"...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, June 15, 2009

Henry Corbin on the Soul of Iran

Henry Corbin writing of the Avicennan ta'wil:

...everything takes place as if the vision of the high mountains of Iran had ceaselessly prepared the "contemplative intellect" of the Iranian soul once more to receive from the Angel Active Intelligence an illumination that again puts the memory of their hierophanies "in the present." It was upon these lofty peaks that, according to tradition, Zarathustra, the Iranian prophet, was repeatedly granted theophanies and angelophanies. What we call "angelology" in the true sense is perhaps the peculiar charism, the gift, of the Iranian soul to the religious history of humanity. The Lord Wisdom (Ahura Mazda) does not reveal himself as solitary, but as always surrounded by the six with whom he forms the archangelic heptad of light. And with them each of the "Adorable Ones" (Yazatas) of the celestial multitude appears not as a vague and unstable entity but as a perfectly individuated and distinct existence, recognizable by his personal name and his emblem (a flower). Furthermore, the Zoroastrian angelology puts a decisive end to all ambivalence of the numinous, that confusion between the divine and the demonic whereby the manifestations of the divine can elsewhere assume a terrific character. To judge by the oscillations that make consciousness waver elsewhere, and that are perceptible in the confusion perpetrated throughout history, and more than ever in our day, between angelology and demonology, we can appreciate the historical significance of the ancient Iranian faith: yes is not no, the beings of light wage a battle that is not a dialectical game, and it is to be guilty of a contradiction in terms, and a blasphemous contradiction for the Zoroastrian consciousness, to talk of an "angel of Darkness." - Henry Corbin, Avicenna & the Visionary Recital, 118-119.

The Mountains of Dam, Iran - Ali Madjfar.


  1. The only caveat to this necessary distinction between the angel and the demon -- that they are distinct realities -- is that, as Paul writes, "Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light" (2 Cor. 11:14). This is where sincerity is of the highest importance. Imaginal angels may not be of the same cast as demons, but imaginary angels may full well be demons in disguise.


  2. There's another caveat here too: for all that can be said for Corbin's angelology (and there is much to recommend it as I hope to have shown) - any spirituality tends to have trouble engaging with political realities - the world of "mixture" is awfully hard to read - and the necessary complement to Corbin's heavenly vision has to be profound humility - Ghandi (or an idealized version of him!) comes to mind perhaps.

  3. Yes, and as you seem to imply, we should regard such public manifestations of humility with a grain of salt! I believe it’s St. Bernard that said, “It is a beautiful thing, humility; for even pride vests itself with it, out of fear of being too ugly.”

    About the political problem: for instance, when the judeo-christian gnostics of the Nag Hammadi Library speak of the archonic world – the world of the rulers – it seems they are not speaking about purely spiritual realities. There is an archonic world here on earth, and by analogy, just as the archons in their myths fabricate the world in imitation of the Real, just as it fabricates “false” humans according to their eternal archetypes, so the public and political sphere create a secondary reality, one that caricatures and falsifies God's Creation.

    So this is what, I believe, the gnostics mean when they say that the archonic world is evil. They are not referring to the world of nature per-se, but to our own gross perception of nature, and to the world order we build on the basis on these false premises.

    It seems to me that those interested in spiritual things often tend to enjoy the supernatural and sensational -- perhaps an heritage of the Christian appeal of Jesus as a miracle-worker -- and so we tend to overlook the very concrete implications of the gnostic mythos. Yes, there may be a metaphysical dimension to those myths, but their impact is felt most strongly, and most meaningfully, in its existential manifestations.

    In brief, your comment about politics and spirituality seems to point to the fact that without profound and sincere humility, those who dare leave the private sphere and become public figures (and spiritual ones at that!) ever risk losing touch with their own real nature as human beings, and become only caricatures of themselves, as false images of human beings that become part of this fabricated world.