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Corbin, Henry (1903–1978)


The French Islamicist and philosopher Henry Corbin was born in Paris on April 14, 1903. He studied with such French scholars as Étienne Henry Gilson, Emile Brehier, and Louis Massignon. To expand the scope of his studies, he learned over a dozen classic and modern languages. His interest in philosophy took him to Germany where he made an acquaintance with Ritter, Karl Löwith, Alexander Kojve, and Martin Heidegger. He translated several works of Heidegger into French, including What Is Metaphysics.

Corbin's main philosophical interest during the 1930s was the relationship between philosophy and mysticism. This was a major factor in his decision to study Islamic philosophy. Louis Massignon, then the head of Islamic studies at Sorbonne, introduced him to the works of the twelfth century Muslim philosopher Shihāb al-Dīn Yahyā al-Suhrawardī (d. 1191). Suhrawardī founded a philosophical school called the School of Illumination and sought to combine philosophical analysis with mystical experiencea theme that runs through Corbin's works.

In 1940, during World War II, Corbin went to Istanbul, Turkey, to study the manuscripts of Suhrawardī's works. He stayed in Turkey for the next five years. Then in 1945 he went to Tehran, Iran, where he founded an institute of Iranian studies under the French-Iran Institute. This is the beginning of Corbin's lifelong involvement with what he came to call "Persian Islam" (islam iranien ). Iran became a spiritual birthplace for him.

Corbin was a prolific writer. Even though his scholarly works are mostly devoted to the philosophical exposition of Islamic or "Oriental" thought, they are permeated by his lifelong concern to resuscitate the mystico-philosophical outlook of such mystical philosophers as Suhrawardī, Ibn al-ʿArabi, Mullā adrā, and Emmanuel Swedenborg. One key term in Corbin's thought is mundus imaginalis (the ʿalam al-khayal of the Muslim philosophers). Not to be confused with "imaginary" world, mundus imaginalis refers to an intermediary stage between the purely intellectual and empirical worlds. For Corbin, this is the realm of angels and spiritual visions where sensible forms become immaterial and intelligible forms take on an "imaginal" character and dimension. This is where heaven and earth meet in the metaphysical sense of the term. Corbin believed that the European intellectual tradition has lost sight of this crucial concept, severing its relation with the "angelic world" and lending religious justification to the Cartesian dualism of body and soul.

In his readings, Corbin followed the tradition of spiritual hermeneutics (taʾwil ), "returning" words to their original meanings and thus going back to the "beginning." He called himself a phenomenologist in the sense of "removing the veils of ignorance," (kashf al-mahjub ). In his philosophical quest, Corbin gave some of the best examples of what is sometimes called comparative philosophy, and his immense knowledge of European and Asian philosophies allowed him to do much more than simply compare or juxtapose different ideas and concepts.

See also Illuminationism; Nasr, Seyyed Hossein.


Jambet, Christian, ed., Cahiers de I'Herne Henry Corbin. Paris: Herne, 1981.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, ed. Mélanges offerts à Henry Corbin. Tehran, Iran: Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, Tehran Branch, 1977.

Shayegan, Daryush. Henry Corbin: La topographie spirituelle de l'islam iranien. Paris: Editions de la Difference, 1990.

Ibrahim Kalin (2005)

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