The Final Truth About 72 Virgins In Paradise

The myth of the 72 virgins in Paradise is a common theme for terrorist and violent extremist groups, and the final truth is anything but a myth. The reality is that there are no 72 virgins in Paradise. Numerous Islamic sources and my own interviews with religious figures across the Muslim and Western world confirm this truth. Here’s why:

Heaven in the Muslim faith does not include 72 wide-eyed sex goddesses. The number ‘72’ does not appear anywhere in the Quran. Nor does the word “suicide” or intihar in Arabic appear, although this word is used interchangeably with martyrdom.

The confusion that exists arises over one oral tradition by Imam Tirmidhi.

 He explicitly mentions “72 virgins” that has now become instilled in the minds of extremists and misinformed Muslim men. 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, to include:

  • 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.

Of the seven favors listed above, the most controversial but at the same time widely accepted among violent jihadis is the promise of 72 “maidens of paradise” for the male martyr. The promise of 72 virgins is even “reminiscent of the medieval Assassins” doctrine, involving the paradise that awaits the holy terrorists,” but the concept is not recognized by all Muslim scholars. The translation of the word “virgin” in the hadith is characterized in a sexual manner, but other scholars insist that the word houri is closer to ”the most pure,” a likely reference to the Prophet’s pious companions.

Outside of Tirmidhi’s narrative, the Qur’an makes no reference to the black-eyed virgins or admitting 70 of the martyr’s relatives to heaven. And yet extremist literature continues to cite this reference to incite would-be male terrorists to conduct terrorist operations and call on women to join them.

What Words Mean

The actual Arabic word that is being contested is houri. Most Muslim scholars agree that the word means ‘purity’–to some, this could be a companion in Paradise. According to an Austrian-Hungarian Jew, who later converted to Islam and renamed himself Muhammad Asad, the word ‘houri’ is “one who is most pure” and “white.” It is not ‘virgin.’ 

But terrorists are clever to manipulate the verses of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, and interpret scripture to call men to their cause and creed.

The same is true of other sacred terms. For example, male terrorists manipulate the meaning of jihad and avoid using the word suicide. They believe martyrdom operations to be legitimate, legal, and laudable. They have distorted the meaning of war and opt for suicide, their sacred act. It is the ultimate sacrifice, for which they expect a heavenly reward.

The concept of male and female virgin martyrs in Heaven is one of the most outlandish myths that extremists use for recruitment. 

Martyrdom means “to bear witness” and to sacrifice in God’s name. Only self-defense is allowed in Islam. Never violence for the sake of violence. I remembered an oral tradition by the Prophet of Islam that rejected suicide:

The gates of Heaven will be closed forever to anyone who takes his [or her] own life.

Thus, extremists–including violent women–choose the right to die, to attain spiritual reward, a general vulgarity disguised as divine intervention. In Till Martyrdom Do Us Part, London-based researchers Erin Saltman and Melanie Smith tell the story of a sixteen-year-old Somali girl, Zahra Halane, from the Manchester area in the UK, who celebrated the death of her nine- teen-year-old husband from Coventry, who was reportedly killed in December 2014. On Twitter, Halane posted, “He was a blessing from Allah please make dua [prayer] Allah accepts him and I will join him very sooooon.”

I met the two women in their office in an alley adjacent to Oxford Street. That winter morning, we discussed the ways female extremists–which  has been my focus for nearly twenty years–have understood (or misunderstood) Islam. There are numerous online examples of ISIS women, who use social media platforms to express their Muslim sentiments.

Halane’s twin sister, Salma, had the same feeling about her own husband’s death. She tweeted, “May Allah accept my husband, Abu Handhia Al Khrassani rahimullah! I am among the wives of shu- hadah [martyrdom] and I’m honoured to be chosen.” The sisters called themselves “wives of the green bird,” a common reference to Paradise. In Islam, green is the color of equilibrium, a symbol of fertility, youth, and joy.

In the Quran, the blessed will wear green in the Garden of Eden, a green death is the gentlest of all deaths, and the souls of martyrs will fly to Heaven in the form of green birds.

Of course, until extremists properly learn scripture, they will continue to abuse and alter the Quran’s true meaning. Without proper context, extremists will remain forever ignorant and merciless. 

Additional Resources:

For a historical background on the Assassins, see Akbar, M.J., The Shade of Swords: Jihad and the conflict between Islam and Christianity (New York: Routledge, 2002), 195

Muhammad Asad, The Quran 



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