"...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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Friday, September 18, 2009

Idols or Icons?


Henry Corbin

The word "idolatry" has been used to cast doubts on the role of the mental image in the Shiite method of prayer. But does not the use of such a word overlook the connection between the image and the very concept of theophany? Fundamentally, what is needed is a return to the whole theory of imaginative perception and to the world of the Image, so as, like Sohravardi and the Ishraqiyun, to situate the Imagination, the virtus imaginativa, as an "in-between" [entre-deux]. On the one hand, the Imagination can remain subservient to sense perceptions; then its images do not rise above the level of these perceptions, not even when it combines them to produce monstrosities. On the other hand, the Imagination may serve the intellect by being the intermediary between it—that is, the intellectus sanctus—and the sensorium; then its images are metaphysical. In mystics and prophets, it is the organ of visionary knowledge.

Thus, the ambiguity of the Image comes from the fact that it can be either an idol (Gr. eidolon) or an icon (Gr. eikon). It is an idol when it fixes the viewer's vision on itself. Then it is opaque, without transparency, and remains at the level of that from which it was formed. But it is an icon, whether a painted image or a mental one, when its transparency permits the viewer to see through it to something beyond it, and because what is beyond can be seen only through it. This is precisely the status of the Image that is known as a "theophanic form." The Image of the Imam, the Image of the Fourteen Immaculate Ones, has for the faithful Shiite this theophanic virtue. It is equally true to say that the theophanic form is a mirror (ayineh, Lat. speculum). All our philosophers who share the theophanic sense of things have gone back to the motif of the mirror, thus giving speculative Imagination its true meaning, its etymological meaning, which is the same meaning that Franz von Baader gave to speculative philosophy when he said: "To speculate is to reflect" (Spekulieren heisst spiegeln).

[. . . ] It should not be too difficult to comprehend that, if a unique Light exists, that does not mean that only one object exists to be revealed in that light; similarly, if Being is unique that does not mean that there is only one existent. The transcendental unity of Being (wahdat al-wojud) is inseparable from the multiplicity of the existents it causes to be. To see in each existent the one Being which causes it to be, to see in each luminous thing the light that reveals it, is the very notion of theophanic form (mazhar elahi) and is precisely that which promotes the Image to an icon, redeeming it from its degradation as an idol. Idolatry, on the contrary, is seeing the object as if it were itself the light that reveals it and makes it visible; it closes off access to anything beyond. Confounding an existent thing, even an Ens supremum, with the absolute Being that makes it be closes off access in the same way; it confounds the icon with the idol. But when promoted to the rank of icon, the Image opens the way itself to what lies beyond it, toward what it symbolizes with. The distinction that we make, thanks to the Greek, between "idol" and "icon" has no exact equivalent in the Persian lexicon, but it certainly has an equivalent concept. The Image raised to the rank of icon is the Image invested with its theophanic function (mazhariya). Then the whole universe of theophanic forms becomes one immense iconostasis (in the liturgy of the Eastern Christian church, the division supporting the icons and forming an intermediate space, a barzakh, "in-between" the naos [or inner part of the temple] and the Holy of Holies, or sanctuary).

[. . . ] Idolatry consists in immobilizing oneself before an idol because one sees it as opaque, because one is incapable of discerning in it the hidden invitation that it offers to go beyond it. Hence, the opposite of idolatry would not consist in breaking idols, in practicing a fierce iconoclasm aimed against every inner or external Image; it would rather consist in rendering the idol transparent to the light invested in it. In short, it means transmuting the idol into an icon.

- These paragraphs are from Henry Corbin's La philosophie iranienne islamique aux XVII et XVIII siecles (Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1981), pp. 358, 363-64. Translated from French by Jane A. Pratt and A. K. Donohue. This translation appeared in Spring : An Annual of Archetypal Psychology and Jungian Thought – 1983, pp 1-2. Dallas: Spring Publications.


  1. Beautiful. Thanks to Corbin I have begun to look at even Joseph in a truly reverent way as I never had done when I was more or less what is called an orthodox believer.

  2. Thanks to Corbin & the beautiful idea beautifully expressed here I have begun to look at even Joseph w/ reverence, as I had never done as more or less what's called an orthodox believer.