Islam and Psychoanalysis


(Published here with the author's permission)


Authored on :
26/06/2020by :

Containing Groups

by Amal Treacher Kabesh

Islam and psychoanalysis are two discourses and practices that apparently do not overlap, are seemingly distinct and do not share concerns or any socio-cultural-psychic preoccupations. This evening, I want to explore some of the inter-connections between Islam and Psychoanalysis in order to draw out a few shared pre-occupations between these two seemingly distinct discourses and practices. I want to take living through this pandemic to focus on exploring the interconnections and divergences that may exist between psychoanalysis and Islam.

This presentation is part of a web of my concerns that attempt to understand the inter-relationships between the West and the Middle East [specifically the UK and Egypt]. The cultural theorist Stuart Hall exploring people’s perceptions of Jamaica and the UK in his memoir Familiar Stranger ‘others have tended to see these worlds as much more compartmentalised... the connections may not appear to be evident ... but in everything they reverberate through each other but how these interconnections take place, are felt and thought through is challenging to elucidate and trace through’ (2017: 11).

Tracing through the interconnections is vexed because as I focus on the shared ground I am at risk of wiping out the complexities embedded in both systems and render both psychoanalysis and Islam as homogenous discourses. But, and this is a big but, if I don’t take the risk I would reinforce the clash of civilisation discourse and buttress a too commonplace perception that there is little, or nothing, shared between the West and the Rest. As Marina Warner writes (page 25): the cross-fertilisation between our own culture and cultures which have been deemed irrational and unenlightened has been more pervasive and influential than has been acknowledged or understood. And as Schwab comments, enthusiasm for the Other in a wonderful phrase ‘multiplies the world’ (the Other – works every which way). Warner points out [page 26] ‘pursuing the well-rehearsed racial and negative values of the past does not contribute to opening a dialogue;

uncovering a neglected story of reciprocity and exchange can make for a greater understanding. And one place where the conversation between East and West took a different shape was fiction’. We have to endure what we do not know and resist the temptation to use our knowledge as a way of organising our lack of understandings. An essential psychoanalytic insight is that it is when we think that we have understanding in our grasp that we should be at our most vigilant to what may be pulsing away underneath the surface.

On Islam

Massad asks is Islam a religion, a culture, a ritual, a practice and these questions could be asked of psychoanalysis. We need to be vigilant that Islam and psychoanalysis as discourses, practices, belief systems speak to each other while simultaneously recognising the different conceptualisation of socio-cultural systems and understandings of human beings.

The word Islam means surrender and the surrender is to God – for Massad prefers ‘giving oneself over’. Islam is a religion possessing a creed, fundamental principles, rituals, obligations, prohibitions and a moral code. Muslims by professing their faith accept a structure based on a direct personal relationship with God and the Message of the last Prophet [incidentally or not Muslims believe in the existence of Jesus Christ but not that he was the last Prophet]. The pillars of faith, ritual practice, social obligations and prohibitions define Islam as a religion. The pillars are: there is no god except God, Muhammed is his Messenger, perform ritual prayer, pay zakat – charitable contributions [social purifying tax], fast during Ramadan and perform Hajj but only if there are financial resources to undertake Hajj (pilgrimage). It is important to understand the month of Ramadan. Fasting is seen as having a threefold function: spiritual, physiological and social. The spiritual virtue of the fast is fundamental as by ceasing to fulfil human needs – food, drink, sexual activity and by exercising self-mastery and discipline, it is a time to turns inwards. As Ramadan is a sharp break from the usual daily routine this holy month should lead humankind to introspection and meditation. And as this is the third day of Eid (the festival following Ramadan) – I wish Eid Mubarak to all Muslims who may be listening this evening.

I live in Cairo some of the time where religion saturates everyday life: call for prayer [adhan] fills the soundspace. Everyday talk is replete with God and religious belief – thanking God for everything and the rituals and habits of everyday living: cleanliness, prayer, diet, social arrangements are made according to the time of prayer. It is impossible to avoid religion as Islamic law (p. 46) –prescribes all human activity – food, dress, hygiene, prayer, commerce and relations with others.

People can be tolerant of different religious beliefs especially in the Abrahamic tradition but in any case, atheism cannot be imagined and is perhaps the biggest sin. I was brought up Muslim and my father prayed usually 5 times daily, he also enjoyed his whisky, and as can be commonplace he became more religious as he got older. My mother and stepfather were both devout Christians. I know religion, I know what religion provides in relation to consolation, belonging, faith and as an emotional and social glue.

One focus of the overlap between Islam and psychoanalysis is an explicit and implicit preoccupation with endurance: as an ethical position, struggling with aspects of the self that are unpalatable and unacceptable and standing by other human beings no matter the obligations that they demand. So I am exploring that a shared aspect of Islam and psychoanalysis that is endurance as practice, as ritual and as part of a philosophical framework. Psychoanalytic and religious practices and rituals offer a space to be endured and to endure, the space to tolerate that life cannot be what we desire no matter how fervently we may wish it to be otherwise. The analytic space and the space for prayer and these spaces punctuate the day, punctuate the mood, punctuate egoism.

Current Context

Whatever our religious belief and wherever we place our faith, whichever geo-social region we inhabit we have all been profoundly affected by this current pandemic: from acute disruption to our ongoing experience of living, working at home, routines that keep us grounded to our connections with

others, to I am assuming the challenges of undertaking analytic sessions through Zoom. Plans are uncertain from travel to when can we return our places of work? It is all we talk about and CoVid 19 while simultaneously this pandemic is the one thing none of us want and yet we obsess about it. This pandemic holds us in its grip tightly and throws us off balance as it raises anxieties and the profound question of who and what matters? Emotions – anxiety, fear – along with an uncertain state of mind dominate for as Philip Strong asserts epidemics are not just a health problem as they are woven with psychological, social, cultural and political matters and this is evidenced by the rise of domestic abuse, homicide and the worrying rise of racist attacks against Chinese students in Nottingham for example. What has also been revealed is the precarity of our social systems, the inadequacy of our managerial, governmental and medical structures and above all – that most governments were deeply unprepared despite predictions of a pandemic since about 2015.

We have to endure the emotional, social and material conditions of living in lockdown and this entails that which we usually take for granted is not available. We are not all affected in the same way as this pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated social inequalities of class, race and gender. What does join all of us, is that we all have to endure our human frailties and vulnerabilities.

Enduring Lockdown

It is a challenge for all and we have to endure either living alone or living with others. We are confronted by who we are and I hazard a guess that lockdown has confronted us with more unpalatable aspects of ourselves. Within a psychoanalytic framework we have to endure and tolerate that there is always a gap, chasm indeed, between who we wish to be, that we are not benevolent, ever-loving, generous, as we are perpetually riven with conflicts, aggression, hate, indifference. Within an Islamic discourse, human beings are also conceptualised as struggling with the basic instincts of egotism, aggression, excessive self-regard and arrogance. The message of Islam is that individuals are agents of their moral beliefs and actions and are continually responsible before an omniscient and omnipresent God. For both psychoanalysis and Islamic thinking endurance involves having to endure aspects of the self and of the other, of knowing that we have to be endured and the gratitude of knowing that someone has endured a characteristic of who we are and how we have behaved.

Many of us have had to suffer not seeing family and/or friends and we are stripped away from those who form us and sustain us. Lockdown has brought to awareness an acute conscious knowledge of our dependencies on others and the way our web of dependencies structure and maintain our lives. We are reminded, and this is a necessary reminder, that we are formed profoundly through as Martin Hagglund writes the ‘social history of those who came before me. Who I can be and what I can do is not generated solely by me. My life is dependent on previous generations and on those who took care of me, with all of us in turn dependent on a history of the Earth’. In his book ‘This Life’ Hagglund explores that our dependencies are not just formed through human beings (past and present) but we are also dependent on nature to sustain us. Both Islam and psychoanalytic frameworks converge in profound agreement as fundamental to both disciplines is the knowledge and appreciation of those who have nurtured and sustained us. In the Middle East our identity formation is based on ‘I am, because we are’, that is a different understanding of maturity. We have to endure our dependency on others which runs counter to neo-liberal ideology and the demands of contemporary societies that we are autonomous, have the choice to be who we want and have the freedom to do what we want with no consideration of the consequences (this for the UK audience, the example of Dominic Cummings).

I have always understood one aspect of endurance as that which persists and continues over time. Stephen Frosh in his excellent article – Endurance – stresses endurance as a generous state of mind. He writes, psychoanalysis ‘reminds us that there is something important about stillness, about remaining with a situation until it organises itself under the pressure of its own desire; it reminds, us, that is to say, of the virtues of endurance’ (Frosh 2015: 157). Waiting for someone either literally or emotionally can offer someone a lifeline. Waiting for someone also entails having to endure that something or someone is more important than oneself and being willing to give oneself over to another human being. Having to endure is a way of knowing that we are reliant: it is a way of paying back the debts to the other whether known, familiar or not.

An underlying, or not so underlying, is the pulsing fear of what will happen to those we love? To quote Hagglund again as he brings together importantly the matter of time and relationships with loved ones. He writes ‘ devotion to the ones I love is inseparable from the sense that they cannot be taken for granted. My time with family and friends is precious because we have to make the most of it. Our time together is illuminated by the sense that it will not last forever and we need to take care of one another because our lives our fragile’. The pronoun ‘our’ is crucial here as it brings into sharp awareness not just the vulnerability of other human beings but also our own vulnerabilities and human fragilities.

One consequence of the lockdown is that we are living in the present and simultaneously there is the life we would be living if not for lockdown. Adam Phillips - Missing Out - explores the matter of the unlived life and argues how all our lives are lived through that which has not taken place but that we wish it had. While, Phillips is exploring how we live our lives through that which is absent, indeed has never occurred. I want to stitch his insights into one response to lockdown as what we are missing is a life that would be lived if it were not for lockdown. We are living simultaneous lives – the life of lockdown alongside the life of going to work with all its challenges, of a social life with family and friends, of more material ease – shopping, getting a haircut, travel plans that take place. As I write that sentence I notice that that other life which I inhabit is more fulfilled, easier and smoother, with no frustrations or disappointment or regrets. This of course is a fantasy, how easy fantasy takes over, because of course I still would have to grapple with difficulties and with the reality principles. The reality principle is fundamental to psychoanalysis and we need to learn to live somewhere between the lives we have during lockdown and the wish to return to our ‘normal’ life. Otherwise our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live’. While for psychoanalysis this endless tantrum is understandable but needs to be overcome, Islamic thinking would be critical of the tantrum as this would indicate disagreeing with God’s will and an arrogant, if not aggressive, resistance to God’s plan.

Philip Strong argues that an epidemic may become a ‘medical version of the Hobbesian nightmare – the war of all against all’ and a psychological epidemic of fear, suspicion, panic and stigma, fierce moral and ideological controversies exists alongside the medical pandemic. I am going to assert that we are all infected by the current psychological pandemic.

The fear of being infected is prevalent and this is underlined because like all viruses Covid 19 cannot be seen, heard, felt. This morning, an item on BBC World News focused on travelling on public transport was full of visual representations of this virus. The visuals were frightening as much as at some level they were a caricature. The representations showed in detail the virus flying through the air, landing on an innocent person, and how this virus is rampant. It apparently cannot be avoided and we are all at risk of infection. This exacerbates the fear that the disease may be transmitted through any number of routes – sneezing, breathing, through dirt, doorknobs. The environment is not safe as it is replete with the possibility of infection. The virus sticks and the fear sticks. Potential danger is everywhere and every which way so that normal activity cannot be undertaken. I do not want to undermine the profound fear that is felt and reinforced by the media despite the news items that in my view are at times unbearably cheerful, replete with sentimentality while simultaneously fanning the flames of fear.

To state the obvious - fear is triggered by what is unknown, or indeed known and yet is unbearable. It is the invisible nature of the virus that triggers conscious and unconscious fears, that the enemy is amongst us, or even one of us. This leads to a pandemic of suspicion and the rise of worrying hate crime against Chinese students in Nottingham illustrates this phenomenon. The University of Nottingham is highly reliant on income from Chinese students and the paranoia and suspicion is always bubbling away but is now rampant and overt leading to a hatred that sticks.

There is also a fear that one can infect others though I rarely hear that articulated or if it is it feels more like an afterthought as if it is something that should be added on – it never feels as if it has the same force as the fear of being infected despite the likelihood that some of us are asymptomatic.

There is many anxieties circulating: of being infected and perhaps infecting; being restricted and losing the freedom to move; loss of material security or the loss of an income (the economic consequences are dire); anxiety that life will never be the same again and the anxiety of what the future holds. For psychoanalysis anxieties are inevitable and need to be understood and tolerated, if not overcome in time. I am not convinced it is the same within Islam because trust has to be placed in God who is benign and will ensure that people will be looked after – it is never clear to me – whether this applies to everyone or just Muslims who are firm believers.

The most profound fear is that of death and dying and that this virus will annihilate either the self, those who are known and loved or even worse the self plus those who are loved. Marvin Hurvich writes that annihilation anxieties are triggered by the threat to survival and traces through how annihilation anxieties relate to other psychoanalytic concepts such as: unthinkable anxiety, nameless dread, primary anxiety, disintegration anxiety, dissolution of boundedness. Annihilation anxieties in his view relate to more ordinary depictions – fear of being overwhelmed, ego disintegration, loss of identity, breakdown of the self and control over the ego. In response to this pandemic anxiety takes two forms, minimum. Anxiety can be diffuse and hooked onto such everyday activity – have I wiped the doorknobs sufficiently? Or more critical – will I die from this pandemic?

I have noticed two responses to the threat of annihilation. First, a profound and continual shaming of others – those who disobey the rules such as going out, attending parties, not observing social distancing (I was careless on one occasion in a supermarket and was too close to another customer who glared at me – quite rightly. Her fear was palpable). I felt flooded with shame. Shaming others is based on a belief that if they observed the rules then we would all be safe (notice though how it is always they, never I or even us).

I understand the prevalent discourse of war as an omnipotent attempt to fend off the fear of annihilation. In this discourse we will conquer the virus. This language of war is problematic as it is based on the omnipotent belief that human beings can conquer nature and denies that it is nature that sets limits on our very being (this is a theme in Freud’s essay Civilisation and Its Discontents). Recourse to the belief that we will conquer denies the very limits to human existence. It is also based on a sentimental view, persistently reinforced, that the UK was united, strong and brave during the 2nd World War. The historian of the 2nd WW – Richard Overy – asserts that while there were examples of bravery and resilience during the War many people were terrified (after all they suffered from constant bombing, witnessed families, friends and neighbours die), were anxious about food shortages and deeply uncertain about the future. We need to be alert that this omnipotent discourse of conquer, master and overcome does not lead to even more misleading and empty rhetoric.

It does not need me to tell you about the dangers of omnipotence that is problematic for both psychoanalysis and Islam. In psychoanalysis because omnipotence arises from, and reinforces, psychic damage and for Islamic belief system it is God that will conquer and overcome this virus. I am not convinced that annihilation fears are addressed within Islamic discourses – as the profound belief in the afterlife means that a person is never annihilated.

Uncontrolled anxiety, being overwhelmed, leads to the lack of capacity to think and this is perhaps the most primitive manifestation of the fear of annihilation. But think we must perhaps while waiting for our own internal capacities to think and while waiting for the socio-political conditions to shift that will facilitate more thoughtful reflection. Within discourses dependent on the Enlightenment waiting can too easily be seen as passive, irrational, and too simplistically perceived as fatalism. Muslims, become positioned as passive dependents on overly dependent on divine will and are not autonomous or reasoning beings. There is a spiritual humility in the knowledge that we must give of ourselves and if you are a practicing Muslim to know that your fate has been preordained by God. This is not a passive fatalism we should not assume that fate is equivalent to passivity because it does take courage, patience, fortitude, to accept one’s fate which after all is another way of accepting who one is. In any case, as Freud points out, it takes an awful lot of energy to be passive. To think psychoanalytically about fate does lead to a questioning in any belief in the value of autonomy as a sign of maturity and by necessity an interrogation of the illusion of a belief that rationality and reason can exist without the workings of the unconscious. In any case we have to be wary that that the unconscious does not become another implicit form of fate so that the unconscious works in this way: nothing to do with me, it’s my unconscious.

Both Islam and psychoanalysis stress the importance of thinking as a verb and both frameworks emphasise the necessity of thinking anew and the struggle of understanding. The word – jihad – circulates in the contemporary Western region. It evokes fear if not terror, anxiety if not dread, troubling wordless affect if not horror. Jihad, however, means ‘effort’ and is an injunction that the self carries out a perpetual struggle to overcome negative thinking, emotions and behaviour and it is a command that every human being should resist temptation: sexual, material, whatever that which corrupts and to overcome the negative impulses within ourselves and in society. We need to reflect on and overcome our irritations with other human beings: when they need to make a Zoom work call that clashes with our own plans; or when their mood or wishes are different to our own; and endure that the other human being is never as we want them to be. We have to control our irritations and aggression. Crucially for both psychoanalysis and Islamic ethics we all have to give ourselves over the demands of the other as the relation to the other should be a primary concern.

Jihad, the effort required, is twofold as it focuses on resistance and reform. Jihad within Islam resonates through a psychoanalytic injunction to also continually re-think, to exert effort and to struggle with our aggression, hatred, envy, selfishness and apathy. In short, our negative impulses. Endurance can be an ethical act as it entails not forcing the other to be who we wish them to be, entails always not be coercive or colonising (Butler 2005). The difficulties of recognition, acknowledgement, empathy which I understand as allowing the other into the self, identification are all involved in the act of endurance.

Islamic ethics is linked primarily to the ideal of good character and it is standard, at least in Egypt, when introduced to an individual you ask ‘whether they come from a good family’. In any case whether someone is good (to be honest I have never really understood the basis of this judgement). The Qur’an and the Hadith are foundational to how Muslims deal with ethical issues and social justice is crucial to Islamic ethics. It is up to human beings to utilize their moral and intellectual faculties. The relationship of a Muslim with God is a conscious and voluntary submission to the will of God and it provides a degree of intimacy between God and the human being. Any ethical or moral code and conduct requires self-discipline on the part of the individual alongside a strong belief in the existence of hell and its punishments. Religious morality based on two tenets – the belief in God as the Creator of the universe and the belief in the rewards and punishments of the Hereafter.

Thinking anew is vital both for psychoanalysis and Islam. Re-thinking requires us knowing and tolerating that which we have not thought of or known before. In short to allow new knowledge to unsettle us. For example, a recent book - The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt - by the historian Omnia El Shakry provides a welcome addition to the growing literature that concentrates on drawing out the inter-connections between Islam and psychoanalysis. El Shakry focuses closely on the points of commensurability between Islam and psychoanalysis and elucidates a little- known history of psychoanalytic theory and practice in Egypt primarily during the 1940s and 1950s. Personally, I think this book is exciting as El Shakry provides a welcome, insightful and careful consideration of ‘how Freud travelled in postwar Egypt’.

The Necessity of Consolation or as Freud advised - If you want to endure life, prepare yourself for death

We need to understand the place of religious beliefs in the lives of many people whatever their faith as we do need to take seriously religious beliefs and what this belief/value system provides. I understand religion as a source of solace and also as a discourse and a belief system that constrains human beings as it binds into a socio-political order. This following Marx and it is important to provide the full quote that goes as follows: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people’ (1844). It is important to take the yearning to belong seriously and as part of that desire the importance of religion and the need to place faith in psychoanalysis as a practice. Or indeed both!

Geaves argues that the security of a people is dependent on a merciful deity. I would add that the security of a people is dependent on a just and thoughtful Government that can plan with foresight and care ensuring that social justice is available for all. So I put my faith in reason and a rationality that is able to reflect on and acknowledge the failures that have occurred and simultaneously I have no hope that this will occur.

The questions: when it will end and what will the future hold – are two questions that dominate. I keep being told that the future is uncertain and this is an anxiety that I share. There are predictions that economic prospects are dire and the most pessimistic is that it will be worse than the Great Depression. I share these anxieties - but and this is a big but – I also think that neo-liberal capital bounces back and reforms itself. This bounce back though will benefit the few and the East Midlands, for example, will suffer relentlessly because as always it is those who are disposed and do not sit at the table of success that will suffer the most.

So what is it we have to endure and to list other words that relate to endurance: tolerate, suffer, withstand, sustain, persist, persevere, remain with.

So these are my guesses:

1) That we will have to suffer the knowledge as always that our identities – our very selves – are fragmented and unintegrated (it is this psychoanalytic knowledge that makes psychoanalysis so unpopular and unpalatable). For Edward Said if we can embrace this jaggedness what he calls ‘late style’ then there is hope and some relief. We also have to withstand that ‘life’ pulls us into places where we didn’t exactly “intend” to go’ and do not want to be (Stewart 2007: 4-5).

2) Endurance can be an ethical act as it entails not forcing the other to be who we wish them to be, entails always not be coercive or colonising (Butler 2005). The difficulties of recognition, acknowledgement, empathy which I understand as allowing the other into the self, identification are all involved in the act of endurance. I am gesturing here to a profound tolerance of other human beings, of what may be continual difficulties of living out of our comfort zone and not an empty tolerance – I think of it as thin tolerance.

3) If we are serious about wanting a different world based on social justice (here we can think about what good things have been brought about through this lockdown: more quiet and calm due to less air travel, fewer cars and this leads onto less pollution (in Cairo they are talking with much relief about being able to breathe more easily). We, and the we here is the professional middle class, will have to give up some material privileges. As an example, retiring earlier than one would wish, perhaps more contentiously taking a pay cut and so on. So one theme is that God is trying to teach human beings a lesson to live better and whether we believe in God or not what is clear is that we need to work towards a better future and to strive towards social justice which for me is one strong lesson from Islam.

The importance of prayer and a space to think, reflect and a different way of being is what is offered by both psychoanalysis and Islam and both disciplines assert that what we do with that space is our moral duty.