The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt

Book by Omnia El Shakry

The first in-depth look at how postwar thinkers in Egypt mapped the intersections between Islamic discourses and psychoanalytic thought

Read the introduction of the book: Psychotherapy and Islam

In 1945, psychologist Yusuf Murad introduced an Arabic term borrowed from the medieval Sufi philosopher and mystic Ibn ‘Arabi—al-la-shu‘ur—as a translation for Sigmund Freud’s concept of the unconscious. By the late 1950s, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams had been translated into Arabic for an eager Egyptian public. In The Arabic Freud, Omnia El Shakry challenges the notion of a strict divide between psychoanalysis and Islam by tracing how postwar thinkers in Egypt blended psychoanalytic theories with concepts from classical Islamic thought in a creative encounter of ethical engagement.

Drawing on scholarly writings as well as popular literature on self-healing, El Shakry provides the first in-depth examination of psychoanalysis in Egypt and reveals how a new science of psychology—or “science of the soul,” as it came to be called—was inextricably linked to Islam and mysticism. She explores how Freudian ideas of the unconscious were crucial to the formation of modern discourses of subjectivity in areas as diverse as psychology, Islamic philosophy, and the law. Founding figures of Egyptian psychoanalysis, she shows, debated the temporality of the psyche, mystical states, the sexual drive, and the Oedipus complex, while offering startling insights into the nature of psychic life, ethics, and eros.

This provocative and insightful book invites us to rethink the relationship between psychoanalysis and religion in the modern era. Mapping the points of intersection between Islamic discourses and psychoanalytic thought, it illustrates how the Arabic Freud, like psychoanalysis itself, was elaborated across the space of human difference.

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.


“In a world in which Islam is all too often thought to be incompatible with a ‘secular’ Western thought system like psychoanalysis, The Arabic Freud demonstrates—spectacularly—that nothing could be further from the truth. El Shakry’s beautiful book shows, definitively, that what counts as psychoanalysis could be—indeed was—just as well produced in decolonizing Cairo as in Vienna or New York. This is a major contribution to the intellectual history of modern Egypt—and of modern ideas of selfhood more generally.”–Dagmar Herzog, author of Cold War Freud: Psychoanalysis in an Age of Catastrophes

“El Shakry provides a wonderful resource for thinking about the particularities of psychoanalysis in Egypt and its complex relationship with Islam, and gives us the history to understand psychoanalysis as a syncretic form. Elegantly argued and thoroughly researched, The Arabic Freud demonstrates that when psychoanalysis and Islam are pitted as strangers today, this is not only historically inaccurate but also colonial in its ideology.”–Ranjana Khanna, Duke University

“Much more than just tracing the history of psychoanalysis in Egypt, The Arabic Freud 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. By returning to us the Egyptian translations of the unconscious as divine unknowing and the drive as ethical self-transformation, Omnia El Shakry brings something new and far-reaching to the way we think now. At issue is not just the question of the nafs as psyche, but of the psyche as soul.”–Stefania Pandolfo, University of California, Berkeley

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