The Prophetic Tradition / Battle for the Soul of the World

An Introduction to the Spiritual Vision of Henry Corbin 

~Tom Cheetham


There is a great deal that I want to say in quite a short time by way of introducing Henry Corbin, but I want to take a few seconds to explain my own orientation. I wrote the first book-length study of his work in English, and seem to have become known as something of an authority rather by default because no one else had done it. But I am no scholar and I am certainly not an Orientalist. I cannot possibly be an authority on Corbin, at the very least because I don’t know any of the many languages in which he was fluent. Nonetheless my work has met with some approval among those who do know the world in which he lived, for which I am very grateful.

I first read of Corbin in James Hillman’s 1981 Eranos lecture “The Thought of the Heart.” I was so intrigued by what Hillman said of him that I immediately bought Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi which begins with a brief discussion of phenomenology. It is unlike anything I ever heard in school. On the very first page he writes that “with the help of phenomenology,”

we have learned to register and to make use of the intentions implicit in all the acts of consciousness or transconsciousness. To say that the Imagination (or love, or sympathy, or any other sentiment) induces knowledge, and knowledge of an “object” which is proper to it, no longer smacks of paradox. 

This seemed a radical transformation of the kind of phenomenology I had been taught. I was both captivated and disoriented and the more I read the more baffled and enmeshed I became. I have spent about 17 years now trying to explain Henry Corbin to myself. I am delighted that my attempt has been useful to others. 

A Sketch of a Life 

The details of his outer life are as simple and straightforward as one might expect of a man who devoted his entire life to reading, writing and teaching. The great marvels lie in his prodigious output as a scholar and even more in the variety and depth of his interests. It is not easy to keep it all organized in your imagination. Even this brief account is a bit dizzying, and I’ve left out quite a bit. He was born in Paris on the 14th of April, 1903. His mother died six days later and he was raised by his aunt and uncle. His health was fragile which often forced interruptions in his studies. Early on he demonstrated the sensitivity to music that is so often evident in his work, and he studied both organ and music theory. At the age of 23 he wrote “The rhythm of music is the rhythm of my soul.” He was educated in the Catholic tradition and in 1925 he took his “licence de philosophie” at the Sorbonne under the great Thomist Étienne Gilson, with a thesis on “Latin Avicennism in the Middle Ages.” In the same year he began studying both Arabic and Sanskrit, initiating what he called a “period of mental asceticism.” Corbin was entranced by Gilson's scholarship and his teaching. In an essay written in the last year of his life Corbin wrote, 

This was my first contact with Islamic philosophy. I discovered there a complicity between cosmology and angelology... and this angelological concern has not, I believe, left me my entire life.

During the same period he attended Emile Bréhier's lectures on the relation between Plotinus and the Upanishads. In 1926 he met with Joseph Hackin, the Director of the National Museum of Asiatic Art. Afterwards Corbin said he was filled with a joyous certainty and “saw the link between my studies of medieval philosophy and Hindu metaphysics.” In 1928 he received the Student Diploma for his work on “Stoicism and Augustinism in the Work of Luis de Leon” the 16th century Spanish theologian. 

In 1929 he received his diploma in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. In April he began work at the Bibliotheque Nationale where he met Louis Massignon, director of Islamic Studies at the Sorbonne. Corbin’s attraction to the mystical element in oriental studies was confirmed by contact with Massignon. On the 13th of October he paid him a visit and it was no doubt then that Massignon gave him the lithographed copy of Suhrawardi’s Hikmat al-Ishraq that was to change his life. Corbin’s account of the episode in an interview given shortly before his death speaks volumes: 

… Massignon had an inspiration from Heaven. He had brought back from a trip to Iran a lithographed edition of the major work of Suhrawardi... With commentaries, it formed a large volume of more than 500 pages. 'Take it,' he said to me, 'I think there is in this book something for you.' This 'something' was the company of the young Shaykh al-Ishraq, who has not left me my whole life. I had always been a Platonist (in the broad sense of the term); I believe that one is born a Platonist as one is born an atheist, a materialist etc. Unfathomable mystery of pre-existential choices! The young Platonist that I was then could only take fire at contact with the one who was the 'Imam of the Platonists of Persia...' ...through my meeting with Suhrawardi, my spiritual destiny for the passage through this world was sealed. Platonism, expressed in terms of the Zoroastrian angelology of ancient Persia, illuminated the path that I was seeking."