Henry Corbin’s History of Islamic Philosophy was originally published in 1964 and (for Part II, ‘From Averroes to The Present Day’) in 1974. This elegant translation by Liadain and Philip Sherrard was published in 1993, with an enlarged and partially updated bibliography, especially of translations and sources available in English. However, despite the appearance of many editions, studies and translations in most areas of Islamic thought in the intervening years, the ongoing attraction and special interest of this volume continues to lie in those special features that set it apart when it first appeared: namely, the remarkable breadth of Prof. Corbin’s interest in many previously neglected areas of Islamic thought which had not directly influenced mediaeval Western philosophy, and his special personal affinity for the thinkers and issues of Shi‘i Islam, both in the Twelver and Ismaili traditions.
His history begins with two key sections – on ‘The Sources of Philosophical Meditation in Islam’ (focusing on ‘Spiritual Exegesis of the Qur’an’) and ‘Shi‘ism and Prophetic Philosophy’ – which are valuable philosophic essays in their own right. These opening sections vividly reflect Professor Corbin’s sympathy for the issues and perspectives of the earliest Shi‘i thinkers and sources, works which he taught and edited in his courses and discussed in seminal Eranos essays that went on to influence well–known poets and psychologists as well as Islamic scholars. Several of those more detailed studies on early Shi‘i and Ismaili thought are studied in more detail in his volume on Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis (English translation also published by Islamic Publications, London, 1983). And while his focus on specifically Islamic sources, themes and problems in many of these thinkers may seem natural, even obvious (not to mention ‘politically correct’) today, his emphases were a radical and often controversial departure when they first appeared.
Corbin’s studies of early Shi‘ism, which were elaborated in constant dialogue with such famous, erudite and seminal scholarly friends (and frequent Eranos speakers) as Mircea Eliade, Gershom Scholem and S. Pines, also reflect a profound acquaintance with both classical Hellenistic sources (gnostic, Christian and Jewish) and with cognate, ‘parallel’ religious traditions from other parts of the world. Thus these opening chapters should continue to be of special interest to two groups of scholars – students of ‘gnostic’ currents in the religious thought of late Antiquity (whether in Christian, Jewish, Manichaean or other settings), and students of comparative religions, especially Hindu and Buddhist. The narrow ‘orthodoxies’ of contemporary Wahhabi/Salafi thought, so often identified with Islam in the popular, journalistic consciousness, form a radical contrast to the deep and far–reaching speculations of these very early and quite ‘authentic’ Muslim thinkers, whose perspectives are reflected in some of Corbin's chapter headings here: prophetology, Imamology, gnosiology, hierohistory and metahistory, cyclical time and eschatology. Contemporary students of the many schools of Buddhist thought, in particular, will find close parallels to central issues in virtually every domain of spiritual and metaphysical reflection.
Another key element in this history is the important chapter on Suhrawardi and his Ishraqi school of ‘illuminationist’ thought, which summarises, in terms accessible to the general, unspecialised audience, the distinctive ideas and insights of this tragic figure – whose life and teachings eerily parallel the later Renaissance martyr, Giordano Bruno – whose writings were the focus of Professor Corbin’s most sustained scholarly editions and translations. It was the decisive encounter with Suhrawardi, beginning in the late 1930s, that eventually sent Corbin toward Iran and that ‘renaissance’ (or at least Western discovery) of traditional Iranian Islamic thought for which he was to be so largely responsible. This chapter continues to be a useful starting–point for approaching the increasing number of translations of Suhrawardi’s writings, both his philosophic treatises and his ‘initiatic tales,’ which Corbin himself so dramatically translated into French – again so typically interesting and influencing artists, poets and filmmakers as well as academics.
The notion of ‘philosophy’ (or we might say today, of ‘Islamic thought’) underlying Corbin’s project was broad enough to include groups as disparate as the seminal Sufi mystics and the kalâm writings of Ghazali and others, and his chapters on these two vast groups – which are now the study of extensive introductory and survey discussions in their own right – do provide indispensable background for the problematic ‘blending’ of these different approaches that is so typical among all the later Islamic writers discussed in Part II of this volume (see below). The particular emphasis in Corbin’s summary treatment here, as we might expect, was on those particular figures – such as Bastami, Hallaj and Ahmad Ghazali – who were best known and most influential in the Iranian cultural sphere and among later Islamic thinkers of that region.
The remaining chapters in Part I deal with those particular schools of thought, more closely derived from Hellenistic models and direct translations of Greek texts and commentary traditions, which had previously been identified with ‘Islamic philosophy’ in the West i.e., ‘Philosophy and the Natural Sciences,’ ‘the Hellenizing Philosophers,’ and a separate chapter on the philosophers of Andalusia (which also includes Ibn Masarra, an unfairly neglected precursor of the great mystic Ibn ‘Arabi). Here again, especially in his inclusion of figures like Jâbir ibn Hayyân and the wider traditions of alchemy and the ‘esoteric sciences,’ Corbin – no doubt under the influence of his friends Paul Kraus and M. Eliade – was one of the first to introduce wider, non–specialist audiences to neglected and challenging, but vigorous aspects of early and classical Islamic thought (reflected since then in the vast bio–bibliographical compendia of F. Sezgin and his colleagues) which still cry out for creative comparative study.
Part II of Corbin’s book, focusing on later Muslim thinkers (‘from the death of Averroes’) reflects vast (and still living) traditions of Islamic thought, which for the most part, were unknown in the West before he began studying (and publishing numerous critical editions and anthologies) in Iran in the late 1940s. (The intellectual traditions in question were, for the most part, active and creative for several centuries throughout the Subcontinent and the Ottoman realms as well, and their active survival in Iran reflects the accidents of the colonial era more than any intrinsic separation of Sunni and Shi‘i settings.) This section, originally prepared for the famous Pléiade encyclopedia (1974), is a highly condensed survey that – because of its essentially bio–bibliographic focus – remains an essential reference work (for those limited to English) in locating and situating many of the less familiar philosophers and theologians of these later centuries. The basic subdivisions (by Sunni, Shi‘i, and Sufi thinkers) were apparently adopted for convenience, but the actual schools of Islamic thought treated here cover the same vast, heterogeneous spectrum as in the first half of the volume: theologians, rationalist philosophers (including Ibn Khaldun), Sufi poets, saints and thinkers (including brief notices on such major figures as Ibn al–‘Arabi and Jalal al–Din Rumi), Ishraqis, and Shi‘i philosophers from Mulla Sadra down to Sabzavari. Although recent decades have brought new studies, editions and translations of some of these figures – many of them by students and younger colleagues formed and encouraged by him to varying degrees – it is a measure of Professor Corbin’s amazing breadth, enthusiasm and creative energy that in the majority of these cases he is actually summarizing his own pioneering studies, translations, editions and anthologies which often remain classic, even indispensable works on the figures in question.
Henry Corbin was a thinker and a poet (and in his personal life, a musician) as well as a scholar and historian. His writings, more generally and in whatever field he explored, continue to stand out from most scholarly works above all for their inspirational quality, their intuitive (if sometimes creative!) insights, their often contagious sympathy for the thinkers in question, their breadth of comparative vision and their ability to communicate the lasting, even universal human passions and meanings behind highly unfamiliar words and symbols. His History of Islamic Philosophy is a worthy and lastingly useful introduction to his contributions in so many fertile fields of Islamic thought.