Tuesday, March 31, 2009
A Study in the History of Muslim Thought
by Todd Lawson
(whose graduate seminar on Henry Corbin
I have mentioned before)
from Oneworld Publications
This book will be of some interest to students of Henry Corbin. From the publisher:
According to the majority of modern Muslims and Christians, the Qur’an denies the crucifixion of Jesus, and with it, one of the most sacred beliefs of Christianity. However, it is only mentioned in one verse and contrary to popular belief, its interpretation has been the subject of fierce debate among Muslims for centuries. This innovative work is the first book devoted to the issue, delving deeply into largely ignored Arabic sources, which suggest that the origins of the denial may lie within the Christian Church. Arranged along historical lines, and covering various Muslim schools of thought, from Sunni to Sufi, The Crucifixion and the Qur’an will fascinate anyone interested in Christian-Muslim relations.
Todd Lawson is Associate Professor at the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto. He is the author of Reason and Inspiration in Islam: Theology, Philosophy and Mysticism in Muslim Thought.
“With admirable lucidity the book takes us chronologically through all the main interpretations of the key verse where crucifixion is explicitly mentioned.” Michael Carter, Professor of Medieval Studies and Arabic, University of Sydney
“Compelling reading for all those interested in comparative Christian-Muslim theology and its implications for contemporary inter-faith relations. This important, thought-provoking book harbingers fruitful new trajectories for conversations between Christians and Muslims.” Asma Afsaruddin, Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame
Monday, March 30, 2009
This fine Bibliography comes to us courtesy of
Dr. Mohammed Rustom, Carleton University
Anthologies, Books, and Collective Volumes
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_______. The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam. Oxford: Oneworld, 2005.
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_______. Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul: The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World. Oxford: Oneworld, 2007.
_______. The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Cosmology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
_______. The Sufi Doctrine of Rumi. Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2005.
_______. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.
_______. The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.
_______. Sufism: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld, 2000.
Chodkiewicz, Michel. An Ocean Without Shore: Ibn ‘Arabi, the Book and the Law. Trans. David Streight. Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1993.
______. Seal of the Saints: Prophethood and Sainthood in the Doctrine of Ibn ‘Arabi. Trans. Liadain Sherrard. Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1993.
_______. The Spiritual Writings of Emir ‘Abd al-Kader. Trans. James Chrestensen, Tom Manning, et al. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Corbin, Henry. Avicenna and the Visionary Recital. Trans. Willard Trask. Irving: Spring
_______. Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis. Trans. Ralph Manheim and James Morris. London:
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_______. Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. Trans. Ralph Manheim Princeton:
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_______. The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism. Trans. Nancy Pearson. Boulder: Shambala, 1978.
_______. Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth. Trans. Nancy Pearson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.
_______. The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy. Trans. Joseph Rowe. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1998.
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_______. Al-Farabi, Founder of Islamic Neoplatonism: His Life, Works and Influence. Oxford: Oneworld, 2002.
_______. History of Islamic Philosophy. 3rd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
_______. Philosophy, Dogma, and the Impact of Greek Thought in Islam. Aldershot: Variorum, 1994.
_______. A Short Introduction to Islamic Philosophy, Theology, and Mysticism. Oxford: Oneworld, 1997.
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_______. Texts and Studies on the Development and History of Kalam. 3 vols. Ed. Dimitri Gutas. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Variorum, 2005-8.
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_______. Insights into Islamic Esoterism and Taoism. Hillsdale, NY: Sophia Perennis, 2001.
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_______. Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
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_______. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. London: Oxford University Press, 1934.
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_______. The Concept and Reality of Existence. Tokyo: The Keio Institute of Cultural and Linguistic Studies, 1971.
_______. Creation and the Timeless Order of Things: Essays in Islamic Mystical Philosophy. Ashland: White Cloud Press, 1994.
_______. Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an. Montreal: McGill University Press, 1966.
_______. The Fundamental Structure of Sabzawari’s Metaphysics. Tehran: McGill University Institute of Islamic Studies, 1968.
_______. Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts. 2nd ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.
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_______. Sawanih: Inspirations from the World of Pure Spirits. Trans. Nasrollah Pourjavady. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul International, 1986.
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_______. Gifts for the Seeker. Trans. Mostafa al-Badawi. London: Quilliam, 1992.
_______. The Lives of Man. Trans. Mostafa al-Badawi. London: Quilliam, 1991.
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Sulami, Abi ‘Abd al-Rahman and al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi. Three Early Sufi Texts. Trans. Nicholas Heer and Kenneth Honerkamp. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2003.
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Scholar. Ed and trans. S.J. Badakhchani. London and New York: I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 1998.
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Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae in association with the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2009.
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Anthologies of Translations
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University Press, 2005.
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and New York: I.B. Tauris in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2008.
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Cornell University Press, 1963.
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Sources. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein and Mehdi Aminrazavi (eds.). An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia. 5 vols. London and New York: I.B. Tauris in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2008-10.
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_______(ed.). Windows on the House of Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Sells, Michael. Early Islamic Mysticism. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1996.
Folio of calligraphy, 16th century. Mir 'Ali d. 1556. Safavid or Mughal periods. "This quatrain by the celebrated Persian poet, Hafiz (died 1209) is written in nastaliq, a script developed in late fifteenth-century Iran. Because of its simple elegance and legibility, nastaliq became the ideal script for transcribing poetry in Iran, India, and Turkey, where Persian literary culture prevailed. The calligraphy is signed by the most celebrated sixteenth-century Persian calligrapher, Mir Ali, whose work was greatly admired and avidly collected in Mughal India. To accentuate the beauty of Mir Ali's script, Mughal patrons would often add lavish floral motifs to the calligraphy." Freer & Sackler Galleries.
Friday, March 27, 2009
(W)e are beginning to discover the truth that in great works of the imagination A CREATIVE FORCE IS SHOWN AT WORK MAKING OBJECTS WHICH ALONE COMPLETE SCIENCE AND ALLOW INTELLIGENCE TO SURVIVE
Many students of Henry Corbin will find much of real interest in this work by Williams, available from New Directions in Imaginations. I was reminded of this piece today by the excellent new post by Ron Silliman that I recommend to everyone. (Silliman's blog is a wonderful resource for anyone with an interest in poetry, contemporary & otherwise).
Thursday, March 26, 2009
In After Prophecy I discussed his docetism at some length, and I repeat some of the points here:
"I want to talk about one constellation of problems inevitably associated with Docetism that was largely responsible for its rejection by what became the orthodox Church in the first centuries after Christ. If the doctrine of the Incarnation is abandoned, how does this change the meaning of human embodiment, and of history? To present the thrust of the orthodox complaint as I understand it I can do no better than to quote from Olivier Clément’s summary critique of Monophysitism. Corbin suggests that a pure Monophysitism fully expresses the tendency towards volatilization that Docetism as a whole displays. Mono-physite means “one nature” – that is to say that Christ had only one nature, so that his humanity is absorbed fully into the divine. The fundamental idea, according to Clément,
"is to celebrate the transfiguration of all things in Christ. That is true eschatologically, ‘in mystery’, (and in ‘the mysteries’, the Church sacraments). Secretly the world is already the ‘burning bush’, everything is in God through Christ’s deified flesh, a ‘glass torch’. But this sacramental indicative requires an imperative in the ascetic, ethical and historical field. What is offered to us in Christ, in the ‘mysteries’, we have to realize in our freedom, in the ‘newness’ of the Spirit. Whereas Monophysitism, which is irresponsible, quietistic, almost magical, in interested only in transfiguration, and that immediately. History is done away with or disqualified... If Christianity had become Monophysite..., the human dimension of history, humanity’s tragic and creative freedom and the reality proper to the created being would have had difficulty in asserting themselves... Christianity would have forgotten the Semitic sense of the body and of history..." (from Olivier Clément's wonderful book The Roots of Christian Mysticism)
A grasp of these criticisms is important for understanding the position Corbin defends. Even in his most Manichean and “gnostic” pronouncements Corbin is not guilty of these charges. There are those whose idea of spirituality is in fact irresponsible, quietistic and magical. Often what passes for “New Age” religion is other-worldly in this sense, as is often the case with the popularized Western versions of Eastern religions. This is a danger that a docetic Christology must guard against. A religion that degenerates into escapism has succumbed to denial and fantasy, and can have no understanding of the Creative Imagination that makes it possible for us to perceive the light at the heart of creation. Authentic mystic vision is rare, and it is neither escapism nor denial." (from After Prophecy).
In this post on Corbin's "shadow" I want to emphasize the risks of Corbin's mysticism. For he was a mystic, and I have long found that his writings generate a very strong pull towards transcendence. I have argued that to understand him in wholly a mystical and disembodied way is a mistake and a misunderstanding. But there is no denying that he was, in alchemical terms, a sublimatio type, and he does tend to drag his readers off to heaven prematurely. But it seems to me that this powerful dissolving and sublimating energy can be used, not to dis-embody and dis-empower by generating a passive pseudo-spirituality, but to help us re-imagine embodiment itself and undo the monolithic and literalized imagination of bodies that modern science and medicine tend to propagate. The thrust of Corbin's work is everywhere to unfetter and to pluralize, to release the Imagination of the divine in each of us, each in our own unique and en-souled way. If we understand his re-working of the idea of the Incarnation in this way, then what we will find is a theological imagining of the possibility of a multiplicity of kinds of embodiment - as some post-modern Christian theologians have recently argued.
Our bodies need not be "grounded" in the base and evil "matter" of misogynistic cosmologies, nor evaporated into the networks and wiring diagrams of modern science & medicine. One of the most salutary effects of embracing Corbin's vision is an eradication of any too-simple dichotomy between transcendence and immanance in favor of something more vital, more complex and more replete with the energies of life. The world is a richer and more complicated reality by far than any system can embrace. And that is ultimately one of the most important messages of Corbin's imaginative theology.
[In thinking about illustrations for a post on dis-embodiment and abstraction I was forcefully reminded yet again of the fact that "imagination embodies." There are no disembodied images. What we find is that there are many different kinds of embodiment and these can be revealed and lived through the Imagination. It is worth pondering the changing place and nature of the mystic vision in the contemporary world where the meaning and experience of human embodiment is called into question by emerging technologies in ways that are unique in human history. In cultures relatively untouched by urban culture and modern technology, the relation of the body and the earth can be immediate in ways that we have largely lost. The impact of these developments on both the lived experience of spirituality and the ways we understand "mysticism" are as yet largely unexplored. It seems to me that Corbin's work has much to contribute to such a discussion.]
The Transfiguration, Fra Angelico, 1440-1. Convent of San Marco, Florence.
The Transfiguration, Cornelis Monsma, 2006.
Kissing, Alex Grey, 1983.
Mark Rothko. No. 2/No.30[?] (Yellow Center), 1954. Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Iran
Monday, March 23, 2009
Thursday, March 19, 2009
This book will be of considerable interest to readers of this blog.
From the publisher:
At first glance Sufism and Surrealism appear to be as far removed from one another as is possible. Adonis, however, draws convincing parallels between the two, contesting that God, in the traditional sense of the word, does not exist in Surrealism or in Sufism, and that both are engaged in parallel quests for the nature of the absolute, through 'holy madness' and the deregulation of the senses. This is a remarkable investigation into the common threads of thought that run through seemingly polarised philosophies from East and West, written by a man Edward Said referred to as 'the most eloquent spokesman and explorer of Arab modernity'.
REVIEWS: "Adonis is undoubtedly one of the leading Arab poets of this century." - Times Literary Supplement (London) "As important a cultural manifesto as any written today." - Edward Said "The Arab world's greatest living poet has cultivated a garden of language. - New York Times "Adonis is a writer like Neruda or Marquez." - The Independent
AUTHOR: Adonis is hugely esteemed as a poet and man of letters. Born in Syria in 1930, he settled in Lebanon in the 1950s, where he became a central figure in the new Arabic poetry movement. In 1956 he helped establish the literary magazine Shi'r, and in 1968 founded its successor, the equally prestigious Mawakif. Both were to play a seminal role in the revival of the Arabic literary tradition. Adonis is the author of several classic works that have led to a rigorous reassessment of Arab cultural heritage.
2005, Saqi Books, London, San Francisco, Beirut
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
"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." (Chittick, p. x.).
The polytheistic appropriation of the imaginal realm in question here is that form of Jungian psychology known as archetypal psychology. The prime spokesperson has long been James Hillman, who was a colleague of Corbin's at Eranos. In the introductory section of Le Paradoxe du Monotheisme Corbin expresses considerable enthusiasm for Hillmans' early book Re-Visioning Psychology and praises its vision of a "resurgence of the gods." He also contributed a Prefatory Letter to David Miller's book The New Polytheism in which he details (in rather technical philosophical terms) the necessary pluralism which must on his view complement the monotheism of the Abrahamic faiths lest they betray the fundamental principles on which they are based. (I have discussed some of this in an earlier blog post on Corbin & Platonism as well as in After Prophecy.) Thus it is no surprise that some have read him as a champion of a kind of polytheism - for which he used the term kathenotheism (borrowed from Max Muller's discussion of Hinduism). But Corbin's polytheism occurs, as Chittick points out, within a monotheistic framework, and this is decidedly not true of Hillman's version at least. And so there arose a certain tension between Corbin and those who used his term mundus imaginalis in ways that he came to regret. This is the subject of some comments in his late preface to Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth in which he stresses that for anyone to use the term imaginal outside of the context in which it developed will misunderstand and mis-use the imaginative faculty and consequently go far astray in realms which are potentially dangerous for spiritual development.
Archetypal psychology is hardly a branch of Islam, or of any of the monotheisms. But what are we to make of Corbin's avowed "protestantism" and his stance "outside" of Islam as a doctrinal religion? For he surely was not a Muslim, but thought of himself as a protestant Christian - albeit one with a radical and heretical Christology. So he himself seems to have uprooted the mundus imaginalis from its native soil and applied it to the entirely docetic, post-Islamic, ecumenical and "small c" christianity that he endeavored to live. The enormous question here concerns the perennial tension between Tradition and conservative orthodoxy on the one hand, and creative, "heretical" protests and re-imaginings of the established order on the other. This is the context in which any study of Corbin's work takes place. These questions are indeed timeless and will recur as long as humans inhabit the earth. I believe that anyone who takes the reality of an imaginal world at all seriously would do well to recognize that these questions exist. Corbin echoes the words of teachers in many traditions when he warns that the true imagination is not innocuous. Corbin was suspicious of merely human Masters, as he was of the institutional Church. But he was clearly very aware that one could lose one's way in the world of the imagination - witness his critique of Nietzsche's "failed initiation," and his warning that much of the modern imagination is consumed by the macabre and the demonic. It is important in understanding Corbin to note that he is well aware of the dangers of imagination and stresses the "hieratic" form that seems to him the mark of the vera imaginatio. His early enthusiasm for the "heretical" perhaps changed in time to something more cautious, as one would expect with increasing age, and wisdom. But for all that, his theology of the Holy Spirit remains, and it is based on the personal, individual encounter with the Angel.
This leaves open the issue of just what the function of the Tradition and of the Church properly are. Not everyone can do as Corbin suggests is possible for some spiritually powerful figures such as Ibn 'Arabi: to seek freely the teachings of all the Masters. This, as well as an uncritical "divinization" of the imaginal, can indeed lead to disorientation and the naive and simplistic pseudo-religions that Traditionalists are so afraid of - though I do not think that either must. It is hardly wise, even if it were possible, to jettison the entire accumulated wisdom of traditional religions. But uncritical adherence to a misunderstood "tradition" has dangers of its own that are all too clear in an age of fundamentalist violence and intolerance. This leaves some of us at least in the uncomfortable and difficult position of managing to live somehow on the margins of the Church, on the margins of the traditions. This can be a painful and dangerous position, but it can also be creative and fruitful as long as we are aware of where we stand and continually aware of the risks. For some people in the modern world it is I think necessary to live in this perpetual tension. There are on the one hand no "private religions," but the historical failings of the traditions render them unavailable to those who can see only those failures. There are dangers both in living outside tradition, as the "doctors of the law" have always stressed, and clear dangers in blind acceptance of the rule of dogma. It is above all important to try to know where you stand and to be as aware as possible of the risks inherent in your position. It is the price we pay for freedom.
A further and related caution to those attracted by Corbin's vision is in order. The formal teachings of the Churches and the Masters are meant to guard against individual excess and error - for example, the question of how one does judge the source or significance of a dream or a vision is obviously of considerable importance. The same issues arise concerning the nature of esoteric knowledge and gnosis in general. And here the political implications are manifest. I am reminded of a bumper sticker I suspect many of my American readers have seen that puts this point quite succinctly: I DO WHAT THE VOICES IN MY HEAD TELL ME TO DO. Behind the humor lies a very serious point not lost on anyone who is aware of the potential consequences of individual extremism. And of course it is just this kind of threat that makes religion in general seem so foolish to secularists and rationalists everywhere. What makes science and modern rationalism in general so powerful and effective, and what ought to ensure their political impartiality and success, is the objective and public nature of their processes and results. And it is this Enlightenment (and ultimately Greek) view of reason that underlies the democratic vision of human society. Any esotericism has political implications. Corbin was perhaps politically naive but he was no fool, and he saw clearly enough that esoteric religion gets in trouble when it has political power. But the relation between esoteric truth and politics is a difficult and serious issue that cannot be ignored by anyone professing to have access to "inner" sources of knowledge that are in principle hidden from rational public scrutiny and public justification. I think that in the end all "esoteric" knowledge does have such a publicly effective measure - and that must lie in the actions and the form of life of the individuals who have been opened to such graces - "Ye shall know them by their fruits." (Matthew 7) Secret sources of knowledge should always be suspect. It is crucial that authority and power of all kinds be viewed with skepticism and caution - especially when the source of the authority is held to be Divine.
Two demons, fettered, 15th century - Timurid period. Iran or Central Asia. Freer & Sackler Galleries. F1937.25. "One intriguing and enigmatic series of drawings and paintings that incorporates Chinese pictorial conventions shows monsters and demons (div) in various activities and poses. These wild, highly expressive creatures contrast sharply with the elegant and emotionally reserved men and women typically seen in Timurid paintings and recall Central Asian and Chinese models and techniques. Frequently, the demons appear with familiar objects, as seen in this remarkable tinted drawing. The one on the right, for instance, plays a spiked fiddle (kamancha), a musical instrument that was popular in Iran and Central Asia. His companion holds a gold cup and a Chinese blue-and-white bottle decorated with a writhing dragon. The style and technique of drawing also owes more to Chinese than Persian pictorial conventions. Both ferocious and comical, these fantastic figures are among the most distinct and powerful images created during the fifteenth century."
Monday, March 16, 2009
Most straightforward to answer is the claim that Corbin is at least implicitly anti-semitic because of his privileging of gnosis over Law. The issue arises because Judaism is often regarded as primarily a religion of the Law. Corbin is quite clearly wary of "legalism" in all of the Abrahamic faiths, and most of his criticisms are directed explicitly at Muslims of various sorts. But his critiques of the "doctors of the Law" are entirely ecumenical in spirit and aimed at fundamentalists of all persuasions. The early context for his attitudes was provided by the philosophical and theological tensions between Protestants and Catholics, and it is above all the institutionalization of doctrine into dogma that is the subject of his critiques. And though he is less enthusiastic about it than some would prefer, Corbin is entirely aware of the fact that there can be no inner meaning to a religion that has no outer appearance. It is not that he argues there can be no binding divine law, but rather that he is extremely suspicious of any human attempts to impose a specific reading of such a law on others. He argues that whenever there is a mediating individual such as a priest or a Master, or a mediating social structure such as a Church that comes between the individual and the Lord we must be very much on our guard. [In the first version of this post I didn't even mention the fundamental fact that Corbin's entire opus is devoted to showing the unity of the three Abrahamic faiths. To suggest even a suppressed anti-antisemitism entirely misses the meaning of his life's work.]
It has been suggested that Corbin was an ideological Iranian nationalist and a supporter of the Shah and his repressive regime. It is now widely known that Reza Shah Pahlavi was put in place after the British and Americans conspired to bring down the democratically elected but Soviet-leaning government of Mohammad Mossadegh, in part to help prevent the nationalization of the Iranian oil fields. (See for instance The CIA in Iran from the New York Times.) Corbin's ties to the Shah and to the Mellons, who were investors in American oil companies, are indisputable. What is in question is the meaning of these connections and the lessons we should draw from them. Guilt by association holds no weight, although I remain open to learning more about his relation to these people. We all break bread at one time or another with those from whom we perhaps should keep our distance, and association need not imply complicity. However there are deeper issues here. As Norman O. Brown has commented, in many areas Corbin simply refused to see any political implications whatever in the subjects of his study. I think this is deeply troubling and it points to one of the most profound dangers inherent in Corbin's approach - one of which we should be entirely conscious. As I have written elsewhere:
"It is often not at all clear in reading Corbin that there is any politically important component in the history of the Shi'ites. In fact he often remarks that it is when Shi'ism does come to political power that it is most in danger of betraying its inner trust. Success on the political front is the "most formidable and paradoxical ordeal that an esoteric religion may undergo." It is in fact just the "sacralization" of institutions that is the prime symptom of metaphysical "secularization." He goes so far as to say "The very idea of associating such concepts as 'power' and the 'spiritual' implies an initial secularization." In the West the failure of the priesthood to gain secular power was the cause of the projection of "a fiction of that same power into the supernatural." His exclusively spiritual view of things makes him a poor guide to political or social history. Norman O. Brown remarks that "Corbin, indispensable in other ways, refuses to see any political dimension whatsoever" in Ismaili or Shi'ite history. It is perhaps unfair to accuse him of being politically naïve when his purpose is not to write political history. Yet it is wise to be aware of the limitations inherent in an exclusively spiritual perspective on history, particularly in view of the fact that the central issue here is the source of legitimate authority in matters of the soul. A spirituality that is blind to political realities is in danger of falling into folly.
And yet it may be that this is precisely the point we can take from his work. Whatever his shortcomings as a social historian, Corbin's writings can be understood as political in the deepest sense. By showing that a metaphysics of individuation is necessary to counter the threat of totalitarianisms, he makes it clear that any spirituality that holds itself aloof from the merely temporal is doomed to the ineffectuality of the abstract. Through his attempt to reinstate the Image in its rightful place in the scheme of things, Corbin attempts to restore balance to the lives of each of us and thereby to the social world as well. James Hillman has seen this aspect of his work clearly. In reference to the nightmares of terrorism in the contemporary Islamic world he says:
"Corbin said to me one time, 'What is wrong with the Islamic world is that it has destroyed its images, and without these images that are so rich in its tradition, they are going crazy because they have no containers for their extraordinary imaginative power.' His work...can be seen as political action of the first order: it was meeting terrorism, fanaticism, nihilism right at its roots in the psyche."
(from The World Turned Inside Out)
That being said, we should be clearly aware of the fact that Corbin often seems generally blind to the political uses of spiritual symbols, and this is indeed naïve and dangerous. Corbin is uniformly dismissive of an exclusively historical approach to spiritual matters, regarding it, rightly I think, as yet another form of fundamentalism which robs us of our humanity. And yet it would be a terrible mistake to ignore the insights of the critical theorists of the last century who have revealed so powerfully the psychological, social and political roots and implications of all of our acts. Not to acknowledge this is to be wide open to all the political and psychological repressions that Corbin, in his own way, is so concerned to fee us from. Corbin's "hermeneutics of unveiling" simply must be balanced with the "hermeneutics of suspicion." The former without the latter begets an ignorant and naïve spirituality; the latter without the former leads to nihilism.
With regard to Corbin's "Iranian nationalism" I think the same comments apply. His clear intention is to open up the world of Iranian spirituality, stretching back to Zoroaster, for all the world to see. He saw it as providing a perspective which was available almost nowhere else and believed that without it our conception of the primary human spiritual potential would be profoundly diminished. He saw, particularly in Suhrawardi, a union of the imaginative and the philosophical which is at best rare in world history. If an enthusiasm for this vision and the spiritual world which is its context leads to a blindness to the negative implications of political nationalism (and I am not at all convinced that it did in his case) then this is something we should be careful to guard against.
A closely related issue is the more general claim that Corbin's a-historical approach and his fondness for emphasizing cross-cultural similarities and "spiritual affinities" is simply a careless "syncretism" which dispenses with and ignores the critical-historical discrimination of modern scholarship. Corbin is dismissive of critiques which disparage this approach and replies that he is uncovering essential spiritual realities that lie behind the historically contingent facts of literal history. It is, he claims, the hiero-history that reveals the face of the divine reality. This dispute is thus part of the perennial antagonism between "Platonism" in various forms and a more "Aristotelian", or in the modern world, historical and materialist philosophy. Corbin was indeed a "Platonist" in the broad sense, and Platonism is not, to put it mildly, currently in favor among philosophers in the West. This dispute is far too broad to enter into here - I have tried in my books to suggest how Corbin's approach may be understood within the context of modern thought. Here I will only point out that one way of seeing the conflict, though it is an over-simplification, is to contrast Corbin's "Platonic" spiritual individualism with the impersonal tenor of a purely historical and material reductionism such as one finds for instance in Darwinism or a neurophysiological approach to the human being. A common charge against "Platonic" idealism or a mythological and archetypal view of reality is that these are (or can be construed as) "essentialist" worldviews. The problem with essentialism is at least twofold: it assumes that there are such "essences" that can identify and define the complex and changing beings that make up reality, and therefore it suggests that these identities can perhaps be discovered by us. The first is a philosophical problem. The second is a political one. Even if we grant that something like essences exist and can define, and thus constrict and control individual things like people, the political question concerns who is to do the defining. Thus essentialism so understood is one more fundamentalism that can be used to justify political and social control and repression. So essentialism is feared by some as providing justification for constraints on individuality and freedom. Corbin's argument is in some respects the opposite: he fears the disappearance of the person into the unanchored flow of historical and material contingency that is the matrix within which modern science, and in fact much modern thought, operates. He would have regarded the postmodernism of Derrida and others as a continuation in another guise of this same fall into chaos and incoherence. There are points to be scored on each side. One of the reasons that Corbin was drawn to Ibn 'Arabi is relevant here. William Chittick has pointed out that there are senses in which Ibn Arabi's worldview is strikingly postmodernist. His spiritual individualism, which influenced Corbin immensely, provides a way to see spiritual and moral truths as both individually absolute and historically relative. And it is critical to keep in mind that, as Corbin stresses, what we think of as the individual is really the ego, and the eternal Self is nothing at all like the finite and limited ego of the terrestrial human being. Thus the "essence" of the individual may not be at all the changeless and immutable Form that a simplistic "Platonism" suggests, but rather the perpetually changing and ascending soul of the mystic vision.
Another critique of Corbin relates to the character of his scholarly approach. There is no such thing as entirely objective and dispassionate scholarship. Yet modern scholarship is based on an attempt to achieve a degree of objectivity, and academic scholars engaged in the study of other cultures are generally diligent in trying to correct for their own biases and maintain a certain emotional distance from the subjects of their investigation. Corbin has been widely viewed as being engaged in something rather different. William Chittick, while sympathetic to Corbin and his work, has written of Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi, "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 the 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." (The Sufi Path of Knowledge, 1989, xix.). Corbin's work as editor and translator has to be distinguished from his work as a powerful and creative philosopher and theologian (although his translations too have been critiqued as reading his own ideas into the texts themselves). There is no doubt that Corbin was engaged all along in something other than philological scholarship, however much his scholarly activities added to our knowledge of the traditions he studied. As he wrote at the age of seventy, "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 Voyage and the Messenger, 140.) It might be that we should understand Corbin's appropriation of the Islamic tradition in somewhat the same way that we view Heidegger's use of the pre-Socratics, or any Christian theologian's creative re-reading or "mis-reading" of the Bible. In any case the reader of Corbin should be aware that his project is an explicitly hermeneutic one, and therefore different from that of those indispensible scholars whose work has a rather different purpose. [This discussion occurs within the larger context not only of theology & philosophy versus philological and textual scholarship, but of the controversy over "Orientalism" sparked by Edward Said's work. This is a topic on which I do not feel competent to comment, though it is of considerable significance here. Two rather good wikipedia entries provide an entry into the literature: Edward Said and Orientalism.]
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Book of Prayers. August-September, 1715. Opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper.H: 23.5 W: 41.1 cm .Turkey. Purchase--Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, S1986.482
Monday, March 9, 2009
A short text entitled “Annexe II: Nature des travaux à poursuivre en Allemagne” [Annex II: Nature of the works to pursue in Germany] dates from the end of 1934 or the beginning of 1935 and describes the prospects of the research that Henry Corbin intended to develop in Berlin (he was in Germany from October 1935 to June 1936). In this paper, we find the following: “Pursuit of an inquiry on the genesis of the grounds determining the orientation of Existenzphilosophie in all contemporary German philosophy. We can understand the ground of ‘existence’, in Heidegger as in Jaspers, as the result of an inevitable confrontation between that which is called the ‘crisis of historicism’ and the exigency of a self-understanding having true ontological significance. This problem of man at grips with ‘his’ history determines ‘the idea of anthropology in the philosophy of existence.’” Thus, the problem of existence and that of its historicity become the question of the concept of man for the philosophy of existence. Man is called into question, and with him, his history, because, as we shall see in the texts, man is not in history. On the contrary, history as potentiality-of-being is in man and simultaneously determines his past, present and future. (This similarly concerns the tradition that appears in Corbin’s reading of Suhrawardī. There, in discussing ‘existential time’, Corbin points out that “A philosopher can only be his own time, and in that alone consists his true ‘historicity’”, and furthermore that “there is a living tradition, that is, a transmission into acts, only by constantly renewed acts of decision”).
I have gathered together the list below from the Complete Bibiography at amiscorbin.com
Henry Corbin: Translations from the German - 1932-1939
Karl Barth, « Misère et grandeur de l’église évangélique » (titre français donné par le directeur de la revue). – Trad. de l’allemand par H. Corbin, Foi et Vie 39, juin, 1932. Barth was known in the 1930s primarily for his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. [I would appreciate hearing from anyone who knows the title of the original German text which Corbin translated. - T.C.]
Martin Heidegger, « Hölderlin et l’essence de la poésie », trad. de l’allemand par H. Corbin, Mesures 3, 15 juill. 1937, pp. 120-143. ["Holderlin and the Essence of Poetry"]
_____. Qu’est-ce que la métaphysique ? Suivi d’extraits sur l’être et le temps et d’une conférence sur Hölderlin. – Trad. de l’allemand par H. Corbin avec un avant-propos et des notes. Paris, Gallimard (coll. « Les Essais », VIII), 1938, In-8°, 250 p. [What Is Metaphysics? Being Extracts on Being and Time and a conference on Holderlin]
_____. « Phénoménologie de la mort », fin § 52 et § 53 in : Sein und Zeit (L’être et le temps). Halle am Saale, M. Niemeyer, 1927. - Trad. de l’allemand par H. Corbin, Hermès 3e série (1), Bruxelles, janv. 1938, pp. 37-51. ["Phenomenology of Death" - from Being and Time]
Karl Jaspers, « La Norme du jour et la passion pour la nuit », chap. 3 ; pp. 102-106, in : Philosophie, t. 3, Metaphysik. Berlin, J. Springer, 1932.- Trad. de l’allemand par H. Corbin, Hermès 3e série (1), Bruxelles, janv. 1938, pp. 51-68. ["The Norm of Day and the Passion for the Night," from Philosophy, Vol. 3]
Johann Georg Hamann, « Aesthetica in nuce. Rhapsodie en prose kabbalistique », trad. de l’allemand par H. Corbin, Mesures, janv. 1939, 27 p. ["Aesthetics in a Nutshell: A Rhapsody in Kabbalistic Prose," English text of this fascinating essay available here (pdf)] Corbin's translation appears in Henry Corbin, ed. by Christian Jambet.
Abraham Heschel, « La Prophétie », traduction de l’allemand (Die Prophetie) par H. Corbin, Hermès 3e série (3). Bruxelles, nov. 1939, pp. 78-110. [Prophecy]
And for a brief but interesting mention of Corbin at the Bibliotheque Nationale, see "Arnaud Dandieu and the Epistemology of Documents," (2007) by Christian Roy at Papers of Surrealism, 7, 2007.