The Sharing Group Discussion: Are the Descriptions of Heaven in the Qur'an & Ahadits Male-Centric?

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following question was asked by me, on The Sharing Group, on the 26th April, 2015: “Why does the description of Heaven in the Qur’an and ahadits seem to be only the heterosexual male ideal?  And why is there so much emphasis on a sexual heaven?”

Brother Nabeel Sadiq: My understanding is it is a metaphor regarding the joy of being in Heaven.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: But why from an overwhelmingly male perspective?

Brother Nabeel Sadiq: That is a good question.  My thought would be maybe a woman’s sexual pleasure is greater and much deeper that we men might not understand but by giving the lesser male version, both male and female get the point.

Brother Muhammad Reza Nasherudin: We cannot throw everything to metaphor just because we do not feel it right.

Brother Colin Turner: It was my understanding that male and female become blurred in the afterlife; if there is some kind of union, then it makes sense for there to be a union between jamal and jalal.  Maybe we will all be hermaphrodites of a kind, given that there is no need for sexual contact with others to enjoy the pleasure of sex: one will only have to will it, and it will come about.  Wa Allahu ‘alam.

Brother Muhammad Reza Nasherudin: Those are the houris and the word, fairy’ is derived from it.

Brother Colin Turner: How do you get the word ‘fairy’ from ‘houri’?

Brother Muhammad Reza Nasherudin: I read it somewhere.  I will get back to you when I can remember.  Words many are borrowed and evolve from time to time.  ‘Ghoul’ comes from the word ‘ghul’, meaning ‘spirit’ in Arabic.

Brother Colin Turner: I can understand ‘fairy’ coming from the Persian word ‘pari’, but not from ‘houri’.

Brother Muhammad Reza Nasherudin: It is written in Travels to Europe: Self and Other in Bengali Travel Narratives, 1870 – 1910, that “The houris are nymphs from Paradise who are stunningly beautiful.  They originate from the Muslim traditions and their names can be spelled ‘hur’, ‘huri’ and ‘haura’.   The plural form is ‘huran’.  They live in Paradise as beautiful women playing music or dancing.  The love to please and entertain the faithful and delight in more people joining them in paradise.  The houris are sometimes associated with the water elements of Paradise.”

Also, “If there was anything that bound the observations of the travellers, apart from the Parsees, on a plane of commonality, it was the face of the houri pari of the beauteous white maiden’ of the West.  There was certainly nothing else that could move the aesthetic sensibility of the authors in the way the women in the West did.”

And, “In the gardens and on the paths, beauteous women shine like the sun and rouse the envy of the stars; and the houris of Paradise blush with shame to look upon the rose-cheeked beauties of the earth below.”

Brother Nabeel Sadiq: All very interesting, though why from a male perspective other than the Qur’an, which had been recited to a male prophet.  Also Brother Colin’s view of male and female roles being blurred makes me wonder was it that way with Adam (a.s.) and Eve, and when did it become clear to them who was male and who was female?  Is sex something to do with that cursed tree?

Brother Muhammad Reza Nasherudin: The Tree of Life.

Brother Nabeel Sadiq: Or the tree of sex?

Brother Colin Turner: Brother Muhammad Reza Nasherudin, ‘hur al-‘ayn’ is not gendered; a women will have houris just as men will.  They are companions.  And your quotes are from material which is Orientalist in the extreme, and thus weak as a source.

Brother Muhammad Reza Nasherudin: I have a post about it: Sails of Reza: Houris: The Fairies of Heaven.

Brother Nabeel Sadiq: Maybe the answer to the question that Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis asked lays in the fact that so far no sister has posted in this thread.

Sister Sabine: Women are too modest and shy so talking about those matters would offend our sensitivities and harm our delicate psyche.  That is why God in His Infinite Wisdom only described the delights for men.

Sister Deborah King: Perfectly said, Sister Sabine, we women prefer to keep our secrets.

Sister Sabine: I actually read this explanation in a fatwa, by the way.  I guess the shaykh never actually listened to women talking about men and sex.

Brother Nabeel Sadiq: Well said, Sister Sabine.  This is exactly what I was thinking myself.  Hearing this from a sister makes it, in my humble opinion, closer to the truth and Allah (s.w.t.) Knows best.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: In case anyone missed, that was irony and sarcasm by Sister Sabine.

Brother Saeed R. Khan: Well, there are also ghilman Mentioned in the Qur’an.

Sister Sabine: The following was extracted from Islam Q&A’s Description of al-Hur al-‘Ayn in the Qur’an & Sunnah: “One of the best things that people long for in the Hereafter is, for men, the women of Paradise, namely al-hur al-‘ayn, and for women there is an equivalent delight.  By His Great Wisdom, Allah has not mentioned what the women will have as the equivalent of al-hur al-‘ayn for men, and that is due to modesty and shyness.  How can He encourage them to seek Paradise by mentioning something that they are too shy and modest to mention or speak about themselves?  So He has simply hinted at it, as in the verse: ‘Therein you shall have (all) that your inner‑selves desire…’”

“We are your protectors in this life and in the Hereafter: therein shall ye have all that your souls shall desire; therein shall ye have all that ye ask for!” (Surah Fuswswilat:31)

Sister Julie Seaborne: I do not know enough about the Qur’an to say but surely we will not have our biological bodies with us in Heaven to be able to have sex in the same way as here?  I see our souls as genderless.  Also, the way we physically feel sex can only be here on this earth can it not?  But while we are here, we can feel a spiritual connection to God through orgasm.  Does that not take you to a different place that is not on this earth?  That ecstasy is something we will surely know in Heaven do you not think?

Brother Saeed R. Khan: That houris will be for sexual purpose is merely interpretation.  They will more likely be like geishas of Japan and women singers of the Muslim royal courts.

Brother Billy Johnston: I think you see the emphasis of a heterosexual male since the Prophet (s.a.w.) was male.  From that perspective, the Prophet (s.a.w.) could perhaps better relate.  If the Prophet (s.a.w.) had been female, I would imagine the vision given would have been more feminine.  I think the descriptions of Heaven are not meant so much to be ‘sexual’, but rather an explanation of pleasures we cannot comprehend.  What are the two most dominant worldly pleasures of humans?  Food and sex.  It is no coincidence that such pleasures are used for comparison purposes to the pleasures of Paradise as they are the pleasures we can best comprehend and relate to.  Gardens and streams would also be a great pleasure for a desert living people, so I think these descriptions perhaps relate less to literally how Paradise is, and perhaps more to relating these pleasures of Paradise in ways we can better understand as humans by relating them to our senses.  It is certainly a subject beyond my comprehension and Allah (s.w.t.) Knows best.

Sister Julie Seaborne: We are too human and cannot help comparing Heaven to this earth and ourselves as we are now when it is out of our comprehension.  It can be nothing like this.

Brother Saeed R. Khan: I thought we will have same spouse in the Hereafter as we have on earth.

Sister Julie Seaborne: If we had our spouses then would not that mean we have preferences for certain people like we do here.  Would Heaven be like that?  That feels too much like here.  Would we not feel love for all souls equally and not feel the need for choosing certain people to be our own?

Sister Samra Hussain: very interesting question Brother Terence.  I like Brother Colin’s explanation as the most sensible so far.  We will not be in Heaven like we are on earth and so I guess the allegory is given using earthly life for us to try and understand a glimpse of the afterlife?

Brother Saeed R. Khan: Heaven is described in terms humans can understand, particularly humans of Arabia at the time of Prophet (s.a.w.).  Emphasis on streams, running water, lush green gardens for our sensual, not just sexual pleasures.

Sister Julie Seaborne: Yes, I am not sure it is much different today in what humans want to believe.  Almost like it is another planet similar to earth but with a lot more good and no bad.

Sister Sabine: I pretty much agree with your explanation, Brother Saeed.  But those popular descriptions of paradise are not for ‘humans’, but exclusively for ‘males’ – that is the point.

Brother Saeed R. Khan: I agree with you to some extent, Sister Sabine.  I may be wrong, but the majority of people, men and women, even now accept specific male dominated universe.  Heaven is described as people with their spouses sitting on sofas enjoying the life.  To me personally, life with luxuries only, is not very heavenly.

Sister Shaheen J Syed: I too wonder if a couple enter Jannah and it is said that the wife will be with her husband.  Is she going to have to share him with the houris?

Sister Sabine: Yes.  But since she will be free of jealousy, there will be no problem.

Sister Sabine: The following is extracted from Cairo Scene: The-False Virtues-of Virginity: “I have always been turned off by the afterlife promise of 72 virgins.  That’s too much pressure for a freshly dead man.  Plus, it feels like a fishy deal, an unlikely proposition boiled in arbitrary waters.  Think about it.  How are they kept in pristine virgin condition for all the new arrivals?  Is there some kind of recycling policy ensuring vaginal conservation?  Have Chinese businessmen somehow infiltrated heaven with hymen merchandise?  Or perhaps the act of post-sex cuddling magically remoulds them back into virgins for the next batch of ethereal humpers.  But let’s assume that it is true and 72 virgins will greet me at the pearly gates.  Is it something that should excite me?  I can’t see how. I will probably be a bit jet-lagged, having gone through a tiresome transformational voyage from mortal being to celestial gigolo.  In that dazed and confused state, I doubt that I will have the required energy to satisfy 72 first timers, no matter how many Red Bulls cheering angels shove down my throat.

But humour aside, the afterlife promise of the 72 virgins reveals uncomfortable truths about mainstream male perceptions on women.  This narrative tells me that the ultimate reward for staying away from booze, pork and the armpits of Sherine during my mortal life will be sex.  Not just any kind of sex, mind you, but sex geared exclusively at my pleasure; my nirvana.  The virgins are numerous, nameless and serve no other purpose than leading me towards heavenly orgasms.  Moreover, they have all preserved themselves for me.  All of them are untouched, pure and pink, waiting for their Godot to take them to the other side.

It might seem like a good deal, perhaps even like the ideal post-mortem perk, but in truth it is symptomatic of male selfishness and dominance over the opposite sex.  Here, the woman is restricted to being a penis’s punching bag.  Sex is solely for the man’s pleasure and the female body is merely an extension of the male's kingdom.  The woman has no say in the matter, she is simply reactionary to male desire, an oxymoronic desire of fucking the unfucked.

Is it really that important to be the last man to sniff her ‘innocence’ and the first and last man to taste her awakening?  And isn’t it hypocritical to try and marry an unquenchable appetite for sex (72 virgins) with a sanctity for virginity?  It seems like a recipe for psychological problems, sexual frustrations and underground Plan B sodomy.”

Sister Indigo Riot: Maybe it is because women do not long for the same pleasures as men or via sex?  Maybe also, it is because men have been Appointed by Allah (s.w.t.) as guardians for the womenfolk so it is the male spouse, father and such who will or should, lead the way for women to enter Heaven, wherein all delights shall be theirs equally?

Sister Julie Seaborne: I do not understand “women do not long for the same pleasures as men or via sex”, Sister Indigo.  Please, can you elaborate?  A man will lead me to Heaven?

Sister Sabine: Every person is responsible for their own soul.  It is not the responsibility of male spouses, fathers and brothers to lead women to Paradise.  Neither is it their responsibility to be ‘guardians for the womenfolk’.  We are not children who need guardians.  We are not immature human beings who cannot pursue goals out of their own motivation but have to be led there by men.  Women do not long for the same pleasures?  Food and sex are fundamental human desires, regardless of gender.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Perhaps there is something there in the Qur’an I do not see.  I agree with Brother Colin Turner that gender is something that belongs to this world, contingent upon the biology of the body.  The soul is genderless.  Considering all the emphasis on the spiritual, to then lower men to the level of animals interested in only food and sex indicates an inadequacy in the interpretation of the text that I feel has never been adequately addressed.  Telling me, for example, that when I die, I can drink all the wine I want, and have all the sex I want with all the beautiful women I can get my hands on, limits the concept of Heaven to a sort of whorehouse.  There has to be more to it than that.  And there has to be a better reason for the emphasis from a masculine perspective.

Brother Saeed R. Khan: Where in Qur’an is it mentioned that there will be no gender and there will be sex?

Sister Sabine: Yes, some descriptions make it indeed sound like a celestial whorehouse.  I remember the discussion we had about Swalih al-Munajjid and his bizarre descriptions of the houris.

Brother Billy Johnston: I think my point was missed.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: I read your point, Brother Billy Johnston.  I still think there has to be more than that.

Brother Saeed R. Khan, whilst that is not said explicitly anywhere in the Qur’an, it is Mentioned that men and women are from one soul.  It is mentioned in ahadits that we are all Created from the Nur of Muhammad (s.a.w.) and we are all one soul.  Mawlana ar-Rumi (q.s.) and the gnostics reference the point that we are all drops from a Divine Ocean.

What is sex actually?  Sex is a physical manifestation at an attempt at union.  In akhirah, we do not require that since those limits do not apply.  What is said in the Qur'an and ahadits is that these are all approximations since the pleasures of the Garden are what no eye has seen, no ear has heard and no mind had conceived.  And since we can conceive sex, then it cannot be sex.  It has to be an approximation for something else.

Brother Muhammad Reza Nasherudin: If it is an approximation of something else why had not the word ‘approximation of something else’ were to come beforehand?  I get what you mean.  But how valid is your point?

Brother Billy Johnston: I feel my point was taken grossly out of context and simplified in ways unintended.

Brother Colin Turner: If we think of it carefully, the pleasure of sex is different to the act of sex; one is the means, the other is the result.  In the Hereafter, the causal system will be such that results do not need means, and the pleasure of sex, or eating, or looking at beautiful things, can be had without recourse to secondary causes.  Having said that, if someone truly believes that Heaven is about the physical act of sex, maybe for them that is how it will be appear.  But it need not be that way, and it certainly is not reducible to that.

Sister Mahshid Turner: If we are attached to external beauty in this world then in the next world, far from seeing beautiful houris, the reality of those demons dressed as beauty will be shown to us.  Let us face it, these descriptions are merely Divine Condescension, describing the beauty of love for Allah (s.w.t.) in a way we can understand.

Brother Nabeel Sadiq: Each audience is Addressed depending on their understanding.

Sister Crystal: Brother Terence, great question.  It does seem gender-centric, and I have wondered sometimes about the specificity of gender.  There have been times when I have asked what is there for women, as so many descriptions seem to appeal toward the male delights.

Brother Nabeel Sadiq: I do not see how male delights are achieved without female delights.

Sister Mahshid Turner: Men are not as strong as women, therefore Divine Condescension is needed more for them.

Sister Crystal: You have never been with a man who focuses only on his own delights.  Male and female delights are not always synonymous with each other.  Interesting comment, Sister Mahshid.  May I ask what makes you say so?

Brother Nabeel Sadiq: In this world, that might be true but anybody who thinks they are going to somehow given the short straw in Heaven thinks very little of the Creator.

Sister Crystal: I did not say we get the short straw.  I agreed with Brother Terence that the descriptions are male-centric, and I said that sometimes I wonder about what is in store for women.  The Qur’an Mentions in some detail about these things men will enjoy.  I wondered why there are no description given in equal appeal to women.  Sure, women are sexual as well and have needs and desires.  Many women may find the descriptions a comfort as it does apply to them, however the descriptions are geared more toward men’s desires versus descriptions to make us long for the same experiences.

Sister Mahshid Turner: There are different ways God Describes the joys of Hereafter, such as greenery and water falls and so on.  However, these things do not have to exist literally and in exactly the same way as in this world.  The feelings of joy that we experience are Created separately and not dependent on causal factors, hence Divine Condescension.

Brother Ben Smith: Nouman Ali Khan did a good talk on this subject but he is not allowed on here, right?

Sister Sabine: Brother Ben Smith, are you referring to this talk: Why Do Men Get Beautiful Women in Paradise & What Will Women Get? by Nouman Ali Khan?  I just listened to it because I got curious after reading your post.  To be honest, I find this disappointing and offensive.  Does he actually address women’s concerns and take them seriously?  Does he address the fact that women have sexual desires and fantasies just like men?  No, he just reinforces the same old stereotypes about men and women.  Boys, according to some anecdotal evidence he cites, are ‘programmed with a desire for women’; that is the most important thing on their mind.  But girls are complex beings who prefer being with their mom or ‘a pony’ or any other thing, but sex is the last thing on their mind.  I had to stop listening at 9:00 minutes because I got really irritated and his condescending manner was getting on my nerves.  How does this differ from the kind of ‘explanations’ we find on Islam-QA and in other misogynist texts?
Sister Shaheen J Syed: It is so true that women are not that different from men when it comes to desires.

Sister Amina Osman: This is not exactly my dream of Paradise.  For a more learned perspective, I will take Shaykh Gibril Haddad’s saying, “The perfection of Islam dictates that it has a motivation for every type of person including those that are not motivated except through sensory reward, which is the common lot.”  And he continues, “However, Paradise in Islam also describes a higher level called Ridhwan, the Lavishing of Divine Pleasure, to which we pray that Allah Guides us.”


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