by ALI ALTAF MIAN for ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN on NOVEMBER 6, 2014:

Ali Mian
Ali Mian

Is Sigmund Freud a stranger to the robust intellectual scenes of the modern Middle East? Is there mutual ignorance between Islam and psychoanalysis? Do only secular Arab thinkers invoke Western discourses of suspicion, such as psychoanalysis?

In a forthcoming monograph, provisionally titled The Arabic Freud, UC-Davis historian Omnia El Shakry casts much-needed light on modern intellectual collaborations and interconnected webs of knowledge production between Egypt and Europe, especially with reference to psychoanalysis. She investigates the travels of psychoanalysis in post-WWII Egypt, primarily through an exploration of social scientific, religious, and legal writings about self and subjectivity. This important work will illuminate how Arab scholars in the 1940s and 1950s understood the emerging disciplinary space of psychology as a science of selfhood and the soul. The disciplines of psychology and psychoanalysis in this context were therefore not reduced to empirical studies of mental processes. In fact, mental health professionals and psychologists, but also Islamic thinkers and legal practitioners, creatively blended European discourses of self and psyche with local Islamicate knowledge traditions.

Omnia El Shakry
Omnia El Shakry

In a recent talk at Duke University, El Shakry discussed the emergence of the psychosexual subject in postwar Egyptian discourses, as evident in the Journal of Psychology (Majallat ‘ilm al-nafs). This journal was founded in 1945 by the Egyptian psychology professor Yusuf Murad and psychoanalyst Mustafa Ziywar. The postwar period witnessed an innovative discussion about human sexuality, shifting from the fin-de-siècle focus on biomedicine and psychiatric nosology to psychology, psychoanalysis, and Islamic mystical and ethical traditions. These intellectual overlaps between Europe and Egypt refute the claim that psychoanalysis and Islam are incompatible.

El Shakry also argued that in contradistinction to the crisis of masculinity in Egypt between WWI and WWII (as discussed by Middle Eastern studies specialists such as Hanan Kholoussy, Wilson Jacob, and Liat Kozma), postwar discourses increasingly started to analyze the female body and psyche. In this way, contributors to the Journal of Psychology asked fresh questions, extending the limits of the thinkable in Egyptian academic circles.

Gender and sexual formation were taken to be compelling questions, addressed by various authors who contributed to the Journal of Psychology. On the pages of this journal, Egyptian readership encountered theories that explained how heterosexual masculinity and femininity were nearly impossible norms of psychosexual development. At places, readers were even introduced to the desirability of homosocial romantic attachments as the quintessential model for ideal heterosexuality.

Rachid Koraichi, "Hommage à Ibn Ata Allah Iskandari III" (1947). Source:
Rachid Koraichi, “Hommage à Ibn Ata Allah Iskandari III” (1947). Source:

El Shakry’s forthcoming book also engages with the central methodological question of Islamicate sexuality studies: How might we trace the transformation and consolidation of both normative and non-normative sexualities in the Arab world in such a way that does not render them epiphenomenal to colonialism, nationalism, or any other simplistic understanding of “exogenous” or political forces?

El Shakry’s heretofore unexplored archives yield vivid examples of how post-war Egyptian thinking and writing invigorated pre-modern Islamicate discourses about morality and mysticism. Scholars such as Yusuf Murad simultaneously invoked Freudian theory and the medieval Muslim theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s teaching on ethical cultivation and self-discipline (tarbiyya). In this way, psychoanalysis and Islamic ethical philosophy came together to illuminate different histories of postwar Egyptian self and society. This epistemic creativity and dialogue made possible an imagining of the psychosexual subject in terms of pleasure and desire but also morality and theology.

Murad was able to frame modern styles of reasoning, such as psychoanalysis, within pre-existing modes of contemplation. For example he regularly published his translations of psychoanalytic terminology in the Journal of Psychology, showing the relevance of the pre-modern discourses in order to translate modern terms; i.e. he discussed Freud’s concept of instinct/trieb (in German) in relation to medieval Islamic philosophical and moral theories of instinct/ghariza (in Arabic). By putting the past in conversation with the present in this constructive way, he generated ideas about the psychosexual subject that resist reducing sexuality to a product of certain scientific discourses or the juridical structures of the modern nation-state.

Murad’s work in particular, observed El Shakry, does not indicate civilizational anxieties or an idealization of a past golden age. The inter-textuality of his work — his contrapuntal engagement with pre-modern and modern texts — did not serve as vehicles for critiquing classical, and by extension contemporary sexuality, but as modes of contemplating ethical attunement. El Shakry’s work casts analytical light on these rich, yet understudied and un-translated Arabic-language sources.


To read the first installment of El Shakry’s work, see her recent article, “The Arabic Freud: The Unconscious and the Modern Subject.” Modern Intellectual History vol. 11, issue 1 (April 2014): 89-118.


Note: My thanks to Professor Omnia El Shakry for sharing with me the text of her Duke University lecture, from which I have drawn extensively in the above summation.


Ali Altaf Mian is a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University. His research interests include critical theory and the study of religion, Islam in South Asia, the history of Muslim theology, legalism, and mysticism, and gender and sexuality in contemporary Islam. He is also pursuing a certificate in feminist studies in the Program in Women’s Studies at Duke University.

Omnia El Shakry is Associate Professor of History at the University of California Davis where she teaches courses on Modern Middle East History, World History, Postcolonial theory, and Comparative Middle East/South Asia studies. Her scholarship focuses primarily on the intellectual history of the Arab world, with a special emphasis on the history of the human sciences in Egypt. She maintains additional research interests in gender and sexuality and visual cultures in the modern Middle East. She is the author of The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2007), and articles on the history of the human sciences, gender politics, and urbanism in Egypt. Her forthcoming book project is provisionally titled, The Arabic Freud. 

This article was made possible (in part) by the Transcultural Islam Project, an initiative launched in 2011 by the Duke Islamic Studies Center — in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies — aimed at deepening understanding of Islam and Muslim communities. See and for more information. The Transcultural Islam Project is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s). 

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