Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A Blessing in Disguise: a Jungian Reflection on Sunni-Shia Split

Recently, while I was reading up on the psychological interperation of fairy tales, I came accross an interesting paragraph that reflected on the "Sunni Shia split" from a perspective of Jungian psychology. The short paragraph shed a new light on the issue and enabled me to actually appreciate this problematic "split," and here, I will give some of my own reflections.

One of the central concepts in Jungian psychology is the idea of the conscious and the unconscious. By the conscious, Jung meant the realm of our psyche that we know and are aware of. Beneath it lays the world of unconscious, the area of our psyche that our conscious ego is not aware of and does not know. For example, our family or close friends often know things about our personality or our problems that we are not aware of or not able to see in ourselves. The area that we don’t see and know is our unconscious. Of-course, there are areas of our psyche that nobody knows, including ourselves. The unconscious speaks to us in various ways, through our dreams, or by what we call ‘Freudian slips’, through accidents and illnesses, and even through people we like and dislike.

Jung continued to say that just as each of us has these layers in our individual, personal psyche, the same thing can be said about a society, culture or civilization. What he meant was that in any society or a civilization, there is a conscious part and the unconscious part that the most members of the society share in a collective, universal way. Jung called these “collective” consciousness and “collective” unconscious, and distinguished them from the personal conscious and the unconscious. This collective unconscious finds a way to speak to us through fairytales and myths in a symbolic manner.

To give a specific example, Marie von Franz, who was one of the former students of C.G.Jung, states that in the West, the masculine or Father principle (as in God the Father) dominated the collective consciousness due to the influence of Christianity. Qualities like logical thinking, rationality, analytical ability, scientific thought were encouraged and valued in the West. While the feminine principle represented by feelings, emotionality, acceptance, sharing, cooperation, co-existence and preservation of nature--were pushed aside and mostly fell into the realm of the unconscious.

Jungians hold that the unconscious is such that when there is an imbalance in our psyche, it attempts to compensate for the loss one way or other (sometimes by creating a crisis if we refuse to listen to its warnings) to regain the much needed balance. In the Western society, the compensatory movement occurred in an underground, secretive ways, for example, through the worship of Black Madonna and through alchemy. From a Jungian point of view, the recent popularity of New Age movement or Native American spirituality in the U.S. may also be seen as a reflection of the need within our collective psyche to regain the connection with the feminine principle and the Mother Nature. As Jungians put it, it is a compensatory movement to balance the heavy reliance on the masculine principle within our collective consciousness.

Interestingly, von Franz applies the same concept to the Sunni and Shia issue in her book called Individuation in Fairytales (1977). She states:

"In the Islamic world there is a terrific split between the Sunnite and the Shiite movement. The latter has always endeavored to be on the compensatory side of the unconscious and thus counteract the petrification of the Sunnite movement, the orthodox school which kept to the literal interpretation of the Koran and its rules. Within the Shiite sects alchemical symbolism flourished. Eighty percent of the great Arabian alchemists belonged to the Shiites, and not to the Sunnite sect, which for us is very revealing because alchemical symbolism, and alchemy in general, was not only, as Jung points out, a subterranean compensatory movement in Christian Europe, but had exactly the same function within the Arabic civilization. There too it belonged to the subterranean, more mystical complementary movements which counteracted the petrification of collective consciousness in a very similar way as it afterwards did in the Middle Ages for us. Particularly in Persia, these Shiite and Ismalian sects flourished, as did alchemy. It was the country where there was the greatest development, and one sees this mirrored even in such simple material as fairytales.... (p. 58)."

One can argue about the accuracy of von Franz’s perspective on Sunni and Shia movements. However, what her statement indicates is a possibility that this Sunni-Shia split might actually have been beneficial to both Sunni and Shia schools. Although von Franz only discusses about the Sunni movement benefiting from the presence of more subterranean Shia movement, it is obvious that the situation goes both ways. Both Sunni and Shia schools benefit from each other’s presence as each keeps the other in check and compensate for the imbalance. In The Tao of Islam, Murata (1992) talks about a similar interaction and compensatory functions between the two basic theological perspectives in Islam, i.e.) the external, legalistic approach of Kalam and the internal, sapiential approach of Sufism.

So it goes that this ying-yang type of split between Shia and Sunni schools may have actually helped to maintain a balance in the collective consciousness of both Shia and Sunni Muslims. The presence of different perspectives keeps our conscious attitudes from freezing into a rigid, inflexible, stale position (as it would if we only had one correct view or a perspective) and creates a dynamic movement due to the tension of so-called opposites. Each school of thought prevents each other from petrifying into a stiff, lifeless formality. It may just be that this ying-yang type of conflict has created enough tension to allow for a continuous movement, renewal and growth for each school of thought and for the collective consciousness of the Muslim ummah. From von Franz’s perspective, this ‘terrific split’ between the Sunni and Shia takes on a new light— what we often consider as a problem or at least a nuisance just may have been a blessing in disguise!

* Marie von Franz was one of the foremost students of C.G. Jung and is considered to be an authority on Jungian interpretation of dreams and fairy tales.

2 comment(s):

  • It is always important to bring the unconcious into mindfulness, to experience its creativity and to sort out its contradictions and destructiveness.

    I can think of a similar sort of split within Christianity between more rigid orthodox or fundmentalist schools of thought and movements more "Pentecostal" in nature where the lead principle is the "Holy Spirit" which over-rides rules and draws its followers into uncharted territory.

    One might also compare this to the time in the 18th century when conventional religious movements were challenged by intense uprisings of "Pietism" - Methodism in Protestant England, revivals in the United States, Hasidic Judaism in eastern europe. Was there something like it in Islam?

    By Blogger Jay, at 3/12/2005 10:34:00 PM  

  • Jay, your question is so interesting. I think right now there are several pietist-type movements in Islam. Such as, for example, the Zaytounis. For me, the personal side of the faith has always been expressed through Sufi thought, but Sufis were not mass movement leaders; they always concentrated on personal teaching between individuals. It woudl be really good to get takes on it from other people here though.

    By Blogger Anna in PDX, at 3/13/2005 12:47:00 AM  

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