Athar Yawar

Research Interests

In modern psychiatry, the doctor aims to restore the patient to rationality. But how do we know that the doctor is rational, and the patient is not? Many psychiatric treatments, such as the lobotomy and the spinning chair, have seemed, in hindsight, deeply irrational. Even within the same hospital, doctors can disagree on whether a patient is mentally ill-and how. Much of the most successful literature, from Hamlet to The Karamazov Brothers, explores ambiguities and paradoxes around definitions of madness.

In my PhD research, I have explored the roots of modern psychiatry. How did we decide to develop a psychiatry based on science-as opposed to, say, anthropology or theology? How do we know that the mind issues from the brain? And what does it mean to heal a mind? Have we any proof it can be done-or that we would know when we had achieved it? Science uses empiricism and logic, but its basic beliefs are rarely questioned, remain largely unproven, and can often be traced to early modern magic and utopian materialism.

What, then, of religious healing? I have done extensive anthropological fieldwork in an international Sufi community, the Naqshbandi-Haqqani order, and found that some Sufi healers have a rigorous theory of knowledge, and an understanding of mental healing that includes much of human existence. I have tried to depict the basis and practice of healing in this Sufi order, and to contrast it with modern psychiatry.

I have written several essays, in the Lancet group of journals, that draw on experiences and understandings gained through fieldwork and library research. I hope that my research will generate a book. I worked for a time as a Senior Editor of the Lancet, and also for several years as a psychiatrist, at the Bethlem & Maudsley Hospitals, the Helen Bamber Foundation, and elsewhere.