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Does the Koran really promise Islamic martyrs 72 virgins?

December 14, 2001

Dear Cecil:

There's been a lot of talk about how the hijackers who destroyed the World Trade Center expected to receive 72 virgins (or 70 or 50, depending on whom you listen to) in paradise. Is this really true? (That they expected this, I mean, not that they'll receive it.) It seems a rather unsophisticated and juvenile theology: "In heaven you can eat all the ice cream you want and stay up past ten o'clock and it's always recess." Is there any Koranic basis for believing that those who kill and die for the faith will get the aforementioned virgins?

Cecil replies:

I realize I'm treading on dangerous ground here. But I figure, Salman Rushdie got a fatwa, and I want one too.

A couple observations. First, nonfundamentalist Muslims don't take the cosmological parts of the Koran any more literally than nonfundamentalist Christians take the biblical story of Genesis. They understand the bits about virgins and so on as metaphors for the ineffable joys of the afterlife. Second, while dreams of celestial babes may motivate the impoverished Palestinian kids who blow themselves up on Israeli street corners, a number of the 9-11 terrorists were older and had known something of earthly delights. That these middle-class types nonetheless were suicidal fanatics is yet another indication that we've entered a scary new phase.

Now to your question. The difficulty in determining what the Koran has to say about virgins and such is establishing what the Koran says, period. Translators vary widely in their rendering of the spare and often opaque text. For example, we find the following passage in a Web-based version of Islam's holy book (http://www.answering-islam.org/Quran/Versions/078.033.html): "Verily, for the Muttaqun [righteous], there will be a success (paradise); gardens and grapeyards; and young full-breasted (mature) maidens of equal age; and a full cup (of wine)" (An-Naba 78:31-34). Whoa, one thinks — the Kingdom of Heaven meets the Playboy Advisor! However, most other English translations, both on-line and in print, replace "full-breasted maidens" with some tame construction such as "companions." Inquiring further, we find that the Arabic word at issue is WakawaAAiba, which appears nowhere else in the Koran. The French, less prudish in these matters, usually render it as something like des belles aux seins arrondis, "beautiful women with round breasts," so I think it's pretty clear what the Prophet, or at least his stenographers, had in mind.

Nothing in the Koran specifically states that the faithful are allotted 72 virgins apiece. For this elaboration we turn to the hadith, traditional sayings traced with varying degrees of credibility to Muhammad. Hadith number 2,562 in the collection known as the Sunan al-Tirmidhi says, "The least [reward] for the people of Heaven is 80,000 servants and 72 wives, over which stands a dome of pearls, aquamarine and ruby."

A little hype from the marketing department, you may say. Fine. Let's return to the Koran, Islam's font of religious authority. Even if we leave out the racy detail and make allowances for metaphor, we're obliged to admit that Islamic heaven is a pretty rockin' place, with an emphasis on sensual pleasures. The provision of virgins in indeterminate quantities is alluded to at numerous points, and you know they're not just there to fluff the pillows. (In fairness to the Prophet, the physical quality usually attributed to the houris, as they're called, is "wide lovely eyes.") The food, service, ambience, etc, are great. You're allowed to enjoy things the Koran explicitly denies you on earth, such as alcohol, and you won't even get sick. ("Wine … delicious to those who drink it … will neither dull their senses nor they will become drunk.") Granted, the whole thing is skewed toward the male idea of a good time, a defect by no means confined to Islam. Were Muhammad to found a religion today, I'm confident that each female arrival in heaven would be assigned a comely stud who would provide fabulous sex and in addition hang the curtain rods the first time he was asked. Granted, also, the emphasis on virgins is a little weird. (Think back on the first nights you've been party to. Was this your idea of great sex?) Still, you have to admit, heaven as Party Central sure beats the Christian idea of angels with harps.

Does this make Islamic cosmology "unsophisticated and juvenile"? Maybe. (Oh, let's not be lame about this. Of course it does.) But don't be too quick to judge. Christianity, after all, invented the idea of paradise in the first place. Looking at things from the point of view of a cynical materialist, which is the more outrageous proposition — luring the proles with the promise of eternal life, or throwing 72 virgins into the bargain?

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