"...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, February 2, 2009

Corbin - Dante - i Fedeli d'Amore

Corbin invokes Dante and the group of poets known in Italian as the Fedeli d'Amore time and again throughout his work. The primary source is Volume 3 of En Islam Iranien, Book 3, Les Fideles d'Amour. For the English speaking reader the best place to begin is his profound and beautiful book on the great Islamic mystic Ibn ‘Arabi, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi (now published as Alone with the Alone). Here he recounts an incident from the Master’s life that illuminates the question at the heart of the soul’s journey. In Mecca in the year 1201 (A.H. 598) the mystic and poet was a guest in the home of an Iranian family originally from Isfahan. The daughter of the house was a figure of surpassing intelligence, beauty and spiritual discernment. Her name was Nizam, ‘ayn al-Shams wa’l-Baha’, which is Harmonia, Eye of the Sun and of Beauty. As Beatrice did for Dante, so she revealed the human face of the eternal Sophia for Ibn ‘Arabi. Of his discussion of this incident, and of much else besides, Corbin writes,

"There is [one] term which perhaps calls for special justification: Fedeli d'amore. We have already had occasion to speak of the Fedeli d'amore, Dante's companions, and we shall speak of them again, for the the theophanism of Ibn 'Arabi has a good deal in common with the ideas of the symbolist interpreters of Dante (Luigi Valli) , though it is secure against such criticism as that of the literalist philologists, who were alarmed to see the person of Beatrice fade into pale allegory… In any case the young girl who was for Ibn ‘Arabi in Mecca what Beatrice was for Dante , was a real young girl, though at the same time she was “in person” a theophanic figure, the figure of the Sophia aeterna (whom certain of Dante’s companions invoked as the Madonna Intelligenza)…

It has not been our intention to re-open the great debate inaugurated by Asin Palacios, concerning the actual historical relations between those to whom we can give the name of the Fedeli d’amore in the East and West. It has seemed more important to indicate the undeniable typological affinities between them. We shall observe that this term Fedeli d’amore… does not apply indiscriminately to the entire community of Sufis; it does not, for example, apply to the pious ascetics of Mesopotamia who in the first centuries of Islam took the name of Sufi. In making this distinction we only conform to the indications provided by the great Iranian mystic Ruzbehan Baqli of Shiraz (d. 1209) in his beautiful Persian book entitled the Jasmine of the Fedeli d’amore. Ruzbehan distinguishes between the pious ascetics or Sufis, who never encountered the experience of human love, and the Fedeli d’amore for whom the experience of a cult of love dedicated to a beautiful being is the necessary initiation to divine love, from which it is inseparable. Such an initiation does not indeed signify anything in the nature of a monastic conversion to divine love; it is a unique initiation, which transfigures eros as such, that is, human love for a human creature. Ruzbehan’s doctrine falls in with Ibn ‘Arabi’s dialectic of love. It … makes Ruzbehan the precursor of that other famous man of Shiraz, the great poet Hafiz, whose Diwan is still observed today by the Sufis of Iran as a bible of the religion of love, whereas in the West it has been solemnly debated whether or not this Diwan has a mystic meaning. This religion of love was and remained the religion of all the minstrels of Iran and inspired them with the magnificent ta’wil [spiritual hermeneutic] which supplies a link between the spiritual Iran of the Sufis and Zoroastrian Iran, for according to this ta’wil the Prophet of Islam in person proclaims Zarathustra to b the prophet of the Lord of love; the altar of Fire becomes the symbol of the Living Flame in the temple of the heart." (Alone with the Alone, 100-101)

A few pages further on Corbin writes that those among the Sufis whom “we group as the Fedeli d’amore… [are] dominated by two great figures: Ibn ‘Arabi, the incomparable master of mystic theosophy, and Jalaluddin Rumi, the Iranian troubadour of that religion of love whose flame feeds on the theophanic feeling for sensuous beauty. Fedeli d’amore struck us as the best means of translating into a Western language the names by which our mystics called themselves in Arabic or Persian (‘ashiqun, muhibbun, arbab al-hawa, etc.) Since it is the name by which Dante and his companions called themselves, it has the power of suggesting the traits which were common to both groups and have been analyzed in memorable works. " (Alone with the Alone, 110)

The "memorable works" that Corbin cites in a note are by Miguel Asin Palacios, Enrico Cerulli and Luigi Valli. Asin Palacios first suggested Arabic sources for Dante's Commedia in 1919. The spirited debate that his thesis sparked is ongoing even today in the context of discussions about Western "Orientalism" in general. A history of the controversies up to 1965 is provided by Vincente Cantarino in his essay "Dante and Islam: History and Analysis of a Controversy," in De Sua, William J., and Gino Rizzo. A Dante Symposium in Commemoration of the 700th Anniversary of the Poet's Birth (1265-1965). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965. More recently Maria Rosa Menocal has argued for Islamic influences in Medieval literature in her book Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage. The Middle Ages series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987. Also useful are these short articles: Otfried Lieberknecht, A Medieval View of Islam: Dante's Encounter with Mohommed in Inferno XXVIII and Paul Cantor, The Uncanonical Dante: The Divine Comedy and Islamic Philosophy.

Corbin himself was perfectly willing to accept the idea of Arabic influences on Dante, but he characteristically remained largely indifferent to any strictly historical analysis, and was concerned, unlike most modern scholars, with the"typological affinities" involved, as he remarks above. It is the spiritual similarity based on the archetype of Sophia that is important, not the existence or non-existence of historical influences, which he would nonetheless be inclined to accept.

For a concise and detailed overview of the relations among Dante and the Fedeli d'amore as well as the Arabic sources of the troubadour traditions from the point of view of someone who accepts Asin Palacios' basic account see Dante and the Fedeli d'Amore by Bruce MacLennan. The figure said to have been the leader of the Fedeli was Guido Cavalcanti. Also useful is this piece on the Troubadours.

For more on Ruzbehan see Henry Corbin, "The Jasmine of the Fedeli d'Amore: A Discourse on Ruzbehan Baqli of Shiraz," Sphinx 3: A Journal of Archetypal Psychology and the Arts, (London) 1990.

The portrait of Dante (from wikimedia) is atttribued to Giotto.


  1. Dear Tom,

    Has Ruzbehan's THE JASMINE OF THE FEDELI D'AMORE ever been translated into English in its entirety? Are there any plans to do so?

    Also, do you know ICONOSTASIS by Pavel Florensky? Florensky is in many ways "the Eastern Orthodox Henry Corbin"; he has a lot to say about the alam al-mithal from an Orthodox perspective.

    Charles Upton

  2. it's in french - translated by Corbin (see this page - http://www.ifriran.org/Publications/BI-complete.htm)- not sure about english & yes - actually i write a LITTLE bit about Iconostasis in the new book coming outin July. Florensky is extremely relevant.