72 Virgins in Heaven: Fact or Fiction?

Are there 72 virgins in heaven? Is the male martyr waiting for Persian-eyed, fair skinned women? Can it be true?

I’ve done my research and consulted with Islamic scholars. The 72 virgins in Heaven is a myth.

What is the Meaning of Martyrdom?

To understand martyrdom, it’s important to first define jihad. This simple Venn diagram breaks down the Arabic root word of “jahada.”

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Thus, Muslims struggle daily to do good and forbid evil. This constant struggle of good versus bad is universal and not unique to Islam. For radicals, the concept of jihad is narrowly defined–terrorists use the word “jihad” to mean an all-out-war against the so-called enemies of Islam.

From the word “jihad” is the concept of martyrdom. In Islam, a martyr is one who bears witness to events (specifically, sacrifice and struggle). In the modern-day world of terrorism, men believe they will enter Paradise if they commit suicide terrorism. Among the rewards of Heaven are 72 virgins.

 

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However, there are no 72 virgins in Paradise.

Heaven in the Islamic faith does not include 72 wide-eyed sex goddesses. The number ‘72’ does not appear anywhere in the Quran. Nor does the word “suicide” (intihar in Arabic) appear, which is a word used interchangeably with martyrdom.

The confusion that exists arises over one oral tradition by Imam Tirmidhi. He cleverly crafted the “72 virgins” that has now become instilled in the minds of radicalized and misinformed Muslim men. The real tragedy is that so few scholars have accepted that this controversy exists or have failed to challenge the misinterpreted verse “of the 72 virgins” in the Quran.

A well-known and widely transmitted hadith of imam al-Tirmidhi explicitly notes that male martyrs will enjoy the pleasure of seventy-two virgins in paradise:

According to al-Tirmidhi, a martyr has seven special favors from Allah. They are:

  • He [or she] is forgiven his sins with the first spurt of blood.
  • He sees his place in paradise; he is clothed with the garment of faith.
  • He is wed with seventy-two wives from the beautiful Maidens of paradise.
  • He is saved from the Punishment of the Grave.
  • He is protected from the Great Terror (Judgment Day).
  • On his head is placed a Crown of Dignity, better than any jewel.
  • The world and all it contains, and he is granted intercession.
  • And seventy people of his household will enter paradise.

As I write about this, I am reminded of a meeting I’ve had with ex-miliants in the valley of Kashmir who wished for martyrdom. One man in his mid-forties told me: “We all long to be shahid (martyrs) to follow the long line of martyrs in the valley. Some are buried in the Martyrs Graveyard. Thousands are missing. We do not know where they are buried. Only recently there was a news report of the unmanned mass graves found in Uri district. More than 8000 of our men and women have been missing since 1989. And we demand an international investigation but no one comes. We cannot sit idle while our people are dying. We have to honor their deaths, our own lives, and the lives of our children who are born and raised into this conflict. Most of all, we have to honor our right to an independent homeland.”

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Interviews with other men and women in the Islamic world about the concept of martyrdom forces me to question the concept as it is applied today.

Martyrdom is a mysterious concept. It represents both life and death. It is the path to Paradise and therefore desired by terrorists.

To some, martyrdom can be seen as a maniac’s mission or a fool’s fancy.

For terror groups, the families of martyrs are rewarded. Anecdotal evidence suggests that terrorists reward children of the Taliban, for example, by giving a lump sum to their families.

A scholarly article on the subject of martyrdom explores the concept as it is applied in conflicts today. Written with Dr. Jerold Post, my mentor at The George Washington University, the premise of the paper is that martyrdom is easily misconstrued by militants to justify acts of violence. You can read the first page below or access the article here. For additional background, you can read about the social psychology of martyrdom by Cassie Brandes.

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