Omnia El Shakry. The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Omnia El Shakry (OES): The Arabic Freud is based, in part, on a desire to return to my early roots and interest in depth psychology and psychoanalytic theory. As an undergraduate at the American University in Cairo, I had an intense interest in psychopathology—in the relationship between schizophrenia and language, in particular, and in the anti-psychiatry movement, more generally. I read Sigmund Freud, as well as texts by feminist psychoanalysts such as Juliet Mitchell. When formulating this project, I was thrilled by the prospect of combining my interest in the history of the human sciences with a return to the psychoanalytic canon. At the same time, I explicitly did not want this to be a conventional history of the discipline of psychology, nor did I wish to write a history that would exhaustively catalog everything that had ever been written about Freud or psychoanalysis in Egypt or in the Arab world. I attempted to do something different, something on the border between the historical and the ethnographic: I wanted to simultaneously stage and historically reconstruct an encounter between psychoanalysis and Islam in postwar Egypt.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
OES: The Arabic Freud engages the literature on psychoanalysis and Islam. Scholars who have tackled the question of psychoanalysis and Islam have tended to focus on it as problem, by assuming that both traditions have been ignorant of each other, and they have placed Islam on the couch, as it were, alleging that it is resistant to the “secular science” of psychoanalysis. I undo the terms of this debate and ask, instead, what it might mean to think of psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a “problem,” but as a creative encounter of ethical engagement. Specifically, each chapter tries to bring to light psychoanalytically informed debates on the nature of the unconscious, ethics, sexuality, and the law, while exploring how postwar thinkers in Egypt mapped the intersections between Islamic discourses and psychoanalytic theory. In so doing, I theorize the interconnections that authors found between Ibn ʿArabi’s mystical concept of al-la-shuʿur and Freud’s notion of the unconscious, and between Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s notion of al-ghariza and Freud’s concept of the sexual drive. In tracing the epistemological resonances, or echoes, between psychoanalytic thought and Islamic discursive formations, I sought to avoid the trap of thinking about the global modern subject in terms of originals (putatively European) and bad copies (allegedly non-European) or of conceptualizing modern thought as something developed in Europe, merely to be diffused at its point of application elsewhere. What if, instead, we imagined knowledge production as something elaborated across the space of human difference? The book is thus an intervention into the broader field of intellectual history that tries to get us to take quite seriously the originality of knowledge production and critical theory in the modern Arab world.
The Arabic Freud also addresses the wider literature on psychoanalysis and religion. In particular, I was interested in subverting the notion that psychoanalysis represents a non-religious and even atheistic world view. There is, of course, some evidence for this view within Freud’s own writings. Freud at times pathologized religion in texts such as The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents. And yet, in Freud and Man’s Soul, Bruno Bettelheim argued that, in the original German, Freud’s language was full of references to the soul, going so far as to refer to psychoanalysts as “a profession of secular ministers of souls.” Similarly, psychoanalysis was translated into Arabic as “tahlil al-nafs”—the analysis of the nafs, which means soul, psyche, or self and has deeply religious connotations. And, in fact, throughout the twentieth century there have been numerous psychoanalysts who have maintained a receptive attitude towards religion and mysticism. What I take all of this to mean is that psychoanalysis as a tradition is open to multiple, oftentimes conflicting, interpretations and we can take Freud’s own ambivalence towards religion, and towards mysticism in particular, as an invitation to rethink the relationship between psychoanalysis and religion.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
OES: My first book focused on the production of social scientific knowledge in Egypt as part of a network of intellectual exchange between the Arab world and Europe. What I think connects this project with my previous book is that I remain interested in how knowledge is formulated and produced through encounters—whether the encounter between the colonizer and the colonized or between psychoanalysis and Islam.
But I also wanted to do something really different from my first book, and I thought it would be a shame if this turned into another history of social science. I wanted to write something more theoretical and conceptual, something that placed psychoanalysis and Islam into dialogue with one another. This way I could address more deeply the significance of Islamic thought to the formulation of social thought and theory—an arena that was underexplored in my previous work. I was also becoming increasingly dissatisfied with approaches used to analyze knowledge production (including my own) that emphasized colonialism, or political developments more generally, as singularly determinative of intellectual formations. Finally, the question of the self is distinct in this project, and is compelling insofar as discourses of selfhood lent themselves to a wider audience concerned with self-healing. I probably don’t do enough work in the book connecting the theoretical and academic literature to the lay literature, but it’s definitely a part of the story.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
OES: I hope that The Arabic Freud will be read by an interdisciplinary audience of scholars in Middle East studies, Islamic and religious studies, intellectual history, and anthropology. But I would be especially pleased if it were also read by psychoanalysts, psychologists, and psychiatrists interested in thinking about the status of religion, and Islam in particular, within clinical situations in more complex ways. Ideally, I hope the book encourages us to rethink the relationship between psychoanalysis and religion by asking if religious forms of knowledge, and the encounter between psychoanalysis and Islam more specifically, might lead us to new insights into the psyche, the self, and the soul. What would this mean for how we think about the role of religion and ethics in the making of the modern self? And what might it mean for how we think about the relationship between the West and the Islamic world?
J: What other projects are you working on now?
OES: I’m probably working on far too many! As we speak, I am writing something of a coda to the book, an article that explores the Arabic translation of Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and that traces diverse itineraries of power, pleasure, gender, and sexuality within the context of the postcolonial state in Egypt. And I am co-editing, along with Sara Pursley of NYU, a special issue for the journal Psychoanalysis and History. We have an amazing group of contributors lined up who will explore discourses and encounters of “Psychoanalysis and the Middle East.”
I have also started working on a longer-term book length project that will explore the ecumenical engagement between Islam and Catholicism in twentieth century Egypt. I want to continue thinking about and theorizing what happens when diverse discursive traditions come into contact. I am interested in the new concepts, practices, and sensibilities of religion, self, and world that emerged out of the interaction between Catholic and Muslim scholars. Finally, I am contemplating another project, but hopefully more as an archival and collaborative endeavor, on decolonization in the Arab world. I am especially interested in theoretical texts on Marxism, texts of political economy, and texts of Islamic socialism as a way to shift our attention away from dominant narratives of decolonization as a uniformly state-driven and/or secular political process.
J: In your epilogue, you critique the “civilizing mission” narratives of certain strands of psychoanalysis. Could you elaborate on this?
OES: The epilogue was very important for me to write. There is a growing literature and movement within psychoanalysis that tries to harness its language in order to create a normative framework for Islam and Muslims, for example by mobilizing psychoanalytic insights in order to understand, and stem the growth of, Islamist movements. I did not want my project to be associated with those thinkers whose normative assumptions rest upon a liberal secular subject of analysis or who have wagered on the role of civilization and secularism as a bulwark against what they term Islamic fundamentalism. Rather, I wanted us to think through the possibilities opened up by an ethical encounter with the Other mediated by the domain of the unconscious—as something offered up by psychoanalysis and Islam alike.
Excerpt from Introduction “Psychoanalysis and Islam”:
In 1945 psychologist Yusuf Murad introduced the Arabic term al-la-shuʿur, a term borrowed from the medieval Sufi philosopher Ibn ʿArabi and redolent with mystical overtones, as “the unconscious” in the newly founded Egyptian Majallat ʿIlm al-Nafs (Journal of Psychology). Only two years prior, in 1943, Murad had published Shifaʾ al-Nafs (Healing the Psyche) as part of the popular Iqraʾ (Read) series, a text that introduced its audience to the basic theories and concepts of psychology and its schools of thought. In 1946, lawyer Muhammad Fathi Bey published a full-length treatise titled The Problem of Psychoanalysis in Egypt. Responding to allegations that Freudianism had little to teach us about crime, he argued that, quite the contrary, psychoanalysis and criminology were entirely analogous disciplines. A decade later, in 1958, the Egyptian Lacanian analyst Moustapha Safouan translated Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams into Arabic for an eager audience.
The Arabic Freud explores how Freud traveled in postwar Egypt, invoking Freudianism not as a pure form, “the source of an unchanging truth that was the model, mold and dress code to be imposed on all our experience,” but rather as a multivalent tradition and metonym for broader Arabic debates surrounding the status of the unconscious in psychic life. An understanding of the body of work developed on psychoanalysis in Egypt and of the intersections between Islamic thought and psychoanalysis enables us to reconsider that quintessential question of modernity, the question of the self, in a non-European context. Indeed, the story of the elaboration of modern languages of the self in twentieth-century Egypt moves us away from models of selfhood as either modern or traditional, Western or non-Western, autonomous or heteronomous, and unsettles the assumption of an alleged incommensurability between psychoanalysis and Islam.
Significantly, the new science of the self that emerged drew both from Freudianism and other psychoanalytic traditions, as well as from key classical Islamic thinkers, such as Avicenna (d. 1037), Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209), and most extensively, Ibn ʿArabi (d. 1240). This contemporaneity of classical Islamic texts, coexisting and intermingling with psychoanalytic models, allows us to trace the epistemological resonances of discursive traditions as they come into contact. Translating and blending key concepts from psychoanalysis with classical Islamic concepts, Egyptian thinkers explored the resonances between psychoanalytic and pre-psychoanalytic traditions in order to produce a theory of the self that was at once in concert with and heterogeneous to European analytic thought. According to novelist and playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim the impulse to blend traditions went as far back as Abu Nasr al-Farabi’s neoclassical contemplation of Plato’s Republic, one in which Greek ideas were poured into the mold of Islamic philosophy and Arabic thought and the intermarriage of literatures, epistemologies, and ontologies transpired.Tracing the lineaments of the unconscious, The Arabic Freud maps out the topography of modern selfhood and its ethical and epistemological contours in postwar Egypt. What does it mean, I ask, to think through psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a “problem” but as a creative encounter of ethical engagement? Rather than view Islamic discourses as hermetically sealed, or traffic in dichotomous juxtapositions between East and West, this book focuses on the points of intersection, articulation, and commensurability between Islamic discourses and modern social scientific thought, and between religious and secular ethics. The hybridization of psychoanalytic thought with pre-psychoanalytic Islamic discursive formations illustrates that The Arabic Freud emerged not as something developed in Europe only to be diffused at its point of application elsewhere, but rather as something elaborated, like psychoanalysis itself, across the space of human difference.
A Copernican Revolution
Notions of the unconscious had seeped into Arabic writings in Egypt since at least as far back as the 1920s and through a myriad of sources, including for example Pierre Janet, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Alfred Adler. Salama Musa, an avowed Fabian and public intellectual, published multiple books, beginning in the late 1920s, that touched on Freudian and psychoanalytic themes for a lay audience. Musa had referred to the unconscious by the somewhat awkward compound phrase al-ʿaql al-batin (the inner mind), which he had to define extensively for his audience, in a 1928 text. Yet the imprint of Freudian psychology was becoming increasingly visible in the 1930s and 1940s in the focus on unconscious drives, as synopses and translations of Freud began to appear. For example, a 1938 article in al-Hilal noted that a generational shift had taken place and that Egyptian youth were avidly reading Freud and were familiar with his ideas on psychoanalysis, the unconscious, the interpretation of dreams, and the sexual drive. A 1941 article in al-Thaqafa by intellectual and writer ‘Ali Adham discussed Freud’s attitude toward war, translating and summarizing portions of “Thoughts for the Times of War and Death” and Beyond the Pleasure Principle, while outlining the sexual or life drive and explicating the increased significance of the death drive for Freud in the aftermath of the Great War. By the mid-1940s a burgeoning lay literature on psychology was so well developed that scholars felt compelled to critique the unscientific literature “drowning the marketplace”—a testament to the increased salience of psychology to popular public discourse. And by 1951 Kamal al-Din ʿAbd al-Hamid Nayal, a secondary school philosophy teacher, proposed prenuptial psychological exams in order to prevent unhappy marriages due to unresolved Oedipus complexes.
Indeed, no knowledge of Freud could be complete without an understanding of the Oedipus complex, which Arabic readers would have been familiar with through the two adaptations of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex that appeared in 1949 by playwrights Tawfiq al-Hakim and Ali Ahmad Bakathir, as well as the first scholarly Arabic translation in 1939 by Egyptian belle lettrist Taha Husayn. Egyptian dramatist al-Hakim’s version is noteworthy for its innovative interpretation that places the central conflict of the play not between man and fate, but rather between fact and (hidden) truth, a decidedly Freudian reading. But it was above all in Naguib Mahfouz’s masterful 1948 literary rendition that the Oedipus complex was brought to life for its Arabic readers. In al-Sarab (The Mirage) the highly introverted protagonist Kamil Ruʾba Laz immerses himself in a daily dreamscape to escape a stifling reality and a pathological attachment to his mother, characterized by “an unwholesome affection which had exceeded its proper limits … a kind of affection that destroys.”
Understandings of Freud abounded in literary criticism as well. In 1947, the renowned Islamist thinker and writer Sayyid Qutb discussed the heuristic value of a psychological and specifically a psychoanalytic approach to literary criticism—itself defined as the attempt to understand literature as “the expression of a sensory experience in an inspired image.” Qutb demonstrated a psychoanalytical approach through a detailed consideration of Freud’s study of Leonardo da Vinci. Qutb’s familiarity with Freud was gleaned directly from the pages of Majallat ʿIlm al-Nafs, as evidenced by his reference to the unconscious as al-la-shuʿur, as well as his use of the term al-jinsiyya al-mithliyya to refer to homosexuality, both terms of art put forth by the journal. In 1953, two psychoanalytically oriented studies of the ʿAbbasid poet Abu Nuwas, widely known for his homoerotic poetry, were published in Egypt. Both studies, one by literary critic Muhammad al-Nuwayhi and the other by poet and writer ʿAbbas Mahmud al-ʿAqqad, were greatly concerned with Abu Nuwas’s psychosexual makeup. In 1954, outside of Egypt, Iraqi sociologist ʿAli al-Wardi wrote on the importance of Freud and “unconscious drives rooted in psychological and social conditions.” The ardent interest in Freud was the purview of academics and novelists, prevalent in lay and scholarly literature alike, as well as an object of interest to both secular and religious thinkers. Freud, it would seem, was nothing short of ubiquitous in postwar Egypt and the Arab world.
[Excerpted from THE ARABIC FREUD: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt, by Omnia El Shakry. Copyright © 2017 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.]