"...the Imagination (or love, or sympathy, or any other sentiment) induces knowledge, and knowledge of an 'object' which is proper to it..."
Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was a scholar, philosopher and theologian. 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. One of the 20th century’s most prolific scholars of Islamic mysticism, Corbin was Professor of Islam & Islamic Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Teheran. He was a major figure at the Eranos Conferences in Switzerland. He introduced the concept of the mundus imaginalis into contemporary thought. His work has provided a foundation for archetypal psychology as developed by James Hillman and influenced countless poets and artists worldwide. But Corbin’s central project was to provide a framework for understanding the unity of the religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His great work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi is a classic initiatory text of visionary spirituality that transcends the tragic divisions among the three great monotheisms. Corbin’s life was devoted to the struggle to free the religious imagination from fundamentalisms of every kind. His work marks a watershed in our understanding of the religions of the West and makes a profound contribution to the study of the place of the imagination in human life.

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Monday, September 8, 2008

The Prophetic Meaning of Beauty

Henry Corbin on Ruzbehan Baqli of Shiraz

The following passages have been selected and paraphrased by Tom Cheetham from Henry Corbin, En Islam Iranien: Aspects spirituels et philosophiques, Tome III: Les fideles d’amour et Shi’isme et sufisme. Livre III: Ruzbehan Baqli Shirazi and the Sufism of the Fideles d’Amour. Paris: Gallimard, Bib. des Idees, 1972. (Only the passages that appear in quotes are direct translations.)

(On these same topics see also Henry Corbin, “The Jasmine of the Fedeli d'Amore: A Discourse on Ruzbehan Baqli of Shiraz,” (A lecture given in Teheran, November 25th, 1958),
Sphinx 3 (A Journal for Archetypal Psychology & the Arts) London, 1990, 189-223.)

The question at issue is this: How does the ineffable divine reveal itself to humans? A Shi’ite answer, provided by Qazi Sa’id Qommi, has it that the face that God shows to man is the face that man shows to God, and this is the theophanic Face of the Imam. In the absence of some kind of an intermediary, as if there would be a Christianity without Christ, the mystic stands exposed to the paradox and the rapture of the delusion “I am God!”

For all “Sufis” (Shi’ite or Sunni) there is a common ethos that is proper to Islam as a Prophetic religion. Sufism is the spiritual heart of Islam, not on the margins of the Church as Christian esotericism always is. This ethos is opposed to all “wills to power” and is an ethos “where the attainment of the tranquility of the soul may appear as the supreme paradox.”

The Unhappy Consciousness that is characteristic of Christian consciousness is entirely different from that of the Sufi. Oppositions between sin and justifying faith, faith and science, mysticism and sensuality, divine and human love (making beauty a demoniac trap) – none of these apply. Even the modern secular world is suffused with these same tensions – the guilt complex for instance, or that between historical fact and spiritual, interior truth. All this is based on “historical consciousness”

Sufism has much in common with ancient Judeo-Christianity and could act as a liberator for modern Christians. The Sufi has no consciousness of sin, and is not in need of justification. He is an exile, and the distress and nostalgia he feels is shared with Gnostics of all times. The Sufi is in need of a Guide who can indicate the way home to the origin. The Guide is a Prophet and the function of a Prophet is not only to reveal a Law, but to open the way towards a return to spiritual Truth. There is no conflict between mystical and prophetic religion. On the contrary, mysticism is the truth of prophetic religion.

For the Sufi there is no essential conflict between the historical truth of revelation, the letter of the law, and the inner esoteric truth – this opposition signals rather a passage to be accomplished, on which spiritual birth depends. All true exegesis is spiritual and is an exodus of the soul. The hermeneutic of the Word is always a hermeneutic of the soul.

For the Sufi, there is no need for a social mediator between the soul and God – he has a personal link with the initiator, the Guide, the shaykh, or in Shi’ism with the Imam, par excellence with the Hidden Imam, who corresponds to the Celestial Guide, the Witness in Heaven who is the guarantor of spiritual individuality. This Heavenly Twin is not in any way the apotheosis of the nafs ammara, the natural, appetitive soul, but is rather the Holy Spirit in man, the “pacified soul” of tranquility. And it is to this end that all the spiritual combat of Sufism tends: the transformation of the nafs ammara into the nafs motma’yanna, the pacified soul. And here it is less a question of destruction than of sublimation.

This experience of transformation is the means by which the Sufi resolves the supreme opposition that confronts exoteric monotheism in the form of the dogma of tawhîd, the Unity of God. The result of this spiritual combat marks the passage from the exoteric declaration of Unity to the esoteric experience of Unity. The former is professed by the naïve consciousness as the unity of God as the Ens supremum, the absolute object above and beyond all created objects. This abstract monotheism, which must regard God as a being beyond all beings, the Absolute Object, and thus inevitably external to His creation requires in fact a fundamental and contradictory duality between God and His creation, between the God professed in the faiths, and the souls of the faithful, for who is it that then says “God is One,” if not an other being? It is thus that the pious believers and the dogmatic theologians are in reality polytheists in spite of themselves. This inherent contradiction can only be resolved by the experience of theophany by means of which the veil of created beings becomes a theophanic mirror whereby the invisible is seen by means of the visible. It is here that the connection between archetypal, divine beauty and sensible created beauty must be found.

“In place of the negative connection that we habitually understand between Christian asceticism and the Greek consciousness of beauty, it is necessary to speak here of a valorization that confers a prophetic function on beauty.” (p. 16)

All the Sufis find a special link between each Prophet and Beauty as a divine Attribute and theophany. The Prophet of Islam seen from the Sufi perspective is the prophet of a religion of beauty with essential links to Platonic and Neoplatonic ideals.

But this is no static hierarchy as Platonism and Neoplatonism is sometimes understood by Western scholars. There is no limit to theophanies. The soul finds its “tranquility” in a state of perpetual motion towards the Divine. The Return of the pacified soul is not to an immoveable place of rest, but is an eternal progression that is itself the individual’s proper Home. The Return is not to God “in general” but to the soul’s own Lord. We are speaking of a process of mystical individuation by means of the annihilation and transformation of the possessive, “imperialist” soul in the act of the revelation of God to Himself in the person of the mystic. This is the resolution of the aporia of exoteric Unity: the identity in difference, the identity of He who is revealed and the One to whom the revelation appears.

There is, out of all human experiences, one unique event that leads to this union: human love for a being of beauty. Such a love is purified of all carnal, possessive instincts, all utilitarian ends, all obsessions and neurotic “needs.” Such a chaste love is an ecstasy before the revelation of divine beauty in a being of beauty, a theophany. This cult of Beauty was professed by Ibn ‘Arabi, and in Iran by Ruzbehan Baqli of Shiraz and all of his school. These Corbin calls the Fidèles d’amour in order to highlight their affinities with the Fedeli d’amore of Dante.

Ruzbehan Baqli, a Sunni Muslim, was born in 1128CE in Fars, 140 km from Shiraz where he died in 1209. His life spanned a remarkable century in Islamic spirituality. He was the contemporary of Shihab al-Din Yahya al-Suhrawardi, Najmoddin Kobra and Ibn ‘Arabi, though there is no reason to think that he knew of any of them. He is one of the spirituals most representative of Iranian Sufism, but of a non-Shi’ite Sufism.

(Note: Annemarie Schimmel places Ibn ‘Arabi and Ruzbehan into the wider context of Sufi writings concerning women, love, eros and the body, and her comments provide a cautionary counterpoint to Corbin’s perspective. She also notes the homoerotic connotations which often surround the discussions of the human lover. See Schimmel, “Eros in Sufi Literature and Life.” Pp. 262-288, in Religion and the Body, Edited by Sarah Coakley, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997 - Tom Cheetham).

Beauty understood in this way is experienced as a sacred sign, a sacrament. At the limit of this experience of love, a love that “does not split,” is the esoteric experience of tawhîd: The Divine being is simultaneously the Loved, the Lover and the Love itself. (p. 17)

The phenomenon of theophany must be clearly distinguished from that of incarnation. This theology is profoundly docetic, but Corbin stresses that this “image” of the Divine is no phantasm, but the appearance of that which is truly real. Docetism is nothing less than “spiritual realism” of the highest order. Rather than the dualist opposition between Spirit and Matter, a docetic theology posits what Ruzbehan calls amphibole. (p. 19)

(Note: Carl Ernst says that Corbin’s translation of iltibas as “ambiguity” (here, the Latin amphibole) does not do justice to the rich nuances of the word. It suggests “clothing with divinity” as well as “covering up” and “confusion.” See Carl W. Ernst, Words of Ecstasy in Sufism. Albany, N. Y.: State University of New York Press, 1985, 149, n. 36 - Tom Cheetham).

There is no theophany without a moment of amphibole. When we grasp this we will no longer seek the refuge of “literal faith” nor the certainty of sensory facts. There will be then only one certainty: that which gives the vision of the invisible, the hearing of the inaudible. When the secret of their complicity is deciphered, the amphibole that colors all the things of the world is revealed as nothing other than their inter-relation and interpenetration.

Ruzbehan avoids the double trap of idolatry and abstraction by means of the mystical experience of the esoteric unity of divinity. This mystical verification of prophetic religion requires the perception of the prophetic meaning of beauty. Beauty is not merely one divine attribute among many. It is the essential attribute. God is the source and reality of Eros, and forbids its desecration, wither through sexual libertinage, which is its profanation, or through its negation by means of ascetic denials of beauty and love.

The divine mystery of love lies in the transcendent Unity of love, Lover and Beloved. But this esoteric unity can only be verified in the experience that transcends the contradiction between the God of Moses who is forever invisible (You shall not see me), and the God of whom Mohammad can say “I have seen my Lord in the most beautiful of forms.” In the ecstatic mysticism of Ruzbehan this takes the form of the Heavenly Witness, personified in the plural in the forms of angels, prophets and saints in profound mystic visions, and whose forms correspond to the mode of being of the mystic.

Ruzbehan’s cosmogony is fundamentally similar to that of Avicenna and Ibn ‘Arabi. The Divine Being is a Hidden Treasure that desires to be known, and so creates creatures to be known and to know himself through them. The first of these created beings is here neither the First Intelligence of Avicenna, nor the Breath of the Compassionate of Ibn ‘Arabi, but rather the Spirit. From this primordial Spirit come all the Holy Spirits who are the pre-eternal spiritual individualities of all the beings of Light in Creation.

Every atom of being which is differentiated from the breast of the Spirit is produced by a theophanism that manifests a divine attribute as an ecstasy of God for himself. And so every atom of being is an eye blossoming from His Light, an eye totally absorbed in the contemplation of this light which gives it birth. Creation then as divine contemplation is not an object distinct from this contemplation – it is the very organ of this contemplation.

The test of the Veil is this: at each stage in the hierarchy of creation, when the creatures contemplate the Light that gives them life, they are both different from and identical with that glory. In order to see God, they must be other than God, and yet it is from God that they have their very being – for they are nothing, they have nothing, in themselves. This is their radical poverty. In so far as they are seen in their difference from God they seem self-subsistent, and they then run the risk of becoming idols and so are Veils of the divinity. And yet in truth their being is the gift of God and they are organs by which God contemplates Himself and are not other than He. To overcome the Test of the Veils requires that we not become trapped in the self-subsistent and literal face of any being, that we not idolize it but rather see in it the Face of God.

Though all creatures shine with Beauty, it is in the human form that this divine glory is most manifest. We are created in the image of God. The secret of the Fideles d’amour lies here: not to turn away from human beauty, nor to turn towards it. One must not transgress the dignity of the human creature and yet must acknowledge, and experience through it, its theophanic essence. One is thus caught in perpetual oscillation between the sensible, visible beauty, and the invisible of the visible that draws us onward.

The more general problem here is the relationship between apophatic and cataphatic modes of discourse about God. It is not a question of sacrificing one to the other. It is in passing between them, equally distant and equally close to them both, that the mystical soul finds its tranquility. This theophanic solution is common to Ruzbihan and Ibn ‘Arabi. On it depends the possibility of tasting the savour and the tranquility of divine love in human love. It is not here a question of perception at the level of the sensible world, but of imaginative sensations at the level of the intermediary world of the mundus imaginalis. This explains the amphibole of the human image which both is and is not a sensory image. Everything sensory, the visible and the audible has a double sense, a double meaning, since it reveals the invisible and the inaudible. This is the theophanic function of the beauty of creation. This beauty of creatures is always apprehended in a form appropriate to the heart of one’s own love. The secret of theophanic perception is that it corresponds to the spiritual capacity of the visionary. This seeming multiplicity of the Divine Face may contradict the exoteric attestation of the Unity of the Divine, but it is the very revelation of the esoteric unity. God can never be an Object, but is rather the active Subject of the acts of spiritual perception by which the creatures come to know Him. This is the grand paradox of the multiplicity of the Unique and the identity of the Multiple.

The spiritual diaries that Ruzbihan has left us are replete with the paradoxes that these theophanies express. His Jasmin of the Fideles d’amour “is nearly entirely thought in images which are not at all rhetorical, but the transpositions of concepts, and the interior dialectic operates on these images as upon concepts. It is necessary to have a hand continually upon each keyboard.” (p. 66).

The path to this apprehension of divinity is an interior pilgrimage accomplished by tracing the stages of love in a way that reflects the passage from the exoteric religion of social and historical laws whose object is the God of monotheism, to the esoteric interior religion whose object is always a personal Subject. The personal God of Sufism reveals the mystery of divine unity as absolute subjectivity, a subjectivity absolved of all relation to anything other than itself. This esoteric unity can only be understood, lived and realized in the experience of love. It is human love, Eros, which gives access to this, because human love is the only experience that can, at its limit, make present the unity of love, lover and beloved.

Ruzbehan thus stands entirely in opposition to those ascetics, whether Christian or Muslim, for whom human love is a trap and a diabolic obstacle to the experience of the divine. Corbin writes that here we find the true originality of Iranian Sufism. It expresses an individual ethic, both heroic and secret which is typified by the knight of the soul, who knows that it is only through human love that it is possible to read the outlines of divine love. It is the same text in each case, but it is necessary to learn to read it. One must become initiated into a spiritual hermeneutics, an exegesis of human love that reveals it as a prophetic text. And because Beauty is the source of this text, its discovery is a prophetic action. The lover is thus the partner of the prophet. The message of beauty is a prophetic message: it is an invitation to pass from the human figure who is the literal text, the place of sensory love, to the truth of love, the esoteric meaning of this text. (See p. 68). The Beloved is metamorphosed by the adoration of the Lover, whose love is not a temptation to be overcome but a call to a sublimation of this love upon which depends the access to the esoteric unity of Love, Lover and Beloved.

For the mystic lover, the revelatory moment is where the revelation of human beauty overcomes consciousness in a way that is both the enchantment of joy and a kind of sacred dread before the secret of the divine in the human. To find oneself face to face with this beauty is to be in the torment of simultaneously finding and not-finding the occasion of this adoration. Human beauty is the occasion of the experience of the numinous: it is an absolutely primordial phenomenon, like a sound or a color. This beauty can be experienced as both fascinating and terrifying, as evoking both joy and desperate nostalgia and desire, attesting to a presence which is not there, and to an absence to which it can only point. As with the blind or the deaf, one is either capable of such perception, or one is not. (See p. 72).

The idea of theophany is associated with another crucial term in the works of all those spirituals who profess the religion of love and Beauty as a phenomenon of divine revelation. This term is shâhid, which suggests both witness and that which is seen or contemplated. The Sufis also suggest by it a psychic phenomenon: the interior image of an absent object which is thus rendered present by this image, or sometimes all the content of consciousness at a given moment. Finally they mean to suggest all beings of beauty because they attest to, the “witness” or re-present the distant divine beauty by means of the image in the heart. The shâhid is thus the face of beauty that the mystic takes as “witness of contemplation,” whether this be a mental image or in a personal encounter. The word thus has a double meaning and a double function as both passive and active, both subject and object. It stands both for the beauty which is the witness, and that with is absent, the invisible beauty of which it is the witness. The beauty of this witness, is the very object of the contemplation of the mystic. (p. 77)

The idea of the shâhid is closely related to the phenomenon of the mirror, which is so commonly used to convey the situation of esoteric knowledge by means of theophany. Theophany understood as the phenomenon of the mirror differentiates Sufism from both orthodox monotheistic Islam and Christian Incarnationism. The idea of theophany links Sufism and Shi’ism and distinguishes both from abstract monotheism. The idea of divine anthropomorphosis is its central thesis: the human Form and celestial Anthropos of Spiritual Adam is the epiphany of the divine. This human form is the shâhid who contemplates God and shows His image to God, and by so doing, is simultaneously the Image which He contemplates. This is the basis for the divine visibility whereby Mohammad can say “I have seen my Lord in the most beautiful of forms.” It is the amphibole of this Image which precludes both the dual traps of apohatic and cataphatic signification. At the same time this theophanic cosmology distinguishes Sufism and Shi’ism from the Incarnationalism of Christian orthodoxy. It is a question of celestial anthropomorphosis, in the angelic pleroma, not an irreversible historical event occurring by mixture with human flesh. It is not seen with the eyes of flesh, but rather with the eyes of the spiritual body that contemplate this image in Heaven. Being neither immanence nor incarnation, this divine epiphany is not a kenosis or effacement of the divine, but its triumphal manifestation of the pre-eminent divine attribute, Beauty. Refusal of this beauty by any form of asceticism, whether in religion or art or social life in general, is a sacrilegious betrayal which has the effect of chasing God from Paradise. (p. 79)

Human beauty is the witness, and Paradise is that which is witnessed, the place of this witnessing, of this Presence. So we can understand the phenomenon of the mirror. God does not incarnate himself: Divine Beauty enters into the beautiful forms as the image enters into the mirror. The terrestrial human condition cannot be redeemed by a degradation of the divine, but only by a transfiguration which accomplishes the divine within the human. The Image is not incarnated in the mirror, but by appearing there it sees and shows to itself that which it regards in the mirror and of which it is the image.

“Creation being theophany, and being anthropomorphic theophany, that is to say the manifestation of God in a human celestial form, it follows that from the pre-eternity of Creation, there is a unio mystica between the divinity and the human form. It is this same theophanic rapport, fundamentally speculative (speculum, mirror) of the identity between love, lover and beloved, which founds the revelation of divine love in human love, because human love, at the limit of its mystical experience, is precisely this form of divine love. It is the unique text read finally in its true sense, providing that we not regard the mirror without the image (that would be only metaphoric love), but regard the Image that shows itself in the mirror (love in the true sense) and which is its regard.” (p. 81).

The interior pilgrimage itself is replete with dangers and traps and the torments of “having and not-having.” The relationship between human, physical love and divine love is delicate and crucial. The lover must be purified of all sensual weakness in order to be firm in the path towards spiritual love. Any purely carnal appetite must be eliminated. Yet it is not a question of opposing this with any “monastical asceticism” which is brutal and negative. If physical love is the path leading to spiritual love, this is the result of a pre-eternal alchemy. Although physical love is an inferior stage, it remains true that love is the influence of the Red Sulfur of divine Magnificence projected in the light of the eyes of the soul. The dangers of idolatry are very real. Here they take the form of carnal obsession and the blind appetites of the lower soul. All flesh must be transmuted on the horizon of theophanic perception into the spiritual body of light. The sensory and the suprasensory are but correlative aspects of one and the same Eros, and it is the path of mystic love to transform the lower into the higher.

The archetypal love story in Persian literature is the tale of Layla and Majnûn. When the body and spirit have become united one with the other, there is the summit of love. Majnûn becomes, in the limit of love, in the limit of his ardent desire, himself the mirror of God. His love itself becomes the Eye of God, the very mirror in which God is contemplated. The circle here is closed: Love itself becomes the organ of perception of beauty. The alchemical transmutation of inauthentic, merely human love, produces true divine love in which Love, Lover and Beloved are united in a tri-unity which is God as divine activity, divine subject. This is the triple identity of act, subject and object, and it is this intra-divine drama that the human experience of love, with all its passions and trials, presents to those who can see it. The drama of human love by which the carnal instincts for possession and domination are transmuted into true divine and unitive love is the drama of the Test of the Veil. We triumph only through the struggle to overcome the idolatries and obsessions that stand in the way of the realization of the tri-unitive God. The triumph of the test of the Veils is the reunion of human and divine love, the unveiling of human love to itself by the unveiling of the true divine Beloved to the human lover.

Section of Ceramic Frieze. Iran, 14th Century. Louvre, Paris. "In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful."
Layla and Majnun at School. From a Khamsah of Nizami. Herat, 1494. British Library. For an elucidation of the story and the symbolism in this miniature, and much more on the mystical elements in Persian painting, see the magnificent, and indispensible, Figurative Art in Medieval Islam and the Riddle of Bihzad of Herat by Michael Barry. Paris: Flammarion, 2004,14-15.

1 comment:

  1. ""For all “Sufis” (Shi’ite or Sunni) there is a common ethos that is proper to Islam as a Prophetic religion. Sufism is the spiritual heart of Islam, not on the margins of the Church as Christian esotericism always is. This ethos is opposed to all “wills to power” and is an ethos “where the attainment of the tranquility of the soul may appear as the supreme paradox.”"
    I would say or correct: Mysticism (or as you say, Christian esotericism) is also the spiritual heart of Christian religion, and so of the Church...