Psychoanalysis and the Veil in Islam: Rethinking Truth and Liberation


Sarah presenting Hagar to Abraham, Adriaen van der Werff, 1699

by Daniel Tutt

The political philosopher Charles Taylor made an excellent observation recently when he pointed out that Islam is usually the culture that multiculturalism fails to adequately encompass in its pretensions towards universalism. By excluding Islam on the basis of the very values that multiculturalism stands for, Islam presents to liberal multiculturalism, especially in Europe, the hidden Orwellian side of its so called “neutral” values: tolerance, pluralism and equality.

While “we” in the west pride ourselves on a model of multicultural tolerance that is inclusive and broad, western philosophers since Descartes and Rousseau, who are in part the chief developers of liberal universalism, should also be read as developing a universalism that is exclusive, perhaps violently so towards others. The preconditions for participating in the universal liberal state require an uprooting of the individual from their ethnic, cultural or religious contexts.

In his work on biopower, Michel Foucault developed a concept of power that the state deploys when its attempt to encompass universalism fails. He called this governmentality, which arises particularly when the state can no longer promise universal representation of its citizens, when it can no longer pretend to be in a norm-free cultural standing, and when liberal values of assimilation, secularism and formal equality are called into question as a basis for nation state belonging.

We can understand the banning of the veil in France through Foucault’s governmentality. In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights affirmed the ban on wearing the headscarf (hijab) of Layla Sahin in the name of pluralism, broadmindedness and tolerance, effectively rendering these names meaningless. The court argued that in order to advance these values, and protect democracy, it was legitimate to adopt the ban on the headscarf as a “proportional means to advance such legitimate aims.” Similarly, the legal decision to ban the headscarf across schools in France, and in Quebec more recently was justified in the name of liberal equality and a “values-based” approach.

The ban on the veil is at least formally presented as a ban on a sign that is so strong that it presents an affront to the harmonious social order. The ostensible logic is left at the level of semiotics: it presents an overly provocative “remonstration” that must be prohibited to maintain the neutrality of the social space. The ban is effectively a prohibition of prohibition that becomes a negation of negation. In other words, the negation of Islam’s own prohibition on the female, and the negation of the symbolic presence in a social space that must remain neutral.

But often what is missing in this debate is the outcome the ban on the veil has had on Muslim women. As a restriction on their most private and intimate domain of subjectivity, the debates often neglect the space of the female’s own relation to the veil, how it is understood from within Islam as a cultural and religious mandate and sign of piety.

The ban on the veil in public places in Europe is not that much different than the movement to preemptively ban Shariah law in the United States, a project that would ostensibly make practicing Islam illegal and punishable by fine. Shariah refers to a set of liturgical rights and individual dispensations of the individual believer to God, and Muslims perceive the Shariah as a set of “rights.” Where the movement to ban Shariah and the veil coalesce for Muslims is thus at the liturgical and the intimate terrain of their religious identities.

Muslim women’s rights have been eligible to be fought for and negotiated by others, usually non-Muslim women groups or advocacy organizations. What unites the conservative “empowerment” approach to Muslim women advancement of say, a Laura Bush after the second Iraq war, with the more radical leftist activism of FEMEN, who recently organized a “topless jihad day”, is the presupposition that Muslim women are subjected to what the Marxists used to call false consciousness. There is a tacit assumption that the female voice from within Islam lacks the capacities to formulate their own sense of autonomy, and that they lack the ability to articulate their own freedom. They place the oppression that Muslim women deal from within Islam, and not from the west, or from imperialism, etc. These approaches to Muslim women’s empowerment and liberation belies the reality that social scientists have discovered across Muslim majority countries, where when asked, Muslim women claim that wearing the veil is perceived as a choice and as one that comes from a sense of religious obligation, and not coercion.

FEMEN’s “topless jihad day”, a global action against the oppression of women and female genital mutilation involved largely non-Muslim activists, who curiously insisted on using the language of Islam (“jihad”) and in forcefully presenting a western conception of radical liberation located at the site of the body. The projection here is too obvious to re-tell: your liberation must follow our path to liberation à la the sexual revolution in the west. This is similar to those who claim that Islam’s problems today stem from the fact they have not gone through the enlightenment, a myth that neglects the fact that Muslim scholars were seminal in transmitting and fusing western and eastern knowledge beginning with the renaissance. Not surprisingly, Muslim women activists have resoundingly denounced FEMEN; going so far as to ask if their entire program is not based on an imperial logic.

What both the western left and right agendas miss in their desire to liberate Muslim women is a more nuanced and careful look at what Muslim women have to say about liberation, and what they especially ignore are the views of liberation of women from within Islam.

Islam, Women and Psychoanalysis 

At first glance, psychoanalysis and Islam don’t seem compatible. In many ways, the result of the psychoanalytic cure can be seen as leading to a form of atheism. In its Lacanian version, psychoanalysis seeks to move the analysand (patient) beyond the big Other and realize that the big Other does not exist. The big Other is a term that refers to a type of psychical agency that confers identity upon subjects (the self), and in this movement, one might easily envision a movement away from reliance or belief in God. Although Lacan would come to present a more complex atheism located at the site of belief, going so far as to show his (largely atheist) followers that he can prove to them they rely on God’s existence through his theory of the three registers of reality. Slavoj Žižek has expanded Lacan’s thesis on the atheistic nature of belief in radical ways, when he claims that only an atheist can believe, he points to the fact that belief always depends on an Other that is disavowed.

Psychoanalysis as a clinical practice has succeeded in Muslim countries and in some countries; it is growing in popularity, particularly in Iran. Yet there is a risk inherent to its expansion as an institution outside of the west. Jacques Derrida, in his brilliant essay, “Geopsychoanalysis… and the Rest of the World” shows that psychoanalysis as a discourse and practice is, at the same time as it purports its own idea of universalism, also spreads an imperial drive that knows no borders. This imperialism buried deep within the mission and logic of psychoanalysis consists of a desire to conquer the symptom, which is, as some argue, a tendency that leans towards secularization. But despite this tendency, there have been a number of interventions from religious and Islamic studies that uses psychoanalysis as a theoretical tool to examine Islam and Muslim subjectivity. These interventions are criticized by many contemporary Islamic studies scholars who insist that Islam should be studied based on the concepts that are intrinsic to its own discourse.

From its origins, psychoanalysis has struggled with understanding Islam on its own terms, if such a thing were even possible. Islam baffled Freud as much as women baffled him. In the case of women, Freud said famously:

“This is what I have to say about femininity: it is incomplete and fragmentary. If you want to know more about it, inquire from your own experiences of life, or turn to the poets, or wait until science can give you deeper and more coherent information.”

Islam was another “dark continent” that Freud was unable to comprehend in part because its lineage, unlike Judaism and Christianity, is not paternal, and the role of the father in the founding of Islam is ambiguous. The Prophet Muhammad identifies the lineage of Islam with the Patriarch Abraham, but it is Ishmael, Abraham’s son who takes up the Arab lineage of the Muslims, as distinctive to the Christians and the Jews.

Where the most groundbreaking work on Islam and psychoanalysis is taking place is with the French Muslim psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama. Benslama has developed a provocative theory about the role of the veil – and women more generally in Islam – that helps to re-frame the debate about women and Islam taking place in the west, and from within Islamic discourse. In a way, Benslama’s most influential text, Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam seeks to accomplish what Freud did for Judaism, or might we say what Freud did to Judaism in Moses and Monotheism.

For Freud, Moses presents the founding myth of Judaism as a non-Jew, and the fact that the truth of the Jewish community was made by an outsider set the stage for a new relation to the unruly desire of the paternal father. In any founding myth, the father’s unruly desire and possession of the women results in either his murder, or in his sacrifice by the son. In monotheism, it is the son who is sacrificed, while in polytheistic and Greek origin stories, it is the father. The second appearance of the father in society is as an impotent figure, coming as he does as a symbolic father who resembles the dead father, but remains a father in name only, which is why Lacan gave the name of Oedipal castration, the name-of-the-father. The primal father, or what Freud called the father of the horde in Totem and Taboo, cannot be re-appropriated back into our society after his death, but he forever haunts society. The key points apropos the founding myth of Islam, is that the primal father’s unruly jouissance must be repudiated to allow for libidinal relations to function. Before examining how Benslama seeks to locate this necessity in Islam, we should turn to the basis of the father and paternal authority in Islam.

The Prophet was an orphan and he explicitly told his followers that he is not to be treated like a father. God in Islam poses a major problem to Freud precisely because God in Islam represents an originary withdrawal of the father. God is located on the side of what is called the Real in psychoanalysis, and remains thus trans-paternal, occupying a no-place, and an incommensurable withdrawal between relation and non-relation. The closest we come to a father figure in Islam is through Ishmael, even though he is not the first Muslim, Ishmael is the prophetic source of entry for Muhammad’s revelation. But like Moses, Ishmael, (a non-Arab) is the beginning point of the Muslim lineage, making Islam’s founding not an imitation as much as it is a translation into Arabic of paternal authority.

The woman’s place in the founding of Islam is also crucial, as it is also founded by an outsider figure, Hagar, the slave to Abraham and Sarah who birthed their son. Here we encounter another structural necessity in psychoanalytic thought that Benslama latches onto, which is that there must be a disavowal of the truth of the origin. There is a crisis of origin in Islam that torments as an origin, and also is a tormented origin. He points out that the figure of the woman, who is central to the founding of Islam, and the authenticity of the founding of Islam are the two symptomal points for radical Muslims, what many call “Islamists”. The crisis of the torment of origin is evidenced for Benslama in the reaction by a slim fringe of Muslims that protested Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The protests against Rushdie’s text was indicative of the crisis of origins because in his attempt to fictionalize the origin of Islam – he opened up a symptomal knot that revealed an already existing scandal that plagues Islam’s very relation to its own source of truth.

The reason that Islam operates on a “repudiation of origin” crisis today, according to Benslama, is tied to Islam’s own libidinal economy, which refers to the way in which desire situates and constructs identities based on the flow and distribution of desire. In psychoanalysis, there is a radical asymmetry between man and woman that is located at the level of desire. Both men and women possess what Lacan called “phallic jouissance,” a type of desire based around the possession of desire itself. Men and women either have phallic jouissance or they do not have it.

Freud referred to women as the “dark continent” and admitted that he could say nothing about femininity; posing the question “what do women want?” It was Lacan who later developed one of the more compelling theories of desire that encompasses the feminine, locating feminine desire outside of the symbolic order, which is in part why his famous statement, “woman does not exist” came into being. Lacanian feminine desire is integral to mystical traditions as it holds a privileged relation to the core of truth, a core that is inaccessible in the symbolic. The overarching point apropos Islam is that revelation in the Qur’an, as it was transmitted to the Prophet Muhammad, was founded upon this Other feminine desire.

Benslama argues that Islam’s relation to truth stems from Hagar. His claim revolves around the idea that Hagar is intentionally estranged in the Qur’an (she does not appear), and her role in the prophetic narrative represents for Benslama, a refusal of origin that leads to a universalized disavowal of the female figure. This disavowal of the female at the origin of Islam should be understood not simply as an origin that remains static, but as a repressed core that repeats and is open. Thus, the repression of Hagar corresponds to the very basis of female subjectivity in Islam writ large, as it were.

Hagar, whom Benslama refers to as the “other woman” provides the source of a kind of jouissance that is twofold: the knowledge of alterity (Hagar is a clairvoyant) and the desire of Hagar’s body. Hagar inserts herself as a mistress between the desire of Abraham and Sara, which prevents Sara from accessing his unruly desire. Hagar is a seminal figure in this context because she resolves Abraham’s unruly desire and thus prevents the fratricidal event from taking place (Benslama, Pg. 78).

The relation that Hagar has with Sara is also crucial. It is Sara that wants Hagar to give her a child. Sara lends Hagar the gift of bearing her child to overcome the lack of God in her, as she was after all a prostitute. But Hagar’s gift in return to Sara was a gift of the name, which is a gift of an archival nature and of a debt (Benslama, 81). Because Hagar sees God, she provides one of the names of God in “El”, or the God of her vision. The other gift was a symbolic gift to Sara, who after the birth of Ishmael spells her name with an extra “h” on the end of her name. This gift to Sarah made by Hagar, who gave her a child is one that dispossesses her of herself. Hagar does not have access to the symbolic castration and the universalization that is now “phallic jouissance” – to the extent that it is a conception that is replacing a lack. There thus emerges a master-slave dialectic whereby the master agrees to form his lack into jouissance, while the slave remains in the flesh.

Some critics have pointed out that Benslama’s thesis about Hagar’s “disavowed” treatment in the Islamic tradition is a misnomer, considering that many of the most central rituals of Islam involve homage to Hagar, including during the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages. But the point where Hagar presents significance for psychoanalysis, and thus the point where she presents a functional role in Muslim subjectivity, is through the way that she divides father and son. Benslama says, “It is as if every time the pact between father and son occurs, the Hagarian figure emerges that threatens to divide them” (Benslama, 108). Hagar is the figure, and by extension, since Islam is a religion that repeats its narratives, the woman more generally resolves the paternal crisis between father and son and brings order and harmony to the religions founding moment.

The Veil as a Truth Mechanism

The key area where the veil enters into the Islamic narrative is in the context of revelation from God to Muhammad. As mentioned above, psychoanalysis develops a theory of belief that is grounded on the notion that one’s ability to believe is mediated by an Other. In Islam, the veil plays a seminal role in this process. In Islam, we find that the veil is based on the prohibition of what the woman cannot see, an injunction that comes not from man, but from the women’s proximity to the Prophet Muhammad’s receiving of revelation.

When the Prophet thinks that Ais’ha is cheating on him with Safwan, it is revelation (the Law) that enters to resolve the issue. What exonerates Ais’ha is the Sura “Light” and what happens after this event is that she is to be veiled. Another example is presented when Muhammad’s adopted son Zaid divorces his wife because he can see that Muhammad is attracted to her after seeing her beauty, what results from this is the prohibition on adoption in Islam – “Muhammad is not a father of any of you” is mentioned in the Qur’an immediately after this event. Then God says in the Qur’an, “Oh, Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the women of the faithful to draw their wraps a little over them. They will thus be recognized and no harm will come to them” (Qur’an, 33:59).

Overall, we find again and again in the Qur’an that veiling is the operation of the negation of the body of a woman. But what is crucial to this operation is that the woman is elevated to a sacred thing, into an ideality that preserves all sensible existence. Again, the female figure is essential once again for the maintenance of stability and harmony. The veil shields her body, which would otherwise emit a multiplicity of signs, in order to envelop a unique and singular sign. As Benslama mentions, “the veil is nothing less than a spiritual/mental view of woman that attaches itself to her very body” (Benslama, 143).

In Sura 7, a veil of night separated Adam and Eve from their sex. When they ate from the forbidden fruit tree, what followed from this was a veil of light that descended and revealed their sex. There are three stages of revelation in the Islamic tradition: veiling; unveiling;   reveiling. These stages echo the creation of the cosmos: the blinding light; the darkness that allows one to see; and the screen that blinds the seen object. To want the truth (for a man) turns out to be incestuous desire, and theological representation proposes to take man outside of this fascination (Benslama, 139 – 40). So in many ways, Nietzsche was correct in his declaration of Muhammad the “great Platonist” – truth in Islam is like Plato’s sun, which is why the power of the truth cannot be directly accessed without a veiling procedure.

Between man and the angel, woman emerges, and issues a power that emanates from the body and not from language according to Benslama. When the Archangel Gabriel gave revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, it was Khadija who the Prophet sought answers of validity from. Khadijah confirmed to Muhammad that what was happening to him was indeed something divine and that he was not mad. Khadijah thus provides the scene of demonstration of prophetic truth, for which Khadijah responds with her body (she holds Muhammad as he shakes with fear) validating that his visions are indeed authentic. This site of authentication of prophetic truth as revealed by a woman is not only significant for Islam’s transmission of truth, but also essential to what psychoanalysis calls Other jouissance.

Early Christianity also held this view of truth originating from the head of the woman. St. Paul claimed that “woman ought to have power on their heads because of the angels.” Benslama points out that for many women who go into psychoanalysis today, often times they have dreams where they are all-seeing, or that they have a capacity for vision that is uncanny.

Benslama’s project brings incredible understanding of two traditions into a fascinating dialogue, but it is an adaptation of psychoanalytic models onto an Islamic framework. Muslim scholars who tend to be more traditional and resolve the conceptual complexities of Islam from within the normative frameworks available are critical of such a project and are critical of Benslama, but they tend to lack the knowledge of psychoanalysis to wage informed and nuanced critiques. Alberto Toscano, who is not a trained Islamic scholar, but a philosopher, has pointed out that Benslama’s project is similar to that of Hegel, who saw in Islam the “religion of fanaticism.” Toscano points out that Benslama’s treatment of Islam is “characterized by a destructive and fusional passion, and is to be understood by its negations (the sacred and the secular, the self and other, and so on)” (Toscano, 109).

But there is a source of radical liberation in Benslama’s thesis of the woman in Islam, something that seems to traverse the shortcomings of western presuppositions of false consciousness and lack of autonomy inherent to Islam. Benslama’s work suggests that one way to rethink change in Islam today is to re-visit the tormented origin and affirm the role of the female at this site, and further in the entire production of truth in Islam, which is a repetition that is continually enacted. At the minimum, his theory, and psychoanalysis in general for that matter can help us to rethink the role of the woman in Islam in more ways than through our own prism of western liberation.

Works Cited:

Copjec, Joan, Umbr(a): Islam. A Journal of the Unconscious, 2009

Benslama, Fethi, Psychoanalysis and the Challenge of Islam, Minnesota Press, 2009

Derrida, Jacques, Geopsychoanalysis: …And the Rest of the World translated by, Donald Nicholson-Smith, American Imago, 1991

About the Author:

Daniel Tutt is currently a third year (ABD) PhD candidate in continental philosophy, psychoanalysis and media studies at the European Graduate School. He is also an activist in interfaith dialogue and anti-Islamophobia. He tweets @danieltutt and his website is here.