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.


Savannah said...

I like the term historicity... Thank you for this Robert! As I catch your post on a rhyming day in that not-quite-of-this-world place between flights "the presence in us of those characteristics by which we know God" seems to rather nicely echo "I see my beauty in you" in the short volume of Rumi translations I tossed into my carry-on at the last minute. I look forward to reading more or Corbin too - even if it promises to be a slow read...

Worldbridger said...

Here's an interesting link to Corbin.

Mundus Imaginalis.

Daniel Proulx said...

I think that the real historicity for Corbin is the « hiérohistoire », the hierohistory or the metahistory. It is something like the sacral and intimate history of the divine presence to all humans.

Very interesting post!


Robert Moss said...

Daniel - Yes, that puts it well. Corbin sometimes calls it "divine history", which is about as simple as he gets. In writing about Ibn 'Arabi (in "Creative Imagination") Corbin states that the Realm of Images is "the place where all 'divine history' is accomplished".

Robert Moss said...

Savannah - Rumi is great for carry-on reading, and a good companion in those transits between different planes that often evoke the other meaning of "plane".In our dreams, getting on a plane (while it may also reflect a probable literal future) is quite often about going to another level of consciousness or being.

Daniel Proulx said...

Because, if you are there, if you are aware and your conciseness is hic et nunc (like the name of the first magazine where Corbin had published his 4 first articles), you are present to the mundus imaginalis and in this sense you accomplish necessarily the divine. But when you said that the mundus imaginalis is "the place where all 'divine history' is accomplished", I am not sure. Because in the French edition of L’imagination créatrice, Corbin clearly said (p.214) that the divine being manifest in each moment. The creative imagination is a creation that never goes in the past, it is a creation that is always hic et nunc, and you can accede only by being present. Corbin always state the same sentence “talem eum vidi qualem capere potui” in French « je l’ai vu tel que j’étais en mesure de le saisir ». (Can see the references at the end.)

Unfortunately, I don’t know your work now, I have discovered it yesterday, but I will close my reflections by a question: is it possible to dream in the past? And maybe, it is where the history of dream starts to be a hierohistory or sacred history.

I am happy to have discovered a thinker like you.


PS (I am a french canadien, so apologize my english.)

In the french literature about Corbin you can find this sentence in CORBIN, Henry, En islam iranien, T.I, XXII ; CORBIN, Henry, Temps cyclique et gnose ismaélienne, p.70, 72, 98 ; CORBIN, Henry, Face de Dieu, Face de l’Homme, p.278-280, 298 ; CORBIN, Henry, Avicenne et le récit visionnaire, p.119, 252 ; CORBIN, Henry, L’Imagination créatrice dans le soufisme d’Ibn ʿArabî, p.96; SHAYEGAN, Daryush, Henry Corbin La topographie spirituelle de l’Islam iranien, p.187 ; VIEILLARD-BARON, Jean-Louis, « Temps spirituel et hiéro-histoire selon Henry Corbin », dans Henry corbin et le comparatisme spirituel, p.37 ; VIEILLARD-BARON, Jean-Louis et KAPLAN, Francis, dir., Introduction à la philosophie de la religion, p.15; MOULINET, Philippe, Le soufisme regarde l’Occident, T.2, p.117

Robert Moss said...

Daniel - My quote is from the English translation. Thanks for the references to the French sources , which I shall check. I have Corbin's French translation of Suhrawardi, but not all of his own works in French. Our dialogue here is already reminding me of a delightful series of "chance" encounters and discoveries that unfolded for me in the Center for Islamic Studies at McGill in Montreal a few years ago, and revolved around Corbin and Suhrawardi.

Very briefly, ut may be that when we step outside time, in visionary experiences, we step into what was known to medieval scholastics as the Aevum, the space between the worlds of secular time and teternity.

A great part of my work as a teacher and explorer of the multidimensional universe consists of journeying into other times. I describe the practice of dream archeology - which requires us to combine the skills of the shamanic dreamer, the scholar and the detective - in my "Secret History of Dreaming". A French translation will be published in the future, but your English is clearly excellent so you don't have to wait for that :-)

Arias said...

I love the synchronicity of your posts Robert and how through reading I discovered that many of my dreams this year have been places for me to visit and learn in the imaginarium realms. I am just beginning to see how many gifts I have been given in my and never knew the full scope of their meaning. So much to discover!

Robert Moss said...

Arias - Good to hear your voice. Your comment is very much in the spirit of Corbin and of Ibn 'Arabi the Sufi master of imagination whose work he helped to bring to the knowledge of the West. Ibn 'Arabi described dreaming as traveling to an "isthmus" between the physical world and that of disembodied in which the voyaging soul visits the Treasury of Imagination and sees both “what the senses have lifted up [from] what they have acquired from sensory objects” and “what has been formed by the form-giving faculty, which is one of the assistants of this Treasury.” [This time the translation is from William C.Chittick,, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.]