Omnia Al-Shakri: Profile of Freud the Arab

In his introduction to the 2014 edition of his translation of Sigmund Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (“Madarak”), Georges Tarabichi writes that “no contemporary culture can open itself the lock of modernity when it lacks one of its keys.” The key here is psychoanalysis, “both Freudian and non-Freudian”. As for the words of the Syrian thinker and translator (1939 – 2016), they come in the context of his choice, some five decades ago, to transfer Freud’s works from an intermediate language (French), in an effort by him, who is not fluent in German, to reduce the “rupture” between culture Arabic and between the “great scientific conquest represented by Freudian”.

One may agree or disagree with the normativeness that governs Tarabishi’s speech. But disagreeing with him becomes more difficult when we come to talk about his diagnosis of “estrangement”. It is true that a number of analytical writings blocked the way to Arabic decades ago. Indeed, some psycho-analytic sayings have even penetrated everyday speech (it is not strange that the vocabulary of neurosis, repression, Oedipus complex, and libido…) appears in our conversations. However, serious Arab discussions with Freud and his followers are almost as many as there are fingers on one hand. Indeed, Arab readers have received from him, until today, only “almost complete works”, which include what Tarabishi translated from him (more than thirty titles). It is feared that this word “semi” is a brief description of the relationship of Arabic not only to Freud, but to the history and current of psychoanalysis in general.

In the face of all this, the emergence of any discussion of psychoanalysis, or any translation of it, is welcome. A welcome doubles when the context of the discussion is Arabic, as is the case with Omnia Shakeri’s book: “Freud the Arab: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt,” recently published by Al-Kutub Khan, translated by Muhammad Al-Dakhakhni (primarily published in English by Princeton University Press in 2017).

She rejects the existence of a rupture between Arab culture and psychoanalysis

Let us say it from now on: Al-Shakri’s view is completely incompatible with Tarabishi’s diagnosis of the existence of a rupture between Arab culture and psychoanalysis. What preoccupies the Egyptian-American researcher is not to make a general and abstract judgment, from a critical position, on the entire scene, but the history of part of it and its discussion based on documents and analyzes. The documents indicate that “concepts of the unconscious” were “delivered” to “Arabic writings in Egypt since an early period dating back to the 1920s, and through countless sources,” as the author writes.

However, this early reception of Freudianism is not the most important in her opinion: what is more important is that it was not a parrotian reception, or perhaps not a reception in the common sense of the word, but rather a series of “historical interactions, crosses and interconnected knowledge production networks between the Arab world and Europe.” Psychoanalysis is a “cognitive body” that does not belong to Europe alone, but rather “non-Western” Arabs, Muslims and others contribute to its formation and revival. This means that the “tale of mutual ignorance” between Arab culture and Islam on the one hand, and psychoanalysis on the other, is nothing but a myth. A myth based on the sorting of knowledge rejected by Shakri: that which separates “traditional” and “modern” cultural discourses and expressions. Instead of this hierarchical distribution, the researcher prefers a horizontal, circular understanding, in which knowledge is juxtaposed and in which it is the subject of “continuous re-reading”. Instead of estrangement, it is looking for points of convergence, for mutual understanding and translation.

The author defines her field of research with what is known as the integrative psychology group, which was formed around the prominent Egyptian psychologist Youssef Murad (1902 – 1966) – the central character in her book. It is true that Al-Shakry moves in a relatively wider area of ​​secondary references (popular and academic Egyptian and Western publications, and historical and critical writings in particular with a post-colonial orientation), but it mainly operates on one board, which is the “Journal of Psychology” (issued between 1945 and and 1953) which Murad edited with his colleague, also prominent, Mustafa Ziwar, and wrote in it, mainly, members of the group. Each of the four chapters of the book mainly revolves around a text or group of texts that were published on the pages of the magazine. A limited text. It can be said that – despite its importance – the book does not help the book fulfill what the reader expects from a broad title such as “Freud the Arab”.

The writer compensates for this narrowness in the text and geography by moving within a broader historical margin; She is helped by the fact that a number of the texts and characters she studies refer to the Islamic mystical heritage. These referrals are no accident. Sufism represents, for Al-Shakri, an essential axis and an “appropriate entry point” for the relationship between the Arab-Islamic space and psychoanalysis. Because Sufism, like Freudian, thought of the soul. And this, like that, was preoccupied with the relationship between the outward and inward self, the moral encounter with the other, the centralization of the unconscious and self-subordination at the expense of rationality and independence.

The author points out that this term unconscious, proposed by Youssef Murad as a translation of the Freudian concept, is a contemporary restoration of a mystical concept developed by Ibn Arabi. Something you place in the balance of historical interactions and knowledge hybrids. Psychoanalysis takes us back to our heritage to discover that the latter provides us with what helps us understand Freud. In this return, we also discover that our heritage is in dialogue with this Freudian – even before her birth. For example, both construct a discourse on self-control (the jihad of the soul for the Sufis, and sublimation or escalation for Freud). Which means, according to the author, that “modern Freudian ethics were not in contradiction to Islamic discourse, but in fact complementary to it.”

There is no doubt that this reading is attractive, but we fear that it is based on convergences in form rather than in content. To give an example of what supports this fear, it is possible to return to one of the points of similarity between Sufism and psychoanalysis raised by Abu Al-Wafa Al-Ghunaimi Al-Taftazani on the pages of the “Journal of Psychology”, a point that the author devotes a good space to discuss and defend: the similarity in the relationship between the Sheikh And the disciple on the one hand, and the analyzer and his analyzer on the other hand. The arguments advanced by the author, in this context, can be condensed into a comprehensive one: that the disciple/analyst is looking for salvation, and may be able to obtain it, at the hand of the sheikh/analyst. But the way in which this might happen is completely different between this relationship and that, and this radical difference should weaken every comparison between them. The moral, symbolic, or patriarchal debt that the disciple owes to the sheikh does not exist in the relationship between the analyzer and the analyzer, which is based on a clear agreement, and mutual benefit (material return in exchange for a possible cure), not on the acceptance of the charity of the other. And the analyst’s relationship with his analyst is based on, or at least aims at, the dismantling of patriarchy or authoritarianism that the latter faces. In addition, the obligation of the analyst to listen to the analyst without passing judgment on him, and without directing him, remains contrary to the Sheikh’s desire to guide the disciple and chart a path for him to follow. In other words, the freedom that the analyst enjoys to him in front of the analyst does not resemble that which characterizes the relationship between the sheikh and the disciple.

Another example can be taken of the fragility of the author’s convergences between Sufism and psychoanalysis: that of Yusef Murad, et al., translating psychology into “Psychology”. Al-Shakri believes that the choice of the word “psyche” as opposed to psyche is “closely related” to meanings based on “classical Islamic invocations of the term according to Ibn Arabi and others.” Here, the writer does not pay attention to the fact that the word precedes every Islamic and mystical invocation, as it appears – in the meaning we know today – in Arabic poems that predate the emergence of Islam by four centuries, according to the Doha Historical Dictionary. In addition, the choice does not need a mystical background in order to find justification: the word “nafs” in Arabic – the former, then, in its meaning as we know it, on every reference to Ibn Arabi or Sufism – seems to be the most accurate translation, semantic and etymological, of psykhe in the Greek original, Which also refers to the breath and the breath at the same time.

The author’s insistence on finding interaction, meeting points, and complementarity between Arab-Islamic history and psychoanalysis leads to the following question: What about the Arab present? Another question that hides behind it: Is the return to the past caused by the inability to find what we are looking for in the present? Or does the narrow text that the author defines for herself does not provide her with the necessary, broad view, to find such an interaction between contemporary Arab authors and psychoanalysis?

We tend to the latter possibility. Especially since, when we broaden the perspective a little, we find names who participated in receiving and formulating Arab psychoanalysis, and in addition to its contemporary discussions inside and outside the Arab world: Among the early ones, we can mention Mustafa Safwan and Michel Asfar, and from the next generation Jack Hassoun and Adnan Hoballah, for example. Unlimited example. However, the author puts aside such names, or does not give them the right to read, as “bearing the mark of her liberal position, and emanating from authors on the fringes of the Arab diaspora in Paris,” as she says, quoting Joseph Massad’s words. But what unites these names, more than writing them from the Parisian “margin” (by the way, most of the contemporary Arab authors of psychoanalysis studied in Paris or wrote from it, including Youssef Murad), is the view, which is very different from that of Al-Shakri. . A difference may justify putting them aside, given that their theses contradict, to some extent, the author’s conclusions. They were preoccupied with answering the question “What is to be done?”, which prompted them to take psychoanalysis towards sites of self-criticism, to use it in understanding and analyzing the Arab current, and naming its dilemmas, especially the dualism of power and religion. As for Al-Shakri, her discussion does not belong to this language of self-criticism, but rather to self-defense in a post-colonial context, and in front of readers in English she wants to tell them that Arab culture is a partner in the making of psychoanalysis and history. But, for this, she goes back hundreds of years, although there is contemporary material that enables her to say this, even in the Egyptian context that is the subject of her study…

She makes fragile comparisons between Sufism and Freudian theory

The thinking of Ibn Arabi and Al-Ghazali, and other classical authors, on the issue of the soul, may not suffice to say that there are “interactions” between ancient Arab thought and psychoanalysis. So the conversation here is talking about a relationship that we build from one side, or about a non-relationship: because we are in front of two discourses that talk about the same thing, but in two completely different languages ​​and understandings. As for interaction, it requires, according to our understanding of it, that the two parties to the equation be active in it, aware of their activity, and agree, before that, on a number of basic points about their definition and understanding of the subject of interaction.

Our words stem from the following fear: that by talking about our participation in the making of some modern epistemological discourses, without presenting convincing evidence for that, we are, at the same moment, as emphasizing the opposite. Especially when our evidence is centuries old, such as those that want to find a contemporary between Ibn Arabi and Freud. Such logic is common today and enjoys a wide audience that does not hesitate to say, for example, that Ibn Khaldun is the “founder” of sociology. If this is true, many questions arise, perhaps the most prominent of which are: Why did these seeds – psychology according to Ibn Arabi, and sociology according to Ibn Khaldun – not find fertile soil in our culture, and why did they grow, instead, in another soil? And if there is no Arab rupture, albeit relative, with psychoanalysis and the freedom and capacity it requires, collective and individual, to question issues such as power and religion, how can we explain that, at least as a therapeutic practice, it was not able to take root in the Arab countries despite the need of their societies for it? All fear that these attempts are concealment or restoration of a cultural narcissistic wound, as George Tarabishi once spoke about…