A TOP police officer has written to me asking for the Quranic basis of the belief that those who became martyrs will go to paradise and will be awarded 70

houris. This becomes an incentive for terrorists to die in the 'cause of Islam'.

It is commonly believed by many that houris are of the female gender, and some men even boast that Allah has promised them to men and nothing to women. This belief has no foundation in the Quranic text. It is nothing more than a popular belief and is being used by vested interests. It is, therefore, necessary to explore what the Quran has to say. First of all, one must understand martyrdom or shahadat. Its literal meaning is to witness, to acknowledge, bearing testimony, to be present, and also martyrdom.

The question is why shahadat is used for martyrdom whereas literally it means to witness and to be present. One bears testimony to something which one witnesses and this witnessing is not only in physical sense, i.e. witnessing with the eye but also in psychological and spiritual sense, i.e. to have a vision, vision of future and it is for this vision that one lays down one's life.

Thus, one virtually witnesses what one is dying for and it is in this sense that shahadat becomes martyrdom and it is in this sense that the Quran says that a martyr never dies and lives forever. Thus, martyrdom in the Quran is a very noble act of sacrifice of one's life; it places a martyr along with siddiquinwa al-salihin, i.e. upholders of truth and doers of good deeds. It is not an act of killing but rather getting killed to uphold the truth.

Thus, martyrdom in the Quran is to realise and witness oneself virtually what one wants to bring about in this world and to unhesitatingly give one's life for the purpose. The Quran divides knowledge of something in two categories, namely, knowledge of certainty (ilm al-yaqin) and eye-knowledge of certainty (ayn al-yaqin), i.e. witnessing something with one's own eye and not only with knowledge of something. A martyr falls into the second category, i.e. he witnesses it with his own eyes and hence a shahid.

This act of martyrdom would never involve killing but of sacrificing, and if at all there is any killing, it would be in defence; there is no question of killing indiscriminately as terrorists do. Terrorism is a killing to destroy whereas shahadat is an act of laying down life to construct a truthful and just order. Many of the Prophet's (PBUH) companions laid down their lives to bring about this truthful and just order.

Now coming to the question of houris, which, according to popular belief, have been promised to martyrs, let it be known that in the first place jannah, i.e. paradise (jannah literally means a land covered and hidden with trees and intense greenery) is promised to all those who are salih (those who bring about welfare of others) and doers of good deeds (amal salih).

The relevant verse on houris is as follows “Immortal youths will wait upon them with goblets, and ewers, and cups filled with water from unsullied springs by which their minds will not be clouded and which will not make them drunk; and with fruit of any kind that they may desire. And (with them will be their) companions pure, (hour al-in), most beautiful of eyes like unto pearls (still) hidden in their shells. And this will be reward for what they did (in life) (and not only for martyrs). No empty talk they will hear there, nor any call to sin but only the tiding of inner soundness and peace. (5622-26)

This is the most sublime description of jannah which all doers of good will achieve and a houri is not of female gender, as often believed, but it includes both genders. Its literal meaning is intense whiteness of the eye balls and lustrous black of the iris (Qamus). Hawar indicates simply whiteness or moral purity and it was in this sense that Jesus's companions are referred to as hawwariyun, i.e. morally pure beings.

In this whole discourse on houris there is no reference to sex or lust but of richness of soul and moral purity. In fact hur is singular of both ahwar (masculine) and hawra (feminine). Thus hur in the Quran would mean morally pure men and women who will be companions of those who enter paradise. The Quran also says that there will be no empty talk (laghv), and one will hear only peace and peace (salaman salaman), i.e. eternal peace of the soul. Thus, houris are neither women nor seventy in number that will be awarded to the righteous. This sublime description of paradise in the Quran is spiritual in nature and for those who resist all temptation, do nothing but good, are truthful and just and who would bring about an order of eternal peace in this world and in the hereafter.

The writer is an Islamic scholar and heads the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai.

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