The Arabic Freud

Psychoanalysis and Islam in Egypt

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Omnia El Shakry
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , August
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Psychoanalysis is not only a theory and clinical practice, it is also an ethics of responsibility with respect to oneself and others. Freud insisted that human beings are responsible for the contents of their minds, both conscious and unconscious. No matter how disturbing or unsettling a dream may be, it is the responsibility of the dreamer to think about its meaning, why s/he had this particular dream at this particular time. What feeling states about self and other are revealed in the dream? Cornelius Castoriadis described the ethical psychoanalytic imperative as “putting oneself into question” (World in Fragments, Stanford, 1997, 158). For Hans Loewald, one of Freud’s most sophisticated commentators, psychoanalysis calls us to ethical relationships. Psychoanalysis is animated and sustained by love of the “truth,” of “psychic reality” in oneself and others. Loewald understood that in his love of psychoanalysis, Freud inevitably loved its “object”—human beings (The Essential Loewald, University Publishing, 2000, 297).

InThe Arabic Freud, Omnia El Shakry creates a dialogue or “encounter” between psychoanalysis and Sufi mysticism in the context of 1940s and 1950s Egypt. In her exploration of “Islamic and psychoanalytic idioms” theorizing the nature of the self in mid-20th century Egypt, El Shakry envisions the relationship between psychoanalysis and Sufism as “mutually transformative” (10). She refutes the idea that psychoanalysis is engaged in a “secular civilizing mission” that negates Islam as part of a colonizing European hegemonic discursive practice and epistemological framework (10). Rather, El Shakry examines the reception and interpretation of Freudian psychoanalysis in postwar Egypt as part of a “multivalent tradition and metonym for broader Arabic debates surrounding the status of the unconscious in psychic life” (1). She demonstrates how Egyptian intellectuals, such as the Lacanian analyst Moustafa Safouan, who translated Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams into Arabic, and Yusuf Murad, who founded the Journal of Psychology (Majallat ‘Ilm al-Nafs), introduced readers to the basic theories and concepts of psychoanalysis and its various schools of thought. El Shakry also discusses the importance of psychoanalysis for debates on psychosexual education (chapter 3) and criminality (chapter 4), focusing on its prevention and treatment. 

Of particular interest to scholars of psychology and religion is El Shakry’s discussion of the conceptualization of the unconscious in those writers who wished to blend psychoanalysis with Sufi mysticism. A Sufi psychology of the soul, consciousness, subjectivity, relationship and the ethical encounter with the Other, both human and divine, requires a conceptualization of a mystical unconscious that is far more resonant with the religiously-laced psychologies of William James, Carl Jung, or Wilfred Bion than with Freud. Their attempts at formulating a mystical unconscious that occupies a liminal space inhabited by a sacred, cosmic divine and the human psyche (a “psycho-cosmological view of the self”, 49) is more promising for an engagement of “key psychoanalytical concepts with central concepts of classical Islamic thought, drawn from Ibn ‘Arabi, Avicenna, al-Ghazali, and al-Razi” than the Freudian unconscious (41). 

An important part of El Shakry’s project is to “think through the relationship between psychoanalysis and Islamic tradition, while “respecting the ‘ontological stakes’ of the latter, namely, the belief in divine transcendence and divine discourse” (43). In an important respect, this addresses the crux of the issue as to whether the concept of the “unconscious,” central to Freudian psychoanalytic theory, is compatible with a mystical psychology. The concept of the “unconscious” that underwrites the latter has little to do with Freud, as the author herself seems aware when she describes her intent to “explore the elective affinities between Sufism and certain strands of psychoanalysis in terms of a dialogical relationship between the self and the Other, as mediated by the unconscious” (44, italics added). Although El Shakry is reconstructing an important piece of Egyptian and psychoanalytic intellectual history, it remains necessary to clarify how the critical and central notion of the unconscious is understood and theorized in elaborating an “elective affinity” between psychoanalysis and any religious tradition.

The greatest strength of El Shakry’s study lies in the way she brings discourses of modernity and pre-modernity together, exploring the traces of each in the other. This is a deliberate rhetorical strategy on her part, which yields far deeper and more meaningful insights than the traditional method of separation of premodern and modern. As she said in a recent interview with Joel van de Sande (April 4, 2018), “In the Arabic Freud project, I was more interested in thinking about the trace, of that which preceded colonialism and which endures, rather than the cut”. This strategy allows her to probe the question of what it means “now, to think through psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a ‘problem’ but as a creative encounter of ethical engagement” (110). In this way she also successfully, and quite rightly, avoids conflating the universal perspective of psychoanalysis with the “civilizing mission” of colonization. Although a deeply contentious subject for a different discussion, Freud’s understanding of the universal applicability of psychoanalysis was related to the universal object of its study—human beings—while recognizing their vast cultural diversity. Whether one agrees with him or not, this is, for example, what anthropologist Melford Spiro had in mind with his thesis of the existence of Oedipal dynamics in non-European cultures.

Although I disagree with El Shakry that both the “secret” shared between Freudian psychoanalysis and religion is in the belief in a “beyond I and thou,” and that religion and psychoanalysis “attempt to grasp how the subject becomes the addressee of a divine and transcendental discourse” (112), I do heartily endorse her final statement, that psychoanalysis calls us not only to “subject ourselves and our drives to radical critique” but also to take “personal responsibility … for the connection between the modalities of the inner self and the appearance of the outer world” (115). And thus we come full circle, ending on the note with which this review began: the ethical call central to both psychoanalysis and Sufism for loving engagement and encounter with the heterogeneous self and others. Even though Freudian psychoanalysis does not share the ontological and epistemological bases of Sufism or any religion (and cannot plausibly be made to do so), it does share this ethical concern with them, insisting on “putting oneself into question” as central to psychological health and ethical life.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marsha Aileen Hewitt is Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

Date of Review: 
June 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Omnia El Shakry is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt and the editor of Gender and Sexuality in Islam.


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