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.