics from Imperial College, London.
The life and work of individuals such as Zoe Hersov and Annemarie Schimmel provide a different view of what many in Pakistan and the Muslim world, see as the godless, materialist West. In the present state of cultural polarization, with the Muslim community having a sense of alienation and outrage, it is easy to lose sight of such individuals. Their vision of religion, commitment to knowledge, and generosity of spirit, presents a humbling contrast to the virtual absence of similar visions in Pakistan.
The fact is that there are innumerable such individuals in the West who continue to quietly and steadily highlight the beauty of Islam, and not just as scholars, but frequently simply as concerned citizens trying to build bridges between their societies and the Muslim world. It is unlikely that, proportionately, Muslims can make a similar claim to such a spirit of service to others, particularly when it comes to matters of religion.
Sadly, instead of focusing on our own shortcomings, the many obituaries about Schimmel were content to simply list her writings, and bask in her positive picture(s) of Islam. Even sadder, were the ones written by certain religious scholars who, while self-righteously acknowledging her service to Islam, took pains to repeat that she was a 'hermit' and a 'non-Muslim'. The irrelevance (and contestability) of such statements aside, they suggest a type-casting of women who engage with religion at a scholarly level; but more importantly, they reveal the dominant, exclusionary mind-set about Islam in Pakistan. Somehow its narrow vision only seems to look at outward signs of what it is to be a Muslim. Such a mind is (seemingly) incapable of understanding the subtlety and profound implications, of what Zoe Hersov states was Schimmel's and her own view on the matter. That they "bow to the eternal truth of Islam" yet do not see themselves as "members of the earthly ummah".
In their own quiet ways, these two remarkable women offer a mirror in which each of us can reflect on our impoverishment of spirit and vision of religion: This mirror shows that what makes a Muslim is beyond creed and ritual, and this in turn makes us question, particularly in light of the Holy Quran's embrace of Moses and Jesus, what does it mean to be a Muslim?
The voices of our two friends may help in contemplating an answer. In a letter to Zoe Hersov just a few weeks before her death, the 80-plus Annemarie Schimmel wrote:
I am grateful that I can do so much work and travel; the celebrations in Teheran
where I was given an honorary degree by the Women's University,
were really great! And so it goes on. I wish we could just sit and chat over a cup of tea…
Now I have to go to the airport to catch my plane to Zurich as I have to
preach (!!!) in a church in Vaduz: I'll speak about Jesus and Mary in Islam.
And here, to conclude, is Zoe Hersov writing about her friend and mentor:
… Annemarie sets out on her final journey. Although she will be laid to rest
beside her mother, I feel sure that spiritually she will be with her beloved Sufis.
She remains an inspiration to all of us who are at home in both worlds. We join,
Christians and Muslims alike, in prayer together for her soul.