Isfahan's Four Ancient Gardens: A Schematic Sketch

Among the Iranian scholars of the Twentieth century, Henry Corbin has had the most philosophical approach to Iran. Contrary to the prevalent trend of the period, he does not consider Iran as a specific geographic or historic entity within a broader cultural sphere. For him, Iran is a philosophical object, a world representing and bespeaking of a unique cultural phenomenon which is governed by its own internal imperatives nurturing its unity and insuring its diverse manifestations. Esotericism, which has forever marked the Iranian cultural existence, is the quintessential feature of this world. It is on this fundamental assumption that Corbin has attempted to narrate the history of Iranian thought or Islamic philosophy. The imagined world, although beyond the natural universe and independent of time and history, is still a real world. Thus, Corbin is writing the history of an ahistorical idea and hence his rejection of historical specificity in dealing with Iranian philosophical thought.

This article attempts to bring into light Corbin's deep structure of the history of Iranian thought. It strives to analyze those concepts and assumptions that have formed the basis of Corbin's philosophical project for understanding Iran. It is the author's suggestion that Corbin's concern is not with Iran per se. He simply poses the essential problem that had preoccupied Europeans in the aftermath of the Second World War, i.e., how to prevent the recurrence of the calamities that had befallen them in the twentieth century by the emergence of Fascist and Communist regimes. In Corbin's view the emergence of such political orders had very much to do with Europeans' understanding of history. For him, ideology is the byproduct of the philosophy of history rooted in the age of Enlightenment. In a sense, ideology is the child of modernity, itself nineteenth century rationalism which is no less than the positivism that emanated from the secularization of history.   

It is in his critique of this chain of ideas that Corbin attempted to find a philosophical solution for the amoral violence of the twentieth century. His understanding of the Islamic world led him to believe that Islam was on the verge of an ideological metamorphosis. Indeed, he clearly foresaw the emergence of a fundamentalist movement in the Islamic world. For him, the only way that Islam could spare itself the fate of Christianity was to avoid secularization. According to Corbin only Iranian Islam with its old, lasting and lively esotericism, could foreclose such a possibility. The Iranian revolution that occurred only a year after his death is a clear invitation to revisit Corbin's prophecies.

Reza Moghtader
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