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The Conversion to Islam of the French Orientalist Henry Corbin at the Hands of Allama Tabatabai

Henry Corbin was born in 1903 in the French capital, Paris.....


Henry Corbin was born in 1903 in the French capital, Paris, and he received his degree in philosophy in 1925 and his diploma in 1926 from the Sorbonne. In 1928, he was graduated from the “École des Hautes Études” from Paris University, and the following year received a degree in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish from the “École des Langues Orientales”.

He was the student of Louis Massignon, the director of Islamic studies at Sorbonne, and he was named to succeed Massignon in the chair of Islam and the religions of Arabia in the division of religious sciences at the “École Pratique des Hautes Études” – a post he occupied until his retirement.

In 1946, the French Foreign ministry chose him the head of the department of Iranian studies at the “Institut Français d’Iranologie” in Tehran. He was one of the main founders of the Iranian Foundation which published several of his studies, and Iran rewarded him with awards and titles.

His works and publications:

He had some 197 publications which were printed in Tehran and Paris, including:

  • Kashf al-mahjub–an Ismaili Text.
  • Le livre de la sagesse orientale (Hikmat al-Ishrâq) de Sohravardî
  • I’timad al Hukama
  • Le livre réunissant les deux sagesses (Ketāb-e jāmeʿ al-ḥekmatayn)
The Influence of Allama Tabatabai on him:

Henry Corbin’s contact with late Allamah Tabatabai and his endeavours to translate Shia Gnosis to westerners had a great influence on him.

When he felt the spiritual hollowness of the west, he found in Shia Gnosis special characteristics that filled this hollowness, hence adopting it. Consequently, he went to Iran and exerted a great effort to get introduced to Gnostic thinkers and philosophers in the Iranian society.

He thus formed a strong relation with late Allama Tabatabai and became his close disciple. He further translated his lectures into French while his students and assistants translated them into English and spread them worldwide.

His Islam:

After years of research and study of the Islamic religion, Corbin got interested in Islam and especially the chaste Imams (PBUT). By and by, he moved away from the western ideas and his master in Europe Louis Massignon.

He embraced Islam in 1945 and travelled to Iran to satisfy his desire to know more of wisdom and orientalism. He spent most of his time in the years he spent in Iran in debates, discussions, and exchanges of views with Shia scholars.

Orientalism and Islam:

Orientalists like Corbin are numerous in the west including Wilferd Madelung – the author of the book “The Succession to Muhammad” which was translated by the Razavi Shrine and awarded the Best Book of the Year prize too. However the orientalist Professor Henry Corbin was one of the very few who understood the truth of the Islamic history and wrote about it fairly and impartially and discovered the great truths about the Islamic religion.

After embracing the Islamic religion, Corbin chose the Shiite Sect – the sect of Ahlulbeit (PBUT) because Shiism is the only sect that believes, after the seal of prophet hood by Prophet Mohammad (PBUH and his Household), in the continuity of the link between guidance and continuity via the wilayat of the successive Imams – an indispensable must until Doom’s Day. So the belief in Imam Mahdi (May Allah speed up his reappearance) in this time is one of the main reasons for Professor Henry Corbin electing Shiism from among the other Islamic sects.

Professor Jalaluddine Astiani wrote in one of his articles that when Corbin was at his deathbed, he was hymning phrases from the well –known Ziyarat of Imam Mahdi: Peace be on the Possessor of the Prophetic Call.

The beginning of the Story of Corbin with Shiism:

The story of Corbin with the intellect of Ahlulbeit started when he sought a meeting with Sayyed Tabatabai – the great philosopher and exegete of the Holy Qur’an, famous for Tafsir al-Mizan – to hold study sessions with him. Such discussions were based on accepting logical viewpoints. The result was fruitful and beneficiary as per the points Corbin discussed with Sayyed Tabatabai.

In fact, Sayyed Tabatabai started from his dialogue with Corbin from the point that the true Islam and the sciences of Ahlulbeit (PBUT) have not been properly introduced to the west, because so far the orientalists who studied Islam reflected one dimension about Islam as they used to take the information related to Islam from one side while disregarding the other. Consequently, the image the west formed about Shiism is that it is no more than a dissident party which disagrees with the majority of the Islamic sects on causes including caliphate and the rule.

  Allama Tabatabai on Corbin:

Allama Tabatabai depicted Corbin’s rationality and serenity by saying:

“Corbin was a man with an intact soul. He was objective and fair. He would read the supplications in Sahifa Mahdawiya while tears would be running down his cheeks. Corbin deeply examined the Quran and struggled hard to reach Islamic facts via the School of Ahlulbeit (PBUH), what made him a man who does not fear being blamed whatsoever when backing justice. In fact, this is not strange; Allah Al Mighty says in The Holy Quran that whoever follows the Quran which is not perfectly interpreted except by Allah Al Mighty and those with unshaken knowledge – meaning the Imams of guidance (PBUT) – will be led by Allah Al Mighty to the secure shore. {By which Allah guides those who pursue His pleasure to the ways of peace and brings them out from darkness into the light, by His permission, and guides them to a straight path}.

What does Corbin say?

Corbin’s wide knowledge on the Sect of Ahlulbeit (PBUT) which he gained through what he read for senior past and modern Shia scholars, his great influence by the heritage of the Mir Damad and the writings of Molla Sadra Shirazi as well as his dialogues with Allamah Tabatabai resulted in a final and absolute conclusion that crowned his researches on this pure school. We can as well mention an extract of this conclusion based on Corbin’s very quotes on this school:

“I believe that Shi’ism is the only school which has preserved for ever the link of the divine guidance between God and the creatures and has kept alive the rule of the divine authority. Judaism wrapped the actual link between God and the human world in the person of Prophet Moses (PBUH), and later it did not acknowledge the Prophethood of Christ and Prophet Mohammad (Peace be upon both of them); hence the above-mentioned link was severed. Likewise, Christianity severed this link with the person of the Christ (PBUH). As for Sunni Muslims, they severed the above-mentioned link with the person of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). With the Seal of the Prophet, this link stopped to be and continue (at the level of authority) between God and the creatures. The Shi’a school remains the only school which believes in the seal of Prophethood – Mohammad (PBUH) and likewise believes in the authority (wilayat) which is the link which continues the line of guidance and conducts it after the decease of the Prophet (PBUH) what kept this religion alive forever”.

Corbin says:

“On this perspective, I exerted all possible efforts to acquaint the western world with the school of Shia in a way that best befits the truth of this sect, and I will always exert my efforts in this perspective”.

The extensive studies carried by Corbin resulted in several books on the School of Shia. Corbin’s magnum opus is “Islam in Iran – Spiritual and philosophical Aspects”. Professor Nawaf Musawi translated this book into Arabic. The above-mentioned book is divided into seven chapters:

– Shiism and Iran

– The Concept of the Twelve Imams Shiism

– The Shiism Spiritual Battle

– The Holy Book Phenomenon

– Falsehood and Interpretation

– Treatise on Prophethood and Treatise on Imamate

– The Status of the Imam as Per Shiite Spirituality.

Corbin’s Influence on changing the western viewpoint on Shiism:

The impact Islam in general and Shiism in particular had on Henry Corbin who spent about three decades in deeply examining this intellect is manifested in his being responsible for redirecting the study of Islamic philosophy  and changing the doomed viewpoint the west had on Islam as a divine religion and the Shiite School as a genuine Islamic intellect.

One of the figures who were most influenced by Corbin is the French Professor “Francois Thual” who was very much interested about Shia. Asserting his deep interest in Dr. Henry Corbin, Thual says: “Since a long time, I have been showing great care about Shia after I read the books of Henry Corbin which I devoured altogether”.

He further stresses: “The Islamic world will remain obscure to us whether on the political, geopolitical, or interreligious dialogue level should not we comprehend Shiism”.

Henry Corbin died in 1978; however, as Diaa’uddin Dihistri – the translator of Corbin’s book “Celestial Earth” says: “Corbin embraced Islam in 1945 after he offered great services to the western world and spent his life in the sake of raising and defending the Shiite intellect that adheres to and follows the immortal intellectual principles of the chaste Household of the Prophet (PBUT).