Manas. Studies into Asia and Africa.

Electronic Journal of the Centre for Eastern Languages and Cultures
Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”

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Manas 3 (2017), 2.

Published on 03.11.2017

ISSN: 2367-6256

Mincheva, Dilyana. Islamic Iconoclasm And Violence. – In: Manas: The Arab World and Islam in Cultural-Historical Perspective, Vol. 3, 2, 2017.

2017 / Volume 3 / Issue number 2 : The Arab World and Islam in Cultural-Historical Perspective

Islamic Iconoclasm And Violence

Dilyana Mincheva


By exploring the relationships between religious idolatry and aniconism, my aim is to understand how the prohibition of images becomes a prevalent social command in worlds dominated by the Islamic State’s genre of morbid aesthetics. While the implicitly genocidal gestures of erasure – the ambition to obliterate all traces of peoples and cultures, both in the past and future – could be traced back to pre-modern Islamic apocalyptism, my interest here is to pursue a socio-historical claim: to identify the Islamic State and their ‘version of Islam’ as excessively presentist. I argue that the mediated image wars of the Islamic State, which celebrate the ‘auto-hetero-putting to death’ (in the worlds of  Fethi Benslama), are sustained by both the real and imaginary identity-myth of Islamism, whose debilitating violence could be understood via the Islamic State’s paradoxical execution of the Islamic iconoclastic imperative.

Keywords: Islamic State, image wars, history, iconoclasm, Super-Muslim, identity-myth



I dedicate the following text to Professor Yordan Peev, one of my first teachers in the vast, contested, constructed and variegated field of Islamic history. I also wish to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Dr. Simeon Evstatiev for providing inspiration to me (and multiple other young scholars) through exemplary and committed scholarship on Islam as the Chair of the Graduate Program in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Sofia University. I am humbled by this opportunity and genuinely excited to reconnect, via this text, with my teachers, colleagues, friends and interlocutors in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Sofia University, Bulgaria.


Note to the reader: In the following text, I use the terms ISIS and Islamic State interchangeably. Yet, for the sake of historical accuracy, it should be noted that the organisation has changed its name several times. From 2006 to 2013, the group was known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI); between April 2013 and June 2014, it went by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS); and, presently, the name Islamic State (IS) – al-Dawla al-Islamiyya – conforms with the group’s self-naming by genealogically confirming its existence since 2006.

I. Introduction

While the Islamic State’s political rise and military force may remain an enigma for politics and security studies experts, the organisation and its ideology – their communication strategies, plans for the future, their interpretative and selective engagements with the Islamic authoritative corpora,[1] their branding of jihad and their plans for vast territorial expansion, which started as the founding of the proto-caliphate in Iraq but would ultimately extend across the Middle East and conquer the world – have been around since as early as 2006. In fact, a comprehensive collection of transcribed recordings of speeches by iconic Islamic State leaders and ideologues, such as Al-Baghdadi and Al-Muhajir (both killed in 2010), is available online and in print;[2] references to these speeches in exchanges between the Islamic State’s soldiers and supporters can be found in YouTube clips, Twitter and Facebook messages, WhatsApp conversations, and Skype exchanges, etc. (Berger and Morgan 2015). Scriptural exegeses of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings fill the pages of Dabiq, Rumiyah and Dar-Al-Islam, where carefully selected references to the Qur’an also depict a world of truth and untruth, of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, of eternity and salvation versus damnation and hell; a world doomed to the prophecy of the ‘final battle’, projected to happen in the northern Syrian town of Dabiq, in which the caliphate will gloriously triumph over its enemies (Ingram 2016; see also Harris 2014). It is true that texts do not automatically generate fighters, as the process of radicalisation is much more complex than the literal translation of Salafi prescriptions and proscriptions (predominantly do’s and don’ts) into action. However, it is intriguing that the very first fundamental of the Islamic State, as announced by Al-Baghdadi in a speech in March 2007, places the economy of the image at the centre of the caliphate:

First, we believe in the necessity of destroying and eradicating all manifestations of idolatry (shirk) and [in the necessity of] prohibiting those things that lead to it, on account of what the Imam Muslim transmitted in his Sahih on the authority of Abu ’l-Hayaj al-Asadi, who said: ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib—may God be pleased with him—said to me: Should I not urge you to do what the Messenger of God—may God bless and save him—urged me to do? at you not leave a statue without obliterating it, or a raised grave without levelling it?’ (al-Baghdādī 2007)

Why does idolatry – which is always linked to both representation and signification – emerge as such an important concept for Al-Baghdadi? Indeed, the burning of books and bodies, the smashing of ancient statues and the bulldozing of archaeological sites is at the heart of the cinematic spectacles orchestrated by the Islamic State and disseminated through both social and retro media outlets.[3] In November 2015, for example, the Islamic State uploaded to YouTube a propaganda video showing Manhattan in panic after an imaginary suicide attack: the camera focuses on a suicide bomber who joyfully and methodically prepares for explosion; at the decisive moment, the screen goes black, followed by the montaged appearance of the horrified François Hollande after the Paris attacks. The next message is in English: ‘And what’s coming next will be far worse and more bitter [sic]’ (Cohen, Vincent and Moore, 2015). Earlier, in February 2015, a high-definition video portraying the live burning of the Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, was simultaneously uploaded to several anonymous message board sites in both English and Arabic (, and; within minutes, the video had spread to Twitter and YouTube.[4] ISIS explained burning him alive as a response to the airstrikes targeting Muslims. Verse 126 in Sura al-Nahl allows violent counterattacks and, in the hadith tradition, we can find examples of the use of fire in similar cases. Leaving aside the mechanics of analogy in this case (which involves purposive, not textual, reasoning), my interest is to investigate the Islamic fighters’ obsession with both the creation and destruction of images, given that the authoritative sources respected by the militant group – obviously the canonical collections of Al-Bukhari and Muslim – forbid the representation and, particularly, the replication of the human image.[5]

In 2001, when the Taliban spectacularly destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, some scholars defined this gesture as a betrayal of Islamic aniconism. Jean-Michel Frodon (2002), for example, speaks of the Taliban’s ‘politics with images’, contending that the aspiration towards transcendence is inherently paradoxical as it inevitably demands engagement with the immanent material world. Moreover, the spectacle of destruction itself gives new life to these statues, turning their materiality into potentially immortal and non-perishable digital images. Put differently, transcendence always demands social and political action – which is in and of this world – if it is to have any meaning, even when this action is justified via theological reflection. The hypothesis I offer is that much religious violence, especially the Islamic State’s spectacular violence towards artefacts and bodies, is related to idolatry, even when the strict religious heteronomy dogmatically engages the prohibition of images: a foundational monotheistic directive. When understood in the context of images being prohibited, the images of decapitated heads, amputated arms, and crucified bodies of ‘infidels’, as well as the destruction of archaeological treasures, add another dimension to the strict heteronomy of the Islamic State (and militant Islamism); one that is usually unacknowledged in philosophical and theological discussions. Namely, the iconoclastic imperative – and by extension the destruction of bodies and cultural treasures – is always linked to territorial claims, in terms of either defensiveness or expansion, which express themselves through debilitating violence.

In what follows, I will examine socio-historical manifestations of Islamic iconoclasm, and then explore its theological foundation. In the final section, I will reflect on the historical coincidence influencing the transformation of aniconism from theological imperative to social command, using the complex psychoanalytical metaphor of the Supermuslim. 

II. Iconoclasm and the clash of temporalities: socio-historical perspective

Iconoclasm as an aspiration for the destruction of bodies and monuments – from 9/11 to the Bamiyan Buddhas to the violence-obsessed cinematic terrorism of the Islamic State – has often been understood as an attempt to correct the unequal distribution of resources, goods and existential prospects of an asymmetrical global culture and uneven capitalism. Harry Harootunian (2007) coins the term ‘noncontemporaneous contemporaneity’ to explain the proclivity of explosive fundamentalism to mix the archaic and the modern, the primitive and the high-tech, and the past and the present in attempting to carve space for heterogeneous modes of existence, outside or peripheral to Western frameworks of technological, scientific and economic progress. In this sense, iconoclasm should be understood as a symptom of the desire to inaugurate a new temporal order (9/11 was, thus, seen as the axial event of the new century), which is excessively presentist. In short, in a world in which the nation state, as carrier of both linear clock time and the promise of a singular, inclusive, progressive future, is severely undermined, a new temporal order emerges, inspired by a commitment to life in the endless present, nourished by the phantasm of perpetual war. Certainly, archaism implanted onto modern practices is not a new phenomenon, as the great imperial expansions of the 19th century in Africa and Asia also brought violent clashes of temporalities: resistance against the territory-appropriating invader and local populations’ reluctance to become part of widening capitalist markets gave rise to such movements as the Tailings and Boxers in China, the Jinpuren in Japan, the Sepoys in India, the Mahdist in Sudan, the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, etc. (Harootunian 2007: 473). The difference today is that the future cannot guarantee the achievement of any ideal (of freedom, equality, progress, or even divine bliss, for that matter) or aspiration that arises in the present. I will further detail this point when considering violence in section II.b).

While it is now clear that globalisation and the world market often bring diverse cultures into violent clashes, reinvigorating explanatory attachments to reified concepts of time as the movement from barbaric to civilised life, it is also clear that we are currently at an impasse regarding aspirations to create a universalising world history, capable of integrating plural, distinct local histories and lifestyles into a diachronic narrative of some hypothetically shared future. Much of the discourse critiquing globalisation emphasises global capital’s urge to erase plurality, reducing it to a singular space of consumption without acknowledging that capital encounters forms of differences, which are usually associated with pre-existent identitarian imaginaries (such as the nation state and/or religion). In such cases, the narrative of ‘alternative modernity’ is usually evoked to take into account the historically complex pathways to modernisation of non-Western societies. This evokes a paradox: the discourse of the ‘alternative’ crypto-normatively affirms the universality and superiority of the ‘original’ as the original Western understanding of techno-scientific progress, which determines the teleological endpoint of modernity. Therefore, regardless of how non-Western forms of life manoeuvre through time, their endpoint is always imbricated in some kind of comparative catch-up narrative.

In light of these considerations two points must be made regarding the Islamic State’s fervent iconoclasm. First, the Islamic State’s sadism – which in itself is an incongruent mixture of reality, performance and sacrifice – mobilises (perhaps inadvertently) destruction and defacement as the most meaningful signification of the monument (or the body) in an attempt to disengage the present from the weight of the past. In a classical avant-gardist gesture, the destruction becomes a peculiar locus of life wherein the erased site is once again invited to participate in history (Nelson and Olin 2003). Early twentieth century Italian futurism – via the art and writings of Boccioni and Marinetti – aestheticized destruction as ‘uncontrollable hilarity’ and war as a new regime of temporalisation meant to free Italy from the ‘gangrene of professors, archaeologists, antiquarians . . .’ and bring the future perfect: ‘The splendour of the world enriches itself with a new beauty – the beauty of speed’(Marinetti, 1909). The futurists’ obsession with speed ultimately triggers the peculiar alignment of time and space wherein rapidity becomes the defining feature of the modern experience, which gradually takes the place of the future. In the futurist project, ironically, the future (understood as nauseous acceleration) is eventually devoured by the present. The movement’s unfortunate association with fascism further contributes to futurism’s ultimate metamorphosis into its opposite: a presentist project. A similar point can be made about the Islamic State: the group is equally obsessed with velocity insofar as the instantaneous digital image of destruction (contracted through space and time), even when evoking the barbaric past and signalling an apocalyptic future, is deeply rooted in radical presentism fascinated by the ‘auto-hetero putting to death’ now.[6]

Second, the Islamic State’s fascination with destruction may be taken as an attempt at historicising and temporalising the asymmetrical interplay of the past and the present (i.e. the Islamic State is the political agent to bring justice for colonialism, the wars in Iraq, the divisions of Muslims, etc.), but the movement’s ordering of time conveys a different meaning: the complex socio-historical time, that which is not understood through theological propositions, is flattened by the projection of a past constructed in the image of an apocalyptic future. The repulsive images of martyrs and enemies in Dabiq (the Islamic State’s propaganda magazine), for example, clearly send the message of a coming apocalypse – as implied by referencing the prophecy of the Final Battle to take place in the northern Syrian town of Dabiq – in which the caliphate will ultimately triumph over the crusaders. Yet the stories and images in the magazine – particularly in the first ten issues (July 2014 – July 2015)[7] – of this imminent apocalypse recycle stylistically the Quranic/Biblical accounts of the Deluge and Noah, depriving the caliphate’s future of its own agency; the future here is anachronistic: it is entirely imagined in reference to selectively chosen events from the past.

Let us unpack the above two considerations separately.

a) Presentism

In a recent clip from the Islamic State, six armed children storm a castle in search of bound hostages.[8] We do not know where these children are: perhaps among the ruins of Palmyra or some other place of worship, or maybe the remains of a blown-up monument, effigy, shrine, or museum. The Islamic State’s attempts to erase history are well documented: spectacular, diabolic and fiery explosions, captured in high definition, spare none of the historical and cultural artefacts that incarnate the region’s identity and culture – from the Mosul Museum, to the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, from the Great Mosque of Aleppo to the Chaldean Catholic monastery of St. George of Iraq, and the archaeological sites of Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra.[9] Tracked by several cameras the children – one by one – slowly enter the ruin. For each boy, there is a recoiling target in the shadows. The boys line up and load their guns. A theatrical pause follows, and then each pulls the trigger. We are left wondering who these children are and who were the men they killed. What kind of divine truth could ever justify such cruelty? How large was the production team?

The video is shocking in several ways: children as coldblooded jihadi killers; the sinister yet immediate intimacy of their actions; the Hollywood-style aesthetics of the image with visual and audio references borrowed from video games, music clips and TV shows, exhibiting kinetic, cinematic, cinematographic sweeps and zooms, fancy graphics, stylish transitions, special effects, dramatic build-up, rhythmic editing and slow-motion gunfire. The violence seems unique to the Islamic State but its language – that of digital media and Western pop culture[10] – is both distant and familiar. Contrary to what the Islamic State would like to theologically affirm, each of the following features of their activities exhibit fascination with images: most of the Islamic State’s iconic video productions, from the serialised short films Flames of War and Clanging of the Swords, to video games like Call of Jihad (modelled on the famous video game Call of Duty); innovative Twitter applications such as The Dawn of Glad Tidings, allowing the generation of huge pools of re-tweets around certain topics; and the propaganda magazines of the Islamic State.

The Islamic State markets itself as a refuge from an impure world; as a place where believers can be sure they are living in accordance with a perfect Islam, untainted by the forces of modernisation and capitalism. Geographically, the Islamic State aims to obliterate the arbitrary borders in the Middle East, drawn by the great powers after World War I, and ultimately conquer the world.[11] Politically, it brands itself as the last chapter in a cosmic war against the morally decayed, consumerist, hedonistic West and global capital. Yet, ironically, the suicidal march against capitalism – the so-much-coveted accomplishment of this entirely separate, pure, and non-imagistic world that the Islamic Caliphate would embody – cannot happen outside the economy of images, which, in a capitalist world, is always tied to the dictate of commodities and the tyranny of exchange.

Indeed, a whole strain of critique in continental philosophy and the arts adopts iconoclasm as resistance to both capitalism and theology. This is certainly the meaning behind Adorno’s understanding of utopia as negative representation (Adorno, 1995; see also Kelly, 2003). In a world saturated by image commodities, iconoclasm as resistance evokes the idea that whatever is considered society’s most sacred and unrepresentable institution – whether an image, object, word, language, sign, etc. – both can and should be exposed, as fake idols of the tribe, through iconoclastic strategies.[12] From Dadaism’s playful and performative mischief (trying to re-contextualise readymades) to Guy Debord’s situationist pranks intended to criticise ‘the society of spectacle’, we witness modern art’s attempts to desacralise the image understood as the space of the commodity (insofar as, following Marx’s definition, commodities are imbued with the logic of religious idolatry, hence the phrase ‘fetishism of commodities’). One way to interpret the Islamic State’s morbidity-driven aesthetics, then, is to recognise vehement pursuit of this capacity to expose capitalism’s last instance of the sacred. Similar to avant-garde modernism, it is ultimately employing iconoclasm, which, paradoxically, emphasises or even hyper-privileges the image. It is easy to interpret Islamic State’s own self-characterisation and notorious fascination with destruction as iconoclastic. Yet in its shameless brutality, disturbing sadism and pornographic borrowings from action and thriller movies – in short, in its visual excess – the Islamic State’s image production displays quite the opposite. Namely, it is impossible to exist in a non-imagistic world. To believe this is both naïve and commensurate with the reign of commodity capitalism’s metaphysics of the image, in which the Islamic State’s ideologues are undoubtedly trapped; a metaphysics that ultimately prevents them from thinking otherwise and, thus, offering a radical alternative to what they purportedly attempt to criticise: Western society of consumerism and spectacle.[13] This explains the uncanny familiarity of the Islamic State’s prolific simulacra. On a similar note, radical Islam is deeply embedded in the structures of commodity capitalism inasmuch as, today, it is the most comprehensive, exciting and popular millennial product in cyberspace.[14] Network based, highly reliable on social media and YouTube, and organised from the bottom up, jihadist Islamism circulates around the world in ways that uncannily replicate the circulation and fluidity of global capital and communication networks.

Finally, the Islamic State’s presentism cannot be fully described without brief reflection on the materiality of its image production. It is interesting to note that the videos particularly exhibiting extreme violence towards artefacts always involve iconic pieces of world heritage (with all the discursive restrictions of the term). Perhaps this explains why discussions around the destruction of historical sites in the Middle East are primarily concentrated in archaeological circles, where the Islamic State videos are taken at face value, i.e. they are assessed as documentary evidence. In fact, a widely circulated video from February 2015 shows a few carefully costumed militants – properly bearded and dressed in characteristic plain-cloth Islamic dress – destroying statues with bare hands, sledgehammers and drills, as if, through their direct and bodily attack on these artefacts, they are replicating the seventh century demolishing of the Kaaba’s idols.[15] The clip features the destruction of sculptures on pedestals, the sledgehammering of the statuary of Hatra, and an assault on the Assyrian colossal sculpture at the gates of Nineveh, which is a monstrous figure of superhuman scale: it has human face, a bull’s or lion’s body and eagle’s wings.[16] The choice of the artefacts for these videos is meticulous: large, ominously erected idols, well fitted for restaging a cosmic destruction evoking the classical Islamic past (small items such as figurines, vases or bowls, bearing anthropomorphic images, are absent from the Islamic State’s video rage). The highly aestheticised and conventionalised choices involved in these videos’ production perhaps explain their clickbait power; at the same time, these aesthetic choices provide the rationale for Islamic State’s hyperreal propaganda: the violence is, indeed, real, but is enacted for the sake of producing a video. As Ömür Harmanṣah (2015: 174) eloquently observes: ‘We must responsibly consider the possibility that what we treat on our Facebook profiles, tweets, and blogs as documentation of violence is in fact the raison d’être of ISIS’s biopolitics’.

b) Violence

On 7 January 2015, during the Charlie Hebdo attack, a witness filmed the attackers as they emerged into the street and fled, killing a policeman in the process. The men were heard saying that they had ‘avenged the Prophet Muhammad’. This undoubtedly referenced the irreverent cartoons that Charlie Hebdo’s caricaturists drew of the Prophet Muhammad. In 2005, controversies, death threats and actual murders surrounded the publishing of similar cartoons by the Danish satirical newspaper Jyllands Posten. On November 13, 2015 another group of jihadi fighters, pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, massacred 130 people and injured hundreds more in attacks concentrated at the Bataclan music hall and the Stade de France in Paris. In the Islamic State Communiqué following, the attacks the audience at the Bataclan was described as ‘idolaters’ involved in a ‘celebration of perversity’ and ‘orgy of prostitution’.[17] Idolatry, in doctrinal Islam, is considered a grave sin reparable only by capital punishment, because it invites the association of other divinities with Allah, the One and the Only. Similarly spectacular images, framed in moralistic rhetoric, were disseminated in the spring of 2015, showing Syrians being beheaded or thrown from high buildings in Raqqa and Homs due to their homosexuality. These videos were considered educational and a testimony to the caliphate’s high morals.

In a comment made concerning the French terrorist attacks in January 2015, Zizek (2015) poses a provocative question: ‘How fragile the belief of a Muslim must be if he or she feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a low-circulation Danish or French newspaper?’ In a classical psychoanalytic move, he proposes an interesting explanation: the terrorists are simultaneously troubled, intrigued and fascinated by the corrupt life of the nonbelievers; the fight against the morally degenerate life of the other is a fight against terrorists’ own temptation. Zizek claims that the Islamists behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks – and generally the violence associated with the Islamic State – is pseudo-fundamentalist inasmuch as it reveals the fighters as weak, hypersensitive and inauthentic in their convictions: if they really had achieved the sublime, divine truth of Islam, would they feel threatened by Western nihilists? In fact, the fundamentalists who attacked Charlie Hebdo and others who passionately invest themselves in discussions around representation of the Prophet Muhammad are not insulted by these images. In the psychoanalytical sense, they tempt them and, simultaneously, expose fundamentalism’s imbrication in the metaphysical logic of the image (even when metaphysical claims against images are brought into reference): the fundamentalists ‘secretly consider themselves inferior… The problem is not cultural difference (Islamists’ efforts to preserve their identity), but the opposite fact that they are already like us, that, secretly, they have already internalised our standards and measure themselves by them’ (Zizek, 2015).

Cartoons of the Prophet, similarly to other visualisation forms of sacred Islamic figures, long pre-date the Jyllands Posten controversy and the Charlie Hebdo massacre (Natif 2011). To state the obvious, a picture of the Prophet is not the Prophet;[18] anyone incapable of making the distinction is somehow stuck in the logic of idolatry, though here enacted against the unrepresentability of a figure of worship, therefore preventing the picture from occupying the realm of art or satire.[19] There is a kind of paradox here with regard to the idolaters–iconoclasts enmity: precisely because the Prophet Muhammad is seen exclusively through the prism of worship, in the mind of the iconoclast, he is turned into an object of adoration; in effect, an idol, i.e. something visible even if it is not represented.[20] The passion invested by iconoclasts in the destruction of images seen as idols is, paradoxically, motivated by an equally intense idolatrous desire for whatever object, person or symbol they consider unrepresentable. Therefore, it is not the idol itself but idolatry – the intense, passionate practice of worship, protection and destruction in the name of something deemed sacred and (un)representable in the eyes of ‘the faithful’ or ‘the faithless’ (none of whom would, in fact, identify their passion for an image or rage against it as idolatrous) – which feeds the antipathy towards the idol. Hence, the incredible violence of what Bruno Latour (2002) calls iconoclash: namely, the relentless image wars in the public sphere, simultaneously destructive and constructive, accelerated by the flows of digital hypermodernity and technologies, yet invigorated by atavistic desires.

The psychoanalytical reading of iconoclasm invites a curious speculation: perhaps the suicidal desire for return to the primordial, original, past – the Islamic State’s phantasy of the pure caliphate – signals the search for an origin whose very limit is death. Fethi Benslama’s inimitable analysis is helpful here:

The torment of origin is a symptom of the undoing of the traditional solidarity between truth and law (haqiqa and sharia), leaving the subject with an excess of the real and jouissance, which horrifies him because he cannot find anything within his imaginary universe and antique symbolism to block its release. The appeal to origin reflects the hope of restoring the shield of religious illusion. (Benslama 2012)

In psychoanalysis, particularly in its Lacanian version, the path of desire is always oriented towards the search for a fictional origin; the repetitive failure to resuscitate this lost origin is a symptom of a foundational conflict, which resides at the heart of the subject’s unconscious: namely, in the words of Nathan Gorelick (2009: 192), ‘its obstinate resistance to the logic of the signifier – in its refusal, that is, to reveal itself under the harsh light of reason or within the field of the representable’ (my emphasis). Elsewhere, I have written about the psychoanalysis of Islam project, primarily Fethi Benslama’s diagnosis of Islamism as false re-articulation of the original myth of Islam.[21] Following Benslama, what I wish to propose here is that the intense iconoclastic violence of the Islamic State is a symptom of deeper and broader cultural anxiety vis-à-vis the foreclosed, unpronounced and unpronounceable elements of Islam: elements that purportedly exist outside the representational field, but determine the symbolic order of modern-day Islamism. On the one hand, this concerns how suicidal Islamism positions itself within a globalised economy of surplus jouissance. On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, attention to the unrepresentable yet foundational truths of Islam is not only helpful in terms of understanding, and therefore managing, violence but also instrumental in imagining non-identitarian, non-suicidal forms of (self)-understanding of Islam. Certainly, the psychoanalysis of Islam project in no way advocates tailoring religious identities and discourses to fit the no-less-violent accomodationist paradigms of Euro-American modernity.[22] Rather, this project – also part of a larger body of scholarship that I call ‘critical Islam’, a cluster of heterogeneous discourses foundational to the concept and praxis of a Western-Islamic public sphere – is characterised by a rejection or re-contextualisation of any master-signifier or narrative which claims absolute, unquestionable and eternal possession of the originary truth of human beings. Psychoanalysis is a field engaged with the logic of the unconscious and, perhaps, this is the only space in which Islam (or any other universal discourse) can be forced to encounter its internal contradictions in the form of challenge, resistance, rebellion or refusal – that is encoded even at the level of the word Islam, open to infinite polysemy, endlessly oscillating between the registers of submission, peace and salvation.

For the Islamist mind, of course, Islam is the semiotic and discursive terrain – the master signifier – that determines the image after which the self-representation of the believer is modelled. Since the function of the master-signifier is to ontologically ground the community (in narratives, symbols and practices of belonging), it is also the most powerful generator of identity myths, i.e. ‘images of the self’. Certainly, any human civilisation is predicated on various kinds of submissions: modern men submit to the order of law, citizens submit to the symbols of the nation-state, etc. The psychic life of the ordinary neurotic is profoundly conditioned by submission to a certain type of order. However, the mode of submission that Islamism activates requires total, literal submission to God. We should not forget that religion is the only master-signifier that gives future to death, in a way that other master-signifiers cannot. One can, perhaps, make the historical argument that, from the First World War onward, the Christian martyr has been militarised and appropriated by nationalism where he becomes a fighter, a soldier who, in dying, obtains the exceptional status of the hero of the fatherland.[23] This is the case in Islam, too, with the peculiarity that the martyr remains alive, a sort of undead; in short, a supernatural being. In the 1970s, the suicide bombings of Hezbollah Islamism opened the imaginary of the auto-sacrifice: fighting in the name of the master-signifier is not enough; dying by fighting is required. Death becomes the matrix for an exceptional human who will be born in the other world. Yet total Islam, understood as an imaginary hegemonic structure of submission, theologically recognising only the history of Islamic Revelation and its accomplishment, also begs the question of how this phantasy acts to obliterate all other alternatives for (self)-representation. Slaughtering non-believers, sinners and apostates in a way similar to killing virtual avatars on a PlayStation device; conflating the virtual jihad with the real search for a universal Ummah without geographical borders; uploading images and videos online to intimidate the enemy or impress potential sympathisers, etc.: all are ways of linking – in an infrastructural, literal bond – the lands of Islam with the Euro-American suburbs. However, the historical rise of the Super-Muslim – the term coined by Fethi Benslama (2016)[24] – as the present-day’s most ostentatious performer of the Muslim faith and as the pathology of literalist Islam – saturated by jihadi violence, obsessed by guilt and sacrifice – is what really poses a threat to the (self)-image of Muslims and the Islamic civilisation.

III. The Super-Muslim and the Image Economy

The psychic life of the Super-Muslim is marked by what Benslama calls identity-justice, which, first, appeals particularly to young people (due to the fragility of narcissistically defined maturing patterns in adolescents) and, second, is historically grounded in the perception of ‘the wounded Islamic ideal’[25]. The latter recalls the humiliations suffered by the Muslim community since it lost politico-theological sovereignty with the abolition of the Caliphate and the demise, in 1924, of the last Muslim (Ottoman) empire, driven by the European colonial powers. Moreover, while the Enlightenment entered the lands of Islam with gunboats, the Muslim elites, in their zealous quest for political emancipation, contributed to the radical deepening of the gap between themselves and the partisans of the prophetic tradition. It is no coincidence, Benslama reminds us, that the first Islamist organisation – the Muslim Brotherhood, whose motto, even today, is ‘Islam is a solution to all problems’ – was founded in 1928 in response to the traumatic events of that era. Meanwhile, the wars in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq embody some of the more recent wounds of the Muslim world, nourishing the self-perception that Islam is the religion of the oppressed. In that sense, the spectacular images of destruction, decapitations, and massacres of all kinds – including dead and tortured children – are all used to propagandistically promote repairing the wrongs inflicted on the Muslim Ummah. Perhaps this desire to fight against injustice, to belong to a project in a world where idealism is defeated on all grounds, – the future is no longer a linear progression and it does not hold any promises, to reference Harry Harootunian’s reflection on world history, – is what motivates many young non-Muslims to convert to Islam and become jihadi fighters. Among those whose lives are trapped in the perpetual present, those Pierre Bourdieu called ‘people without future’ Harootunian (2007: 490), the past becomes an inspiration for redressing the catastrophes of an endless present, even in rich Western societies.[26] In that scheme, eschatological Islam fills the need for enchantment and idealisation for those young people who need to belong but have no other place of belonging. We should not forget that the spectacular images of young people self-immolating is what triggered the Arab Spring in early 2011: the most radical and comprehensive resistance to power, provoked by despair, in the modern histories of the Middle East.

Yet a particular type of psychic life, which cannot be explained only through socio-economic reasoning, or historical or theological references, characterises the Super-Muslim. It encompasses all of these domains simultaneously, adding a peculiar type of projection: the wrongs inflicted on the Muslim community haunt the individual subject – literally the wounded ideal entirely devours the subject – then the subject dies and its place is taken by the phantasy of the avenger of the wounded ideal, promised an Edenic future life. In the cases of Merah, the Kouachi brothers, Koulibaly, and the radicals responsible for the November 2015 Paris massacre in France, and the likes of Salman Abedi and Mohammad Sidique Khan, responsible for the terror attacks in Britain in May 2017, we can observe angry young people, afflicted by deficient self-image, projecting themselves into a singular phantasmic, collective ideal of Islam, whose fulfilment can come only through death.[27] The Super-Muslim, in that sense, is not just a Muslim but someone who aspires to superior, superhuman religious power. The Super-Muslim has to constantly show – literally make visible – his fidelity, his devotion, which also means that, unconsciously, this is someone who is profoundly insecure in his faith, i.e. someone who unconsciously perceives, deep inside themselves, the threat of infidelity. Precisely for this reason, it is no longer enough to simply be a Muslim: this must be shown every step of the way. Soldiers chanting Allahu Akbar and dying with blood on their foreheads, public prayers, persistent pressure to erect minarets everywhere, Islamic dress, ostentatious observance of Islamic rituals: all are meant to attest visually continuous nearness to Allah and His truth. The Super-Muslim is hubristically engaged in taking pride in Islam, of being God’s speaker; yet this behaviour, of course, stands in direct opposition to humility, which, etymologically, is one signification of the word ‘Muslim’ and, in the context of Islamic tradition, is also one of classical Islam’s ethical cores. There is a perverse moment in the process of submission exhibited by the suicidal soldiers of Allah: instead of humbling themselves before God (i.e. submitting to God), they submit God to their own phantasy of divine arrogance and power. As Benslama (2016: 94) explains:

The Super-Muslim seeks the pleasure of a mystical union with God, while the ordinary Muslim claims to be interchangeable with his Creator, to the point of being able to act in his name, to become His voice and His hands. This is not the mystical union with God, impermanent and completely untainted by arrogance, as in Sufism. Whereas the Muslim seeks God, the Super-Muslim believes that God has found him.

Islamism, therefore, perceives itself as a mighty and potent defence of Islam to the point that it desires to become Islam; yet this intense idolatrous passion to defend is autoimmune in the sense that it ultimately destroys what it aims to preserve. The Super-Muslim recognises as his enemy anyone who questions the Caliphate and desires to be a citizen of a nation state; anyone who denies total submission, politically, spiritually and religiously, must be annihilated; most of all, perhaps, the one who most deserves annihilation in the world of the Super-Muslim is the westernised Muslim who is considered an apostate or a fake Muslim, ultimately submissive to forces outside the identity-myth of Islamism.

IV. The Islamic Bildverbot: Normative Restraints

Islamic iconoclasm stems from prohibitions of graven images found in the sound hadiths collections of the two most authoritative narrators in the Sunni tradition, al-Bukhari (810–870 CE) and Muslim (821– 875 CE), as well as in some, selectively interpreted, Quranic references, such as Ibrahim’s demolishing of the idols worshipped by his people, and the smashing of Kaaba’s idols by the Prophet Muhammad after the Muslim conquest of Mecca in 630 CE. In Muslim, we read: ‘The most grievously tormented people amongst the denizens of Hell on the Day of Resurrection will be the makers of images (al-muṣawwirūn)’; in Al-Bukhari, we read ‘He who makes the image (ṣawwara șūratan)[28] will be punished by God on the Day of Resurrection until he breathes life into it – which he will not be able to do’.[29] Various narrations of the same prohibitions also exist in the Shia tradition told by the first Imam Ali bin Abi Talib and, later, by Imam Jafar al-Saadiq.[30] In the Qur’an, there is one occasion when God empowers the Prophet Isa to pass the impossible test that awaits all image-makers on Judgment Day: ‘O! Isa, son of Maryam… when you fashion from clay the form of a bird, by My leave, and you blow into it – it becomes, by My leave, a bird!’[31] Beyond this, Islamic legal discourse, normatively informed by the hadiths and the Qur’an, is overwhelmingly hostile towards images (the word in Arabic is ṣūrah, and its semantics encompass animate, inanimate and multi-dimensional figures created for whatever purposes) and figural representations. Without venturing into subtleties here (as details around the legal discourse on Islamic iconoclasm exceed the scope of this paper) I will just mention that, from a historical perspective, despite the straightforward pronouncements, there is room for broad legal discussions on the matters of representation and figuration, before even considering the numerous variations and contradictions in the orthodoxies and orthopraxies of Muslims of the Balkans-to-Bengal complex.[32] While the Islamic State’s theological figures obviously adhere to literalist readings of the Islamic normative corpora, particularly with prominent references to Muslim, Al-Bukhari and Ibn Taymiyya’s radical rejection of intercession, material mediation, shrine visitation, etc., representation as a contested issue in Islam nonetheless covers such details as the nature of the statuary, its social and historical context and related social practices related.[33] However, a few normative flash points merit consideration before my final reflection on the juncture of violence and the iconoclastic imperative (as revealed by militant Islamism and the likes of the Islamic State).

Strictu sensu, the prohibition of images in Islam normatively refers to the unrepresentability of God; in that way, it is, of course, genealogically linked to the Decalogue or, more precisely, to the Abrahamic monotheism that Islam reaffirms. The description provided by Burckhardt (1970, p. 1) seems illuminating here:

… in its last as in its first manifestation, this monotheism is directly opposed to idolatrous polytheism; the plastic image of the Divinity—according to a ‘dialectic’ both historical and divine—is seen as the mark of the error of ‘associating’ (shirk) the relative with the absolute, or the created with the uncreated, the latter, in each case, being reduced to the former.

The rejection of idols, therefore, comes as a pragmatic translation of the most important testimony in Islam: the assertion that there is no other god but God. As this assertion devours all significations in the textual-restrictivist and legal-supremacist universe of Islam, the smashing of idols extends in multiple directions: the portrayal of divine envoys (rusul), prophets (anbiyā’) and saints (awliyā’) is restricted, first, because they may become objects of idolatry, and, second, due to the assumption that, as delegates of God on earth, they are unique and inimitable. Even though it is through these divine agencies that the theomorphic nature of human beings becomes visible, theomorphism is nonetheless understood as a supreme divine secret, unknowable to and ungraspable for the human mind. Therefore, any inclination to represent man as the man-god is unthinkable error; ultimately, an idol that needs to be smashed. Precisely because, in the theological-legal-liturgical framework of Islam, aniconism coincides, to a certain extent, with the sacred, it also contains in itself the magnificent utopia of the Islamic heteronomous world: a world that is elsewhere, in an unreachable, ungraspable, impossible to represent Eden, i.e. a world beyond.

V. Conclusion: idols and unrepresentability, or how the theological imperative becomes a social command

Certainly, the destruction of the idols is driven, on the one hand, by anxiety that the idol resembles something neither true nor false and, as such, it represents a mystery, that competes with, and ultimately questions, the divine mystery. On the other hand, the idol’s workings reveal deeper and more frightening dialectics: the idol is expected to provide a real service to the idolater, and if it fails, it can be replaced by a new, perhaps mightier deity to whom the idolater may turn. Precisely for this reason, the figure of the idolater, as much as the idol itself, terrifies ‘the living idols of power who dread the death of their annihilation’ (Mondzain, 2005, p. 182). Those idols of power, of course, could be kings and emperors, caliphs, imams and popes, nation states and totalitarian leaders, whose innumerable historical self-occultations have brought the worst excesses of violence. Is it, then, possible to speculate that the One and Only God – the one who detests idols and idolaters –demands their destruction because He apprehends that they signify God’s death or the limit of His power? The very fact that the idols could be smashed – and what is God if not the most magnificent object of adoration and passion, and most ominous idol of all idols – exposes them as fragile and intrinsically linked to death. Large swaths of Hebraic, Christian and Quranic thought, of course, cannot tolerate this condition: there should be no images of God if there cannot be indestructible images of God. In part, the aniconic revolution of Islam consists in substituting the Christian icons (also generators of centuries-long disputes among iconophiles and iconoclasts) with words, inasmuch one finds Quranic inscription decorating the walls of mosques, rather than figurative ornaments.

Yet one of the biggest lessons of the iconoclastic imperative is that idolatry is not confined only to images, i.e. to the domain of the strictly figurative, as long as what matters is the power of the image as signification (visual representation, though important, is secondary).[34] The image as signification, which also encompasses the realm of the sayable and the abysmal terrain of the psyche (let us not forget that in the Hebraic tradition, God’s name is unpronounceable and, in Islam, God has ninety-nine names, yet remains unknowable and unrepresentable, etc.) is what propels the dialectics of idolatry and iconoclasm. In April 2015, reports from the Islamic State revealed that Quranic inscriptions painted or carved on the walls of mosques in Mosul were removed because they were considered idols. Even Quranic passages (the quintessential divine word) could, thus, be considered idols if their ostentatiousness is interpreted as distracting to the worshipper’s prayer (Flood 2016: 119). The passionate, intense and embodied adoration of God, this idolatrous bowing before His omnipotence and power, is what must be reaffirmed incessantly in the worshipper’s mind. What ultimately animates the worshipper’s idolatrous metaphysical passion is the profound anxiety that, like every other idol, the idol of the One and Only can also be destroyed. The more zealous the adoration of the worshipped divinity, the more profound the anxiety about that divinity’s futility. This is precisely the root of violence and, in that respect, Islamic aniconism’s privilege of the word over the image is only significant regarding the trajectories of Islamic materiality. The real challenge, though, is to recognise manifestations of the iconoclastic imperative’s internal self-destructive conflict in all historical instances and in all media, including today’s, and to see how this conflict plays into the hands of agents who execute the imperative. In its denial of the visible, the sensible, and the representable, iconoclasm aggressively desires to shape the world, to force it to submit to the phantasy of an invisible and unrepresentable God. This phantasy, of course, is as powerful and abundant in historical agency as any other phantasy that insists on representation. Enchantment exists in both visual and non-visual forms. The point, however, is that whatever authority or institution insists on only one way of representing, and, therefore, seeing and being in, the world, holy terror is inevitable, as Rancière (2007: 138) reminds us in The Future of the Image:

In order to assert an unrepresentability in art that is commensurate with the unthinkability of the event, the latter must itself have been rendered entirely thinkable, entirely necessary according to thought. The logic of the unrepresentable can only be sustained by a hyperbole that ends up destroying it.

The reason for this paradoxical condition of iconoclasm, of course, is that whatever the theological or philosophical limit to representing the world may be, the idol’s real challenge to this imperative is its historicity and infinite historical metamorphosis: idols can be smashed, tuned, prohibited, or worshipped, but ever since humanity’s beginning, their destruction has always driven their infernal recurrence in new shapes, forms, and words, thereby animating feats of sublime beauty and excesses of extraordinary terror and hatred.




[1] It is commonly agreed among experts in Salafism that the Islamic State’s reference to legal scriptures is flexible and eclectic. While, in theological matters, the Islamic State’s scholars and spokesmen perceive themselves as preservers and continuers of the Salafi-Wahhabi tradition in Sunni Islam, their legal methodology is Salafi in the sense that it does not belong to any of the four theological schools in Sunni Islam, and it commands direct engagement with the Qur’an and the hadith traditions. For more on the topic, see: Bunzel (2015). See also: McCants (2015).

[2] The 38 speeches of Abū ‘Umar al-Baghdādī and Abū Hamza al-Muhājir, which run for 17 hours and amount to more than 200 pages in print, are available in: Al-Majmū‘ li-qādat Dawlat al-‘Irāq al-Islāmiyya, Nukhbat al-I‘lām al-Jihādī, 2010,

[3] A quick note on the complex media infrastructure of the Islamic State. There are at least three major media organisations which produce, disseminate and monitor jihadi propaganda: Al-Hayat (based in Syria), Al-Furqan (based in Iraq) and Al-Itisam (based in Syria). These media companies employ professional journalists, photographers, filmmakers and editors using cutting-edge technology and impressive, even compared to Hollywood, cinematography. For details, see: Akil (2016: 295-404).

[4] For a comment on the precise logistics of dissemination, see Atwan (2015: 15-16).

[5] More detailed discussion of the Islamic version of aniconism follows later in the text. For a complex and detailed discussion of Islamic aniconism going beyond the prescriptions of Muslim and Bukhari, and involving the literary and artistic tradition of Islam, see Ahmed (2016, particularly pages 46–57).

[6] The phrase ‘auto-hetero-putting to death’ belongs to Fethi Benslama. He coined it to signify the crossings between theological sanction of suicide bombings and other identitarian myths, including generational, of belonging in Islam. See: Benslama (2009: 14).

[8] To view the clip described here, see: Wyke (2015). More videos featuring children as jihadi killers can be found in the archive of the Daily Mail; some are also available on YouTube.

[9] For further details, see: Baleo (2015).

[10] This observation is currently as popular in the press as in academic scholarship on the Islamic State. See: Russo (2017). Among the many journalistic accounts of the links between popular culture and the Islamic State, the one cited below stands out by distinguishing between the propaganda machine of Al-Qaeda (focused on lecturing and exaltations of its leaders) and the propaganda of the Islamic State (which is cinematic and focused on the millennial jihadi fighter): Miller and Mekhennet (2015).

[11] In a message to the Mujahidin and the Muslim Community in the month of Ramadan, 2014, Al-Baghdadi outlines the Caliphate’s cosmic mission: ‘O Muslims in all places, rejoice, take heart, and hold your heads high! For today you have, by God’s bounty, a state and caliphate that will renew your dignity and strength, that will recover your rights and your sovereignty: a state joining in brotherhood non-Arab and Arab, white and black, easterner and westerner; a caliphate joining together the Caucasian, Indian, and Chinese, the Syrian, Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, and North African, the American, Frenchman, German, and Australian. God has brought their hearts together, and they have become, by God’s grace, brothers loving together in God, standing in one trench, defending one another... Their blood has mixed under one banner and for one purpose...’ See: al-Baghdādī (2014).

[12] Brilliant analysis of Bildverbot (the graven images) and their relationship to sociological analysis and Christian theology can be found in: Gourgouris (2013).

[13] Analysis in this direction can be found in: Harmanṣah (2015).

[14] For details on the sociological profiles of millennial terrorists, see: Roy (2017), which contains an except from Roy’s (2017) Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of the Islamic State. Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd.

[15] Excerpts from the original clip (removed by ISIS one day after its uploading to YouTube) can be found in the archives of most major TV and broadcast networks in Europe and US: for example, see:

[16] For details on the monuments that have been destroyed, see: Harmanṣah (2015: 172–173).

[17] For details and translations from the original Arabic transcripts, see: Kepel (2017: xvii).

[18] For a fabulous commentary on this aspect of representation, see the recent interview with Fethi Benslama: Dutent (2015).

[19] I should mention, in passing, that similar reactions to irreverent representations also exist in the Christian context, for instance in response to Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph Piss Christ, which exhibits a small plastic crucifix submerged in urine, and Maurizio Cattelan’s 1999 installation La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour), portraying Pope John Paul II, in full regalia, lying on the ground, stricken by meteorite, while the artwork’s title obviously ridicules Christ’s death on the cross. In both cases, there have been countless attempts by offended worshippers to vandalize these artefacts and the spaces exhibiting them.

[20] For a fascinating discussion focused precisely on the co-constitutive dialects of idolatry and iconoclasm, see: Gourgouris (2013: 151).

[21] One such discourse positioned beyond the thinkable, sayable and representable, for example, concerns the function of the father in Islam. See: Mincheva (2016).

[22] This critique has been levelled against Benslama and Chebel, the two most prominent figures in the field, unless one reads as superficial, or representational, their psychoanalytical projects. See: Mura (2014).

[23] The process of the state becoming the laicized Corpus Christi is precisely that described in: Kantorowitz (2016) (first published in 1957; earlier republished in 1981, 1997 and 1998).

[24] An impressive psychoanalytical study of jihadism, which deserves an essay of its own and should be read in conjunction with Benslama (2014). Both studies cement psychoanalysis as a potent culturological entrance to the subtleties of the Islamic unconscious, which, as psychoanalysis teaches us, is always inevitably linked to the permutations and anxieties of the civilizational superego of Islam.

[25] The expression in French is ‘la blessure de l’idéal islamique’. See: Benslama (2014: 11–28).

[26] There is an infinite body of scholarly literature critical of neoliberal globalisation and anxious about the technisation and computerisation of the Western world, expected to leave a large number of young people, both skilled and unskilled, unemployed in the near future. See: Livingston (2016). In the sociology of Islam, Olivier Roy is the scholar currently most sensitive to socio-economic analysis of Islamism. In addition to his most recent book, referenced earlier, see: Roy (2015).

[27] An instructive visualisation of the Super-Muslim can be found in Jamie Roberts’s 2016 television documentary, The Jihadis Next Door,

[28] ‘Inna min ashadd al-nās ‘adhāban ‘inda Allāh yawna al-qiyāmah al-muṣawwirūn’: Wensinck et al. (1955).

[29] ‘Man ṣawwara șūratan fa-inna Allah mu’adhibu-hu hattā yunfikha fī-hā al-rūh wa laysa bi-nāfik fī-hā.’ These two hadiths appear in multiple versions across various collections of sound hadiths. The phrasing cited here is from Wensinck et al. (1955/ 3:437).

[30] For references to these, see: Ahmed (2016).

[31]Ya, ‘Īsā ibn Maryam …ni‘mat-ī… ‘alayka… bi-rūh al-qudusi… idh takhluqu min al-tīni ka-hay’ati al-ṭayri bi-idhn-ī fa-tanfukhu fī-hā fa-takūnu ṭīran bi-idhin-ī’, Qu’rān 5:110 al-Mā’idah.

[32] The term ‘Balkans-to-Bengal complex’ was coined by Shahab Ahmed to describe the vast and diverse majority of Muslim societies that stretched from South-eastern Europe and Central Asia into North India in the period between the fifteenth and late nineteenth centuries. In their multiplicity and heterodoxies, metaphorically perhaps best captured in Hafiz’s Divan, these societies exhibit rationalism, experimental mysticism, celebration of figural representations, literary symbolism, distinctions between private and public, and forms of normativity contesting legal dogmatism. In short, the Balkans-to-Bengal complex reveals Islam as a human fact. See: ‘Part One. Questions’ in Ahmed (2016, 3–112).

[33] For details concerning the legal discourse on iconoclasm, see: Flood (2002). Further, with reference to the Islamic State, see: Flood (2016).

[34] ‘…[I]t is image as signification (not representation) that animates idolatry.’ In reading Cornelius Castoriadis, Gourgouris magnificently navigates the theological and pragmatic shenanigans of iconoclasm. See: Gourgouris (2013: 152).





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About the author

Dr. Dilyana Mincheva, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada.