From ‘Heidegger to Suhrawardi’ / Part 1

An Introduction to the thought of Henry Corbin [1]

~Samir Mahmoud 

One is overwhelmed when confronted by the sheer size of Corbin’s oeuvre and nothing less than a comprehensive survey of his work and biography can yield up the influences on his thought. Corbin referred to himself as a philosopher guided by the Spirit following it wherever it took him. Thus, his intellectual journey took him back and forth between different spiritual worlds. Perhaps his genius lies in his ability to “valorize,” as he describes it, the worlds of other cultures and previous eras over the “arc of a lifetime.”2

Corbin’s philosophy owes much to classical and medieval philosophy, occultism, the History of Religions (Religionswissenschaft), Lutheran theology, the Christian esoteric tradition (Jacob Boehme, Immanuel Swedenborg, etc…) and Islamic gnosis (Shi’ite, Ismaili, and Sufi), out of which Corbin produced a “brilliantly polished, absolutely authentic, and utterly irreproducible mixture.”3 It has been claimed that he was the greatest esoterist of the 20th century.4 Indeed, Corbin’s own life epitomizes the esoteric quest from the outer to the inner, from the literal to the symbolic, and from appearance to true Reality. It is the movement of the soul in its return to its original abode. Such is Corbin’s journey, “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi.”

Underlying this passage is a journey from one world to another, from “our contemporary, post-Nietzschean world to the ‘perennial’ worlds of Iranian Theosophy.” “Persia was right there in the centre, as median and mediating world,”6 Corbin said. It was in the spiritual world of Iran that Corbin found his home in the companion of Shihab al-Din Yahya al-Suhrawardi the Iranian born theosopher of Illumination, “The Imam of the Persian Platonists” or the Oriental Theosopher as Corbin would call him. Suhrawardi would be Corbin’s closest companion for the rest of his life. With Suhrawardi’s Hikmat al-Ishraq, a book Corbin translated as The Oriental Theosophy, “a Platonism, expressed in terms of the Zoroastrian angelology of ancient Persia,” Corbin’s “spiritual destiny” was “sealed.”7 Suhrawardi was the self-proclaimed “resurrector of the Illuminationist Theosophy of the ancient Persian sages.”8 The combination of a Platonism of the Greeks with the Zoroastrian angelology and philosophy of Light and Darkness of Ancient Persia left a lasting impression on the young Corbin who had by then already considered himself part of a spiritual fellowship, “a new spiritual chivalry that unites Hermetic, Neoplatonic, Christian, Jewish, and Gnostic theosophers of the West with the Oriental theosophers of Iranian Islam.”9 Luther, Swedenborg, Hamann, Barth, and Heidegger were suddenly in the company of each other and in the company of an Avicenna, Suhrawardi, Ibn Arabi, and Mulla Sadra. 

However, despite Corbin’s love for Iran, which he described as the “homeland to philosophers and poets,” he would forever carry with him another integral encounter, this one with the “old Germany” that was also a “homeland to philosophers and poets.” Behind the towering figure of Heidegger, who was extremely influential on Corbin’s thought, stand the no less important figures of Luther, Hamann, Swedenborg, and Barth. One may conclude that by the time Corbin’s journey took him to the Orient, his theosophical vision was “German in provenance;”10 this was the period of Corbin the “Protestant theologian.”11 Indeed the sense of urgency and the apocalyptic vision one finds in all of Corbin’s work owes much to Schleiermacher and Barth, Otto and Heidegger, Jung12 and Swedenborg. One finds the seeds of Corbin’s philosophy in his early transition “from fin-de-siècle French Catholicism to an idiosyncratic, Weimar-era, radicalized German Lutheranism.”13 The key influences of Hamann, Luther, and Heidegger stand out. (We shall explore Heidegger in the next section).

If we consider Corbin’s contributions to Hic et Nunc14 (1932-1934), it reveals strong Barthian influences (early Barth). The general tenor of a contribution made by Corbin reveals a rejection of traditional “religious thought” in favor of a notion of “witness.” The editorial urged substituting Franz von Baader’s cogitor, “I am thought,” for the Cartesian cogito. In a similar vain, Corbin called for a philosophy-theology of response to the Divine call. “Spirit can only reveal; I can only listen.” Corbin invokes a non-historical notion of resurrection as the affirmation of the ever present “New Human.” Finally, Corbin’s final article in this journal called for a Christian philosophy as an encounter with the Word. 

The encounter with the Word was clearly a Lutheran theme; the engagement as a listener with the spoken Word is the only true historical reality.15 The influence of Luther was pivotal for Corbin’s philosophical preparation; for it was Luther who taught Corbin the crucial fact of Verbum solum habemus (we have only the Word). Corbin writes, 

Comprehension is faith: the “comprehending” of faith, the “hermeneia” that makes true exegesis possible, is truth; and as truth it is the topology of the letter, a modification realized through each one of the faithful, by and for faith. The letter spiritually understood realizes itself, gains its actual reality, in faith, and is fides Christi, that is to say, the reality of the justification, which is realized in the theologia crucis, itself the negation of man. Hermeneutics is thus the actual reality of anthropology. A text is not given, an In-Itself, but a For-Us. And it is by faith that it is for-us and really exists. 16 

Luther had also taught Corbin the “revelatory function” of the significatio passiva-the role of passive meaning in the understanding and interpretation of the Word.17 This term figures prominently in Corbin’s study of medieval philosophy and represents a fundamental turning point in his understanding of ‘being’ and ‘knowing.’ In response to the dilemma posed by the Psalm verse “In justitia tua libera me,” Luther underwent a moment of revolt and despair. What relation was there between justice in this verse and his deliverance? In a sudden flash, he understood that this attribute of God, this quality of justice, cannot be understood as a quality we confer upon God, but it must be understood in its significatio passiva. That is to say that God’s justice is to be understood in as much it occurs within me. Corbin, 

The Divine names are not the attributes conferred by the theoretical intellect upon the divine Essence as such; they are essentially the vestiges of their action in us, of the action by which they fulfill their being through our being…In other words, we discover them only insofar as they occur and are made within us, according to what they make of us, insofar as they are our passion. 18 

Therefore, the divine attributes cannot be understood (modus intelligendi) except in relation to us, our mode of being, (modus essendi.) This relationship is what makes possible “an Understanding that is not a theoretical inspection but a passion lived and shared with the understood object, a com-passion, a sympathy.”19

Corbin found this fundamental notion in many of the mystical philosophers of Islam, and had it not been for the “key of the significatio passiva,” that he had studied in Luther, he may have not been able to understand his mystical Islamic philosophers. The Arabic imperative: KN20, or Esto, puts the emphasis neither on ens nor on the esse but on the esto. “Be! This imperative inaugurator of Being, this is the divine imperative in its active aspect (amr fi’lî); but considered in the being that it makes to be, the being that we are, none other than this same imperative, but in its significatio passiva (amr maf’ûli.)21 

Corbin would later find parallels with Luther in the works of Ibn Arabi in whose work, “the divine attributes are qualifications that we impute to the Divine Essence not as convention might bid us postulate it, but as we experience it in ourselves.”22 The divine names are not attributes conferred by the human intellect upon the Divine Essence; they are the traces of their action in us, of that action by which they fulfill their being through us. That is to say, we discover the true meaning of the Divine names “insofar as they occur and are made within us, according to what they make of us, insofar as they are our passion.”23 In the words of Ibn Arabi: “Those to whom God remains veiled pray to the God who in their belief is their Lord to have compassion with them. But the intuitive mystics [Ahl al-Kashf] ask that divine compassion be fulfilled [come into being, exist] through them.”24 

Hence, the contemplative hermeneutics Corbin found in Luther and later in Ibn Arabi rests on the primacy of the coincidentia oppositorum; a conjunction between passion and action, between Deus Absconditus and Deus Revelatus, the Hidden and the Revealed. Corbin had already discovered this paradoxical principle in Hamann. Corbin: “Le paradoxe correspond exactement à lúni-totalité de lêtre human, à la fois comme homme caché et homme extérieur. Simultanéité qui avait conduit le Mage au principe de la ‘coincidentia oppositorum.’”25 However, it was later in his monographs on the “mundus imaginalis,” which Corbin considered as a coincidentia oppositorum, that he would make explicit use of the principle.26 In his late essay, “The Imago Templi in Confrontation with Secular Norms,” Corbin would identify the coincidentia oppositorum as the key to spiritual generation, as the philosopher’s stone in the alchemical transformation and identity of microcosm and macrocosm.”27 In his work on the Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, Corbin quotes Abu Said al-Kharraz: “Whereby do you know God,” he was asked, to which he replied: “By the fact that he is the coincidentia oppositorum.” Ibn Arabi and Corbin often quote Abu Said al-Kharraz’s saying: “I have know God by His bringing together of opposites.”28 

The “Magus of the North,” as Corbin would call him, Hamann exerted an important influence on Corbin’s thought. Hamann represented in his own life and works a “living synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem, Plato and Luther, Old and New Testaments.” Hamann called this “living synthesis” “Verbalism,” which Corbin would later call “mystical hermeneutics.”29 In particular, Corbin read Hamann’s Aesthetica in Nuce (Aesthetics in a nutshell) and translated it into French.30 Hamann was a harsh critic of Kant and had rejected all Rationalism because it inevitably “leads to idealism, to the disjunction of the ego, self, and world.” As a result, Hamann laid the emphasis on the unity of opposites “present in the radical self-knowledge of the communicatio idiomata of spirit and flesh, divine and human.”31 So central was the union of opposites in Hamann, that he saw it as a pre-condition for truth, the absence of which results in dogmatism. Corbin would later understand the paradox at the heart of all monotheisms in a similar light. 

Hamann had rejected the Cartesian “cogito ergo sum,” and affirmed in its stead faith, the Biblical “sum ergo cogito.” For Hamann, the sum rests on the deeper “polarity and simultaneity” of both the divine and the human in us. This simultaneity, Hamann explains, is “the master key to all human knowledge and to the whole visible economy.”32 God’s compassion and humility towards his creation descends through the Holy Spirit and is revealed in images and symbols. Everything in nature is a symbol, the Word made flesh for “in images consist all the treasure of human knowledge and human happiness.”33 For Hamann, this means that God is always speaking to us, in the here and now. “All the miracles of Holy Scripture take place in our souls,” and “each Biblical story is a prophecy which realizes itself through the centuries in the history of each human being.”34 Thus, nothing is past or future; everything is present for one in whom the flames of the Divine are burning. The universe speaks, creature to creature, and “to speak is to translate….from angelic tongue into human tongue, that is to say, thoughts into words, things into names, images into signs….”35 Corbin comments: 

We must understand this act of translation as the absolutely primal act, not as the decipherment of an already given and imposed text, but as the very apparition of things, their revelation by their being named…..Here hermeneutical technique is sketched out, the communion of the literal sense and the internal sense in a single meaning: the prophetic sense. 36 

Corbin was clearly heavily influenced by Hamann who represented for Corbin, along with Friedrich von Schelling and Franz von Baader, the German Romantic thinkers. Such was the influence of the German Romantics on Corbin that Muhsin Mahdi would later describe as one: “Corbin was in many ways the last of the German Romantics.”37 

Germany or Iran, Freiburg or Isfahan; these resembled for Corbin “emblematic cities.”38 Indeed, Corbin never subscribed to any of the compartmentalizing descriptions that may have been attributed to him. “Iran and Germany were thus the geographical reference points of a Quest that, in point of fact, pursued its course in spiritual regions that do not appear upon our maps.”39 Corbin considered himself a philosopher on a Quest first and foremost, but a philosopher waging a campaign: 

A philosopher’s campaign must be led simultaneously on many fronts….The philosopher’s investigations should encompass a wide enough field that the visionary philosophies of a Jacob Boehme, of an Ibn ‘Arabi, of a Swedenborg etc……Otherwise philosophia no longer has anything to do with Sophia. My education is originally philosophical, which is why, to all intents and purposes, I am neither a Germanist nor an Orientalist, but a Philosopher pursuing his Quest wherever the Spirit guides him. If it has guided me towards Freiburg, towards Teheran, towards Ispahan, for me the latter remain essentially “emblematic cities”, the symbols of a permanent voyage. 40 

Corbin’s quest and movement into different spiritual worlds led him to penetrate deeper into the spiritual traditions he was studying to uncover a “hidden Harmonia Abrahamica, a secret diatessaron of the religions of the Book, wherein mystical Judaism, Christianity, and Islam find in a prophetic religion of the Spirit a common bond with Zoroastrianism, [and] Manicheanism.”41 As Corbin’s friend and colleague in Tehran Daryush Shayegan describes him, Corbin was an “architect of the invisible.” Thus, to invoke Corbin’s name, is “to invoke the primacy of the invisible.” 42 

In the next section, we shall chart Corbin’s passage from Heidegger to Suhrawardi. This passage was not only one from the person of Heidegger to the person of Suhrawardi, but it also signifies Corbin’s passage from a world of post-Nietzschean philosophy to a world of profound spirituality. One of the fundamental problems Corbin found with the modern world was its loss of the hierarchy of spiritual worlds and its focus on the empirical sensible realm only. Even an anti-modern and towering figure like Heidegger could not completely escape this kind of criticism despite his monumental intellectual achievement. As such, we shall compare Heidegger’s metaphysics of being with Suhrawardi’s metaphysics of presence in order to see the fundamental differences that emerge when the two philosophies are juxtaposed. We shall see that although both authors analyze being and prioritize being, we shall discover with Corbin that the missing element in modern philosophy is the element of the sacred. Corbin doubted whether the problems posed by the modern world could be solved by a wholesale rejection of the spiritual worlds. In order for the modern world to overcome its “agnostic reflex,” it must restore to its existence the spiritual dimension. We will conclude the section with the realization that the dimension the act of being must have is the dimension of presence; but unlike Heidegger’s presence, it must be a presence to the interworlds of the imagination, the intermediary world of the soul, which is possible only within a traditional hierarchical cosmology. 

To be continued


1 This introduction is intended to be a commentary and elucidation of Corbin’s philosophy in the context of his intellectual genealogy. I would like to acknowledge my enormous debt and gratitude to Mr. Robert Avens and Mr. Tom Cheetham for their patience with my questions, their long and helpful remarks, and their wonderful publications on Corbin, both of whom have become dedicated scholars of Corbin in the English-speaking world. I would also like to acknowledge my debt to Christopher Bamford’s work on Corbin, which helped clarify the early period of Corbin’s intellectual career. 
2 Henry Corbin. Biographical Post-Scriptum to a Philosophical Interview (1978), p. 1. 
3 Steven M. Wasserstrom. Religion After Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 172. 
4 See Antoine Faivre,. Access to Western Esotericism, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994) in Wasserstrom, p. 173 and p. 323 Chapter 11 Note no. 3. 
5 This is the title of one of the last interviews with Henry conducted by Philip Nemo in which Corbin lays out a philosophical itinerary of his intellectual developments from Heidegger to Suhrawardi and his Ishraqi School of Illuminative Philosophy. See Henry Corbin . “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi,” Interview with Philip Nemo, (This interview was recorded for Radio France-Culture, on Wednesday, the second of June 1976) 
6 Corbin, Biographical Post-Scriptum, p. 3. 
7 Corbin, Biographical Post-Scriptum, p. 3. Wasserstrom calls the transhitorical trajectory of Corbin’s reading of Suhrawardi as operating under “the sign of the Aryan,” by which he means a nationalistic and chauvinistic return to a pre-Islamic and pre-Arab primitive Aryanism. I think Wasserstrom’s designation is false because he reduces Corbin to the historical circumstances Corbin found himself in see Wasserstrom, p. 134. For a critique of Wasserstrom on this same issues see Salman. H. Bashier. Ibn al-Arabi’s Barzakh: The Concept of the Limit and the Relationship between God and the World, (New York: State University of New York Press, 2004), p. 25-27. 
8 Corbin, Biographical Post-Scriptum, p. 3. 
9 Christopher Bamford. “Esotericism Today: The Example of Henry Corbin,” introduction to The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy. Translated by Joseph Rowe (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1998), p. XV. 
10 Corbin’s discovery of Suhrawardi did not detract him from continuing his work with Massignon and Gilson, Benveniste, Alexandre Koyre (who was working on Boehme and Paracelsus), and Henri-Charles Puech (who was working on Manicheanism). In the 1930’s, Corbin traveled to Marburg where he met with Rudolf Otto, Friedrich Heiler, Ernst Benz, and Karl Loewith (who introduced Corbin to the though of Hamann and Hamann’s near contemporary, Oettinger); in Marburg also, Corbin was handed his first copy of Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell by Albert-Marie Schmidt and had read Heidegger vehemently, whom he met later in Freiburg. See Bamford, Esotericism Today, p. xxx In Corbin, Biographical Post-Scriptum, p. 5 we find: “Marburg an der Lahn! That “inspired hill” that “lived by and for the university;” this is how Corbin remembers it and it was a turning point. There Corbin established strong relations with Rudolf Otto and Friedrich Heiler not to mention the encounters with Rabindranath Tagore and Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn. Ernst Benz the “eminent specialist in Swedenborgian studies” would also prove pivotal for Corbin’s own understanding of Swedenborg. Corbin would also make use of the “expert phenomenologist” Gerhard Kruger who was also at Marburg. One cannot also forget Corbin’s two visits to Hamburg where Ernst Cassirer was teaching. Cassirer the philosopher of “symbolic forms” would reveal to Corbin the brilliant intellectual tradition of the Cambridge Platonists. 
11 During this same period of the 1930’s, Corbin had immersed himself in the German theological tradition and would refer to it as the “lineage of hermeneutics:” Jacob Boehme, Martin Luther, Johann Georg Hamann, and Friedrich Schleiermacher. 
12 In August 1949, Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn, the organizer of the Eranos Circle, which began in 1932 in Ascona, Switzerland, invited Corbin to join the group with a series of lectures that continued over the period of two decades. At Eranos, Corbin was in the company of Carl Justav Jung, Gershom Scholem, D.T. Suzuki, and many others. For Corbin’s involvement in this group is Wasserstrom, Religion After Religion
13 Wasserstrom, Religion After Religion, p. 172. 
14 Corbin was introduced to Karl Barth by Professor Theodor Siegfried, who had passed his habilitation with Rudolf Otto. Professor Siegried handed Corbin a copy of Barth’s commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Corbin translated Karl Barth’s opuscules: Die Not der evangelischen Kirche or La détresse de l’Eglise protestante (The Distress of the Protestant Church); however, Corbin notes Pierre Maury gave it the title: Misère et Grandeur de l’Eglise évangèlique (Granduer and Misery of the Evangelical Church). See Corbin, Biographical Post-Scriptum, p. 6. Corbin also collaborated with the Russian émigré philosopher Alexandre Kojève and co-founded with Denis de Rougemont, Albert-Marie Schmidt, Roland de Pury, and Roger Jezequel, Hic et Nunc, a journal for theological renewal. The inspiration for the journal Hic et Nunc was the “Platonizing Barth” of the Epistle to the Romans and not the Karl Barth of the Dogmatics. Corbin soon discovered the distance separating the “commentary of the Römerbrief [Epistle to the Romans], with its prophetic sparks” and the “heavy, colossal Dogmatics” of the later Barth. Corbin had sent Barth his translation of Suhrawardi’s The Rustling of Gabriel’s Wings, which Barth shrugged off as “natural theology.” Corbin had learned from Suhrawardi that when a philosophy no longer merits the name, “it was necessary to rediscover the Sophia of another philosophy.” See Corbin, Biographical Post-Scriptum, p, 7. Corbin remarks that when Barth heard Corbin mentioning Phillipe Marheineke, one of those “speculative theologians” of the 19th century, he asked: “You have read Marheineke, Mr. Corbin?” Corbin had discerned in Barth a great sympathy for this “speculative theologian,” which Corbin found difficult to explain. Perhaps, Corbin asks, there remained a gulf between Barth’s “dialectical theology” and a Hegelian theology of the Right. Corbin would find a solution to the problems posed by Barth’s “dialectical theology” in Suhrawardi but more so in the theosophy of Ibn Arabi. 
15 Bamford, Esotericism Today, p. xxxii-xxxiii. 
16 Ibid, p. xxxv. 
17 Ibid, p. xxxiv. 
18 Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, (Princeton, New Jersey: Bollingen Series XCI, Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 116 and footnote 25, p. 300.  
19 Ibid, p. 116.

20 This is also the Divine Imperative, which inaugurates existence itself as in the Quranic verse: “God creates what He wills when He wills a thing to be, He but says unto it, 'Be' - and it is.” (Quran, 3:47). 
21 My Italics. Corbin, “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi,” p. 3. 
22 Corbin, Alone with the Alone, p. 300 no. 25. 
23 Corbin, Alone with the Alone, p. 117. 
24 Ibn Arabi, Fusus al-Hikam, The Bezels of Wisdom, I, 178 and II, 250 n. 8. quoted in Corbin, Alone with the Alone, p. 117, no. 26. 
25 Corbin, Hamann, philosophe du lutheranisme, cited by Daryush Shayegan in Henry Corbin: La topographie spirituelle de l’Islam Iranien, Paris: L’Herne, 1990, p. 41. quoted in Wasserstrom, Religion After Religion, p. 71. 
26 Wasserstrom, Religion After Religion, p. 71. 
27 Henry Corbin, Temple and Contemplation, translated by Philip Sherrad & Liadain Sherrad, (London: KPI & Islamic Publications, 1986), p. 375-376. See also Wasserstrom, Religion After Religion, p. 71. 
28 Henry Corbin, Temple and Contemplation, p. 375-376. see also Wasserstrom, Religion After Religion, p. 71.  
29 Bamford, Esotericism Today, p. xxxvi. 
30 Wasserstrom, Religion After Religion, p. 54. 
31 Ibid. 
32 Hamann, quoted in Bamford, Esotericism Today, p. xxxvii. 
33 Ibid, p. xxxviii. 
34 Ibid, p. xxxvii. 
35 Ibid, p. xxxviii. 
36 Bamford, Esotericism Today, p. xxxviii. 
37 Muhsin Mahdi, “Orientalism and the Study of Islamic Philosophy,” Journal of Islamic Studies I, 1990, p. 73-98, at 92. quoted in Wasserstrom, Religion After Religion, p. 54. 
38 Henry Corbin, “Emblematic Cities: A Response to the Images of Henri Steirlin,” Temenos Journal 10, (London: Temenos Academy, 1990). Corbin defines Athens as an “emblematic city.” An emblematic city is a “place which no longer belongs to the topography of this world.” It is a place in which the so many conquests of the mundus imaginalis are played out. “For Proclus, the Athens of Plato’s Parmenides was emblematic of the interworld, the meeting-place between philosophers of nature,” the school of Ionia who come from Clazomene, and the philosophers of Ideas,” represented by the Italian school of Parmenides and Zeno. “Beneath the day-to-day London, William Blake discerns a London more  
Golgonooza.” “Thus,” Corbin tells us, “the map of Jerusalem enables us to decipher the map of London.” For Corbin, it was Isfahan, the architectural and intellectual gem of the Safavid Period that is emblematic for him. 
39 Corbin, Biographical Post-Scriptum, p. 4. 
40 Corbin, “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi,” p. 1-2. 
41 Bamford, Esotericism Today, p. xv. 
42 Ibid, p. XV.