Prof. Ismath Mehdi, IQBAL REVIEW, Journal of the Iqbal Acdemy Hyderabad, Vol 12 issue 2, Nov 2003

Annemarie Schimmel, whom we are remembering today, has been a larger than life scholar in the great tradition of German scholarship. Schimmel’s spanned centuries of Islamic learning to make her an authority on the literary heritage of different Islamic peoples – Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Sindhi and Pashto. Plus this was a connoisseur of music and arts of these peoples and was a superb exponent of calligraphy.

Her comprehensive treatment of any subject she undertook was deeply layered and her canvas ranges from her favorite subject Sufism to great poets of the Muslim world, to aesthetic and refined studies of Islam, in books numbering 105 and countless articles and monographs. She composed poetry in several languages and her last work is her autobiography.

I met her alas, only a few times and cannot say with pride “Jamal-e-hamnashin dar man asar kard” However, during the brief contact with her I learnt a lot. Once when she was being introduced, the speaker went on and on, and I was getting fidgety. She noticed me and gave me a paper and said practice your calligraphy. From then on lectures are never boring for me!

Perhaps her greatest contribution has been to interpret Islam and Islamic culture not only to the west or whom her writing was mainly intended but also for many of us who have grown up in the glare of western culture and have grown up with great ignorance about our own roots, our wisdom and our philosophy.

Schemmel’s interpretation is not a hard dry presentation of the facts that we normally associate with religious books, but it is a pulsating, vibrant and ever expanding account of what makes Islam a great and meaningful religion and what makes Islamic culture appealing. She speaks from the heart whether it be to explain the finer points of sharia or the ecstasy of the Sufis. And her works are interspersed with specimens of calligraphy, that she found so fascinating, and quotations from poets she loved. One of Schimmel’s most important books is deciphering the Signs of God- A phenomenological Approach to Islam. It was published in 1994 and I shall talk about it in some details, as it is the culmination of the work of a lifetime.

Schimmel takes as her starting point, the simplest ‘signs of God’: phenomenon of nature, like water, plants, animals, and their use in religious and symbolic language. The Quran constantly asks people to look at the signs of God: signs that are hidden ‘in the horizons and in themselves ( these words are selected by Annemarie Schimmel and illustrated in different types of calligraphy throughout the book.

Relying on source of both classical and modern literature, as well as her on personal experience of Islam as practiced in its Sunni, Shiite and Sufic manifestations, she enters into the heart of religion. She does this by taking first the natural phenomena and then deeper layers of the human response to the Divine, until the innermost core of religion are reached. Schimmel holds that the highest spiritual experience can be triggered by a sensual object a flower, a fragrance or a cloud, reminding us of Saadi:

Barg-e-darakhtan-e-sabz dar nazar-e-hoshiyar
Har waraqi daftar ist marifat-e-kirdigar.

This is part of our consciousness and we do not have to be reminded of it. But the Western modern man sees the universe as meaningless. So Schimmel explains to them the meaning. Phenomena of nature and all the signs around us are to be treated with respect precisely because they are in their essence, majestic. Dhul jalal. At the same time they are in themselves nothingness in relation to the transcendent reality. DGS is a study therefore of the religion of majesty and humanity, a study in its spiritual and rather that legal reality.

The signs of god that the Quran repeatedly refers to are the phenomena of natural world. They include the alternation of seasons, as also of day and night, the sun and the stars.

It is obvious that these ‘signs’ cannot be deciphered in the way mathematical formula are deciphered. They are to be experienced rather than analyzed.

At the same time every thing in the world including events and our own inward status has meaning and can therefore be seen as a ‘sign’ pointing back to its Creator, its Source. Everything therefore is potentially a reminder of God.

For a comprehensive treatment of any subject we normally say it is an in depth study. I would say that Schimmel’s treatment is a deeply layered one of the signs, her canvas covering objects as wide apart as stones and man’s soul.

How are the signs presented? Each ayat, each sigh is first given as it is in the Quran, then in Hadith and more often in mystical Hadith, and in the literature and folklore of different Muslim countries.

The first chapter is called “sacred aspects of nature and culture”. And to give the flavour the book I will give samples of how she treats her subject.

She starts with inanimate nature- with stones: since time immemorial, man has seen stones, which never seemed to change, and has taken them to be signs of eternal strength. She connects mythological references to a rock in the cosmos whose central point on earth is the Kaaba. The Black stone- a meteor – in the southeastern corner of the Kaaba is the point to which believers turn and which they try to kiss during their pilgrimages as a mystical Hadith claims;
“The black stone is God’s right hand”
Extremely scared next to the Kaaba, is the Dome of Rock in Jerusalem- Qubbat us saqra- All the prophets rested there, it is said, and the prophet is Islam (SAWS) met with them at the beginning of the heavenly journey to perform prayer on this very spot. The stone beneath the actual dome is blessed by Prophet Muhammad’s (SAWS) footprint and some traditions even claim that the rock hangs free in the air.

Not only in Jerusalem can one se the imprint of the prophet’s (SAWS) foot qadam-e-rasool. Schimmel mentions the many countries where such stones are found from Tunisia to Turkey. She goes on to describe how Shiah Muslims venerate stones with impressions of Imam Ali’s foot. And describes our own Maula Ali “as situated on top of a steep rock near Hyderabd Deccan where one can admire an immense footprint”.

Symbolism in stones is described. For instance Maulana Rumi compares the lover to a marble rock that reverberates with the beloved’s words and echoes them. Even more important is Ibn Arabi’s idea that Divine message was imprinted as it were- an idea that continued through the centuries and which is important in the work of Shah Waliullah.

Stones are mentioned as expressing the divine wrath: such as stoning of disobedient peoples (Surathul fil, for example, “tarmihim bi hijarathin min sijjil”

The stoning of the devils during hajj, and the point that Shaytan is always referred to as rajim (stoned). The positive qualities of precious stones are detailed and what the Prophet (SAWS) said about them, and how poets sang about them. Then coming to mountains to Ture-e-Sina, Mt, Sinai, where Prophet Mosses spoke with God. Then comes the point.

Mountains are nothing in God’s omnipresence: they prostrate themselves before God along with all other creatures:

Mt. Sinai was shattered by the manifestation of Lord’s grandeur.
From stones to dust, its uses, its sanctity, its cleansing powers, to water whose role is more central in man’s life. (wa ja’alam mai kulla shayin hay,). “We have made everything alive through water.”
Water is constantly quivering and moving – that is its act of exalting the lord in unison with all other creatures beautiful thought.

Everything comes to God as a slave in total humility. Natural phenomenon and all the ‘signs’ around us are to be treated with respect because they arte majestic dhul jalal. At the same time they are in themselves nothingness in relation to the transcendent reality and to worship them as ends in themselves is the ultimate sin. What is the lesson we learnt from water?

There is a chapter entitled “The world and the script”. A further reminder of God’s constant and eternal presence is the recitation of the Quran and in this chapter, the author discussed the rules which apply to this recitation. The Quran is brought to life and the revelation is renewed through recitation. The meaning of the verses – themselves is called ayat (signs) is only one aspect of the Book’s living reality. The interweaving of words sounds and meaning is what constitutes the Quran in its real presence.

A final quotation from “Deciphering the Signs of God” sums up the central theme of Schimmel’s work: for the pious Muslim, Islam shows itself everywhere in the universe- in the blood circulation, the growth of plants- everything is bound by Islam, surrender and subordination to the divinely revealed law.

Schimmel ends her book by quoting Maulana Rumi who can, in her opinion, perhaps answer the human mind’s never ending question, as to how to reach him who is the merciful, and the powerful, the inward and the outward, the first and the last the one who shows himself through signs and can never be comprehended.

After giving the metaphor of the shama& parvana…Moulana Rumi says:

The human being who can live without God and does not take any effort is not a real human being; but if one could comprehended God, then that would not be God. That is the true human being: the one who never rests from starving and who wanders without rest and without end around the light of God’s beauty and majesty jamal and jalal. And God is the one who immolates the seeker and annihilates him and no reason can comprehend him.

Reading Anne Marie Schimmel becomes an absorbing passion: One feels in front of an evolved presence.

Annemarie Schimmel according to me should have been called Annemarie Miracle.

If I could I would have asked Schimmel why did she choose the word God in her title.