Bismillaah ir Rahmaan ir Rahiim
In the name of Allah, The Merciful, The Compassionate
An Introduction to Henry Corbin
As Moulana Rumi said in the beginning of the second volume of his Masnavi after some period of delay:
This Masnavi has been delayed for a while;
an interval was needed in order that the blood might turn to milk.
It has been a long while since we last talked to you through our website. As Rumi said in the verse above, we too needed to take some time off and concentrate on the deeper journey of the soul which is the primary purpose of this life.
Whilst Covid has brought suffering, we hope that you have also been shown the blessings amongst the hardships, as this is God’s way, as God says in the Qur’an (94:5-6): “With hardship comes ease! Truly with hardship comes ease!”. As the world braced itself, we have been inwardly focused and would like to share some of the outcomes of this journey with those of you who are searching for higher purpose and deeper spiritual connection. You may also like to read the article of Dr. S. H. Nasr we sent last year: 'A Brief Spiritual Reflection On The Current Pandemic' which is very appropriate to what is happening now.
We are hoping to concentrate our efforts on helping people who are interested on their inner journey, and what better journey than the realisation of the inner journey of the soul. We will start by introducing you to a scholar who understood inner or esoteric Islam at a level that most Orientalists never reach. After that, we shall follow up with regular translations of teaching on Rumi’s celebrated book of the Masnavi. Through these initiatives we will try to meet the needs of those wanting to embark on the spiritual inner journey. But first, let us turn to the work of Henry Corbin.
Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was a philosopher, theologian and eventually a specialist in Islam with a particular focus on the esoteric dimension of Islam. “He was a champion of the transformative power of the Imagination and of the transcendent reality of the individual in a world threatened by totalitarianisms of all kinds.” (Cheetham, 2021).
A number of his commentators believe that his voluminous and astounding work has not gained the degree of attention that it deserves. His work deserves reading, re-reading and contemplating until its spiritual and intellectual nourishment can be properly absorbed. Of course that is characteristic of any real spiritual writing, unlike ordinary reading where, once you have read and understood you are done. This is because within spiritual and esoteric literature there are various levels of realisation that would only be available according to the preparedness (estidad) of the reader. Also the written language of spiritual masters is usually very difficult to follow because it is not directed toward mental understanding which people are so used to. It is the language of higher spiritual levels, but at least Corbin is easier to understand because he was both closer to our time and a modern Western scholar and philosopher. We aim to play a small role in helping people find that spiritual nourishment with some articles about his work. In that vein, we have compiled a small introduction to Corbin and his writing for you.
Corbin’s early academic claim to fame was that he was the first French translator of German philosopher Heidegger’s ‘What is Metaphysics’, in which he included excerpts of Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ which had shaken up European philosophers and was hailed as an ‘epoch-making’ book. In that process he visited Heidegger several times in Germany to study his philosophy of ‘Existenz’ (Being). Corbin, who remained appreciative of what he learned from Heidegger's Phenomenology, nonetheless yearned for more, and his search led him eventually to Iran and esoteric Islam (during the period 1946 until 1973). What some have called a rupture with his European philosophical beginnings, was in fact a deepening of his quest for Being beyond the secular horizon Heidegger imposed. Corbin found a more compelling and more comprehensive account of Being in esoteric Islam in Iran. So from France, to Germany and Turkey and then finally to Iran, but really all along it was a search for Being that philosophy and his Christian background was not giving him.
There are many features about Corbin and his approach that require introduction for those not familiar with his work. Perhaps the first was that, even though he was writing about the teachings of the Sufi masters of Islam from many centuries ago, he was not a historian, he was avowedly a philosopher, and one who was convinced that philosophy was the compliment of spirituality. He was in fact anti-historical, and didn’t allow himself to get caught in the distance of history like many others. History was not denied, but he preferred to look beyond it to activate a personal connection to the ideas being presented, instead of leaving them embedded in a dead history. This allowed him to find deep similarities between spiritual traditions which for him showed that despite the diversity of gnostic religious expressions, their similarity revealed insights into the human soul’s journey toward God.
Even more remarkable than his extraordinary intellectual output was the way he studied esoteric doctrine by direct participation in it. His writings are not those of the interested academic observer, which are forever one step removed, no matter how well observed. This deep participatory reading came from an equally deep understanding both of the nature of the esoteric doctrines that he was studying and what was required for their assimilation. When discussing the nature of these teachings and their relation to the soul, he says that it is a teaching which aims at:
“… a mode of understanding which is not a simple act of knowing. It is not a teaching for the masses, but an initiatory teaching passed on to each specially chosen disciple. It is an esoteric knowledge, a knowledge of the Truth that, as such, gives rise to a new birth, a metamorphosis, the salvation of the soul.” (Corbin, 2013)
As Corbin broadened and deepened his focus from secular matters to spiritual realities he freely adapted the phenomenological and hermeneutical method that his French and European philosophers and teachers including Heidegger taught, expanding the method as necessary to accommodate the realm of metaphysics. Corbin says of the relation of Heidegger's hermeneutics to the hermeneutics of Islamic metaphysics:
“What I was looking for in Heidegger and that which I understood thanks to Heidegger, is precisely that which I was looking for and found in the metaphysics of Islamic Iran … (and) everything was shifted onto a different level…” (From Heidegger To Suhravardi: An Interview with Philippe Némo, 2021)
A contemporary academic summarises this relation by saying; “… we may say that Corbin uses the Heideggerian analytic system as a frame to reach hermeneutic levels that hadn’t been envisaged in Heideggerian philosophy.” (Neuve-Eglise, 2009)
Through this inspired form of hermeneutics of God’s Being as theophany, Corbin opened up to the West the realms hardly written about by Western spiritual philosophers. As a sincere reader you are left with glimpses of the Truth and Reality that are hidden beneath the exoteric religion.
However it was really the work of Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi, the gnostic philosopher, known as the Sheikh of Ishraq, Master of the theory of Light of Iran (1154-1191) in particular, that helped Corbin in this realisation. Studying Suhrawardi took him well beyond the confines of Western philosophy, into spiritual realms that were so rare or non-existent in Western thought, that Corbin needed to coin new English words to describe it. Naming the world that opened up for him as ‘Mundus Imaginalis’ as well as the ‘organ’ of subtle perception needed to perceive this world as the ‘Active Imagination’ Corbin states:
“... between the universe that can be apprehended by pure intellectual Perception (the universe of the Cherubic Intelligences) and the universe perceptible to the senses, there is an intermediate world, the world of Idea-Images, of archetypal figures, of subtile substances, of "immaterial matter." This world is as real and objective, as consistent and subsistent as the intelligible and sensible worlds; it is an intermediate universe "where the spiritual takes body and the body becomes spiritual," a world consisting of real matter and real extension, though by comparison to sensible, corruptible matter these are subtile and immaterial. The organ of this universe is the active Imagination; it is the place of theophanic visions, the scene on which visionary events and symbolic histories appear in their true reality. Here we shall have a good deal to say of this universe, but the word imaginary will never be used, because with its present ambiguity this word, by prejudging the reality attained or to be attained, betrays an inability to deal with this at once intermediate and intermediary world.” (Corbin, 1998)
The journey toward these realms starts with ensuring one is facing in the right direction! For instance, in his book "Man of Light In Iranian Sufism" his opening chapter starts with “Orientation”, which means that it is important to know how we are oriented in life. Spiritually we need an ‘orientation’ to know what our inner journey of life is about, which is connected to the Hereafter, hence the importance of taking our minds off some of the day-to-day ‘stuff of life’, so that time and attention can also be given to this real journey. Some people become aware of that in this life, and those are the ones that have got their reward in the Hereafter, whereas some get very busy with the outer life and never wonder about the answer to the important questions of: “Where have I come from?”, “Where am I going?” and “What is the purpose of my life?”
Whilst my writings on the Australian Centre for Sufism website have already written about this issue, for example in ‘Imposter or Mistaken Identity’, I remind readers that “Human beings are in two journeys simultaneously, one conscious or semi-conscious, and the other unconscious” (Bonnin), I would still like to take you further toward that Orientation through the writing of Corbin. Of course if you are interested to pursue this issue further, you can always get the book “Man of Light in Iranian Sufism” or his other books to read.
May God help us by opening our inner sight to His signs that He has placed on the horizons and in our souls.
To get you started, here is a link to some illuminating excerpts from chapters 1 and 2 of Man of Light in Iranian Sufism by Henry Corbin. Excerpts Part One
Fleur Nassery Bonnin
30 June 2021
Association des amis de Henry et Stella Corbin. 2021. From Heidegger To Suhravardi: An Interview with Philippe Némo. [online] Available at: <https://www.amiscorbin.com/en/biography/from-heidegger-to-suhravardi/> [Accessed 19 June 2021].
Bonnin, F., n.d. Sufi Teachings: Imposter or Mistaken Identity. [online] www.Australiansuficentre.org. Available at: <https://www.australiansuficentre.org/sufi_teachings_imposter_mistaken_identity.htm> [Accessed 19 June 2021].
Cheetham, T., 2021. The Legacy of Henry Corbin. [online] Henrycorbinproject.blogspot.com. Available at: <http://henrycorbinproject.blogspot.com> [Accessed 19 June 2021].
Corbin, H., 1998. Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Corbin., H., 2013. Cyclical time & ismaili gnosis. [Place of publication not identified]: Routledge.
Neuve-Eglise, A., 2009. Hermeneutics and the Unique Quest of Being: Henry Corbin’s Intellectual Journey. Journal of Shi'a islamic Studies, II(1).
Rumi, J. and Nicholson, R., 1926. The Mathnawi of Jalaludin Rumi. 2nd ed. Delhi: ADAM publishers and Distributors.