Heavens of Space, Heavens of Time
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.