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Discussion 1 to Meditation 634
Clarifying misunderstandings

by: Rev. Nick Dante Rockers

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I continue to be troubled by the Western misunderstanding of Islamic afterlife.  There are always some clarifications that need to be made, especially when we are talking about an afterlife that is promised to martyrs of a religion that the Wester world tends to see itself as being at war with.  Although I am primarily a student of literature, I have also studied anthropological approaches to belief and religion, and I feel confident that I have the authority to explain some things.

Islamic martyrs are not promised 72 virgin women in the afterlife.  The beings are called "houris" and are definitely not human.  They are special creations for the martyr at the time of his death.  They are new beings, and therefore virgins.  The same must be said about the thousands of servants that they receive.  How different is that from Christian beliefs of angels, whose jobs are to take care of us, protect us, and serve us in the name of God?  Not that I defend Christianity in any way, either, but this shows a great similarity that we misunderstand.  When the Islamic faith mentions these beings, the numbers are meant as a hyperbole of the luxurious life one expects to find after death.

Also, in other places of the Qur'an that often go unread by Western eyes, it says that pious and faithful women are given the same status as men, and Islamic scholars tend to agree that even women will be granted servants and houris at their deaths if they die as martyrs.

Another note is that Islam is built upon the supposition that the society is polygamist.  Men can have any number of wives, though it is unlikely that they have any more than four by their deaths.  The accumulation of wives occurs over a lifetime.  In practice, among Islamic countries that are much more progressive than we Westerners are led to believe, these wives have just as much say in their dealings with their husbands as Western monogamist wives do.  Personally, I find myself always wrong when arguing with my wife and I can't imagine if there were three more of them to gang up on me.  Yes, polygamy sounds wonderful, doesn't it?

Finally, I'd like to point out that although the Qur'an makes the statement about virgins in the afterlife, it occurs in the "hadiths".  These are short sayings and expressions by people who were somehow related to or intimate with Muhammed or his descendants.  Only the "suras" are the actual words of the prophet.  As such, the hadiths are often debated by Islamic scholars to their authenticity.  In fact, the reason there are so many sects of Islam today is because of the question of authority of Islamic leaders after Muhammed.  With many wives, there are many descendants and many people who may or may not have been close to or taught by the prophet Muhammed directly. 

In the end, very few Muslims act through their lives as though the promise of virgins means anything.  Truly, Muslims around the world tend to be much more like Catholics in America: pay lip service, do your daily/weekly/monthly/yearly obligations, and spend the rest of your time not worrying about a religion that was born in a misogynist past.  They tend to agree that the ancient writings are more of a reflection of the times and an easy way to give the message to a less refined culture.  Most of the modern practices do not take things so literally.

There is, of course, the problem with any kind of fundamentalism that takes things far TOO literally, and we see that run rampant in America among the evangelical prosperity-cult Christians.  But although it seems as though fundamentalist Christianity is everywhere here, fundamentalist Islam only makes up a small percentage of Islam around the world.  Most fundamentalist Muslim martyrs don't act out of dreams of the afterlife, anyway.  They act because wicked leaders promise to take care of their downtrodden families - or threaten to kill them.  All four of their wives, too.