ʿIlm al-nafs might be translated as both psychology and the science of the soul. Attending to the routes (roots?) of psychoanalysis in postwar Egypt, Omnia El Shakry asks what it means to think of Islam and psychoanalysis together as “a creative encounter of ethical engagement.” This is both the task and provocation of The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt (Princeton University Press, 2017).
The book’s opening epigraph comes from the Egyptian psychoanalyst Moustapha Safouan: “In truth, we find treatises on the soul in Arabic works that evoke the Freudian division among the parts of the personality: id, ego, and superego.” The Arabic Freud, then, explores the multivalent encounters between psychoanalysis and Islamic thought, turning and returning to the question of the unconscious and the modern subject. At once disruptive of the oppositions that drive narratives of incommensurability between psychoanalysis and Islam (i.e. attempts to “put Islam on the couch” and civilizing missions of psychoanalysis) and conductive of the epistemological resonances between discursive traditions, The Arabic Freud offers and inspires ethical possibility.
El Shakry studied in Cairo, New York, and Princeton, where she focused on, among other topics, the modern Middle East, European intellectual history, and the history of colonialism. Now Professor of History at the University of California, Davis, she is a founding member of the Middle East/South Asia Studies Program there and teaches courses in History, Critical Theory, and Cultural Studies. She is the author of The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt (2007) and editor of Gender and Sexuality in Islam (2016). “Even though as a historian my intercourse is with the dead,” she says, “it’s still an encounter.” El Shakry works within this encounter, this transferential space.
—Joel van de Sande