The Celestial Ascent (Mi'raj-Namah)

~Henry Corbin

"You see, my son, through how many bodily things in succession we have to make our way, and through how many troops of daemons and courses of stars, that we may press on to the one and only God" — so Hermes expresses himself, addressing his disciple Tat to invite him to an upward journey whose goal corresponds with that which Hayy ibn Yaqzan proposes to his adept. In referring to the Hermetic corpus we are by no means seeking to define the "historical" origins of the motif of the celestial ascent, either in general or in the spiritual world of Islam; we are in the presence of an archetype whose many exemplifica-tions, in every sphere of the history of religion, are produced and reproduced by virtue of a deeper necessity than that for. which historical causality is called upon to account. 

The necessity of an archetype means something entirely different from the propagation of a "commonplace." In speculative mysticism in Islam this exemplification will be likely to take the form of a ta'wil of the celestial ascent (mi'raj) of the Prophet; this ascent will itself presuppose the cosmological schema whose essential data were sketched in the foregoing chapters. It is such a book of celestial ascent in Persian (Mi'raj-Namah) that is attributed by the majority of the manuscripts to Avicenna but by some to Suhrawardi, in whose work Hermes personifies precisely the hero of the mystical upward journey from sphere to sphere of the "celestial Occident." Thus the admonition cited above from the Hermetic corpus figures here spontaneously in its place, as one of the many testimonies to the same vision. We may take it as unlikely that the Mi'raj-Namah about to be briefly analyzed is the work of Suhrawardi; nor is it any more probable that it is the work of Avicenna, although we have in it a book whose composition is con-temporary with him. Hence its spiritual teaching is of considerable interest. Like all treatises developing the same theme, it presents the typical chart of the soul's celestial itinerary in its upward journey toward its country of origin. It is the same "track" that the itinerary of the Avicennan Recital of the Bird will follow; and it is for this reason that this particular Miraj-Namah requires mention here, whether or not it is the work of Avicenna. For the Recital of the Bird, as mental effectuation of the journey into the Orient to which the closing words of the Recital of Hayy ibn Yaqzan invites, is eo ipso connected with all the literature that has developed around the Mi'raj. The real meaning of the connection must be indicated at once. If Avicenna wrote his own Mi'raj-Namah, it will be precisely his Recital of the Bird; just as Suhrawardi's Mi'rdj-Ndmah is his Recital of Occidental Exile. By this we mean that both recitals testify to the fact that their narrators, each in the measure of his own spiritual experience, reproduced the case of the Prophet, relived for and by themselves the exemplary spiritual condition typified in the Mi'raj. 

By experiencing this in their turn, they have performed the ta'wil, the exegesis of their soul. Whereas to write a commentary in the margin of the per-sonal Mi'raj of the Prophet, even a ta'wil of his Mi'raj, is still to advance no further than the situation of a commentator; however intelligent he may be, the pyre commentator will not write a Recital of the Bird in the first person. Now, it is in this situation that the penetrating commentator on the Mi'raj-Namah summarized below would remain if he did not from the first foreshadow the passage to the hikayat, to the personal "recital."

Without this horizon, the situation would be precisely that of the com-mentators on Avicenna's and Suhrawardi's recitals. Their ingenious ta'wil is only an exegesis of the texts, without exegesis of the soul. It leads backward, hitherward, to the theoretical data that preceded the vision; this they explain, showing quite capably "what it means," but without seeing or making seeable what it sees. Thereby the vision itself vanishes; its plastic aspect, corresponding to the soul's most secret anticipations, is destroyed; the symbol becomes superfluous and at the same time is degraded into allegory. Now, the experiential interest of the Avicennan recitals consists in the fact that, suddenly, the tissue of conceptual patencies and speculative discourse was broken, and there was the face-to-face with a person, even if the encounter took place only in the anticipation and the ardent desire that summons it but that also eo ipso is already experiencing it. In order that the author of a recital of "celestial ascent" may declare in closing: "It is I who am in this recital" —or else, like Avicenna at the end of the Recital of the Bird, may wrap himself in humor out of modesty— the case of the Prophet in his Mi'raj must have presented itself not as a simple historical case, whatever its historicity, but as an exemplary case that the mystic was called upon to reproduce. This presupposes an increasing approximation to this archetypal value. On this point we are indebted to the great Spanish Arabist Asin Palacios for researches whose fruits have not yet all been gathered. His demonstrations in regard to Muslim eschatology in The Divine Comedy had aroused memorable reactions among Romanists. The similarities assembled were undeniable, but they did not yet constitute positive proof of the "historical fact." The question remained: how could Dante have had direct knowledge of the Muslim eschato-logical representations, especially as presented in the literature of the Mi'raj? It was thirty years before renewed researches proved the existence and the dissemination of Castilian, Latin, French, and Italian translations from as early as the thirteenth century, with the result that the fact appeared not only possible but highly probable. After the monumental work in which the eminent Italian historian Enrico Cerulli brought together such a large number of translations and texts, it remains proven that the Western world was well acquainted at the period with a certain number of eschatological representations current in Islam, and the possibility that Dante himself had knowledge of them can no longer be denied. However, we are not here called upon to enter the maze of controversies that are all the more easily revived because their presuppositions are generally unavowed. There is simply the fact that these comparative researches have brought to light a whole literature on the subject of the Mi'raj, the recital of the celestial ascent, the connections between which and our Avicennan or Suhrawardian visionary recitals we have just indicated.

From: 'Avicenna and the Visionary Recital'