The volume Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis brings together in English translation three of Henry Corbin’s richest and most complex studies, originally presented at the Eranos conferences of 1951 and 1954 and another conference in 1956. Each of these three relatively early studies is built around a complex, highly creative ‘comparison’ of the phenomenological correspondences between texts (often highly fragmentary) from a vast range of spiritual traditions from late Antiquity (including Manichaenism and the sects of Sassanid Iran) – all ‘gnostic’ in the root Greek sense of that term favoured by Corbin, though not in the narrower historical sense used by most contemporary scholars – and comparable spiritual themes in an equally wide range of Islamic texts eventually preserved in the later Ismaili Shi‘i tradition. The Islamic texts and writers examined here cover many centuries, regions (from Egypt to Central Asia) and radically differing religious and philosophic perspectives, and marvellously illustrate the rich creativity, diversity and assimilative powers of Islamic thought in the early centuries of that civilization. (Despite the richness and complexity of the comparisons developed here, the author is not concerned with proving ‘historical’ connections, but rather the sorts of recurrent, archetypal spiritual inspirations and speculations which were the focus of the Eranos group.) While the comparative, phenomenological method is that popularly associated with Corbin’s close friend, Mircea Eliade, the density, sophistication and dramatic literary intensity of Corbin’s writing are of an entirely different order.
Despite the passage of several decades (or perhaps because the passage of time has helped to highlight the lasting literary and creative dimensions of Corbin’s work), it is easy to see how the first Bollingen translations of these talks helped to inspire, among others, the Black Mountain school of poets and several generations of practitioners of Jungian depth–psychology. It is probably safe to say that none of the subsequent scholars of either the gnostic and Hellenistic traditions used here, or of the many schools of Shi‘i thought that are brought to bear on these comparisons, has managed even remotely to approximate Corbin’s extraordinary empathy and inspired ability to ‘bring alive’ the deeper, lasting human dimensions of what otherwise often seem dry, fragmentary, arbitrary or boringly schematic expositions in unadorned translations and editions. But far from being the sign of a dilettante, this remarkable insight and sympathy was clearly the fruit of Corbin’s lifelong collaboration and friendship with the leading international scholars in gnosticism and the religions of late Antiquity – many of them his colleagues at the Ecole Pratique or the nearby Institut Catholique in Paris, and others among the greatest figures in the slow diaspora from Hitler’s Germany.
In particular, the incredible abundance of these comparisons highlights the fact that it is primarily in Islamic (and especially early Shi‘i) sources of this type that one finds by far the richest and most extensive illustrations of the ongoing influences (and actual religious contexts) of the religious and spiritual (which usually includes the scientific and philosophic) life of late Antiquity, where we often have only the barest fragments, virtually indecipherable fragments in the original languages of that period. The ideological fashions and political pressures of contemporary Islamic movements, whether Shi‘i or Sunni – with their characteristic insistence on the ‘uniqueness’ of the tradition and corresponding abhorrence of anything remotely suggestive of ‘excess’ (ghuluww) – have meant that only a handful of Islamic scholars, whether in East or West, have turned their serious attention to this abundant, but equally challenging, treasure of documentation in the half–century since Corbin’s pioneering researches. So one can only hope that this volume (and the later companion studies translated in Temple and Contemplation) will eventually excite the interest of a new generation of students who will recognize the critical importance of such studies in the context of the new science of comparative spirituality which is beginning to emerge from the foundations of comparative religion.
The first of these studies, ‘Cyclical Time in Mazdaism and Ismailism,’ takes up the symbolic importance and speculative fascination with both cosmic and more ‘personal’, eschatological dimensions of time, first of all in fragmentary evidence from later Zoroastrian (and related gnostic) texts – which themselves mirror corresponding issues more familiar in Buddhist and Hindu contexts – and then in a wide range of Ismaili texts which Prof. Corbin (and his contemporaries Ivanow and Strothmann) were only then bringing to the attention of Western scholars. And although Corbin’s language, comparative outlook and personal inclinations toward Shi‘i sources all tend to highlight the apparently ‘mysterious’ and unusual nature of these Ismaili speculations, it is helpful to point out that these same underlying issues and preoccupations are in fact deeply rooted in the Qur’anic treatment of time and eschatology (and in related Hadith), as well as in speculations regarding the Mahdi and cognate figures, in ways which actually became central to later traditions of Sufism and popular Sunni spirituality (especially the ‘cult of the saints’ or awliya‘), as has been highlighted by a number of more recent major studies of Ibn al– ‘Arabi and Hakim Tirmidhi. But having highlighted the ongoing scholarly interest and relevance of these studies, we must conclude by mentioning Corbin’s recurrent evocation of parallel perspectives and the immediately personal, spiritual relevance of these ideas through quotations from Balzac, Merkavah mysticism and German Romantics like Schelling – all familiar to his Eranos audience – in a way which literally transforms the entire study into a series of poignant guided meditations.
The second and longest study, ‘Divine Epiphany and Spiritual Birth in Ismailian Gnosis,’ at almost 100 pages, is virtually a book in itself. Despite the title’s emphasis on ‘Ismaili’ sources (again in the broad sense of a vast range of gnostic texts eventually preserved in Ismaili libraries and collections), this is in fact a carefully structured study of the theme of ‘dokesis’ – the earthly ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’ of an underlying spiritual figure (often applied to the ‘docetic’ Christologies of the Qur’an and many gnostic texts) – and the larger related issues of prophetology (and imamology, for Shi‘is), cycles of history and spiritual ‘progression’ through higher, ‘celestial’ realms of being, beginning with a survey of these ideas in many traditions (Manichean, gnostic, etc.) of late Antiquity and moving on to their development in Ismaili and other 'proto–Shi‘i Islamic sources. Once again, students of religions will recognize the special pertinence of all these issues to cognate forms and speculations throughout Buddhist and Hindu thought. And students of Islam will note how more recent studies (especially M. Chodkiewicz's Seal of the Saints) have again stressed the centrality of these perspectives in Ibn ‘Arabi and their multiple expressions – practical, devotional and speculative – in relation to the ‘saints’ (awliya‘) and prophets in Sufism and the main streams of Islamic devotional life in all parts of the Muslim world. So this study is particularly pertinent to the science of spirituality and that project of ‘comparative world philosophy’ outlined by Corbin’s later colleague (in Tehran), Toshihiko Izutsu.
The third study in this trilogy, ‘From the Gnosis of Antiquity to Ismaili Gnosis,’ traces a number of gnostic themes – primarily relating to ‘prophetology’ and the underlying system of historical ‘cycles’ found in most classical Ismaili Shi‘i authors – from Hellenistic sources through the (avowedly problematic) Umm al–Kitab down to the great Ismaili teacher Abu Hatim al–Razi (a philosopher and theologian whose works also figure prominently in both the preceding studies). Here Corbin highlights Razi's concern with recuperating the prophetic legitimacy of the figure of Zoroaster (an understandable project in the Iran of his day, later renewed by the philosopher–mystic Suhrawardi), as well as the typical open interest in the ideas and perspectives of other (monotheistic, at least) religious groups which was one of the most striking characteristics shared by most of the major figures in classical Ismaili thought. And here again, in doing so, Corbin suggests projects and inspirations, hidden in these nearly forgotten treasures, which richly deserve further development and elaboration in the necessarily multicultural and pluralistic global society that is coming into being all around us.