Islamic Studies Scholar Dies at 80

Professor’s views drew controversy

Annemarie Schimmel, a former Harvard professor and world renowned Middle Eastern scholar known for her incendiary political views died in Bonn, Germany on Jan. 26. She was 80.

The cause of death has not been announced.

“She was a humanist at heart. Without being sentimental she looked at all people as though they were her own. I consider her a model of what a Middle Eastern scholar should be,” said Dimitri Gutas, a professor of near eastern languages and civilizations at Yale.

Schimmel, who taught at Harvard from 1967 to 1992, was appointed the University’s first professor of Indo-Muslim culture in 1970.

She was lauded for her multifaceted contributions to the study of Islam and the Middle East.

“She has a deep understanding, sympathy and empathy of all Islamic peoples, proven by the accuracy and worth of her work and by how beloved she was by all the people she studied,” Gutas said.

Schimmel’s work dealt with all aspects of Islam, including calligraphy, Islamic art and literature and Islamic mysticism—specifically Sufism. She wrote more than 50 books on diverse topics ranging from the role of cats in Islamic literature to naming in the Islamic world.

“It is difficult to characterize her work in a nutshell, because her work was very wide ranging,” said Fred M. Donner, a professor of near eastern history at the University of Chicago.

While her work garnered praise, her political views often generated controversy.

When Schimmel won the prestigious Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1995 for her search for “a synthesis of Islam and the modern,’’ more than 200 German intellectuals protested her receipt of the award, citing her reported support of the Iranian government’s death sentence against British author Salman Rushdie.

But according to The Boston Globe, Schimmel denied the charge, saying she rejected “the sinister holy war against Rushdie, but also simplistic Western preconceptions that equate Islam with intolerance.”

Of the controversy, Schimmel said that the accusation took much of the pleasure out of the award.

“It seems to me my life’s work, which was devoted to an understanding between East and West, has been destroyed,’’ the Boston Globe reported her to have said.

The 1995 incident was not the only time her political views came under fire.

Schimmel defended herself against repeated accusations by reminding her critics that politics was not her field. Nothing in her studies allowed for or countenanced terrorism, she said.

“Her reactions to most things were the reactions of the local people in the Islamic world,” Gutas said. “They were not the typical Western reactions. She was a great democrat at heart, but saw the actions of Western governments as contrary to that.”