Henry Corbin and his Understanding of Ismailism

~Zayn Kassam

Introduction: Corbin’s Universe


If scholarship is an entrance into a mental universe, then the gateway opened to us by Henry Corbin reveals a universe which is significantly different from those encountered in the works of many scholars of Ismailism. Along with V. Ivanow, S. Stern, W. Madelung, and a few others whose works are significant in impact if not in quantity, H. Corbin may be considered one of the pioneers in the twentieth century in the field of Ismaili studies, who attempted to study it from the viewpoint of texts internal to the tradition rather than from accounts of it by others not of the tradition itself. His impressive oeuvre of course consists of a much wider span than Ismaili studies alone; he edited, translated and wrote extensively on Islamic philosophy, Sufism, and Twelver Shi’ism, as well as on gnosticism as it is manifested in other religious traditions, notably Christianity and ancient Iranian religions.
Many studies have been conducted on Henry Corbin, evaluating his contribution to the field of Islamic studies in general, analysing his method, and critiquing his interpretation and conclusions. My aim here is not to duplicate the observations made in some studies about what is “left out” by Corbin, about his rather individual and personal understanding of Islam, his anti-historicism and about the phenomenological method which he claimed to use although not in the manner in which it is commonly understood. Rather, I would like briefly to examine what he says about Ismailism in the context of: the methods he uses, the attitudes with which he approaches its texts, and the conclusions he draws. Thus, for the purposes of my study, I will focus primarily on the essays on Ismailism contained in Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis (London: Kegan Paul International, in association with Islamic Publications, 1983).
From the outset, it may be salient to mention that the single most important factor cited by almost all scholars dealing with Ismailism is the paucity of historical material surrounding and found within Ismaili texts and concerning Ismaili figures (a lacunae that is being addressed by the publications of the Institute of Ismaili Studies). This obstacle is turned by Corbin into an advantage, for it frees him rather to concentrate on the ideas, often difficult to decipher and contextualize, expressed in these texts. While he admits the importance of historical data, he attempts to look beyond historicity in his analysis of the concepts he finds in the texts he reviews. Corbin’s interest in gnosticism (that which relates to spiritual knowledge) provides him with a lens through which to look for and find structural similarities between ideas found in Ismaili texts and texts of other traditions. In this respect he deserves the recognition of being able to make connections across traditions in his attempt to substantiate his underlying supposition, shared with other perennialist thinkers, that the diversity of gnostic religious expression and experience reveals insights into the human soul’s journey into spiritual awareness.
Corbin’s Three Major Themes of Gnosticism
In his essay, “From the Gnosis of Antiquity to Ismaili Gnosis,” Corbin reveals to us some of the major features, or themes, of gnosticism (as opposed to Gnosticism, which is commonly understood as an early Christian heresy) in its various forms.
These are:
1. “The unknowable, impredicable, ineffable Divinity, the Abyss of Silence which is the origin of all the becoming of the worlds.” (161)
2. “The crisis occurring in this Pleroma, to which all forms of gnosis ascribe the great acts of Creation and salvation.” (161)
3. “The figure of the Anthropos, the Saved-Savior.” (161)
The culmination, or central fact of gnosis is that it is:
a teaching which does not aim at some pure theoretical knowledge, [but which is] amode of understanding which is not a simple act of knowing. It is not a teaching for the masses, but an initiatory teaching passed on to each specially chosen disciple. It is an esoteric knowledge, a knowledge of the Truth that, as such, gives rise to a new birth, a metamorphosis, the salvation of the soul. (153)
Each of these themes represents a wealth of significance which is deserving of amplification, and needs to be understood in much greater detail in order to draw out its significance for Ismailism. I will attempt, as best as I can, to state what Corbin is alluding to in each of these statements, and then proceed to show how he links these with Ismailism.