Henry Corbin’s Temple and Contemplation

Tr. Philip Sherrard, London: Kegan Paul International
in association with Islamic Publications Ltd., 1986, pp. xii + 413.
ISBN (Hardback): 0 7103 0129 4

Synopsis

Henry Corbin’s Temple and Contemplation beautifully translated here by Philip Sherrard, was one of his final, densest and most personally revealing and impassioned writings. It is made up of five Eranos lectures (whose specific annual themes usually explain the particular titles and emphases of each of these works), most of them delivered near the end of his life, which Prof. Corbin brought together and which were eventually published posthumously (in 1980) under this richly evocative title. Together, these five studies – several of them long enough to be substantial books in their own right – are woven together by the central unifying themes of all of his work: spiritual contemplation as the finality of human existence, and the ‘worlds’ (of sacred time and sacred space, all connected symbolically with the root meanings of ‘temple’) which are revealed, explored and traversed through the primordial contemplative ‘work’ of sacred liturgy and prayer. Each of the first four studies explores those themes from the starting–point of one or two key Islamic texts (usually Shi‘i in origin), while the final paper – a literary and philosophic tour de force in which Corbin was clearly attempting to summarize for his Eranos (and therefore largely European) audience the very essence of his life’s work – weaves together an astonishing tapestry illustrating the same themes as they emerge through virtually all the constituent threads of Western civilization, from the Bible down to our own time. This may not be the easiest place to start reading Henry Corbin, but it is almost certainly the most explicit, personal and evocative statement of what he understood all his work to have been about.

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The first (as well as shortest and simplest) study, on ‘The Realism and Symbolism of Colours in Shi‘ite Cosmology’ (Eranos, 1972), takes as its point of departure a short, occasional piece by Muhammad Karim Khan Kirmani (d. 1870) on the spiritual meanings and ‘correspondences’ of colours. For Corbin, this is the occasion to develop further, in a later Shi‘i context, many of the phenomenological themes of spiritual ‘subtle centres of perception’ (latifa) developed in his famous earlier study of Simnani (The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism. Boulder and London, 1978) – themes which he also connects with Goethe’s Farbenlehre and similar phenomena (chakras, etc.) in Eastern meditative traditions. In the Islamic context, of course, all such spiritual themes and speculations are deeply rooted in the cosmological symbolism of the Qur’an – the Divine Throne, Bearers/archangels, Pen, Book, barzakh (spiritual world), etc., – and this essay, in its brevity and relative simplicity, is a helpful introduction to many of the standard ontological and metaphysical contexts in which those symbols are typically understood much more widely in later Islamic tradition, both Sufi (Ibn ‘Arabi) and philosophic (Mulla Sadra Shirazi). At the same time, though, this study is a fascinating window into the symbolic world of the 19th century guides of the ‘Shaykhis,’ the particular school of recent Twelver Shi‘i thought with which Professor Corbin seems to have felt perhaps the greatest immediate spiritual affinity and to which he devoted many of his pioneering courses at the Ecole Pratique (des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Religieuses), relatively few of which were ever published as separate books.

The second study, ‘The Science of the Balance and the Correspondences between Worlds in Islamic Gnosis, according to the work of Haydar Amuli, 8th/14th century,’ is the only study available in English of the remarkable Shi‘i author who helped to bring the massively influential works and teachings of Ibn ‘Arabi into the intellectual world of the Twelver Shi‘i scholars. Amuli’s writings are a creative but difficult and challenging synthesis of Ibn ‘Arabi’s metaphysics and equally symbolic traditional Imami cosmological and speculative teachings, and Corbin devoted several years to the critical edition and analysis (primarily in the French introductions to those editions) of several of his key works. One of their most fascinating features was the development of a long series of mandala–like, complex circular ‘diagrams’ illustrating various symbolic and metaphysical correspondences in the work of Ibn ‘Arabi and its Shi‘i counterparts, and this study includes pictures and detailed descriptions (in English) of six of those diagrams, which are further analyzed in the texts. The title of this study openly evokes one of the unsurpassed masterpieces and foundational works of Islamic Studies, the massive study of Jabir ibn Hayyan by one of Corbin’s pre–war scholarly friends, Paul Kraus, but this article itself remains largely concentrated on Haydar Amuli, only evoking the relevance of those earlier gnostic themes in the Islamic context.

However, the following, much earlier study, ‘Sabian Temple and Ismailism’ (Eranos, 1950) is largely devoted to gnostic and Neoplatonic themes in texts from the formative period of Islamic thought, especially to passages from the famous Rasa’il of the Ikhwan al–Safa’, which went on to exercise a profound influence on the metaphysical ideas and use of Qur’anic symbolism by virtually all later schools of Islamic thought. Since the word ‘temple’ in English inevitably suggests something much more concrete, architectural and ‘terrestrial’ than what Corbin is describing, this shorter and (relatively!) circumscribed article is also a useful (and for beginners, essential) introduction to the essentially cosmological, metaphysically symbolic focus of his interest – in this case, faithfully reflecting the words and intentions of the Ikhwan – and to the correspondingly central practical role of the symbolism of the ‘liturgies’ (the spiritual and temporal ‘Work’) which provide the human meanings and practical spiritual reference–points for that symbolism. Finally, this study is a healthy and striking reminder to many contemporary readers – for whom the term ‘Muslim Brothers’ would normally evoke such a very different movement, intentions and level of understanding and expression of the revelation – of some of the deeper underpinnings of the profound questioning of the specifically modern myths of ‘progress,’ historicism and the collectivist, ‘socialized’ embodiment of spirituality which Corbin much more openly develops in the final two studies in this volume.

The fourth study, ‘The Configuration of the Temple of the Ka’bah as the Secret of the Spiritual Life according to the work of Qadi Sa’id Qummi’ (Eranos, 1965), provides an elaborate Shi‘i counterpart, as it were, to Ibn ‘Arabi’s famous evocation of similar metaphysical themes in the Prologue (and indeed throughout) his Meccan Illuminations. Corbin’s starting point here is the dense commentary by this creative, and perhaps unduly neglected ‘grand–student’ of Mulla Sadra – a figure who was the subject of several of his otherwise unpublished courses at the Ecole Pratique – on a Hadith of one of the early Shi‘i Imams. The underlying theme is a familiar one in Islamic esotericism (as in so many Sufi writers): the esoteric, spiritual meaning of the different stages of the pilgrimage (hajj), which here opens the way to a vast speculative evocation of the human soul’s ultimate progression through the material, spiritual and noetic/divine worlds of being. The sacred ‘space’ within which that liturgy takes place is developed through the complex correspondences between the Islamic symbolisms of the earthly Ka’ba and the celestial ‘Temple’ (bayt), including the divine ‘Throne’ and Its angelic Bearers. Although these families of symbols are deeply rooted in the Qur’an and (Sunni as well as Shi‘i) Hadith, their frequent resonances with the wider Semitic and Biblical themes (familiar at least to Corbin’s uniquely learned Eranos audiences) – especially from the Biblical book of Ezekiel – allow an easy transition to the corresponding themes developed in a host of Western spiritual and esoteric contexts, which are the subject of the final, book–length study in this volume.

‘The Imago Templi in Confrontation with Secular Norms,’ one of Corbin’s last Eranos lectures (1974), is unique both in its comprehensiveness and in its explicit focus on themes from Western esoteric traditions which – in ongoing counterpart to his foundational contributions to Islamic studies – were a lifelong focus of his intellectual and spiritual interest (shared with a number of close academic colleagues), and which were already part of his intellectual and spiritual life before his eventual concentration on Islamic spiritual traditions beginning in the late 1930s. The unifying theme of these complex meditations is that of the construction, destruction and rediscovery, at a level at once ‘celestial’ and interior, of the heavenly ‘Temple,’ and of the deeper eschatological and spiritual processes which that theme implies. There is no way to summarize – since the study itself is already an intensely concentrated evocation of at least a dozen complex spiritual traditions in their own right – all the historical sources Corbin alludes to here. Some of the most important ones, each with a long intellectual and spiritual history in France or Germany (but often relatively unknown in English–speaking countries) include the complex, highly diverse gnostic and kabbalistic understandings of the Temple (including the Essenes and the new discoveries associated with the Dead Sea scrolls), the Cathars, the Templars and their connections with a mythical ‘East’ and the esoteric Masonic reworkings of those traditions, the ‘Rhineland mystics’ and pietists of the early Protestant movement, and finally the extraordinary visionary impetus of Swedenborg’s Protestant mysticism and its literary and religious echoes down to the present (including English–language figures like Blake and Joyce who are not even mentioned here). As specialists in each of these fields will recognize, these are not ‘esoteric’ writers in the sense of being minor, intentionally difficult or without lasting influence; in most cases, what Corbin is writing about here are themes, figures and movements which, through more than two millennia, have continued to inspire the deepest minds and most inquiring spirits (and prolifically creative artists) of an entire civilization. This last study, like the keystone of an arch connecting the two arcs of Islamic and ‘Western’ civilization, is a poignant reminder of the deeper spiritual unities which continue to inspire, connect and motivate spirits across all the apparent limits of time, space and public incomprehension.

Institute of Ismaili Studies – Academic Publication

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, its achievements and humanitarian works.

4 thoughts

  1. i would love to find someone or somewhere to conduct an in depth discussion of Corbin’s work, i am especially involved with the imago templi essay at the moment, and it is so immense and profound and difficult that it would be good to get my thoughts out of my head write back if you are interested

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  2. je tavaille egalement sur l’oeuvre ce corbin depuis quatre cinq ans
    nous pouvons toujours essayer d’echanger quelques idees sur ce travail magnifique et monumental au plaisir de vous lire

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  3. I’m french and I would like to find this rare ”temple and contemplation” french edition, flammarion 1981, which is no more available, and I don’t know why…
    Mr phili Sherrrard has written a translation this year so I wander why, we french,do not have the same chance to read this book in our langage!
    If you have any information ,advice, proposition.. concerning this book, and also “face de dieu, face de l’homme” from Corbin, would you please send me a mail..;
    THANKS

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