"...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.
In Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming Robert Bosnak relates the following story concerning a particularly powerful lucid dream:
I discussed my dream with a man I greatly admired, Henry Corbin, the great scholar of Sufism. In the dream I found myself walking along a river. On the other side of the river I saw a Middle Eastern City of white stucco cupolas. Without hesitation I jumped into the river and swam across. When I walked through the white city I was almost overwhelmed by the reality of the place. It felt more real than anything I’d ever seen before. I told Corbin this dream because, within weeks of having it, I heard him speak about the City of Light at Eranos… His description of the City sounded so much like the one in my dream that I decided to ask him about it. I was at the beginning of my life, in my mid-twenties, and he was at the end of his, in his mid-seventies. For some reason he was fond of me and turned his hearing aid on while listening to me. Hearing tired him. He lived in a world in which, he used to say with irony, most of his contemporaries had been dead for a thousand years. I loved him. After hearing the dream, he smiled. “You were there,” he said. “You were actually there. You were in that City. That’s why it felt so real. You were there because the City exists.”
From Robert Bosnak, Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming, New York: Delacorte Press, 1996, 48-49.
"...Corbin was extremely sensitive to the topography of Iran, he saw it as the terrestrial and sensible form of the mundus imaginalis. I remember a trip we took together to Isphahan. We were settled in a little lunchroom of the Hotel Shah-Abbas, which reproduced, after a fashion, the small empty niches of the music room of the Palace of Ali Ghapou. In the walls and the partitions there were cut out of the emptiness innumerable small silhouettes of vases, flasks, laces of cuttings of all the forms conceived by an overflowing imagination. It gave to the space a sensation of levitation, the feeling that everything was in suspension. Everything seemed to be an apparition, vanishing as in a dream. I saw Corbin rise, his eyes lit by an interior gaze, then he took me by the arm, and led me to one of these empty niches, said to me in a voice soft and sensual, 'This is the phenomenon of the mirror, put your hand into this space and you will touch no form there; the form is not there: it is elsewhere, elsewhere...'"
From Daryush Shayegan, Henry Corbin: La topographie spirituelle de l'Islam Iranien, Paris: Ed. de la Difference, 1990, 23-24 (trans. T. Cheetham).
The Breath of the Compassionate is food for both the creature and his God. Ibn 'Arabi writes,
"Feed then God's Creation on Him, for thy being is a breeze that rises, a perfume which He exhales; We have given Him the power to manifest himself through us, Whereas He gave us (the power to exist through Him). Thus the role is shared between Him and us."
This continuous mystic Feast is represented for Corbin by the Biblical and Qur'anic event of the philoxeny of Abraham (Genesis 18: 1-8; Qur'an 11: 72). The story is depicted in Andre Rublev's 15th century masterpiece, sometimes known as The Old Testament Trinity. Some Islamic commentators have interpreted the three mysterious strangers as the angels Gabriel, Michael and Seraphiel. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition they represent the three persons of the Trinity. Corbin tells us that Ibn 'Arabi has given a most magnificent mystical exegesis of this icon. This mystical Supper is the Feast at the heart of Creation:
to feed God's creatures on Him is to reinvest them with God, is therefore to make their theophanic radiance flower within them; it is, one might say, to make oneself capable of apprehending the "angelic function" of beings, to invest them with, and perhaps awaken them to, the angelic dimension of their being. (Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi, 131).
This continuous cosmic Feast takes the place of the sacrament of Holy Communion in Corbin's theology.
"The Active Imagination perceives and shows to itself an Earth which is other than that Earth which is seen in ordinary sense experience... The Image of the Earth is revealed in the form of an Angel... In this sense, the categories of the sacredness which possess the soul can be recognized in the landscape with which it surrounds itself and in which it shapes its habitat, whether by projecting the vision on an ideal iconography, or by attempting to inscribe and reproduce a model of the vision on the actual earthly ground." - Henry Corbin, Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth, 29-30.
Louis Massignon writes, "The art of Persian miniatures, without atmosphere, without perspective, without shadows and without modelling, in the metallic splendor if its polychromy, peculiar to itself, bears witness to the fact that its orginators were undertaking a kind of alchemic sublimation of the particles of divine light imprisoned in the 'mass' of the picture. Precious metals, gold and silver, come to the surface of the fringes and the crowns, of the offerings and cups, to escape from the matrix of the colors."
Corbin says, "Let us make no mistake as the meaning of these colors... when we find them again in the gold background of the Byzantine icons and mosaics... it remains always a question of the same transfiguring light..." - The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, 137-8.
The illustration is from a manuscript in the Turkish Museum in Istanbul. It is an anthology of Persian poets published in Shiraz in 1398 C.E. and is reproduced in Corbin's Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth from Gray, Basil, Persian Painting, Geneva, Skira, 1956. (Here borrowed from Greg Roberts)
Prayer is not a request for something: it is the expression of a mode of being, a means of existing and of causing to exist, that is, a means of causing the God who reveals himself to appear, of 'seeing' Him, not to be sure, in His essence, but in the form which precisely He reveals by revealing Himself by and to that form... Prayer is the highest form, the supreme act of the Creative Imagination. - Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, 248
Hegel said that philosophy turns the world inside out, but this world is here and now inside out. The ta'wil and prophetic philosophy consist in putting it right side out once more. - Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth, xiii
To be a philosopher is to take to the road, never settling down in some place of satisfaction with a theory of the world, not even a place of reformation, nor of some illusory transformation of the conditions of this world. It aims for self-transformation, for the inner metamorphosis, which is implied by the notion of a new or spiritual rebirth. The adventure of the mystical philosopher is essentially seen as a voyage which progresses towards the Light. - The Theme of the Voyage and the Messenger, 140
On Life and Death
The past and the future are not attributes of exterior things; they are attributes of the soul itself. It is we who are living or dead, and who are responsible for the life and death of these things. - En Islam Iranien, v. 1, 37
The decision of the future falls to the soul, depends upon how the soul understands itself, upon its refusal or acceptance of a new birth. - Avicenna & the Visionary Recital, 10
...to leave this world, it does not suffice to die. One can die and remain in it forever. One must be living to leave it. Or rather, to be living is just this. - Cyclical Time in Ismaili Gnosis, 58
On Spiritual Reality & Imagination
For all our esotericists, the interior world designates the spiritual reality of the supersensible universe which, while a spiritual reality, is that which encircles and envelopes the reality of the external world... 'To leave' that which we commonly call the exterior world is an experience not at all 'subjective' but as 'objective' as possible, but it is difficult to transmit this to a spirit wanting to be modern. - En Islam Iranien v. 1, 82
The Active Imagination guides, anticipates, molds sensory perception; that is why it transmutes sensory data into symbols. The Burning Bush is only a brushwood fire if it is merely perceived by the sensory organs. In order that Moses may perceive the Burning Bush and hear the Voice calling him 'from the right side of the valley' - in short, in order that there may be a theophany - an organ of trans-sensory perception is needed. - Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi, 80
…The seriousness of the role of the Imagination is stressed by our [Iranian] philosophers when they state that it can be 'the Tree of Blessedness' or on the contrary 'the Accursed Tree' of which the Qur'an speaks… The imaginary can be innocuous, the imaginal never can. - Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth, vii-x.
On the Angel
Whether it be Metatron as the protos Anthropos and Active Intelligence, or the Active Intelligence as Holy Spirit and Archangel Gabriel, or as Holy Spirit and Angel of Humanity in the philosophy of Ishraq, the same figure never ceases to manifest itself to mental vision under this angelophany. - Avicenna & the Visionary Recital, 67
In the perspective of the Paraclete, the three Abrahamic faiths can come together in the same city-temple. - Temple & Contemplation, 338
Every physical or moral entity, every complete being or group of beings belonging to the world of Light...has its Fravarti. What they announce to earthly beings is...an essentially dual structure that gives to each one a heavenly archetype or Angel, whose earthly counterpart he is. - Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth, 9
The history of the modern West is the history of "l'homme sans Fravarti." - Le paradoxe du monotheisme, 253
It is this Fravarti which gives its true dimension to the person. The human person is only a person by virtue of this celestial dimension, archetypal, angelic, which is the celestial pole without which the terrestrial pole of his human dimension is completely depolarized in vagabondage and perdition. - Le paradoxe du monotheisme, 243
It may befall a soul to 'die' as a soul can die, by falling below itself, below its condition of a human soul: by actualizing in itself its bestial and demonic virtuality. This is its hell, the hell that it carries in itself - just as its bliss is its elevation above itself, flowering of its angelic virtuality. Personal survival cannot then be thought of as purely and simply prolonging the status of the human condition, the 'acquired dispositions.' The latter doubtless concern what we call the 'personality.' But...the essential person in its posthumous becoming and in its immortality perhaps immeasurably transcends the 'personality' of so-and-so son of so-and-so. - Avicenna & the Visionary Recital, 116
It is not in the power of a human being to destroy his celestial Idea; but it is in his power to betray it, to separate himself from it, to have, at the entrance to the Chinvat Bridge, nothing face to face with him but the abominable and demonic caricature of his 'I' delivered over to himself without a heavenly sponsor. - Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth, 42
On the Book
The drama common to all the 'religions of the Book' ... can be designated as the drama of the "Lost Speech." And this because the whole meaning of their life revolves around the phenomenon of the revealed holy Book, around the true meaning of this Book. If the true meaning of the Book is the interior meaning, hidden under the literal appearance, then from the instant that men fail to recognize or refuse this interior meaning, from that instant they mutilate the unity of the Word, of the Logos, and begin the drama of the 'Lost Speech.' - L'Homme et Son Ange, 81
On Dogma & Theophany
Dogma corresponds to dogmatic perception, simple and unidimensional, to a rational evidence, demonstrated, established and stabilized… Theophanic perception remains open to all metamorphoses, and perceives the forms through their very metamorphoses… Theophanic perception presupposes that the soul that perceives the theophany…is entirely a mirror, a speculum… It was necessarily a complete a degradation for the word "speculative" to end by signifying the contrary of what the visionary realism intended to announce in the etymology of the word: speculum, mirror. - Preface to Cirillo & Frémaux, l'Évangile de Barnabé: Recherches sur la composition et l'origine
On the Feast
The Gospel Parable of the Feast (Matt. 22:2-10, Lk. 14:16-24) means precisely what it says... It would be ridiculous to engage in polemics against men or women who refuse to come to the Feast; their refusal inspires only sadness and compassion. - The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, 145
On the Temple
I would say that the virtue of the Imago Templi lies in making us be within ourselves outside ourselves. For we must not confuse introspection, introversion, with contemplation: there is no contemplation without the Temple. - Temple & Contemplation, 388
Corbin recounts a conversation with D. T. Suzuki in Ascona in 1954: "...we asked him what homologies in structure he found between Mahayana Buddhism and the cosmology of Swedenborg in respect of the symbolism and correspondences of worlds: I can still see Suzuki suddenly brandishing a spoon and saying with a smile 'This spoon now exists in Paradise... We are now in Heaven.'" Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi, 354
Figure 1:Visit to a dervish.Makhzan al-Asrar. Safavid Isfahan, 1610. Hazine 1641, folio 26a. From the Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul, Turkey. Figure 2: Moses and the Burning Bush. Marc Chagall. 1966. From Spaightwood Galleries. Figure 3: .Gabriel Carries Mohammed over the Mountains. Mi'raj-nama (Ascension of Muhammad'). From the Sarai Albums. Tabriz, beginning of the 14th century. Hazine 2154, folio 42b. From the Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul, Turkey. Figure 4: Angel of the Annunciation.Simone Martini, c. 1333. National Gallery of Art, Washington.