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Religious Studies Rmiew

A Quarterly Review of Publications in the Field of Religion


- and Related Discidines 1
Volume 6. Number 2
PuGished by the Council on the Study of Religion April 1980

THE STUDY OF ISLAM:


THE WORK OF HENRY CORBIN

Hamid Algar
Department of Near Eastern Studies
Conten.-
University of Calfornia
Berkeley, CA 94720 REVIEW ESSAYS

Orientalism-the purportedly scientific study of the reli- The Study of Islam: The Work of Henry Corbin
gion, history, civilization, and actuality of the Muslim peo- Hamid Algar 85
ples-has recently come under increasing and often justi-
fied attack. A self-perpetuating tradition that has flourished
incestuously, rarely open to participation by any but the Master of the Stray Detail: Peter Brown and
most assimilated and occidentalized Muslims, it has sig- Historiography
nally failed to construct a credible and comprehensive vision Patrick Henry 91
of Islam as religion or as civilization, despite vast and
meritorious labor accomplished in the discovery and ac- Peter Brown, The Making of Late Antiquity
cumulation of factual information. Nowhere have matters Reviewer: Mary Douglas 96
stood worse than in the Orientalist study of the Islamic
religion. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that so radical is
the disparity between the Islam of Orientalist description Edward 0. Wilson, On Human Nature
and the Islam known to Muslims from belief, experience, Reviewer: William H. Austin 99
and practice that they appear to be two different phenom-
ena, opposed to each other or even unrelated. The reasons Douglas A. Knight (editor), Tradition and Theology in
for this are numerous. The persistence of traditional the Old Testament
Judeo-Christian theological animus toward Islam should Reviewer: Bernhard W. Anderson 104
never be underestimated. Probably of greater significance,
however, is the unwillingnessof the quasi-totalityof scholars
to accept the autonomy of the religious fact and their Character, Vision, and Narrative
insistence upon historicist or sociologist reductionism. Gene Outka 110
A major exception to this rule was the French Islamicist,
Henry Corbin, who, by the time of his death on October 7, George Grant and Religious Social Ethics in Canada
1978, had elaborated a rich and varied corpus of writings on Terry Anderson 118
various aspects of Islamic spirituality unequaled by any
other Orientalist. With Iran and Shiism always as his ulti- NOTES ON RECENT PUBLICATIONS 125
mate point of reference, Corbin wrote prolifically for more
than three decades on Sufism, Islamic philosophy, Twelver
and Ismaili Shiism, the concept of spiritual chivalry in REPRINTINGS 167
Islam, and a host of other related topics. In almost all that he
touched, Corbin acted as a pioneer and innovator, question- PERSONALI A 168
ing some of the most tenaciously held beliefs of Orientalism
and uncovering vistas of thought and imagination that had
previously been unknown or underestimated. In addition to RECENT DISSERTATIONS IN RELIGION 168
his works of analysis and synthesis (culminating in the four-
volume work, EnIslam iranien, 1971-72, a summary of all his IN COMING ISSUES 172
major themes and interests), Corbin founded and edited the
Bibliothkque Iranienne, a series of Persian and Arabic texts
concerned mostly with the currents of philosophy and mys-
ticism that were close to his heart. Twenty-three volumes of
86 / Religious Studies Review Vol. 6, No. 4 / April 1980

this series have now appeared, many of them edited by


Corbin himself, and others prefaced by him with analytical
synopses; taken as a whole, they represent a major addition
Religious Studies Review to the textual resources available for the study of Islamic
Published quarterly, in January, April, July, and October, by the philosophy and mysticism. Given the quantitative and qual-
Council on the Study of Religion itative dimensions of Corbins work, an increasing portion
of which is becoming available in English, it seems useful to
Editors attempt an analysis of his vision of Islam, and to indicate
CharlesJ. Adams, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, both the strengths and weaknesses of his profoundly indi-
Montreal, Quebec H3C 3G1 vidual, and even idiosyncratic, oeuvre.
Donald Capps, Phillips University, Enid, O K 73701
1
H. Byron Earhart, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI
49001 It needs first to be remarked that Corbin brought to his
Walter Harrelson, Divinity School, Vanderbilt University, Nash- labors as a scholar of Islam far more than the customary
ville, T N 37240 philological training and apparatus of the Orientalist. His
Samuel S. Hill,Jr., Department of Religion, University of Florida, was primarily a philosophical mind, nurtured by the train-
Gainesville, FL 326 11 ing of the great medievalist, Etienne Gilson, and by an early
W. Lee Humphreys, Department of Religious Studies, University interest in Heidegger (his French translation of WasktMeta-
of Tennessee, Knoxville, T N 37916 physik? appeared in Paris in 1938). But, as he never tired
John P. Reeder,Jr., Department of Religious Studies, Brown Uni- of stressing in all his works on the Shii sages of Iran, his
versity, Providence, RI 02912 concept of philosophy extended beyond mere ratiocination
Richard S. Sarason, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of
Religion, Cincinnati, OH 42515 to an insistence on the inner, visionary pursuit of the truth;
David Tracy, Divinity School, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL his concern, indeed, was primarily with theosophy, a word
60637, Editorial Chairman that came to be a key element in his terminology. Accord-
Robert L. Wilken, Department of Theology, University of Notre ingly, to the elements in his general intellectual formation
Dame, Notre Dame, I N 46556 that helped to shape his understanding of Islam should be
Mary Gerhart, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY added a sympathetic acquaintance with esoteric elements in
14456, Editorial Chairperson Western philosophy, with the Rhenish mystics, and with
Harold E. Remus, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario such assorted topics as the Holy Grad, the Knights Tem-
N2L 3C5, Managing Editor plar, Goethes Furbenlehre, and the writings of Swedenborg.
Correspondence regarding editorial matters should be addressed Corbins theosophical predisposition led him to a radi-
to the Editorial Chairperson or to the Managing Editor. cal reassessment of the whole nature and history of
philosophical activity in Islam. Before Corbin, it had been
Editoraal Advisory Committee the general thesis of most works on Islamic philosophy (e.g.,
Leonard Biallas, CSR Bulbtin E. J. de Boers The History of Philosophy in Islam, first pub-
Ralph Burhoe, Zygon lished in 1903 but widely used for many subsequent de-
William J. Danker, American Society of Missiology cades) that the prime interest of Muslim philosophical
Phillip E. Hammond, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion thought lay in the reception and transmission to Europe, in
Ray L. Hart slightly enriched form, of Greek philosophy. This mediat-
Joseph Jensen, Catholic Biblical Association
George W. MacRae, Society of Biblical Literature ing function, and with it, philosophical activity as such, was
Martin E. Marty, Church Histoly held to have come to an end by the thirteenth century, so
Bernard Prusak, Horiwns that apart from the anomalous figure of Ibn Khaldun the
Charles Reynolds, Journal of Religious Ethics intellectual horizons of Islam remained bare until the be-
Luke Salm, CTSA Proceedings ginning of modern times. This view of Islamic philosophy
Donald F. Williams, Association of Professors and Researchers in rested partly on the assumption that only those aspects of
Religious Education Islamic thought that impinged on the intellectual history of
Europe were of importance; partly on the unspoken equa-
Graphics
tion of Islamic civilization with the Arab (or Arabic-writing)
Michael Baldwin, MSIAD element that dominated its formative period; and partly on
Ann& Subscription Rates the sterile triadic scheme of rise, maturity and decline that
Islam was thought to have completed by the thirteenth
Individuals belonging to member societies century. More than any other individual, Corbin discredited
of the CSR $10.00
this simplistic view of things. He demonstrated, first of all,
Others (including institutions) $15.00
Individual issues each $ 4.00 that even the most familiar of Muslim philosophers, Av-
icenna, had been partially misunderstood, and showed that
Make checks payable to Council on the Study of Religion. in addition to the rational aspect of his thought-
Correspondence regarding subscriptions and address changes emphasized because of its influence on medieval scholasti-
should be sent to Council on the Study of Religion,Wilfrid Laurier cism-there was another element to his thought-esoteric,
University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3C5. inward, and illuminationist (see Corbin, 1960b, passim).
Copyright 0 1980 by the Council on the Study of Religion More importantly, he brought to light in a whole series of
ISSN 0319-485X writings the prolongation of Islamic philosophical activity
that took place long after the thirteenth century under the
aegis of Shiism and the designation of hzkrnut. It is fair to say
Vol. 6, No. 2 / April 1980 Religious Studies Review / 87

that before Corbin the names of Mir DHm5d, Findiriski, even appears grotesque. None would dispute that arfin
Q5zi Said Qummi, and Mull5 S d r 5 were barely known to represents a form of Islamic esoterism appropriate to the
Western scholarship. Shii context and that it draws in large part on the traditions
In qualification of Corbins unquestionable achieve- attributed to the Imams. But to assert that i f i n is cotermi-
ment in the reassessment of Islamic philosophy, it must be nous with Shiism, or even that it represents its most impor-
said that he frequently applied the traditional Arabic adage tant expression, is quite a different matter. It necessitates
that cure is effected by opposites. For in seeking to em- overlooking the vast body of traditions of the Imams relat-
phasize the undoubted visionary and theosophic element ing to exoteric (legalist) matters and the persistent al-
present in the thought of both Avicenna and Mull2 $adrH, though thwarted claims of the Imams to exercise actual
he ran the risk of underestimating the rational core of their political authority. It also causes Corbin to be extremely
systems. In the introduction to his careful study of Mull5 selective in his view of Shiism.
$adr5, Fazlur Rahman addresses this problem, with obvious
reference to Corbin. Rejecting Corbins thesis of a substan-
tial illuminationist or Sufi element in the work of S d r 5 , he
points out that inward experience had for Sadra and others
of his school the function not of producing new thought-
content, but rather of bestowing on thoughtcontent intel-
lectually attained the quality of personal experience (Fazlur
Rahman, 1975,3-4). We have here the first of many indica-
tions that the personal proclivities of Corbin colored as well In the world of Iranian Shiism, Corbin confined his
as illumined the topics he discussed. attention-apart from questions of imamo1ogy-to little
more than the practitioners of hikmat and the Shaykhis, a
n school of esoteric sDeculation that had some imDortance in
z
The second major theme addressed by Corbin was Shii the early nineteenth century but later became confined to a
small and stagnant community in Kerman. Almost totally
Islam in its Twelver and Ismaili forms. Here, too, he
brought about a much-needed change in Orientalist con- absent from all of Corbins copious writing on Iranian
Shiism are those who have been its chief custodians and ex-
cepts. Before Corbin, the Sunni-Shii differentiation within
Islam was understood almost exclusively in political terms, ponents for more than three centuries: the ulami2a.z-tczhir,
and Shiism was dismissed as a heterodoxy, without any the exoterist authorities. Their absence is not of course
precise definition being offered for the term or its counter- attributable to a deliberate exclusion on the part of Corbin,
part, orthodoxy, as if the position of the majority were per and still less to ignorance. It is simply that once the identifi-
se orthodox and that of the minority, heterodox. Against cation of Shiism with esoterism has taken place, all schools
this view of things, Corbin rose in eloquent revolt, protest- and currents of thought that are not esoterist naturally fall
ing that Shiism cannot be reduced to cursing the first three by the way as inauthentic, even if they have been historically
predominant. In a highly revealing passage, Corbin once
caliphs, nor to the practice of a fifth rite of law, side by side
with the four rites of law officially recognized by Sunni suggested that the attainment of majority status by the Shia
in Iran during the Safavid period, and the concomitant
Islam (Corbin, 1971-72, Vol. 1, xiv). For the first time in a
Western language, Corbin expounded the doctrine of the involvement of the religious leaders in socioeconomic and
Imamate in all its esoteric and metaphysical dimensions, even political matters, led to a betrayal of the esoteric
making it plain that the succession to the Prophet to which essence of Shiism (Corbin, 196Oc, 69). The abstruse specu-
lations of the Shaykhi school were, according to Corbin, a
the Imams laid claim was far more than the political and corrective response to this betrayal, intended to restore in-
juridical governance of the community, and that it was the tegral Shiism,and he devoted several studies to them (not-
cyclical prolongation of the core of prophethood itself.
ably Corbin, 1960-61). The triumph of the UsUli school of
But here again we find Corbin attempting cure by fiqh at about the same time as the emergence of the Shaykhi
opposites. Correctly refuting the reduction of Shiism to a school was, by contrast, a subject of no interest to Corbin,
contingent question of political succession, he insists upon even though it was indubitably the most important single
an equally extreme view, that Shiism is essentially an development in the religious history of post-Safavid Iran. It
esoterism, that indeed it is the sanctuary of the esoterism of permitted the growth of a powerful class of ulamii and may
Islam (Corbin, 1971-72, Vol. 1, 16). This view, which per- be regarded as the distant ancestor of the Iranian Revolu-
meates the whole of Corbins writing on Shiism, involves a tion. Because of his identification of Shiism with esoterism,
serious distortion of both Sunni and Shii Islam. Once Corbin was, in his own way, as remote from the contempo-
Shiism becomes the sole repository of Islamic esoterism rary reality of Shii Islam in Iran as the most obtuse of
(i.e., spirituality and profundity), Sunni Islam becomes re- political scientists.
duced to what Corbin refers to, repeatedly and with obvious
contempt, as legalist Islam. A form of esoterism, Sufism, 3
has manifestly flourished in the Sunni world, but as we shall The third major focus of Corbins scholarly concern was
see, Corbin views Sufism as a truncated form of Shiism that Sufism, or, more precisely, a well-defined range of topics
has mistakenly attempted to dispense with the Imams. and personalities within Sufism: Ibn Arabi and his Iranian
The distortion of Shiism involved in its identification as exegetes, RUzbih5n Baqliof Shiraz, and various members of
an esoterism is equally serious, and now, in the aftermath of the Kubravi order, especially A15 ad-Daula Simn5ni. It is
the Iranian Revolution, with its strong emphasis on the immediately to be conceded that in this area, too, Corbin
sociopolitical dimensions of religion, such an identification displayed his usual talents for the voracious and imaginative
88 / Religious Studies Review Vol. 6, No. 2 / April 1980

reading of little-known texts. His understanding of all he an individual, Shihab ad-Din Suhrawardi, the illumination-
touched was, however, colored, or even determined, by his ist philosopher executed for heresy in Aleppo in 1191. Cor-
particular vision of Shiism as the sole legitimate esoterism of bin devoted to him his earliest essay in Orientalism (Corbin,
Islam. He presented the Sufism of Ibn Arabi as being in 1939), published his collected works in Arabic and Persian
many ways akin to Shiism, in both its Twelver and Ismaili (in collaboration with Seyyed Hossein Nasr), and made ubi-
forms, and went to some lengths to establish parallels be- quitous mention of Suhrawardi throughout his work as well
tween the two schools, while ignoring almost completely the as devoting to him a number of separate studies. In brief, we
immediate and demonstrable antecedents of Ibn Arabi in may say that Suhrawardi was for Corbin what Hallaj was for
the Sufism of Andalusia and the Maghreb. Similarly, when Massignon: not only the pivotal figure of a scholarly career,
speaking of Riizbihan, Corbin again finds himself com- but also a personal spiritual hero. Suhrawardi was of com-
pelled to make some reference to Shiism, although on this pelling interest to Corbin for a number of easily identifiable
occasion he can do little but offer his readers a barely dis- reasons. More clearly than Avicenna or Mull2 Sadri, the
guised apology for concerning himself with a Sunni writer shaykh al-ishriiq exemplified the union of discursive reason-
and mystic (Corbin, 1971-72, Vol. 3, 11). As for the Kub- ing and mystic intuition that was so dear to Corbin. He was
ravis, he asserts that various leading figures of the order moreover an ancestor of the school of hikmat that occupied
(such as Sad ad-Din Hamiiya and All ad-Daula Simnlni) so large a place in Corbins vision of Shiism, although it
were either crypto- or proto-Shiis. Here he followed the appears he may have distorted the nature and extent of
well-established practice of certain Shii writers, such as illuminationist influence on, for example, Mull2 $adti (see
NfirullZh Shushtari, author of the celebrated MajGlis al- again Rahman, 1975, 1). Finally, Suhrawardi claimed to
Muminin, who insisted on claiming retrospectively for have resurrected the wisdom of pre-Islamic Iran, and he
Shiism almost anyone who made reverential mention of Ali made use of Persian terminology in his angelogical theories.
and the other Imams. Corbin was, of course, aware that such For Corbin, who always insisted on an unbroken spiritual
references did not necessarily identify their authors as Shii. continuity between pre-Islamic and Islamic Iran, this was a
But he was remarkably categorical in his attributions of Shii precious and rare fragment of evidence. I cannot attempt to
tendencies to the Kubraviya, magisterially disdaining a pass judgment here on the accuracy of Corbins analyses of
whole mass of evidence pointing to the Sunni identity of the Suhrawardi. What may be pointed out, however, is that the
order (Corbin, 1971-72, Vol. 3,294-95). Consistently refus- position of Suhrawardi and his school in the intellectual and
ing to engage in more historical discussion than appeared spiritual history of Islam is marginal, whatever may be the
necessary to validate his assertions, he left his readers un- intrinsic interest of ishrh. Apart from his influence on hzk-
aware, for example, that the Kubraviya throve for centuries mat in Safavid Iran, and the stray commentary written upon
in the strictly Sunni environment of Transoxiana and that in his work in Turkey and India, there is little sign of his having
Kashmir it even engaged in fierce polemics against the Shia exerted a substantial posthumous influence. The fact that
(see Rafiqi, n.d., 96). Corbin deliberately elevated him to a position of eminence
Most important, however, for understanding Corbins in his scheme of Iranian Islam is perhaps the strongest
view of Sufism is his constantly repeated assertion that the single indication of how Corbins spiritual predilections
key concept of wilzyat-sainthood, for want of a better came to determine his scholarly concerns. Just as Massignon
English equivalent-is, in Sufism, an uprooted borrowing had elevated Hallaj to a position of centrality in Sufi tradi-
from Shiism and that the esoteric, initiatic, and cosmic tion that was not legitimately his, so did Corbin glorify
functions of the Imams of Shiism have been usurped by the Suhrawardi as a sage of unparalleled stature. It is hardly a
Sufis and reassigned by them to their masters. In a discus- coincidence that both HallZj and Suhrawardi, the respective
sion of Simnlni, for example, Corbin asserts that the idea of heroes of the two French Orientalists, suffered execution, a
wiliiyat originated in various ?mdFths of the Imams recorded fate indicative, among other things, of their marginality
by al-KulaynTand proceeds to claim that to speak of wilciyat with respect to Islamic traditiom2
in isolation, passing over the charisma of the Imam in si-
lence, is more than a paradox; it destroys a unity, i.e., the 5
unity of prophethood and wiliiyat, the former being exoteric All of the topics outlined above should be viewed against the
in purpose, the latter esoteric (Corbin, 1971-72, Vol. 3, background of Corbinsbelief in an entity he called Iranian
296). Now this assertion is demonstrably untrue; the Sufi Islam. It is obvious that Islam, in its historical elaboration,
understanding of wiliiyat also relates it to prophethood, assumed multiple forms of expression, some of which may
although in a fashion different from that propounded by be identified with a particular region or people. From the
Shiism (see al-Hakim at-Tirmidhi, 1965,336ff.). Moreover, beginning of the sixteenth century down to the present,
as Paul Nwyia has pointed out, there is no need to suppose a Iran has certainly followed a path of religious development
transmission of influence to have taken place in either direc-largely distinct from that of its neighbors. But it is plain that
tion, since the concept of wiliiyat is rooted in the Quran and
when Corbin spoke of Iranian Islam, he had in mind
developed in Sufism without any paradox or problem re- something far more fundamental and pervasive. There ex-
sulting (Nwyia, 1970, 240-42). isted for Corbin something called the Iranian soul, en-
dowed with an imprescriptible vocation and exercising a
4 quasi-monopoly on the philosophicaland mystical aspects of
Philosophy, Shiism, and Sufism were, then, the three major Islamic tradition (Corbin, 1971-72,Vol. 1, x). The counter-
areas of Corbins concern alternating throughout his schol- part of this profound Iranian Islam is presumably Arab
arly career as the dominating themes of his work. In addi- Islam-a dry and superficial legalism, with a mistaken in-
tion to them, a particular place is occupied in his oeuvre by sistence on the social applicability of religion. The racial
Vol. 6, No. 4 / April 1980 Religious Studim Review / 89

contrast between Iranian and Arab is never explicitly made, certain parallels between the cosmological doctrines of the
but when reading the works of Corbin, one cannot fail to be Yashts and the Bundahishn, on the one hand, and those of
reminded of the theories of bygone Orientalists such as Suhrawardi, Mull5 S d r P and the Shaykhis, on the other
Comte Arthur de Gobineau and Max Horten who at- hand; and a partial similarity between the Saoshyant of
tempted to analyze the intellectual history of Islam in terms Mazdean belief and the Twelfth Imam of Shii Islam (see in
of a putative clash between Aryan (= Iranian) and Semite particular Corbin, 1977, passim). But he exhibited these
(= Arab). Corbin transferred the dichotomy from the fragments of evidence untiringly, and even regarded them
biological to the spiritual plane. as justifying the concept of Irano-Islamic philo~ophy.~
According to Corbin, Iranian Islam is characterized Having defined Iranian Islam as a distinct entity nar-
not only by spirituality and esoterism, but also by a virtually rowly concerned with mysticism and spirituality, and deeply
unbroken continuity with the pre-Islamic past. In the credo marked by the legacy of its pre-Islamic past, Corbin came
prefacing his En Islam iranien, he.states: Within the Islamic inevitably to present a highly selective view of Islam in Iran.
community, the Iranian world has formed since the very It is true that he foreswore all attempts at presenting a
beginnings an entity the characteristic traits and vocation of general history of Islam in Iran, and that he deliberately
which can be understood only if one considers the Iranian entitled the four-volume summation of his researches En
spiritual universe as forming a whole, before and after Is- Islam iranien, warning the reader to anticipate a series of
lam (Corbin, 1971-72, Vol. 1, xxvii). Clearly the religious themes, not an exhaustive catalogue. Having made so much
consciousnessof Iran was not a tabula rma at the time of the of the distinctiveness of Iranian Islam, Corbin might have
Muslim conquest, and elements of Mazdean provenance been expected, however, to select themes more fully repre-
persisted into the Islamic period, particularly on the level of sentative of the well-defined tradition he claimed to per-
folklore and popular belief. But it is a question of emphasis ceive. In fact, for all the mastery and eloquence with which it
and proportion. There is no substantial pre-Islamic sub- was elaborated, Corbins vision of Iranian Islam embraced
stratum in the mainstream religious history of Islamic Iran. little more than the dim echoes of Mazdaism, the Sufism of
It is, on the contrary, remarkable to see how fully the intel- RiizbihPn and the Kubraviya, the illuminationism of
lectual and spiritual energies of Iran were devoted to the Suhrawardi, and the speculative and mystical aspects of
assimilation and elaboration of the Islamic religious sciences Shiism. From a reading of Corbinsworks, one would never
in the era of their formative development. For his thesis of suspect that Sunni Islam dominated the religious horizons
fundamental continuity between pre-Islamic and Islamic of Iran for nine centuries, nor are his writings of much help
Iran, Corbin is able to muster little more evidence than the in understanding the verifiable process whereby Twelver
nomenclature of the angels in the works of Suhrawardk Shiism did indeed become something of an Iranian Islam.

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6 7
An Orientalist career may legitimately be viewed not only in As remarkable and idiosyncratic as the content of Corbins
the context of the intellectual and spiritual predilections of work was the methodology he espoused. Disdaining not
the scholar in question, but also in that of the institutional only historicism but history, he claimed to be a strict
and even political framework within which it was pursued. phenomenologist, concerned only with the religious phe-
Throughout his career, Corbin alternated between France nomenon as an autonomous, almost unattached, reality. He
and Iran, having as his base in Tehran the Department of defined phenomenology as
Iranology at the Franco-Iranian Institute. He enjoyed
numerous contacts in both official and academic circles, and the recovery of phenomena, i.e., encountering them, where they
take place and where they have their places. In the religious sci-
frequently mentioned unnamed Iranian friends as a ences, this means encountering them in the souls of believers,
source of authoritative reference in his works. He collabo- rather than in the monuments of critical erudition or circumstan-
rated on certain projects with the late Muhammad Muin, tial enquiries; it is to display what has shown itself to them [the
with Jalaad-Din Ashtiyinl, as well as other scholars. A series souls], namely the religious fact (Corbin, 1971-72, Vol. 1, xix).
of discussions he conducted with one of the scholars of
Qum, Allima Sayyid Husayn Tabstabli, was published in This is no doubt a laudable and even necessary aim, one that
Persian and enjoyed considerable fame (Corbin, 1960a). the overwhelming majority of Orientalists have never even
But the most important among his Iranian collaborators conceived, let alone striven to attain. Its sufficiency and
was, without doubt, Sayyed Hossein Nasr. A prolific if often feasibility are, however, questionable. T h e religious fact
derivative author on themes akin to those pursued by Cor- exists not only in the soul of the believer, but also on the
bin, Nasr occupied a wide variety of academic and adminis- historical plane, conditioning and being conditioned by it; to
trative posts before prudently leaving Iran in the course of ignore the interaction between the religious and historical
the revolution. Director of the Imperial Academy of fact is surely an avoidable impoverishment of our under-
Philosophy, he was known to have close personal ties to the standing of religion. There is the danger, too, that the
court. Corbins association with Nasr had, therefore, certain scholar will encounter the religious fact not so much in the
inevitable political implications. I do not wish to imply for a souls of the believers as in his own soul, where it will be
minute that Corbin, consciously or unconsciously, aligned intermingled with whatever beliefs and associative reminis-
himself with the now defunct Iranian monarchy in the sense cences may happen to exist there. Thus in the case of Cor-
of placing his scholarship at its service. The directions he bin, the Sufism and Shiism of Iran are obliged to coexist
chose to pursue were fully explicable in terms of his own with numerous elements that are most definitely absent
intellectual preferences and spiritual tastes. It remains, from the soul of the Muslim believer: the Holy Graal, the
however, a fact of some significance that his particular vision Knights Templar, Swedenborg, Meister Eckhart, to name
of Iranian Islam corresponded nicely to the cultural but a few. Deliberately, even ostentatiously, refusing to
policies of the Pahlavi regime. Corbins identification of Shii place the religious phenomenon in the historical context
Islam as an esoterism that disdained the sociopolitical plane that gives it specificity, Corbin all too frequently ended up
had much in common with the regimes insistence that reli- by embedding it in the contours of his own soul.
gious leaders refrain from all political concern. In particu- He was, moreover, not entirely consistent in his adher-
lar, the teaching of the Shaykhi leader, Zayn al-Abidin, that ence to phenomenology. As we have seen, he regarded the
the action of men cannot remedy their situation, quoted Sufi concept of wiliiyat as an unacknowledged borrowing
approvingly by Corbin, may fairly be termed an ideal pre- from Shiism; this is obviously a historical argument, since
scription for the passive endurance of tyranny (Corbin, the alleged borrowing must have taken place at a given time.
1971-72, Vol. 4,247). Certainly a reading of Corbins works True, Corbin remains faithful to his contempt for history by
leaves the reader with the impression that Imam Khomeini failing to adduce any convincing proof, but the phenomen-
has either failed to grasp the true essence of Shiism, o r has ological principle is violated by the refusal to encounter the
willfully transgressed against it. Likewise, Corbins positing religious fact of Sufi wiliiyat where it takes place and has its
of an Iranian-Arab dichotomy in Islam had a direct affinity place-i.e., in the soul of the Sufi who is unconcerned with,
to the exshahs insistence on removing Iran, as far as possi- or even totally unaware of, the Shii teachings on the wilzyat
ble, from the Arab context of its culture and history; it was of the Imams.
the scholarly and elegant version of the official slogan, Corbin was certainly not alone among modern Orien-
Muslim but not Arab. Finally, his notion of a profound talists in experiencing a confluence of spiritual and scholarly
spiritual continuity between pre-Islamic and Islamic Iran interests. E. G. Browne, R. A. Nicholson, and A. J. Arberry
was frequently absorbed into the bombastic propaganda all seem to have been restored to a belief in Anglican Chris-
that spoke of two and a half millennia of unbroken monar- tianity by the study of Sufi texts,4 and Louis Massignon
chical rule. spoke of being a spiritual guest in the Islamic world long
Corbin died in Paris a week after the arrival there of before Corbin identified himself in similar terms. Insofar as
Imam Khomeini, who was about to enter the last and trium- the attitude of the Orientalist guest is more respectful and
phant stage of his long exile from Iran. Writing an obituary sensitive than that of the Orientalist judge, critic or con-
notice in LeMonde (October 11,1978) Henri Thomas specu- queror, all of whom bring to the study of Islam latent or
lated on what would have transpired if the two men, who overt feelings of hostility and superiority, he may achieve a
apparently had so much in common, had met. Given the greater insight than his colleagues. Sometimes, however, the
political context and implications of Corbins work (which is guest turns out to have been self-invited, and there is no
known to Khomeini in general terms), it is highly unlikely guarantee that he will fully understand his hosts or transmit
that the meeting would have been congenial. accurately their perception of themselves. What then results
Vol. 6, No. 2 1 April 1980 Religious Studies Review / 91

is a personal vision, which may possess profundity and JURJANi, SHARiF


beauty, but is convincing neither on the plane of formal, 1969 Kitiib at-Tar$it. Beirut: Librairie du Liban.
discursive scholarship, nor on that of the religious fact (or NWYIA,PAUL
facts) experienced by Muslims. 1970 Exegise Coranique et Langage myshque. Beirut: Dar al-
It would be an impertinence to overlook the grandeur Machreq Editeurs.
and sweep of Corbins work or to belittle the magnitude of RAFIQI, ABDULQAIYUM
N.d. Sqism in Kashmir. Varanasi and Delhi: Bharatiya Publish-
his achievement. He transformed utterly the study of both ing House.
Islamic philosophy and of Shiism, and no Western student SAID,EDWARD
of these topics, or indeed of Islam in general, can afford to 1978 Orientalism. Pantheon Books.
shirk a careful reading of his works. The reader should not
be intimidated, however, by the magisterial eloquence of
Corbins tone, or by the wide and imaginative erudition his
writings display. Like Massignon before him, Corbin can be MASTER OF THE STRAY DETAIL:
said to have attempted a selective appropriation of Islam by PETER BROWN AND HISTORIOGRAPHY
rearranging its component elements in a pattern that he felt
to be congenial, personally satisfying, and, therefore, true. Patrick Henry
His enterprise was a rarefied and idiosyncratic form of Swarthmore College
spiritual colonialism. Swarthmore, PA I9081

NOTES ~~ ~
The invitation to write a survey review of Peter Browns
work is a challenge to justify to myself and others the hold
It is concisely defined by Sharif JurjHni (1969, 269) as the
subsistence of Gods servant through God after his obliteration this mans portrayal of the world I study has come to have
with respect to himself. over me. I came away from reading Augmtim of Hippo: A
The perceptive analysis of Massignons work by Edward Said Biography with something of the exhilaration Keats felt on
(1978), 264-75, suggests many points of comparison with Corbin. first looking into Chapmans Homer. I know other patristics
See Corbin, 1972, a paper given, significantly, at the Inter- scholars who, lacking my native-Texan penchant for en-
national Congress of Iranology held at Shiraz in 1971 on the thusiasm and hyperbole, nevertheless abandon academic
occasion of the 2500th anniversary of the foundation of the Per- caution and professional prickliness when admitting how
sian Empire. Brown has helped them see things fresh and new. T o review
See A. J. Arberrys autobiographical sketch prefaced to the Browns work is to attempt a measurement of a powerful
posthumously published second volume of his translation of Mysti- electric charge (to adapt one of Browns favorite metaphors)
cal Poems of Rumi (1979), ix-xiv.
administered over the past two decades to a broad field of
study.
REFERENCES I propose to measure the charge by passing it through
WORKS BY HENRY CORBIN
four questions:
1939 Suhrawardi dAlep. Paris: Maisonneuve.
1. What does Brown think he is doing?
1960a (solar; 133931.) Maktab-i Tmhuyyu. Qum, Iran. 2. What are his suspicions?
1960b ET Auicennu and the Visionary Recital. Pantheon Books. 3. What are his questions?
196Oc Pour une morphologie de la spiritualitk shiite. Eranos 4. What is his method?
Jahrbuch 29. This will be less an account of achieved results than an
1960-61 Lkcole shaykhie en thkologie shiite. Annuaare de assessment of the way Brown has reached his conclusions,
IEcob Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Section des Sciences Religiewes,for his work is not an icon to be venerated, but an undertak-
1-60. ing to be joined.
1969 ET Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Zbn Arabi. Prince-
ton University Press.
1971-72 En Islam iranien. 4 vols. Paris: Gallimard. WHAT DOES BROWN THINK HE IS DOING?
1972 For the Concept of Irano-Islamic Philosophy. The
Philosophical Forum (Boston) 411, 114-23. This question is particularly important in Browns case be-
1977 E T Spritual Body and Celestial Earth: From M a d e a n Iran to cause he is doing something uncommon in a field which
Shiite Iran. Bollingen Series, 4 1/2. Princeton University Press. usually falls into a classicists appendix or a medievalists
1978 ET The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism. Shambhala (Boul- prolegomenon. The territory is of course not unexplored;
der, CO). Rostovtzeff, Nock, Jones, Dodds, Marrou, Frend, and
WORKS BY OTHER AUTHORS
others have staked their claims, and the somber hues of
Gibbon can still be glimpsed at the lowest stratum of the
ARBERRY,A. J. (TRANS.) palimpsest map of the age built up by recent generations of
1979 E T Mystical Poems of Rumi. Vol. 2. Westview Press (Bod- scholarship. The tradition of patristic scholarship since the
der, CO). seventeenth century has minutely examined the theological
AL-HAKTM AT-TIRMIDHT and ecclesiastical remains of the period. Brown readily ad-
1965 Kit& Khatm al-AwliyZ. Edited by Othman Yahya. Beirut:
Imprimerie Catholique. mits his debts to previous explorers, but insists he is doing
FAZLUR,RAHMAN something different. To disregard this insistence is to risk
1975 The Philosophy of Mulla Sadra. State University of New criticizing Brown for not doing something he has no inten-
York Press (Albany). tion of doing.