Friday, April 9, 2010

Lisa Miller's "Heaven"

Lisa Miller is the religion editor for Newsweek. She is the recipient of numerous journalism prizes, including the 2009 Wilbur Award for Outstanding Magazine Article for her December 2008 cover story “The Religious Case for Gay Marriage.” She has a regular column in Newsweek and on, and in conjunction with the Washington Post, she helped to launch the religion website On Faith.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, her first book, and reported the following:
Jackpot! On page 99 of my new book Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife, you find the beginnings of a discussion about the virgins, or houris, of Muslim heaven. According to the Quran, the righteous will, upon arriving in heaven be waited upon by houris, "eyes large and dark, like pearls in their shells, as a reward for past deeds." (p 83) These virgins were made famous, of course, after 9/11 when it was discovered that Islamist "martyrs" often committed suicide with visions of virgins dancing in their heads.

But on page 99, the discussion takes a turn. The obsession with houris, many moderate and progressive Muslims claim, is an American idiosyncracy:
Muslims cannot understand the American obsession with houris, with the idea that Muslim heaven must be something like a sex party for boys. They laugh at our insistent questioning, and with their laughter imply that this whole orgy-in-heaven-thing is our hang up, not theirs. Our questioning is not wholly unenlightened, however.
Non-Muslim Western observers continue to have all kinds of questions about the houris. Here are two of the most compelling. 1.) Isn't Muslim heaven a sexist place? And 2.) Sex? Really? In heaven?

In the reporting of my book, I spoke to all kinds of scholars and believers. To the first question, scholars concede, that yes, Muslim paradise probably is a sexist place -- in the same way the visions offered by all Western scriptures are in some way sexist. The people who wrote down and codified Judaism, Christianity and Islam were probably (mostly) men writing for men. Two of my scholar experts -- Kevin Reinhart of Dartmouth and Leor Halevi of Vanderbilt -- pointed me to a fourteenth century Persian poem which indicates that this anxiety about the pleasures available to women in heaven is at least 700 years old. "Are there men houris as well?" asks an old woman from the grave. She gets an answer: "If you show your face there [in Paradise] / You'll not escape when they give you chase!" Even in the 14th century women were being assured that some version of the sexual pleasure available to men in Paradise would accrue to them as well.

I also spoke to Lelah Bakhtiar, an American Muslim who did a controversial feminist translation of the Qur'an in 2007. She provoked the ire of conservative Muslims world wide by suggesting that wife-beating was not ordained in the Quran, but she has views on the houris as well. Houri, she says, has no gender: it only means "black-eyed." People have traditionally interpreted houris as maidens, but they're not, necessarily. In any case, she laughs, she doesn't believe that in heaven she'll be having actual sex with actual heavenly creatures -- just as many Christians don't believe they'll actually walk through pearl gates and down streets of gold. In heaven, she says, "your body is not there. We're in a completely different form... We're not going to feel the same things there. I'm not thinking about what kind of orgy we're going to have in Paradise." Bakhtiar says that after death she hopes to be "part of the light that would shine in the world." Sex is not part of the picture.
Browse inside Heaven, and learn more about the book and author at Lisa Miller's website.

--Marshal Zeringue