November 1, 2001 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 74

'72 Black Eyed Virgins': A Muslim Debate on the Rewards of Martyrs

November 1, 2001 | By Y. Feldner*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 74

Approximately two weeks prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC a disputeemerged between the CBS network and heads of two Islamic organizations in the U.S. regarding the motivation of suicidebombers in Israel. The dispute was forgotten following the attacks, but in their aftermath, another look at it is warranted:

The Translation Dispute
On August 19, 2001, CBS's 60 Minutes aired a report on the Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas. Reporter Bob Simon interviewed Hamas operative Muhammad Abu Wardeh, who recruited terrorists for suicide bombings in Israel. Abu Wardeh's words were translated into English by CBS as follows: "I described to him how God would compensate the martyr for sacrificing his life for his land. If you become a martyr, God will give you 70 virgins, 70 wives and everlasting happiness." [1]

Some Muslim leaders contended that the English translation did not match the Arabic and accused CBS of fabricating the quote. Leaders of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a U.S. organization, wrote to 60 Minutes and demanded a retraction, an apology, and time on the show for Islamic scholars to explain the religion's true teachings regarding violence and martyrdom.[2]

CBS News admitted that the English voiceover did not match the Arabic quote, but played an unaired portion of the interview for a Knight Ridder editor who speaks Arabic and for two native Arabic speakers. After viewing the tapes, Hafez Al-Mirazi Osman, Washington bureau chief of the Al-Jazeera television network, stated that in the portion that did not air the interviewee said: "Paradise has many things. It is said it has everything a man would wish for. It has 72 angels… or wives… It has the eternal blessing that people would receive there…"

CBS translated the Arabic term hur 'ayn[3] as "virgins." According to Osman and the other native Arabic speaker, Dr. Maher Hathout, a scholar at the Islamic Center of Southern California, the Arabic word has no sexual connotation or gender. Hathout said that a more appropriate translation would be "angel" or "heavenly being." CBS said its Arabic expert insisted on CBS's translations.[4]

MPAC's Executive Director in Los Angeles, Salaam Al-Maryati, said, "For Palestinians, this is about fighting aggression and occupation, not about opportunities for sexual fantasies." He added that the issue is important to the estimated 7 to 10 million Muslims who he claims live in the U.S., because it confirms their fears that media organizations are intent on defaming their faith.[5]

In a published report, Hathout added, "There is nothing in the Koran or in Islamic teachings about 70 virgins or sex in Paradise. This is ridiculous, and every true Muslim knows that."[6] According to Hathout, "the worst-case scenario is that there is a deliberate spinning of the news. It is very fashionable now to present the Muslims as particularly susceptible to being crazy or blowing themselves up."[7] The Martyr's Reward in Islamic Tradition Maryati's and Hathout's claims aroused the ire of Sheikh Abd Al-Hadi Palazzi, head of the Cultural Institute of the Italian Islamic Community. Sheikh Palazzi wrote: "The only ridiculous thing is that someone who claims to be an 'Islamic scholar' [i.e. Hathout] makes public statements which prove beyond any possible doubt that he has never read the Tafsir [Koranic commentary] of Ibn Kathir and the Sunan [religious rulings based on the customs of the Prophet] of Imam Al-Tirmidhi, which are basic books for the knowledge of Islam. Unfortunately, this attribution of chairs to ignoramuses seems to be the rule in American Islamic Centers controlled by the fundamentalist network of the Muslim Brotherhood."

According to Islamic tradition, Sheikh Palazzi states there are 72 wives for every believer who is admitted to Paradise, not only for a martyr. The proof is in a Hadith (Islamic tradition) collected by Al-Tirmidhi in the Book of Sunan (volume IV, chapters on "The Features of Paradise as described by the Messenger of Allah," Chapter 21: "About the Smallest Reward for the People of Paradise," Hadith 2687).

Sheikh Palazzi added that it is also quoted by Ibn Kathir in his Tafsir of Surah Al-Rahman (55), verse 72: "It was mentioned by Daraj Ibn Abi Hatim that Abu-al-Haytham Abdullah Ibn Wahb narrated from Abu Sa'id Al-Khudri, who heard the Prophet Muhammad saying: 'The smallest reward for the people of Paradise 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 Al-Jabiyyah [a Damascus suburb] to Sana'a.'" [8]

Sheikh Palazzi cites verse 74 of the same Surah, "[The chastity of the black-eyed] was not violated by man nor jinn" to prove that that they are virgins. In addition, the "black-eyed" are mentioned in three other Surahs in the Koran: Al-Dukhan 54, Al-Tur 20, and Al-Waqi'a 20. Women with "downcast eyes," that is, chaste women, are mentioned in three Surahs: Al-Rahman 56-8, Al-Safat 48, and S, 52.

Al-Azhar University in Egypt, the main authority for Sunni Islamic rulings, also takes "the black-eyed" seriously. Al-Azhar's unofficial website features a religious ruling section, in which the institution's clerics answer questions by readers from all over the world. An Australian Muslim asked the following: "If men [in Paradise] get 'the black-eyed,' what do the women get?"

The answer, provided by the deputy director of Al-Azhar's Center for Islamic Studies, Sheikh Abd Al-Fattah Gam'an, read: "The Koran tells us that in Paradise believers get 'the black-eyed,' as Allah has said, 'And we will marry them to 'the black-eyed.' 'The black-eyed' are white and delicate, and the black of their eyes is blacker than black and the white [of their eyes] is whiter than white. To describe their beauty and their great number, the Koran says that they are 'like sapphire and pearls' (Al-Rahman 58) in their value, in their color, and in their purity. And it is said of them: '[They are] like well-protected pearls' in shells (Al-Waqi'a 23), that is, they are as pure as pearls in oysters and are not perforated, no hands have touched them, no dust or dirt adheres to them, and they are undamaged.'" It is further said: "'They are like well-protected eggs' (Al-Safat 49), that is, their delicacy is as the delicacy of the membrane beneath the shell of an egg. Allah also said: 'The 'black-eyed' are confined to pavilions' (Al-Rahman 70), that is, they are hidden within, saved for their husbands."

"Most of 'the black-eyed' were first created in Paradise, but some of them are women [who came to Paradise] from this world, and are obedient Muslims who observe the words of Allah: 'We created them especially, and have made them virgins, loving, and equal in age.' This means that when the women of this world are old and worn out, Allah creates them [anew] after their old age into virgins who are amiable to their husbands; 'equal in age' means equal to one another in age. At the side of the Muslim in Paradise are his wives from this world, if they are among the dwellers in Paradise, along with 'the black-eyed' of Paradise."

"If a woman is of the dwellers in Paradise but her husband in this world is not of the dwellers in Paradise, as in the case of Asia the wife of Pharaoh, she is given to one of the dwellers in Paradise who is of the same status… Regarding the woman who was married [during her life] to more than one man in this world, and all her husbands are dwellers in Paradise, she may choose among them, and she chooses the best of them. It is said that Umm Salmah asked the Prophet: 'Oh Prophet of Allah, a woman marries one, two, or four husbands in this world and later she dies and enters Paradise, and they enter with her. Which of them will be her husband?' [The Prophet] answered: 'She… chooses the best of them, saying, Oh Allah, this is the best of them that was with me in this world, marry me to him'… Thus it is known that the women of Paradise also have husbands. Every woman has a husband. If her husband in this world is of the dwellers in Paradise [he becomes her husband in Paradise], and if her husband in this world is an infidel, she is given to one of the dwellers in Paradise who is suited to her in status and in the [strength] of his belief."[9]

A Question of Belief
Dr. Hathout described the Koran passages as nothing more than folklore, saying that such descriptions of Paradise aren't meant to be taken literally, just as many Christians do not really believe heaven has "streets paved with gold."[10]

But the question is whether every "true Muslim" knows that "there is nothing in the Koran or in Islamic teachings about 70 virgins or sex in Paradise,"[11] as Dr. Hathout said. Do Muslims living in areas where Jihad has been declared – for example, the West Bank and Gaza Strip – where political correctness is less a factor as it is where Hathout lives, in Southern California, also maintain that "such descriptions of Paradise aren't meant to be taken literally?" Moreover, the more important question is, what do the clerics say?

The death announcements of martyrs in the Palestinian press often take the form of wedding, not funeral, announcements. "Blessings will be accepted immediately after the burial and until 10 p.m. …at the home of the martyr's uncle," read one suicide bomber's death notice.[12] "With great pride, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad marries the member of its military wing… the martyr and hero Yasser Al-Adhami, to 'the black-eyed,'" read another.[13]

Al Risala, the Hamas mouthpiece, published the will of Sa'id Al-Hutari, who carried out the June 1, 2001 suicide bombing outside the disco near the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv that killed 23, mostly teenage girls. "I will turn my body into bombs that will hunt the sons of Zion, blast them, and burn their remains," Al-Hutari wrote. "Call out in joy, oh my mother; distribute sweets, oh my father and brothers; a wedding with 'the black-eyed' awaits your son in Paradise."[14]

The same view is also evident in news reports in the Palestinian press. Thus, for example, the reporter Nufuz Al-Bakri reported the death of Wail 'Awad as follows: "The mother of Wail 'Awad, from Deir El-Balah, did not plan on holding a second wedding for her eldest son, after his marriage on August 10, 2001 to his fiancée in a simple ceremony attended only by the family. But yesterday was Wail's real wedding day, and the angels of the Merciful married him, together with the [other] martyrs, to 'the black-eyed,' as all around [them] rose the cries of joy that his mother dreamed of on the day of his wedding [to his fiancée]."[15]

Hamas official Ashraf Sawaftah told of a ceremony honoring Izz Al-Din Al-Masri, who carried out the suicide bombing of the Sbarro pizzeria in central Jerusalem on August 9, 2001: "His relatives distributed sweets and accepted their son as a bridegroom married to 'the black-eyed,' not as someone who had been killed and was being laid in the ground."[16]

The uncle of Nassim Abu 'Aasi, who died while he was attempting to carry out an attack, said that when the deceased was asked why he was not married, he would always reply, "Why should I relinquish 'the black-eyed' to marry women of clay [i.e. flesh an blood]?"[17]

"This is part of the Islamic belief," Hamas leader Isma'il Abu Shanab once explained to AFP. "Anyone who dies a martyr's death has a reward. If the martyr dreams of 'the black-eyed,' he'll get her."[18]

The Hamas movement educates the children in its schools, beginning in kindergarten, to believe that a martyr is given virgins in Paradise. Jack Kelley of USA Today visited Hamas schools in Gaza City, where he saw an 11-year-old boy speak to his class: "I will make my body a bomb that will blast the flesh of Zionists, the sons of pigs and monkeys… I will tear their bodies into little pieces and will cause them more pain than they will ever know." His classmates shouted in response, "Allah Akhbar," and his teacher shouted, "May the virgins give you pleasure." A 16-year-old Hamas youth leader in a Gaza refugee camp told Kelley, "Most boys can't stop thinking about the virgins."[19]

Along with the media, Palestinian Muslim clerics also help instill this belief. In an interview with the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram Al-Arabi, Palestinian Authority Mufti Sheikh 'Ikrima Sabri was asked what he felt when he prayed for the soul of a martyr. He answered: "I feel that the martyr is lucky, because angels bring him to his wedding in Paradise… I spoke with one young man, who told me: 'I want to marry the black-eyed women in Paradise.' The next day, he died a martyr's death. I am certain that his mother was filled with joy over his heavenly wedding. Such a son is worthy of such a mother.'"[20]

Sheikh Abd Al-Salam Abu Shukheydem, Chief Mufti of the Palestinian Authority police force, mentioned 'the black-eyed' as one of the rewards of martyrs: "From the moment the first drop of his blood is spilled, he does not feel the pain of his wounds and he is forgiven for all his sins; he sees his seat in Paradise; he is saved from the torment of the grave; he is saved from the great horror of Judgment Day; he marries 'the black-eyed'; he vouches for 70 of his family members; he gains the crown of honor, the precious stone of which is better than this entire world and everything in it."[21] In a Friday sermon broadcast on Palestinian television, Sheikh Ismail Al-Radwan declared: "He is given 72 'black-eyed.'"[22]

"The Americans and the eunuchs at their sides [i.e. the rulers of Arab and Islamic countries]… think that if they kill us, they will win," wrote Dr. Yunis Al-Astal, a lecturer in the Islamic Law Department at Gaza Islamic University, "They do not know that with their weapons they only expedite our arrival in Paradise. We yearn to reach Paradise; it is our abode, and in it are 'the black-eyed,' confined to pavilions, and also there are [women] with downcast eyes whose chastity has not been violated before us by either man or jinn. In contrast, the value of this world in which we live, which they [i.e. the Americans and the Arab rulers] think that they have attained, is in our eyes not worth the wing of a mosquito…"[23]

In an interview with the Israeli daily Ha'aretz,[24] Sheikh Raid Salah, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, and the most important political and religious leader of Israel's Arab population was asked "Do 70 virgins await a shahid (a martyr) in paradise?" Sheikh Salah replied: "On this matter, we have proof. It is written in the Koran and in the Sunna [the traditions about the life of Mohammed]. This matter is clear. The shahid receives from Allah six special things, including 70 virgins, no torment in the grave, and the choice of 70 members of his family and his confidants to enter paradise with him."

The suicide attackers who carried out the September 11 attacks also believed that 'the black-eyed' were one of the rewards awaiting them in Paradise. The letter of instructions found in Nawwaf Al-Hamzi's car mentioned 'the black-eyed' twice: "…Don't show signs of uneasiness and tension; be joyful and happy, set your mind at ease, and be confident and rest assured that you are carrying out an action that Allah likes and that pleases Him. Therefore, a day will come, Allah willing, that you will spend with 'the black-eyed' in Paradise… Know that the gardens [i.e. Paradise] have been decorated for you with the most beautiful ornaments and that 'the black-eyed' will call to you: 'Come, faithful of Allah," after having donned their finest garments."[25]

'The Black-Eyed' and Sexual Relations
Are "the black-eyed" available for sex? Some evidently think they are. The Israeli media reported on a suicide bomber caught before he managed to carry out his mission; he was wearing a towel as a loincloth to protect his genitals for use in Paradise.

The question of sexual relations was also brought up in an interview that Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi gave to the Egyptian weekly Aakher Sa'a. To the question "What is the meaning of the Koranic verse 'And we will marry them to the 'black-eyed?'" Tantawi replied, "This verse heralds to faithful believers that in the world to come, Allah will set 'the black-eyed' to serve them, so that they will have wives, along with the righteous women from this world."

Getting straight to the point, the interviewer asked, "Do people in Paradise have sexual relations?" "This issue is known only to Allah," said Tantawi. "It is enough that we know that Paradise offers [everything] to satisfy the soul and gladden the eye. Regarding other, private matters, only Allah knows. It is enough for us that the Koran says, 'It has [everything] to satisfy the soul and gladden the eye, and in it you have life everlasting.'"[26]

In a review of the Egyptian press in the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, the veteran Egyptian journalist Hasanain Kurum explained that Sheikh Tantawi knowingly gave a vague answer to the question, so as to avoid a scandal like the one created a few years previously by the late author and journalist Muhammad Galal Al-Kushk. Al-Kushk wrote, "The men in Paradise have sexual relations not only with the women [who come from this world] and with 'the black-eyed,' but also with the serving boys." According to Kurum, Al-Kushk also stated, "In Paradise, a believer's penis is eternally erect."[27] *Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.

[1] As cited by Joyce M. Davis, Knight Ridder Newspapers, August 24, 2001

[2] Knight Ridder Newspapers, Joyce M. Davis, August 24, 2001.

[3] According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary ( the derivative English word "houri" entered the English language in 1737. A houri is "one of the beautiful maidens that in Muslim belief live with the blessed in Paradise" or "a voluptuously beautiful young woman."

[4] Knight Ridder Newspapers, Joyce M. Davis, September 6, 2001.

[5] The Final Call, September 4, 2001.

[6] The Final Call, September 4, 2001.

[7] Knight Ridder Newspapers, Joyce M. Davis, August 23, 2001

[8] The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition, September 6, 2001.


[10] Knight Ridder Newspapers, Joyce M. Davis, September 6, 2001.

[11] The Final Call, September 4, 2001.

[12] Al-Ayam (Palestinian Authority), July 21, 2001.

[13] Al-Istiqlal (Palestinian Authority), October 4, 2001.

[14] Al-Risala (Palestinian Authority), July 7, 2001.

[15] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), October 4, 2001.

[16] Al-Risala (Palestinian Authority), August 16, 2001.

[17] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), September 11, 2001.

[18] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), August 17, 2001.

[19] USA Today, June 26, 2001.

[20] Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt), October 28, 2001.

[21] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), September 17, 1999.

[22] Palestinian Authority Television, August 17, 2001.

[23] Al-Risala (Palestinian Authority), October 11, 2001.

[24] Ha'aretz, October 26, 2001.

[25] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 30, 2001.

[26] Aakher Sa'a (Egypt), May 9, 2001.

[27] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 11, 2001.

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