Psychoanalysis and the Imaginary: Translating Freud in Postcolonial Egypt — Interview with Omnia El Shakry

On 11th and 12th April 2019, the workshop “Power in Medicine: Interrogating the Place of Medical Knowledge in the Modern Middle East” will take place in Berlin. It is organized by Edna BonhommeShehab Ismail, (both MPIWG) and Lamia Moghnieh (AUBEUME) and will be convened by Europe in the Middle East—Middle East in Europe (EUME) and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG). The workshop will examine the history and politics of medicine and psychiatry in the Middle East from the 1800s until the contemporary period.
You can find the workshop program here and the poster 

Omnia El Shakry will present the keynote lecture of the workshop, Psychoanalysis and the Imaginary: Translating Freud in Postcolonial Egypt, on Thursday 11 April 2019, 4pm. Convener, Shehab Ismail, interviews her about her research.

SI: How do you see the relationship between your first and your second book?

OES: Both books trace intellectual genealogies of the human sciences while also investigating the points of intersection between Arabic, Islamic, and European thought in colonial and postcolonial Egypt. Both books explore how knowledge is formulated and produced through encounters­—whether the encounter is between the colonizer and the colonized or between psychoanalysis and Islam.

That said, I think there are crucial differences between them in terms of their theoretical lexicon and their defining questions. The Great Social Laboratory was very much embedded within Marxist, post-Marxist, and postcolonial theory (Gramsci, Althusser, Foucault, subaltern studies), while the Arabic Freud draws predominantly on psychoanalytic and Islamic thinkers (Freud, Lacan, Ibn ʿArabi, as well as my historical interlocutors, Yusuf Murad and Abu al-Wafa al-Ghunaymi al-Taftazani, both of whom I conceive of as theorists in their own right). These different lexicons had vast implications for the histories that followed.

In my first book, I focused on concepts that we tend to conventionally associate with modernity: questions of governmentality, the formation of “population” as an object of study, bourgeois hegemony, etc. as they were shaped across Arab and European knowledge formations. These questions do, of course, animate the movement from the colonial to the postcolonial and they are significant questions. They show up in the field of psychology as well. But I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with approaches to knowledge production (including my own) that emphasized colonialism, nationalism, or political developments more generally, as singularly determinative of intellectual formations and of the human subject in the postcolony.

Omnia El Shakry, The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.

In the Arabic Freud, I wanted to tackle a very different set of philosophical questions surrounding the nature of the unconscious, the soul, ethics, and sexuality. Specifically, I wanted to think about the epistemological and ethical contours of psychic life and about the human subject’s relationship to the divine. In this way I could address the significance of Islamic thought to the formulation of social theory—an arena that was underexplored in my previous book. Crucially, this also enabled me to engage with the question of modernity from the perspective of tradition. Oftentimes the modern is conceptualized as coming after the (traumatic) cut inaugurated by colonialism, where a chasm separates the pre-colonial from the colonial. This cut can be viewed as a series of ontological and epistemological ruptures or breaks that sever what came before colonialism from what transpires afterwards, such as modern processes of subject formation. Yet, I was more interested in thinking about the trace of that which preceded colonialism and that which endures in its aftermath (particularly of the non-secular), rather than the cut. To give a concrete example, when in 1945 Yusuf Murad translated Freud’s concept of “the unconscious” into Arabic, he borrowed the term al-la-shuʿur from the medieval Sufi philosopher Ibn ʿArabi—a term redolent with mystical overtones. Likewise, the term that best captured Freud’s notion of die Seele or psyche was aptly rendered as the nafs (soul, spirit, psyche), a concept implying a spiritual core, alongside the presence of the unconscious as a place where God could be manifested. Imbued with a primordial divinity, the term was intimately bound up with Islamic invocations and preexisting meanings.

SI: The Arabic Freud explores epistemological resonances between psychoanalysis and Islamic thought in postwar Egypt. As you show, this was not a story of incommensurability but of interbreeding and conceptualization across knowledge traditions. Still, one wonders how writers like Yusuf Murad and others evaluated what they considered moments of tension and contradiction, if there were any. Were these moments productive at all?

OES: This is an excellent question and I think you are quite right to point out that the book prioritizes epistemological resonances and co-productions over tensions and contradictions between discrete knowledge traditions. This was partly due to the fact that I was responding to scholars who had tackled the question of psychoanalysis and Islam as a problem. Moreover, they had assumed that both traditions were ignorant of each other, while placing Islam on the couch, as it were, alleging its resistance to the “secular science” of psychoanalysis.  I tried to undo the terms of this debate by asking, instead, how we might think of psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a “problem,” but as a creative encounter of ethical engagement.

Nonetheless, there are numerous examples of disagreements, sometimes fundamental, between the thought of Yusuf Murad and Sigmund Freud. For example, Murad departed from Freud by emphasizing cultural and sociological factors in the formation of the Oedipus complex as well as in the constitution of male and female sexuality. He also repudiated Freud’s notion of the death drive. At a deeper level, my historical interlocutors approach the divine in ways quite distinct from Freud. Both Murad and Taftazani conceptualize the human subject as the addressee of a divine and transcendental discourse, whereas Freud at times pathologized religion in texts such as The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents.

Indeed, the wider literature on psychoanalysis and religion oftentimes argues that psychoanalysis represents a non-religious and even atheistic world view. At the same time, Freud has been subject to a wide variety of interpretations. 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.” And, in fact, throughout the twentieth century there have been numerous psychoanalysts who have maintained a receptive attitude towards religion and mysticism. In an important sense, then, psychoanalysis as a tradition is open to multiple, occasionally 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.

Inthe Arabic Freud I try to make this tension or contradiction between religion and psychoanalysis generative. Through my historical interlocutors, the book “reopens the archive of the unconscious in psychoanalysis and allows it to proliferate and disclose its secret connections with the problematic of the soul, in Islam and in religious traditions at large,” as Stefania Pandolfo notes. Can the archive of the unconscious be reopened and its meanings disseminated and proliferated with the concept of al-la-shuʿur? Would such dissemination dislodge the ontological and epistemological conceit of a universal grammar of the subject presumed by readers of the German (or French or English) Freud? What might it mean, in other words, to rethink the epistemological and ethical contours of selfhood and psychoanalysis while standing in a geopolitical elsewhere? Thus, Egyptian translations of the unconscious as divine unknowing and the drive as ethical self-transformation help us rethink not just the nafs as psyche, but the psyche as soul.

SI: In the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault discusses confession as a certain “technology of the self” that was retooled by psychoanalysis. In Egypt, where confession has not had the same history, were there significant discussions concerning the incitement to speak? Did Sufi ideas mediate practices of narrating the self?

OES: In Volume I, Foucault discusses the transformation from the Christian pastoral and “the task of passing everything having to do with sex through the endless mill of speech” into the modern incitement to discourse connecting sex to the production of the truth of the subject. Within knowledge formations such as medicine, psychiatry, pedagogy, and psychoanalysis one finds, he argues, the dissemination of procedures of confession.

It is appropriate, then, to ask about the incitement to speak in Egypt, where confession did not have the same history. One might further think about the associations between confession, the bodily desires of the flesh, and notions of asceticism, although not, of course, in the Orientalizing fashion of Foucault’s distinction between an ars erotica and scientia sexualis. In the Arabic Freud, the question of confession comes up in Murad’s discussion of Shifaʾ al-Nafs and the techniques of introspection and self-disclosure, as well as in Taftazani’s elaboration of self-struggle or jihad al-nafs. I’ll focus on the latter since you asked about Sufi ideas mediating practices of narrating the self.

For Taftazani, as within the Sufi tradition more broadly, jihad al-nafs referred to the greater spiritual struggle against the self (nafs). The nafs was understood here as the lower self or the nafs al-ammara bi-l-suʾ the commanding self that leaned toward the body, commanding pleasures, desires, and evil deeds. The jihad of the self was, therefore, a crucial task for the Sufi initiate or disciple and entailed both bodily and psychological components, aimed at ethical self-correction through the contemplation of God. Jihad al-nafs was framed by Taftazani in fairly psychological terms; he went so far as to state that the shaykh was in effect a psychologist to whom the initiate must confide all of his psychological issues, foraging his unconscious desires and healing his illnesses. On the surface, this discussion appears to share similarities with the modern confessional mode of power-knowledge Foucault describes, and yet I would argue that the status of the renunciation of the self is distinctive within these knowledge traditions.

In “Technologies of the Self,” Foucault states, “[f]rom the eighteenth century to the present, the techniques of verbalization have been reinserted in a different context by the so-called human sciences in order to use them without the renunciation of the self but to constitute, positively, a new self. To use these techniques without renouncing oneself constitutes a decisive break.” However, within the Sufi tradition, including in the modern period, the entire purpose of jihad al-nafs and its attendant vigilance, self-examination, self-censure, and striving (as Abu Hamid al-Ghazali outlines in The Book of Vigilance and Self-Examination) is a steadfast struggle against the self in the purification of intention and sincerity. So, renunciation of the self remains, in fact, the goal, even when reconceptualized in terms of modern psychology. Further, the incitement to speech through verbalization is not the only modality, unless of course one wishes to expand speech to include the inner speech and dialogue of the human subject in conversation with the divine and in emulation of the Prophet, his companions, and other exemplary figures. The meaning of “to speak” here is distinct, then, from the private and public confessional; it refers, as well, to an inner process of accounting (muhasaba) that takes place in the company of historical exemplum and the authoritative weight of the discursive tradition.

SI: As a historian of the social sciences and humanities in Egypt, how do you understand and assess efforts to write ‘global histories of knowledge’? Do you see yourself contributing towards these histories?

OES: I see the Arabic Freud as very much about what Ranjana Khanna calls the “worlding of psychoanalysis,” by challenging its allegedly pristine universality. For me, this cannot be done by subsuming all histories into the global, which might be yet another Hegelian ruse. Like many historians trained in postcolonial theory, I share a suspicion of the category of the ‘global,’ particularly when it attempts to incorporate all histories into a unitary totality. There is no singular history that we can map ideas onto, no global base time of history as such, rather, what we find are multiple temporalities, spatial discontinuities, and epistemic indeterminacies. I recall here Robert Young’s early critique in White Mythologies: Writing History and the West, in which he thought through the tenacity of the Hegelian dialectic in the writing of history. Is there a way to write history that does not make a pretense to render transparent and eminently visible the entire globe? This would be a history of mastery, which would be the same kind of history that G.W.F. Hegel was writing in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History or the histories that others wrote and continue to write in his aftermath. Might these be different modes or different iterations of historical writing that cannibalize the rest of the globe in the extraction of an epistemological surplus value? Can we think about writing histories that do not aspire to totality or totalization while purporting to comprehensiveness? And yet, even within totalizing narratives there will always be an excess that cannot be assimilated. Perhaps the presumption of a singular history and homogeneous spatio-temporality might be discarded in favor of an “irreducible heterogeneity,” as Gyan Prakash and other subaltern studies scholars would say.

SI: What other projects are you working on now?

OES: I’m following two lines of thought right now. One line continues to think through psychoanalysis geopolitically partly by way of an exploratory foray into the oeuvre of Sami-Ali, the Arabic translator of Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, author of a large body of original psychoanalytic writings, and translator of the poetry of Sufi masters. Taken together, his writings enable a critical rethinking of the role of the imaginary, the mechanisms of projection, and the epistemology of non-knowledge in the workings of the unconscious. Significantly, such a rethinking of key psychoanalytic concepts drew upon the Sufi metaphysics of the imagination of Ibn ʿArabi, as well as the wider clinical context structuring the conditions of (im)possibility of psychoanalysis within the postcolony. I’m envisaging this as a series of articles that will help us reconceptualize psychoanalysis as taking place otherwise at the intersection of multiple epistemological and ethical traditions.  

The second line of thought is part of a book-length project. I want to continue to examine different discursive traditions in conversation, by tracing the emergence of a vibrant movement of intellectual-religious exchange between Muslim and Catholic scholars and religious practitioners in 20th century Egypt. To be clear, I am not theorizing this in terms of the literature on interfaith relations, nor am I engaging with the question of the political status of minorities, as such. Rather, I wish to address, once again, questions of ethics and epistemology. Thus, I ask: how did the ecumenical encounter between Islam and Catholicism shape and transform religious concepts, such as the Oneness of God; practices, such as agape, sincerity, and truthfulness; and sensibilities, such as inwardness? I plan to focus on comparative theology and philosophy in order to explore the cross-fertilization of ideas and practices and the co-constitution of intellectual and social histories of spirituality that come about through experiences of encounter with the religious other.

Omnia El Shakry is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. Her research focuses the intellectual and cultural history of the modern Middle East, with a particular emphasis on the history of the human and religious sciences in modern Egypt.  El Shakry’s latest book, The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt (Princeton University Press, 2017), traces the development of psychoanalysis and discourses of subjectivity in postwar Egypt as part of the transregional history of ideas of the self and the unconscious.

Citation: Psychoanalysis and the Imaginary: Translating Freud in Postcolonial Egypt — Interview with Omnia El Shakry, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.04.2019,

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Forum Transregionale Studien (2019, 3. April). Psychoanalysis and the Imaginary: Translating Freud in Postcolonial Egypt — Interview with Omnia El Shakry. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 24. Juni 2024, von

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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