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Explanation of so-called ‘maidens’ (húr) in Islamic conception of paradise

From the notes in the English translation of the Holy Quran
by Maulana Muhammad Ali

The mention of húr in the Holy Quran as among the blessings of paradise, promised to the true believers in the life after death, is much misunderstood. This word and certain other associated terms are mistakenly considered to mean beautiful, young maidens, to be given as reward in the after-life to Muslim men, and on this basis the teachings of Islam are maligned and criticised as pandering to the crude, lustful desires of men.

We quote below some commentary notes by Maulana Muhammad Ali in his English translation of the Holy Quran, explaining these terms and their true significance. The following points emerge about what these blessings of paradise are:

  • They are the fruits of the good deeds of a person, whether male or female;
  • Their nature is entirely different from anything that is, or can be, known in this world;
  • These rewards are meant for both the male and the female believers equally.

Verse 52:20

“Reclining on thrones set in lines, and We shall join them to pure (húr), beautiful ones (‘ín).”

Note 52:20a on this verse:
(For simplicity the first few lines of this Note,
containing a philological discussion, are omitted.)

As regards the word húr, it is a plural of ahwar (applied to a man) and of haurá’ (applied to a woman), signifying one having eyes characterized by the quality termed hawar, which means intense whiteness of the white of the eye and intense blackness of the black thereof. The word ahwar (singular of húr) also signifies pure or clear intellect (Lane’s Lexicon). The other word, ‘ín, is plural of a‘yan (meaning a man wide in the eyes) and of ‘ainá’ (meaning a woman beautiful and wide in the eye). The latter word also signifies a good or beautiful word, or saying (Lane’s Lexicon). It may be noted that whiteness is also a symbol of perfect and unsullied purity, and hence the two words húr and ‘ín really stand for purity and beauty; and therefore, instead of white-eyed and large-eyed ones, I adopt the words pure and beautiful ones, as being more expressive of the true significance.

To realize the true significance of these words, two points must be borne in mind. The first is that paradise is a place for faithful women as well as for faithful men, and hence the Holy Quran often speaks of the faithful as being in paradise with their wives; see for instance 36:56, where the faithful are spoken of as sitting on thrones or raised couches with their wives, or 13:23 and 40:8, where they are spoken of as being in paradise along with their wives and offspring. The second is that the blessings of paradise are alike for women and men, there being not the least difference in this respect between the two sexes. The question then is what is meant by húr ‘ín here. It has already been explained that the Holy Quran does not speak of any conjugal relations being maintained in a physical sense in the life to come. Moreover, it has been shown on various occasions that, where the blessings of paradise are spoken of, these are nothing but physical manifestations of the spiritual blessings which the doers of good enjoy in this life too. There are gardens, trees, rivers, milk, honey, fruits and numerous other blessings spoken of as being met with in paradise, but that all these are not things of this life has been shown more than once in these footnotes, and a saying of the Holy Prophet already quoted makes it clear that the blessings of paradise are not the things of this life.  The Holy Prophet is reported to have said: Allah says I have prepared for My righteous servants what no eye has seen and no ear has heard and what the heart of man has not conceived (Bukhari 59:8). The Holy Quran also speaks of them in similar words: No soul knows what refreshment of the eyes is hidden for them (32:17). These clear statements need no comment, and they establish beyond the shadow of a doubt that whatever blessings are spoken of as existing in paradise, the one thing sure about them is that they are not things of this world. Hence even the white-eyed, large-eyed ones, or the pure, beautiful ones, the húr ‘in, of this verse, are not actually the beautiful women of this life.  These are heavenly blessings, which the righteous women shall have along with the righteous men, for v. 17 plainly says that those who keep their duty will find these blessings, and therefore the pure, beautiful ones are as much a blessing meant for the righteous women as for the righteous men. 

The question may still be asked, why are these blessings described in words which apply to women? The fact is that the reward spoken of here is one having special reference to the purity of character and the beautiful deeds of the righteous, and it is womanhood, not manhood, that stands for a symbol of purity and beauty. Moreover, it should be noted that in Arabic sálihát and tayyibát signify good deeds and pure things as well as good women and pure women, and this is another reason why the reward of good and pure deeds is spoken of in terms which apply to women. But note also that both húr and ‘in are plurals of words applying to men as well as to women, as also to qualities and deeds.

Verses 37:48-49

“And with them are those modest in gaze, having beautiful eyes, as if they were eggs, carefully protected.”

Note 37:49a on these verses:

The description of women given here calls attention to the prominent feature of the character of a good woman. In the first place, they are described as restraining their eyes, and modest in their gaze, and attention is thus called to the fact that the most valuable virtue of woman is that rare chastity which is described here as restraint or freedom of the eye from lust. Then the beauty of their eyes is praised, the suggestion clearly being that the purity of the eye leads to its beauty, or that the real beauty of the eye consists in its purity. In the second place, they are described as being eggs carefully protected, which alludes to their pure and unsoiled character. It should, however, be noted that what is apparently a description of women is really a description of the fruits of deeds done in this life, the words adopted being applicable to both (see the word húr in 52:20a), and these are in fact spiritual blessings manifested physically. The blessings which it promises, whatever they may be, are as much meant for men as for women; the only thing certain about them is that their nature is different from the nature of the physical blessings of this life.

Verse 38:52

“And with them are those modest in gaze, equals in age.”

Note 38:52a on this verse:

For the modest in gaze, see 37:49a. Here, in addition, they are called atráb or equals in age, as showing that their growth begins with the growth of spiritual life in man, thus showing that they are the fruits of good deeds, whether done by males or females, who would all have these fruits equally.

Verses 56:35-38

“Surely We have created them a (new) creation, so We have made them virgins, loving, equals in age, for those on the right hand.”

Note 56:38a on these verses:

It is noteworthy that the blessings granted to the righteous are first spoken of as shades, water, fruits and resting-places; and then, as it were to dispel all doubts as to what these blessings of the next life are, it is said in v. 35, We have created them a new creation. These words settle conclusively that, whatever these blessings are, whether shades or trees or water or fruits, they are all the fruits of deeds, which have been made to grow into a new growth. The words that follow this statement are no doubt primarily applicable to women, but, as shown in 52:20a, it is only because womanhood stands as a symbol of purity and beauty. Thus abkár, plural of bikr, means a virgin, and also an action that has not been preceded by its like (Lane’s Lexicon). Similarly, atráb, or equals in age, as already shown in 38:52a, signifies that the growth of those blessings begins with the growth of spiritual life in man.‘Urub (“loving ”) is plural of both ‘urúb and ‘aríb, the former signifying a woman that manifests love to her husband.