Being an ex-Muslim who goes to atheist meet-ups puts me into some very weird situations sometimes. I find myself in one of those in particular far more often than you think.
I have to explain the concept of virgins.
Well, not just any kinds of virgins, but the hour al-ayn, or houris, as the term is sometimes Anglicized. In plainer terms, the houris are the heavenly virgins that Muslim men are supposed to get in Jannah after death.
People seem to think it is incredibly clever to comment on the seventy-two virgins thing to an ex-Muslim. Setting aside the fact that it is just as silly as exclaiming that you like Oprah to anyone who is African-American, most people get it wrong.
Everyone has heard of the infamous “seventy-two virgins” that suicide bombers are promised to get in Jannah by their leaders, but not much more. There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about houris that people use to criticize Islam. There is plenty to criticize about the Islamic heavenly virgins without resorting to cheap shots made in the dark (in fact, it was the Islamic conception of heaven that made me first doubt my faith).
Misconception #5: They’re actually white raisins, not virgins.
This one is has been widely popularized by the less-harsh critics of Islam, notably Irshad Manji. While I respect the work that she does from the inside (reforming Islam is a tough goal), the scholarship that suggests that “virgins” is a mistranslation of “raisins” is shaky at best. Beyond the well-recognized linguistic issues with the raisins idea, there is plenty in both the Quran and Hadith to point to the reward in heaven being women, not dried fruit.
Misconception #4: Having to teach all of those virgins would be tedious.
The virgins in Jannah are supposed to be everything that men desire. Furthermore, the ancient Arabs’ conception of the highest in sexual pleasure is penile-vaginal intercourse with a woman who has never had sex, so the idea was the utmost in sexual pleasure, not tedium.
Misconception #3: They wouldn’t be virgins for very long.
The houris’ virginity is described as eternally renewable, similar to that of Aphrodite in ancient mythology.
Misconception #2: Seventy-two is an arbitrary number.
Seventy-two, in classical Arabic, is a number used for exaggeration. It is similar to saying “If I told you once, I told you a thousand times” in English. No one literally means a thousand times; what is intended is countless times. Taking into account the Arab conception of virgins, seventy-two virgins, then, means more sexual pleasure than could be imagined.
Misconception #1: The virgins are from Earth.
The joke is, of course, that the “virgins” are not nubile women, but the types of people on Earth who tend to, at least stereotypically, stay virgins their whole lives, such as World of Warcraft players (that assumption is a fallacy itself, of course). Where the joke falls flat for those in the know, like me (and, soon, you), is that the houris are not human beings from Earth who died without having had sex, but are supposed to be heavenly maidens especially created to sate the lusts of men as understood by Muhammad.
What the Houris Actually Are in Islam
I once called houris “Allah-created sex-bots” and a friend of mine thought I was exaggerating. I wasn’t. “Booty call robot girls” works, too.
They are, basically, creatures designed for nothing but physical sex appeal: beautiful and lacking in reproductive or digestive systems. Additionally, much of Muhammad’s descriptions of them are incredibly woman-hating, describing a houri as superior to a human woman because the houri does not even have the slightest acquaintance with men other than her husband, does not voice her own opinions, and does nothing but remain sexually available to her husband.
Of course, though some atheists seem to enjoy the idea of a woman who does nothing but cater to sexual needs, the rest of us find the concept, well, rather icky.
Oh, and why did the concept of houris make me doubt my faith? Not only did the idea of heavenly sex-bots awaiting my future Muslim husband trigger my insecurities, I was pissed off that I, as a woman, would not get my own sex-bots.
Have a question about Islam that you would like me to answer? Feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com