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CORBIN, HENRY (1903–1978), French writer
, philosopher, and Iranologist. After early training in music and philosophy, Corbin eventually attained the diplôme des études supérieures de philosophie of the University of Paris in 1927. From 1925 he began the study of Near Eastern languages and received the diploma in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish in 1929 when he was already employed as a librarian working with oriental manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale. In 1930 he made the first of several journeys to Germany and established contacts there with leading thinkers. For almost a year (1935–1936) he was attached to the French Institute in Berlin. Much of Corbin’s early publication consisted of translations from German or reviews of German works. In 1931 he met Martin Heidegger and became the first to translate Heidegger into French. The translation appeared in 1939 as Qu’est-ce que la métaphysique? The early writings also evidenced other interests, ranging from the spiritual tradition of the Reformation to contemporary Protestant theology and the hermeneutics of Martin Luther.
The determinative event for Corbin’s career was his meeting Louis Massignon in the Bibliothèque Nationale in the autumn of 1929, for it was Massignon’s presentation of a lithographed edition of Ḥikmat-al Ishrāq of Shihāb al-Dīn Yaḥyā Suhrawardī that first made Corbin acquainted with the work of this great Iranian philosopher. Corbin saw the presentation as a symbolic act, the transmission of wisdom from master to disciple. He followed Massignon’s courses in the university and in 1954 was appointed as his replacement in the chair of Islam and the religions of Arabia at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. Corbin published the first of his numerous works on Suhrawardī in 1933 and in the same year married Stella Leenhardt, who was his helper as well as companion through the succeeding years.
In 1939 Corbin was seconded from the Bibliothèque Nationale to the French Institute in Istanbul where he intended to spend six months. Because of World War II, however, six years were to elapse before he returned to France. During this long period Corbin explored the numerous and rich libraries of Turkey and laid the foundation for his later studies in Iranian philosophy. The most basic development of these years was his discovery of the corpus of Suhrawardī ‘s works. The first volume of the first of his editions of Suhrawardī, Opera metaphysica et mystica (1945), containing three treatises of the master, was prepared in Istanbul and published there.
Corbin paid his first visit to Iran in the autumn of 1945, even before returning to France. The visit brought him into contact with Iranian scholars who became his collaborators in later years, but, more important, it planted the seeds from which sprang the department of Iranology of the new Institut Franco-Iranien in Tehran. In 1946 he was appointed head of the department of Iranology, a post that he held until retirement in 1973. The enduring fruit of Corbin’s work in Tehran is the monumental “Bibliothèque iranienne,” founded in 1949, a series of text editions, translations, and studies offering unparalleled resources for the analysis of Iranian and Islamic philosophy. From his appointment as professor in Paris in 1954 onward, it was Corbin’s custom to pass each autumn in Iran and to return to Paris for his teaching in the winter and spring. From 1949 also began his association with the annual Eranos conferences, which he attended faithfully; many of Corbin’s more important writings were contributions to the Eranos meetings and first appeared in the pages of the Eranos Jahrbuch.
Corbin’s scholarly work may be classified into five principal categories: first is his contribution to knowledge of the philosophy of Suhrawardī. Not only did he publish and study the long-neglected works of the Iranian thinker, but he adopted the latter’s philosophy of light as his own. Suhrawardī had professed his purpose to be the resurrection of the ancient Iranian philosophy of light, and Corbin shared that purpose. He was most interested in Suhrawardī’s angelology, which presented the gradations of reality in the cosmos in terms of hierarchies of angels. The angelology provided a link between the thought of ancient Iran and Twelver Shiʿi gnosis, enabling Corbin to hold there to be a distinct Irano-Islamic philosophy. The scholarly attention that Suhrawardī receives today is largely due to Corbin’s influence.
The second focus of Corbin’s work was Shiism. He did important studies on the Ismāʿīlīyah, but greater attention went to the Twelvers, whose mystical and philosophical aspects in particular he explored. Here also he was a pioneer in his work on imamology, studying the ahadith of the Twelver imams, and in his work on such groups as the Shaykhīyah. He was the first to describe the so-called School of Isfahan, a group of thinkers responsible for the revival of Iranian philosophy in Safavid times and whose principal thinker was Mulla Ṣadra (Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Shīrāī). Corbin believed Twelver Shiism to be the complete or integral Islam since it was concerned with the esoteric as well as the esoteric aspect of the prophetic revelations, as other branches of Islam were not.
Corbin is also responsible for redirecting the study of Islamic philosophy as a whole. In his Histoire de la philosophie islamique (1964), he disputed the common view that philosophy among the Muslims came to an end after Ibn Rushd, demonstrating rather that a lively philosophical activity persisted in Iran and, indeed, continues to our own day.
Sufism also attracted Corbin’s interest, his principal contribution being the study of L’imagination créatrice dans la soufisme d’ibn ʿArabī (1958). Again rejecting the common opinion, Corbin did not believe Sufism to be the unique vehicle of spirituality in Islam. He found an even more significant spirituality among the Twelver Shiʿah, one that refused the approach of the Ṣūfī orders but was, nonetheless, deeply and genuinely mystical. In genetic terms he thought Shiism to be the origin of all other mysticism in Islam. In this light Sufism appears as a kind of truncated Shiism, possessed of Shiism’s spirituality but lacking its essential basis, the doctrine of the imams.
Finally, Corbin was concerned with a broad spiritual philosophy of contemporary relevance. He was primarily a philosopher, and his Iranian and Ṣūfī studies, though they have a historical aspect, were attempts to answer questions that he thought to have been raised for all men at all times. His purpose was not merely to describe a spiritual philosophy but to advocate it. The central concept of this philosophy was the mundus imaginalis or imaginal world, where the soul has its life, and which is known through visions and dreams. He discerned a strong bond and parallelism between the spirituality of the West exemplified in such as Jakob Boehme, the stories of the Grail, or Emanuel Swedenborg, and that of Iran, and he called for a universal spiritual chivalry (javānmardī) that would preserve mankind’s ancient spiritual heritage, its inner life, against the corrosion of modernity, secularism, and historicism.
A number of Corbin’s books are available in English translation. These include Avicenna and the Visionary Recital (New York, 1960), Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ʿArabi (Princeton, 1969), Cyclical Time and Ismīʿīli Gnosis (London, 1983), The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism (Boulder, Colo., 1978), and Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdaen Iran to Shiite Iran (Princeton, 1977).
Biographical notes and bibliographies of Corbin’s works are to be found in Les Cahiers de l’Herne, in the number entitled Henry Corbin, edited by Christian Jambet (Paris, 1981), and in Mélanges offerts à Henry Corbin, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Tehran, 1977). Both volumes also contain appreciations of his work by scholars and associates.
Corbin, Henry. “A Subtile Organ.” Parabola 26, no. 4 (2001): 75.
Corbin, Henry, Vladimir Ivanow, and Sabine Schmidtke. Correspondance Corbin-Ivanow: Lettres échangées entre Henry Corbin et Vladimir Ivanow de 1947 à 1966. Paris, 1999.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. “Henry Corbin (1903–1978): souvenirs et reflexions sur son influence intellectuelle vingt ans apres.” Esoterisme, Gnoses and Imaginaire Symbolique, edited by Richard Caron, et al., pp 783–796. Leuven, 2001.
Shayegan, D. Henry Corbin: la topographie spirituelle de l’Islam iranien. Paris, 1990.
Wasserstrom, S. M. Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos. Princeton, 1999.
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