Jonardon Ganeri begins his essay on the translation of the Sanskrit Upanishads into Persian by the Mughal prince and philosopher Dara Shukoh (1615-1659) by invoking Immanuel Kant’s notion of hospitality. If, as Kant suggests, hospitality is the cosmopolitan right of a stranger “not to be treated with hostility because he has arrived on the land of another,” what might it mean, Ganeri asks, “to say that a stranger has a right to hospitality when the movement involved concerns texts and ideas? . . . What does it take for an intellectual tradition to have the ability to show hospitality to an intellectual stranger?”
Omnia El Shakry, in her profound and radical book, asks a question that is deeply resonant with the one Ganeri raises about the movement of Freudian psychoanalytic thought into Arabic: “What does it mean to think through psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a “problem”, but as a creative encounter of ethical engagement?” It is hospitality, to use Ganeri’s reworking of Kant, that serves as the basis of such a creative encounter. El Shakry shows us a long moment in mid-twentieth-century Egyptian intellectual history when the Arabic intellectual world—across what we would divide as the disciplines of psychology, philosophy, literature, ethics, mysticism, law, and criminology—showed profound hospitality to Freudian thought.
But who gets to be hospitable? Who experiences the movement and eclectic blending of ideas as—to paraphrase Frederick Cooper—not personally destabilizing, not intellectually contradictory, not threatening to one’s sense of cultural integrity? Dara Shukoh, the crown prince of the mid-seventeenth pre-colonial Mughal empire at the peak of its economic and military might, inheritor of long and unbroken traditions of Islamic and Indic thought, welcomed the Upanishads into dialogue with the conceptual world of tasawwuf from a place of power, privilege, and—if I can use Yusuf Murad’s terminology—integration. As Fadi Bardawil notes in his perceptive essay on The Arabic Freud, in the dominant academic readings of the encounter of the reified “West” with colonized societies such as Egypt, a self-confident and enriching ethical encounter with a foreign system of knowledge is well-nigh impossible. The dominant paradigms, as Bardawil notes, underscore a stark historical discontinuity between premodern and modern Muslim society, brought about by the economic, military, and discursive powers of European imperialism, and the “epistemological and ontological havoc” they wreak on Muslim forms of life.
This is why, as Bardawil notes, El Shakry’s book is so paradigm shifting, or, in his words, a “de-reification device.” The necessarily hierarchical and oppositional binaries of colonizer and colonized, West and non-West, secular and religious, utterly fail to encompass the complexity, the fluidity, and the originality of the conceptual work done by Egyptian thinkers in their encounter with Freud. Bardawil further elaborates that “they moved back and forth between al-Ghazali (1058-1111) and Freud (1856-1939) without any sense of swimming against the gushing streams of empty homogeneous time.” This phenomenon is remarkably similar to how Dara Shukoh saw no problem in bringing the Upanishads, from several hundred years BCE, into conversation with the Quran, and his own contemporary interpretive traditions of Sufism. Or the ways in which contemporary poets in Pakistan, as Nosheen Ali’s work illustrates, think of poets who lived centuries ago as their contemporaries with whom they are in conversation.
Why do I mention Dara Shukoh and Pakistani poets who are far removed from mid-twentieth-century Egypt in time and space? Along with a deep investment in tasawwuf, they also share with the Egyptian thinkers who El Shakry writes about, like Yusuf Murad and Shaykh Abu al-Wafa al-Ghunaymi al-Taftazani, a sense of being unconstrained by the teleology of linear historical time. Bardawil emphasizes that “these thinkers inhabited a world of multiple temporalities.” His reading of these thinkers being unconstrained by temporality is a key insight because the teleology of time is as central to modernity as the question of the self. The linear time of progress, moving ever forward, makes possible the notion of a people or society that is backwards and perpetually doomed to play “catch up.” Teleology also allows for the sense of historical ruptures, as Bardawil notes, being cleaved from the past by what Stefania Pandolfo evocatively calls the “thin line of modernity.” What does it mean to not be so cleaved?
It is undeniable that colonialism and post-colonial nationalism have wreaked havoc on many forms of life. I am acutely aware of this writing from India, where I am currently doing fieldwork, and where the colonial historical project of vilifying Muslim rule in India has now become the dominant political discourse, with terrifying consequences. (And the Hindutva project, like many post-colonial projects, shares that sense of a break from the past, which must now be recovered.) But as Bardawil’s reading of The Arabic Freud allows us to see, this sense of rupture and alienation was not the only way in which the colonized responded to the colonizer. There were also—perhaps minor, as Bardawil indicates—traditions in which people like Yusuf Murad could be hospitable to the intellectual excitement of Freud and bring it together with the insights of classical Islamic writers, like Ibn ‘Arabi, to create new forms of knowledge, “neither of the East nor of the West.” El Shakry points us to a new direction of research: to think about the plenitude of time and the persistence of traditions—and hence the possibilities of productive conceptual dialogue—despite the brute facts of colonialism and its ruptures.
I would wager that some of the intellectual and religious elite across the colonial Middle East and South Asia, while militarily defeated and politically subjugated, were not intellectually colonized—in the sense of elevating Western forms of knowledge above their own classical traditions. They lived within a plenitude of time in which Freud and Ibn ‘Arabi, separated by centuries, could productively speak to each other unconstrained by the borders of “tradition” and “modernity,” “religious” and “secular.” It is this plenitude which allowed them to engage with the “ethico-philosophical questions,” in Bardawil’s phrasing, of how to understand and relate to self and Other. In twentieth-century South Asia, too, we have figures like Maulana Hasrat Mohani—a religious scholar, revolutionary, and poet—who effortlessly brought together anti-colonial struggle, Islam, communism, and Krishna devotion.
I bring up Hasrat Mohani in part because a young friend of mine takes deep inspiration from him at this present moment of rampant majoritarianism in India. He sees in the life and thought of Hasrat Mohani potentials for both radical acceptance of the Other and yet of principled dissent. This friend is one of many who are turning to figures like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and Hasrat Mohani—figures of enormous intellectual and ethical plenitude who have been neglected in the canon of Indian political and ethical thought—to find new conceptual and ethical vocabularies in the current political moment. Bardawil, in his response to The Arabic Freud, also thinks of the ethical and political significance of the traditions that El Shakry so marvelously excavates. He asks: “What is the significance in our post-Arab revolutions present, which displaced the centrality of the West from Arab mass politics, to excavate the works of pre-decolonization thinkers absorbed by ethico-philosophical questions? Does our present contribute to making these works audible again?” Drawing on my experience of contemporary India—whose history, including its post-colonial history, has been deeply entwined with that of the Arab world—I would answer that question with an unequivocal yes.
I turn to the contemporary afterlife of Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), the Pakistani poet who is also hugely popular in India, whose poetry consistently brought together the themes of the classical ghazal tradition, deeply infused with tasawwuf, with contemporary political concerns. His most famous poem, titled “wa yabqa wajhu rabbika” (Quran 55:27, there will remain the face of your lord), is widely popular in both Pakistan and India as an anthem of resistance, particularly in Iqbal Bano’s famous rendition. The poem/song brings together imagery from the Quran, from early Islamic history, from the martyrdom of Mansur Al-Hallaj, and from the Communist manifesto. It is also the default anthem, the song everyone can sing, at current political protests in Delhi. And then Coke Studio Pakistan dropped a video of the song, making it into a song of radical inclusion of the marginalized, including religious minorities and transgender people. My Facebook feed exploded with young Indian friends sharing the video again and again: a vision of what could be, from across the border, in stark contrast to the politics of the national present.
As Bardawil argues, The Arabic Freud’s “multiple displacements open up a discursive space to activate minor traditions.” It is these minoritized, but extraordinarily deep and productive, traditions circulating, percolating, and going “viral” now through WhatsApp and Facebook—untrammeled and unconcerned with traditional gatekeepers and national boundaries—that we need to begin to take seriously.