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Corbin was born in Paris in April 1903. Although he was Protestant by birth, he was educated in the Catholic tradition and at the age of 19 received a certificate in Scholastic philosophy from the Catholic Institute of Paris. Three years later he took his "licence de philosophie" under the Thomist Étienne Gilson. In 1928 he encountered Louis Massignon, director of Islamic studies at the Sorbonne, and it was he who introduced Corbin to the writings of Suhrawardi, the 12th century Persian mystic and philosopher whose work was to profoundly affect the course of Corbin's life. Years later Corbin said "through my meeting with Suhrawardi, my spiritual destiny for the passage through this world was sealed. Platonism, expressed in terms of the Zoroastrian angelology of ancient Persia, illuminated the path that I was seeking."
Corbin is responsible for redirecting the study of Islamic philosophy as a whole. In his Histoire de la philosophie islamique (1964), he disproved in his research the common view that philosophy among the Muslims came to an end after Ibn Rushd.
Life and work
The philosophical life and career of Corbin can be divided into three phases. The first is the 1920s and 1930s, when he was involved in learning and teaching western philosophy. The second is the years between 1939 and 1946, in which he studied Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi and School of Illumination in Istanbul. The last begins at 1946 and lasts until his death, in which he studied and reintroduced eastern and Islamic philosophy.
In 1933 he married . In 1939 they traveled to Istanbul, and in 1945 to Tehran. They returned to Paris one year later in July 1946. In 1949, Corbin first attended the annual Eranos Conferences in Ascona, Switzerland. In 1954 he succeeded Louis Massignon in the Chair of Islam and the Religions of Arabia. From the 1950s on he spent autumn in Tehran, winter in Paris and spring in Ascona.
The three major works upon which his reputation largely rests in the English speaking world were first published in French in the 1950s: Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi' and Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth. His later major work on Central Asian and Iranian Sufism appears in English with an Introduction by Zia Inayat Khan as The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism. His magnum opus, as yet untranslated, is the four volume En Islam Iranien: Aspects spirituels et philosophiques. He died on 7 October 1978.
There are several main themes which together form the core of the spirituality that Corbin defends. The Imagination is the primary means to engage with Creation. Prayer is the "supreme act of the creative imagination". He considered himself a Protestant Christian but he abandoned a Christocentric view of history. The grand sweep of his theology of the Holy Spirit embraces Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He defended the central role assigned in theology for the individual as the finite image of the Unique Divine.
His mysticism is no world-denying asceticism but regards all of Creation as a theophany of the divine. This vision has much in common with what has become known as Creation Spirituality, and the figure of the Angel Holy Spirit is similar to what is sometimes called the Cosmic Christ.
Legacy and influence
Corbin's work has been criticized by a number of writers. His scholarly objectivity has been questioned on the basis of both a Shi'ite bias, and his theological agenda; he has been accused of being both ahistorically naive and dangerously politically reactionary; and he has been charged with being both an Iranian nationalist and an elitist in both his politics and his spirituality. Forceful rejoinders to the more damning of these critiques by Lory and Subtelny have been particularly lucid.
Corbin's ideas continue to have an impact through the work of colleagues, students and many others influenced by his work. Though this list is far from complete, these include the following prolific Western scholars of Sufism and Islamic thought: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, William Chittick, Christian Jambet, Ali Amir-Moezzi, Hermann Landolt, Pierre Lory, James Cowan, James Morris, and Todd Lawson. In England his influence has been felt in the work of Kathleen Raine, Phillip Sherrard and other members of the Temenos Academy. Corbin was an important source for the archetypal psychology of James Hillman and others who have developed the psychology of Carl Jung. The American literary critic Harold Bloom claims Corbin as a significant influence on his own conception of Gnosticism, and the American poet Charles Olson was a student of Corbin's Avicenna and the Visionary Recital. Corbin's friends and colleagues in France have established L'Association des Amis de Henry et Stella Corbin for the dissemination of his work through meetings and colloquia, and the publication of his posthumous writings.
- Avicenna and the Visionary Recital. Princeton University Press, 1960.
- Histoire de la philosophie Islamique. Gallimard, 1964. (Re-issued by Kegan Paul in 1993 as History of Islamic Philosophy ISBN 0-7103-0416-1..)
- Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi. Princeton University Press, 1969. (Re-issued in 1998 as Alone with the Alone.)
- En Islam Iranien: Aspects spirituels et philosophiques (4 vols.). Gallimard, 1971-3.
- Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi'ite Iran. Princeton University Press, 1977.
- Le Paradoxe du Monothéisme. l'Herne, 1981.
- Cyclical Time & Ismaili Gnosis. KPI, 1983.
- L'Homme et Son Ange: Initiation et Chevalerie Spirituelle. Fayard, 1983.
- Face de Dieu, Face de l'homme: Hermeneutique et soufisme. Flammarion, 1983.
- Temple and Contemplation. KPI, 1986.
- The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism. Omega Publications, 1994.
- Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam. Swedenborg Foundation, 1995.