Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center
According to a July 22, 2020 article on PMW:
Since the Palestinian Authority started its terror campaign—the second Intifada—in 2000, it has been promising terrorist Martyrs that as Muslims they will be rewarded in Paradise with 72 Dark-Eyed Virgins. The promises are given in religious lessons, statements by political figures, and poems and music videos, while funeral notices are worded as “wedding” announcements.
As a recent example, the article cites a Palestinian music video that “reminds viewers that death as a ‘Martyr’ is really a ‘wedding’ to the 72 Virgins of Paradise.” Another video shows a Palestinian cleric brainwashing young children with dreams of “martyrdom” and subsequent “marriage to the Dark Eyed Virgins of Paradise”—even as the children, who appear oblivious to his words, scream “Allahu Akbar!”
Who are these “dark-eyed virgins in paradise” that “yearn”—as another Palestinian figure phrased it—for martyrs, for those Muslims who, in the Koran’s words, “slay and are slain” (9:111)?
The proper Arabic term for these entities is hour al-‘ayn, commonly known by the English transliteration houri(s) [pronounced who-ree]. They are supernatural, celestial women—“wide-eyed” and “big-bosomed,” says the Koran (56:22, 78:33)—created by Allah for the express purpose of sexually gratifying his favorites in perpetuity. (Whether or not the English word “whore” is etymologically connected to the Arabic houri (who-ree) appears a moot point as they both seem to serve the same function.)
One of the canonical hadiths—a statement attributed to Muhammad that mainstream Islam acknowledges as true—which all jihadi organizations regularly invoke, has Muhammad saying:
The martyr [shahid, one who dies fighting for Islam] is special to Allah. He is forgiven from the first drop of blood [that he sheds]. He sees his throne in paradise…. And he will copulate with seventy-two houris. [See also Koran 44:54, 52:20, 55:72, and 56:22.]
While the houris may invoke images of scantily-clad genies and/or other wild tales from the Arabian Nights to the Western mind—and thus be dismissed as “fairy tales” with no capacity to inspire anyone—the fact is, desire for these immortal concubines has driven Muslim men to acts of suicidal terror, past and present, as recorded in both Muslim and Western historical sources.
“As for religious enthusiasm and ardour for the holy war,” writes historian Marius Canard, “it is certain that numerous Muslims were moved by this sentiment…. There are numerous accounts describing combatants going to their deaths with joyful heart, seeing visions of the celestial houri who is calling to them and signaling to them.”
Indeed, the houris are depicted as being ever present on the fields of jihad, beckoning their would-be lovers to rush to their embraces by engaging in wild acts of “martyrdom.” This is evident from the West’s first major military encounter with Islam, the fateful Battle of Yarmuk (636). There, one Muslim came upon a fallen comrade “smitten on the ground, and I watched as he lifted his fingers to the sky. I understood he was rejoicing, for he saw the houris.” Another Arab chieftain told his men that a headlong charge against the “Christian dogs” is synonymous with a “rush to the embraces of the houris!”
“The Muslim preachers did not cease to encourage the combatants [at Yarmuk]: Prepare yourselves for the encounter with the houris of the big black eyes,” explains a medieval Persian historian. “And to be sure, never has a day been seen when more heads fell than on the day of the Yarmuk.”
Nearly a millennium later, on the night before the sack of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Turks also invoked the houris to kindle the men’s fighting spirit. Wandering “dervishes visited the tents, to instill the desire of martyrdom, and the assurance of spending an immortal youth amidst the rivers and gardens of paradise, and in the embraces of the black-eyed virgins [houris].” At the pivotal battle of Mohacs in 1526, seventy thousand Muslim invaders—described as devotees of “jihad and martyrdom,” eager for “a perpetually happy life” with “the houris”—defeated the hitherto mighty kingdom of Hungary, built a massive pyramid of heads, and returned to Constantinople with one hundred thousand slaves.
From the start, Western observers have corroborated the mesmerizing effects of the houri’s siren call. Marco Polo (d.1324) explained why after assassinating their target the hashashin (whence the English word “assassin”) or Nizari Ismailis, a Shia sect, would not flee but wait to be hacked down by their victim’s guards or men: they were eager to enter “paradise, where every species of sensual gratification should be found, in the society of beautiful nymphs [houris].”
In an eighth century “interfaith dialogue” between Caliph Omar II and Emperor Leo III, the latter wrote: “We [Christians] do not expect to enjoy there [heaven] commerce with women who remain forever virgin,” for “we put no faith in such silly tales engendered by extreme ignorance and by paganism.” But “for you who are given up to carnal vices, and who have never been known to limit the same, you who prefer your pleasures to any good, it is precisely for that reason that you consider the celestial realm of no account if it is not peopled with women” for sex, a reference to the houris.
If Muslims, particularly of the Salafi persuasion—virtually all jihadis are Salafis—venerate and seek to emulate the world of early Islam, it should come as no surprise that the houris are still working their magic, above and beyond the opening anecdotes concerning Palestinian indoctrination.
For instance, Naa’imur Rahman, a Muslim man from north London, who was “found guilty of plotting to blow up the gates of Downing Street and assassinate Theresa May …. was motivated by the idea of being met by virgins in paradise after the attack, the court heard.” During discussions with an undercover officer, Rahman said that he was eager to “take her [May’s] head off, yeah”:
I want to go to jannah [heaven] when I’m doing it. I don’t want to come back. I want them to kill me, but I just want to do my thing before I’m killed…. [I’ve been] thinking a lot about hur al ayn [houris]… In sha allah [god willing] I meet them soon.
Prior to the battle for Mosul in late 2016, the Islamic State’s “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said:
All [who die fighting], without exception, will enter paradise as martyrs. Moreover, you will enter paradise with four more houris than other martyrs. For just as you stand by me now, so will they stand by you—or under you, or above you—so that you might forget what will happen to you by way of violence, death, and degradation in this war.
All this is a reminder that the Muslim mindset and the motivations behind the jihad are many and multifaceted—and even include those who disbelieve in Allah and the afterlife altogether. Regrettably, few in the West seem to understand this. Thus a French reporter who infiltrated and spent time with the Islamic State said “I never saw any Islam. No will to improve the world,” only “suicidal” men looking forward to being “martyred” on, as they explained it to him, their “path to paradise,” where “women [houris] are waiting for us.”
Until such time that Western secular minds stop projecting their own exclusively materialistic paradigms onto jihadis and start understanding Islam’s paradigms and motivations on their own terms, the West will continue to ignore the oldest and simplest advice concerning warfare: “know your enemy.”
Historical quotes in the above narrative were taken from and are sourced in the author’s book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West