Okay, let’s deal with this whole “72 virgins” thing. Non-Muslims, most often those hostile to Islam, always bring this up as an accusation against Muslims claiming that Muslim men are lustful beasts and even our concept of heaven proves that. Of course, some of the people who believe this are upright moral Christians like Newt Gingrich, who had an affair and then went to his wife to discuss a divorce while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer treatment. But that’s neither here nor there. There are reasonable men and women who have trouble with this concept, so I thought I’d put in my two cents’ worth and try to explain it. Here goes:
Okay, first of all, most people nowadays do not practice polygyny, where a man can have more than one wife, but the concept is well-rooted in history and met with no opprobrium until modern times. Moses, pbuh, did not forbid it, nor did Jesus, pbuh. Until Islam came along there was little regulation of it. Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, taught that a man was limited to no more than four wives, and if he felt he could not be fair with them, he should limit himself to only one. He also taught that if a man was not fair in dividing his wealth in an equitable fashion, and dividing his time equally, he would come leaning to one side on the Day of Judgment, like a stroke victim. So Islam was the first religion to deal with this issue and set protections for women. Islam also taught that women were not property who could be inherited, women could not be married off without their consent, they had the right to have their own business and property, and they had the right to be supported financially 100% by their husbands. These are rights that were not given to women in the West until relatively recently.
Okay, so now most westerners are not comfortable with polygyny, but that does not detract from the wisdom of allowing it. We’ll leave aside that discussion for another day and jump to the topic of the beautiful women, the hoor al ayn, of Jannah.
I don’t know about the number 72; I’ll just keep the number to one for simplicity’s sake. So, let’s say that a man and a woman are married in this world. They are married for, oh, 40 years. They are Muslim, they are good people, they raise up good Muslim children and have nice lives full of the usual ups and downs. They pass away. Islam teaches that they will be together in Jannah if they both get in; they will be married there just as they were in this world. In addition to his worldly wife, a man will also have a wife from among the hoor al ayn, who are a separate creation of Allah. They are not human women.
Muslims have no problem believing in another creation of Allah, because we believe in humans, angels, and jinns, all different sentient groups with unique attributes. So Allah created these hoor al ayn only for men in Jannah, for a specific purpose, which is companionship.
Aha! Companionship. Companionship? Isn’t that a euphemism for sex? Well, sort of, but not really, because there will be no sex as we understand it in Jannah. What? Correct. Try and wrap your head around this:
Jannah is not like this world. Its pleasures are purified and what we call food in Jannah is perfect and only resembles food of this world like a weak shadow on a cloudy day resembles the person who casts it.
The same can be said of sexual relations. The best sex any person ever had at any time in this world is nothing compared to the perfection of pleasure in Jannah. Everything in Jannah will be purified, perfect, and unique from anything this world has to offer: We have food, Jannah has food; we have drink, Jannah has drink; we have sex, Jannah has sex. But in Jannah, everything is purified and on a higher plane; food is not be prepared over a hot stove, juice does not have to be squeezed. Our bodies will not have stool or urine or mucus. We won’t get colds, or diseases. Sex will be similarly purified, which we with our worldly limited brains cannot understand.
Because we cannot understand this, we have a hard time relating to descriptions of Jannah even as they are given to us in the Qur’an and the authentic sayings of Prophet Muhammad, pbuh. We can read that there will be no jealousy or enmity in Jannah, but our real life selves can’t imagine turning loose of all the baggage we have, the petty jealousies and hurts and very real memories of betrayal or pain. We can intellectually accept that sex in Jannah is different, but we can’t turn loose of knowledge of worldly sex with its complications, lust, fear, guilt, disease, rape, regret. There is no date rape, there is no uh-oh, there is no “what was I thinking?” in Jannah.
So, you and your husband are in Jannah. You look wonderful; your bodies are at their best shape, they are in perfect health, and you won’t age or decay; You and your husband love each other and any arguments you may have had back in the world are gone, wiped from your mind so that you only have love and respect for one another. Quick note to husbands: this is not a reason for you to not take out the trash or lower the toilet seat.
Now, you are individuals, and even in Jannah you have the same personalities, though purified, that you had back in the dunya, the world before you died. So, say, if your husband enjoyed woodworking and you loved to garden, you will still have a love of these things when you are in Jannah. You may even be able to pursue such loves as “hobbies” sort of, in Jannah. How do we know? We have this hadith:
One of the inhabitants of Paradise will seek permission from his Lord for cultivation. Allah will ask him: Are you not in a state that you like? He will say: “yes, but I like to cultivate (the land). (When the man is permitted) he will soon sow the seeds. The plants will grow up get ripe and be ready for harvesting. Then the yield will develop into conglobation like huge mountain… (Bukhari,5, p.413/10119).
So we know that if we have a permissible desire in Jannah, Allah will allow us to pursue it. I always envision, that if Allah grants me Jannah, that I would love to learn every textile art, like weaving and knitting and lacemaking. I can while away hours praising Allah and learning these crafts.
Okay, now back to our topic. So, you’ll have hobbies and your husband will have hobbies, right? And you’ll love and respect each other and there will be plenty of time for purified sexual relations that you can enjoy with one another. But what if YOU are busy teaching yourself how to knit a scarf out of some rareified yarn and you are in the midst of it and your husband is in the mood? Well, in the worldly world before Jannah, you would be expected to respond to your husband even if you are busy and not particularly in the mood:
Allah’s Messenger said, “When a man calls his wife to satisfy his desire she must go to him even if she is occupied at the oven.” (Hadith – Tirmidhi 3257)
This is because a woman gets a great reward from Allah for responding to her husband, and a husband’s needs are often very intense and by responding to him a woman protects him from being attracted to any woman outside the house. But this is Jannah. Jannah is not a place of serving, it is a place of being served; it is a place of rest and doing what you want, not doing what someone else, even a beloved husband, wants. So how do we reconcile his desire to have purified sexual relations and your desire to continue knitting? This is where the hoor al ayn come in. She was created to be a companion for your husband; she was created to be perfectly obedient to him with no free will and no desire to do anything but serve him. She won’t be busy knitting. Your husband can fulfill his desires – because Jannah is not a place for him to wait any more than it is a place for you to serve him – you can finish your knitting, and later, when you both are focused on one another, you can enjoy each others’ company.
Be honest, ladies. In this worldly life, there are always going to be times when you’re just not in the mood to respond to your husband. If the reason is legitimate, like you were up all night with a sick child, or you have a horrible sinus headache or something, then your husband does not have the right to force you and he should be patient, and Allah will not hold you responsible for what is beyond your ability. But if you have no legitimate reason beyond “I’d rather be watching Seinfeld”, then you are expected to respond. You may have thought, just for a moment, that it would be cool for him to have another wife so you can have a night off and put on face cream, wear fuzzy slippers, eat Ben & Jerry’s and watch a chick flick without having to make tea or get him a snack or take a tumble in the bed. Well, in Jannah, that’s why the man has the hoor al ayn.
I hope this helps clarify the issue for you a bit. If you have a knot in your stomach at the thought of your husband being with that lovely hoor al ayn, just relax and remember that Allah knows best and you will be a better you when you are in Jannah, Allah willing. You won’t have jealousy, you won’t have self-consciousness and worry if the robes of Jannah make you look fat. You won’t have any negative thoughts at all. So leave Jannah to Jannah; it will be there. Your job now is to be the best Muslimah you can in this world so that you CAN be in Jannah. Allah knows our innermost selves and He will make Jannah perfect for each of us. My Jannah has gardens and cute little dragons and knitting and growing things; your Jannah might have flying and painting and pomegrantes that peel themselves. It will be perfect, so let us work on perfecting our characters so Allah will grant it to us. Don’t worry about those hoor al ayn. They’ve got nothing on you. And Allah knows best.