THE MYSTIC PEN
Lecture 1: Remembering the Life of Annemarie Schimmel – Jalal and Jamal
In my right hand I hold a small, square, black metal box, very dusty from years of non-use. It looks nothing like the sleek recorders of today, but this tape recorder and I have a shared history. It is the same voice recorder I used in Egypt almost twenty years ago while conducting graduate field research on the hot, noisy streets of Cairo. Later, it became the faithful instrument I used to playback what amounted to hours and hours of Arabic interviews once I arrived back in Cambridge to write my thesis.
I turn the small device over and over again in my hands examining it from all sides, its well-worn buttons, its lightly scratched face, taking special note of the damaged “Record” button. And as the eighty-nine collective voices from that project spontaneously play through my mind, I know it will be perfect for what I am about to do.
Now I’ve placed a different tape inside, one that I have not heard in fifteen years. I press “Play” and wait anxiously for the cassette to receive the signal to move on its reel, bringing my aunt’s soft voice back to this world. The sound of tape flux fills the air as both cassette and player suddenly crackle to life and I am instantly transported back to being a student in her class.
I remember with a remarkable clarity the smell of a new spring in Cambridge as the distant fragrance of early blooming magnolia and dogwood flowers waft through small cracks in the grand but drafty windows, deeply refreshing to all of us on the other side. Perhaps it’s the cool air hitting my nose like sharp little pangs of hope, mingled with the sound of anticipation in the chorus of student voices as they shuffle into the lecture hall, that I remember the most. Or is it the way the room suddenly falls silent when Annemarie enters.
Forgotten sensory details such as the smell of the room or the way the sunlight hits the chairs now mix together in my mind, suspending time in an almost dreamlike state — where friendly, familiar voices are calling out from within a place and time that belonged to a lost era and can now only be revisited through the slow mechanical spinning of reels in a tape player.
How does one begin to describe the intensity of emotions that surface when listening to a long-lost beloved voice from the past? This was Annemarie’s last semester at Harvard, where she had taught since 1967, as she had decided to “retire” and devote all her time to her travels and ongoing research projects.
Annemarie Schimmel’s course, The Phenomenology of Islam, which eventually culminated in her book, Deciphering the Signs of God: A Phenomenological Approach to Islam, was the first course of its kind and as such was meant to offer students in the fields of Religion, Near Eastern Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and other disciplines the chance to view Islam from an entirely different perspective. There was excitement and also sadness in the air as we all knew we would be the last class to witness the twilight glow of her final semester. I think now of Shakespeare’s Juliet when she said, “Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,” and in that moment understood fully what she must have meant.
I cannot say that I did not have some reservations about taking my aunt’s class either. After all, I had childhood memories surrounding her scholarly fame neatly pinned to the fact that I would ultimately be graded in a few short months by Ein Wunderkind herself. She was legendary in her sharp analysis of student papers. Fortunately, although I did not know this at the time, it was a fate spared me as she handed over my final paper and exam to her teaching fellow.
How fortuitous I thought. I found out later that she did read my papers but only after I received my final grade and as such she felt perfectly entitled to comment freely on both. I can still hear her sharp comments regarding the poorly edited paper of one graduate student casualty as she quoted for me verbatim a misquote that she found particularly stupefying in that person’s tome. But as far as I could tell, my paper was safe, as I remember her briefly hovering over its strengths and leaving only small audible pauses in sections that might have been improved upon. It was then that I knew academic mercy was on my side.
As the first recorded lecture clicks to an end, I can still see her standing in front of the class with eyes closed reciting in Urdu, Arabic, and sometimes in Turkish but always translating into English for the benefit of her English speaking class. I remember students fervently taking notes with their well-inked pens, suspended above crisp white pages, bound in the semester’s newest notebooks. We all wanted to hang on to what was being said so that it may be fully digested later and at a more leisurely pace. I, on the other hand, sat in a trance-like state, immobilized by the massive torrents of information she unleashed on us throughout the hour as I attempted to absorb partly through osmosis and partly through wishful thinking what was being said. Some of us approach things in a more logical fashion, however, and if it weren’t for the foresight of my dear friend Azimat (a modern-day Sufi), who sat on my direct left and who took it upon herself to tape all the lectures in this course, much of what was taught during that final semester would be left to the memories of her students. I am deeply indebted to her for taping this series, and it is my hope that the following transcription will as much engage the reader as it will enlighten.
The Phenomenology of Islam- Harvard University – Lecture 1 – Spring 1992
by Dr. Annemarie Schimmel
I think that for all of you that have worked in the history of religion would be aware that Islam is usually treated rather badly or briefly because most historians of religion and most people in general think it a rather primitive religion with very little interest, but I think if you approach it from a different angle, it can yield highly interesting results. And the fact that put me on this track many, many years ago was when I was teaching in Ankara, at the Faculty of Islamic Theology, and I was at great pain to explain to my students the theories of Rudolph Otto about the numinous and the Mysterium Tremendum and the Mysterium Fascinans, and one of my students got up and said, “But this is very simple, we have had that in Islam for centuries and centuries. We have always spoken about God’s Jalal, his tremendous majesty, and his Jamal, his fascinating beauty.” And I thought, couldn’t one look at Islam also from this angle and see whether definitions that have been current throughout the centuries cannot be explained in terms of modern phenomenology of religion and would it not be fairer toward Islamic culture to do it this way instead of dwelling upon all the borrowings and influences from outside, so that Islam would be stood up in its true variety and its colorful forms? And so, in the course of the years I thought I should try to do it this way.
Now first let us say a few words about the method. The… phenomenologist of religion has done very little for Islam. The only book where you have a single chapter devoted to Islam is the traditional work by Van der Leeuw. You will find him on reserve in Andover as are the other books that I mention and incidentally you will get a syllabus on Wednesday. Van der Leeuw calls Islam the religion of majesty and humility. Now that’s a rather good definition but once you read what he writes in the said chapter I found it pretty disappointing. And we could as well have called Islam the religion of will and obedience as he calls Judaism. Otherwise in his useful book Essence of Manifestation of Religion, you will find precious little information about things Islamic and the same is true for the book that my teacher, Friedrich Heiler, wrote, upon whose work I’m going to build up this course. And the great problem that all these books (Eliade especially never mentioned Islam) is that they rely on second hand translations. Perhaps they quote once every two hundred pages a sentence from the Qur’an but usually they take to Islam only when they talk about mysticism because there were some nice 19th century translations available which, of course, are nowadays completely out-dated and many of the facts said about Islamic mysticism have been now recognized as being incorrect.
Heiler, in his book Wesen und Erscheinungsformen der Religion, which came out thirty years ago and unfortunately was never translated into English, gives a different approach. He shows us, and I think that’s important to keep in mind, that we can approach the study of all religions in various ways. We can take the history of religion and put a vertical section through it and follow up each religion in its historical development and thus gain a certain survey of the possibilities that are here. That’s what is usually done in general courses on history of religion: you start out with a so-called primitive religion and then go slowly to the ancient classical antiquity and you go to India and of course to Judaism, Christianity, and then if you are lucky there is a little tail end left for Islam. This is one way which, of course, is easiest for the student to pursue.
We can also approach the religions in a kind of a cross section. We can study the difference types for instance, from a sociological model: What is folk religion, what is universal religion, what is missionary religion? Or we can study that from the viewpoint of how do they conceive of the divine: Are they polytheistic are they henotheistic, are they monotheistic, pantheistic, monistic? and so on and so forth. And one can always see, in this kind of cross section, that the borders are sometimes blurred or fuzzy. We can also study them when we look at how they conceive of the world: Are they world negating, are they world conquering for instance? And finally we can see them from a psychological viewpoint: We can distinguish between the so-called mystical religion, the so-called prophetic religion, and again in every case we’ll have a very clear-cut picture because, after all, religion is something that is alive. We cannot approach it with statistics only and what Van der Leeuw and Heiler and before that Nathan Soderblum, the great Swedish historian of religion, had shown is that you cannot possibly study religion without having a certain feeling and, particularly, respect for it. And in some of our modern approaches, as you well know, religion is just treated like geology or botany or something like that, as if it were something that can be cut to pieces and put into sociological or other categories just to make it very clear and the person who studies it is not at all interested in its “religiousness.” And I think this danger has been avoided by Soderblum, by Van der Leeuw, and by Heiler very well.
We have, of course, not the intention, that would be far beyond the scope of this course, to go into the whole discussion about the origin of religion. We know there is something sacred, something that inspires humankind with the feeling that it is larger than oneself. It is the feeling of awe, and a fascination, and here we are back at Rudolph Otto’s Tremendum and Fascinans which is inspired for instance when looking at a strangely shaped stone and a particularly beautiful, tall Cypress tree or at an animal in all its glory such as a lion. And this feeling that there is something beyond the outward manifestations has certainly inspired those who have studied the phenomenology of religion. And as we are not going to go into all these details we have to keep in mind the numinous power that lies behind things which is then shown in the various manifestations.
We have to see how the different rites developed and we have to see how these rites in turn inspired religious expressions. Because as all of us know, many terms and many facts that were known in the so-called primitive religion – I don’t like this word at all because it’s just an umbrella term without much meaning ‘ but in the first [stage] of religion many things that inspired or ….were taken over, later on, into religious language. And when the primitive person worshipped a stone or was impressed by the manner, the deeper meaning, the power of the stone then we still talk when we want to describe for instance God’s power or, in Christianity, the role of Christ of being a strong stone or the corner stone and things like that. And what we are going to do will largely be to follow up this way . . . how forms and ancient beliefs, ancient rites, ancient cults are slowly transformed into forms of speech and forms of thought.
I personally think that phenomenology of religion is particularly suited to understanding Islam because there is an ‘Aya, a verse in the Qur’an, where it is said that God has shown mankind: “ayatana fil afaq wa fi anfusihim, we have shown them our signs in the horizon (that is in the external world) and in themselves.” Which means that a Muslim can certainly approach everything he or she sees under this heading in everything as an Aya, a sign by which the believer is led to what’s behind it, namely to a divine origin or a divine creator. And I think if we take phenomenology from this viewpoint, then it will be comparatively easy and I feel (I may be absolutely mistaken) but I feel that modern Muslim theologians and those who want to defend Islam and explain it in the Western World could easily use this method instead of relying on time- honored traditions and not dare to venture into these modern fronts which are absolutely compatible with what the Qur’an says. But this is my personal impression, I don’t know, perhaps someone will contradict me very badly.
Now Heiler has shown, as I said, that we can approach the study of religion from a vertical section and by a cross-section. He himself invented something which I personally find very practical and very revealing. In his book, Phenomenology of Religion, he has seen the religious essence and the manifestations in concentric circles and next time you are going to get the picture of the circles- I did not bring it today because in Heiler’s book it is only inscribed in German and I’m not sure how many of you read German -… who will be the teaching fellow for this course has promised to draw it nicely and Xerox it along with the syllabus so that all of you have it before you attend the classes to come. But I can explain it to you without drawing circles here on the blackboard. For him, the center of everything is what the history of religion calls the deus absconditus, the hidden God, the god, the godhead, the It, or whatever can be called something that is beyond our understanding, and not only beyond our rational understanding, but beyond every attempt at defining it. It is the core, the hub, the innermost self, or whatever you would say. But, as Islam says, there is a Hadith Kudsi, a sacred Hadith, according to which God says, “kuntu kanzan makhfiyyan, I was a hidden treasure and I wanted to be known so I created the world.”
In this Hadith Kudsi, the idea of revelation is most beautifully expressed and we will come back to it time and again. It is the Deus Revelatus, the revealed God with which humanity can get in touch. Whether this God reveals itself in creation or in His word, whether the word is a book as a Qur’an, or is a human being, an incarnate word like Christ, or whatever the incarnation is, that is the Deus Revelatus to whom humanity can pray, can ask, and upon whom it can predicate the various aspects of life. These are the real top circles of Heiler’s ideas.
The next somewhat larger circle is how does the human being react to the divine manifestations. There is of course the sanctity in which God shows himself and this sanctity is then experienced by mankind as not only the overwhelming feeling of respect but also of love. But sanctity is certainly one of the aspects under which the numinous or the deity or god or whatever we want can be known. Another aspect is love.
God is love as Christianity says and love in a much higher sense than anything else is certainly also to be predicated upon God. And according to Heiler, there is the most, perhaps the most important aspect, truth. God, the absolute truth. And we have in Islam the expression Haq, the absolute truth as one of the most important names under which the divine reveals itself. And human beings will now respond to these manifestations; they will respond to sanctity as I said, to all, by all. They will respond to divine love by their own love, and they will respond and, that is, particularly, of course in Islam, to the aspect of truth by faith. This is the first outer circle.
Then, we see the spiritual aspect, the rational, the ideal aspects of religion in the following. They will be expressed; these feelings, or surrender, whatever it is, in the ideas humanity has formed about God, about the whole question in theology. The truth can be experienced by discussing the idea of revelation, and love can be experienced by seeing the idea of soteriology, that is, to have the sanctity, the redemption, and forgiveness and what else we have. So we have theology, which is connected with cosmology. We have the manifestation in revelation and we have also an eschatology which goes together with either soteriology with heaven and hell and whatever belongs to it.
And finally the outward circle is the sensory manifestations of what we have just been talking. And we will mainly be concerned in this class with the sensory manifestation because it is a well-known fact that we cannot think of anything spiritual without at the same time seeing it in a sensory form. We are made up of body and spirit and we cannot think of pure spirit and so sensory experiences always trigger experiences of spiritual height. Whosoever has worked on mystical currents knows that often a very small event or a very small manifestation of, let me say, a beautiful flower or a falling star can lead the mystic to the experience of the divine. And in Islam, the Sufis and the theologians have always known that there is no Latafa, no subtlety, without a Kathafa, a coarseness through which it can become visible. There is a beautiful verse by the late Urdu poet Ghalib in the 19th Century where he says, “There can be no spiritual subtleness without the material coarseness. The wind in spring becomes visible in the movement of the grass. We can’t see the wind but the grass, the material medium shows us this wind.”
Friedrich von Hugel, the great British theologian at the beginning of the century, has expressed this in somewhat more theological language, when he said, As in all mental apprehension and conviction, there is always somewhere the element of the stimulation of the senses so also that the spirit awakens to its own life and powers on occasion with material things.” This is exactly what we experience when we deal with the phenomenology. And, when I mention in the beginning that everything is an ‘Aya, a sign that points to the living God, then it’s expressed in Islamic terms. The (inaudible)… can inspire man. The Hajj, the prayer, fasting, can lead to spiritual experiences, and Islam has, as many other religions, symbolic actions by which a saint, the Prophet, a teacher points by his or her own action, to some higher reality. I think all of you know the story of Rabi’a of Basra who was seen carrying a pitcher with water in one hand and a flaming torch in the other hand and when asked what she meant with these things she said, “I want to pour water into hell and set fire to paradise so that these two veils disappear and no one worships God out of fear of hell or in hope of paradise but just for the sake of his own eternal beauty.” This is a typical symbolic act, the like of which can be found in every religion very frequently.
Let us go back to the outer circle of which we were talking. It is concerned with objects, with sacred space, and sacred time which all embrace also cult and ritual. It is concerned with the word about God, with the word to God, which is prayer also and with the written word, the scripture, an extremely important concept especially in Islam. And we shall try to go through these different circles beginning from the very simple one, the sacred object. But before we go there, one other coincidence if we can call it like that: Heiler’s circles were printed in 1961-he had been teaching this course for ever so many years until he had elaborated the fourth old division coming from the external object through the idea, through the experiences leading finally to the hub of religion to what we may call object of religion, the divine essence. If, at more than a thousand years ago in Baghdad around 900, a Sufi, Abul ?Husayn an-Nuri, who was one of the most interesting characters in the whole history of Baghdadian Sufism, gave a discussion of the stages of man in relation to reality. And he takes the human heart, the breast, the heart, and he takes Qur’anic words for the breast, the heart, the innermost heart, and the finest point of the heart the Lub. And what does he say? He said, the first and outward part as-Sadr, the breast that is connected with Islam, that is the functions of religion, it is the duties of the Muslim, it is everything that can be conceived in the world around us. And in the Qur’an, Sadr and Islam belonged together just as does Qalb, the real heart, with Iman, with faith. And that corresponds exactly to the second ring namely the spiritual and ideal aspects of religion. That is the question of the heart.
Nuri goes farther again employing a Qur’anic pair of expressions, the Fu’ad which is the inner part of the heart, the spiritual heart, is connected with Ma’rifa, that is gnosis, non-intellectual experience, that expression is close to Heiler’s circle of number three, he experiences all love ecstasy. That is even deeper than Iman, than faith-it’s an interiorization of everything. And finally, the innermost point of heart which has always been connected with the last experience of the divine, which has often been called the “window toward the divine,” that is the small, smallest, innermost part of the heart, which in the Qur’an is connected with Tawhid, the acknowledgement that God is One. So we see in this scheme that Nuri developed more than a thousand years ago a really exact counterpart to the way a modern historian of religion, like Heiler has conceived of the concentric rings which lead from the outward manifestation, from the phenomena to the inner-most core of religion. And I think, just as my students in Ankara reminded me, of the Jamal and Jalal as being forerunners of the Tremendum and the Fascinans, that Nuri’s scheme shows also that it is absolutely legitimate to apply the findings of history of religion and of phenomenology of religion to Islamic tradition.
We have, of course, to keep in mind, that Islam has developed many, many different faces in the course of the centuries coming from Mecca, Medina, and spreading nowadays from the Atlantic to Indonesia and Japan and here in this country and in Europe. It is natural that a religion should adapt aspects of the host countries which are perhaps not exactly what the classical and orthodox Muslims would have liked to see. But we can see that for instance, in broader areas like Bengal, or in certain currents inside Islam, like the Ismailiya, traditions in the countries where the religions grew were incorporated and mixed in such a way that a perfectly genuine, though at first sight somewhat strange looking, manifestation appeared.
And as I said in the beginning, we should not talk too much about influences; we should rather concentrate on the ideal and the ideas as they have developed because I am of the opinion that you can have the same experience in all religions; humanity after all is one, and even though the ways of experiencing the divine is different, there are only a certain set of ways to express these experiences and it’s not necessary that they should have influenced each other. They may have borrowed at a later stage ideas which are dear to them and which are close to their own feelings but the idea for instance that everything in early Islam is influenced either by Christianity or by Judaism has now been left aside by many of the scholars and I think rightly so.
This is by way of prolegomena; I will just give you a short survey of how the class is going to develop…. (NOTE: Tape ends here.)
Katherine is the host of the Mystic Pen Series. She holds an undergraduate degree from Berklee College of Music and a graduate degree from Harvard University. Her research interests are focused on both the significance and the impact of the aural and visual in cultures and societies around the world (as told through art and music) along with the nature of artistic creation itself. Her area of specialty is the transmission of Near Eastern motifs in Italian art.
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