History of Islamic Philosophy

~Henry Corbin

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It is commonly said in the West that the Quran contains nothing of a mystical or philosophical nature, and that philosophers and mystics are not indebted to it in any way. Our concern here is not to argue about what Westerners find or fail to find in the Quran, but to know what it is that Muslims themselves have actually discovered in it. Islamic philosophy may be seen, first and foremost, as the work of thinkers belonging to a religious community characterized by the Quranic expression ahl al-kitab : a people in possession of a sacred ook, a people whose religion in founded on a Book that ' came down from Heaven', is revealed to a prophet and is taught to the people by that prophet. Properly speaking, the 'peoples of the Book' are the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims.

The Zoroastrians, thanks to the Avesta, have partially benefited from this privilege, while the so-called Sabians of Harran have been less fortunate.

All these communities are faced with the problem of the basic religious phenomenon which is common to them all : the phenomenon of the Sacred Book, the law of life within this world and guide beyond it. The first and last task is to understand the true meaning of this Book. But the mode of understanding is conditioned by the mode of being of him who understands; correspondingly, the believer's whole inner ethos derives from his mode of understanding. The lived situation is essentially hermeneutical, a situation, that is to say, in which the true meaning dawns on the believer and confers reality upon his existence. This true meaning, correlative to true being-truth which is real and reality which is true-is what is expressed in one of the key terms in the vocabulary of philosophy : the word haqiqah.

The term designates, among many other things, the true meaning of the divine Revelations : a meaning which, because it is the truth of these Revelations, is also their essence, and therefore their spiritual meaning. One could thus say that the phenomenon of the 'revealed sacred Book' entails a particular anthropology, even a certain definite spiritual culture, and that it postulates, at the same time as it stimulates and orientates, a certain type of philosophy. Both Christianity and Islam are faced with somewhat similar probl ems when searching for the true meaning, the spiritual meaning, in, respectively, the hermeneutic of the Bible and the hermeneutic of the Quran. There are also, however, profound differences between them. The analogies and the differences will be analysed and expressed here in terms of structure. To say that the goal to be attained is the spiritual meaning implies that there is a meaning which is not the spiritual meaning, and that between the two there may be a whole scale of levels, and that consequently there may even be a plurality of spiritual meanings.

Everything depends therefore on the initial act of consciousness which establishes a perspective, together with the laws that will henceforth govern it. The act whereby consciousness reveals to itself this hermeneutical perspective, at the same time reveals to it the world that it will have to organize and structure on a hierarchic basis. From this point of view, the phenomenon of the sacred Book has given rise to corresponding structures in the Christian and Islamic worlds. On the other hand, to the extent that the mode of approach to the true meaning differs in the two worlds, so they have been faced with differing situations and difficulties.

The first thing to note is the absence in Islam of the phenomenon of the Church. Just as Islam has no clergy which is in possession of the 'me ans of grace', so it has no dogmatic magisterium, no pontifical authority, no Council which is responsible for defining dogma. In Christianity, from the second century onwards, prophetic inspiration and, in a more general way, the freedom of a spiritual hermeneutic, were replaced by the dogmatic magisterium of the Church. Furthermore, the birth and spread of the Christian consciousness essentially signalled the awakening and growth of a historical consciousness. Christian thought is centred on the event which occurred in year one of the Christian era : the divine Incarnation marks the entry of God into history. As a result, the religious consciousness is focused with ever-increasing attention on the historical meaning, which it identifies with the literal meaning, the true meaning of the Scriptures .

The famous theory of the four levels of meaning was of course to be developed. The classic formula of this theory is as follows : littera (sensus historicus) gesta docet; quid credas, allegoria; moralis, quid a gas; quid speras, anagogia. However, it re quires a great deal of courage today to invalidate, in the name of a spiritual interpretation, conclus ions drawn from archaeological and historical evidence. The question is a very complex one, and we barely touch on it here. Yet we should ask ourselves to what extent the phenomenon of the Church, in its official forms at any rate, can ally itself with the predominance of the literal and historical meaning. Moreover, hand in hand with this pre dominance goes a decadence which results in confusing symbol with allegory. As a consequence, the search for spiritual meaning is regarded as a matter of allegorization, whereas it is a matter of something quite different. Allegory is harmless, but spiritual meaning can be revolutionary. Thus spiritual hermeneutics has been perpetuated and renewed by spiritual groups which have formed on the fringes of the Churches. There is similarity in the way in which a 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 ofthe 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. The religious consciousness of Islam is centred not on a histori cal fact, but on a fact which is meta-historical, not post-historical, but trans-historical. This primordial fact, anterior to our empirical history, is expressed in the divine question which the human Spirits were required to answer before they were placed in the terrestrial world: 'Am I not your Lord? ' (Quran 7 : 1 72 ). The shout of joy which greeted this question concluded an eternal pact of fidelity; and from epoch to epoch, all the prophets whose succession forms the 'cycle of prophecy' have come to remind men of their fidelity to this pact. From the pronouncements of the prophets comes the letter of the positive religions : the divine Law or shari 'ah. The question then is : are we to remain at this literal level of things? If we are, philosophers have no further part to play. Or should we try to grasp the true meaning, the spiritual meaning, the haqiqah?

The famous philosopher Nasir-i Khusraw (fifth/eleventh century ), one of the great figures of Iranian Ismailism, explains the situation succinctly : 'Positive religion (shari 'ah) is the exoteric aspect of the Idea (haqiqah), and the Idea is the esoteric aspect of positive religion. Positive religion is the symbol (mithal); the Idea is that which is symbolized (mamthul). The exoteric aspect is in perpetual flux with the cycles and epochs of the world; the esoteric aspect is a divine Energy which is not subject to becoming.'