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Orientalism in reverse : Henry Corbin, Iranian philosophy, and the critique of the West

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(Project) M.A.
Date created
This project examines the work of the seminal French Orientalist Henry Corbin (19031978)
on Iranian philosophy and spirituality. As a member of both the European and Iranian
academic elites, Corbin challenged traditional methods for the study of religion and constructed a
provocative alternative methodology. Contrary to Edward Said's model of the Orientalist
encounter with the "East," I maintain that Corbin's construction of the "Iranian religion"
undermined traditional "Western" theology, philosophy, and science. In collaboration with
Iranian scholars, Corbin contributed to an emergent discourse of reverse orientalism, in which the
"West" served as the imperial, cultural, and profane "other" to a sacred and traditional Iran.
From the 1950s to 1978, Corbin met and influenced leading Iranian theologians, philosophers,
and politicians. Through his connection with this powerful intellectual elite, Corbin
institutionalized his alternative methodology and approach to the study of religion in Iranian
universities. The origins of his new ontological method of religious study were deeply rooted in
both the politics of his French-Protestant revivalism and Heideggerian phenomenological
philosophy. Through his major works of Iranian history, Corbin relentlessly criticized "Western"
theologians as material reductionists and agnostics. At the same time, he presented Iran as an
alternative model of national spirituality for the "West." This essentialized view of Iranian
religion excluded more traditional Irano-Islamic modes of religion that emphasized morality, law,
and the authority of the jaqih or jurist. By locating the essence of Iranian religion within a
gnosticism, and then casting this as eternal, Corbin lent his authority to state-sponsored neognostic
Irano-Islamic philosophers, such as Seyyed Hussein Nasr, who undermined contemporary
revolutionary Islamic innovators, such as Ali Shari'ati. Corbin's work on Iran was representative
of a French tradition of politically dissident philosopher/Orientalists, including Voltaire and
Comte de Gobineau, who utilized their study of the "Orient" to criticize the French political
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