The ‘Alam al-Mithal: Henry Corbin & the Sufi Ibn ‘Arabi


This essay serves as a first step in a longer survey on archetypal cosmology and the archetypal field, one drawn from both contemporary thought and from precursors in many mystical traditions. While the language may appear academic at times, this is far from my intent and owes itself only to the overwhelming nature of the subject at hand. If anything, the focus of the subject is personal revelation. My hope is that through the limits of such language I might accidentally draw, however humbly, from a hidden lineage of precursors: I think here of Walter Benjamin, Bishop Berkeley, Jorge Luis Borges and, most directly, Henry Corbin; the French orientalist and phenomenologist whose work is central to our brief article today.  Whatever their differences, a singular eccentric and original imagination is the foundation to each, an ecstatic leaning disguised in scholarship and intellectual discipline. My own introduction to Henry Corbin is quite recent. Nonetheless, his writing introduced itself with such a rare surge of familiarity and feeling that I am struck thinking of these others as some long lost guild. One of the many directions of Corbin’s work is the reintegration of the contemplative intellect into the mystic and prophetic traditions. Corbin might even trace this lineage further back, following the principle of isnād, the naming of “transhistorical” contemporaries, to the Iranian master Suhrawardī and his theosophy of Light (ḥikmat al-Ishrāq). As Corbin explains: “the effects of Suhrawardī’s theosophy of Light have been felt in Iran down to our own time. One of its essential features is that it makes philosophy and mystical experience inseparable: a philosophy that does not culminate in a metaphysic of ecstasy is vain speculation.” In the Iranian mysticism of Suhrawardī and in that the great mystic Ibn ‘Arabī, this idea of a contemplative intellect is invoked as one of the many Figures in a complex Angelology of subsistent images. This Angelology, central to Corbin’s work and to our discussion today, can be described in his language as the intermediate state of the “creative Imagination,” of which the contemplative intellect is but a manifestation. It can also be described as the archetypal field, through which both the artistic process and the mystic tradition so arises.  Throughout his writing, it is this principle of creative Imagination which Corbin holds as the singular conduit of all spiritual experience and phenomena.

“Here we shall not be dealing with imagination in the usual sense of the world: neither with fantasy, profane or otherwise, nor with the organ which produces imaginings identified with the unreal,” writes Corbin. Rather, we speak of “a universe endowed with a perfectly ‘objective’ existence and perceived precisely through the Imagination.” As in certain aspects of Tibetan Buddhism such as Dzogchen, this organ of Imagination is the direct doorway into, and state of, the archetypal experience.

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Suhrawardi: Iranian Mystic & contemporary of Ibn ‘Arabi

Without question, Henry Corbin’s work is essential to discussing a contemporary frame for an archetypal cosmology. The key essential ideas of his thought that fit our discussion are many: his understanding of the Arabic term ta’wīl as a means to invoke archetypal experience, his explanation of Ṣūfī Angelology as correspondent to archetypal beings, and, lastly, his knowledge and interpretation of Khiḍr, the invisible master of the mystic Ibn ‘Arabī and of all those who have no earthly master.

The Ta’wīl and Esoteric Meaning

“The ta’wīl is essential symbolic understanding,” writes Corbin in his essay Creative Imagination in the Ṣūfism of Ibn ‘Arabī, “the transmutation of everything visible into symbols, the intuition of an essence or person in an Image which partakes neither of universal logic nor of sense perception, and which is the only means of signifying what is to be signified.”

The ta’wīl is essential to comprehending a break from rationalist empirical understanding to that of the mystic experience. Entering the ta’wīl is to exit the sharī’a- the law, the literalist religion. That is, to enter into myth and symbol is to experience a language distinct from rational evidence. It is important to note the palpable anticlerical nature throughout Corbin’s writing: he interprets the mystic Ibn ‘Arabī as the great opponent of the literalist Islam and almost purposefully neglects any writings that might contradict such a reading. It is an interpretation, according to his biographer Tom Cheetham, which created much animosity for Corbin in scholarly circles. In my own reading of Corbin and, in what I believe would agree with Tom Cheetham, it is essential to everything that follows that Corbin’s interest simply does not lie in the historical Ibn ‘Arabī but, rather, in another more essential, “Transhistorical” manifestation who he experiences in dialogue with his own esoteric vision. Corbin’s writing is radically dismissive of any rational historicist investigations. Such a dismissal is fundamental to his philosophy as is his deep seated anticlerical theology, for both are at the very heart of mystic process and at the heart of his understanding of phenomenology.

“Christian ‘faith’ is pistis, a believing that something was, is, and will be so. Judaic ‘faith’ is emunah, a trusting in the Covenant. Islam means ‘submission’ to the will of Allah, as expressed through his messenger Mohammad, ‘the seal of the prophets.’ But Gnosis is not a believing that, a trusting in, or a submission. Rather, it is a mutual knowing, and a simultaneous being known, of and by God,” writes the American scholar Harold Bloom.

Corbin’s interpretation of the ta’wīl, etymologically the carrying back of a thing to its principle, is that of a Gnostic break from the literalist faith, a fundamental “symbolic exegesis” that transcends and contradicts the rational historical meanings through a mutual knowing. Writes Corbin: “All minds have not the same degree of discernment: to some men the literal aspect, the zāhirzāhir, is addressed, while others are capable of understanding the hidden meaning, the bāṭin.” The basic understanding is phenomenological and naturalist and most importantly, inherently not supernatural. Corbin writes of “the reality of power to which priesthood lays claim but ultimately fails to obtain, whereupon it projects a fiction of that same power into the realm of the supernatural (the abstract monotheist god).” Religion gives subjectivity to otherness, to a supernatural God of superstition through faith and submission. The mysticism of Ibn ‘Arabī gives subjectivity to world itself through the creative imagination, through mutual knowing, through what Corbin calls Ibn ‘Arabī’s “theophanic prayer.”

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the Ṣūfī Ibn ‘Arabī

It is a multidimensional structure of existence not unlike the Dzogchen interpretation of the kayas in Tibetan Buddhism: a concurrent multidimensionality, dependent on the cultivation on one’s own awareness to perceive these interwoven realms. One does not enter the archetypal realm in the sense that they leave somewhere else behind. Rather, one enters the archetypal realm through the doorway of one’s own perception. One integrates the intermediate space of the archetypal field (the Sambogakaya) into their intrinsic awareness. Existence in the world of everyday appearances (Nirmanakaya) never ceases. The nihilistic Eastern philosophical frame of appearances as illusion does not carry over here. Further more, the experience of the archetypal field is itself a doorway into the Dharmakaya, the realm of pure unmitigated awareness, emptiness itself, openness and space. One does not leave to go to the Dharmakaya. Rather the dharmakaya exists concurrently and through the Sambogakaya and the Nirmanakaya. All manifestation in the Sambogakaya and Nirmanakaya arises from the un-manifested emptiness of the Dharmakaya. The ongoing process of holding this state of multidimensionality is seen as liberatory in the Dzogchen perspective. There are correspondences in the work of Heidegger, Corbin’s contemporary and influence, as well as those that followed in existential phenomenology. Most importantly to our present discussion, we see this same process of Gnosis and multidimensional integration in the “theophanic” prayer of Ibn ‘Arabī.

Corbin writes:

“The ‘Self’ is a characteristic term by which a mystic spirituality underlines its dissociation from the aims and implications of denominational dogmatisms. But it enables these dogmatisms to argue in return that this Self, experienced as the pure act of existing, is only a natural phenomenon and consequently has nothing in common with a supernatural encounter with the revealed God, attainable only within the reality of the Church. The term ‘Self,’ as we shall employ it here, implies neither the one nor the other acceptance. It refers neither to the impersonal Self, to the pure act of existing attainable through efforts comparable to the techniques of yoga, nor to the Self of the psychologists. The word will be employed here solely in the sense given it by Ibn ‘Arabī and numerous other Ṣūfī theosophists when they repeated the famous sentence: He who knows himself knows his Lord. Knowing one’s self, to know one’s God; knowing one’s Lord, to know one’s self. This Lord is not the impersonal self, nor is it the God of dogmatic definitions, self-subsisting without relation to me, without being experienced by me. He is the he who knows himself through myself, that is, in the knowledge that I have of him, because it is the knowledge that he has of me; it is alone with him alone, in this syzygic unity, that it is possible to say thou. And such is the reciprocity in which flowers the creative Prayer which Ibn ‘Arabī teaches us to experience simultaneously as the Prayer of God and the Prayer of man.”

The ‘Ālam al-Mithāl

The mysticism of Ibn ‘Arabī draws from the Neoplatonism of Avicenna, defeated in the West but carried forth in Iran in the work of Suhrawardī and his theosophy of Light (ḥikmat al-Ishrāq), and further on into the Ṣūfīsm of the present. According to Corbin: “Iran moreover, knows no development corresponding to the disappearance, with all it implied, of the Animae coelestes, the hierarchy of the Angelic Souls rejected by Averroism. Along with Animae coelestes Iranian Islam preserved the objective existence of the intermediate world, the world of subsistent Images (’ālam al-mithāl) or immaterial bodies.”  Suhrawardī, contemporary of Ibn ‘Arabī, called this the cosmic Intermediate Orient.

corbin1 Thus we might see our discussion turn back directly to the archetypal realm of experience. In contemporary thought, the notion of an archetypal realm relates most directly to Jung’s hypothesis of a collective unconscious. In the earlier Platonic-Pythagorean tradition, the archetypes were seen as essential metaphysical structures of the world. Those of the 20th century, corresponding to mainstream Jungian ideas, are most often seen as only essential psychological forms. While it is well worth noting CG Jung’s own shift back toward the Platonic vision late in his own life, this general shift in perspective embodies much of what might be said about the trajectory of human consciousness. In both the modern scientific world view and in that of the rational organized religion, subjectivity resides in the human being. The world itself, once rife with spiritual and symbolic meaning, becomes objectified, spiritually inactive. Only man has consciousness, the world itself is disenchanted. Concerning the world’s major religious traditions, it is only in the outliers and, often, the heretics, those that fall under the category of a truly Gnostic or mystic tradition, that we might again find the appearance of this embodied and conscious world view. In Suhrawardī’s theosophy of Light and, with that, Ibn ‘Arabī’s mystic experience, we see an unbroken understanding of the Platonic conception of the archetype continuing on to the present day with our reading of Henry Corbin. In the Ṣūfī understanding, it is languaged as the ‘ālam al-mithāl: the world of real and subsistent images. As such, it should be noted that in Corbin’s view, by the 20th Century, the true expression of the archetypal experience had fallen “only to the poets.”

Corbin writes: “In the Suhrawardīan theosophy of Light, the entire Platonic theory of Ideas is interpreted in terms of Zoroastrian angelology. Expressing itself as a metaphysic of essences, the Suhrawardīan dualism of Light and Darkness precludes the possibility of a physics in the Aristotelian sense of the word. A physics of Light can only be an angelology, because Light is life, and Life is essentially Light.” Over the course of his writing, we are introduced to the many hierarchies of angels, the “intermediate supra sensory world where the Active Imagination perceives events, Figures, presences directly, unaided by the senses.”  Of these Animae coelestes, Corbin writes chiefly of their relationship to the direct Imagination, the active Intelligence (of which the contemplative intellect is qualified as prophetic spirit) and, further on, to the dialectic of love and the divine feminine.

Writes Corbin:

“Since these Angel-Souls (Animae coelestes) communicate to the Heavens the movement of their desire, the orbits of the heavenly bodies are characterized by an aspiration of love forever renewed and forever unstilled. They are indeed Imagination in its pure state since they are freed from the infirmities of sense perception. They are par excellence the Angels of this intermediate world where prophetic inspiration and theophanic visions have their place; their world is the world of symbols and of symbolic knowledge, the world to which Ibn ‘Arabī penetrated with ease from his earliest years.”

The Disciple of Khiḍr

So we might ask, what is the means of experience then of these archetypal structures? Ibn ‘Arabī himself answers that first we cast off the gatekeepers of knowledge, whether they be personified or simply the concrete frame of our own limited experience. Like so many secret traditions and teachings, the ta’wīl of Ibn ‘Arabī is an initiation into self-mastery and self awareness. Of one his own books, Mawāqi’ al-nujūm (the orbits of the stars), he writes: “It is a book which enables a beginner to dispense with a master, or rather: it is indispensable to the master.”

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Al-Khidr: The invisible guide

Self awareness and mastery arises only through a direct participatory process. There can be no authority, even if that authority is simply the fixed authority of objectivity that inhibits such a mutual knowing. Corbin writes: “Each human being is oriented toward a quest for his personal invisible guide, or he entrusts himself to the collective, magisterial authority as the intermediary between himself and Revelation.” In Ṣūfīsm, those who refuse to follow any earthly master are called Uwaysīs and are said to follow an invisible master. It is the “co- responsibility for personal destiny assumed by the alone with the Alone,” in Corbin’s words.

In my own reading here, I would draw a direct correspondence to the Kashmir Shaivite understanding of the “Guru Principle” in which the true Guru is no longer the external master but, rather, the master personified within the Self. It is necessary not to misinterpret such an idea of a personified “invisible guide” or inner Guru as a dualistic act, such as the Incarnation or the personification of the monotheistic God. Rather, it is nothing if not Gnostic and participatory act of creative Imagination, that integrates the mystic into a mutual knowing. The inner guide is the archetypal manifestation of knowing. 

Writes Corbin: “Ibn ‘Arabī was, and never ceased to be the disciple of an invisible master, a mysterious prophet figure to whom a number of traditions, both significant and obscure, lend features which relate him, or tend to identify him, with Elijah, with St George, and still others. Ibn ‘Arabī was above all the disciple of Khiḍr.”

The questions of “Who is Khiḍr? What does it mean to be a disciple of Khiḍr?” are the central aspirations of Corbin’s meditation on Ibn ‘Arabī. These two questions, in Corbin’s words, “illuminate each other existentially.” The disciple of Khiḍr is he “who does not owe his knowledge of spiritual experience to human teaching, who bears witness.”

The investigation begins with a Sūra XVIII of the Koran, in which the mysterious Khiḍr appears alongside Moses as his guide and initiates Moses into the science of predestination.

Thus he reveals himself to be the repository of an inspired divine science, superior to the law (sharī’a),” writes Corbin. “Thus Khiḍr is superior to Moses in so far as Moses is a prophet invested with the mission of revealing a sharī’a. He reveals Moses precisely the secret, mystic truth (haqīqa) that transcends the law and this explains why the spirituality inaugurated by Khiḍr is free from the servitude of the literal religion.”

Khiḍr’s relationship with the prophet Elijah is of much importance to this passage, because it illuminates a break with rational linear time. In Corbin’s view, “We shall never find a rational justification of the Koran episode in which Khiḍr-Elijah meets Moses as if they were contemporaries. The event partakes of a different synchronism.” It is a symbolic entry into the “transhistorical” frame of the archetypal realm (’ālam al-mithāl). “Such a relationship with a hidden spiritual master lends the disciple an essentially ‘transhistorical’ dimension,” he continues, “and presupposes an ability to experience events which are enacted in a reality other than the physical reality of daily life, events which spontaneously transmute themselves into symbols.” He writes of a time “in which the past remains present to the future, in which the future is already present to the past, just as the notes of a musical phrase, though played successively, nevertheless persist all together in the present and thus form a phrase. Hence the recurrences, the possible inversions, the synchronisms, incomprehensible in rational terms, beyond the reach of historical realism, but accessible to another ‘realism,’ that of the subtile world, ‘ālam al-mithāl, which Suhrawardī called the ‘Middle Orient’ of celestial Souls and whose organ is the theophanic Imagination.”

The prayer of Ibn ‘Arabī, the Disciple of Khiḍr, is prayer as a method of Imagination that manifests mutual knowing or Gnosis. In Corbin’s words it is “the creative prayer that becomes dialogue, creative because it is at once God’s prayer and man’s prayer.”


Corbin writes of Suhrawardī’s mystic recital The Purple Archangel. The poem is itself a participatory act. Only the literalist, the religionist, in Corbin’s view, would see such things as meaningless allegory, as parable. In The Purple Archangel, a mystic is initiated into a secret that allows him to climb the cosmic mountain, Mount Qāf, and attain the Spring of Life. Frightened at the difficulty of the task, he considers turning back. But the Angel says to him: Put on the sandals of Khiḍr.” In so doing, the mystic becomes one with the master through the realm of the archetypal Imagination. “If you are Khiḍr,” writes Henry Corbin, “you too can ascend Mount Qāf without difficulty.”  This understanding of If you are Khiḍr effects a true identification with the invisible master.

“Phenomenologically speaking,” he continues, “the real presence of Khiḍr is experienced simultaneously as that of a person and as that of an archetype in other words as a person-archetype.”  The mystic is now Khiḍr. He has attained “the Khiḍr of his being.”

– Peter Matthew Bauer