By Henri Corbin


< Start at the beginning of the post


I have just mentioned the word utopian. It is a strange thing, or a decisive example, that our authors use a term in Persian that seems to be its linguistic calque: Nā-kojā-Ābād, the “land of No-where.” This, however, is something entirely different from a utopia.

Let us take the very beautiful tales—simultaneously visionary tales and tales of spiritual initiation—composed in Persian by Sohravardī, the young shaykh who, in the twelfth century, was the “reviver of the theosophy of ancient Persia” in Islamic Iran. Each time, the visionary finds himself, at the beginning of the tale, in the presence of a supernatural figure of great beauty, whom the visionary asks who he is and from where he comes. These tales essentially illustrate the experience of the gnostic, lived as the personal history of the Stranger, the captive who aspires to return home.

Mohammed on Mount Hira, by Nicholas Roerich

At the beginning of the tale that Sohravardī entitles “The Crimson Archangel,”1 the captive, who has just escaped the surveillance of his jailers, that is, has temporarily left: the world of sensory experience, finds himself in the desert in the presence of a being whom he asks, since he sees in him all the charms of adolescence, “O Youth! where do you come from?” He receives this reply: “What? I am the first-born of the children of the Creator [in gnostic terms, the Protoktistos, the First-Created] and you call me a youth?” There, in this origin, is the mystery of the crimson color that clothes his appearance: that of a being of pure Light whose splendor the sensory world reduces to the crimson of twilight. “I come from beyond the mountain of Qāf. . . . It is there that you were yourself at the beginning, and it is there that you will return when you are finally rid of your bonds.”

The mountain of Qāf is the cosmic mountain constituted from summit to summit, valley to valley, by the celestial Spheres that are enclosed one inside the other. What, then, is the road that leads out of it? How long is it? “No matter how long you walk,” he is told, “it is at the point of departure that you arrive there again,” like the point of the compass returning to the same place. Does this involve simply leaving oneself in order to attain oneself? Not exactly. Between the two, a great event will have changed everything; the self that is found there is the one that is beyond the mountain of Qāf, a superior self, a self “in the second person.” It will have been necessary, like Khezr (or Khaḍir, the mysterious prophet, the eternal wanderer, Elijah or one like him) to bathe in the Spring of Life. “He who has found the meaning of True Reality has arrived at that Spring. When he emerges from the Spring, he has achieved the Aptitude that makes him like a balm, a drop of which you distill in the hollow of your hand by holding it facing the sun, and which then passes through to the back of your hand. If you are Khezr, you also may pass without difficulty through the mountain of Qāf.”

Two other mystical tales give a name to that “beyond the mountain of Qāf,” and it is this name itself that marks the transformation from cosmic mountain to psychocosmic mountain, that is, the transition of the physical cosmos to what constitutes the first level of the spiritual universe. In the tale entitled “The Rustling of Gabriel’s Wings,” the figure again appears who, in the works of Avicenna, is named Hayy ibn Yaqzān (“the Living, son of the Watchman”) and who, just now, was designated as the Crimson Archangel. The question that must be asked is asked, and the reply is this: “I come from Nā-kojā-Ābād.”2 Finally, in the tale entitled “Vade Mecum of the Faithful in Love” (Mu’nis al-’oshshāq), which places on stage a cosmogonic triad whose dramatis personae are, respectively, Beauty, Love, and Sadness, Sadness appears to Ya’qūb weeping for Joseph in the land of Canaan. To the question, “What horizon did you penetrate to come here?,” the same reply is given: “I come from Nā-kojā-Ābād.”

Nā-kojā-Ābād is a strange term. It does not occur in any Persian dictionary, and it was coined, as far as I know, by Sohravardī himself, from the resources of the purest Persian language. Literally, as I mentioned a moment ago, it signifies the city, the country or land (ābād) of No-where (Nā-kojā). That is why we are here in the presence of a term that, at first sight, may appear to us as the exact equivalent of the term ou-topia, which, for its part, does not occur in the classical Greek dictionaries, and was coined by Thomas More as an abstract noun to designate the absence of any localization, of any given situs in a space that is discoverable and verifiable by the experience of our senses. Etymologically and literally, it would perhaps be exact to translate Nā-kojā-Ābād by outopia, Utopia, and yet with regard to the concept, the intention, and the true meaning, I believe that we would be guilty of mistranslation. It seems to me, therefore, that it is of fundamental importance to try, at least, to determine why this would be a mistranslation.

It is even a matter of indispensable precision, if we want to understand the meaning and the real implication of manifold information concerning the topographies explored in the visionary state, the state intermediate between waking and sleep—information that, for example, among the spiritual individuals of Shi’ite Islam, concerns the “land of the hidden Imām.” A matter of precision that, in making us attentive to a differential affecting an entire region of the soul, and thus an entire spiritual culture, would lead us to ask: what conditions make possible that which we ordinarily call a Utopia, and consequently the type of Utopian man? How and why does it make its appearance? I wonder, in fact, whether the equivalent would be found anywhere in Islamic thought in its traditional form. I do not believe, for example, that when Fārābī, in the tenth century, describes the “Perfect City,” or when the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Bājja (Avempace), in the twelfth century, takes up the same theme in his “Regime of the Solitary”3—I do not believe that either one of them contemplated what we call today a social or political Utopia. To understand them in this way would be, I am afraid, to withdraw them from their own presuppositions and perspectives, in order to impose our own, our own dimensions; above all, I am afraid that it would be certain to entail resigning ourselves to confusing the Spiritual City with an imaginary City.

The word Nā-kojā-Ābād does not designate something like unextended being, in the dimensionless state. The Persian word ābād certainly signifies a city, a cultivated and peopled land, thus something extended. What Sohravardī means by being “beyond the mountain of Qāf” is that he himself, and with him the entire theosophical tradition of Iran, represents the composite of the mystical cities of Jābalqā, Jābarsā, and Hūrqalyā. Topographically, he states precisely that this region begins “on the convex surface” of the Ninth Sphere, the Sphere of Spheres, or the Sphere that includes the whole of the cosmos. This means that it begins at the exact moment when one leaves the supreme Sphere, which defines all possible orientation in our world (or on this side of the world), the “Sphere” to which the celestial cardinal points refer. It is evident that once this boundary is crossed, the question “where?” (ubi, kojā) loses its meaning, at least the meaning in which it is asked in the space of our sensory experience. Thus the name Nā-kojā-Ābād: a place outside of place, a “place” that is not contained in a place, in a topos, that permits a response, with a gesture of the hand, to the question “where?” But when we say, “To depart from the where” what does this mean?

It surely cannot relate to a change of local position,4 a physical transfer from one place to another place, as though it involved places contained in a single homogeneous space. As is suggested, at the end of Sohravardī’s tale, by the symbol of the drop of balm exposed in the hollow of the hand to the sun, it is a matter of entering, passing into the interior and, in passing into the interior, of finding oneself, paradoxically, outside, or, in the language of our authors, “on the convex surface” of the Ninth Sphere—in other words, “beyond the mountain of Qāf.” The relationship involved is essentially that of the external, the visible, the exoteric (in Greek, τὰ ἔξω ; Arabic, ẓāhir), and the internal, the invisible, the esoteric (in Greek τὰ ἔσω; Arabic bāṭin), or the natural world and the spiritual world. To depart from the where, the category of ubi, is to leave the external or natural appearances that enclose the hidden internal realities, as the almond is hidden beneath the shell. This step is made in order for the Stranger, the gnostic, to return home—or at least to lead to that return.

But an odd thing happens: once this transition is accomplished, it turns out that henceforth this reality, previously internal and hidden, is revealed to be enveloping, surrounding, containing what was first of all external and visible, since by means of interiorization, one has departed from that external reality. Henceforth, it is spiritual reality that envelops, surrounds, contains the reality called material. That is why spiritual reality is not “in the where” It is the “where” that is in it. Or, rather, it is itself the “where” of all things; it is, therefore, not itself in a place, it does not fall under the question “where?”—the category ubi referring to a place in sensory space. Its place (its ābād) in relation to this is Nā-kojā (No-where), because its ubi in relation to what is in sensory space is an ubique (everywhere). When we have understood this, we have perhaps understood what is essential to follow the topography of visionary experiences, to distinguish their meaning (that is, the signification and the direction simultaneously) and also to distinguish something fundamental, namely, what differentiates the visionary perceptions of our spiritual individuals (Sohravardī and many others) with regard to everything that our modern vocabulary subsumes under the pejorative sense of creations, imaginings, even utopian madness.

But what we must begin to destroy, to the extent that we are able to do so, even at the cost of a struggle resumed every day, is what may be called the “agnostic reflex” in Western man, because he has consented to the divorce between thought and being. How many recent theories tacitly originate in this reflex, thanks to which we hope to escape the other reality before which certain experiences and certain evidence place us—and to escape it, in the case where we secretly submit to its attraction, by giving it all sorts of ingenious explanations, except one: the one that would permit it truly to mean for us, by its existence, what it is! For it to mean that to us, we must, at all events, have available a cosmology of such a kind that the most astounding information of modern science regarding the physical universe remains inferior to it. For, insofar as it is a matter of that sort of information, we remain bound to what is “on this side of the mountain of Qāf”. What distinguishes the traditional cosmology of the theosophers in Islam, for example, is that its structure—where the worlds and interworlds “beyond the mountain of Qāf,” that is, beyond the physical universes, are arranged in levels—is intelligible only for an existence in which the act of being is in accordance with its presence in those worlds, for reciprocally, it is in accordance with this act of being that these worlds are present to it.5 What dimension, then, must this act of being have in order to be, or to become in the course of its future rebirths, the place of those worlds that are outside the place of our natural space? And, first of all, what are those worlds?

I can only refer here to a few texts. A larger number will be found translated and grouped in the book that I have entitled Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth.6 In his “Book of Conversations,” Sohravardī writes: “When you learn in the treatises of the ancient Sages that there exists a world provided with dimensions and extension, other than the pleroma of Intelligences [that is, a world below that of the pure archangelic Intelligences], and other than the world governed by the Souls of the Spheres [that is, a world which, while having dimension and extension, is other than the world of sensory phenomena, and superior to it, including the sidereal universe, the planets and the “fixed stars”], a world where there are cities whose number it is impossible to count, cities among which our Prophet himself named Jābalqā and Jābarsā, do not hasten to call it a lie, for pilgrims of the spirit may contemplate that world, and they find there everything that is the object of their desire.”7

These few lines refer us to a schema on which all of our mystical theosophers agree, a schema that articulates three universes or, rather, three categories of universe. There is our physical sensory world, which includes both our earthly world (governed by human souls) and the sidereal universe (governed by the Souls of the Spheres); this is the sensory world, the world of phenomena (molk). There is the suprasensory world of the Soul or Angel-Souls, the Malakūt, in which there are the mystical cities that we have just named, and which begins “on the convex surface of the Ninth Sphere.” There is the universe of pure archangelic Intelligences. To these three universes correspond three organs of knowledge: the senses, the imagination, and the intellect, a triad to which corresponds the triad of anthropology: body, soul, spirit—a triad that regulates the triple growth of man, extending from this world to the resurrections in the other worlds.

We observe immediately that we are no longer reduced to the dilemma of thought and extension, to the schema of a cosmology and a gnoseology limited to the empirical world and the world of abstract understanding. Between the two is placed an intermediate world, which our authors designate as ‘ālam al-mithāl, the world of the Image, mundus imaginalis: a world as ontologically real as the world of the senses and the world of the intellect, a world that requires a faculty of perception belonging to it, a faculty that is a cognitive function, a noetic value, as fully real as the faculties of sensory perception or intellectual intuition. This faculty is the imaginative power, the one we must avoid confusing with the imagination that modern man identifies with “fantasy” and that, according to him, produces only the “imaginary.” Here we are, then, simultaneously at the heart of our research and of our problem of terminology.

What is that intermediate universe? It is the one we mentioned a little while ago as being called the “eighth climate.”8 For all of our thinkers, in fact, the world of extension perceptible to the senses includes the seven climates of their traditional geography. But there is still another climate, represented by that world which, however, possesses extension and dimensions, forms and colors, without their being perceptible to the senses, as they are when they are properties of physical bodies. No, these dimensions, shapes, and colors are the proper object of imaginative perception or the “psycho-spiritual senses”; and that world, fully objective and real, where everything existing in the sensory world has its analogue, but not perceptible by the senses, is the world that is designated as the eighth climate. The term is sufficiently eloquent by itself, since it signifies a climate outside of climates, a place outside of place, outside of where (Nā-kojā-Ābād!).

The technical term that designates it in Arabic, ‘ālam al-mithāl, can perhaps also be translated by mundus archetypus, if ambiguity is avoided. For it is the same word that serves in Arabic to designate the Platonic Ideas (interpreted by Sohravardī in terms of Zoroastrian angelology). However, when the term refers to Platonic Ideas, it is almost always accompanied by this precise qualification: mothol (plural of mithāl) aflātūnīya nūrānīya, the “Platonic archetypes of light.” When the term refers to the world of the eighth climate, it designates technically, on one hand, the Archetype-Images of individual and singular things; in this case, it relates to the eastern region of the eighth climate, the city of Jābalqā, where these images subsist, preexistent to and ordered before the sensory world. But on the other hand, the term also relates to the western region, the city of Jābarsā, as being the world or interworld in which are found the Spirits after their presence in the natural terrestrial world, and as a world in which subsist the forms of all works accomplished, the forms of our thoughts and our desires, of our presentiments and our behavior.9 It is this composition that constitutes ‘ālam al-mithāl, the mundus imaginalis.

Technically, again, our thinkers designate it as the world of “Images in suspense” (mothol mo’allaqa). Sohravardī and his school mean by this a mode of being proper to the realities of that intermediate world, which we designate as Imaginalia.10 The precise nature of this ontological status results from visionary spiritual experiences, on which Sohravardī asks that we rely fully, exactly as we rely in astronomy on the observations of Hipparchus or Ptolemy. It should be acknowledged that forms and shapes in the mundus imaginalis do not subsist in the same manner as empirical realities in the physical world; otherwise, anyone could perceive them. It should also be noted that they cannot subsist in the pure intelligible world, since they have extension and dimension, an “immaterial” materiality, certainly, in relation to that of the sensory world, but, in fact, their own “corporeality” and spatiality (one might think here of the expression used by Henry More, a Cambridge Platonist, spissitudo spiritualis, an expression that has its exact equivalent in the work of Ṣadrā Shīrāzī, a Persian Platonist). For the same reason, that they could have only our thought as a substratum would be excluded, as it would, at the same time, that they might be unreal, nothing; otherwise, we could not discern them, classify them into hierarchies, or make judgments about them. The existence of this intermediate world, mundus imaginalis, thus appears metaphysically necessary; the cognitive function of the Imagination is ordered to it; it is a world whose ontological level is above the world of the senses and below the pure intelligible world; it is more immaterial than the former and less immaterial than the latter.11 There has always been something of major importance in this for all our mystical theosophers. Upon it depends, for them, both the validity of visionary accounts that perceive and relate “events in Heaven” and the validity of dreams, symbolic rituals, the reality of places formed by intense meditation, the reality of inspired imaginative visions, cosmogonies and theogonies, and thus, in the first place, the truth of the spiritual sense perceived in the imaginative data of prophetic revelations.12

In short, that world is the world of “subtle bodies,” the idea of which proves indispensable if one wishes to describe a link between the pure spirit and the material body. It is this which relates to the designation of their mode of being as “in suspense,” that is, a mode of being such that the Image or Form, since it is itself its own “matter,” is independent of any substratum in which it would be immanent in the manner of an accident.13 This means that it would not subsist as the color black, for example, subsists by means of the black object in which it is immanent. The comparison to which our authors regularly have recourse is the mode of appearance and subsistence of Images “in suspense” in a mirror. The material substance of the mirror, metal or mineral, is not the substance of the image, a substance whose image would be an accident. It is simply the “place of its appearance.” This led to a general theory of epiphanic places and forms (maẓhar, plural maẓāhir) so characteristic of Sohravardī’s Eastern Theosophy.

The active Imagination is the preeminent mirror, the epiphanic place of the Images of the archetypal world; that is why the theory of the mundus imaginalis is bound up with a theory of imaginative knowledge and imaginative function—a function truly central and mediatory, because of the median and mediatory position of the mundus imaginalis. It is a function that permits all the universes to symbolize with one another (or exist in symbolic relationship with one another) and that leads us to represent to ourselves, experimentally, that the same substantial realities assume forms corresponding respectively to each universe (for example, Jābalqā and Jābarsā correspond in the subtle world to the Elements of the physical world, while Hūrqalyā corresponds there to the Sky). It is the cognitive function of the Imagination that permits the establishment of a rigorous analogical knowledge, escaping the dilemma of current rationalism, which leaves only a choice between the two terms of banal dualism: either “matter” or “spirit,” a dilemma that the “socialization” of consciousness resolves by substituting a choice that is no less fatal: either “history” or “myth.”

This is the sort of dilemma that has never defeated those familiar with the “eighth climate,” the realm of “subtle bodies,” of “spiritual bodies,” threshold of the Malakūt or world of the Soul. We understand that when they say that the world of Hūrqalyā begins “on the convex surface of the supreme Sphere,” they wish to signify symbolically that this world is at the boundary where there is an inversion of the relation of interiority expressed by the preposition in or within, “in the interior of.” Spiritual bodies or spiritual entities are no longer in a world, not even in their world, in the way that a material body is in its place, or is contained in another body. It is their world that is in them. That is why the Theology attributed to Aristotle, the Arabic version of the last three Enneads of Plotinus, which Avicenna annotated and which all of our thinkers read and meditated upon, explains that each spiritual entity is “in the totality of the sphere of its Heaven”; each subsists, certainly, independently of the other, but all are simultaneous and each is within every other one. It would be completely false to picture that other world as an undifferentiated, informal heaven. There is multiplicity, of course, but the relations of spiritual space differ from the relations of space understood under the starry Heaven, as much as the fact of being in a body differs from the fact of being “in the totality of its Heaven.” That is why it can be said that “behind this world there is a Sky, an Earth, an ocean, animals, plants, and celestial men; but every being there is celestial; the spiritual entities there correspond to the human beings there, but no earthly thing is there.”

The most exact formulation of all this, in the theosophical tradition of the West, is found perhaps in Swedenborg. One cannot but be struck by the concordance or convergence of the statements by the great Swedish visionary with those of Sohravardī, Ibn ‘Arabi, or Ṣadrā Shīrāzī:

Even though everything in heaven appears to be located in space just like things in our world, still angels have no notion or concept of location and space. . . . All motion in the spiritual world is the effect of changes of inner states, to the point that motion is nothing but change of state. . . . This is why the people who are nearby are the ones in a similar state and the ones who are far away are in dissimilar states. It is why space in heaven is nothing but the outward states that correspond to the inner ones. This is the only reason the heavens are differentiated from each other. . . . Whenever people move from one place to another . . . they get there more quickly if they are eager to and more slowly if they are not. The path itself is lengthened or shortened depending on their desire. . . . I have often seen this, much to my surprise. We can see from all this again that distance and space itself depend wholly on the inner state of angels; and since this is the case, no notion or concept of space can enter their minds even though they have space just the way we do in our world.14

Such a description is eminently appropriate to Nā-kojā-Ābād and its mysterious Cities. In short, it follows that there is a spiritual place and a corporeal place. The transfer of one to the other is absolutely not effected according to the laws of our homogeneous physical space. In relation to the corporeal place, the spiritual place is a No-where, and for the one who reaches Nā-kojā-Ābād everything occurs inversely to the evident facts of ordinary consciousness, which remains orientated to the interior of our space. For henceforth it is the where, the place, that resides in the soul; it is the corporeal substance that resides in the spiritual substance; it is the soul that encloses and bears the body. This is why it is not possible to say where the spiritual place is situated; it is not situated, it is, rather, that which situates, it is situative. Its ubi is an ubique. Certainly, there may be topographical correspondences between the sensory world and the mundus imaginalis, one symbolizing with the other. However, there is no passage from one to the other without a breach. Many accounts show us this. One sets out; at a given moment, there is a break with the geographical coordinates that can be located on our maps. But the “traveler” is not conscious of the precise moment; he does not realize it, with disquiet or wonder, until later. If he were aware of it, he could change his path at will, or he could indicate it to others. But he can only describe where he was; he cannot show the way to anyone.


Continue reading Mundus Imaginalis II: THE SPIRITUAL IMAGINATION >



1. See L’Archange empourpré, quinze traités et récits mystiques, Documents spirituels 14 (Paris: Fayard, 1976), 6: 201–13. For the entirety of the themes discussed here, see our book En Islam iranien: Aspects spirituels et philosophiques, new ed. (Paris: Gallimard, 1978), vol. 4, bk. 7, “Le Douzième Imām et la chevalerie spirituelle.”

2. See L’Archange empourpré, 7: 227–39.

3. See our Histoire de la philosophie islamique (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), 1: 222ff., 317ff.

4. That is why the representation of the Sphere of Spheres in Peripatetic or Ptolemaic astronomy is only a schematic indication; it continues to be of value even after this astronomy is abandoned. This means that regardless of how “high” rockets or sputniks can reach, there will not be a single step made toward Nā-kojā-Ābād, for the “threshold” will not have been crossed.

5. Regarding this idea of presence, see particularly our introduction to Mollā ṢadrāShīrāzī, Le Livre des pénétrations métaphysiques (Kitāb al-Mashā’ir), edition and French translation (Bibliothèque Iranienne, vol. 10), Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1964, index under this term.

6. See our work Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi’ite Iran(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), especially the texts of the eleven authors translated for the first time, in the second part of the work. The notes here refer to the second French edition, Corps spirituel et Terre céleste: de l’Iran mazdéen à l’Iran shi’ite (Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1979).

7. Corps spirituel, 147.

8. For what follows, ibid., 103, 106, 112ff.,154ff.

9. Ibid., 156ff., 190ff.

10. Ibid., 112ff., 154ff.

11. Ibid., 155

12. Ibid., 112.

13. Ibid., 113.

14. Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, trans. George F. Dole (West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2002), §§191, 192, 193, 195. Swedenborg returns repeatedly to this doctrine of space and time—for example, in the short book Earths in the Universe. If there is not rigorous awareness of this, his visionary experiences will be objected to by a criticism that is as simplistic as it is ineffective, because it confuses spiritual vision of the spiritual world with what relates to the fantasy of science fiction. There is an abyss between the two.

© Copyright 2017 Swedenborg Foundation

powered by Everything theme