Bismillaah ir Rahmaan ir Rahiim
In the name of Allah, The Merciful, The Compassionate
Excerpts from Henry Corbin on Mundus Imaginalis
Henry Corbin coined the term Mundus Imaginalis to refer to an entire spiritual realm and he repurposed the terms Imaginary and the Imaginal to refer to both that order of reality and the spiritual organ of perception necessary to perceive that realm. Corbin was continually warning his readers that neither of these words refers to imagination in the way that term is normally used, i.e. related to fantasy. The great masters that he studied, like Sheikh Shihabuddin Suhravardi (d. 1191), wrote of their experiences of this spiritual realm and Corbin immersed himself in these writings as well as in the writings of other Sufi masters which enabled him to bring back to us an understanding of the many levels of spiritual reality and their significance for us. The following excerpts are taken from his "Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal."
We usually speak of the imaginary as the unreal, the utopian. … In contrast to this … we may examine briefly together the order of reality that I designate as mundus imaginalis, and what our theosophers in Islam designate as
the "eighth climate"; we will then examine the organ that perceives this reality, namely, the imaginative consciousness, the cognitive Imagination; and finally, we will present several examples, among many others, of course, that suggest to us the topography of these interworlds, as they have been seen by those who actually have been there.
Corbin then quotes Suhravardi as he warns those with no experience of such spiritual realms not to disbelieve in the existence and importance of such realities. Suhravardi also alludes to the role and value of this world in the contemplative journey.
When you learn in the treatises of the ancient Sages that there exists a world provided with dimensions and extension, other than the pleroma of Intelligences [that is, a world below that of the pure archangelic Intelligences], and other than the world governed by the Souls of the Spheres [that is, a world which, while having dimension and extension, is other than the world of sensory phenomena, and superior to it, including the sidereal universe, the planets and the "fixed stars"], a world where there are cities whose number it is impossible to count, cities among which our Prophet himself named Jabalqa and Jabarsa, do not hasten to call it a lie, for pilgrims of the spirit may contemplate that world, and they find there everything that is the object of their desire.
But what is this world? Corbin is very clear when he tells of the reality of this spiritual world, and the relation to what is in our
That world, fully objective and real, where everything existing in the sensory world has its analogue, but not perceptible by the senses, is the world that is designated as the eighth climate. The term is sufficiently eloquent by itself, since it signifies a climate outside of climates, a place outside of (physical) place, outside of where …
Above Corbin refers to the pre-modern maps of the universe where spiritual and physical topographies are represented on the one map and the edge of physical/perceivable existence was designated as the seventh climate or level. The Eighth Climate is above/beyond the earthly and sensory seven levels, but is lower than the levels of Pure Spirit ('Archangelic Intelligences'). It is in that intermediate level where "everything that exists in the sensory world has its analogue".
"It is the world through which spirits are embodied, (but have no senses like earthy people), and bodies spiritualized."
The intermediate nature of this spiritual world facilitates a relationship between pure intelligibles and the sensory world, otherwise we would have no access to the meaning, interaction and correspondence between these levels and 'spirit' remained only a distant and conceptual reality.
In short, that world is the world of "subtle bodies," the idea of which proves indispensable if one wishes to describe a link between the pure spirit and the material body.
These subtle bodies have their own materiality, unrelated to and independent of physical materiality, and Corbin begins opening up the nature of the appearance of these objects and events. In the following quote from Qutbudin Shirazi (d.1311), Persian Sufi master and translator of Suhravardi, Corbin focuses our attention on the nature of these images.
… The Eighth Climate is the mundus archetypus (alam al-mithal) , the world of Images and archetypal Forms. … This is the world of autonomous Images and Forms (lit. "in suspension," that is, not mixed with any corruptible substratum, but in suspense in the way that an Image is suspended in a mirror). This is the world of the subtle bodies, which alone are able to rise to heaven, whereas material bodies, made of the substance of the Elements, are fundamentally incapable of this.
Highlighting the lack of materiality of the figures of the Imaginal world, Corbin, here quoting Qutbudin Shirazi again, brings home the inevitable conclusion as regards their subtlety.
Therefore, imaginative forms exist neither in thought, since the great cannot be imprinted in the small, nor in concrete reality, otherwise anyone with normally healthy senses would be able to see them. But they are not merely non-being, for if so one could neither represent them to oneself, nor distinguish them one from another, and different judgments of them could not be formed. Since they are something with real being and are neither in thought, nor in concrete reality, nor in the world of the Intelligences - for they are corporealized forms, not pure intelligibles - they must necessarily exist in some other region and the latter is what is called the world of the archetypal Image and of imaginative perception. It is a world intermediate between the world of the Intelligence and the world of the senses; its ontological plane is above the world of the senses and below the intelligible world; it is more immaterial than the first, less immaterial than the second. It is a world in which there exists the totality of forms and figures, dimensions and bodies, with all that is connected therewith: movements, rest, positions, configurations, etc., all of them self-subsistent "in suspense," that is to say, not being contained in a place nor depending on a substratum.
Importantly, this immaterial world, the locale of such figures, reflects to us spiritual truths, not otherwise knowable directly, as well as the
soul's state in its journeying. Corbin quotes the great Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg disclosing the relationship between the state of the soul and the manner in which that state is represented to the visionary.
The most exact formulation of all this, in the theosophical tradition of the West, is found perhaps in Swedenborg. One cannot but be struck by the concordance or convergence of the statements by the great Swedish visionary with those of Sohravardi, Ibn 'Arabi, or Sadra Shirazi. Swedenborg explains that "all things in heaven appear, just as in the world, to be in place and in space, and yet the angels have no notion or idea of place or space." This is because "all changes of place in the spiritual world are effected by changes of state in the interiors, which means that change of place is nothing else than change of state.... Those are near each other who are in like states, and those are at a distance who are in unlike states; and spaces in heaven are simply the external conditions corresponding to the internal states."
Thus Mundus Imaginalis, the inter-world, is the place where the soul is shown to itself. But to be shown, the soul must have developed or uncovered the visionary capacity to perceive. Because as Corbin makes eminently clear, there is no other way to experience this world than through the Active Imagination, which is not to be confused with the activity of the same name that was used by C.G. Jung.
We will touch here on the decisive point for which all that precedes has prepared us, namely, the organ that permits penetration into the mundus imaginalis, the migration to the "eighth climate." What is the organ by means of which that migration occurs, the migration that is the return ab extra ad intra (from the exterior to the interior), the topographical inversion (the intussusception)? It is neither the senses nor the faculties of the physical organism, nor is it the pure intellect, but it is that intermediate power whose function appears as the preeminent mediator: the active Imagination. Let us be very clear when we speak of this. It is the organ that permits the transmutation of internal spiritual states into external states, into vision-events symbolizing with those internal states. It is by means of this transmutation that all progression in spiritual space is accomplished, or, rather, this transmutation is itself what spatializes that space, what causes space, proximity, distance, and remoteness to be there.
Discussing how to best understand this visionary potential of humans, Corbin draws on Mulla Sadra Shirazi, the 17th Century Persian Mystic Philosopher.
…that this Imagination is a pure spiritual faculty, independent of the physical organism, and consequently is able to subsist after the disappearance of the latter (meaning after the death of the body). Sadra Shirazi, among others, has expressed himself repeatedly on this point with particular forcefulness. He says that just as the soul is independent of the physical material body in receiving intelligible things, according to its intellective power, the soul is equally independent with regard to its imaginative power and its imaginative operations.
Further, this Imaginal realm and Imaginary vision provide not only an experiential realm in which spiritual reality as well as the nature and progress of the soul is imaginalized, but that such visionary apperception allows for an experiential Knowledge not otherwise available.
…. the spiritual Imagination is a cognitive power, an organ of true knowledge. Imaginative perception and imaginative consciousness have their own noetic (cognitive) function and value, in relation to the world that is theirs - the world, we have said, which is the alam
al-mithal, mundus imaginalis, the world of the mystical cities such as Hurqalya, where time becomes reversible and where space is a function of desire, because it is only the external aspect of an internal state.
Having established the 'place' and the 'organ of perception' and the nature of that which is perceived and its function and importance for us, Corbin now relates and comments on one of Suhravardi's mystical experiences in the Imaginal realm.
Suhrawardi relates in one of his books how, during a period of overwork and spiritual ordeal brought on by meditation on the (difficulty with the issue) of Knowledge, up to then unsolved by him, one night, while still in an intermediate state between waking and sleeping, he was gratified by the apparition of the Imam of Philosophers, the Primus Magister, Aristotle. The beauty and the delicate light of the vision are carefully described; then the author reports what was in fact a long dialogue, evoking one after another high doctrinal themes.
Elsewhere, referring to this memorable conversation, he speaks of it as an event that took place in the mystical station of Jabarsa. Precisely, the first advice given by Aristotle's apparition to his visionary, in order to free him from the problem troubling him, from which he found no relief in philosophy books, is this: "Awake to yourself." For, with this "awakening to oneself" the whole inner experience of the Ishraq (Illumination) expands, that is the experience of the rising of the light, the light in its Orient. The "Earths" that it illuminates are no longer, for it, a collection of outer places and things, knowable only through descriptive science; they are, for the soul, its very presence to itself, its absolute activity, which it knows through "presential science", that is, through this "Oriental knowledge" ('ilm ishraqi) which can be characterized as 'cognitio matutina'. 2
Commenting further on this remarkable experience which holds so much teaching for us all, Corbin refers to the tradition of visionary experiences that great spiritual beings have had through the millennia.
Suhrawardi's commentators have devoted themselves to deciphering the meaning of this (above) episode; it seems that it can be clearly interpreted without too much difficulty. The episode constitutes a case of celestial "inner" ascension, such as are given in visionary biographies, Zarathustra's as well as that of the Prophet of Islam during the night of the Mi'raj, and it is such cases which have contributed to the need… for the doctrine of the "spiritual body."
Many such remarkable moments have occurred in the life of the Prophet and many teachings are based on these visionary experiences. The Prophet's knowledge of the nature of the soul and its existence outside of the time of this earthly life forms the basis of one of his very well known hadiths (traditions): "Man is asleep, when he dies he awakens". Whilst this tradition is spoken using the religious framework where the "Hereafter" is separated from the Here-below, the spiritual implication which in no way alters the truth of the hadith, is that as and when man dies to himself (to his ego personality), he awakens to those realms beyond his terrestrial perception.
Where no reference is made to an indented quote, that quote is from (1) below. All other quotes are referenced separately.
Corbin, H., 1964. Mundus Imaginalis or the Imaginary and the Imaginal
Corbin, H. and Pearson, N., 1989. Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth. 2nd ed. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.