The Science of Imagination

~Henry Corbin

The science of the Imagination is also the science of mirrors, of all mirroring "surfaces" and of the forms that appear in them. As the science of the speculum, it takes its place in speculative theosophy, in a theory of the vision and manifestations of the spiritual, and draws the ultimate consequences from the fact that though forms appear in mirrors, they are not in the mirrors. To it belongs also mystic geography, the knowledge of this Earth that was created from Adam's surplus clay and on which all the things seen in this world exist in the subtile state of an "immaterial matter," with their figures, their contours and their colors. Hence it is the science of paradisiacal contemplations; it explains how the inhabitants of "Paradise" enter into every beautiful form that they conceive and desire, how it becomes their garment, the form in which they appear to them selves and to others. All this is confirmed both by the fervor of believers and by the experience of the mystics; but the rational theoreticians (ashab al-nazar) accept it only reluctantly, as an "allegory," or out of deference for the Divine Book in which the Prophet states it. But if by chance such a testimony comes from you, they reject it and impute it to the disorder of your imagination (fasad al-khayal). Very well, but the disorder of the Imagination presupposes at least its existence, and what these men of theoretical knowledge are unaware of is the intermediary character of the Imagination, which places it at once in the sensible and the intelligible, in the senses and in the intellect, in the possible, the necessary and the impossible, so that it is a "pillar" (rukn) of true knowledge, the knowledge that is gnosis (ma'rifa), without which there would be only a knowledge without consistency. For it is the Imagination that enables us to understand the meaning of death, in the esoteric as well as the physical sense: an awakening, before which you are like someone who merely dreams that he wakes up. It would be difficult to situate the science of the Imagination any higher. 

We now turn to the specifically psychological aspect of the Imagination. Here, it goes without saying, we must reject any thing suggesting what is today termed psychologism, and in particular the tendency to consider "imaginations" as products without intrinsic "reality." And indeed our schematization of the imaginative faculty results exclusively from the metaphysical status of the Imagination. Ibn 'Arabi distinguishes an imagination conjoined to the imagining subject and inseparable from him (khayal muttasil) and a self-subsisting imagination dissociable from the subject (khayal manfasil). 

In the first case we must distinguish between the imaginations that are premeditated or provoked by a conscious process of the mind, and those which present themselves to the mind spontaneously like dreams (or daydreams). The specific character of this conjoined Imagination is its inseparability from the imagining subject, with whom it lives and dies. The Imagination separable from the subject, on the other hand, has an autonomous and subsisting reality sui generis on the plane of the intermediary world, the world of Idea-Images. "Exterior" to the imagining subject, it can be seen by others in the outside world, but in practice these others must be mystics (for on occasion the Prophet saw the Angel Gabriel when his Companions were present, while they saw only the handsome Arab youth).

The fact that these "separable" Images subsist in a world specific to them, so that the Imagination in which they occur is a "Presence" having the status of an "essence" (hardhat dhatiya) perpetually capable of receiving ideas (ma'ani) and Spirits (arwah) and of giving them the "apparitional body" that makes possible their epiphany-all this makes it clear that we are far removed from all "psychologism." Even the Imagination con joined to, and inseparable from, the subject is in no sense a faculty functioning arbitrarily in the void, secreting "fantasies." When the form of the Angel, for example, "projects itself" into a human form (in the same sense, as we have seen, as a form "projects" itself upon a mirror), this act takes place on the plane of the autonomous Imagination (munfasil) , which then raises the Image to the plane of the conjoint Imagination. Thus there is only one autonomous Imagination, because it is absolute Imagination (Khayal mutlaq), that is to say, absolved of any condition that would subordinate its subsistence, and it is the Primordial Cloud which constitutes the universe as theophany. It is this same Primordial Cloud which originally inaugurates, maintains and governs the Imagination conjoined to the subject. Then come the revealed divine Laws which determine and fixate the modalization of the Divine Being in the qibla ("orientation"), in the "face to face" of the believer at prayer. This means moreover that the "God created in the faiths" partakes of this Imagination conjoined to the subject; but because Com passion, that is, the Divine Existentiation, also embraces the "God created in the faiths," the conjoined Imagination, though inseparable from the subject, is also included in the modes of the absolute Imagination, which is the absolutely encompassing Presence ( al-Hadrat al-jami'a, al-martabat al-shamila). It is the notion of the separable, autonomous Imagination that most directly relates to our theme, namely, the function of the "creative" Imagination in mystic experience. In considering it we must concern ourselves with two technical terms: one is the "heart," the other is himma, an extremely complicated notion which cannot perhaps be translated by any one word. Many equivalents have been suggested: mediation,1° project, intention, desire, force of will; here we shall concentrate on the aspect that encompasses all the others, the "creative power of the heart." 

From: 'Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi'