Ta'wil and the Angel

~Samir Mahmoud

The Mundus Imaginalis and Oriental Knowledge

We have answered the question: what and to what is the human presence present? Now we are in the position to ask the fundamental question: “whomand to whom is the human presence present?”

The theory of visionary knowledge and the mundus imaginalis we have just explored and the notion of human presence to this visionary world presuppose certain conditions for entering this world and becoming present to the spiritual world. This condition is the “transition from theoretical teaching to real event of the soul” through a spiritual exegesis of both text and soul.

To be oriented towards the “Light in the East,” the Orient of Being, is to comport oneself in a specific mode of being and knowing, it is to be present in the Orient of one’s Being. It is for one’s being-in-the-world to be oriented. To clarify and explain this inner transformation and metamorphosis of the soul as it journeys to its original abode, Corbin had recourse to the visionary recitals, mystical narratives, of visionaries like Avicenna and Suhrawardi. The visionary recital is the visionary’s account of his soul’s voyage into themundus imaginalis under the guidance of her Angel-guide.

The visionary recitals signify in the philosophy of Ishraq the “Quest for the Orient” (istishraq), which is our “Oriental Being.” This Quest for the Orient is none other than the Quest for “Oriental Knowledge” (‘ilm Ishraqi) that salvific knowledge that will lead the soul out of its incarceration in this world and into the next. It is a quest for self-realization, pursuing the ‘authentic’ life, of one’s being-in-the-world. We have come full circle and are back at the fundamental realization that Corbin had found in Heidegger, namely, that our modus intelligendi (mode of knowing or Oriental Knowledge) corresponds to our modus essendi (mode of being or Oriental Being). We recall that Dasein’s being-in-the-world is a presence, it is a being-there, which is essentially “to be enacting a presence, that enactment by which and for which meaning is revealed in the present.” Therefore, the modality of being-there of Dasein is revelatory “in such a way that, in revealing meaning, it reveals itself, and is that which is revealed.”  In Suhrawardi’s terms the self’s rise to the Orient of its Being, to the Orient of luminaries, is reciprocated by an illumination from above culminating in apresence, a being-there, of the self to the object of its contemplation “presential knowledge” (‘ilm huduri or a direct witnessing), which is none other than a presence, a being-there, to its celestial twin, its Angel. Thispresencing varies in intensity from mystical station to another and in all of these Presences, the Angel is the guide appearing to the initiand in the form and epiphany that is in the capacity of the initiand to receive. Corbin states that this knowledge is “illuminating because it is Oriental, and Oriental because it is illuminating.”

The Quest portrayed in these recitals presupposes in the voyager a sense of existential exile (ghorbah). This is the theme of Suhrawardi’s The Recital of Occidental Exile, where the Occident of our Being as opposed to the Orient of our Being, is symbolic of the world of disorientation, the world of Absence, the world of Darkness. As Corbin explains it: “It is by awakening to the feeling of being a stranger that the gnostic’s soul discovers where it is and at the same time forebodes whence it comes and whither it returns.” The yearning for return arises from the “feeling of kingship with the divinity, with celestial beings, forms of light and beauty, which for the gnostic are his true family.” The soul upon re-cognizing its true self and by coming back to this true self, “experiences itself as exiled, terrified, and disoriented.” At this point, the “soul must find the way of Return. That way is Gnosis, and on that way it needs a Guide.”

We shall not explore in detail the specific visionary recitals of Avicenna and Suhrawardi, but we shall look at the common themes underlying their subject matter.

The Voyage and the Messenger

Corbin found the most common metaphor to describe the spiritual journey in Islamic mysticism to be that of the voyage, often including the figure of the messenger who beckons the soul towards her abode of origin. No doubt, as Corbin reminds us, the prototype for the mystic journey has always been the heavenly ascension, the Night Journey, (the Mi’raj), when the Prophet was summoned by the Archangel Gabriel to a journey through the seven heavens, and during which he saw the prophets who dwell in each heaven.

The significance of the Prophetic mystical ascension is characteristic of all Islamic spirituality, whether of the philosophical or the mystical type. We find this theme of particular concern for example in the Ishraqiyun, the “Persian Platonists” as Corbin calls them, followers of Suhrawardi, who wrote a number of mystical recitals. Avicenna had also written a number of mystical recitals, which goes to show that as Corbin describes it, “there is something in common between the vocation of the philosopher and that of the prophet.” The theme of these recitals is the voyage of the soul back to her original abode guided by a messenger. Both philosophy, in its etymological sense, and the mystical experience are at the heart of Suhrawardi’s thought. For a Suhrawardi, as we have seen, without solid philosophical preparation, the mystical experience is in danger of going astray; also, a philosophical search that does not culminate in a mystical experience, in a spiritual selfrealization, is “a vanity and a waste of time.” This is why Corbin has proposed the term gnosis (‘irfan), which he defines as “knowledge which never remains at a theoretical level: it is a salvational knowledge, because it engages the spiritual, inner human being in the way of deliverance and regeneration.” This is precisely what the voyage of the recitals means because it “transmutes philosophy into a divine wisdom—etymologically, into a theosophia.”

Corbin finds in Mulla Sadra’s idea of the “fourfold voyage” in his “High Wisdom Concerning the Four Spiritual Voyages,” a summary of the typologies of the Islamic mystic journey. The first journey is a journey from the physical world towards God. During this journey, the philosopher struggles with problems of physics, matter, form, substance, and accident, etc... at the end of which “the philosopher-pilgrim experiences fulfillment at the supersensible level of divine realities.” The second voyage is a movement from God, towards, God, but by means of God. “One travels with God and in God.” At the metaphysical plane, the initiate learns the divine sciences (ilahiyat, divinalia) and the names and attributes of the Divine Essence. The third voyage is a return or re-entry of the initiate into the physical world of creation, but “by means of God and in God.” This is a reversal of the first voyage after an initiation into the “Hierarchy of Intelligences and the supersensible universes (the malakut and the jabarut).” The fourth and final journey is one in the physical world of creatures, however, this time it is accomplished by God or with God. “Essentially, it is an initiation into knowledge of the soul, into self-knowledge.” This is what the Ishraqiyun refer to as Oriental Knowledge (‘ilm Ishraqi), in the metaphysical sense of the Orient. It is gives substance to the divine maxim, “He who knows himself, knows his Lord,” which both the Sufis and Corbin are so fond of quoting. In Corbin’s own eloquent definition, “it is an initiation into the esoteric tawhid, the “theomonism” which maintains that only God truly is.” According to a divine saying (hadith qudsi), God describes he who has attained to this level: “Henceforth I am the looking through which he sees, the listening through which he hears, the hand with which he touches, the foot with which he walks, etc.” That is to say, the “Divine Subject” replaces the human subject for in truth God can never be the object of anything but forever the subject. These are, in broad terms, the contours of the voyage in Mulla Sadra, which find resonances throughout the Islamic tradition.

The essential nature of these recitals is that they reflect the metamorphosis of the knowing subject being initiated; this is the voyage they are describing. For Corbin, the journey is the overcoming of the abyss separating the “certainty of theoretical knowledge (‘ilm al-yaqin)” and the “certainty of personally lived and realized gnostic knowledge (haqq al-yaqin).” It is to overcome the separation between the I of the ego and the unknowable hidden deity not by any dialectical discursive knowledge, but by the non-discursive knowledge of the deity as it is “revealed to the knowing subject by the subject itself,” as in Luther’s significatio passiva and Ibn Arabi’s notion of “Divine Passion and Compassion.” God cannot be known byanother, Corbin reminds us, because God is not other than oneself. “God can only be known by God as absolute Subject, which is absous of all illusory objectivity. Accordingly, it is the Divine Subject that is really the active subject of all knowledge of God for it is God who is thinking himself though whatever form or thought the human intellect is contemplating. Corbin finds remarkable resemblances between these Islamic gnostics and the tradition of speculative wisdom in the West extending from Meister Eckhart to the “speculative theologians.” The original meaning of “speculative” is lost, Corbin tells us, unless we remember that etymologically, speculum means mirror. Thus, the proper function of a “speculative theology” is to reflect God like a mirror in which God is revealed. As Franz von Baader says, “Spekulieren heisst spiegeln,” (“To speculate is to reflect”). Corbin,

The mirror is the inner human being, to whom, and for whom the theophany (tajalli, zohur) is produced, and who is the place and form (mazhar) which it takes. The speculative state, in its mystical sense, is when the human being has become a mirror in which the gesta divina are accomplished. However, because the mirror is the place of the soul contemplating itself in contemplation, it is also true to say that the mirror is itself the divine being.

This state of being a polished mirror reflecting the divine is the goal of the spiritual voyage and the visionary recitals of Avicenna and Suhrawardi. The real voyage begins when the theoretical teaching “becomes an event of the soul,” when it is transmuted into a lived and passionate undertaking. It is at this decisive moment that the Messenger appears and guides the initiate. The teaching imparted during the initiation “becomes the messenger at the moment when personal consciousness obeys the imperative to embark upon the voyage.” It is also the moment when the spiritual energy latent is activated and appears to the initiate as an apparition “embodied” in the form of a Messenger-Guide or the Angel-Guide, “at the horizon of inner vision” as we shall see shortly with Avicenna and Suhrawardi’s visionary recitals. This inner metamorphosis of the soul is effected by a spiritual exegesis.

Ta’wil or Spiritual Exegesis 

‘Spiritual exegesis’ is one of the many terms Corbin uses to describe his method of spiritual
hermeneutics and phenomenology. It is a method of exegesis that Corbin found in all his “Spirituals:” Islamic theosophers (Ishraqiyun, Sufis, Shi’ite, and Ismaili), Christian theosophers (Jacob Boehme, Immanuel Swedenborg, and also), and all those who went by the name of Platonists or Neoplatonists (Cambridge Platonists). The counterpart in Islamic gnosis is the characteristically Shi’ite/Ismaili, and to a lesser extent Sufi, notion of Ta’wil. Essentially, Ta'wil is the “bringing back,” or the returning to its origins, “not only of a text of a book but also the cosmic context in which the soul is imprisoned.”

It is to cause something to arrive at its origin. This “bringing back” is effected for the soul by its transmutation of this cosmic context into symbols in order that it may be carried beyond the mere external appearance of natural phenomena to their internal and true Reality (haqiqah). Nature and history are only the visible, external, and exoteric (zahir) of the spiritual world that is the true reality invisible and hidden behind the visible, it is the esoteric (batin) in which the true history of Events occurs. The true meaning of Prophethood, for example, cannot be found in the “material facts of the external biography of the prophets” but in their “spiritual meaning,” or in the “events that happen  to them, invisibly, in the world of the Spirit.” Nature, Liber mundi, and Revelation, Liber revelatus have their true meaning in the hidden meaning unveiled by the Ta'wil of the Book “descended from Heaven,” and herein lies the secret of the prophets, in the hierohistory as we have already seen.

History and nature, thus, imitate the world of the  soul and ta'wil brings back everything, every event, to its truth, its archetype (asl) in the spiritual universes of the supernal realm, of which it is an exemplification.  Ta'wil, though, does not arbitrarily “construct this multidimensional world” of spiritual universes to which it returns the soul, for it is discovered “by virtue of a principle of equilibrium and harmony.”

This principle in Islamic mysticism of the Ismailis is the “The Science of the Balance” (‘ilm al-Mizan), which is the “metaphysical and mystical basis of the science of correspondences.” In Islamic gnosis, “the Balance signifies the equilibrium between Light and Darkness” because, like in alchemy, it is the “principle that measures the intensity of the Soul’s desire during its descent through matter.”

The Science of the Balance also implies cosmic harmony and sympathy. There is a “correspondence between the earthly esoteric hierarchy and the celestial angelic hierarchy……..between the spiritual and corporeal worlds.” This finds its most complete expression, according to Corbin, in the Ismaili Ta'wil.

For Isma‘ilism, the literal sense of the word, its  external appearance, the exoteric, conceals within it a plurality of internal meanings which are ordered in a hierarchy of universes symbolizing with each other. The Principle (Mobdi‘), the  Deus absconditus, “Divine Silence and Abyss” as Corbin calls it, is,  in Ismaili gnosis, as with Swedenborg, inaccessible, “Super-Being (hyperousion)”, and beyond being and non-being, a no-thing. The Deus absconditus manifests as  Deus revelatus, the Primordial Theophany, with the procession of the First Archangelic Intelligence from the Abysmal Silence, and from which proceed the entire “supreme pleroma of the Primordial Establishment (‘alam al-ibda‘),”
which consists of the hierarchical angelic intelligences.

From one of the intelligences, our demiurge, originates the physical universe, the macrocosm, and also the world of man, the microcosm, which is homologous with that of the  macrocosm. Most importantly, between these two, Corbin tells us, there emerges the  mesocosm, “which is the spiritual world constituted by the esoteric community on earth.”

This esoteric community lives in strict incognito, Corbin tells us, for its members are not permitted to reveal themselves.

The mesocosm constitutes the totality of “forms of light” which are none other than the subtle forms of microcosmic man raised to the level of macrocosmic man, the integral individual in his form of light as Anthropos, (Insan Kabir), Homo maximus for Swedenborg. This totality of “forms of light” of the initiates  of the esoteric community constitute the “Temple of Light” (Haykal nurani). We find that the hierarchical structure of the mesocosm, of the esoteric community, symbolizes with the “Temple of Light,” the hierarchical structure of the astronomical sky, and the hierarchical structure of the archangelic Pleroma.

This Ismaili metaphysics of being is fundamentally hierarchical and is characterized by a strict correspondence between the degree of the celestial hierarchy and those of the esoteric earthly hierarchy.  This also forms the basis of Ismaili spiritual exegesis, ta'wil, linking cosmology with anthropology and angelology because to be initiated into the esoteric community of mystics on earth, the corpus mysticum, is to enter the “virtual paradise,” thereby allowing the realization of one’s potential “angelicity.”

In Swedenborg’s Theory of Correspondences, Corbin finds remarkable parallels with this Ismaili Ta'wil. Swedenborg’s hermeneutics, Corbin tells us, is governed by a theory of correspondences, which is also linked to a definite theory of cognition, a spiritual cognition, or what Corbin calls a “hierognosis.” For Swedenborg, everything in nature represents or corresponds to something in the spiritual world, that is to say, everything below symbolizes with something above. Every individual consists of an external person, the physical body inhering in the natural world and an “internal person” which is his spiritual world. This cosmic and anthropological “bipartition” is supported by a “cosmology for which natural forms are essentially effects”  because they cannot be causes of their own appearances and occurrences. Their causes precede them vertically from the spiritual world. This is a fundamental intuition of Swedenborg’s, which puts his  Theory of Correspondences in profound harmony with those of the Neoplatonists, as Corbin points out.

Briefly stated, everything in nature-the atmosphere, the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms, etc- are nothing more than the “representative theatre” of the spiritual world, if only we can learn to see them in their sublime beauty “in the state of their Heaven.” This is also professed by the Theosophers of Light in Islam (the Ishraqiyun of Suhrawardi, the theosophy of Ibn Arabi, and Mulla Sadra Shirazi, etc): “sensory things are apparitional forms, the places of epiphany (mazahir), the  theatrum of suprasensory universes.”

This relation between reality and epiphany is repeated along the vertical gradations of being. Each form is an epiphany of that which is in the grade and spiritual universe above it; it is also the reality of its own epiphany in the grade and spiritual universe  below it. The preceding grade possesses ontological priority over the grade that proceeds from it.  From the above, we can better understand the spiritual universes that Swedenborg speaks of. There are essentially three heavens in ascensional order of “increasing interiority and purity.”  The first heaven Swedenborg calls the “abode” of good spirits, the lower heaven; the second is the “abode” of angelic spirits or spiritual angels of the middle heaven; the third is the “abode” of the “celestial” angels of the higher heaven. Each “abode” is to be understood, Corbin explains, as the “state of the internal man.” The phases of time and space are also “interior states of man as well.” This hierarchy of heavens ordered in increasing interiority and purity as states of the internal man Corbin calls a “hierocosmology.” This hierocosmology essentially reflects the fundamental double dimension of reality: natureheaven, external-internal, macrocosm-microcosm, etc all of which correspond with each other. To the astronomical Sun providing light we have the light of the soul emerging from the spiritual Sun. As the physical sun illuminates and makes vision and life possible with its warmth, so the spiritual Sun illuminates the dark regions of our internal spiritual world and provides the warmth for a healthy spiritual life. However, whereas  man is within the astronomical universe at the centre of which is the Sun, the spiritual Sun is within man, “he is within this light itself.” There is thus a double light and a double heat, Swedenborg:

The heat of heaven [proceeds] from the spiritual sun, which is the Lord, and the heat of the world proceeds from the sun thereof, which is the luminary seen by our physical eyes. The heat of heaven manifests itself to the internal person by spiritual loves and affections, whereas the heat of the world manifests itself to the external person by natural loves and affections. The former heat causes the life of the internal person, but the latter the life of the external person; for without love and affection man cannot life at all. Between these two heats also there are correspondences.

The dominant idea here, Corbin tells us, is that behind every principle active in the natural world, whether it be of psychology or cosmology, there corresponds a spiritual principle. For Swedenborg, light and heat are related to intelligence and will, or wisdom and love. For an angelic mode of cognition, hierognosis, light appears to their eyes as light within which there is contained intelligence and will; similarly, heat is experienced as warmth, containing love. “Love is therefore called spiritual heat…..just as intelligence is called spiritual light.”

According to Swedenborg, as with Ismaili thought, the earliest humanity possessed this angelic sensitivity to the true spiritual reality of things.  We see that for both Swedenborg and the Ismaili theosophers, the real history is the spiritual history of humanity that unfolds in spiritual world of the soul, where, as Corbin has explained, the succession of moments of time is nothing other than the succession of internal states of the soul, an irreversible qualitative time distinct from the quantitative time of the physical world. This has far-reaching implications for the understanding of the True sense, the true meaning of the Sacred Book. The spiritual sense rescues the Sacred Book from a self-defeating historicism that makes the “significance of the Sacred Book captive to the date of its material composition.”

Unless, as Swedenborg and the Ismaili theosophers have so eloquently demonstrated, the Revealed Book is understood in its true sense, which is to say in its  present sense, all meaning is lost. The  present sense means, as we have seen with Avicenna and Suhrawardi, a meaning which has been lost on those of a historicist bent, that “the  presence of spiritual universes that symbolize with each other, by means of a comparable architecture,” is here and now, in the present, but vertically in an ascensional hierarchical order of gradations of being; it is an ever present realized eschatological moment in the reality and time/space of the soul.

There is profound accord between Biblical hermeneutics as exemplified by Swedenborg (and Jacob Boehme) and the Islamic theosophers like the Ismaili exegetes.

There is a similarity in the way in which Boehme or a Swedenborg understands Genesis, Exodus or Revelation, and the way in which the Shiites, Ismaili as well as Twelver, or else the Sufi theosophers of the school of Ibn al-‘Arabi, understand the Quran and the corpus of the traditions explaining it. This similarity  is a perspective in which the universe is seen as possessing several levels, as consisting of a plurality of worlds that all symbolize with each other.

Such is the extent of this similarity that, for someone like Corbin, it provides fertile ground for a general theology of the history of religions and a general theology of religions. However, this cannot be established, as Corbin insists, as a “synthesis or as a process of the ‘historical past.’” Corbin is proposing a theology or theosophy of the Paraclete. Only in a hierohistory, which Swedenborg and the Ismaili theosophers analysed as a “succession of spiritual states, and the events that are visions,” can follow the spiritual traces of these events of this primordial fact, anterior to our empirical history, the answer to the primordial covenant of (alastu) where God asks all souls in the anteriority of their existence in the physical world: “Am I not your Lord?” The joyous affirmative response (bala) “concluded an eternal pact of fidelity; and from epoch to epoch, all the prophets…have come to remind men of their fidelity to this fact.”

This is the true meaning to which the above theosophers are  guiding us. Such a  Ta’wîl, or spiritual hermeneutics, becomes a contemplative and meditative mode of knowing/being; a liturgy of the soul, the world being its theurgy.

The way of reading and of comprehending to which I refer presupposes, in the strict sense of the word, a theosophia, that is, the mental or visionary penetration of an entire hierarchy of spiritual universes that are not discovered by means of syllogisms, because they do not reveal themselves except through a certain mode of cognition, a hierognosis that unites the speculative knowledge of traditional information to the most personal interior experience, for, in the absence of the latter, technical models alone would be transmitted, and these would be doomed to a rapid decline.

Thus, Ta’wîl is not theory, it is “an initiation into vision.” “Is it possible to see without being in the place where one sees?” Corbin asks rhetorically. The penetrations into the visionary worlds are a being in order to see.

“If thou be this, thou see this,” says Henry More, one of Corbin’s favorite “Cambridge Platonists.”

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