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The Arabic FreudReview - The Arabic Freud
Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt
by Omnia El Shakry
Princeton University Press, 2017
Review by Kate Mehuron
Feb 13th 2018 (Volume 22, Issue 7)

Omnia El Shakry, in The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt, demonstrates the hybridization of Islamic discourses and psychoanalytic thought in postwar Egypt. She lays aside certain Western assumptions about either Islam or psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is not assumed to be a secularizing humanism that challenges Islam. The latter is not taken as an ahistorical object of inquiry or as a monolithic religious discourse. Rather, Islam is presented as a rich, multivalent historical and discursive tradition. El Shakry posits a dialectical dynamic between psychoanalysis and medieval Islamic theologies, especially Ibn`Arabi's mystical Sufi philosophy. During the postwar years, intellectuals agitated for political and cultural decolonization, and initiated focus on the classical Islamic concept of nafs, translated as the psyche, to overcome colonized self-alienation and to question the nature and possibilities of the modern postwar Egyptian self.

          No chronological timeline of classical or modern Islamic thinkers is provided, from which these modernist theories of self drew. "Postwar Egypt" is not defined until the third chapter: the period after Egypt's 1952 postcolonial revolution and transition to state socialism under Nasser's regime. (72) A chronology of the authors and key literary, political, and theoretical events, featured in The Arabic Freud, couldillustrate the cogency of many of the author's historical claims.

           Psychoanalysis is deeply rooted in the Egyptian postwar setting, inflecting the discourses of Arab intellectuals in the humanities and social sciences. El Shakry excels at showing the dialogue between Arabaphone writings on the self, mostly unknown to Western audiences, with Freudian theorists and the classical Arab tradition of scholarship on the psyche (nafs). (15) All four chapters provide historical and theoretical insights that usefully decenter Western assumptions about the role of psychoanalytic discourses and Islamic traditions in modern Egyptian literary and political culture.

          But El Shakry claims to accomplish more. She aims to think through psychoanalysis and Islam together as a creative encounter of ethical engagement. To do so, El Shakry focuses on points of intersection between Islamic discourse and modern social scientific thought, and between religious and secular ethics. In some cases, El Shakry's discussion persuasively renders such an encounter, and in other cases the encounter lacks focus on ethical issues that may be more significant to current readers. The author's consistent ethical concern is with the incursions of state power on the dialectical self of modernity.

          The first ethical encounter charted by El Shakry is the dialectical tension in postwar Egypt, between the possibilities of psychoanalysis at the service of those who suffer, in contrast to the use of psychoanalysis as an instrument of state power. (39) Chapter One, "Psychoanalysis and the Psyche," explores the work of psychologist Yusuf Murad and the legacy of the debates spanning 1945 to 1953 in Majallat `Ilm al-Nafs, the journal he co-edited. The author shows Murad's blending of key psychoanalytic concepts with classical Islamic themes of the soul drawn from Ibn`Arabi, Avicenna, al-Ghazali, and al-Razi. The journal's debates represented the attempt to develop an integrative science of the self, resulting in Murad's integrative psychological framework that was briefly adapted by the Higher Military Academy to test officers and pilots, and the creation of psychological clinics alongside medical clinics. Eventually, Nasser's regime discarded the individualizing elements of Murad's integrative psychology such as ethics and the critique of instrumental rationality, in favor of the regime's implementation of sociopolitical engineering and socialist realism.

          El Shakry reconstructs the historical interlude between the medieval roots of Sufism and the development of psychoanalytic psychology in Chapter Two, "The Self and the Soul." This chapter explores affinities between Sufism and psychoanalysis, in terms of the dialogical and ethical relationship between self and other, mediated by the unconscious. The prominent intellectual Abu al-Wafa al-Ghunaymi al-Taftazani is shown to expound Sufism for the broad public, moving across and translating between Sufi and psychoanalytic accounts of the ethical encounter at the heart of the modernist self. Although El Shakry references the "modernist Freudian ethic" throughout this chapter, its sense is unclear. The author hints that a Lacanian perspective can elaborate such an ethic, by elucidating a psychoanalytic principle of heteronomy. The reviewer wonders whether al-Taftazani addressed Lacan's notions in his work. If not, El Shakry's references to Lacanian perspectives seems indigestible, given the already dense theoretical story told by this chapter.

          Chapter Three, "The Psychosexual Subject," revisits psychologist Yusuf Murad's writings on the interweaving of Islamic and psychoanalytic accounts of gender and sexuality. El Shakry describes how Murad's interpretation of Freud's account of pleasure and sexuality is mediated by Islamic virtue ethics, particularly Al-Ghazali's notion of tarbiya, or the ethical cultivation of the child. El Shakry proposes that Murad has shown that within the ethic of tarbiya, the stabilization of gender identity and normative sexuality is an important normative phase of psychosexual development. Murad's most original contribution, according to El Shakry, is his view that homosocial and homoerotic friendship is an ideal model for conjugal heterosexuality. El Shakry's copious footnotes and bibliography for this chapter attest to the scholarship on sex and gender power dynamics that reference the interplay between Islamic and psychoanalytic thought. However, the chapter suspends a critical attitude toward Murad's sexual normativity overall, nor does the author raise ethical concerns over the cultural inferiorization of female sexuality in postwar Egypt. These concerns, if explored by El Shakry, could complicate her evaluation of Murad's contribution.

          The structural relationship between the psychological disciplines and the Egyptian judicial system is examined in Chapter Four, "Psychoanalysis Before the Law." The writings of criminal psychology professor and prominent lawyer Muhammad Fathi, are traced in debates centered in Majallat `Ilm al-Nafs. El Shakry brings to light the way that psychoanalysis sought separation from psychiatry as a field of therapeutic practice, within the Egyptian legal system. She examines a case study in which Fathi plays a leading advocacy role, illuminating the triumph of Fathi's vision of Egyptian therapeutic licensing laws that strictly separate psychoanalysis from medical interventions. El Shakry decries the outcome of these debates: the unethical juridical subjection of criminal intent to the technocratic gaze of the postcolonial state.


© 2018 Kate Mehuron


Kate Mehuron, Professor of Philosophy, Eastern Michigan University, Academic Candidate, Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute. Correspondence:


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