...... A Glance into the Archives of Islam

...........Slavoj Zizek

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The Antinomies of Tolerant Reason

To many a Western historian of religion, Islam is a problem – how could it have emerged after Christianity, the religion to end all religions? Its very geographic place belies the cliché on Orientalism: much more than belonging to the Orient, the location of Islam makes it a fatal obstacle to the true union of the East and the West – the point made exemplarily by Claude Levi-Strauss:

Today, it is behind Islam that I contemplate India; the India of Buddha, prior to Muhammad who – for me as a European and because I am European – arises between our reflection and the teachings which are closest to it /…/ the hands of the East and the West, predestined to be joined, were kept apart by it. /.../
The West should return to the sources of its torn condition: by way of interposing itself between Buddhism and Christianity, Islam islamized us when, in the course of the Crusades, the West let itself be caught in the opposition to it and thus started to resemble it, instead of delivering itself – in the case of the inexistence of Islam – to the slow osmosis with Buddhism which would christianize us even more, in a sense which would have been all the more Christian insofar as we were to mount beyond Christianity itself. It is then that the West has lost its chance to remain woman. [1]

This passage from the last pages of Tristes tropiques articulates the dream of a direct communication and reconciliation between West and East, Christianity and Buddhism, male and female principles. Like a harmonious sexual relationship, this direct contact would have been a chance for Europe to become feminine. Islam served as the screen interposing itself between the two, preventing the rise of a harmonious hermaphroditic world civilization – with its interposition, the West lost its last chance to “remain woman.” (As we shall soon see, what this view fails to note is how Islam itself is grounded on a disavowed femininity, trying to get rid of the umbilical cord that links it to the feminine.) Islam thus functions as what Freud called Liebesstoerer: the intruder/obstacle of the harmonious sexual relationship. This harmonious relationship, of course, would have been the one under the predominance of femininity: the male West would have rejoined the feminine East and thus “remain woman,” locate itself within femininity.

François Regnault defined Jews as our objet a - but are here not Muslims this a-sexual “partial object”? We usually speak of the Jewish-Christian civilization – perhaps, the time has come, especially with regard to the Middle East conflict, to talk about the Jewish-Muslim civilization as an axis opposed to Christianity. (Recall a surprising sign of this deeper solidarity: after Freud published his Moses booklet in 1938 depriving Jews of their founding figure, the most ferocious reactions to it came from the Muslim intellectuals in Egypt!) Was Hegel not already on the trace of it with his insight into the speculative identity of Judaism and Islam? According to a commonplace, Judaism (like Islam) is a “pure” monotheism, while Christianity, with its Trinity, is a compromise with polytheism; Hegel even designates Islam as THE “religion of sublimity” at its purest, as the universalization of the Jewish monotheism:

In Mohammedanism the limited principle of the Jews is expanded into universality and thereby overcome. Here, God is no longer, as with the Asiatics, contemplated as existent in immediately sensuous mode but is apprehended as the one infinite sublime Power beyond all the multiplicity of the world. Mohammedanism is, therefore, in the strictest sense of the world, the religion of sublimity. [2]

This, perhaps, explains why there is so much anti-Semitism in Islam: because of the extreme proximity of the two religions. In Hegelese, what Islam encounters in Judaism is ITSELF in its “oppositional determination,” in the mode of particularity. The difference between Judaism and Islam is thus ultimately not substantial, but purely formal: they are the SAME religion in a different formal mode (in the sense in which Spinoza claims that the real dog and the idea of a dog are substantially one and the same thing, just in a different mode).[3] - Against this, one should argue that it is Judaism which is an “abstract negation” of polytheism and, as such, still haunted by it (there is a whole series of clues pointing in this direction: “Jehovah” is a plural substantive; in one of his commandments, God prohibits Jews to celebrate other gods “in front of me,” not when outside of his gaze; etc.), while Christianity is the only true monotheism, since it includes self-differentiation into the One – its lesson is that, in order to have truly a One, you need THREE.

So what is Islam, this disturbing excess that represents East for the West and West for the East? In his La psychanalyse a l’epreuve de l’Islam, Fethi Benslama [4] provides a systematic search for the “archive” of Islam, for its obscene secret mythical support which ne cesse pas de ne pas s’ecrire and as such sustains the explicit dogma. Is, for example, the story of Hagar not Islam’s “archive,” relating to Islam’s explicit teaching in the same way the Jewish secret tradition of Moses relates to explicit teachings of Judaism? In his discussion of the Freudian figure of Moses, Eric Santner introduces the key distinction between symbolic history (the set of explicit mythical narratives and ideologico-ethical prescriptions that constitute the tradition of a community, what Hegel would have called its "ethical substance") and its obscene Other, the unacknowledgeable "spectral," fantasmatic secret history that effectively sustains the explicit symbolic tradition, but has to remain foreclosed if it is to be operative. [5] What Freud endeavors to reconstitute in his Moses book (the story of the murder of Moses, etc.) is such a spectral history that haunts the space of Jewish religious tradition. One becomes a full member of a community not simply by identifying with its explicit symbolic tradition, but only when one also assumes the spectral dimension that sustains this tradition, the undead ghosts that haunt the living, the secret history of traumatic fantasies transmitted "between the lines," through the lacks and distortions of the explicit symbolic tradition. Judaism's stubborn attachment to the unacknowledged violent founding gesture that haunts the public legal order as its spectral supplement, enabled the Jews to persist and survive for thousands of years without land and common institutional tradition: they refused to give up their ghost, to cut off the link to their secret, disavowed tradition. The paradox of Judaism is that it maintains fidelity to the founding violent Event precisely by NOT confessing, symbolizing it: this "repressed" status of the Event is what gives Judaism its unprecedented vitality.

Which, then, is the repressed Event which gives vitality to Islam? The key is provided by the reply to another question: how does Islam, the third Religion of the Book, fit into this series? Judaism is the religion of genealogy, of succession of generations; when, in Christianity, the Son dies on the Cross, this means that the Father also dies (as Hegel was fully aware) – the patriarchal genealogical order as such dies, the Holy Spirit does not fit the family series, it introduces a post-paternal/familial community. In contrast to both Judaism and Christianity, the two other religions of the book, Islam excludes God from the domain of the paternal logic: Allah is not a father, not even a symbolic one – God is one, he is neither born nor does he give birth to creatures. There is no place for a Holy Family in Islam. This is why Islam emphasizes so much the fact that Muhammed himself was an orphan; this is why, in Islam, God intervenes precisely at the moments of the suspension, withdrawal, failure, “black-out,” of the paternal function (when the mother or the child are abandoned or ignored by the biological father). What this means is that God remains thoroughly in the domain of impossible-Real: he is the impossible-Real outside father, so that there is a “genealogical desert between man and God”(320). This was the problem with Islam for Freud, since his entire theory of religion is based on the parallel of God with father. More importantly even, this inscribes politics into the very heart of Islam, since the “genealogical desert” renders impossible to ground a community in the structures of parenthood or other blood-links: “the desert between God and Father is the place where the political institutes itself”(320). With Islam, it is no longer possible to ground a community in the mode of Totem and Taboo, through the murder of the father and the ensuing guilt as bringing brothers together – thence Islam’s unexpected actuality.

In contrast to Judaism and Islam, in which the sacrifice of the son is prevented in the last moment (angel intervenes to Abraham), only Christianity opts for the actual sacrifice (killing) of the son. (268) This is why, although Islam recognizes the Bible as a sacred text, it has to deny this fact: in Islam, Jesus did not really die on the Cross: the Jews “said (in boast), ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah’; but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them”(4.157). There is effectively in Islam a consistent anti-sacrificial logic: in the Quran version of Isaac’s sacrifice, Abraham’s decision to kill his son is read not as the ultimate indication of his willingness to do the God’s will, but as a consequence of Abraham’s wrong interpretation of his dream: when the angel prevents the act, his message is that Abraham got it wrong, that God did not really want him to do it.(275)

Insofar as, in Islam, God is an impossible-Real, this works both ways with regard to sacrifice: it can work against sacrifice (there is no symbolic economy of exchange between the believers and Gods, God is the pure One of Beyond), but also in favour of sacrifice, when the divine Real turns into the superego figure of “obscure gods who demand continuous blood”(Lacan-XI). Islam seems to oscillate between these two extremes, with the obscene sacrificial logic culminating in its redescription of the story of Abel and Cain – here is how Quran reports on “the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam. Behold! they each presented a sacrifice (to Allah): It was accepted from one, but not from the other. Said the latter: ‘Be sure I will slay thee.’ ‘Surely,’ said the former, ‘Allah doth accept of the sacrifice of those who are righteous. If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee: for I do fear Allah, the cherisher of the worlds. For me, I intend to let thee draw on thyself my sin as well as thine, for thou wilt be among the companions of the fire, and that is the reward of those who do wrong.’

The (selfish) soul of the other led him to the murder of his brother: he murdered him, and became (himself) one of the lost ones.” (5:27-30)

So it is not only Cain who wants the killing: Abel himself actively participates in this desire, provoking Cain to do it, so that he (Abel) would get rid of his own sins also. Benslama is right to discern here traces of an “ideal hatred,” different from the imaginary hatred of the aggressivity towards one’s double (289): the victim itself actively desires the crime whose victim it will be, so that, as a martyr, it will enter Paradise, sending the perpetrator to burn in hell. From today’s perspective, one is tempted to play with the anachronistic speculation on how the “terrorist” logic of the martyr’s wish to die is already here, in Quran – although, of course, one has to locate the problem in the context of modernization. The problem of Islamic world is, as is well known, that, since it was exposed to Western modernization abruptly, without a proper time to “work through” the trauma of its impact, to construct a symbolic-fictional space/screen for it, the only possible reactions to this impact were either a superficial modernization, an imitated modernization destined to fail (Iran Shah regime), or, in the failure of the proper symbolic space of fictions, a direct recourse to the violent Real, an outright war between Islam Truth and Western Lie, with no space for symbolic mediation. In this “fundamentalist” solution (a modern phenomenon with no direct links to Muslim traditions), the divine dimension reasserts itself in its superego-Real, as a murderous explosion of sacrifical violence to pay off the obscene superego divinity.

A further key distinction between Judaism (together with its Christian continuation) and Islam is that, as we can see in the case of Abraham’s two sons, Judaism chooses Abraham as the symbolic father, i.e., the phallic solution of the paternal symbolic authority, of the official symbolic lineage, discarding the second woman, enacting a “phallic appropriation of the impossible”(153). Islam, on the contrary, opts for the lineage of Hagar, for Abraham as the biological father, maintaining the distance between father and God, retaining God in the domain of the Impossible.(149) [6]

Both Judaism and Islam repress their founding gestures – how? As the story of Abraham and his two sons with two different women shows, in both Judaism and Islam, father can become father, assume the paternal function, only through the mediation of another woman. Freud’s hypothesis is that the repression in Judaism concerns the fact that Abraham was a foreigner (an Egyptian), not a Jew – it is the founding paternal figure, the one who brings revelation and establishes the covenant with God, that has to come from the outside. With Islam, the repression concerns a woman (Hagar, the Egyptian slave who gave to Abraham his first son): although Abraham and Ishmail (the progenitor of all Arabs, according to the myth) are mentioned dozens of times in Quran, Hagar is unmentioned, erased from the official history. As such, however, she continues to haunt Islam, her traces surviving in rituals, like the obligation of the pilgrims to Mecca to run six times between the two hills Safa and Marwah, a kind of neurotic repetition/reenactment of Hagar’s desperate search for water for her son in the desert. - Here is, in Genesis, the story of Abraham’s two sons, this key umbilical link between Judaism and Islam – first, the Birth of Ishmael:

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not given birth to any children, but she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar. So Sarai said to Abram, ‘Since the Lord has prevented me from having children, have sexual relations with my servant. Perhaps I can have a family by her.’ Abram did what Sarai told him.
So after Abram had lived in Canaan for ten years, Sarai, Abram’s wife, gave Hagar, her Egyptian servant, to her husband to be his wife. He had sexual relations with Hagar, and she became pregnant. Once Hagar realized she was pregnant, she despised Sarai. Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘You have brought this wrong on me! I allowed my servant to have sexual relations with you, but when she realized that she was pregnant, she despised me. May the Lord judge between you and me!’
Abram said to Sarai, ‘Since your servant is under your authority, do to her whatever you think best.’ Then Sarai treated Hagar harshly, so she ran away from Sarai. The Lord’s angel found Hagar near a spring of water in the desert – the spring that is along the road to Shur. He said, ‘Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?’ She replied, ‘I’m running away from my mistress, Sarai.’
Then the Lord’s angel said to her, ‘Return to your mistress and submit to her authority. I will greatly multiply your descendants,’ the Lord’s angel added, ‘so that they will be too numerous to count.’ Then the Lord’s angel said to her,
lsquo;You are now pregnant and are about to give birth to a son. You are to name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard your painful groans. He will be a wild donkey of a man. He will be hostile to everyone, and everyone will be hostile to him. He will live away from his brothers.’
So Hagar named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘Here I have seen the one who sees me!’ That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi. (It is located between Kadesh and Bered.)
So Hagar gave birth to Abram’s son, whom Abram named Ishmael. ”(16:1-16:15)
After the miraculous birth of Isaac, whose immaculate conception seems to point forward to Christ (Good “ visited Sarah” and made her pregnant), when the child was old enough to be weaned, Abraham prepared a great feast:
But Sarah noticed the son of Hagar the Egyptian – the son whom Hagar had borne to Abraham – mocking. So she said to Abraham, ‘Banish that slave woman and her son, for the son of that slave woman will not be an heir along with my son Isaac!’
Sarah’s demand displeased Abraham greatly because Ishmael was his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be upset about the boy or your slave wife. Do all that Sarah is telling you because through Isaac your descendants will be counted. But I will also make the son of the slave wife into a great nation, for he is your descendant too.’
Early in the morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He put them on her shoulders, gave her the child, and sent her away. So she went wandering aimlessly through the wilderness of Beer Sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she shoved the child under one of the shrubs. Then she went and sat down by herself across from him at quite a distance, about a bowshot away; for she thought, ‘I refuse to watch the child die.’ So she sat across from him and wept uncontrollably.
But God heard the boy’s voice. The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and asked her, ‘What is the matter, Hagar? Don’t be afraid, for God has heard the boy’s voice right where he is crying. Get up! Help the boy up and hold him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.’ Then God enabled Hagar to see a well of water. She went over and filled the skin with water, and then gave the boy a drink.”(21:10-21:19)

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, do you not understand the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. But one, the son by the slave woman, was born by natural descent, while the other, the son by the free woman, was born through the promise. These things may be treated as an allegory, for these women represent two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai bearing children for slavery; this is Hagar. Now Hagar represents Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written:
‘Rejoice, O barren woman who does not bear children; break forth and shout, you who have no birth pains, because the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than those of the woman who has a husband.’
But you, brothers and sisters, are children of the promise like Isaac. But just as at that time the one born by natural descent persecuted the one born according to the Spirit, so it is now. But what does the scripture say? ‘Throw out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman will not share the inheritance with the son’ of the free woman. Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman but of the free woman.”(4:21-4:31)

Paul stages here a clear symmetrical confrontation here: Isaac versus Ishmail equals the symbolic father (Name-of-the-Father) versus the biological (racial) father, “the origin through name and spirit versus origin through substantial transmission of life”(147), child of the free woman versus child of the slave, child of spirit versus child of flesh. This reading, however, has to simplify the biblical narrative in (at least) three crucial points:

(1) God’s obvious care for Hagar and Ishmail, his intervention to save Ishmail’s life;

(2) the extraordinary characterization of Hagar as not simply a woman of flesh and lust, a worthless slave, but the one who SEES God (“So Hagar named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘Here I have seen the one who sees me!’”). Hagar as the excluded second woman, outside symbolic genealogy, stands not only for the pagan (Egyptian) fertility of Life, but also for a direct access to God – she directly sees God himself seeing, which was not given even to Moses to whom God had to appear as a burning bush. As such, Hagar announces the mystical/feminine access to God (developed later in Sufism).

(3) the (not only narrative) fact that the choice (between flesh and spirit) cannot ever be confronted directly, as a choice between the two simultaneous options. For Sarah to get a son, Hagar has first to get hers, i.e., there is a necessity of succession, of repetition, here, as if, in order to chose spirit, we first have to chose flesh – only the second son can be the true son of spirit. This necessity is what symbolic castration is about: “castration” means that the direct access to Truth is impossible- as Lacan put it, la verite surgit de la meprise, the way to Spirit is only through Flesh, etc. Recall Hegel's analysis of phrenonolgy which closes the chapter on "Observing Reason" in his Phenomenology of Spirit: Hegel resorts here to a metaphor which concerns precisely phallus, the organ of paternal insemination, in order to explain the opposition of the two possible readings of the proposition "the Spirit is a bone" (the vulgar materialist "reductionist" reading - the shape of our skull effectively and directly determines the features of a man's mind - and the speculative reading - the spirit is strong enough to assert its identity with the utmost inert stuff and to "sublate" it, i.e. even the utmost inert stuff cannot escape the Spirit's power of mediation). The vulgar materialist reading is like the approach which sees in phallus only the organ of urination, while the speculative reading is also able to discern in it the much higher function of insemination (i.e. precisely "conception" as the biological anticipation of concept):

The depth which the Spirit brings forth from within - but only as far as its picture-thinking consciousness where it lets it remain - and the ignorance of this consciousness about what it really is saying, are the same conjunction of the high and the low which, in the living being, Nature naively expresses when it combines the organ of its highest fulfillment, the organ of generation, with the organ of urination. The infinite judgment, qua infinite, would be the fulfillment of life that comprehends itself; the consciousness of the infinite judgment that remains at the level of picture-thinking behaves as urination. [7]

A close reading of this passage makes it clear that Hegel's point is NOT that, in contrast to the vulgar empiricist mind which sees only urination, the proper speculative attitude has to choose insemination. The paradox is that the direct choice of insemination is the infallible way to miss it: it is not possible to choose directly the "true meaning", i.e. one HAS to begin by making the "wrong" choice (of urination) - the true speculative meaning emerges only through the repeated reading, as the after-effect (or by-product) of the first, "wrong," reading… and, we may add, Sarah can get her child only after Hagar gets hers.

Where, precisely, is here castration? Prior to Hagar’s entry on the scene, Sarah, the phallic-patriarchal woman, remains barren, infertile, precisely because she is too powerful/phallic; so the opposition is not simply the opposition of Sarah, fully submitted to patriarchal/phallic order, and Hagar, independent and subversive, it is inherent to Sarah herself, her two aspects (phallic arrogance, maternal service). It is Sarah herself who is too powerful, bossy, and had to be humiliated through Hagar in order to get a child and thereby enter patriarchal genealogic order. This castration of hers is signalled through the change of her name, from Sarai to Sarah. Is, however, only Sarah castrated? Is also Abraham not castrated? With Hagar, he is able to conceive a child directly-biologically, but outside the proper genealogy of symbolic lineage; this becomes possible only through the external intervention of God who “visits Sarah” – this gap between symbolic and biologic paternity IS castration.

The choice of Hagar, the independent seer of God, over the docile housewife Sarah, in Islam provides the first hint of the insufficiency of the standard notion of Islam, that of an extreme masculine monotheism, the collective of brothers from which women are excluded and have to be veiled, since their “monstration” is as such excessive, disturbing/provoking men, diverting them from their service to God. Recall the ridiculous Taliban prohibition of metal heels for women – as if, even if women are entirely covered with cloth, the clinging sound of their heels would still provoke men… There is, however, a whole series of features which disturb this standard notion. First, the need to keep women veiled implies an extremely sexualized universe in which the very encounter of a woman is a provocation that any man is unable to resist. Repression has to be so strong because sex itself is so strong - what a society is this in which the click of metal heels can make men explode with lust? A newspaper report a couple of years ago, a non-related young woman and man were caught for a couple of hours in a wire-gondola because the machine broke down. Although nothing happened, the woman killed herself afterwards: the very idea of being alone with a foreign man for hours renders the idea that “nothing happens” unthinkable… No wonder that, in the course of the analysis of the famous “Signorelli” dream in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud reports it was an old Muslim from Bosnia and Herzegovina who imparts him the “wisdom” of sex as the only thing that makes life worth living: “Once a man is no longer able to have sex, the only thing that remains is to die.” 

Second, there is the very pre-history of Islam, with Hagar, the primordial mother of all Arabs, unmentioned in Quran; plus the story of Muhammed himself, with Khadija (his first wife) as the one who enabled him to draw the line of separation between truth and lie, between the messages from angel and those from demon. There are cases where the divine messages Mohammed received come dangerously closed to self-serving fabrications, the best-known among them being his marriage with Zaynab, his adopted son Zayd’s wife. After seeing her half-naked, Mohammed began to covet her passionately; after Zayd became aware of it, he dutifully “repudiated” (divorced) her, so that his stepfather could move in and marry her. Unfortunately, under Arab customary law, such a union was prohibited, but – surprise, surprise! – Mohammed soon got a timely revelation in which Allah exempted Mohammed from this law (Quran 33:37, 33:50). There is even an element of Ur-Vater in Mohammed her, of a father figure possessing all women in his large family.

However, a good argument for Mohammed’s basic sincerity is that he himself was the first to doubt radically the divine nature of his visions, dismissing them as hallucinatory signs of madness or as outright cases of demonic possession. His first revelation occurred in during his Ramadhaan retreat outside Mecca: he saw the archangel Gabriel, calling upon him to “Recite!” (Qarâ’, whence Qur’ân). Mohammed thought he was going mad, and since he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life as Mecca’s village idiot, preferring death to disgrace, he decided to throw himself from a high rock. But then the vision repeated itself: he heard a voice from above saying: “O Mohammed! Thou art the apostle of God and I am Gabriel.” But even this voice did not reassure him, so he slowly returned to his house and, in deep despair, asked Khadija, his first wife (as well as the first believer in him): "Wrap me in a blanket, wrap me up in a blanket." She wrapped him up, and then Muhammed told her what had happened to him: "My life is in danger." Khadija dutifully solaced him.

When, during the following visions of the archangel Gabriel, Mohammad’s doubts persisted, Khadija asked him to notify her when his visitant returned, so that they could verify whether he really was Gabriel or an ordinary demon. So, next time, Mohammed said to Khadija: “This is Gabriel who has just come to me.” “Get up and sit by my left thigh.” Mohammad did so, and she said: “Can you see him?” “Yes.” “Then turn round and sit on my right thigh.” He did so, and she said: “Can you see him?” When he said that he could, Khadija finally she asked him to move and sit in her lap, and, after disclosing her form and casting aside her veil, asked again: “Can you see him?” And he replied: “No.” She then comforted him: “Rejoice and be of good heart, he is an angel and not a Satan.” (There is a further version of this story in which, in the final test, Khadija not only revealed herself, but made Mohammad “come inside her shift” (penetrate her sexually), and thereupon Gabriel departed. , and she said to the apostle of God, ‘This verily is an angel and not a satan.’” The underlying assumption is that, while a lustful demon would have enjoyed the sight of copulation, an angel would politely withdraw from the scene.) Only after Khadija provided Muhammed with this proof of the genuineness of his meeting with Gabriel, was Mohammed cured of his doubts and could embark upon his career as God’s spokesman. [8]

Muhammed thus first experienced his revelations as signs of poetic hallucinations – his immediate reaction to them was: “Now none of God’s creatures was more hateful to me than an ecstatic poet or a man possessed.” The one who saved him from this unbearable uncertainty, as well as from the role of a social outcast, a village idiot, and the first believer in his message, the first Muslim, was Khadija, a woman. In the above scene, she is the Lacanian “big Other,” the guarantee of Truth of the subject’s enunciation, and it is only in the guise of this circular support, through someone who beliefs in Muhammed, that he can believe in his own message and thus serve as a messenger of Truth to believers. Belief is never direct: in order for me to believe, somebody else has to believe in me, and what I believe in is this others’ believe in me. Recall the proverbial doubtful hero, leader, or other figure of authority, who, although desperate, fulfills his mission because others (his followers) believe in him, and he cannot bear the prospect of disappointing them. Is there a stronger pressure than the one we experience when an innocent child looks into our eyes and says: “But I believe in you!”

Years ago, some feminists (Mary Ann Doanne) accused Lacan of privileging male desire: it is only men who can fully directly desire, while women can only desire to desire, hysterically imitate as desire. With regard to belief, one should turn things around: women believe, while men believe those who believe in them. [9] The underlying topic is here that of the objet petit a: the other who “believes in me” sees in me something more than myself, something of which I myself am not aware, the objet a in me. According to Lacan, woman is for men reduced to objet a – what if it is the other way round? What if a man desires his object of desire, unaware of the cause that makes him desire it, while a woman is more directly focused on the (object-) cause of desire?

This feature should be given all its weight: a woman possesses a knowledge about the truth which precedes even the prophet’s own knowledge. - What further complicates the picture is the precise mode of Khadija’s intervention, the way she was able to draw the line of separation between truth and lie, between divine revelation and demonic possession: by way of putting forward (interposing) herself, her disclosed body, as the untruth embodied, the temptation to a true angel. Woman: a lie which, at its best, knows herself as lie embodied. Opposite of Spinoza, truth as its own and lie’s index – here lie its own and truth’s index.

This is how Khadija’s demonstration of truth is achieved through her provocative “monstration” (disclosure, exposure). (207) One thus cannot simply oppose the “good” Islam (reverence of women) and the “bad” Islam (veiled oppressed women). So the point is not to simply return to the “repressed feminist origins” of Islam, to renovate Islam in its feminist aspect by way of this return: these oppressed origins are simultaneously the very origins of the oppression of women. Oppression does not just oppress the origins, it has to oppress ITS OWN origins. The key element of the genealogy of Islam is this passage from the woman as the only one who can verify Truth itself, and the woman who by her nature lacks reason and faith, cheats and lies, provokes men, interposing herself between them and God as a disturbing stain, and who therefore has to be erased, rendered invisible, controlled, since her excessive enjoyment threatens to engulf men.

Woman as such is an ontological scandal, her public exposure is an affront to God. She is not simply erased, but re-admitted in a closely controlled universe whose fantasmatic foundations are most clearly discernible in the myth of the eternal virgin: the (in)famous houris, virgins awaiting martyrs in Paradise, never lose their virginity – after every penetration, their hymen is magically restored. The fantasy is here that of the undivided and undisturbed reign of the phallic jouissance, of a universe in which all the traces of the feminine autre jouissance are erased. (255-6) The profoundest reaction of a Muslim woman, when asked why she wears a veil voluntarily, is “out of her shame in front of God,” not to offend God: there is, in a woman’s exposure, an erectile protuberance, an obscenely-intrusive quality, and this combination of visual intrusion and an enigmatic knowledge is explosive, it disturbs the very ontological balance of the universe.  

So how are we to read, against this background, administrative measures like the French State’s prohibition for young Muslim women to wear their veil in schools? The paradox is double here. First, this prohibition prohibits something which it also qualifies as an erective exposure, a too-strong-to-be-permissible sign of one’s identity that perturbs the French principle of egalitarian citizenship – wearing a veil is, from this French republican perspective, also a provocative “monstration.” The second paradox is that what this State prohibition prohibits is prohibition itself (215), and, perhaps, this prohibition is the most oppressive of them all – why? Because it prohibits the very feature which constitutes the (socio-institutional) identity of the other: it des-institutionalizes this identity, changing it into an irrelevant personal idiosyncrasy. What such prohibiting of prohibitions creates is a space of universal Man for whom all differences (economic, politic, religious, cultural, sexual…) are indifferent, a matter of contingent symbolic practices, etc. Is this space really gender-neutral? No – but not in the sense of secret hegemony of the male “phallocentric” logic: on the contrary, the space without legitimate outside, the space not marked by any cut which draws a line of inclusion/exclusion, is a “feminine” non-all and as such all-encompassing space, space without outside, in which we are all located within a kind of “absolute femininity, a Woman-World”(217) embracing us all. In this universe, with its prohibition of prohibition, there is no guilt, but this absence of guilt is paid for by an unbearable rise of anxiety. The prohibition of prohibitions is a kind of “general equivalent” of all prohibitions, a universal and thereby universalized prohibition, a prohibition of all actual otherness: to prohibit the other’s prohibition equals prohibiting his/her otherness.(216) Therein resides the paradox of the tolerant multiculturalist universe of the multitude of life-styles and other identities: the more it is tolerant, the more it is oppressively homogeneous. Martin Amis recently attacked Islam as the most boring of all religions, demanding its believers to perform again and again the same stupid rituals and learn by heart the same sacred formulas – he was deeply wrong: it is multicultural tolerance and permissiveness which stand for real boredom.

A woman thus possesses a knowledge about the truth which precedes even the Prophet’s knowledge.

Back to role of women in the pre-history of Islam, one should add Muhammed’s conception, where we stumble again upon a mysterious “between-the-two-women.” After working in the clay on his land, Abdallah, his father-to-be, went to the house of another woman and made advances to her, but she put him off on account of the clay that was on him. He left her, washed himself, went to Amina and had intercourse with her – thus Amina conceived Muhammed. Then he went back to the other woman and asked her if she is now still willing; she replied: “No. When you passed by me there was a white light between your eyes. I called to you and you rejected me. You went to Amina and she has taken away the light.” The official wife gets the child, the other gets knows – she sees in Abdallah more than Abdallah himself, the “light,” something he has without knowing it, something that is in him more than himself (the sperm to beget the Prophet), and it is this objet a that generates her desire. Abdallah’s position is like the one of the hero of a detective novel who is all of a sudden persecuted, even threatened with death – he knows something that can put in danger a big criminal, but he himself (or she – usually a woman) doesn’t know what this is. Abdallah, in his narcissism, confuses this objet a in himself with himself (he confuses the object and the cause of the woman’s desire), which is why he returns to her afterwards, wrongly presuming that she will still desire him.

This reliance on the feminine (and on the foreign woman at that) is Islam’s repressed foundation, its un-thought, that which it endeavors to exclude, to erase or at least control it through its complex ideological edifice, but what persists to haunt it, since it is the very source of its vitality. - Why, then, is woman in Islam such a traumatic presence, such an ontological scandal that it has to be veiled? The true problem is not the horror of the shameless exposure of what is beneath the veil, but, rather, the nature of the veil itself. One should link this feminine veil with Lacan’s reading of the anecdote about the competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasios, two painters from the ancient Greece, about who will paint a more convincing illusion. [10] First, Zeuxis produced such a realistic picture of grapes that birds were lured into picking at it to eat the grape. Next, Parrhasios won by painting on the wall of his room a curtain, so that Zeuxis, when Parrhasios showed him his painting, asked him: “OK, now please pull aside the veil and show me what you painted!” In Zeuxis’s painting, the illusion was so convincing that image was taken for the real thing; in Parrhasios’ painting, the illusion resided in the very notion that what we see in front of us is just a veil covering up the hidden truth. This is also how, for Lacan, feminine masquerade works: she wears a mask to make us react like Zeuxis in front of Parrhasios’ painting – OK, put down the mask and show us what you really are! Things are homologous in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, in which Orlando is passionately in love with Rosalind who, in order to test his love, disguises herself as Ganymede and, as a male companion, interrogates Orlando about his love. She even takes on the personality of Rosalind (in a redoubled masking, she pretends to be herself, to be Ganymede who plays to be Rosalind) and persuades her friend Celia (disguised as Aliena) to marry them in a mock ceremony. In this ceremony, Rosalind literally feigns to feign to be what she is: truth itself, in order to win, has to be staged in a redoubled deception. We can thus imagine Orlando, after the mock wedding ceremony, turning to Rosalind-Ganymede and telling her: “You played Rosalind so well that you almost made me believe to be her; you can now return to what you are and be Ganymede again.”

It is not an accident that the agents of such double masquerade are always women: while a man can only pretend to be a woman, only a woman can pretend to be a man who pretends to be a woman, as only a woman can pretend to be what she is (a woman). To account for this specifically feminine status of pretending, Lacan refers to a woman who wears a concealed fake penis in order to evoke that she is phallus:

Such is woman concealed behind her veil: it is the absence of the penis that makes her the phallus, the object of desire. Evoke this absence in a more precise way by having her wear a cute fake one under a fancy dress, and you, or rather she, will have plenty to tell us about. [11]

The logic is here more complex than it may appear: it is not merely that the obviously fake penis evokes the absence of the ‘real’ penis; in a strict parallel with Parrhasios’ painting, the man’s first reaction upon seeing the contours of the fake penis is: “Put this ridiculous fake off and show me what you’ve got beneath!” The man thereby misses how the fake penis is the real thing: the “phallus” that the woman is is the shadow generated by the fake penis, i.e., the specter of the non-existent ‘real’ phallus beneath the cover of the fake one. In this precise sense, the feminine masquerade has the structure of mimicry, since, for Lacan, in mimicry, I do not imitate the image I want to fit into, but those features of the image which seem to indicate that there is some hidden reality behind. As with Parrhasios, I do not imitate the grapes, but the veil: “Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind.” [12] The status of phallus itself is that of a mimicry. Phallus is ultimately a kind of stain of the human body, an excessive feature which does not fit the body and thereby generates the illusion of another hidden reality behind the image.

And this brings us back to the function of veil in Islam: what if the true scandal this veil endeavors to obfuscate is not the feminine body hidden by it, but the INEXISTENCE of the feminine? What if, consequently, the ultimate function of the veil is precisely to sustain the illusion that there IS something, the substantial Thing, behind the veil? If, following Nietzsche’s equation of truth and woman, we transpose the feminine veil into the veil which conceals the ultimate Truth, the true stakes of the Muslim veil become even clearer. Woman is a treat because she stands for the “undecidability” of truth, for a succession of veils beneath which there is no ultimate hidden core; by veiling her, we create the illusion that there is, beneath the veil, the feminine Truth - the horrible truth of lie and deception, of course. Therein resides the concealed scandal of Islam: only a woman, the very embodiment of the indiscernability of truth and lie, can guarantee Truth. For this reason, she has to remain veiled.

This brings us back to the topic with which we began: woman and the Orient. The true choice is not the one between the Near-East masculine Islam and the Far-East more feminine spirituality, but between the Far-Eastern elevation of a woman into the Mother-Goddess, the generative-and-destructive substance of the World, and the Muslim distrust of woman which, paradoxically, in a negative way renders much more directly the traumatic-subversive-creative-explosive power of feminine subjectivity.


[1] Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques, Paris: Plon 1955, p. 472-473.

[2] G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1971, p. 44.

[3] Even Hegel’s logic of triads seems to get stuck into a deadlock here: the triad that offers itself, but that Hegel cannot admit, of course, is that of Judaism – Christianity – Islam: first the immediate/abstract monotheism which, as the price to be paid for its immediate character, has to be embodied in a particular ethnic group (which is why Jews renounce all proselytism); then Christianity with its trinity; finally Islam, the truly universal monotheism.

[4] Fethi Benslama, La psychanalyse a l’epreuve de l’Islam, Paris: Aubier 2002 (the numbers in brackets after a quote refer to this book).

[5] See Eric Santner, "Traumatic Revelations: Freud's Moses and the Origins of Anti-Semitism," in Renata Salecl, ed., Sexuation, Durham: Duke UP 2000.

[6] Of course, one can claim that there is an implicit undermining of its own official ideology at work already in Genesis, where God nonetheless intervenes to save Hagar’s son, promising him a great future – Genesis does (also) take the side of the other woman who was reduced to an instrument of procreation.

[7] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1977, p. 210.

[8] The only later occasion on which demonic intervention spoils his visions is the famous episode of the “Satanic verses.” 

[9] I once had a dream, the usual disgustingly self-indulgent one about getting some big prize; my reaction, IN THE DREAM, was that this cannot be true, that it is only a dream, and the content of the dream was my (successful) effort to convince myself, by way of pointing out to a series of indications, that it is not just a dream, but reality – the interpretive task here is to discover who was the woman hidden in the dream, who was my Khadija.

[10] See Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1979, p. 103.

[11] Jacques Lacan, Ecrits. A Selection, translated by Bruce Fink, New York: W.W.Norton&Company 2002, p. 310.

[12] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, p. 99.

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

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