Islamophobic Canards

breaking the stereotypes

Category Archives: Violence

Myth: Terrorists Get 72 Virgins in Paradise

One of the more persistent islamophobic canards today is that “Terrorists are promised 72 virgin women when they die.” The “72 virgins” idea is probably the most overblown idea that people seem to remember about Islam. The stereotype has only worsened since 9/11. Islam is a rich religion filled with complex doctrines of monotheism and tolerance, yet it seems the most common question I’m asked about is the virgins. There’s a lot more to Paradise than just sex and physical pleasure, you know.

Before I go describing this in detail, I want to note that I’m taking the issue and the ayat (verses) out of their proper context. One really should read the whole Surah (chapter) to get a better understanding of the religious signifigance. Nearly a third of the Qur’an talks about the life after this one, so while there are Surahs and chapters to describe the hereafter, I’m just discussing a few ayat which talk about the servants; a minor perk in the grand scheme of Paradise. Personally I think the greatest reward is to be in the presence of God Almighty. Plenty of non-Muslims take one of these single verses and generalize that all of heaven is lascivious, but that simply isn’t the case.

To start off, you need to understand what the rewards in Jannah (Paradise) are. The Quran says that those who do get into Paradise will be rewarded with blessings that eclipse anything on earth; unlimited food of your choice, riches, and wishes come true. Things considered sinful on Earth such as wine will be allowed, and people will be able to eat and drink all they want and not get full or hungover or sick. People will be reunited with their friends and relatives, we will all be made young again, and there will be no anger or pain. Everyone will be given palaces to live in, and clothing fit for royalty, with luxurious couches and thrones for everyone. There will be rivers of the purest water, milk, wine, and honey, all of which are better than any you will find on earth. Those who get to the highest part of Paradise, Jannah al-Firdaus, will also be able to see God with their own eyes. So, in a sense, Heaven is a paradise filled with pleasures. Also, one needs to imagine the context of when this idea of Paradise was revealed to the people; of the extremely stark and difficult life of ancient Bedouin Arabia. Something as simple as the constant flow of water in a stream was considered miraculous, so it would be natural to imagine heaven depicted this way, flowing with streams of water under the shade of huge trees. (Well what did you expect Paradise to be? Clouds, wings, and harps?)

Also, the believers who make it into Paradise, male and female, are promised beautiful companions, known as “Houris” in Arabic. The Quran describes them in some detail as such:

“Serving the believers will be immortal youths with jeweled and crystal cups filled with the purest wine which will neither give them headache nor hangover, with fruits and meats of their desire. They will be fair ones with lovely intense eyes like guarded pearls; A reward for the good deeds of their past life.” (56:17-24)

“We have created mates for them and made them virgins, matched in age, for the companions of the right hand.” (56:35-38)

“They will be chaste, restraining their eyes in modesty, never touched by man or Jinn.”(55:56)

“Serving them will be immortal servants. When you see them, they will look like scattered pearls.” (76:19)

The Islamic scholar Yusuf Ali defines the word “Houris” in his english interpretation of Qur’an as “Youths of perpetual freshness.” He also described them in his commentary: “The companionship of Beauty and Grace is one of the highest pleasures of life. In this bodily life it takes bodily form. In the higher life it takes a higher form…The pronoun in Arabic is in the feminine gender. It is made clear that these maidens for heavenly society will be of special creation,-of virginal purity, grace, and beauty, inspiring and inspired by love, with the question of time and age eliminated.”

The Houris are basically creations of God, intelligent yet soulless and created to serve the believer who goes to Paradise. They are created for the purpose of serving the believer, and as such, they dont exactly have free will. They are described as pure, beautiful, lustrous, virgin, and more perfect than any human on earth. Imagine the spouse of your dreams.

Women aren’t left out: A man in paradise will get numerous female servants for himself, while a woman would get male servants. The Quran says that women shall be compensated just as well and says about the believers that “they” (the gender unspecified) shall have perfected mates/spouses as a reward of their deeds (2:25, 3:15, 4:57). So women will get the man of their dreams. Actually, even better than you could dream of.

In Paradise, you can marry them. You can interpret the “mates” as being spouses. Even if you were married on earth, they will be invisible to your spouse. Islam is pretty clear in saying that guiltless sex is a reward in Paradise. Since they are more like spouses, they will probably be given the status of one instead of a servant.

There is no direct evidence in the Qur’an to support there being 70 or 72 for each person. The numerical value of 70 is derived from a Quranic commentary by Quranic scholar Ibn Kathir. The number 72 comes from a hadith that says “The smallest reward each for the people of Heaven is an abode where there are 80,000 servants and 72 wives, over which stands a dome decorated with pearls, aquamarine and ruby, as wide as the distance from Damascus to Yemen.”(source)

Do Muslims believe it literally? Are they required to? This particular Hadith has technical weaknesses in its chain of transmitters and is therefore not considered 100% authenticly faultless, though it is listed in an authoritative collection. As a result, Muslims are not required to believe in it, though many inevitably do (but an even more respectable Hadith with virtually the same message can be found in a separate hadith collection). Most Muslims believe that they will experience incredible physical pleasures when they enter heaven, and that you will be happier in heaven than you could possibly be in this life. Some say that the houris are a metaphor for the ineffable joys of the afterlife. “Ineffable” is the perfect word to describe it, since God promises rewards beyond imagination, meaning you can’t even guess what reward lies ahead since there is no equal on Earth. Ergo, if you can imagine the greatest, richest, best thing in this life, then what will actually be there will be even better.

So, to answer the question “Do terrorists get 72 virgins in Paradise?” The Question is wrong. Anyone who gets into Heaven will get the servants, it’s not specific to martyrs. The more important question is, who is privileged to enter heaven according to Islam? That’s a longer topic for another post. (Hint: Islam is unambiguous on the issue of suicide and hurting innocent people; they’re Completely sinful) In case it’s not clear to anyone, Terrorists who hurt innocent people are sinning, so it’s up to God if they’ll go to Paradise or not. You see, bad deeds aren’t rewarded, only punished.

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Myth: Islam Was Spread by the Sword

There’s a stereotypical image of Islam being spread by an Arab riding in on a camel from the desert with a Quran in one hand and a scimitar (a curved sword) in the other, offering a choice of either accepting Islam or losing one’s head. Many Hollywood movies since the 1940s have created this image in people’s minds, as has European propaganda since before the Middle Ages. Even Popes have brought up such false claims in speeches, only later to retract them. Also, many people falsely assume that this is the primary motivation of any terrorist claiming to be Muslim.

  1. Forcible conversion is prohibited in Islam. The Quran says “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256) and another surah says  “And neither I am going to worship that which you have worshipped, nor will you worship the One whom I worship. For you is your faith, and for me, my faith” (109:4-6).
  2. The religion did not “spread by the sword.” Initially, there were military confrontations between the Muslim state and the existing world powers of Rome and Persia. However, the areas conquered were put under Muslim administration and the populations were free to maintain their own beliefs. Muslims ruled Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon from the 8th century and sizeable Christian communities continued to exist over the past 13 centuries through this day.  Muslims ruled India for 1000 years without the vast majority of  the population converting to Islam (India is 85% Hindu today). For 700 years the Muslims ruled Moorish Spain; they allowed freedom of religion and trade and education. Historians consider the era to be the “Golden Age of Judaism” because Jewish people flourished under that rule while elsewhere throughout Europe they were victims of anti-Semitism. Jewish art and scholarship is said to have peaked in this age. Maimonides, the eminent Talmud scholar, was born and wrote while the Moors ruled. The prosperity ended after the reconquista, when the Spanish Inquisition descended and both Jews and Muslims were persecuted.
  3. The largest Muslim country in the world today is Indonesia, having over 200 million citizens. It never saw a Muslim soldier. Islam spread there and in Malaysia and the Philippines by trade. That was also the case of Islam’s spread in West African countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Chad and Niger. China has double the Muslim population of Saudi Arabia and yet there was no army or invaders that made them convert. Also, Islam is the fastest growing religion in America today with one estimate of anywhere between 300 and 500 converts daily. This is taking place without any soldiers or even missionaries.
  4. Ahmed Rehab, an American Muslim civil rights activist, further debunked the notion in an opinion piece:

    In other words, for a Muslim to be a Muslim, he or she must accept Islam free of force or coercion. God wishes for us to choose him because we want him, and for no other reason but that. This is a key point that is often misunderstood. Since faith is a matter of the heart, it can never be forced. It is technically impossible that Islam could ever be spread by the sword or by coercion, as some suggest, since even if at gun point (or at the sword blade), one could just as well proclaim to be a Muslim to avoid death, but reject Islam in their heart.

    That is not to say that an “empire,” whether Islamic or otherwise, cannot be spread by the sword. But faith cannot. Just as no physical force can coerce you to love someone you do not love, none can coerce you to believe something you do not believe.

    God understands this; in fact, He ordained that it be so. Since He is a judge of hearts first and foremost, it is logically necessary that He makes faith a matter of free choice, a matter of the heart and mind. Islam can only be spread by invitation (Da’wah) and persuasion (Hujjah), not coercion (Ikrah). The Qur’an explicitly states: “La Ikrah fel Deen” or “Let there be no compulsion in matters of faith.” (Ultimately, Muslims believe that faith is decreed by divine guidance.)

  5. Middle East and Islamic history Professor Juan Cole wrote:

    In fact, the Qur’an at no point urges that religious faith be imposed on anyone by force. This is what it says about the religions:

    ‘ [2:62] Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians– any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. ‘

    …In fact, in early Islam it was hard to join, and Christians who asked to become Muslim were routinely turned away. The tyrannical governor of Iraq, al-Hajjaj, was notorious for this rejection of applicants, because he got higher taxes on non-Muslims. Arab Muslims had conquered Iraq, which was then largely pagan, Zoroastrian, Christian and Jewish. But they weren’t seeking converts and certainly weren’t imposing their religion.