Q. Can you please explain this business about houris in the hereafter? Some Muslims are eager for martyrdom because of this belief. There are several references to "hurun`in" in the Qur'an. In fact, the term "hur" is mentioned four times, and there are several related expressions with similar meanings. For example, "Hur" is referenced in Q44:54, 52:20, 55:72, and 56:22. Other related references can be seen in Q55:70-74, 56:16-17, and 56:35-37.

Some of the translations on these verses make reference to "fair (wives)," "immortal youths," "maidens," "virgins," and "fair females," etc., connoting some type of sexual bliss or union in paradise, of course on a different plane from the terra firma.

In fact, al Hilali translated Q55:74 as follows:

"Whom no man or jinn yatmith-hunna (has opened their hymens through sexual intercourse) before them."

This is certainly graphic and erotic enough to leave some men in a state of junub. So it does appear, at least literally on the surface, that there is some reference to sexual encounters. In your answer, could you define the term "hurun`in," is it only female, or female and/or male?

Also, do you think that there is life besides ours in the universe?

A. My belief is that since the resurrection will be on a different dimension, then the aspects of pleasure will be as such. Those descriptions are just to tell us in some analogy what it will be like in terms of pleasure. All the hadith descriptions about houris are questionable, because they enter into portrayals of sexual pleasure that certainly detract from the "shy" picture that other ahadith present about the Prophet Muhammad. Certain aspects of discourse in the ahadith are even by today's liberal standards tasteless. For instance, saying that the houris of heaven are so white that I can see the marrow of their bones through their skin is to assume that I will be looking for a very pale-skinned beauty, when I may prefer someone more tanned.

Regarding a definition for "hurun`in," I think a western researcher -- Jane Smith -- did some research on hurain and found that it means something that is greatly treasured. Yet this does not deny the sexual imagery of the Qur'an. Forgetting our contemporary views of sexuality, which have been conditioned by the later Judeo-Christian perception of sex as evil, and despite the fact that the old Testament does not project that, this sexual imagery was clearly seen as something heavenly at the Prophet's time. Why? Songs of Solomon in the Bible are a truly erotic piece of work, but let us go to Genesis. God creates Adam, and after a while, Adam realizes that he is lonely. So he asks God for a mate. What does God do? Not send him a man, but a woman.

How about the Rabbinic view which predated the Prophet? Adam in this view -- and this is purely Rabbinic and not Biblical -- had sex with all the animals. Yes, bestiality, and he was still lonely. Then God sent him Eve because he realized how much he needed a human. Also in Jewish Rabbinism, we have the story of Lilith, who supposedly came before Eve. She did not want to go underneath, she wanted to go on top. She did not want to be there only when Adam wanted sex, she wanted it when she wanted it. He could not agree, and one day she simply mentioned the private name of God (forbidden in Judaism, which is why the observant write G_d instead of God), and was taken up.

Now what does all of this discourse show? The idea of a man and woman in Eden was that of a life of sexual bliss. In Judaism, sexual union is Torah to the early rabbis. To the Arabs whom they influenced, sexuality was a state of the primordial happiness that was in Eden before the fall. And if we are aspiring to return to such primordial happiness, then its concomitant pleasures must be desired. As far as Hilali's translation, it is not incorrect, indeed quite wonderful, although his English rendering gives the word a lustful connotation which spoils its initial Arabic beauty. How do I explain this except to say that if a man said that he was the first to deflower his wife, it sounds inoffensive, and indeed an honorable statement. But if he told you that he burst his wife's cherry, it reduces the statement to something base, purely pornographic, salacious, and not something that denotes propriety.

What difference is there between the above two descriptions? The same between yatmith and "open their hymens," which would be in Arabic: "yaftahoona nawafiz bakaaratihinna bi'l jima" or some such nonsensical, totally objectionable term. To be extremely verbose, sex in religion until a very late stage in Christianity was seen as something wonderful, remember Solomon and his 1000 concubines, etc. Only until early post-Jesus Christianity was polygyny forbidden. Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, all because of her beauty. Of Rahab (I think she was the prostitute who caused the fall of Jericho), the Rabbis said that her beauty was such that merely to call her name and have her beauty come to mind was enough to make one ejaculate. Sex in early monotheism, in the desert where the early tribal warfare caused the warriors to think of that most wonderful of solaces -- relaxing in the arms of a beautiful maiden -- was a wonderful portrayal of bliss that gave the human mind the connotation of the ultimate.

As far as the aspect of life in outer space goes, since the Qur'an is not designed to deal with those scientific aspects, it is very much a matter of conjecture. However, I am inclined to feel that if there is, it is not on our level, for Allah says in the Qur'an: "We have created human beings in the best of molds." And in another ayah, it says: "Those who are in the heavens and on the earth." This could mean the angels and extraterrestrial creation.

This is what I mean by the Qur'an not dealing with those things. A scientist would try to read into that the aspect of outside creation. But the Qur'an is to be deemed a minimalistic document. It does not tell us everything about science, but at the same time does not deny scientific proofs. Some Muslim scientists think that it is a maximalistic document, having everything about everything. When the Qur'an says: "We have not left anything out of it," the focus in on spirituality and morality, not science and history. So our understanding of this minimalistic document and its relation to the things around us must be linked to our epistemological methodology, which is within the realm of our cognitive evolution. After all this, I feel that based on what we know of outer space at this time in our collective life cycle, and what we can interpret the Qur'an to mean, as already stated, if there is any life form out there, it is not as advanced as ours. Wa-Allahu A'lam.

Posted April 29, 1999