By Henri Corbin


< Start at the beginning of the post
< Read Mundus Imaginalis I
< Read Mundus Imaginalis II


We ought here to examine the extensive theory of the witnesses to that other world. We ought to question all those mystics who, in Islam, repeated the visionary experience of the heavenly assumption of the Prophet Muḥammad (the mi’rāj), which offers more than one feature in common with the account, preserved in an old gnostic book, of the celestial visions of the prophet Isaiah. There, the activity of imaginative perception truly assumes the aspect of a hierognosis, a higher sacral knowledge. But in order to complete our discussion, I will limit myself to describing several features typical of accounts taken from Shi’ite literature, because the world into which it will allow us to penetrate seems, at first sight, still to be our world, while in fact the events take place in the eighth climate—not in the imaginary, but in the imaginal world, that is, the world whose coordinates cannot be plotted on our maps, and where the Twelfth Imām, the “Hidden Imām,” lives a mysterious life surrounded by his companions, who are veiled under the same incognito as the Imām. One of the most typical of these accounts is the tale of a voyage to “the Green Island situated in the White Sea.”

St. Panteleimon the Healer, by Nicholas Roerich

It is impossible to describe here, even in broad terms, what constitutes the essence of Shi’ite Islam in relation to what is appropriately called Sunni orthodoxy. It is necessary, however, that we should have, at least allusively present in mind, the theme that dominates the horizon of the mystical theosophy of Shi’ism, namely, the “eternal prophetic Reality” ( Ḥaqīqat moḥammadīya) that is designated as “Muḥammadan Logos” or “Muḥammadan Light” and is composed of fourteen entities of light: the Prophet, his daughter Fātima, and the twelve Imāms. This is the pleroma of the “Fourteen Pure Ones,” by means of whose countenance the mystery of an eternal theophany is accomplished from world to world. Shi’ism has thus given Islamic prophetology its metaphysical foundation at the same time that it has given it Imāmology as the absolutely necessary complement. This means that the sense of the Divine Revelations is not limited to the letter, to the exoteric that is the cortex and containant, and that was enunciated by the Prophet; the true sense is the hidden internal, the esoteric, what is symbolized by the cortex, and which it is incumbent upon the Imāms to reveal to their followers. That is why Shi’ite theosophy eminently possesses the sense of symbols.

Moreover, the closed group or dynasty of the twelve Imāms is not a political dynasty in earthly competition with other political dynasties; it projects over them, in a way, as the dynasty of the guardians of the Grail, in our Western traditions, projects over the official hierarchy of the Church. The ephemeral earthly appearance of the twelve Imāms concluded with the twelfth, who, as a young child (in A.H. 260/A.D. 873) went into occultation from this world, but whose parousia the Prophet himself announced, the Manifestation at the end of our Aiōn, when he would reveal the hidden meaning of all Divine Revelations and fill the earth with justice and peace, as it will have been filled until then with violence and tyranny. Present simultaneously in the past and the future, the Twelfth Imām, the Hidden Imām, has been for ten centuries the history itself of Shi’ite consciousness, a history over which, of course, historical criticism loses its rights, for its events, although real, nevertheless do not have the reality of events in our climates, but they have the reality of those in the “eighth climate,” events of the soul which are visions. His occultation occurred at two different times: the minor occultation (260/873) and the major occultation (330/942).17 Since then, the Hidden Imām is in the position of those who were removed from the visible world without crossing the threshold of death: Enoch, Elijah, and Christ himself, according to the teaching of the Qur’ān. He is the Imām “hidden from the senses, but present in the heart of his followers,” in the words of the consecrated formula, for he remains the mystical pole [qoṭb] of this world, the pole of poles, without whose existence the human world could not continue to exist. There is an entire Shi’ite literature about those to whom the Imām has manifested himself, or who have approached him but without seeing him, during the period of the Great Occultation.

A Paradise Garden Persian miniature c1300

Of course, an understanding of these accounts postulates certain premises that our preceding analyses permit us to accept. The first point is that the Imām lives in a mysterious place that is by no means among those that empirical geography can verify; it cannot be situated on our maps. This place “outside of place” nonetheless has its own topography. The second point is that life is not limited to the conditions of our visible material world with its biological laws that we know. There are events in the life of the Hidden Imam—even descriptions of his five sons, who are the governors of mysterious cities. The third point is that in his last letter to his last visible representative, the Imām warned against the imposture of people who would pretend to quote him, to have seen him, in order to lay claim to a public or political role in his name. But the Imām never excluded the fact that he would manifest himself to aid someone in material or moral distress—a lost traveler, for example, or a believer who is in despair.

These manifestations, however, never occur except at the initiative of the Imām; and if he appears most often in the guise of a young man of supernatural beauty, almost always, subject to exception, the person granted the privilege of this vision is only conscious afterward, later, of whom he has seen. A strict incognito covers these manifestations; that is why the religious event here can never be socialized. The same incognito covers the Imām’s companions, that elite of elites composed of young people in his service. They form an esoteric hierarchy of a strictly limited number, which remains permanent by means of substitution from generation to generation. This mystical order of knights, which surrounds the Hidden Imām, is subject to an incognito as strict as that of the knights of the Grail, inasmuch as they do not lead anyone to themselves. But someone who has been led there will have penetrated for a moment into the eighth climate; for a moment he will have been “in the totality of the Heaven of his soul.”

That was indeed the experience of a young Iranian shaykh, ‘Ali ibn Fāzel Māzandarānī, toward the end of our thirteenth century, an experience recorded in the Account of strange and marvelous things that he contemplated and saw with his own eyes on the Green Island situated in the White Sea. I can only give a broad outline of this account here, without going into the details that guarantee the means and authenticity of its transmission.18 The narrator himself gives a long recital of the years and circumstances of his life preceding the event; we are dealing with a scholarly and spiritual personality who has both feet on the ground. He tells us how he emigrated, how in Damascus he followed the teaching of an Andalusian shaykh, and how he became attached to this shaykh; and when the latter left for Egypt, he together with a few other disciples accompanied him. From Cairo he followed him to Andalusia, where the shaykh had suddenly been called by a letter from his dying father. Our narrator had scarcely arrived in Andalusia when he contracted a fever that lasted for three days. Once recovered, he went into the village and saw a strange group of men who had come from a region near the land of the Berbers, not far from the “peninsula of the Shi’ites.” He is told that the journey takes twenty-five days, with a large desert to cross. He decides to join the group. Up to this point, we are still more or less on the geographical map.

But it is no longer at all certain that we are still on it when our traveler reaches the peninsula of the Shi’ites, a peninsula surrounded by four walls with high massive towers; the outside wall borders the coast of the sea. He asks to be taken to the principal mosque. There, for the first time, he hears, during the muezzin’s call to prayer, resounding from the minaret of the mosque, the Shi’ite invocation asking that “Joy should hasten,” that is, the joy of the future Appearance of the Imām, who is now hidden. In order to understand his emotion and his tears, it is necessary to think of the heinous persecutions, over the course of many centuries and over vast portions of the territory of Islam, that reduced the Shi’ites, the followers of the holy Imāms, to a state of secrecy. Recognition among Shi’ites is effected here again in the observation, in a typical manner, of the customs of the “discipline of the arcanum.”

Our pilgrim takes up residence among his own, but he notices in the course of his walks that there is no sown field in the area. Where do the inhabitants obtain their food? He learns that food comes to them from “the Green Island situated in the White Sea,” which is one of the islands belonging to the sons of the Hidden Imām. Twice a year, a flotilla of seven ships brings it to them. That year the first voyage had already taken place; it would be necessary to wait four months until the next voyage. The account describes the pilgrim passing his days, overwhelmed by the kindness of the inhabitants, but in an anguish of expectation, walking tirelessly along the beach, always watching the high sea, toward the west, for the arrival of the ships. We might be tempted to believe that we are on the African coast of the Atlantic and that the Green Island belongs, perhaps, to the Canaries or the “Fortunate Isles.” The details that follow will suffice to undeceive us. Other traditions place the Green Island elsewhere—in the Caspian Sea, for example—as though to indicate to us that it has no coordinates in the geography of this world.

Finally, as if according to the law of the “eighth climate” ardent desire has shortened space, the seven ships arrive somewhat in advance and make their entry into the port. From the largest of the ships descends a shaykh of noble and commanding appearance, with a handsome face and magnificent clothes. A conversation begins, and our pilgrim realizes with astonishment that the shaykh already knows everything about him, his name and his origin. The shaykh is his Companion, and he tells him that he has come to find him: together they will leave for the Green Island. This episode bears a characteristic feature of the gnostic’s feeling everywhere and always: he is an exile, separated from his own people, whom he barely remembers, and he has still less an idea of the way that will take him back to them. One day, though, a message arrives from them, as in the “Song of the Pearl” in the Acts of Thomas, as in the “Tale of Western Exile” by Sohravardī. Here, there is something better than a message: it is one of the companions of the Imām in person. Our narrator exclaims movingly: “Upon hearing these words, I was overwhelmed with happiness. Someone remembered me, my name was known to them!” Was his exile at an end? From now on, he is entirely certain that the itinerary cannot be transferred onto our maps.

The crossing lasts sixteen days, after which the ship enters an area where the waters of the sea are completely white; the Green Island is outlined on the horizon. Our pilgrim learns from his Companion that the White Sea forms an uncrossable zone of protection around the island; no ship manned by the enemies of the Imām and his people can venture there without the waves engulfing it. Our travelers land on the Green Island. There is a city at the edge of the sea; seven walls with high towers protect the precincts (this is the preeminent symbolic plan). There are luxuriant vegetation and abundant streams. The buildings are constructed from diaphanous marble. All the inhabitants have beautiful and young faces, and they wear magnificent clothes. Our Iranian shaykh feels his heart fill with joy, and from this point on, throughout the entire second part, his account will take on the rhythm and the meaning of an initiation account, in which we can distinguish three phases. There is an initial series of conversations with a noble personage who is none other than a grandson of the Twelfth Imām (the son of one of his five sons), and who governs the Green Island: Sayyed Shamsoddīn. These conversations compose a first initiation into the secret of the Hidden Imām; they take place sometimes in the shadow of a mosque and sometimes in the serenity of gardens filled with perfumed trees of all kinds. There follows a visit to a mysterious sanctuary in the heart of the mountain that is the highest peak on the island. Finally, there is a concluding series of conversations of decisive importance with regard to the possibility or impossibility of having a vision of the Imām.

I am giving the briefest possible summary here, and I must pass over in silence the details of scenery depiction and of an intensely animated dramaturgy, in order to note only the central episode. At the summit or at the heart of the mountain, which is in the center of the Green Island, there is a small temple, with a cupola, where one can communicate with the Imām, because it happens that he leaves a personal message there, but no one is permitted to ascend to this temple except Sayyed Shamsoddīn and those who are like him. This small temple stands in the shadow of the Tūbā tree; now, we know that this is the name of the tree that shades Paradise; it is the Tree of Being. The temple is at the edge of a spring, which, since it gushes at the base of the Tree of Paradise, can only be the Spring of Life. In order to confirm this for us, our pilgrim meets there the incumbent of this temple, in whom we recognize the mysterious prophet Khezr (Khaḍir). It is there, at the heart of being, in the shade of the Tree and at the edge of the Spring, that the sanctuary is found where the Hidden Imām may be most closely approached. Here we have an entire constellation of easily recognizable archetypal symbols.

We have learned, among other things, that access to the little mystical temple was only permitted to a person who, by attaining the spiritual degree at which the Imām has become his personal internal Guide, has attained a state “similar” to that of the actual descendant of the Imām. This is why the idea of internal conformation is truly at the center of the initiation account, and it is this that permits the pilgrim to learn other secrets of the Green Island: for example, the symbolism of a particularly eloquent ritual.19 In the Shi’ite liturgical calendar, Friday is the weekday especially dedicated to the Twelfth Imām. Moreover, in the lunar calendar, the middle of the month marks the midpoint of the lunar cycle, and the middle of the month of Sha’bān is the anniversary date of the birth of the Twelfth Imām into this world. On a Friday, then, while our Iranian pilgrim is praying in the mosque, he hears a great commotion outside. His initiator, Sayyed, informs him that each time the day of the middle of the month falls on a Friday, the chiefs of the mysterious militia that surrounds the Imām assemble in “expectation of Joy,” a consecrated term, as we know, which means: in the expectation of the Manifestation of the Imām in this world. Leaving the mosque, he sees a gathering of horsemen from whom a triumphal clamor rises. These are the 313 chiefs of the supernatural order of knights always present incognito in this world, in the service of the Imām. This episode leads us gradually to the final scenes that precede the farewell. Like a leitmotiv, the expression of the desire to see the Imām returns ceaselessly. Our pilgrim will learn that twice in his life he was in the Imām’s presence: he was lost in the desert and the Imām came to his aid. But as is an almost constant rule, he knew nothing of it then; he learns of it now that he has come to the Green Island. Alas, he must leave this island; the order cannot be rescinded; the ships are waiting, the same one on which he arrived. But even more than for the voyage outward, it is impossible for us to mark out the itinerary that leads from the “eighth climate” to this world. Our traveler obliterates his tracks, but he will keep some material evidence of his sojourn: the pages of notes taken in the course of his conversations with the Imām’s grandson, and the parting gift from the latter at the moment of farewell.

The account of the Green Island allows us an abundant harvest of symbols: (1) It is one of the islands belonging to the sons of the Twelfth Imām. (2) It is that island, where the Spring of Life gushes, in the shade of the Tree of Paradise, that ensures the sustenance of the Imām’s followers who live far away, and that sustenance can only be a “suprasubstantial” food. (3) It is situated in the west, as the city of Jābarsā is situated in the west of the mundus imaginalis, and thus it offers a strange analogy with the paradise of the East, the paradise of Amitābha in Pure Land Buddhism; similarly, the figure of the Twelfth Imām is suggestive of comparison with Maitreya, the future Buddha; there is also an analogy with Tir-na’n-Og, one of the worlds of the Afterlife among the Celts, the land of the West and the forever young. (4) Like the domain of the Grail, it is an interworld that is self-sufficient. (5) It is protected against and immune to any attempt from outside. (6) Only one who is summoned there can find the way. (7) A mountain rises in the center; we have noted the symbols that it conceals. (8) Like Mont-Salvat, the inviolable Green Island is the place where his followers approach the mystical pole of the world, the Hidden Imām, reigning invisibly over this age—the jewel of the Shi’ite faith.

Mundus Imaginalis

This tale is completed by others, for, as we have mentioned, nothing has been said until now about the islands under the reign of the truly extraordinary figures who are the five sons of the Hidden Imām (homologues of those whom Shi’ism designates as the “Five Personages of the Mantle”20 and perhaps also of those whom Manichaeism designates as the “Five Sons of the Living Spirit”). An earlier tale21 (it is from the middle of the twelfth century and the narrator is a Christian) provides us with complementary topographical information. Here again it involves travelers who suddenly realize that their ship has entered a completely unknown area. They land at a first island, al-Mobāraka, the Blessed City. Certain difficulties, brought about by the presence among them of Sunni Muslims, oblige them to travel farther. But their captain refuses; he is afraid of the unknown region. They have to hire a new crew. In succession, we learn the names of the five islands and the names of those who govern them: al-Zāhera the City Blooming with Flowers; al-Rā’yeqa, the Limpid City; al-Sāfiya, the Serene City, etc. Whoever manages to gain admittance to them enters into joy forever. Five islands, five cities, five sons of the Imām, twelve months to travel through the islands (two months for each of the first four, four months for the fifth), all of these numbers having a symbolic significance. Here, too, the tale turns into an initiation account; all the travelers finally embrace the Shi’ite faith.

As there is no rule without an exception, I will conclude by citing in condensed form a tale illustrating a case of manifestation of the Imām in person.22 The tale is from the tenth century. An Iranian from Hamadān made the pilgrimage to Mecca. On the way back, a day’s journey from Mecca (more than two thousand kilometers from Hamadān), having imprudently gone astray during the night, he loses his companions. In the morning he is wandering alone in the desert and placing his trust in God. Suddenly, he sees a garden that neither he nor anyone else has ever heard of. He enters it. At the door of a pavilion, two young pages dressed in white await him and lead him to a young man of supernatural beauty. To his fearful and awestruck astonishment, he learns that he is in the presence of the Twelfth Imām. The latter speaks to him about his future Appearance and finally, addressing him by name, asks him whether he wants to return to his home and family. Certainly, he wants to do so. The Imām signals to one of his pages, who gives the traveler a purse, takes him by the hand, and guides him through the gardens. They walk together until the traveler sees a group of houses, a mosque, and shade trees that seem familiar to him. Smiling, the page asks him: “Do you know this land?” “Near where I live in Hamadān,” he replies, “there is a land called Asadābād, which exactly resembles this place.” The page says to him, “But you are in Asadābād.” Amazed, the traveler realizes that he is actually near his home. He turns around; the page is no longer there, he is all alone, but he still has in his hand the viaticum that had been given to him. Did we not say a little while ago that the where, the ubi, of the “eighth climate” is an ubique?

I know how many commentaries can be applied to these tales, depending upon whether we are metaphysicians, traditionalist or not, or whether we are psychologists. But by way of provisional conclusion, I prefer to limit myself to asking three small questions:

  1. We are no longer participants in a traditional culture; we live in a scientific civilization that is extending its control, it is said, even to images. It is commonplace today to speak of a “civilization of the image” (thinking of our magazines, cinema, and television). But one wonders whether, like all commonplaces, this does not conceal a radical misunderstanding, a complete error. For instead of the image being elevated to the level of a world that would be proper to it, instead of it appearing invested with a symbolic function, leading to an internal sense, there is above all a reduction of the image to the level of sensory perception pure and simple, and thus a definitive degradation of the image. Should it not be said, therefore, that the more successful this reduction is, the more the sense of the imaginal is lost, and the more we are condemned to producing only the imaginary?
  2. In the second place, all imagery, the scenic perspective of a tale like the voyage to the Green Island, or the sudden encounter with the Imām in an unknown oasis—would all this be possible without the absolutely primary and irreducible, objective, initial fact (Urphänomen) of a world of image-archetypes or image-sources whose origin is nonrational and whose incursion into our world is unforeseeable, but whose postulate compels recognition?
  3. In the third place, is it not precisely this postulate of the objectivity of the imaginal world that is suggested to us, or imposed on us, by certain forms or certain symbolic emblems (hermetic, kabbalistic; or mandalas) that have the quality of effecting a magic display of mental images, such that they assume an objective reality?

To indicate in what sense it is possible to have an idea of how to respond to the question concerning the objective reality of supernatural figures and encounters with them, I will simply refer to an extraordinary text, where Villiers de L’Isle-Adam speaks about the face of the inscrutable Messenger with eyes of clay; it “could not be perceived except by the spirit. Creatures experience only influences that are inherent in the archangelic entity. “Angels,” he writes, “are not, in substance, except in the free sublimity of the absolute Heavens, where reality is unified with the ideal. . . . They only externalize themselves in the ecstasy they cause and which forms a part of themselves.”23

Those last words, the ecstasy . . . which forms a part of themselves, seem to me to possess a prophetic clarity, for they have the quality of piercing even the granite of doubt, of paralyzing the “agnostic reflex,” in the sense that they break the reciprocal isolation of the consciousness and its object, of thought and being; phenomenology is now an ontology. Undoubtedly, this is the postulate implied in the teaching of our authors concerning the imaginal. For there is no external criterion for the manifestation of the Angel, other than the manifestation itself. The Angel is itself the ekstasis, the “displacement” or the departure from ourselves that is a “change of state” from our state. That is why these words also suggest to us the secret of the supernatural being of the “Hidden Imām” and of his Appearances for the Shi’ite consciousness: the Imām is the ekstasis itself of that consciousness. One who is not in the same spiritual state cannot see him.

This is what Sohravardī alluded to in his tale of “The Crimson Archangel” by the words that we cited at the beginning: “If you are Khezr, you also may pass without difficulty through the mountain of Qāf.”



Henry Corbin (1903–78) held the chair in Islam at the Sorbonne from 1954 to 1974. He also organized and was director of the department of Iranic studies at the Institut franco-iranien in Teheran. Corbin wrote many books and articles, and he edited numerous works in Persian of important Sufi and Isma’ili authors.







Visit our Swedenborg Studies bookstore page to explore our series of scholarly titles >

Read more posts from the Scholars on Swedenborg series >



17. For more details, see En Islam iranien, vol. 4, bk. 7; and our Histoire de la philosophie islamique, 101ff.

18. See En Islam iranien, vol. 4, bk. 7, 346ff.

19. Ibid., 361–62.

20. Ibid., 373.

21. Ibid., §3, 367ff.

22. Ibid., §4, 374ff.

23. Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, L’Annonciateur (epilogue).

© Copyright 2018 Swedenborg Foundation

powered by Everything theme