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Henri Corbin

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Henri Corbin

For the United States Army general, see Henry Clarke Corbin.
Henry Corbin
Born 14 April 1903
Paris, France
Died 7 October 1978(1978-10-07) (aged 75)
Paris, France
Era 20th century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School School of Illumination
Main interests Phenomenology
Islamic philosophy
Philosophy of religion
Notable ideas Prophetic philosophy, Imaginal world

Henry Corbin (14 April 1903 – 7 October 1978) was a philosopher, theologian and professor of Islamic Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, France.

Corbin was born in Paris in April 1903. As a boy he revealed the profound sensitivity to music so evident in his work. Although he was Protestant by birth, he was educated in the Catholic tradition and at the age of 19 received a certificate in Scholastic philosophy from the Catholic Institute of Paris. Three years later he took his "licence de philosophie" under the great Thomist Étienne Gilson. In 1928 he encountered the formidable Louis Massignon, director of Islamic studies at the Sorbonne, and it was he who introduced Corbin to the writings of Suhrawardi, the 12th century Persian mystic and philosopher whose work was to profoundly affect the course of Corbin’s life. The stage was then set for a personal drama that has deep significance for understanding those cultures whose roots lie in both ancient Greece and in the prophetic religions of the Near East reaching all the way back to Zoroaster. Years later Corbin said “through my meeting with Suhrawardi, my spiritual destiny for the passage through this world was sealed. Platonism, expressed in terms of the Zoroastrian angelology of ancient Persia, illuminated the path that I was seeking.”

Corbin is responsible for redirecting the study of Islamic philosophy as a whole. In his Histoire de la philosophie islamique (1964), he disproved the common view that philosophy among the Muslims came to an end after Ibn Rushd, demonstrating rather that a lively philosophical activity persisted in the eastern Muslim world – especially Iran – and continues to our own day.[1]

Life and work

The philosophical life and career of Corbin can be divided into three phases. The first is the 1920s and 1930s, when he was involved in learning and teaching western philosophy. The second is the years between 1939 and 1946, in which he studied Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi and School of Illumination in Istanbul. The last begins at 1946 and lasts until his death, in which he studied and reintroduced eastern and Islamic philosophy.[2]

But his spiritual quest extended well beyond the vast landscapes of western scholasticism and Islamic mysticism. During the 1920s and the early 1930s he simultaneously pursued studies that in themselves would have marked him as an eclectic Protestant theologian. In his maturity Corbin presented himself as a Protestant Christian. He became deeply engaged with the German theological tradition and lectured on Luther, Kierkegaard and Hamann. He was the first to translate the early works of Karl Barth into French. In 1930 a second defining encounter in Corbin’s spiritual odyssey took place. This was his reading of Martin Heidegger's foundational work of phenomenology, Being and Time. It gives us some sense of the unique perspective of this truly catholic philosopher to note that his copy of the notoriously difficult and very German work was marked throughout by glosses in Arabic.

In 1933 he married Stella Leenhardt. In 1939 they traveled to Istanbul to collect manuscripts for a critical edition of Suhrawardi. They remained there until the end of the war. In 1945, the Corbins traveled for the first time to Tehran where he was to teach as a member of Tehran University. . Corbin came to love Iran as a second home and the symbolism of the Persian landscape figures prominently in his spiritual universe. They returned to Paris one year later in July 1946. In 1949, Corbin first attended the annual Eranos Conferences in Ascona, Switzerland, where he was to become a major figure along with Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, Gershom Scholem, Adolf Portmann and many others. In 1954 he succeeded Louis Massignon in the Chair of Islam and the Religions of Arabia. From the 1950s on he spent autumn in Tehran, winter in Paris and spring in Ascona.It was during those stays in Tehran that he made acquaintance with Allameh Tabatabaei with whom he met and exchanged views, on a regular basis

The three major works upon which his reputation largely rests in the English speaking world were first published in French in the 1950s: Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi' (see below) and Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth. His later major work on Central Asian and Iranian Sufism appears in English with an Introduction by Zia Inayat Khan as The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism. His magnum opus, as yet untranslated, is the four volume En Islam Iranien: Aspects spirituels et philosophiques.[3] His life was spent teaching, writing, lecturing, and editing critical editions of Persian and Arabic manuscripts. His published work includes over 200 critical editions, translations, books and articles. He presented his last paper in June 1978, entitled “Eyes of Flesh, Eyes of Fire: the Science of Gnosis.” He died on 7 October of that year, in the same city he was born, at the age of 75.

Main themes

Though an exhaustive list would be difficult to produce, there are several main themes which together form the core of the spirituality that Corbin defends. The Imagination plays a crucial role in the human and divine orders. It is the primary means by which we engage with Creation and provides the link “without which the worlds are put out of joint.” Prayer is the supreme form of the creative imagination, and as such is the ultimate exercise of human freedom. Opposing the imagination is rigid literalism in its myriad forms. Corbin presents a vehement triple critique of idolatry, dogma and the institutionalization of religion, coupled with a radical assessment of the doctrine of the Incarnation.

He considered himself a Protestant Christian but he abandoned a Christocentric view of history. The grand sweep of his theology of the Holy Spirit embraces Judaism, Christianity and Islam as manifestations of a single coherent story of the ongoing relationship between the individual and God. He pleaded for recognition of the overarching unity of the religions of Abraham. He was a passionate defender of the central role of the individual as the finite image of the Unique Divine. It is the bond between the human soul and the face of the Heavenly Twin, the Angel Holy Spirit, who appears uniquely to each of us, which is the ethical bond par excellence. This mystical spirituality depends upon the capacity of the human soul to travel a path towards the Angel, and towards perfection. The status of Person is not simply bestowed upon us at birth – it is a goal to be achieved. The true journey of our lives is measured on a vertical scale. Our progress on this path is gauged by our capacity for love and, linked to this, our ability to perceive beauty.

His mysticism is no world-denying asceticism but regards all of Creation as a theophany of the divine. Beauty is the supreme theophany, and human love for a being of beauty is not a hindrance to our union with the Divine, but a threshold to Divine Passion. This vision has much in common with what has become known as Creation Spirituality, and the figure of the Angel Holy Spirit is similar to what is sometimes called the Cosmic Christ. Some who desire a future for the prophetic tradition which transcends mutual suspicion, hatred and violence postulate one in which Corbin’s work can play an important role.

Legacy and influence

Corbin’s work has been criticized by a number of writers for a variety of reasons. Critical assessments have been articulated by Algar, Adams, Chittick, Walbridge & Ziai (in Suhrawardi, 1999), and Wasserstrom. The main charges are as follows: His scholarly objectivity has been questioned on the basis of both a Shi’ite bias, and his theological agenda; he has been accused of being both ahistorically naive and dangerously politically reactionary; and he has been charged with being both an Iranian nationalist and an elitist in both his politics and his spirituality. Forceful rejoinders to the more damning of these critiques by Lory and Subtelny have been particularly lucid.

Corbin's ideas continue to have an impact through the work of colleagues, students and many others influenced by his work. Though this list is far from complete, these include the following prolific Western scholars of Sufism and Islamic thought: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, William Chittick, Christian Jambet, Ali Amir-Moezzi, Hermann Landolt, Pierre Lory, James Cowan (Australian author), James Morris, and Todd Lawson. In England his influence has been felt in the work of Kathleen Raine, Phillip Sherrard and other members of the Temenos Academy. Corbin was an important source for the archetypal psychology of James Hillman and others who have developed the psychology of Carl Jung. The American literary critic Harold Bloom claims Corbin as a significant influence on his own conception of Gnosticism, and the American poet Charles Olson was a student of Corbin’s Avicenna and the Visionary Recital. Corbin’s friends and colleagues in France have established a society for the dissemination of his work through meetings and colloquia, and the publication of his posthumous writings. The organization is L’Association des Amis de Henry et Stella Corbin and they maintain a very useful and interesting website.[4]

Selected bibliography

  • Avicenna and the Visionary Recital. Princeton University Press, 1960.
  • Histoire de la philosophie Islamique. Gallimard, 1964. (Re-issued by Kegan Paul in 1993 as History of Islamic Philosophy ISBN 0-7103-0416-1..)
  • Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi. Princeton University Press, 1969. (Re-issued in 1998 as Alone with the Alone.)
  • En Islam Iranien: Aspects spirituels et philosophiques (4 vols.). Gallimard, 1971-3.
  • Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi'ite Iran. Princeton University Press, 1977.
  • Le Paradoxe du Monothéisme. l'Herne, 1981.
  • Cyclical Time & Ismaili Gnosis. KPI, 1983.
  • L'Homme et Son Ange: Initiation et Chevalerie Spirituelle. Fayard, 1983.
  • Face de Dieu, Face de l'homme: Hermeneutique et soufisme. Flammarion, 1983.
  • Temple and Contemplation. KPI, 1986.
  • The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism. Omega Publications, 1994.
  • Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam. Swedenborg Foundation, 1995.

See also

Biography portal



  • Daryush Shayegan, "Henry Corbin" in Encyclopaedia Iranica

Further reading

  • Adams, Charles J. “The Hermeneutics of Henry Corbin,” in Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies, Martin, Ed., University of Arizona Press, 1985.
  • Addas, Claude. Quest for the Red Sulphur: The Life of Ibn 'Arabi. Trans. Peter Kingsley. Islamic Texts Society, 1993.
  • Algar, Hamid. “The Study of Islam: The Work of Henry Corbin.” Religious Studies Review 6(2) 1980: 85-91.
  • Avens, Roberts. "The Subtle Realm: Corbin, Sufism and Swedenborg," in Immanuel Swedenborg: A Continuing Vision, Edited by Robin Larson. Swedenborg Foundation, 1988.
  • Amir-Moezzi, M., Christian Jambet et Pierre Lory, (Editors). Henry Corbin: Philosophies et Sagesses des Religions du Livre. Brepols, 2005.
  • Bamford, Christopher. “Esotericism Today: The Example of Henry Corbin,” in Henry Corbin, The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy. North Atlantic Books, 1998.
  • Bloom, Harold. Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams and Resurrection. Riverhead Books, 1996.
  • Brown, Norman O., "The Prophetic Tradition," and "The Apocalypse of Islam," in Apocalypse &/or Metamorphosis. University of California Press, 1991.
  • Cheetham, Tom. The World Turned Inside Out: Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism. Spring Journal Books, 2003.
  • _____ Green Man, Earth Angel: The Prophetic Tradition and the Battle for the Soul of the World. SUNY Press, 2005.
  • _____ After Prophecy: Imagination, Incarnation and the Unity of the Prophetic Tradition. Lectures for the Temenos Academy. Spring Journal Books, 2007.
  • _____ All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings, North Atlantic Books, 2012 - (forthcoming)
  • Chittick, William. The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn 'Arabi's Metaphysics of the Imagination. SUNY Press, 1989.
  • Chodkiewicz, Michel. An Ocean without Shore: Ibn 'Arabi, the Book and the Law. Trans. David Streight. Islamic Texts Society, 1993.
  • ______ Seal of the Saints: Prophethood and Sainthood in the Doctrine of Ibn 'Arabi. Trans. Liadain Sherrard. Islamic Texts Society, 1993.
  • Corbin, H. (1969). Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn `Arabi. (Trans. R. Manheim. Original French, 1958.) Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press.
  • Corbin, H. (1972). Mundus Imaginalis, the Imaginary and the Imaginal. Spring, 1972 pp. 1–19. New York: Analytical Psychology Club of New York, Inc.
  • Elmore, Gerald. Islamic Sainthood in the Fullness of Time: Ibn al-'Arabi's Book of the Fabulous Gryphon. Brill, 1998.
  • Jambet, Christian, (Editor). Henry Corbin. Cahier de l'Herne, no. 39. Consacré à Henry Corbin, 1981.
  • _____ La logique des Orientaux: Henry Corbin et la science des formes. Éditions du Seuil, 1983.
  • Giuliano, Glauco. Il Pellegrinaggio in Oriente di Henry Corbin. Con una scelta di testi. Lavis (Trento-Italia), La Finestra editrice, 2003.
  • Giuliano, Glauco. Nîtârtha. Saggi per un pensiero eurasiatico. Lavis (Trento-Italia), La Finestra editrice, 2004.
  • Giuliano, Glauco. L'Immagine del Tempo in Henry Corbin. Verso un'idiochronia angelomorfica. Milano-Udine, Mimesis, 2009.
  • Landolt, Hermann. "Henry Corbin, 1903-1978: Between Philosophy and Orientalism,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 119(3): 484-490, 1999.
  • Lory, Pierre. Review of Wasserstrom, 1999, at
  • Morris, James. The Reflective Heart: Discovering Spiritual Intelligence in Ibn 'Arabi's Meccan Illuminations. Fons Vitae, 2005.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. "Henry Corbin: The Life and Works of the Occidental Exile in Quest of the Orient of Light," Ch. 17, in S.H. Nasr, Traditional Islam in the Modern World. KPI, 1987.
  • Shayegan, Daryush. Henry Corbin: La topographie spirituelle de l'Islam Iranien. Ed. de la Difference, 1990.
  • Subtelny, Maria E. “History and Religion: The Fallacy of Metaphysical Questions (A Review Article).” Iranian Studies: March 2003, 36(1): 91-101.
  • Suhrawardi, Yahyá ibn Habash. The philosophy of illumination: A new critical edition of the text of Hikmat al-Ishraq. with English translation, notes, commentary, and introduction by John Walbridge & Hossein Ziai. Brigham Young University Press, 1999.

External links

Official website

  • Association des Amis de Henry et Stella Corbin (French/English)

Tom Cheetham's Corbin Blog

  • The Legacy of Henry Corbin


  • Corbin, Henry an article by Encyclopedia of Religion
  • Encyclopedia of philosophy
  • From ‘Heidegger to Suhrawardi’: An Introduction to the thought of Henry Corbin
  • Between Heidegger and the Hidden Imam: Reflections on Henry Corbin's approaches to mystical Islam
  • Imaginal World, introducing true creativity
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