Corbin represents a significant figure in Islamic studies. His work on Islamic philosophy was one of the first to provide encompassing view of Islam including voices from the Shia tradition.
With Europe’s colonial expansion over lands to the East, scholarship around traditions in these new parts started to emerge. In the 19th and 20th century, this research tried to make sense of the new world that Europe was encountering. However, this Oriental scholarship tried to schematize traditions and practices that had no other analogous partners in European history. Moreover, in this research, exoticism became incorporated into the writing around the encounter between Europe and other parts of the world. For example, Tibet was painted as this land of mystery, a Shagri-la or Earthly paradise and India was depicted as the land of sadus and fakirs. The very words Hinduism and Buddhism are European constructs. Likewise, research around Islam also fell into this early European proclivity for good story over good scholarship. One key issue in the way that Islam was captured and spoken about was based on the sources on which European scholars relied upon to get their information. Early scholars relied on Sunni perspectives of Islam. In this process, Sunni Islam became positioned as hetro-normative while other traditions, including the Shia and Sufi traditions, were seen as abhorrent off shoots of “True Islam”. As a consequence, the traditions of the these other Muslims, minorities within the larger Muslim ummah , were omitted from discussions on Islam. Shia Islam was looked at suspiciously and was thought to be some heretical aberration of true Sunni Islam.
Corbin’s work is interesting. It emerges at a time when Europe was still utilizing a very Orientalist lens in its study of Eastern traditions. In his work, Corbin represents for the first time a balanced understanding of the Shia tradition within Islam; no judgements about what constitutes True Islam are made. He provides in his work the multifaceted ways in which Islamic philosophy are expressed by different adherents. This is one of the earliest works that speaks about the Ismaili community in profound detail. It is a dense and verbose read but an interesting one nonetheless. Included here are early sections from his book The History of Islamic Philosophy, mostly dealing with Shia and Shia Ismaili philosophy.