Carl G. Jung and Islam by Tarek M. Bajari
Religious experience plays an important role in Jungian psychology. Jung, a Christian by birth, believed that this experience is nothing but a product of the psyche, and consequently viewed other world religions as an expression of one psychic function that has its roots deep in the collective unconscious of mankind. Having said that, Jung’s relation to Islam is still unclear and can be explored only indirectly through sporadic hints in his writings.
“Every servant professes a special belief in his Lord, of whom he asks assistance according to the knowledge he has of himself. Thus the faiths differ with the Lords, just as the Lords differ, although all the faiths are forms of the one faith, just as all the Lords are forms in the mirror of the Lord of Lords. . . .” Ibn al-Arabi (1165 – 1240) (Source: Corbin, H.: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn-Arabi, 1969. p. 310)
The first encounter of the young Carl G. Jung with Arabic culture was most probably through his father. In his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections we learn that the senior Jung who was a country pastor received a Ph.D. in oriental languages and wrote a dissertation on an Arabic version of the Song of Songs of Solomon (Memories, p. 91).
The major direct encounter of Jung with the Arabic/Islamic culture was during his visit to North Africa. In his memories, Jung gives a description of the deep impact of this visit on him. Jung writes: “What the Europeans regard as oriental calm and apathy seemed to me a mask; behind it I sensed a restlessness, a degree of agitation which I could not explain.” And then he goes on to describe how he was haunted by the smell of blood as though the soil was soaked with blood (Memories, page 239).
The emotional intensity of the orient, the encounter with a tribe leader and the sound of the muezzin calling for morning prayer all that let him feel that he had fallen under the spell of this land (Memories, p. 242).
One cannot leave Jung’s comment about his visit to North Africa without mentioning the dream he had at the last day of his trip to Tunis. Jung writes: “I dreamt that I was in an Arab city, and as in most such cities there was a citadel, a casbah. The city was situated in a broad plain, and had a wall around it. The shape of the wall was square, and there were four gates. The Kasbah in the interior of the city was surrounded by a wide moat (which is not the way it really is in Arab countries). I stood before a wooden bridge leading over the water to a dark,
horseshoe-shaped portal, which was open. Eager to see the citadel from inside also, I stepped out on the bridge. When I was about halfway across it, a handsome, dark Arab of aristocratic, almost royal bearing came toward me from the gate. I knew that this youth in the white burnoose was the resident prince of the citadel. When he came up to me, he attacked me and tried to knock me down. We wrestled. In the struggle we crashed against the railing; it gave way and both of us fell into the moat, where he tried to push my head under water to drown me. No, I thought, this is going too far. And in my turn I pushed his head under water. I did so although I felt great admiration for him, but I did not want to let myself be killed. I had no intention of killing him; I wanted only to make him unconscious and incapable of fighting.
Then the scene of the dream changed, and he was with me in a large vaulted octagonal room in the centre of the citadel. The room was white, very plain and beautiful. Along the light colour colored marble walls stood low divans, and before me on the floor lay an open book with black letters written in magnificent calligraphy on milky-white parchment. It was not Arabic script; rather, it looked to me like the Uigurian script of West Turkistan, which was familiar to me from the Manichaean fragments from Turfan, I did not know the contents, but nevertheless I had the feeling that this was “my book”, that I had written it. The young prince
with whom I had just been wrestling sat to the right of me on the floor. I explained to him that now that I had overcome him he must read the book. But he resisted. I placed my arm around his shoulders and forced him, with sort of paternal kindness and patience, to read the book. I knew that this was absolutely essential, and at last he yielded (Memories, pp. 242-244).”
Jung’s interpretation of this dream is quite helpful in trying to understand the impact of his encounter with the Arab culture on him. Jung recognized the Arab youth, the inhabitant of the mandala-shaped castle, as a figuration of the Self or in his words as a messenger or emissary of the Self. Jung goes on to interpret the struggle between him and the youth figure as an echo of the Biblical struggle of Jacob with the Angel of God who wished to kill men because he did not know them. At the end of the dream Jung himself become the master of the castle and the Arab youth sits at his feet trying to learn how to know men.
Jung ends his comments by asserting that his encounter with the Arab culture had struck him overwhelmingly and that the emotional nature of the people touched historical layers within him, which helped him to gain some perspective on his European condition. The Arab in the dream, Jung goes on to say, was seen as a shadow, but not a personal one rather a shadow of the Self.
Jung’s experience with the emotional “primitive” Islamic culture as he describes it might be due to him not being completely aware of the other side i.e. more developed Islamic personality as represented by several Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Arabi and Avicenna. Meanwhile, one cannot avoid having the impression that Jung had enough knowledge of this other part of the Islamic culture as a result of his compassionate study of Arabic alchemy.
One other aspect of Jung’s relation to Islam comes form his apparent reasonable knowledge of the Quran and the Khidr figure, who plays a great role in Sufism Islam, as it is apparent from his interpretation of the 18th Sura of the Quran (The Cave) in his essay, “Concerning the Rebirth” (collected works, vol. 9, part I).
The Cave Sura starts with the story of three, five or seven young men who remain sleeping in the cave for 309 years. The sleepers as understood by Jung signify that any one who finds himself in the darkness of the unconscious (the cave) will undergo a process of transformation that will lead to momentous changes of personality in either positive or negative sense, grasped sometimes as a prolongation of life or immortality. The fate of the numinous figures, Jung goes on saying, grips the hearer, because the story gives expression to parallel processes in his own unconscious which in that way are integrated into consciousness again.
The repristination of the original state is tantamount to attaining once more the freshness of youth. The story of the sleepers is followed by some moral observations that seem, as Jung points out to have no connection with the previous text. But Jung describes these comments as just what is needed for those who cannot be reborn themselves and have to be content with moral conduct, that is to say with adherence to the law.
Jung continues his interpretation of the Sura by focusing on the story of Moses and Khidr. The story of Moses and his encounter with the Khidr figure is described in the Quranic Sura as follows: ”And when Moses said unto his servant: I will not give up until I reach the point where the two rivers meet, though I march on for ages. So when they had reached the junction of the two (rivers) they forgot their fish, and it took its way into the sea, going away. And when they had gone further, he said unto his servant: Bring us our breakfast. Verily we have found fatigue in this our journey. He said: Didst thou see, when we took refuge on the rock, and I forgot the fish – and none but Satan caused me to forget to mention it – it took its way into the waters by a marvel. Moses said: “That was what we were seeking after:”
So they went back on their footsteps, following (the path they had come). Then they found one of our servants, unto whom we had given mercy from us, and had taught him knowledge from our presence. Moses said unto him: Shall I follow you on condition that you should teach me right knowledge of what you have been taught? (The other) said: Surely you cannot have patience with me. How can you have patience in that of which you have not got a comprehensive knowledge? Moses said: Allah willing, you will find me patient and I shall not disobey you in any matter.
The other said: If you would follow me, then do not question me about any thing until I myself speak to you about it. So they went (their way) until when they embarked in the boat he made a hole in it. (Moses) said: Have you made a hole in it to drown its inmates? Certainly you have done a grievous thing.
He answered: Did I not say that you will not be able to have patience with me?
Moses said: Rebuke me not for forgetting, nor grieve me by raising difficulties in my case. So they went on until, when they met a boy, he slew him.
(Moses) said: Have you slain an innocent person otherwise than for manslaughter? Certainly you have done an evil thing.
He answered: Did I not say to you that you will not be able to have patience with me?
(Moses) said: If I ask you about anything after this, keep me not in your company; indeed you shall have (then) found an excuse in my case. So they went on until when they came to the people of a town, they asked them for food, but they refused to entertain them as guests. Then they found in it a wall which was on the point of falling, so he put it into a right state.
(Moses) said: If you had pleased, you might certainly have taken a recompense for it. He answered: This shall be separation between me and you; now I will inform you of the significance of that with which you could not have patience. As for the ship, it belonged to poor people working on the river, and I wished to mar it, for there was a king behind them who is taking every ship by force. As for the youth, his parents were people of Faith, and we feared that he would grieve them by obstinate rebellion and ingratitude. So we desired that their Lord would give them in exchange (a son) better in purity (of conduct) and closer in affection. And as for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the city, and there was beneath it a treasure belonging to them, and their father was a righteous man; so your Lord desired that they should attain their maturity and take out their treasure, a mercy from your Lord, and I did not do it of my own accord. This is the significance of that with which you could not have patience.”
Jung sees in the figure of Moses as described in the Sura a representation of an individual on the quest for transformation, together with his servant “shadow” Joshua bin (son) Nun. The word Nun in Arabic means whale or fish in general which indicates that Joshua’s origin is nothing but the deep sea i.e. the unconscious. Both Moses and his servant encounter the Khidr as a teacher and experience strange and rather immoral events. Moses however learns from his teacher a greater wisdom.
The teacher Khidr appears to Moses at the junction of the two rives where the east and west seems to come close together. Moses and his servant had forgot their fish (Nun), the father of the shadow, the carnal of man, who comes from the dark world of the creator. The fish as Jung understands it is a symbol of the instinctive unconscious, a source of renewal found in the conditions of “Loss of soul”. The fact that Khidr appears at the same place where the fish disappeared led Jung to consider the fish as a prefiguration of Khidr who represents a symbol of the Self.
Jung writes: “To the initiate who is capable of transformation it is a comforting tale; to the obedient believer, an exhortation to not murmur against Allah’s incomprehensible omnipotence. Khidr symbolizes not only the higher wisdom but also a way of acting which is in accord with this wisdom and transcends reason.”
Jung goes on to stress that we all are the questing Moses, and what is transformed here is neither Moses nor Joshua, rather it is the forgotten fish because the place where the fish disappeared is exactly the place of Khidr´s appearance.
Jung concludes his interpretation of the Sura as follows:
“In spite of its apparently disconnected and illusive character, it gives an almost perfect picture of a psychic transformation or rebirth which today, with our greater psychological insight, we would recognize as an individuation process. Because of the great age of the legend and the Islamic prophet’s primitive cast of mind, the process takes place entirely outside the sphere of consciousness and is projected in the form of a mystery legend or a pair of friends and the deeds they perform. That is why it is all so illusive and lacking in logical sequence. Nevertheless, the legend expresses the obscure archetype of transformation so admirably that the passionate religious Eros of the Arab finds it completely satisfying. It is for this reason that the figure of Khidr plays such an important role in Islamic mysticism.”
Keeping in mind the extremely difficult task of interpreting the Quran especially for a person who is not familiar with the Arabic language, one cannot read Jung’s interpretation without being impressed by its richness and creativity.
Jung’s interpretation of the Sura reflects an apparent knowledge of the Quran, the Khidr and Islamic mysticism, but at the same time it is somehow irritating for Muslims, as it would be to the believers of any other faith, to describe their religious leader as “having a primitive cast of mind”. This comment leaves one wondering whether to attribute to the Arab figure in the previously mentioned dream some characteristics of a personal shadow instead of limiting to it to be only a shadow of the Self.
Marvin Spiegelman in the introduction of his book Sufism, Islam and Jungian Psychology writes:
“We are here dealing with a frequent shadow problem involving any growth of consciousness when we confront it at a collective level: the previous height of awareness needs to be denigrated somehow. It is as if one’s parents must be defeated and made ´less-than` so that we can find and enjoy our own individuality”.
For me as a layman, Jung’s most important contribution to understanding human mind is his “discovery” of the collective unconscious as psychic structure that is universal and shared by all mankind, predates the individual and form the origin of all the religious, spiritual, and mythological symbols. The consequence of this discovery is the assumption that the Self is the common source and the aim of our emerging consciousness and that different world religions and their various symbols are nothing but different faces of one truth that manifests itself differently according to the individual and culture that perceives it.
This is why I believe that the study of world religious believers and their symbolism might prove to be an important factor in our quest toward becoming more conscious. Finally, I feel that more research is needed to investigate the meeting points between Islam and Jungian Psychology. Such studies, I believe, will enrich our understanding for both, Islam and Jungian psychology.
The original link to this article in its entirety may be found here: http://www.cgjung-gesellschaft-oesterreich.at/forum_2007.pdf