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Henry Corbin – About Sabian Ritual and Angelology

“The ideal synthesis of Ismaili and Sabian thinking, as delineated by Shahrastani, shows them to be both dominated by the same presupposition: the Deus innominatus—-in Sabian terms the “Lord of Lords”, in Ismaili terms “He who cannot be reached by the boldness of thought”—is of such transcendence that he can neither make himself known nor be known directly. The mediating beings who reveal Him are those essences of pure Light that philosophers call “Intelligences” (‘uqul), and that religious vocabulary designates as “Angels” (mala’ikah). The necessary plurality of the theophanies manifested through and in these celestial Figures does not alter the divine Unity in its essence. The Sabian representation is as follows. The mediators between the supreme Deity and human beings can only be spiritual in nature; they could not be men, not even Prophets, for a prophet is a being of flesh like all other men, and thus a creature composed of the Elements and of Darkness. By contrast, Angels are Forms of pure and radiant Light, whose nature is both passive and active, receptive and productive, and whose state is one of total joy, beauty and beneficent goodness. Each of them observes and preserves in itself the divine Imperative that constitutes its being. The Sabians acknowledged, above all, the Seven Angels who rule over the Seven planets; each of them had his Temple (haykal), that is to say the form of the star, and each Temple has its Heaven or Sphere. The relationship of the Angel with his Temple may be compared to that of the spirit with the body, with the difference that the Angel has total mastery over the Temple, and that this “body” is not his image, as the corporeal face is the image of a human being. (According to the Ismaili vision, the person of the Angel has the form of the glorified human body).

The Sabian conception of the Angel’s absolute precedence, even over the rank and dignity of a prophet, finds confirmation in the feet that the mediating universe of the Angel is both the place of origin of the souls in the terrestrial world, and the place of their second birth, the place where to they “return”. The world of the Angel and the terrestrial world confront each other like a person and his shadow, to the extent that the truth of an earthly existence lies in its being the shadow of its Angel. Consequently, the chief concern of the soul is to achieve an intimate state of concordance with its Angel and to imitate it perfectly, so as to give free passage to the protection which the Angel can bestow upon it. But the most direct way of existing “in the manner of the Angel” is to exist in the manner of the star which is the Angel’s Temple—a type of devotion which is also to be found in the precept formulated by Agrippa of Nettesheim: alicui stellae conformari. Generally speaking, this precept refers to the Platonic conception that souls are at first located in the stars, each of them in a different star which is its “partner”. It was this doctrine of a mysterious kinship between a particular human soul and a particular star that Aristotle sought to establish more firmly, by conceiving of their nature as a Fifth Nature, that of the Ether. For its own part, Nusayri psychocosmology teaches that souls were originally stars and will once again become stars, or rather will return to being stars. This is expressed in a verse of their sacred book:

May God reunite us, us and you, in the Paradise among the stars of Heaven.

The entire ritual, with its liturgical tones, burning of incense and perfume, and moral observances, is founded upon and directed towards this approach to the star. But these Temples in the sky are visible and invisible at different times. Thus the believer engaged in meditation must have before his eyes figures which correspond to them and which serve to support his devotion. Hence the necessity of building, here on earth, Temples whose correspondence in terms of structure, material composition and colour to the celestial Temple is guaranteed by astronomy and mineralogy.  By means of this earthly Temple, meditation gains access to the celestial Temple, thence to the Angel who is its Lord, and thence to the Lord of Lords.

Traces of these Temples built in the image of the stars have been preserved in the traditions of historians. The Sabians would have had circular Temples, dedicated to each of the five supreme Principles of their cosmology: Demiurge, World-Soul, eternal Matter, Space, and Time. As for the temples of the planets, Saturn’s was hexagonal in form; Jupiter’s, triangular; Mars’s, rectangular; the Sun’s, a square; Venus’, a triangle within a square; Mercury’s, a triangle within a rectangle; and the Moon’s, an octagon. Each of these Temples was used, on the day specially consecrated to the star in question, for the performance of a liturgy involving garments whose colour corresponded to the planet, during which incense was burned in conformity with the importance which Sabians attached to the rite of perfumes. (During certain festivals, the rite consisted of sniffing roses.)

In order to differentiate between talismanic practice and philosophical Sabianism, it is vital to differentiate between the conjuration of the star and the invocation addressed by name to the Angel: For the liturgy of Saturn (Zuhal), a black robe and mantle—the garments, it is said, of the Philosophers—must be worn, and an iron ring on the finger; the Angel invoked is Ishbal). For the liturgy of Jupiter (Mushtari), a yellow and white robe must be worn, and a white mantle, and a ring of rock crystal; the Angel invoked is Rufiyael (in Persian, it is Ormazd who rules over this planet). Several liturgical formulas are suggested, one of which is very lengthy and very beautiful, and well illustrates the noble fervour that this piety was able to inspire. For the liturgy of Mars (Mirrikh), the garments must be red, a ring of copper must be worn, and the Angel invoked is Rubiyael. For the liturgy of Venus (Zuhrah), one wears a sumptuous white robe and a golden ring; the Angel invoked is Bitael. The liturgical colour of Mercury (‘Utarid) is not indicated (in Nizami’s Haft Paykar, the king that day visits the blue dome, but blue and green are often confused in Persian); the Angel invoked is Haraqiel. Lastly, for the liturgy of the Moon, the liturgical garment is white and must be reminiscent of the garment of a youth; the Angel invoked is Siliyael.

We can find the details of this Ordo in the description of Sabian liturgies given by the author of the eighth century Ghayat al-Hakim. They are described here not as collective celebrations which took place in the Temples, but as individual rituals, to be celebrated in an oratory which was private and appropriate to the star. The intention was the same: to draw near to the star through a conformity of thought and gesture, thus making communion possible. The first injunction is as follows:

If you wish to converse in private with one of the Seven Stars, purify your heart of all corrupt beliefs and your vestments of all stain; render your soul limpid and clear.”

Next, the ritual indicates the colour of the vestments to be worn, the kind of perfume to be burnt, the two invocations (some of great length) to be chanted, the second of which addresses the Angel of the star by name. The breath of an ardent devotion is often to be felt. In the liturgy of the Sun (Shams, feminine in Semitic languages) and its Angel, for example, the celebrant is directed to wear a robe of brocade, a diadem and a gold ring, since he must be dressed in royal finery in order to pray to her who is the Queen; and he addresses her in terms such as the following:

Hail to you, oh Sun, blessed Queen . . . resplendent, illuminating . . . you who concentrate in yourself all beauty, you who possess an authority over the six planets which makes them obey you as their guide and allows you to rule over them.

In this way, Sabian devotion sets us in the presence of the Angels who govern the stars, or Temples of light, which are visible in the astronomical heavens.”

Source: Henry Corbin, ‘Temple and Contemplation’. The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. 1986. Pictures credits: Top: Pablo Ianiszewski. Middle and bottom: Marco M. Vigato.
Henry Corbin – About Sabian Ritual and Angelology

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