A Prolegomenon to the Study of Babi and Bahá'i Scriptures:
The importance of Henry Corbin to Babi and Bahá'i Studies

By Ismael Velasco

Presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #36
London School of Economics: London, England
July 13–15, 2001
(see list of papers from #36)


    During his lifetime Henry Corbin was the foremost Western authority on the Islamic philosophy of Persia and ranks among the most influential Islamicists of the 20th century. His work has unique relevance in understanding the philosophical contexts for the emergence of the Babi and Bahá'i Faiths in 19th century Persia. While best known for his work on Avicenna, Ibn Arabi, Suhrawardi and the school of Isfahan, imamology and Ismailism, he is also the most significant Western scholar of Shaykhism to date. His work thus constitutes a philosophical bridge between the Babi-Bahá'i Faiths and the philosophical and religious matrix within which they were conceived.

    This paper examines the relevance of Corbin's massive corpus (reckoned at around 300 volumes) to the emerging field of Babi and Bahá'i studies. It gives an overview of Corbin's work, identifying the main fields of his labours and highlighting his major writings. Corbin's work on Shaykhism is highlighted; his overall perspective on Shaykhism is summarised, and his key works on the subject noted and briefly described. Against this background two distinctive aspects of Corbin's work are suggested as having the potential to constructively influence Babi and Bahá'i studies, notwithstanding their potential pitfalls.

    Firstly, Corbin's methodology, which he describes as phenomenological, in contradistinction to the historical approach which dominated and dominates the field of Islamics. As a philosopher first, and Islamicist second, Corbin is interested in locating and articulating the inner experience of Shi'i spirituality in the realm of thought (rather than the world of history). The philosophical insights of a text, rather than its historical faithfulness, is what Corbin is interested in. Thus a tradition of the imams, embedded in Shi'i spirituality, may yield profound spiritual insight and be philosophically true to Corbin's idea of Shi'ism - even when historically it may regarded as spurious.

    Criticism of this approach comes pertly from historians, who perceive a rather cavalier attitude to facts, distorting the original voice or the empirical basis of particular ideas and beliefs. An example of particular relevance is his discussion of Shaykhism, where the thought of Shaykh Ahmad is often blended with that of Karim Khan Kirmani or even "the Sarqar Aqa" (head of the Kirmani Shaykhis), in the 1960s! Criticism also stems from Corbin's own philosophical endeavour, which is said to blur the distinction between Corbin's own thought and the authors he studies. An eminent scholar of Ibn 'Arabi, William Chittick, wrote of Corbin's commentaries on Ibn `Arabi that it was difficult to tell where Ibn 'Arabi's thought ended and Corbin's began.

    With these caveats, an approach to religious texts which seeks to identify their universality and creative force; which makes elaborate reference to their genesis in specific philosophical and spiritual traditions, yet gives precedence to their present philosophical and religious significance and stresses their intellectual continuities across diverse historical and social settings, may yet point to useful and relatively novel methodological lines of inquiry into Babi and Bahá'i texts.

    The second and most relevant aspect of Corbin's work is of course Corbin's actual findings. Corbin followed the thread of Islamic spirituality from the 12 Imams at its genesis, to the Shaykhi school at its terminus. He thus may be said to have carried out in effect a philosophical genealogy of the Babi and Bahá'i religions from the perspective of the history of ideas. Corbin's great synthetic labour has particular value in releasing the allusive power of the Bahá'i writings (specially for Western audiences), and in gaining a deeper understanding of key theological, philosophical and literary concepts in the Babi and Bahá'i Faith.

    For instance, Corbin's writings return again and again to the concept of the Manifestation (mazhar) of God and elucidate in highly relevant ways many of its subtleties. Other key Babi and Bahá'i concepts whose philosophical genealogy may be traced through Corbin include the unknowability of God, progressive revelation, the Prophetic cycles, the spiritual and figurative interpretation of texts, the Covenant of God, the worlds of God, and many more. Prominent symbols that appear again and again in Babi and Bahá'i scriptures are also treated in extenso in Corbin's opus including: the Countenance of God, Sinai, the Point, the Seal of the Prophets, the lover and the Beloved, the Maiden, spiritual veils, heaven and heavens, color symbolism, spiritual stations (maqamat) etc.

    We conclude from the above that with all the methodological strengths and weaknesses implicit in Corbin's method, his distinctive and highly personal synthesis of Shi'i philosophy (the most comprehensive in Western languages to date) constitutes an invaluable adjunct to in-depth studies of Bahá'i scripture, Bahá'i philosophy, and Bahá'i spirituality. It serves as a broad genealogical map of key Bahá'i ideas pointing the way to new fields of inquiry, particularly in the field of comparative studies. In this light, from the perspective of Bahá'i scholarship, Corbin's work may be seen as a veritable Prolegomenon to the study of Babi and Bahá'i scripture.