Annemarie Schimmel, who has died aged 80, was an orientalist who enriched Harvard university during the last quarter of the 20th century.
Universally acknowledged as the leading expert on Sufism, classical and folk Islamic poetry, and Indo-Pakistani literature and calligraphy, she wrote and translated 105 works, including numerous scholarly and popular articles. Her own poetry was in the spirit of medieval Muslim mystics such as al-Hallaj, Hfiz and Rumi – on whom she was the foremost western specialist.
Schimmel’s impressive output was attributable to a solid grounding in not only the Islamic “tripos” of Arabic, Persian and Turkish, but also Urdu, Pashto and Sindhi. For good measure she also added Czech and Swedish to her native German, as well as Latin, English, French, Spanish and Italian. She conversed in seven languages and delivered lectures in four, speaking and quoting serenely to enraptured audiences, with eyes shut, extemporaneously for an hour and often even longer.
Born in Erfurt, the hometown of the German mystic Meister Eckhart, Annemarie Schimmel grew up in a house “permeated with religious freedom and poetry”. She began studying Arabic at 15, finished high school two years earlier than customary, and obtained her first doctorate from Berlin university at 19 in Arabic, Turkish and Islamic history.
After studying with Annemarie von Gabain, Richard Hartmann, Ernst Kühnel and the brilliant Hans Heinrich Schaeder, she commenced research on Mamluk history for her Habilitationsschrift (postdoctoral thesis). Having managed to avoid getting drafted, she was employed in the translation bureau of the foreign office during the war.
Interned after Armistice Day (having submitted her thesis a month earlier), and following an invitation to join the university of Marburg, Schimmel delivered her inaugural address before turning 24 in January 1946. While teaching there as assistant professor of Islamic studies (1946-54), she also secured her second doctorate in 1951 on Islamic mysticism under Friedrich Heiler, a pioneering historian of religions.
Remarkably for a non-Muslim woman, Schimmel’s next move was to Ankara university’s theology faculty where she taught (in Turkish) comparative religions and church history from 1954 to 1959. She returned home to become associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Bonn university (1961-65) and concomitantly co-edited (with Albert Theile) the Arabic journal, Fikrun Wa Fann (Thought And Art).
Despite the persuasion of the late Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Richard Frye, she was initially disinclined to leave Bonn and her journal for Harvard. Frye was chiefly instrumental in arranging for the Minute Rice bequest, the first teaching position exclusively for South Asian Islamic culture, which she came to hold in 1967 as lecturer and then as full professor of Indo-Muslim Languages and Culture (1970-92).
She became honorary professor at Bonn university after her retirement. The Annemarie Schimmel Chair for Indo-Muslim Culture was instituted there on her 75th birthday in 1997.
As the doyenne of Pakistan studies, Schimmel was an authority on that nation’s poet-philosopher, Sir Muhammad Iqbal, and hitherto unexamined aspects of folklore, classical Urdu poetry and popular devotional life. She came to own presented copies of Iqbal’s Payam-i Mashriq (Message Of The East) and Javidname (Book Of Eternity); and enthusiastically undertook over 35 visits to her second home to visit the tombs of Sindhi poet-saints.
Over the years she received honorary doctorates, and both a boulevard in Lahore and a scholarship for female students pursuing research abroad were named after her. That a grave was always kept prepared for her burial in Makli, Sind, was widely recounted in senior common rooms.
Schimmel was revered across the Muslim world as an insider who appreciated Islam’s eclectic expressions of piety and achievement. She was the first female president of the International Association of the Study of Religion (1980); a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and a recipient of the Grosses Bundesverdientskreuz (1989) and Friedenspreis des Deutsche Buchhandels (1995), among other honours.
Literary faddists expressed outrage at this on the grounds that she did not appear to support Salman Rushdie enough and condemn abuses within Islamic societies. But she was a multicultural orientalist long before both terms became polluted. She was a gifted teacher, sensitive interpreter of Islam and a bridge for intercultural dialogue.
· Annemarie Schimmel, orientalist, born April 7 1922; died January 25 2003