A female suicide bomber detonated a vest filled with explosives at a university in Baghdad Sunday, killing more than 40 people. If male martyrs can expect to find 72 virgin maidens in paradise when they die, what rewards can female suicide bombers expect?
Their husbands. The Quran itself describes little about the specifics of the afterlife, but it does note that believers will find huris, or maidens “of modest gaze, whom neither man nor jinni will have touched before them.” (Every believer can end up in heaven; martyrs just get there faster.) Respected commentator Al-Tirmidhi said in a hadith that every man will have six dozen huris in heaven, but very few commentators enumerated the rewards for women. Ninth-century scholar Al-Tabarani did argue that women will be reunited with their husbands in the next world, and those who had multiple husbands can pick the best one to be their eternal spouse. (Other commentators added that a woman who never married can marry any man she wants in paradise.)
From the 9th through the 12th centuries, Muslim scholars described paradise as a place of sensual delights—for men. They debated whether men remained married to their wives in heaven, whether they could have sex with the virgins, and whether the heavenly virgins had anuses. (Some said there was no need for elimination in the afterlife.) There was even disagreement on the number of virgins assigned to each man. While Al-Tirmidhi said it was 72, Mulla Ali Qari, an 11th-century imam, counted 70 virgins and two human wives. Imam Al-Bayhaqi was more generous, granting men 500 wives, 4,000 virgins, and 8,000 previously married women. The meaning of the word hur is also open to interpretation, since it reads as “white raisins” when translated as a Syriac rather than Arabic word.
Women may not get these particular perks, but religious commentaries argue that paradise will make them beautiful, happy, and without jealousy. The fact that they fasted and worshipped Allah during their earthly lives will also make them superior to the virgins, who only exist in heaven. Some modern clerics argue that in heaven, husbands never grow bored of their wives, even with so many huris around. That may explain why some would-be female suicide bombers have spoken of becoming “chief of the 72 virgins, the fairest of the fair.”
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Explainer thanks Sherry Lowrance of the University of Georgia and Christoph Reuter of Stern magazine.