Between Heidegger and the Hidden Imam

Reflections on Henry Corbin’s Approaches to Mystical Islam

~Nile Green

Almost three decades after his death, the legacy of Henry Corbin (1903–1978) reaches across a vast domain in the study of Shi‘ism, Sufism, Islamic philosophy and the wider spiritual traditions of Iran (Adams 1985, Algar 1980, Avens 1988, Gril 1991). As the author of some two hundred published studies, this is partly due to the prolific and energetic nature of Corbin’s work, but it is also due to the sheer monumentality and ambition of his scholarship. The breadth of its field of reference, both within and without Corbin’s particular area of study, was frequently startling and its philosophical intent, for many readers, no less alarming.

Few would challenge the claim that Corbin opened uncharted territory to non-Muslim scholars in the realms of Shi‘a and Iranian thought, and his work as an editor of unpublished Arabic and Persian texts and as director of the Bibliothèque iranienne series alone would have secured him this reputation. Corbin’s career led him from philosophical studies in Paris and Germany during the 1930s, to war years spent in the imperial libraries of Istanbul and post-war travels throughout the Middle East (Shayegan n.d. 1990). In 1946 he organised the Department of Iranology at the Franco-Iranian Institute in Tehran, before becoming the successor to his former teacher the great French Islamicist Louis Massignon (1883–1962) as directeur d’études at the Sorbonne’s Ecole pratique des hautes études. The successes of Corbin’s career were reflected in the wide influence and respect he commanded during his lifetime and yet, since his death, there has been a widespread tendency to brush aside the more remarkable elements of his approach to his subject. Unfashionably earnest and uncomfortably continental in the empiricist world of Anglo-American scholarship, Corbin’s presence has for the most part been one to be politely ignored. In a sense, there is little importance in this, for Corbin’s work was in itself complete, providing a deeply individualistic but none the less philosophical vision that was lucidly presented in volume after volume of densely argued text. His project, in this sense, has little need for continuation or commentary by later generations. Like the structuralist system created by his contemporary Claude Lévi-Strauss, Corbin’s work is perhaps best seen as a fully realised world within and of itself, more profitably admired for its innate harmony than adapted or adopted for the pursuit
of different kinds of intellectual goals.

While it is not the intention of this article to argue for a revival of Corbin’s methodology in the study of Islam or Iran, in ignoring Corbin we overlook one of the most remarkable examples of intellectual exchange between the philosophical and humanist traditions of Europe and the Middle East. Writing expressly as a philosopher rather than as a historian, Corbin was well aware of the earlier tradition of what we might term philosophical cosmopolitanism that sought an underlying epistemological unity in the diverse philosophical projects of Europe and Asia. In this sense, Corbin rejected the splintering and divisive cognitive principles—of historicism, culturalism, relativism—that separate people (as ‘eastern’ or ‘western’, ‘Islamic’ or ‘Christian’) in favour of a universalist means of knowing based on a hermeneutics of the basic common ground of human being. Yet whether placed within a specifically French or more wider cosmopolitan tradition of universalism, Corbin here trod on ground that in the same year as his death would undergo a seismic shift with the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism. For in Corbin’s confident claims to access the inner worlds of long dead Asians and to speak to and through them through the medium of a totalising project of universalist phenomenology, and to favour tradition and metaphyics over modernity and materialism, his writings may be read as the supreme apogee of the orientalist learning which Said sought to expose.

Although Said did not deal directly with Corbin, his critique of such earlier French figures as René Guenon (1886–1951) and Corbin’s own teacher Massignon give sufficient idea of Said’s opinion of this tradition of suspiciously spiritualistic scholarship. If the passing decades have allowed us to sort the wheat from the chaff of Said’s arguments—not least in salvaging the political reputations of scholars like Massignon and of such British counterparts as E.G. Browne (Irwin 2006)—it seems only fair to attempt a similar reappraisal of Corbin. For if Said’s work was so germane through its debt to one tradition of French thought —the postwar Marxian tradition of philosophy as history as reformulated by Michel Foucault—then somewhat paradoxically Corbin represents another tradition in French philosophy grounded in the principles of universalism and humanism.