"...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.
This course will study the works of the great French student and scholar of Islamic thought, Henry Corbin (1903-1978). Corbin's scholarly output was enormous and profound, yet it has still failed to attract due attention from contemporary scholars. In this seminar we will study several of Corbin's books and focus our attention on a number of recurring themes in his scholarship (mundus imaginalis, the noetic role of the feminine, interpretation as revelation, the Hidden Imam, and oneness of being, among others). Students interested in Islamic religious thought, comparative "Abrahamic" mysticism, philosophical theology, Islam & the West and modern developments in philosophy East and West are welcome. A reading knowledge of French is highly recommended though not mandatory. - T. Lawson
(I remain interested in compiling a list of any other relevant courses. Please contact me at email@example.com).
What follows is from the Epilogue to « L'Elément dramatique commun aux cosmogonies gnostiques des religions du Livre », Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem 5, 1979, 141-174. It appears in English as "The Dramatic Element Common to Gnostic Cosmogonies of the Religions of the Book," Studies in Comparative Religion 14/3-4 (1980): 199-221. This is the last talk Corbin delivered. He presented this essay in June, four months before his death in October, 1978.
"…Is it right to speak, as is often the case, of the pessimism of Gnosis? Such a judgment assumes that one has forgotten what the struggle of the Gnostic is about, what its origin is and what its outcome will be. This outcome makes it clear that if gnosis despairs of this world it is in the form of a desperatio fiducialis, a confident desperation… Where then is the optimism of this despair rooted?
For this optimism is in contrast with the grandiose but hopeless perspective of the heroic Nordic epic, with its eschatological vision of Ragnorak, the Fate of the Gods. There too the gods are the allies of men, and both together are partners in the same struggle against monstrous cosmic powers; but they know that they will finally be killed by these monstrous powers, and that after that the world will be destroyed. “The victors are Chaos and Insanity, but the Gods who will be defeated consider that the defeat is not a refutation… They offer absolute resistance, perfect, because without hope…” [W.P. Ker, The Dark Ages, 1904] Certainly the predominance of Darkness is not a refutation of the Light. But inversely, when the Light prevails over Darkness, is this a refutation of Darkness? Does Darkness allow itself to be refuted? Will the Light simply be its refutation?
I would like to reply to these questions with the aid of a recent work, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I think that this is the first time since the conclusion of the Grail cycle that there has appeared in the West an epic at once heroic, mystic and Gnostic, the narrative events of which can enchant the wise both young and old because they will recognize its hidden meaning. Throughout the epic is dominated by the theme of the maleficent Ring mislaid in the country of Light. This ring continually incites the best among the beings of the Light to submit to the temptation it represents: the will to power. Indeed the temptation is great to use the evil will to power in the service of the Light. Moreover it is not in the Darkness that the temptation of the Darkness can become virulent, but in the realm of light. It is in the world of Light that the drama, which for all gnoses initiates cosmogony, has its origin.
But the world of Light absolutely must not resort to the evil will to power in order to ensure its victory over Darkness. To resort to that desire would be to ensure the triumph of the Darkness. It is not even enough to hide, to bury the Ring in some secret and unknown place in the realm of Light: its malefic influence will continue to operate. It must be not simply rejected but destroyed. But to destroy is a negative action, and the world of Light does not permit negativity.
The weapon of the light is of another order: it is to compel the Darkness to destroy itself, to accomplish its negation by the negation of its own negativity. To destroy the evil Ring, representative of the will to power, is to cast it back into Darkness, so that the Darkness destroys what has issued from it. A fearless hero, overcoming the most terrifying apparitions and traps, must carry the Ring back to its place of origin: to the furnace which is in the crater of the mountain of the Lord of the Shadow, in the land of Darkness. When the hero finally casts the Ring into the abyss, the world of Light is delivered from the evil will to power. This is the theme of Tolkien’s epic.
What the hero performs in this epic appears as a Quest in reverse of the Quest for the Holy Grail. But at the same time this Quest seems to be a necessary prelude, a Quest without which the Quest for the Grail cannot succeed. Parsifal’s speech, at the end of Book XV of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic, warns us that “no one can obtain the Grail except him whom God himself has appointed.” From this time. Wolfram tells us, “this word traveled across all lands, that no one could win the Grail by fighting for it, and so, many knights gave up searching for it.” For the Elect are not appointed by God to become ‘possessors’ of the Grail by force of arms. They must first of all renounce such possession, and this is to destroy their will to power through their own powerlessness. Only then can they attain the vision of elsewhere to which they must commit themselves. “This is why the Grail still remains hidden to all eyes,” Wolfram tells us.
We know what he means: it is hidden to all eyes of the flesh. The epic of the Grail ends in occultation. Parsifal carries it back to a mystical East…that is not on our maps, or it is taken from this world and withdrawn to the “spiritual Palace” (Galahad). Must we then speak of the pessimism of the Grail cycle? To do so would be to forget…what is the nature of the struggle that opens to way towards the Grail, and what the eyes are that perceive this way. The world in which the Grail is occulted is still visible to the eyes of fire, and that is why there will always be secret Knights-Templar who pursue the Quest for the Grail… [F]or it is not with the weapons of the will to power but through knightly service that one is a partner of a God in exile and that one sets free the sparks of light imprisoned in… the world of shadows and defilement…"
In 1974 Corbin and a group of colleagues including Gilbert Durand and Antoine Faivre, founded the University of St. John of Jerusalem: The International Center for Comparative Spiritual Research. This organization operated until 1988 and published 14 volumes of Proceedings. Corbin's contributions, both opening remarks and essays, are in the first five Proceedings. The 14 volumes are devoted to the succession of topics originally proposed by Corbin. Having completed the original mission, the organization was succeeded by Les Cahiers du Groupe d'Etudes Spirituelles Comparées. Corbin's contributions and the various volumes published by both organizations are listed below.
Articles by Henry Corbin in Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem:
« L'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem, Centre international de recherche spirituelle comparée » and « Science traditionnelle et renaissance spirituelle », Cahier de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem 1, 1975, pp. 8-12 et 25-50. An English translation of the second text appears as "Traditional Knowledge and Spiritual Renaissance," in Temenos Academy Review 1 (1998).
« Spiritualité du Temple et tradition abrahamique », Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jerusalem 2, 1976, pp. 13-42.
« L'Evangile de Barnabé et la prophétologie islamique », Cahiers de l'Université de Saint Jean de Jérusalem 3, 1977, pp. 169-212.
« L'Orient des pèlerins abrahamiques », Cahiers de l'Université de Saint Jean de Jérusalem 4, 1978, pp. 67-98.
« L'Elément dramatique commun aux cosmogonies gnostiques des religions du Livre », Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem, 5, 1979, pp. 141-174. In English as "The Dramatic Element Common to Gnostic Cosmogonies of the Religions of the Book," Studies in Comparative Religion 14/3-4 (1980):199-221. Corbin's Opening Remarks have appeared in English as "Eyes of Flesh, Eyes of Fire: Science and Gnosis" in Material for Thought 8, 1980, Far West Institute, San Francisco, 5-10.
« Le combat pour l'Âme du monde ou urgence de la sophiologie », Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem 6, 1980, pp. 1-15.
Individual Volumes of Les Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem
Sciences Traditionelles et Sciences Profanes. Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem 1, 1975. Paris: Berg international, 1975. Jérusalem, la cité spirituelle: colloque tenu à Cambrai/Vaucelles les 20, 21 et 22 juin 1975. Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem, 2. Paris: Berg international, 1976.
La Foi prophetique et le sacré: colloque tenu à Cambrai/Vaucelles les 25, 26 et 27 juin 1976. Paris: Berg International, 1977.
Les pèlerins de lO̓rient et les vagabonds de lO̓ccident: colloque tenu à Paris les 17, 18 et 19 juin 1977. Paris: Berg International, 1978.
Les Yeux de chair et les yeux de feu: la science et la gnose : colloque tenu à Paris les 2,3 et 4 juin 1978. Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem, 5. Paris: Berg international, 1979.
Le Combat pour l'âme du monde: urgence de la sophiologie : colloque tenu à Paris les 15, 16, et 17 juin 1979. Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jerusalem, 6. Paris: Berg International, 1980.
L'Hermeneutique permanente ou le buisson ardent. Colloque tenu à Paris les 6,7 et 8 juin 1980. Berg International, Paris, 1981, Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem, 7. [Textes de Ch. Jambet, A. Abécassis, J.-L. Leuba, P. Demange, H. Mongis, J.-L. Vieillard-Baron, D. Shayegan, L. Ashkenazi, Jean Brun, Gilbert Durand]
Le Désert et la queste: colloque tenu à Paris les 12, 13, 14 juin 1982. Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem, 8. Paris: Berg international, 1982.
Apocalypse et sens de l'Histoire. [Actes du] Colloque tenu à Paris les 11,12, 13 juin 1982. Berg International, Paris, 1983, Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem, 9. [Textes de J.-L. Vieillard-Baron, A. Abécassis, K. Raine, P. Deghaye, C. Jambet, O. Clément, R.Stauffer, G. Lardreau et J. Brun]
La Chevalerie spirituelle: colloque tenu à Paris les 10, 11 et 12 juin 1983. Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem, 10. Paris: Berg International, 1984.
La Contemplation comme action nécessaire: colloque tenu à Paris les 18, 19, 20 mai 1984. Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem, 11. Paris: Berg international, 1985.
Face de Dieu et théophanies: colloque tenu à Paris les 10, 11, 12 mai 1985. Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem, 12. Paris: Berg international, 1986.
La Matière spirituelle: colloque tenu à Paris les 6, 7, 8 juin 1986. Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem, 13. Paris: Berg International, 1987.
Temps et hiérohistoire: colloque tenu à Paris les 22, 23 24 mai 1987. Cahiers de l'Université Saint Jean de Jérusalem, 14. Paris: Berg international, 1988.
Proceedings of Le Groupe d'Études Spirituelles Comparées
Transmission culturelle, transmission spirituelle: colloque tenu en Sorbonne le 13 et 14 juin. Milano: Archè, 1993.
Images et valeurs: colloque tenu à Paris les 15 et 16 mai 1993. Milano: Archè, 1994.
Féminité et spiritualité: colloque tenu à Paris les 28 et 29 mai 1994. Milano: Archè, 1995.
La géographie spirituelle: colloque tenu à Paris les 20 et 21 mai 1995. Milano: Archè, 1997.
L'esprit et la nature: colloque tenu à Paris les 11 et 12 mai 1996. Cahiers du Groupe d'études spirituelles comparées, 5. Milano: Archè, 1997.
Animus et anima: colloque tenu à Paris les 31 mai et 1er juin 1997. Cahiers du Groupe d'études spirituelles comparées, 6. Milano: Archè, 1998.
L'un et le multiple: colloque tenu à Paris les 6 et 7 juin 1998. Cahiers du Groupe d'études spirituelles comparées, 7. Milano: Archè, 1999.
Henry Corbin et le comparatisme spirituel: Colloque tenu à Paris les 5 et 6 juin 1999. Cahiers du Groupe d'études spirituelles comparées, 8. Milan: Arché, 1999.
Hiérarchies et traditions: colloque tenu à Paris les 27 et 28 mai 2001. Cahiers du Groupe d'études spirituelles comparées, 9. Milan: Archè, 2001.
Témoins et témoignages: Colloque tenu à Paris les 27 et 28 mai 2001. Cahiers du groupe d'études spirituelles comparées, 10. Milano: Archè, 2003.
La figure d'Adam: Colloque tenu à la Sorbonne les 24 et 25 mai 2003. Cahiers du goupe d'études spirituelles comparées, 11. Milan: Archè, 2005.
Métamorphose et conversion: Colloque tenu à la Sorbonne les 21 et 22 mai 2005. Actes. Cahiers du groupe d'études spirituelles comparées, 12. Milan: Archè, 2008.
ALONE WITH THE ALONE: CREATIVE IMAGINATION IN THE SUFISM OF IBN 'ARABI by 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.
INTRODUCTION 1. Between Andalusia and Iran: A Brief Spiritual Topography 2. The Curve and Symbols of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Life 3. The Situation of Esotericism PART ONE: SYMPATHY AND THEOPATHY Ch. I. Divine Passion and Compassion Ch II. Sophiology and Devotio Sympathetica PART TWO: CREATIVE IMAGINATION AND CREATIVE PRAYER 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” EPILOGUE
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).
FrontispieceThe 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)
SOME CRITICAL ASSESSMENTS
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.
And American poet Edward Hirsch comments on Corbin's influence on his poem "Late March" (audio link on this page) in Poetry Magazine, Q&A. By: Hirsch, Edward, Poetry, Jul/Aug2007, Vol. 190, Issue 4: Q: Why does the idea of Aloneness feel so desirable in this poem? A: The book of the Alone that I was thinking of when I wrote the poem was Henry Corbin's Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Su-fism of Ibn 'Arabi-. The phrase "alone with the alone" was coined by Plotinus in the third century and refers to a state of ecstatic transcendence. (Full text here.)
Of interest to some readers may be the suggestion of a connection between elements in Frank Herbert's best-selling science fiction novel Dune (1965) and its many sequels and ideas to be found in Corbin's work. For instance, the 'alam al-mithal as a transcendent realm is of great importance in the novel and appears in the glossary. It is not clear how Herbert knew of the term. It seems that he knew Alan Watts and may have heard something of the Illuminationist tradition and perhaps of Henry Corbin through him. There is however, as far as I am aware, no reason to think that Herbert read Corbin. There is an interesting commentary here on the many Islamic themes in Dune, including a post commenting on Corbin. Also here is an essay by Norman Spinrad that discusses Islamic elements in the novel.
Image of the Central Alborz Mtns., Aatashgah Region, Karaj, Iran from Ali Madjfar here.
What follows is the NOTE ON ILLUSTRATIONS from Corbin's Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth (lacking diacritical marks), pp. xxxi-xxxii, with some additions of my own in brackets  and some hyperlinks that may be of interest:
"The design of the frontispiece is reproduced from a silk textile in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, purchased from the J.H. Wade Fund. It also appears in a book by Gaston Wiet entitled Soieries Persan (Mémoires de l'Institut d'Egypte, Vol. 52, Cairo, 1947, Pl. XI and pp. 55-63). The original figure on silk was discovered in 1925, together with many other extraordinary pieces, when certain graves accidentally came to light in the hills adjoining the sanctuary of Shahr-Banu, not far from Ray [also see this] (the Rhages of the Book of Tobias), a few miles to the south of Teheran. [On this see my post of Dec. 18, 2008 on the "Buyid Silks" controversy.]
It can be inferred from the place of the discovery that this was a precious material offered by friends or relatives for wrapping the body of the deceased person (cf. Issa Behnam, in Revue de la Faculté des Lettres de l'Université de Téhéran, October, 1956). It is said to date from the fifth century (eleventh century C.E.) and was found in a state of perfect preservation. Iconographically, it is interesting as a motif in the Sasanid style on material dating from the great Islamic period. The site of the discovery makes it even more interesting, for, according to Iranian tradition, the princess Shahr-Banu, daughter of the last Sasanid ruler, Yazdgard III, became the wife of Husayn ibn 'Ali the Third Imam of the Shi'ites, and here we find an expression, iconographic and topographic, of the union of Mazdean [Zoroastrian] Iran and Shi'ite Iran.
Beyond doubt the design represents the theme of the ascent to Heaven: a youth, with a royal head of hair as a halo, is carried off into space by a great fantastic bird that holds him enclosed in his breast. Certain stylized details suggest that this bird be identified, not merely as a two-headed eagle, but as the 'anqa' (the phoenix) or simurgh, which, already in the Avesta as in the later Persian mystical epics, assumes so many symbolic functions, even becoming the emblem of the Holy Spirit. It would be useless to multiply examples based on outer analogies (which would lead us far afield, even to the abduction of Ganymede, for instance). But it is of direct interest to draw attention to an episode in the heroic epic of Iran [the Shahnama], namely, the abduction of Zal, son of Sam [left], who was nurtured and reared by the bird Simurgh. Suhrawardi developed at great length in one of his mystical romances the spiritual meaning of this episode [See L'Incantation de la Simorgh, with introduction & notes by Corbin, pp. 441-69 in L'archange empourpré: Quinze traités et récits mystiques]. And in this sense it comes finally into full accord with the hadith which, without further reference, can best lead us to meditation on the symbolism of this image. The hadith in question alludes to the green Bird whose breast offers shelter, in the other world, to the spirits of the 'witnesses of truth' [the martyrs]. As interpreted by Simnani, one of the Iranian Sufi masters, this is an allusion to the formation of the "resurrection body." Thus the hieratic movement of being taken up to Heaven, which the Iranian artist has represented here, reveals the meaning of what Wiet so rightly calls its "triumphant gravity."
We should not omit pointing out that exactly the same motif, with all the features justifying reference to the hadith interpreted by Simnani, figures among the paintings adorning the ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, [Byzantine, Sicily (1130-1140 C.E.) - an example is reproduced on the left] (cf. Ugo Monneret de Villard, Le pitture musulmane al soffito della Cappella Palatina in Palermo [Rome, 1950], pp. 47-48 and Figs 52-55, 245). Whether or not the Palermo painters came from Fatimid Egypt, it is known that they were inspired by themes originating for the post part in Iran, and often, as in the present case, did no more than reproduce them." - Henry Corbin
From the Topkapi Museum comes The Abduction of Zal by the Simurgh, from the Shah-nama. From the Sarai Albums, Tabriz, ca. 1370, Hazine 2153, folio 23a. The image from the Palatine Chapel is taken from wikimedia. - TC