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Heavens of Space, Heavens of Time

with 2 comments

Prayer Niche, 7th century Persian, Pergamon Museum

Persian, 7th Cenutry
Pergamon Museum

I’ve been reading a copy of Henry Corbin’s Histoire de la philosophie islamique that I picked up in Paris on my honeymoon, and my initial impression is that it fully lives up to its towering reputation.

In the introductory pages, Corbin lays out what he takes to be essential differences between Christian and Islamic hermeneutics, in an effort to clear away typical misinterpretations of the latter in terms of the former. While Biblical exegesis is primarily concerned with a historical unfolding of revelation in time, moving from the creation of the world through the Incarnation and toward the omega-point of the end of history, Islam is basically concerned with a trans-historical, eternal domain of truth disclosed by the Qu’ran into the field of time.

As a consequence – and this is where things became very interesting to me – the focus of Christian exegesis is primarily temporal, with an emphasis on reading religious symbols in terms of historical events. By contrast, the emphasis of Islamic scriptural hermeneutics is spatial, and its symbology emphasizes the hierarchy of the cosmos. The spiritual journey of Islam is presented as an ascent in the actual present, as opposed to an evolution from one state to another divine order that is remote in time.

My mind turned at once to Dante, whose Commedia was heavily influenced by the mystical cosmology of Sufi mystics of precisely the pedigree that most interested Corbin – especially the Andalusian master Ibn al-Arabi, whose layered models of the heavens were known to Dante. The Commedia is a journey in space, moving from the bottom of the cosmos to the top. I realize at once, both how peculiar Dante’s rendition of Christianity was in that sense, and how much his conception owes to the Muslim influence.


Written by Mesocosm

April 6, 2014 at 1:38 pm

2 Responses

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  1. This is an excellent analysis of the Christian versus the Islamic spiritual journey and something I wish I had considered when I taught a high school course on the Middle East. Where do you put the Judaic tradition in this synthesis?


    April 6, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    • Thanks Jody! It’s certainly one interesting point of comparison.

      I would say that even more than Christianity, Judaism is a religion of history, for which the very concept of religion is inseparable from the idea of a sacred history. This is so much a part of the Judeo-Christian heritage it can be hard for people of European or American background to recognize that there are religious traditions for which this is not at all the case, such as Buddhism.


      April 6, 2014 at 6:04 pm

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