Creative Imagination – Transformation Through Perception

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In many of his publications, French scholar Henri Corbin researched the mysticism of Islam. One of his greatest works, L’imagination créatrice dans le soufism d’Ibn ’Arabi (Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi)[1], represents his attempt at understanding the thoughts of Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240, one of Sufism’s most influential teachers), from the inside out, so to speak. “The only means of understanding him is to become for a moment his disciple, to approach him as he himself approached many masters of Sufism. What we have tried to do is to live his spirituality for a moment with him”.[2]

This review of Corbin’s book’s attempts, by and large, to present a few aspects of its content. It is about a potential of awareness waiting to unfold. Ibn ‘Arabi, who vastly influenced the mysticism of Islam, is starting to gain relevance across religious borders today. His work is about recognizing and realizing the Truth.

The outward perception of things and the urge to research them has led to a worldwide cooperation of natural scientists. Similarly, perceiving and researching the inner worlds of life could lead to a cooperation of those who explore the psychic dimensions. Corbin’s book opens inner horizons of breath-taking depth and vastness.

Creative imagination is not new. It has, however, taken a back seat in recent centuries, forgotten and belittled next to the urge to decipher the material world. As late as the Renaissance, creative imagination was common in Western Europe as well; Corbin reminds us of Jakob Böhme, J.G. Gichtel, Valentin Weigel, Swedenborg and others, declaring that Ibn ‘Arabi’s successors would have gotten along very well with the circle around Johann Valentin Andreæ (in which the thoughts of the Rosicrucian manifestos of 1614-1616 originated).[3] The 20th century saw a renewal of interest in creative imagination.[4]

About the structure of reality

To perceive is to take part in reality, and that which we perceive is always our personal reality. In agreement with the inner teachings of all religions, Ibn ‘Arabi points out three clearly distinct layers of reality (of which, strictly speaking, only the highest one deserves to be called immutable reality).

We know the visible world which is accessible to our senses and the scientific instruments we have constructed. There is also the divine-spiritual world of pure ideas from which creative impulses emanate. And lastly, between the two, the world of the souls. It is of a subtle substance, representing images of the divine ideas as archetypical forms. It is populated by a multitude of entities that are also creative: they in-form our world and feed their impulses into the forms thus created.

Imaginative perception aims at the middle layer of reality. From there, it is also that the organs needed to perceive it are developed. Within the human being, all three layers are present – but only one is fully developed. The “opening of the eyes” capable of creative imagination is a milestone: another sphere of reality unfolds. At the same time, the meaning of life comes closer, so to speak. Because, as Ibn ‘Arabi and many others have pointed out, our world is created from the inner worlds.[5] Ibn ‘Arabi likens our world to “a book, descended from the Heavens”.[6] Only from there can the book be deciphered.

About the creative

But creative imagination goes beyond mere perception and recognition. It is “creative” in the sense that it provides the inner worlds with impulses, vitalizes and fertilizes them. Perceiver and the perceived permeate each other and are transmuted by one another. The perceiver achieves a new, psychic shape – the one to which the new organs of imagination belong.[7]

According to Ibn ‘Arabi, Creation is a never-ending process. [8] In every moment, the deity emanates its potential from the highest plane of reality – by applying imagination, i.e. the divine power of conception. The highest plane is comprised of the divine “names”, i.e. divine qualities and ideas. They are the Deity’s living aspects, and within them lives the urge to reveal themselves, to show themselves in physical shapes. Thus, they manifest in the psychic realms of subtle matter as immortal entities. Ibn ‘Arabi refers to these intermediate realms as the “cloud” (‘ama).[9]

This process brings forth immortal, “absolute” entities[10] who, in turn, create images of their own, because imagination is in their very nature right from birth. Thus, manifestation comes to pass within the condensed, crystallized world we inhabit. Each and every kind of plant and animal, as well as every single human being is the image of an immortal individual, which, in turn, is the image of a divine name. What this means is that each human being possesses a transcendental depth reaching into the soul realms – and beyond (in a second step) into the divine-spiritual. Ibn ’Arabi talks about all human beings having, deep within themselves, their own “holy spirit”, their “personal Lord”, their very own, immediate relationship to the divine-spiritual[11], their “angel of knowledge and revelation”.[12]

All of humanity’s striving for insight is based upon this hidden dimension within the human being, this “inner Heaven”. The transcendent aspect of the individual projects itself into the mortal human being, urging him to seek the perfection that is latent in him. Since there is an infinite number of divine names and qualities, there are also countless differences in human beings’ individual, personal make-ups. And these are further multiplied into infinity by human actions.

We can perceive the creatures of nature (and ourselves) as merely natural beings, thus ignoring the transcendental dimension to their (our) existence. We perceive the outer form as the only aspect there is to their existence, and, in turn, their psychic inner world remains shrouded to us. In the words of Corbin, we are then caught in the trap of idolatry.[13] Then we consider Imagination to be mere fantasy, mistaking the imaginative for the imaginary, for something which is plainly unreal.[14]

But whoever allows creative imagination to emerge enters a psychic birth process in which everything they perceive reveals its inner side. Simultaneously, the origin of imagination is revealed. It is based upon divine, creative imagination, which is directed downward, into the realms of “coarse” and “subtle matter”. It can (and wants to) spark an echo, an answer within the human mind. And the “correct” echo is to answer the divine descent with an inner ascent – which, in turn, happens through the same power by which the divine descends.[15]

The creative energies through which creative imagination is promoted concentrate within the heart. In a manner of speaking, the heart develops a set of psychic eyes, leading to a link between understanding and love.[16]

About the symbolic

Then our world appears as a “pure representation”, as a symbol. It refers to its transcendent origin and becomes a plethora of “luminescent shadows” testifying to the light that creates them.[17] Everything alive before the external eyes is transformed into a symbol[18], an awe-inspiring wonder, by creative imagination.

This includes the human being. The most decisive revelation unveiled to a human being by creative imagination is to sense and feel the “divine other” within oneself, the inner Lord.[19] It is the counterpart to our mortal existence. Over and over again, Corbin emphasizes Ibn ‘Arabi’s view that this “complementary opposite” never “incarnates”. It never takes physical shape as “flesh and blood”, always remaining the prefiguration whose intention is to call forth an ever-better image of itself. It calls the image, that is the human being, to a resurrection in the “celestial” realms.[20] But bipolarity remains there as well. The divine name now unfolds into its image within the psychic realm.

Ibn ‘Arabi describes how the human beings find their fulfilment in perceiving and recognizing their inner Lord and in entering “His paradise”.[21] He makes clear that the new eyes, the organs of creative imagination, are actually the inner god’s eyes.[22]

Henri Corbin’s book is not an easy read. But even attempting to come to grips with Ibn ‘Arabi’s thoughts sets an inner process in motion. The rational mind alone cannot verify Ibn ‘Arabi’s statements; to that end, something deeper must awaken. Following Ibn ‘Arabi’s path, Corbin remains a scholar. In a clear language he sketches the silhouette of a multi-dimensional truth. His book is an encouragement to responsibly set out on a spiritual path, under the circumstances of our current, modern times.



[1] Paris, 1958; English translation: Princeton, 1969

[2] Henri Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ’Arabi, p. 5

[3] Ibid., pp. 92, 181ff, with regard to the Rosicrucians: p. 15

[4] Rudolf Steiner, Jan van Rijckenborgh, C.G. Jung and others topicalized it. Also see Gary Lachman, Lost knowledge of the Imagination, Edinburgh 2017

[5]  Ibid., p. 180

[6]  Ibid., p. 28

[7]  Ibid., p. 182

[8]  Ibid., p. 91

[9]  Ibid., p. 185

[10]  Ibid., p. 12

[11]  Ibid., p. 18

[12]  Ibid., pp. 21ff., 34ff., 54-62

[13]  Ibid., p. 187

[14]  Ibid., p. 194

[15]  Ibid., p.189

[16]  Ibid., pp. 98 ff.

[17]  Ibid., pp. 191 ff.

[18]  Ibid., p. 80

[19]  Ibid., p. 81

[20]  Ibid., p. 84

[21]  Ibid., p. 132

[22]  Ibid., p. 151

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