"...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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Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Sketch of a Life

A Very Brief Chronology of the Life of Henry Corbin
(Being selections from the more extensive Biographical Sketch in Henry Corbin, edited by Christian Jambet, Paris: L'Herne, 1981.)

1903 - Born in Paris, April 14, 47 avenue Bosquet, son of Henri Arthur Corbin and Eugenie Fournier. His mother died 10 days later and he was raised by his aunt and uncle.

1915 - Attended Abbey College of St-Maur

1922 - Studied music theory and organ. Attended the Seminary School at lssy. Received the License in scholastic philosophy from the Catholic Institute of Paris

1925 - Studied under Etienne Gilson at 1'Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes. His thesis was "Latin Avicennism in the Middle Ages." Began his study of Arabic and Sanskit at l'Ecole des langues orientales.

1926 - Met Joseph Hackin, Director of the Guimet Museum (the National Museum of Asiatic Art). After his meeting with Hackin, Corbin said he was filled with a joyous certainty and "saw the link between my studies of medieval philosophy and Hindu metaphysics." Beginning of his friendship with the philosopher and music critic Joseph Baruzi. In a note Corbin wrote "The rhythm of music is the rhythm of my soul."

1928 - Student Diploma at l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes for his work on "Stoicism and Augustinism in the Work of Luis de Leon." Awarded le Prix Luis de Leon by the University of Salamanca.

1929 - In April he began work at the Bibliotheque Nationale. Received his diploma in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Traveled to Spain and spent two months at L'Escorial. Met the Swedish orientalist H. S. Nyberg. Established friendships with Hellmut Ritter, Georges Vajda, Emile Benveniste, Jean Gaulmier, Robert de Chateaubriant, Pierre Bordessoule, Igor Plemmanikov. At gatherings of "The Friends of the Orient" he met several Iranian students who he would see again in Iran some years later. On October 12 he met Louis Massignon at the Bibliotheque Nationale. On the 13th he visited Massignon and it was no doubt then that Massignon gave him the lithographed copy of Suhrawardi's Hikmat al-Ishraq.

1930 - Took courses with Louis Massignon, Etienne Gilson, E. Benveniste, Alexandre Koyre, Henri-Charles Puech and Charles Andler (on Hegel - see this bibliography on Hegel's reception in France).. In July, the first trip to Germany: Frankfurt-am-Main, Marburg. There he met Rudolf Otto, Rabindranath Tagore, Karl Loewith, Albert-Marie Schmidt and Henri Jourdan. In a note dated 6 August, Corbin wrote "Read Heidegger." On his return from Germany Georges Bataille asked him for a study on Rudolf Otto for the review « Documents ». (also here for further references and analysis). Corbin is President of the French Federation of Associations of Christian Students. From 1931 to 1934 Corbin was secretary and contributor to « Revue critique ».

1931 - In January met with Alexandre Kojeve again. At a seminar organized by Jean Baruzi, Corbin met Bernard Groethuysen who became a close friend. At the seminar Corbin gave one paper on Marcion and a second on Manichean prayer. During this period he met Lev Shestov and Andre Malraux. In April - a second trip to Germany: Stuttgart, Tubingen, and Friburg where Corbin met Heidegger. In August another trip to Germany: Bonn, Cologne, Hamburg, Lubeck. With Denis de Rougemont, Roland de Pury, A. M. Schmidt and Roger Jezequiel, Corbin founded the review «Hic et Nunc». Only six numbers were published.

1932 - In February Corbin convened a conference at the Faculty of Protestant Theology on "The Expression and the Function of the Personality in Islamic Mysticism - in particular in Hallaj and Ghazali." In April and in August more visits to Germany where he met Karl Barth and established ties with Paul L. Landsberg and Hugo Friedrich, then to Sweden to visit and Georges Dumezil and Professor Nyberg.

1933 - Collaborated on the revue « Le Semeur » (The Sower). Established ties with Daniel Bovet, Denis de Rougemont, Charles Westphal. Corbin published his first translation of Suhrawardi in « Recherches Philosophiques ». Marriage to Stella Leenhardt, daughter of Maurice Leenhardt and Jeanne Andre-Michel.

1934-36 - Member of the Asiatic Society. Visited Heidegger in April, 1934. Corbin organized an exhibition marking the millennial celebration of Ferdowsi at the Bibliotheque Nationale. Invited to Pontigny by Paul Desjardins for a conference, «Is the Will to Justice Necessary for Revolutionary Action?» with Charles du Bos, Vladimir Jankelevitch, Denis de Rougemont, and Maurice de Gandillac. From October 1935 until June 30, 1936 Corbin was sent by the Bibliotheque nationale to the 1'Institut francais in Berlin. In July he went to Friburg-en-Bresgau to submit to Heidegger translations to appear as « Qu'est-ce que la Metaphysique? » Contributed to « Hermes » and « Mesures ».

1937-39 - Substituted for Alexandre Koyre a 1'Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes. Presented « Transcendental et Existential» at the 9th International Congress of Philosophy. Conference at the Society of Iranian Studies on Sohravardi. Organised the exposition: «Arts of Iran, Ancient Persia and Baghdad» at the Bibliotheque Nationale. Attended courses in Aramaic and Syriac at the IVe section de 1'Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes (Andre Dupont-Sommer). Publication of « Qu'est-ce que la Metaphysique? ». Visit to Nicolas Berdiaev in April. Sent by the Bibliotheque nationale for a six-month stay at the French Institute for Archaeology in Istanbul the Corbins remain there until the end of the war.

1940-45 - As the sole member of the French Institute of Archaeology in Istanbul, Corbin collected manuscripts for a critical edition of Suhrawardi and worked as well on manuscripts of Mulla Sadra and others. Upon the arrival of his replacement in 1945, the Corbin's left for Teheran on the Taurus Express (and here) through Bagdad, arriving in Teheran on September 14. At a conference at the Museum of Archaeology plans were made to create a department of Iranology in the new Institute francais. Corbin met Mohammad Mo'in with whom he would later collaborate on many volumes in the « Bibliotheque iranienne ».

1946 - In July the Corbins returned to Paris after an absence of 6 years.

1949 - Attended his first Eranos Conference in Ascona, Switzerland. He returned nearly every year until his death in 1978. His colleagues and friends here included C. G. Jung, G. Scholem, Giuseppe Tucci, Emil Cioran, Mircea et Christinel Eliade, Christian et Marie-Louise Dehollain, Adolf Portmann, C. A. Meier, Ernst Benz.

1954 - Delivered a paper at l'Academic des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres on «The Situation of Iranian Studies in Iran». After a month in Cairo editing the papers of Paul Kraus, Corbin returned to Teheran as director of the department of Iranology at the Institut franco-iranien. Established the series « Bibliotheque iranienne ».

1954 - Avicenna's Millennial Celebration in Teheran. Corbin delivers «Avicennisme et Imamisme». Publication of Avicenne et le Recit visionnaire. Named Director of Studies in Islam and the Religions of Arabia at 1'Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes.

1955-1973 - Corbin was in charge of publications at the department of lranology at the Institut franco-iranien in Teheran. He also taught history of theology and philosophy at the University of Teheran. From Janurary to June he taught in Paris.

1958 - Delivered a paper at the Guimet Museum on « Une grande figure du soufisme iranien : Ruzbehan Baqli Shirazi». Publication of L'imagination creatrice dans le soufisme d'lbn 'Arabi.

1960 - Publication in Iran of conversations between the master of Islamic philosophy Allama Tabataba'i and Henry Corbin.

1961 - Publication of Terre celeste et corps de resurrection.

1962 - Invited by G. E. von Grunebaum (The Near Eastern Center, Los Angeles) and Roger Caillois to a colloquium on « Le reve et les societes humaines». Delivered «Le songe visionnaire en spiritualite islamique ». Attended a conference in Teheran on «La place de Molla Sadra Shirazi dans la philosophic iranienne ». Member of Consulting Council at Eranos.

1964 - Conference at the Colloque du Symbolisme (Paris): «Mundus imaginalis ou l'imaginaire et l'imaginal». Established friendships with Gilbert Durand, Rudolf and Catherine Ritsema, James Hillman.

1968 - Publication of Histoire de la philosophic islamique.

1970 - Invited to Newnham College at Cambridge (conference : Sohravardi, de l'epopee heroique a l'epopee mystique). Trip to Mashhad to meet Professor S. J. Ashtiyani and organize publication of volumes of I'Anthologie des philosophes iraniens depuis leXVII siecle jusqu'a nos jours.

1971 - Publication of first volumes of En Islam iranien: aspects spirituels et philosophiques.

1972 - At the request of his friend General Georges Buis, Director of the Centre des Hautes-Etudes militaires, he attended a Conference and debate on Iran.

1973 - Attended a colloquium at Chambery sponsored by Gilbert Durand at the Centre de Recherche sur l'imaginaire : « Le motif du voyage et du messager en gnose irano-islamique ». Retired in 1974, Corbin continued to give lectures at 1'Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes and he returned to the University of Teheran each autumn, invited by S. H. Nasr. With Robert de Chateaubriant, Gilbert Durand, Antoine Faivre and Richard
Stauffer, Corbin founded 1'Universite Saint-Jean-de-Jerusalem, Centre international de recherche spirituelle comparee. Shortly after, they were joined by Pierre Bordessoule, Jean Brun and J. L. Vieillard-Baron. The theme of the first session was «Sciences traditionnelles et sciences profanes ». Corbin was elected President of the Association Nicolas Berdiaev.

1975 - Invited by the University of Geneva to give two lectures, « La prophetologie shi'ite duodecimaine » and « La prophetologie ismaelienne », and attended a colloquium at the University of Tours: « Macrocosme et microcosme » where he presented « Le microcosme comme cite personnelle en theosophie islamique ». Second session of USJJ on « Jerusalem, la cite spirituelle ».

1976 - Third session of USJJ on « La foi prophetique et le sacre ».

1977 - Publication of Melanges offerts a Henry Corbin. Colloquium organized at the University of Tours on the theme «L'homme et 1'ange», presented « Necessite de 1'angelologie ». Fourth session of USJJ on « Les pelerins de 1'Orient et les vagabonds de 1'Occident». Invited to Teheran for an international colloquium « L'impact planetaire de la pensee occidentale rend-il possible un dialogue reel entre les civilisations? » he delivered his last major paper, « De la theologie apophatique comme antidote du nihilisme ».

1978 - In June the fifth session of USJJ on:« Les yeux de chair et les yeux de feu ou la science et la gnose ». In July a trip to Scotland.

From Stella Corbin's Memoir: On the 26th of September the doctor authorizes the return to Rue Odéon. Henry, overjoyed, barely sleeps, plans to finish his works, and then, slightly troubled, asks the Doctor: “But do you think I can finish this book?” Dr. Gonnot: “Oh! I know you. Even if you had 100 years ahead of you, you would ask me the same question. You would have yet another urgent book to finish… and many more besides.” Corbin replies, “That may well be! The thing is, you see, with my books, I am struggling against the same thing as you. Each in our own way, you as doctor, and I as historian of religions, are engaged in the same struggle, we are leading a campaign against Death."

Henry Corbin died on October 7, 1978

[An account of Corbin's childhood and of his final illness (and much else besides) can be found here courtesy of the Friends of Henry and Stella Corbin.]


  1. Delighted that you find it useful.

  2. Tom, I don't know if you are familiar with the poetry of Robin Blaser, a contemporary of Duncan and Spicer, who died recently, and in whose work, both poetic and critical, Corbin plays a part. His life poem, The Holy Forest, has a poem called "Lake of Souls" which takes a stanza from a passage of Corbin. There are no doubt other allusions and borrowings.Corbin is also cited in his collected essays, The Fire. A great poet and a great loss.

  3. Will check into Blaser - sounds like a topic for a new post - many thanks.