A Friend of the Friends of God

Just suppose you are able to make an interview with Annemarie Schimmel (d. 2003). What would you ask her? Perhaps some of your questions are similar to the ones as given below:

Q: How did your love for Islam and Sufism start?

A: Since I was seven years old I wanted to study Islam. It started with a story called ‘Padmanaba and Hassan’, which I read in a book of fairytales, which I had inherited from my grandfather – the book is from the year 1870. In this tale, which is similar to a tale of ‘The Arabian Nights’, a young man from Damascus finds a spiritual guide in India, who initiates him and takes him to a magic world. There they enter a large hall in which the king of kings, the ruler of all rulers, is resting on a large divan, while being surrounded by all his rich possessions. Above the divan there is something written in calligraphy, which tells: ‘The people are sleeping; when they die, they awake’. I found out seven years later that this is a saying of the prophet Muhammad. This sentence made such a deep impression on me, that, although I was only seven years old, I told myself that this is my world. So in fact it was all caused by the Prophet!

Q: When did you meet the Sufis in person for the first time?

A: I have visited Istanbul for the first time in 1952. I was at that time studying the Sufi Ibn Khafif and was also interested in the prayer in Islam. Because of my experiences in Turkey I could understand Mevlana Rumi much better. When I was only eighteen years old I was already translating his poetry. At that time I was thinking that I had understood him quite well. My visit to Konya in 1952 changed things for me. It was a wonderful day in spring. Then I understood that he used all these images to express his religious experiences. It was a break-through for me! I then realized that Mevlana Rumi recognized everything he saw and experienced as signs of God. Next year I went to Ankara and spent lots of time with my Islamic friends. Later on I met Samiha Ayverdi and the Sufi circle of Kenan Rifa’i.

Q: Kenan Rifa’i has reformed the Rifa’i Sufi order and has attracted many intellectuals like Mrs. Samiha Ayverdi. I have been told that women occupy a rather privileged place in this brotherhood. Can you tell us more about women in Sufism?

A: One of my friends, a German woman, Gesine Auffenberg, has joined a Sufi order. It came about because of a dream. She told me this story:

“It was a dream about a land wherein you see things with your heart. She was very depressed because of the death of her mother. In the dream – it was a dream about a desert – I saw for a short span of time the face of an old man and I knew that his name was Mohammad Osman and that he lived in Khartoum. I then went to Khartoum and tried to find Mohammad Osman. I asked for him at the market place and I visited graveyards, as I was unaware if he was still alive. I also asked questions about him from the dervishes.

It so happened that I was at the graveyard at the edge of the city of Khartoum, where the desert starts and the dervishes dance there at every Thursday. I was very tired. For three weeks I had been looking in vain for Mohammad Osman and now I only wanted to ask about him one final time and then return home. The dervish, I talked to in poor Arabic, had to laugh. He rubbed his head. Mohammad Osman was here only known as Mohammad Osman Burhani, who was the head of the brotherhood of the Burhaniyya. Thus I met Sidi Mohammad Osman Burhani. I immediately recognized him as he looked exactly like the man I had seen in my dream… He stayed to be my shaykh and teacher even after his death”.

Q: Can you tell us another story about dreams?

A : For several months I tried to change the mind of my ‘brother’ Ismail, an artisan from Konya, so that he would not travel to Germany. This dervish was so strongly living in the world of divine and human love, that life in a modern western city would give him too much of a shock. But now he was ready to fly away to the country he longed to visit and presented himself at the door of my apartment in Ankara. He said, radiant from happiness: “Now everything will turn out to be all right. I’ve dreamed of Hazret-i Mevlana. He was sitting on a throne and I was sitting at his feet. He was so nice to me, it was wonderful…”.

“Hayirdir insallah – hopefully it is something good!” – I said – but I should have suspected that Mevlana, the great Jalaluddin Rumi with whom Ismail’s family since many generations has been connected and whom he himself loved so strongly, had indicated with this dream that the traveller would soon be in his eternal protection. A few weeks later, in April 1959, Ismail died in Germany.

Q: What can you tell us about your visit to Sindh?

A: I have visited Pakistan in 1958 for the first time. I met so many interesting people who opened to me every new aspect of the local culture. I was at first in Karachi, in Sindh, and got to know about the Sindhi culture. I loved Sindhi music and saw the marvellous graves at Makli Hill. When I asked one of the greatest scholars of Pakistan if he could mention some books wherein I could read something about these graves, he answered a little condescending, like only a pir would say it: “I have written something about these graves, but you are unable to read it as it is in Sindhi”.

Now if someone tells me that I cannot read a language… Six months later I wrote my first letter in Sindhi to him. A new world opened itself as I had discovered a new, inspiring source regarding literature. There happen to be mystical poems in the Sindhi language of a beauty beyond your imagination, next to very interesting modern literature.

Q: I have visited the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif (d. 1752) in Sindh. What tells this Sufi about the seeker on the spiritual path?

A: He has written this:

Not desiring is his house,
Not being is his hut,
Contentment is his world,
Not seeking other wealth…

In his ‘Risalo’ he has written:

They, who have discovered
The village with the heavenly hill,
They will leave fields and threshing floors,
In their quest to be near to God.

They who, if only once, have smelled the perfume
Of the village with the heavenly hill,
They will leave their coloured clothes,
In their quest to be near to God.

They who, if only once, have seen
The village with the heavenly hill,
They will have annihilated their bodies,
In their quest to be near to God,

When birds are unable to find the path,
Then a light will be seen,
Who will be able to show this light,
If not someone who is a dervish?

Q: How about India?

A: I have visited India for the fist time in 1958 and went to Delhi, Agra and Ajmer in order to go to the very sacred place of Mo’inuddin Chishti. My most beloved area has been the Deccan, in the south of India, which I visited for the first time in 1979. I remember most of all an old gentleman, who was an important civil servant in the Ministry of Finance in Hyderabad, who then became a dervish. He told me many things about Sufism, not so much its outward forms, but more its inward depth. I regularly think of him. When all people were like him, the world would be better.

I have often visited Delhi. Near the mausoleum of Humayun, who was the Mogul emperor between 1530 and 1556, there is a small Sufi shrine. You can reach it by following a path, which is in the shade of the overhanging branches of the many trees surrounding it. A Hakim, a traditional healer, was treating his patients at that sacred place. He was about 100 years old. His diagnosis was only based on feeling the pulse of his patients. He was a gifted mystic who produced pills wherein he mixed gold and silver with herbs and thus was able to heal several of my friends.

Q: How about the Chishti Sufis?

A: I have often visited the sajjaadaneshin, the head of the Nizami branch of the Chishti order. He was looking quite impressive with his yellow dervish hat. I have talked for hours with this highly educated man about questions dealing with mysticism, while drinking tea and eating some fruits.

One day I went with a pious man, who belonged to the Chishti order to the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya. I have forgotten his name, but I still remember how he looked like: A tall and lean man, with dark and curly hair and beard, wearing a dervish hat and penetrating, deep-seeing eyes, a man who clearly deeply had uncovered the mysteries of the Sufi path. After visiting the dargah he took me to his house. The taxi driver was rather incensed having to drive through the narrow streets of Old Delhi. We entered through a large portal and I got an impression of the traditional style of living in the inner city. The dervish gave me a seat at a rather unstable table. A bookcase could be seen with mystical literature. A transistor radio was turned on and I heard a type of music, which reminded me of Bach. Three mice were dancing on the table, circling with hope and desire around our plates on which soon some food was presented. I took my food in gratitude and it pains me to think that this implied a sacrifice for his family as they presented their own food to me.

Some years later I again visited this dervish. He was lying on his bed surrounded by Urdu and Persian Sufi books. He had become even more transparent as if he no longer belonged to this earth. When I left him after a few minutes, I knew that he would soon go to the world of light he had longed for all his life.

When thinking of him I am reminded of a poem of Khwaja Mir Dard:

O, you fool! When we die,
Then this will be confirmed:
It was a dream, what we saw,
A fairy-tale, what we heard.

Q: If I’d ask you to choose some lines from a Persian poem from the Urdu poet Ghalib (1797-1869), which lines would you choose?

A: Without any hesitation I’d choose some lines from the ghazal with the rhyme-word ‘be-raqs’, which seems to me, to reveal more of Ghalib’s character than many other verses of his:

Chun ‘aks-e pol be sail be zawq-e balaa be-raqs

Jaa-raa nagaah daar o ham az khod jodaa be-raqs

This is my translation:

Like the reflection of the bridge
In the delight of the affliction,
In the torrent you will dance.
Watch your place,
Separated from yourself,
And yet you will dance.

Q: What is your opinion of Ghalib? His life was very difficult, wasn’t it?

A: Yes! He described himself in the last line of this very ghazal and told himself to ‘dance in the fetters of affliction’.

Q: You have translated many a poem from Iqbal. Why not quote his poem about the Mullah in paradise?

A: It is inspired by some lines of Dara Shikoh who wrote already 300 years before Iqbal:

Paradise is, where there is no Mullah.

This is what Iqbal wrote:

I was there and could not keep my mouth shut,

When God gave the order: ‘Into paradise with this Mullah!’

I said modestly: ‘Forgive me, o God!

Huris and wine will not be to his liking.

Heaven is no place for disputes,

While discussions and fights are close to his nature.

The one who incites the people of different sects

To start quarrels with one another,

For him there are no temples or churches in heaven!’

Q: Anything else you want to say?

A: One day I left Delhi and a friend came and tied something around my arm. He made it clear that it was to protect me as he said: ‘It has been proven that it protects the traveller’. And so it did!