"...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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Sunday, December 7, 2008

50th Anniversary: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi

Henry Corbin

First published in French as L’Imagination Creatrice dans le Soufisme d’Ibn ‘Arabi this profoundly moving and beautiful volume stands as one of the great works of theology and comparative philosophy of the 20th century.

"Henry Corbin's works are the best guide to the visionary tradition.... Corbin, like Scholem and Jonas, is remembered as a scholar of genius. He was uniquely equipped not only to recover Iranian Sufism for the West, but also to defend the principal Western traditions of esoteric spirituality." From the 1997 Introduction by Harold Bloom

Among the more than 200 critical editions, translations, books and articles published in his lifetime, his magnum opus is without doubt the four volume En islam iranien: Aspects spirituels et philosophiques, Paris: Gallimard, 1971-73. But this has not yet been translated and its scope and magnitude make it ill-suited as an introduction to his work. Creative Imagination is the most comprehensive and accessible guide to the profoundly important and powerful spiritual treasures to be found in his writings. It is indispensible for those seeking a deeper understanding of the religious imagination and the relations among Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the modern world. Indeed, a close reading of this text may provide something of an initiation for those hoping to enter into the visionary tradition which Corbin's work represents.

A recent review here is evidence of the continuing relevance and accessibility of this masterpiece of the thought of the Heart.


1. Between Andalusia and Iran: A Brief Spiritual Topography
2. The Curve and Symbols of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Life
3. The Situation of Esotericism
Ch. I. Divine Passion and Compassion
Ch II. Sophiology and Devotio Sympathetica
Ch. III. The Creation and Theophany
Ch. IV. Theophanic Imagination and Creativity of the Heart
Ch. V. Man’s Prayer and God’s Prayer
Ch. VI. The “Form of God”

The opening paragraph sets the stage for a penetrating and life-giving examination of the phenomenology of the religious Imagination:

“A more complete title for the present book would have been “Creative Imagination and Mystical Experience in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi.” An abbreviation, however, is permissible, since the mere word “Sufism” suffices to place “Imagination” in our specific context. Here we shall not be dealing with imagination in the usual sense of the word: neither with fantasy, profane or otherwise, nor with the organ which produces imaginings identified with the unreal; nor shall we even be dealing exactly with what we look upon as the organ of esthetic creation. We shall be speaking of an absolutely basic function, correlated with a universe peculiar to it, a universe endowed with a perfectly “objective’ existence and perceived precisely through the Imagination.”

In the Epilogue Corbin concludes his masterwork with a damning assessment of modern agnosticism and nihilism:

"…we can see how imaginatively and spiritually disarmed we are in comparison with those Spirituals whose certainties we have evoked in the course of these pages. What we experience as an obsession with nothingness or as acquiescence in a non-being over which we have no power, was to them a manifestation of divine anger, the anger of the mystic Beloved. But even that was a real Presence, the presence of that Image which never forsook our Sufis. Sa‘di, one of the greatest poets of Persia, who was also a great mystic though not among the greatest, expressed this best in a few poignant verses:

If the sword of your anger puts me to death,
My soul will find comfort in it.
If you impose the cup of poison upon me,
My spirit will drink the cup.
When on the day of Resurrection
I rise from the dust of my tomb,
the perfume of your love
Will still impregnate the garment of my soul.
For even though you refused me your love,
You have given me a vision of You
Which has been the confidant of my hidden secrets.


Part One was originally delivered as “Sympathie et théophanie chez les ‘Fideles d’Amour’ en Islam,” at the 1955 Eranos Conference, and published in Der Mensch und die Sympathie aller Dinge, Vorträge gehalten auf der Eranos-Tagung in Ascona, 24 August bis 1 September 1955; Eranos-Jahrbuch XXIV/1955, Rhein-Verlag, Zürich, 1956.

Part Two was delivered as “Imagination creatrice et prière creatrice dans le soufisme d’Ibn Arabi,” and published in Der Mensch und das Schöpferische, Vorträge gehalten auf der Eranos-Tagung in Ascona 22 bis 30 August 1956; Eranos-Jahrbuch XXV/1956; Rhein-Verlag, Zürich, 1957.

An introduction was added and the complete work first appeared as L’Imagination Creatrice dans le Soufisme d’Ibn ‘Arabi, Paris: Flammarion, 1958. The most recent French edition (Broché, 2006) has a preface by Gilbert Durand. (The announcement here has a good short biography of Corbin in French).

The first English edition appeared as Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. Translated from the French by Ralph Manheim. Bollingen Series XCI. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969; 1st paperback printing in 1981. The volume was re-issued by Princeton University Press in 1997 as Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi (A Google Book Search Link) with an Introduction by Harold Bloom.


Frontispiece The Image of the Ka’aba. Miniature from the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Supplement Persan 1389, fol. 19, sixteenth century. (A very similar miniature can be found online at the Islamic Art Image Gallery of the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, MS Per 249, f. 19b)

1 Elijah and Khidr at the Fountain of Life. Persian, School of Herat, late fifteenth century. Freer Gallery of Art. Facing page 56.

“[Khidr] leads each disciple to his own theophany, the theophany of which he personally is the witness, because that theophany corresponds to his own ‘inner heaven’…” (61)

2 The Philoxeny of Abraham. Detail from a mosaic, Cathedral of St. Mark, Venice, thirteenth century. Facing page 136.

“[Ibn ‘Arabi’s] mental iconography represents the service incumbent on the fidele d’amore in the person of Abraham ministering to the three Angels seated at the mystic banquet to feed God or His Angels on His creatures, and that service is at the same time to feed the creatures on God.” (131)

3 Joseph and His Brothers in Egypt. Persian miniature from Fariduddin Attar, Mantiq al-Tayr. Staatsbiliothek, Marburg, MS or. oct. 268, fol. 114, fifteenth century. Facing page 232.

“…[T]he ta’wil that Joseph thought he had discovered was the work of a man who was still asleep, who dreamed that he had awakened from a dream and began to interpret it, though actually he was still dreaming.” (240)

4 Three Angels Offering Three Cups to the Prophet. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS supplement turc 190, fol. 34, verso. Facing page 240. (Used as the cover in the 1997 Princeton Edition)

“Just as he had done in a dream on the occasion of his assumption to heaven…when an Angel had brought him a vessel with milk in it, so every time milk was brought to him, he ‘interpreted’ it as he had done in his dream, for all sensible things become subject to interpretation once they take on the value and meaning of dream visions.” (242)


Henry Corbin was not only a scholar of the first rank, but also a proponent of the visionary tradition which his works have done so much to bring to light. As such he is perhaps best understood not only as a scholarly interpreter of the traditions and the theologians and mystics he presents, but as a creative philosopher, Christian theologian and visionary in his own right. He occupies, perhaps uniquely, a position that mediates between mystical Christianity and the visionary and esoteric traditions in Islam and Judaism. As such, his work is open to critiques, some more sympathetic than others. The great Western Scholar of Sufism William Chittick has written as follows:

"Corbin performed the great service of introducing the Western world to many uniquely Islamic ways of expressing philosophical positions, but it is beyond the capacity of a single individual to bring out everything worthy of consideration. Moreover, in his zeal to revive the honor due to the imaginal realm, Corbin tended to de-emphasize the cornerstone of Islamic teachings, tawid, the 'declaration of God's Unity.' It is as if Corbin was so entranced by the recovery of the imaginal that he had difficulty seeing beyond it.
From the point of view of the Islamic intellectual tradition, the tendency to become transfixed by the multiple apparitions of the One represents a danger inherent in the current revival of interest in imagination. It is clear, for example, that certain varieties of Jungianism divinize the imaginal world, giving to the soul an autonomous status never granted to it by the great traditions. Man's own domain of microcosmic imagination is posited as the Real, since 'God' is merely the soul's projection. But this - in the Islamic view - is to fall into the error of associating other gods with God (shirk), the opposite of tawid. We are left with polytheistic multiplicity, and the 'gods' are reinstated as real entities possessing insuperable differences.
Corbin never fell into such a position, which would have betrayed the central teaching of the texts with which he was concerned. Nevertheless, if his approach to Islamic thought is to be understood as reflecting the concerns of his sources, it needs to be tempered by more attention to the ultimate Unity lying behind the theophanic facade of created existence." (William Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn 'Arabi's Metaphysics of the Imagination, Albany: SUNY Press, 1989, x.).

And Corbin's interpretation of Ibn 'Arabi in particular is controversial. Of Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi, Chittick writes:

"Corbin's rhetorical flourishes and passion for his subject put his work into a unique category... [He] is concerned with his own philosophical project... Any reader of Creative Imagination soon begins to wonder where Ibn al-Arabi ends and Corbin begins. The lines are not clear, especially if one does not have access to the Arabic texts. Certainly we come to realize that Ibn al-Arabi is a precious larder from which all sorts of delicious vittles can be extracted. But most people familiar with the original texts would agree that Corbin has highly individual tastes." (Chittick, xix).

In the years since Corbin's death there has been an enormous amount of scholarly work devoted to Ibn 'Arabi in Europe and the US. For an entry into this vast universe see the Ibn ‘Arabi Society.

It is in the end not only his vast contribution to our knowledge of Islamic mystical traditions, but the power and beauty of Corbin's unique "philosophical project" and his own visionary Imagination that guarantee his lasting significance for modern theology, philosophy and spirituality.


  1. Corbin makes it clear that the individual, like Jung's concept of individuation, is the great frontier of human spritual assent. Would that we had the courage to explore our own best instincts,and to let go of all, but what we were meant to be.

  2. Jesus comforts his disciples. 'You know the way to the place where I am going'. I've only read a little Corbin, and that was only because Tom said at the start to All the World that it was his main purpose. I'm not so sure, because I'd have been lost without Tom's work. The three are vital reading, that said I'd read what your guide suggests first!