Henry Corbin in Istanbul
By Leon Sandler
When Henry Corbin arrived in Istanbul in November of 1939 he expected to stay for only three months; instead, he stayed for six years, engaged in an adventure of spiritual discovery which would forever transform his understanding of esoteric philosophy. Already a prolific scholar and expert in several languages including Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, Corbin was sent to Istanbul by the Bibliotheque Nationale as the sole member of the French Institute for Archeology. His assignment was to catalogue and photograph medieval manuscripts scattered throughout the city’s libraries. With the outbreak of the Second World War, however, Corbin found himself stranded in Istanbul, where he remained until the war’s end. Unable to return home, he threw himself completely into his research. He was particularly drawn to the writings of Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi (1154-1191), a Neoplatonist philosopher and master of the Illuminationist (ishraqi) school, whom he took as his spiritual guide. Corbin says of his time in Istanbul:
“In the course of these years…I learned the inestimable virtues of Silence, which initiates call the ‘discipline of the arcane’ (ketman in Persian). One of the virtues of Silence was to put myself in solitary confinement with my invisible shaykh, Shihabuddin Yahya Suhrawardi, who died a martyr in 1191, at the age of 36, the very age I was at that time... Day and night, I translated from the Arabic, taking as guides only the commentators and continuators of Suhrawardi… At the end of those years of retreat, I had become an Ishraqi.”1
This sojourn in Istanbul was, therefore, a time of profound spiritual transformation which affected not only Corbin’s scholarship, but also his personal understanding of esoteric philosophy. This experience was brought about both by his keen research into Suhrawardi and his location in a city with such profound spiritual significance.
Corbin obviously considered the study of philosophy to be much more than a mere academic exercise, claiming that “a philosophical search which does not arrive at mystical experience, at personal spiritual realization, is a vanity and a waste of time.”2 A true philosopher, therefore, is one who devotes their life to the pursuit of sophia, the divine wisdom which "engages the inner, spiritual human being in the way of deliverance and regeneration.”3 The direct experience of sophia, often called gnosis or irfan is a deeply personal form of knowledge beyond theoretical understanding. The encounter with sophia must become the true aim of the philosopher’s life, reaching to the depths of their being. Corbin understood himself in these terms, writing that “I am neither a scholar of German, nor an Orientalist, but a philosopher, pursuing his Quest wherever the Spirit leads him. If it has led me towards Freiburg, Teheran, Ispahan, these cities remain for me essentially ‘emblematic cities,’ symbols of a permanent course.”4 Each of the cities where Corbin conducted his research thus served as an exterior, physical manifestations of his station on the inward, spiritual journey of mystical initiation.
As an “emblematic city,” Istanbul represents the convergence point of several mystical traditions, mingling and mixing across more than a thousand years. Here, Greco-Roman Neoplatonism gave way to Byzantine Christianity, which eventually met the various schools of Islamic philosophy. The Hagia Sophia stands as a tangible manifestation of this process. Having operated as the spiritual heart of the Byzantine Church until its conversion into the principal mosque of Istanbul in 1453, the building demonstrates how the pursuit of divine wisdom was vital to both religions. Corbin saw the Hagia Sophia as a living symbol of the attainment to sophia at the end of the philosopher’s quest, writing: “The Temple of Holy Sophia was for me the temple of the Grail, at least an exemplification of its archetype anticipated by many seekers of gnosis.”5 Thus, the city was the perfect place for him to fulfill his lifelong search for wisdom through the teachings of Suhrawardi, the shaykh al-ishraq.
The ishraqi school proposes a sophisticated cosmology of divine lights (hence the name, meaning “Illuminationist”) arranged in a hierarchy of degrees emanating from God, who is considered to be the supreme light of lights. In this view, the philosopher’s quest is a voyage from darkness into light. Suhrawardi provides an allegory for this spiritual voyage in The Story of the Western Exile. In this story the narrator has travelled to Qayrawân, “the city whose inhabitants are oppressors” (Quran 4:77). Captured and chained, he is stranded in a dark pit which represents our mundane universe. Then the narrator is visited by a hoopoe, the bird of the wise king Solomon, which bears a message from his father urging him to resume his journey. Guided by the hoopoe, he passes through many trials which symbolize the stations of mystical initiation. Finally, he arrives at the summit of Mount Sinai, where he sees his father as “a Great Sage, so great that Heaven and Earth were about to split asunder from the epiphany of his Light.”6 The narrator is told that he must return to Qayrawân -- just as the mystic must return to life in the normal world -- but that he may visit Mount Sinai whenever he wishes.
While facing his own exile in Istanbul, Henry Corbin would come to understand the metaphor of the spiritual voyage with “a certainty which is personally and gnostically known and realized.”7 His study of Suhrawardi had illuminated his understanding of himself and the world. In September of 1945, with the war over, Corbin boarded the Taurus Express for Tehran. His academic career would continue for another 33 years and produce several volumes on a variety of topics in philosophy and religious history. In a sense, however, the most important work of his life had already been accomplished in Istanbul.
1) Quoted in Hadi Fakhoury, Henry Corbin and Russian Religious Thought (Montreal: McGill University, 2013), 49.
2) Henry Corbin, The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy (Berkely: North Atlantic Books, 1998), 136.
3) Ibid. 163.
4) Ibid. XXIX.
5) Quoted in Hadi Fakhoury, Henry Corbin and Russian Religious Thought (Montreal: McGill University, 2013), 53.
6) Henry Corbin, The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy (Berkely: North Atlantic Books, 1998), 160.
7) Ibid., 164.