In the “Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin observes that “a translation issues from the original—not so much from its life as from its afterlife.” The Arabic Freud, as both Michael Allan and Fadi Bardawil remark, models the ethos and practice of translation through its method. Here, the work of translation is “not mired in a question of translational directionality,” nor is it understood in terms of “causality, fidelity, and adaptation,” as Michael Allan astutely notes, but rather translation is imagined as a constitutive afterlife. Within this shifted terrain, away from “margin and center, and toward the site of reception and rebirth,” he continues, Freud emerges “as a site and occasion for understanding the poetics of reception.” Allan pushes me further to think about the vector from adaptation back to source, about the implications that the Arabic Freud had on the German Freud. Indeed, as Benjamin continues, “in its afterlife—which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and renewal of something living—the original undergoes a change.”1
What, then, is this vector of change, this movement undergone in the shuttling between das Unbewusste, the term Freud used for “the unconscious,” and its Arabic translation as al-la-shuʿur, a term borrowed from the medieval Sufi philosopher Ibn ʿArabi and redolent with mystical overtones? As Allan comments, “if there is a translational vector to be traced, it might well not be a relation between source and adaptation at all” but instead “a translational vector toward the future.” Stated somewhat differently, can the archive of the Unbewusste be reopened and its meanings disseminated and proliferated with the concept of al-la-shuʿur, thereby highlighting an unknowability at the heart of the human subject in relation to the Divine? Would such dissemination dislodge the ontological and epistemological conceit of a universal grammar of the subject presumed by readers of the German Freud within certain strands of psychoanalysis? What might it mean, in other words, to rethink the epistemological and ethical contours of selfhood and psychoanalysis while standing in a geopolitical elsewhere?
The Arabic Freud, then, does not aim to augment the literature on psychoanalysis by contributing yet another reading of Freud (merely to be added to the French, American, Argentinian, or Indian Freud), nor does it simply argue that psychoanalysis as a discipline was itself constituted by the Other (and, therefore, always already inflected by histories of colonialism and of the non-West). Eschewing the pretension to abstraction so characteristic of philosophical reflections on selfhood, it rejects the premise of much Euro-American theory in which “geopolitics provides the exemplars, but rarely the epistemologies.”2 Instead, I stage a scene of reading between psychoanalysis and Islam that takes place otherwise, at the intersection of multiple epistemological and ethical traditions of selfhood. Such “irreducible work of translation, not from language to language, but from body to ethical semiosis” cannot resort to the resolutely secular framings within which a knowledge formation like psychoanalysis has traditionally been understood.3
If translation aims “at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one,” then my historical interlocutors found ample epistemological resonances between psychoanalytic and Islamic thought. Hence, 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 (al-la-shuʿur) as a place where God could be manifested. Imbued with a primordial divinity, the term was intimately bound up with preexisting meanings. Its genealogical reach extended into Islamic invocations of the term used by Ibn ʿArabi and others.
The nafs, thus understood, oscillated between its bodily and spiritual manifestations, functioning as a barzakh or isthmus between spirit and matter. Envisioned as a spectrum of darkness and luminosity, it further expressed itself in a tripartite conceptualization of the nafs derived from the Qurʾan and loosely echoed in Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul. And yet, these claims, if viewed as “mere translations of psychoanalytic concepts” into “an Islamic idiom,” as Bardawil gleans, would leave untouched the assumption that modern selfhood, and by extension psychoanalysis, is normatively secular. The non-West would once again be relegated to an exemplar rather than an epistemology. By contrast, The Arabic Freud asks what if we understand the self as the nafs, intuition as kashf and firasa (modes of spiritual unveiling and mystical insight), and knowledge as maʿrifa (an illuminative cognition of the Divine), thereby unraveling the secular grammar of the subject while proliferating “the critical afterlife of theoretical concepts.” Such practices of reading and translating necessarily unsettle “the West” as an allegedly singular and secular formation and provide “a way of affirming that the original as a self-consistent, unified theory or textual body never existed.”
If my method is one that, ultimately, turns away from originals and bad copies toward the “poetics of reception” and the afterlife, then my theoretical orientation pursues the entanglement of discursive traditions through an ethical turn. Such a turn to ethics upends what Fadi Bardawil evocatively calls the “the civilizational contraption that appropriates intellectual traditions and reifies them to make them one of the many mythologies of an enlightened, secular West that stands in opposition to Islam.”
Significantly, as Bardawil perceptively notes, my displacement of this civilizational contraption departs, by necessity, from the major traditions of modern Arab thought and their attendant politics of decolonization, as exemplified by thinkers such as Abdallah Laroui. Laroui viewed the Arab intelligentsia’s response to colonialism and European hegemony as divided into two dominant trends: traditionalist Islamic thought, characterized by a repetitive recitation of the past or an alienation through time, and modernist thought, characterized by eclecticism and ideological backwardness, or an alienation through space. I depart, as well, from the Euro-American postcolonial reading practices that have reiteratively critiqued the historicist and secular discursive assumptions of these traditions of thought.
In contrast, The Arabic Freud bypasses the lingering desire for the complete autonomy of decolonized cultural and intellectual formations, whether from European colonial formations or from allegedly moribund religious traditions, in order to displace historical and historicist narratives of modernization and decolonization. To do so, I turn to a minor tradition that, as Bardawil so eloquently observes, “cannot be adequately rendered visible without displacing a series of binaries that undergird prevailing ideological dialects, theoretical models, and disciplinary reading practices: a civilizational antagonism between West and non-West; a cultural difference separating Self and Other; a hierarchy in value between originals and copies; and a stark historical discontinuity dividing pre-modern from modern eras.”
Dwelling in the caesura between pre-modern and modern, between the trace of inherited traditions and the traumatic cut of colonialism in our encounter with the past across time and space, historians might be said to inhabit the space of the barzakh—a liminal zone or isthmus. Such an isthmus was conceptualized by the medieval mystic Ibn ʿArabi as a space between the existent and the nonexistent, the known and the unknown, “which is neither the one nor the other but which possesses the power (quwwa) of both.” Consequently, rather than assume the rigidity, mimesis, univocity, or separation of “traditional” and “modern” thought, I explore the ways in which writings on selfhood drew from both Islamic and psychoanalytic discursive traditions, understood as convivial bodies of knowledge subject to continuous reinterpretation. If, then, the plasticity of minor discursive traditions inaugurates a new grammar of the subject that is neither in emulation of, nor in resistance to the West, this plasticity likewise displaces the temporality of a homogenous, empty time that ushers in the post-colonial nation-state.
As such, I focus on the multiple and elastic temporalities inhabited by twentieth century Arab thinkers such as Yusuf Murad and Abu al-Wafa al-Ghunaymi al-Taftazani. These thinkers found epistemological resonances and elective affinities between pre-psychoanalytic (Aristotelian and Islamic) and analytic traditions. Ibn ʿArabi was read alongside Sigmund Freud and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali alongside Karen Horney; the unconscious was understood as Divine unknowing and the drive (Trieb) as ethical self-transformation. Thus, as Bardawil states, “psychoanalysis here is not another name for a Western power/knowledge contraption that wrecks epistemological and ontological havoc on Muslim forms of life.”
I end the book by asking, what does it mean, now, to think through psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a problem, but as a creative ethical encounter? The ethico-philosophical concerns that I trace in the book have since been displaced in the postcolonial era, substituted with empty political signifiers that become mere weapons in a civilizing mission that pits secularism and civilization against non-secular forms of reason and ethics. For Bardawil, in the face of the political intransigence of the historical present, “recovering repressed pasts may loosen the present’s grip on us and may activate different possibilities for the future.” And yet, the ineluctable work of translation between past and present, between bodily and ethical semiosis, will reach an “element that does not lend itself to translation,” a nucleus that might best be thought of as akin to the navel of the dream—“its point of contact with the unknown.”
Benjamin used multiple terms with various connotations: ‘Überleben’ and Fortleben, and, elsewhere in his writings, Nachleben to convey this sense of the renewal and transformation of a work of art.↩
I am grateful to Anjali Arondekar for helping me think through psychoanalysis as geo-history and geo-epistemology.↩
I pursue these ideas further in “Psychoanalysis and the Imaginary: Translating Freud in Postcolonial Egypt,” Psychoanalysis and History 20, no. 3 (2018), 313–335.↩