Friday, June 25, 2010
A scholar of the Imaginal Realm
I am a great admirer of the work of Henry Corbin, whose name has come up in recent discussions on this blog. A lifelong student of the medieval Sufi philosophers - especially Suhrawardi and Ibn 'Arabi - and of Shi'ite mysticism, Corbin brought the term mundus imaginalis, or Imaginal Realm, into currency in the West. In Arabic, the term is Alam al-Mithal and it refers to the true realm of imagination, an order of reality that is at least as real as the physical world, with cities and schools and palaces where human travelers can interact with master teachers.
Corbin’s great work Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi is a marvelous essay in visionary spirituality that embodies his driving purpose of helping to free the religious imagination from all types of fundamentalism. I remember being seized with excitement when I first read his Avicenna and the Visionary Recital with its account of soul travel to real places beyond this world.
Corbin is not an easy read; he assumes that his readers will be polymaths fluent in at least half a dozen languages, ancient and modern. But his work is indispensable.
There is a fine recent biographical study by Tom Cheetham, The World Turned Inside Out: Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism. (Woodstock, CT: Spring Journal Books, 2003). Here we can read about the incident that generated his life’s work. His professor at the Ecole Practiques des Hautes Etudes, Louis Massignon, had returned from Teheran with a lithograph copy of the major work of Suhrawardi, Hikmat al’Ishraq When Corbin mentioned that he had seen some scattered references to Suhrawardi, Massignon immediately handed his only copy of the Arabic text to him, saying “I think there is in this book something for you.” Corbin later said, “This something was the company of the young Shaykh al-Ishraq [Teacher of Light], who has not left me my whole life.” He eventually translated Suhrawardi's master work as The Oriental Theosophy”).
Corbin regarded study as a quest. At age 70, looking back on his scholarly journey, he wrote that “to be a philosopher is to take to the road, never settling down in some place of satisfaction with a theory of the world…The adventure is…a voyage which progresses towards the Light" (The Voyage and the Messenger).
In approaching the Sufis, he came armed with his early study of Protestant mystics, from whom he borrowed the idea that there is a primary distinction in religion between the Revealed God and the Hidden God, and that we can only come to know the God behind God through what in us is God-like - "the presence in us of those characteristics by which we know God."
Corbin spent World War II in Istanbul as the only French scholar in residence at the French Institute of Archeology. He went to Teheran at the end of the war, and spent at least part of every year in Iran for the rest of his life. His love of Persia is reflected in his description of it as “the country the color of heaven”. He died on October 7, 1978, and was spared the spectacle of seeing the land of the mystic poets in the grip of violent Islamist fanatics.
Cheetham evokes the core of Corbin's presence in the world of ideas – his “simple, passionate refusal to accept the understanding of ourselves and our world that dominates modern secular consciousness”, Manifest history, for Corbin, is possible only because of a hidden order of events, a "divine history" unfolding behind the curtain of the world. "There is a historicity more original, more primordial than the history of external events, history in the ordinary sense of the term." In my attempt to write part of that history, in my Secret History of Dreaming, Corbin was one of my guiding lights.
I have just discovered an excellent blog on the Legacy of Henry Corbin, maintained by Tom Cheetham; you'll find it here.