Islamic Garden

Islamic Garden
Islamic Garden in Lausanne, Switzerland

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Illusion of the Golden Age of Islam


It is Freud's birthday today! He gave those of us in the field of psychology many enduring gifts including the connection of our dreams to the Unconscious, the identification of multiple psychological defense mechanisms and the concept of countertransference. Below is an excerpt from the literature review on Freud in my doctoral dissertation:

     In The Future of an Illusion, Freud (1856 – 1939 CE) describes religion as an illusion. He differentiates between an illusion and an error, by noting that what is characteristic of illusions is the move towards human wish fulfillment. He adds, however, that, "illusions need not necessarily be false." (1964, p. 39)  One might ask whether there is a correlation between an illusion, a weltanschauung and an imaginal space, especially for the kind of  Dar al-Islam envisioned by Caliphal Islamists.

     Fethi Benslama, a contemporary Tunisian psychoanalyst who teaches at the University of Paris, discusses the unconscious and stealth nature of Islamism and suggests that the Islamists are haunted by, what he refers to as, “the torment of origins” in Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam, as translated from the French by Robert Bononno: “Its proponents gradually succeeded in attracting the masses through a promise that did not hold any expectations for the future but, rather, incorporated a regression to some distant past, when time was an identical repetition of what had already taken place during Islam’s foundation” (2009, pp. 9-10). The language of al-Fatiha and the project of Monotheism is similarly an invocation of the past, and a focus on the Hereafter. The use of the temporal and spatial past tense, and the vision for a non-terrestrial future, in contrast to the present moment of worship and supplication, needs to receive serious examination.  The significance of Freud’s examination of illusion is that it captures the essence of the longing for a recapitulation of the Golden Age of Islam and a myopic vision of Paradise, which drives those engaged in or celebrating global martyrdom operations. 

     Freud traces the origins of religion to totemism. For Freud, the individual is essentially an enemy of society and has instinctual urges that must be restrained to help society function, because human nature is anti-social, rebellious, and has high sexual and destructive tendencies. The equivalent notion in Islam to these instinctual urges is the nafs ammara, the tyrannical self, about which more will be expounded later in this chapter, within the context of Sufi psychology. So destructive is human nature, Freud claims that "it is only through the influence of individuals who can set an example and whom masses recognize as their leaders that they can be induced to perform the work and undergo the renunciations on which the existence of civilization depends." (1964, p. 8)  How these individuals acquire such qualities of leadership and values is not explained in this text, but Freud clearly sees the need for exemplars and models. Freud comes to terms with the enduring impact of leadership in his final work, Moses and Monotheism. He even proposes that a “great man influences his contemporaries through his personality and through the idea for which he stands” (1967, p. 139). It is unclear how Freud would rationalize the fact that the personality of such a leader can be, and historically has been, inspired, not just by an idea of God, but by an encounter with the numinous manifestation of the Divine. Freud instead argues that religion develops as the emphasis on acquisition of physical objects and the satisfaction of instinctual drives (sex, wealth, glory, happiness, immortality) moves from the material to the mental. As compensation for good behaviors, religion promises a reward. For Freud, there is nothing intrinsic in human nature that would inspire individuals to act with nobility. Nevertheless, Freud does recognize the role for leadership, and al-Fatiha refers to the role of the religious leadership of humankind to set the civilizing example that is called for, even if it, too, may only be a shared human wish by many.

    Religion is rooted in the Oedipus complex, and represents man's helplessness in the world, having to face death and the forces of nature. Freud views God as an infantile longing for a father. In his words "The gods retain the threefold task: they must exorcize the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them" (1964, p. 19). Islam’s loss of the Prophet as the father and its central authority figure caused much confusion and disruption for the umma, as noted earlier.  The root word for umma is umm, which means Mother. It is the umma, without a father, which is now left to provide the maternal nurturing and nourishment to all those who have been orphaned by the Prophet’s departure. But the umma is, and has always been, in disarray and fragmented. The very unity of the umma, which represents the One Soul from which all humanity continues to be born, is in doubt.

     Freud’s 1929 essay on Civilization and Its Discontents is a penetrating summary of the views on culture from a psychoanalytic perspective. As an atheist, Freud could not have accepted or fully grasped the civilizing mission of religion but he did not fail to see it as a human mission: “I was led to the idea that civilization was a special process which mankind undergoes, and I am still under the influence of that idea. I may now add that civilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind. Why this has to happen, we do not know; the work of Eros is precisely this” (1961, pp. 81-82). But it is clearly also the mission of pan-Islamism to unite humanity, although it is founded on a distorted aggressive interpretation of the original message of Islam, which strove for a Pax Islamica in service to Eros. The Eros in Islamism is perverted to a form of religious supremacy.

No comments: