Finding Metaphysics and Meaning in Self-Help Literature

Arthur Shiwa Zárate shares insights into the journey that led to the research he conducted for his CSSH essay, “The American Sufis: Self-Help, Sufism, and Metaphysical Religion in Postcolonial Egypt.”

The author doing research at the Juma al-Majid Library, Dubai.

Sometimes the most interesting and important sources we encounter during fieldwork are those we come across completely unexpectedly. This was certainly the case with the material I utilized in my CSSH article, “The American Sufis: Self-Help, Sufism, and Metaphysical Religion in Postcolonial Egypt.” I first became curious about the Egyptian Muḥammad al-Ghazālī’s 1956 Jaddid ḥayātak (Renew Your Life) simply because of the title. It sounded interesting and rather out of place for this popular Muslim Brotherhood affiliated intellectual who wrote such books as Islam and the Socialist Programs, Islam and the Economic Conditions, and Islam in the Face of the Red March. When I first opened up Renew Your Life, however, I was discouraged by its contents. I thought: “Why would Ghazālī write an entire book about another book written by some American?” That American was, of course, Dale Carnegie, the founder of the self-help movement in the U.S. and author of the popular, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948). Yet at the time, I did not know anything about Carnegie, let alone the rich and complex history behind his ideas, including their metaphysical religious groundings. Nor did I know about Carnegie’s influence on twentieth-century Muslim intellectuals. So, I did what many academics would have probably done: I set the book aside and decided to read something more “scholarly” instead. Even after I learned about Carnegie and his work, I remained uninterested in Ghazālī’s Renew Your Life, in large part because I regarded self-help literature as a lowbrow form of entertainment and definitely not as an avenue for theorizing questions about religion and ethics.

I only came back to Renew Your Life a year or two later after I encountered extensive passages from Carnegie’s book on worry in texts written by Ghazālī’s Egyptian contemporaries. As it turned out, Ghazālī’s Renew Your Life was a lengthy commentary on Carnegie’s book on worry. I realized then that the latter, first translated into Arabic in 1950, and Ghazālī’s commentary on it, were important topics of research. While I was in Cairo, Egypt, Amman, Jordan, and Dubai, U.A.E., for fieldwork in 2013, 2014, and 2016, it didn’t take long visiting various bookstores and libraries to see that Carnegie’s Arabic translated works and Ghazālī’s commentary were common in the Arabic speaking world. As an Egyptian friend pointed out to me, an Egyptian television station even did a thirty-part series on Ghazālī’s Renew Your Life, which is still readily available on YouTube today. While the series itself and its afterlife on YouTube attest to the continued popularity of Ghazālī’s Islamic take on Carnegie’s self-help, the reactions of Egyptians in Cairo whom I asked about Ghazālī’s book were generally mixed. Part of this mixed reaction undoubtedly had to do with the fact that he was a one-time leading intellectual of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was a very polarizing organization at the time. Indeed, shortly after I arrived to Cairo during the summer of 2013, the Egyptian military overthrew the Brotherhood affiliated government of Mohamed Morsi. The military led government subsequently launched a crackdown against the Brotherhood and its supporters in Egypt. Interestingly enough, however, whatever their perspectives on Ghazālī, the Egyptians I spoke with about my research were generally fond of Carnegie and his books and far less suspicious of self-help literature than many of my colleagues in the U.S.

Reflecting back on my initial dismissal of Renew Your Life, I wonder how many other scholars encountered that text only to dismiss it as I initially did. Ghazālī is, after all, a well-known intellectual, and the Muslim Brotherhood movement to which he belonged has fundamentally shaped politics in Egypt. Nevertheless, Renew Your Life has not received previous scholarly attention. Part of this neglect, I think, has to do with the fact that the title itself comes across as rather self-help-like, and scholars generally view self-help literature as not to be taken all that seriously and certainly not as offering new theoretical perspectives on fundamental life questions. Beyond this, my initial reaction to his text also says something about the academic study of contemporary Islamic politics. Scholars would perhaps agree that it is easier to posit the significance to contemporary Islamic politics of a text addressing, for instance, the relationship between Islamic teachings and socialism, than it would be to do the same for Ghazālī’s Islamic take on Carnegie’s self-help. Renew Your Life is a text about the human relationship with God, how the divine will and agency manifest, and how to organize your life accordingly. Discourses of this type and the ethical sensibilities that they promote are not usually considered within the paradigms that scholars deploy to analyze contemporary Islamic politics. Yet, as I argue in “The American Sufis,” these discourses are integral elements of what makes Ghazālī’s project of reforming self, society, and state “Islamic.” In taking this as the perspective through which to analyze Ghazālī’s commentary, my article shows how studying something that academics may sometimes be quick to dismiss as pop culture or “fluff” actually offers new perspectives on encounters between seemingly irreconcilable religious and ethical traditions, as well as understanding responses to neoliberalism. I further explore these issues in my book project of which “The American Sufis” is a chapter, tentatively titled, “Islam and the Subject of Modernity: Sufism, Ethics, and the Unseen.”

There is one aspect about Carnegie’s thinking that I did not mention in the article but that I would like to mention here. As I show in the article, Ghazālī found a great deal of resonance between some of Carnegie’s ideas and certain Sufi theological and ethical sensibilities. It seems to me that part of the resonance Ghazālī found might have come from the fact that the American metaphysical religious trends that influenced Carnegie were, in some cases, themselves informed by ideas gleaned from Persian Sufi poetry in translation and by Orientalist scholarship. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, whose works Carnegie read, had an interest in both. Mark Sedgwick’s fascinating study presents a thorough account on Euro-American interest in Sufism. 1

One of the challenges of writing this article was that I had to familiarize myself with genres of literature I previously knew little about, from modern American religious history to self-help writings. Conversely, one of the rewards of this research, especially on the life, work, and legacy of Dale Carnegie, was that it gave me a way of introducing my scholarly work to non-academic audiences. As I have learned, Carnegie is a generally revered figure in American popular culture. I am often asked about my research, both by acquaintances and strangers. While most Americans know very little about the Muslim Brotherhood, many are familiar with Carnegie. Explaining the latter’s influence on the former has come to serve for me as an ideal avenue of introducing at least one aspect of my research and sparking people’s interest. From their reaction, most seem genuinely surprised by this aspect of contemporary Islam. Finally, although I had been accustomed to think of self-help as naïve and superficial, I must admit that there were more than a few occasions during the long and anxiety-ridden journey through my Ph.D. program when I found inspiration in something Carnegie wrote.

  1. Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); see also, George K. Rishmawi, “Emerson and the Sufis,” Muslim World 8, 1 (1995): 147–155.