Alone with the Alone

Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi

Henry Corbin

Corbin’s work has been referenced so many times, at such critical junctures, in my reading of James Hillman and Robert Romanyshyn, that it was purely a matter of time before I discovered his work first-hand. He’s noted for coining the term mundus imaginalis, a Latin approximation of the Arabic term ‘alam al-mithal. Ibn ‘Arabi, and other Sufi mystics, used this to refer to a realm that mediated between the visible, sensuous world of matter and the higher, invisible realms of spirit. We have Corbin to thank for the adjective “imaginal”, used to refer to visually present realities that are neither literal manifestations nor “merely imaginary”; “neither fact nor fiction”. With language governing a large part, at least, of our perception of reality, Corbin has done a great service to our capacities for seeing beyond the simplistic heritage of “unilateral monotheism” and scientific fundamentalism.

This study immediately brought the work of Mircea Eliade to mind. Set in the same typeface as Eliade’s works also originally published as part of the Jungian Bollingen Series, to me Corbin’s work has a similar feel, too. Neologisms and obscure theological terms (like theophany and hexeity) proliferate as spiritual concepts alien to the modern West are studiously grappled with; a certain floridity of expression likewise tries to convey a flavour of spirituality, even amidst meticulous scholarship. If anything, Corbin waxes more lyrical, and challenges the casual reader even more deeply with his byzantine, circuitous and recursive expositions of Ibn ‘Arabi’s profoundly subtle mysticism.

At the centre of Ibn ‘Arabi’s ideas is a cosmology that reminds me of the Hindu myth which Alan Watts unfolded with admirable clarity in The Book: essentially, the manifest universe is God playing “hide-and-seek” with himself, and we are all God in disguise. Of course, Ibn ‘Arabi and Corbin both have much more than that to say on the subject. Perhaps the defining concept here is the paradoxical and intellectually elusive intimacy and reciprocity between the mystic in prayer and God—or at least, “his Lord”, the manifestation that forms his personal link to “God”, who is in the absolute sense utterly unknowable. The mystic’s perception of his Lord is also his knowledge of himself; in a cosmos where we are specific manifestations of the divine, knowledge of God must always conflate with self-knowledge. Yet the classic mystical experience of “union with God” is refuted. For God is seen to have created (or revealed) all creatures to relieve His sadness at being alone, at not being known. We are His ruse through which he manifests the joy of mutual appreciation, and a collapse into “union” (even though unity is indeed seen as underlying reality) would obliterate this effort. We face the reality of unity, and the necessity of division.

Seen through Western philosophical eyes, this worldview is a beguiling and sometimes puzzling mixture of solipsism, divinization of the material world, and emotive communion with God that never entirely sheds a certain tension, a ceaseless creativity. Corbin might not express this cosmology in a way totally apt for the contemporary reader; on the other hand, his extensive and often extremely abstruse variations on the core themes of Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought and experience are to a certain extent necessary. I trust that Corbin’s profound understanding of esoteric Islam and the Arabic language deemed certain concepts unexpressable through simple translation, and their galaxies of connotation require rather extensive elaboration.

This is no easy work; but it’s well worth sticking with. Certainly, by the end I felt I had unconsciously accumulated many peripheral meanings and symbolic textures that “plain speaking” simply can’t contain.