“It is the other who can see my form.” My friend Omnia El Shakry, also a participant in this forum, aphoristically suggested as much once when we were reading each other’s work, pointing to the unconscious status of both recognition and form. Form, in other words, emerges in a space of transference, between two, or three, or many. This thought lingered as I reflected on Niklaus Largier and Basit Iqbal’s essays on Knot of the Soul, their gift of reading. I focus here on what I see as their central concerns respectively; an arduous counter-gift, for it is hard to represent one’s work, never completely one’s own, especially when attempting to restitute lifeworlds, voices, concepts, traditions, and languages, with the responsibility and risk this entails; and because of a haunting, the way these have transformed both the author and the text.

At the center of Largier’s reading is the problematic of the soul: not just the soul (nafs) as the subject matter in a contemporary Islamic tradition I discuss in my book, but as the event of its coming to the fore, in a material texture of resonances and voices that he reads as the ethnography itself. A dazzling reflection on liturgy and method, his essay highlights the role of attentive listening and its reverberation in the writing, and the style, of Knot of the Soul, as if the text were itself a stage for the dramaturgy of the soul. (I hear echoes of Michel de Certeau’s  The Mystic Fable, and how “manners of speaking” can engender an experience of the divine.) Largier considers what the text does to the reader, himself as a reader, as a process of transformation: “How does this book make me think differently by listening differently?” More fundamentally, he traces “a sphere of resonance that has its origin in the life of the soul itself,” pondering along the way what constitutes an experience of the divine and religion today in the midst, beyond, and in spite of their reification in the vocabularies of religion and the secular. These are questions that I will read back into his own writings on the early Christian mystical tradition.

Basit Iqbal, on the other hand, addresses the problematic of crisis, inheritance, and theodicy in the Islamic tradition; the incapacity and weariness that characterizes the experience of a present in ruins across so much of the contemporary Middle East today. (He reads Knot of the Soul from a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, and in conversation with a Syrian shaykh amidst rabble and death unmourned.) And he ponders the extent to which it may be precisely in that weariness, and in the interpellation of calamity as divine trial, that the possibility of a transmission—and life—might be hesitantly sought.

I will respond to their comments focusing on a “sphere of resonance” (Largier’s phrase), the working of a heteronomy in the life of the soul, which I address in part three of my book.

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In the opening section of Kitab al-`ilm (The Book of Knowledge), al-Ghazali makes a plea for a renewed awakening within jurisprudence of the trembling aroused by the anticipation of death and the imagination of the afterlife. His tone is admonishing. Jurisprudence, he says, reclaiming the sense of discernment in the meaning of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), cannot be reduced to the knowledge of worldly transactions of marriage and divorce, buying and selling, or even to the discursive logic of legal rulings. Fiqh is based on a different sort of knowledge, a “science of the path to the hereafter” (ʿilm ṭarīq al-ākhira) that theologically and ethically grounds the law and defines the scope of a jurisprudence of the soul (fiqh al-qalb).

The “science of the path to the hereafter” exceeds human capacity and can only be indexed by an inadequacy, incapacity, or un-knowledge, as we may call it. Learning to inhabit that un-knowledge is a necessary dispossession, which breaks the soul and throws the subject out of this world, shattering chronological time and opening another time within human time. It is a leap comparable to a meditation on death, the fact “of being pitched into another world that does not correspond to this,” as al-Ghazali writes in his Remembrance of Death. Al-Ghazali further qualifies the “science of the hereafter” as spiritual knowledge of the defects and afflictions of souls/selves (maʿrifa daqāʾiq āfāt al-nufūs), suggesting that those very incapacities might be capacities of a different sort, gateways into the life of the soul; at once maladies and sites of vision and (spiritual) experimentation.

I was led to al-Ghazali’s science of the hereafter by my ethnography with the Qur’an scholar and therapist who is the protagonist of the last part of the book. The Imam (as I call him) encounters the “subtle afflictions of the soul” every day in his practice of spiritual medicine (ʿilāj sharʿī or “sharʿia healing”) with the men and women who come to him in acute mental pain. He performs for them the liturgy of the ruqya, a recital of the Qur’an on behalf of the soul. The cure is an intervention in the life of the person but also an act of collective therapeutics, whose larger scope is to heal the heart of the community and the tradition itself from the disabling illnesses of our historical time, in his words, a “vacancy of spirit” (farāgh rūḥī), and the “choking of the soul” (taḍyīq al-nafs). In this sense the Qur’anic cure and the liturgy of the ruqya as he conceives them evoke the pathos of a prophetic genre, literally one of “prophetic medicine” (al-ṭibb al-nabawī), where the time of calamity indexes the time of creation, and affliction points to repeated “testing” (fitnāt) and “trial” (ibtilā’).

The liturgy summons the presence of a jinn in the body of the sick as an ordeal of madness and divine trial. The Imam addresses the invisible presence as at once a form of life in the realm of the non-manifest (al-ghayb, the mystery of divine reality) and as an aspect of the nafs, the personal and desiring soul, which he understands as a topography of the passions and the faculties, desire, anger, and imagination, in a contemporary scholastic tradition.

Hence in our discussion of cases (halat) he shuttles between a medical attention probing the extent of the jinn’s dominion and the shrinking of the person’s cognitive and spiritual capacity, and a theological attunement to the ordeal of the soul, which he reckons through the agonistic figure of al-mujahada nafsiyya, the “battlefield of the nafs/soul.” I trace in the book the problematic of the nafs as inhabited by desire and hollowed by “choking”; as both being at risk (of madness, of despairing, and of losing faith) and as the stage of a dramaturgy of the soul that is the movement of existence, unfolding at once in the temporality of the hereafter and “in the time of hubris and mass dispossession” (Iqbal), which is our historical present.

Over the years my work grew in contrastive dialogue with Middle Eastern psychoanalytic debates on Islam and their diagnostic approach to religion, but also in a personal engagement with psychoanalysis as the practice of the unconscious: the exploration of an “unknown-known” in the thought of Freud and Lacan, and their recognition of a fundamental vulnerability at the core of human life. In both form and content, Knot of the Soul is the outcome of that process. It offers itself as an experimental ground for welcoming the Islamic problematic of the soul into psychoanalysis as an opening to thinking otherwise. I argue for a conceptual proximity cum difference between the law of a (Muslim) subject summoned on the “path to the hereafter,” and “the most particular of laws, that of desire which structures a life in terms of a fundamental unconscious orientation.” At issue is a postcolonial migration of concepts, but also an original implication of the concept of the unconscious in the life of the soul, “as the core of psychic life and its liturgical needs” (as Largier puts it) Taking the heteronomy of the unconscious into account, which undoes all accounts, is at once a potentiality and a risk; one of the possible ways to encounter the paradoxical knowledge of the hereafter.

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In different ways, both Largier and Iqbal engage with these questions. Largier emphasizes the production of the soul as the attunement to a “virtuality” nested in the fabric of everyday life and realized in an imaginal mode of the soul (understood as real, not imaginary). Iqbal turns to the problem of suffering: destruction, exhaustion, and the weariness that is born of them—is there still a soul? Temporality and imagination are central to both readings: the temporality of emergence, as a fainting of the subject in the gaps of chronological times for Largier; the temporality of divine trial (ibtila’) for Iqbal.

Walter Benjamin points out that translation activates the potential life of the original and transforms the language of the translator to make space for the other language within. In that movement of dissonance and resonance, Benjamin (a modern mystic) hears the murmuring of “language as such,” beyond form and meaning, as an opening to the impossible, an experience of the divine after the fall. Perhaps Largier alludes to that murmuring, as he recognizes in the pages of Knot of the Soul a dramaturgy of the soul that implicates and addresses us, the reader as much as the author, as “a drama that comes forth through the layers that organize the fields of utterances, and of the voices that encounter each other through these layers.”

The murmuring comes forth from beginning to end as a (musical) counterpoint of the soul: from the encounters with patients and their experiences of madness in the psychiatric hospital; to the experiments with figuration (ta`bir) in confronting the “torment of life” in the shape of a serpent in the imaginal space of a painting; all the way to the spiritual cures, the speculative teachings and liturgies of the soul/nafs, where an Islamic “Jurisprudence of the Soul” is explicitly thematized and a vocabulary is discerned and set into a dialogue with the psyche and the unconscious in psychoanalysis—a vocabulary, which, as the logic of the unconscious itself, is “reformatted incessantly in moments of abandon and exposure.”

Largier meets Knot of the Soul in the neighborhood of his research on early Christian mystics, where he attends to their modes of inhabiting the afterlife in this life and attempts to grasp mystical experience not as the ideological and trans-historical category of “mysticism,” even less of “religion,” but as a mode of attention and sensory-cognitive transformation that cannot be objectified or reduced to positive knowledge and is rather an “experiential knowledge of the Divine.” Such sensory-cognitive transformation, he argues, is materially mediated by figuration as an imaginative/aesthetic practice paced by the operation of liturgy (as the modus operandi of the law), which works by “reweaving the texture of perception” and producing “a transition of agency,” as happens in prayer, where the subject withdraws and the event of the soul takes the front of the scene. In his words: “Although the practice of prayer and contemplation evoke and shape possibilities of sensation, affect, and knowledge, they do so in a way that does not reaffirm the stability of a subject, but rather in forms of abandonment in which the subject exceeds itself in the absorbing power of an event that in and by itself transcends the practice of prayer.”1

Iqbal, on the other hand, meets Knot of the Soul on the path of his own interrogation, from within the field of Islam, of the status of Islamic tradition, community, and subjectivity in the aftermath of disaster. But the question remains, suspended (as it did for Maurice Blanchot), as to whether the disaster is the loss of a world or its coming into existence. This may help us apprehend the violence, the history, the politics, and their rehearsal in the “other time” of the soul, where they take the form of a decisive question, an ibtila, an “ordeal,” forcing us to see life from the perspective of the Last Judgment.


  1. Largier, Niklaus. “Reweaving the Texture of Perception: Mysticism and the Production of Sensual and Affective Experience,” in Annette Wilke, Constructions of Mysticism as a Universal: Roots and Interactions Across Borders, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz (to be published in 2018), p. 2