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Muslim Views of Heaven
The Qur’an’s heavenly vision focuses on luxury, leisure and sensual pleasures. But the vision is distinctly religious and allows for no perversion whatsoever—at least, not as defined by the Qur’an.
Many non-Muslims picture the qur’anic heaven as an eternal orgy in which the faithful freely engage in all kinds of sexual perversion with full immunity. This libertine version has a long history in the West,[i] and American Christians won’t easily be disabused of it. Not with writers like Sam Shamoun recasting the qur’anic heaven in the most despicable terms possible, as “Allah’s brothel.”[ii] British conservatives won’t likely let go of it either, not with Boris Johnson—then MP, now British prime minister—retelling the same tired orgy story in his 2004 novel Seventy-Two Virgins – A Comedy of Errors.
While the Qur’an does emphasize heaven’s sensual pleasures, those are not the sum total of its pleasures. Because the Qur’an also points to heaven’s spiritual and religious delights. It repeatedly assures believers that heaven will be a place where they will know neither sadness nor fear (Q 2:38, 62, 7:35, 46:13). God is presented as the believers’ host in paradise, with the best of those admitted favored with a vision of him. In qur’anic terms, they’re allowed to glimpse his face (Q 2:272, 13:22, 30:38-39, 56:11, 75:22-23, 83:24, 28). This joy is reserved for only some, however, and it suggests neither the intimacy of personal friendship with God nor of union with God.
Overall, the qur’anic vision of paradise doesn’t emphasize God’s presence to the same degree that it focuses on the believers’ comfort, luxury and sensual pleasure.
For male believers, its sensual pleasure does include fantastic sex. But the heavenly vision is distinctly religious and allows for no sexual perversion whatsoever—at least, not as defined by the Qur’an.
Besides belief in God, Muhammad’s pagan hearers mocked belief in physical resurrection, final judgment and the afterlife. They insisted that this life is all there is. The only immortality they sought was that of earning a level of fame that long outlived them. Hence, the pre-Islamic poets celebrated those Arab heroes who set the standard for over-the-top generosity, bravery in war, and wild revelry in wine, women and song. Muhammad soundly rejected such wild godlessness and immorality. He stressed the reality of God, physical resurrection and final judgment. The Qur’an condemned drunken excess and never once spoke positively of music. But we see traces of the pre-Islamic concept of immortality in heaven’s lavish abundance, including the consorts male believers are given.
The Qur’an basically pictures heaven[iii] in terms of the life of seventh-century Arabia’s wealthiest nobles, men who enjoyed lavish feasts in lush private gardens, in the region’s richest oases.[iv] Being poor, most of Muhammad’s early followers only dreamt of such a life. Hence, this vision of the super-rich lifestyle, taken to the nth degree, had strong appeal to them. The Qur’an describes believers feasting in heaven amidst the richest of fabrics and furnishings, and of rivers flowing with not just fresh water—extremely scarce in the region—but also with milk, honey and wine.
What about the virgins? Being firmly committed to the idea of physical resurrection, the Qur’an pictures believers enjoying consummate physical pleasure. Since we’re sexual beings, God’s provisions include everything believers need to be perfectly happy. For believing males, that includes not just luxurious feasting and rest.
The qur’anic reward also includes the very best sex possible. But due to its strict moral standards for public discourse, the Qur’an only implies the sex, leaving all the details of heaven’s sexual delights to men’s imaginations.
Modernists today extract the Qur’an’s implied allusions to heaven’s sex from their seventh-century Arab context to reinterpret them such that they don’t include sex at all.[v] But for many reasons, the words would have had no other meaning in the context of seventh-century Arabia:
- Any man in Muhammad’s polygynous culture would have expected a life of total abundance to include all the polygynous sex he wanted.[vi]
- The Qur’an gave Arab men no reason to think otherwise, given that it accepted polygynous marriage and that Muhammad himself modeled it.[vii]
- While permitting polygynous sex, the Qur’an simultaneously fostered a culture that, like Britain’s Victorian culture, considered open talk about sex immoral.
- Hence, the Qur’an only implied the sex, since anything more would be considered inappropriate, lacking the dignity and public decorum required of a religious scripture.
- Since sex partners were often part of an Arab victor’s spoils, it was reasonable that the Qur’an would promise sex partners, as part of the Muslim soldier’s heavenly reward.[viii]
This interpretation is supported by all the early commentators, which interpreted the Qur’an’s allusions to heavenly sex to be just that. The hadith were in full agreement too, eagerly elaborating on the details: none questioned that heavenly sex was promised. Even the later Sufis, who sought to spiritualize the Qur’an’s references to heavenly sex, never disputed the fact that it was fantastic sexual unions they were spiritualizing.
The qur’anic paradise can thus be viewed as a religious recasting of the pre-Islamic concept of attaining immortality through superabundant indulgence in luxury and sensual pleasure.[ix]
When the Qur’an promised male believers—not just martyrs—virginally pure, doe-eyed, full-breasted partners (Q 55:22-23, 78:31-34), it was offering them the very best of polygynous sex.[x] It gives no numbers, but it does describe the women and their surroundings. Q 55:72-76, for example, promises men “women (hur) reserved for them in cool pavilions… whom neither men nor demons (jinn) have touched… reclining on green cushions and lovely carpets.”[xi] Hence, the commentator al-Suyuti (d. 1505) expounded that male believers would have virtually non-stop sex in heaven, along with the sexual stamina to engage in it. While that may represent a humorous exaggeration, Suyuti was at least right to understand that, in heaven, the Qur’an promises abundant sexual pleasure with multiple female partners.
To monogamists and most feminists today, that suggests debauchery. But not to polygynists in Muhammad’s society, who allowed men, but not women, to have multiple concurrent sex partners.
The Qur’an modified Arabia’s sexual norms significantly, by forbidding sex outside of its three legal expressions: heterosexual marriage, concubinage and slavery. It also limited the number of wives a man could simultaneously have to just four. But it never repudiated Arabia’s polygyny—that men, but not women, could enjoy multiple sexual partners concurrently. Nor did it limit the number of concubines or slave girls a man could have sex with.
Hence, Suyuti’s interpretation doesn’t license debauchery, qur’anically defined. Viewed as glorified concubines, heaven’s multiple virgin sex partners in no way violate the Qur’an’s patriarchal moral standards. Far from being a brothel or sexual free-for-all, this heaven is a place where all its male residents—not just the wealthy—will enjoy superabundant moral sex with all the women God gives them, in an ideal atmosphere of moral purity, qur’anically understood.[xii]
What about the reward of female believers in paradise? Judging by the fact that it says little about the topic, the Qur’an seems to have little interest in it:
- It makes a few general statements to assure women that, being equally responsible to obey God, they’ll be rewarded along with their men (e.g. Q 4:124, 33:35).
- But it otherwise pictures them only in relation to male believers, who will have their wives and children with them. (Q 36:56).
- It never promises female believers sexual pleasure equivalent to that of their men, nor would any woman in Muhammad’s audience ever have expected such equality.
- Indeed, the idea that women would have multiple heavenly male partners would have been as offensive to Muslims in Muhammad’s day, as today.
- The Qur’an says nothing about how their husbands’ abundant sexual activity will affect their wives.
Maybe we can assume that female believers will be free from insecurity and jealousy in heaven and, so, will delight in their husbands’ abundant sex. But how women will feel about such polygyny seems not to be a qur’anic concern at all.
The view of heaven presented above is that of traditional Islam, both Sunni and Shia. It’s not merely that of “fundamentalist Islam,” a rather slippery term. Rather, it’s held by the vast majority of Muslims worldwide.
As mentioned above, Sufis typically spiritualize—almost Christianize—heaven’s sex.[xiii] Modernists also present a different view of heaven, one that fits with their commitment to monogamy and gender equality.
This discussion raises many questions, all of which must be explored in future articles:
- How do modernists interpret the Qur’an on heaven?
- What does the Qur’an say of hell?
- What must a person do in order to avoid hell’s fires and go to heaven?
- How does the qur’anic vision of heaven and hell compare with that of the Bible?
This article originally appeared on Mark Anderson’s blog Understanding Islam.
[i] Thanks to our penchant for vilifying Islam, the English word “whore” comes from the qur’anic word for heaven’s virgin companions (hur).
[ii] Sam’s article “Have You Been Invited to Allah’s Brothel?” is found on the Answering-Islam blog (accessed April 17, 2019). Media reports since 9/11 of jihadis promising their fighters 72 virgins each if they’re martyred—i.e., killed while fighting for Islam—have also fed this libertine misconception.
[iii] The most frequent qur’anic designations for the eternal home of the blessed are the Garden (al-janna) and paradise (firdaws). With al-janna, the Qur’an has the primordial garden in mind here. That is, God’s chosen people will be restored to the Garden of Eden, which appears to be extraterrestrial. Interpreting these terms in the light of the hadith, most Muslims view them as referring to distinct heavenly locations. I take the terms to be equivalent, however, since I don’t see the Qur’an differentiating between them. Etymologically, firdaws may well have come into the Qur’an via Aramaic or Greek. Because pardaysa—meaning “royal park”—and parádeisos were used respectively in the ancient Aramaic and Greek translations of Genesis 2:8, for the Garden of Eden.
[iv] Q 3:15, 20:76, 44:52, 54:54.
[v] Yusuf Ali takes a modernist approach, asserting that “sex has no place in heaven”; The Holy Qur’an: Translation and Commentary, (n.p.: The Muslim Student’s Association, 1977) 1467, Appendix xii.
[vi] Polygynous sex completes the heavenly reflection of Arabia’s wealthiest men, who were privileged to have abundant sex with their many wives, concubines and slaves.
[vii] The Qur’an allows men to have up to four wives (Q 4:3) simultaneously, although Muhammad had more than four.
[viii] It’s unthinkable that Muhammad’s soldiers would have taken these descriptions allegorically without the Qur’an (or Muhammad) explicitly telling them to do so. And nothing in the early commentaries or the hadith point in that direction.
[ix] Toshihiko Izutsu, Ethico-religious Concepts in the Qur’an (Montreal: McGill University Press, 1966) 45-54.
[x] The hadith, or traditions, reflecting the later Muslim community’s thinking, went on to fantasize the number of virgins assigned to each man—usually put at 72—and to detail their ideal physical attributes.
[xi] See also Q 56:22-24, 35-38; 44:54, 52:20, 55:56. Jinn were believed to have the same sexual drives as humans. So in its typically modest speech, the Qur’an is saying that these girls have had sex with neither men or jinn. For desert dwellers, the coolness of the pavilions alluded to the men’s ability to perform sexually under ideal conditions.
[xii] The Qur’an viewed concubinage as entirely moral and commendable and established a man’s sexual rights over his female slaves (Q 33:50-52, 70:29-30). Likewise, no one in ancient Israel faulted the biblical Solomon for having many wives and concubines (1 Kings 11:1-3).
[xiii] That is, they make it refer to the spiritual union of God with his people, somewhat like that found in the Bible.