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Virgins or Raisins?

While listening to a great discussion on race and identity between Salman Rushdie and Amartya Sen, I came across this gem. I paraphrase Rushdie:

(paraphrase) The promise of “70 virgins” for Islamic suicide bomber martyrs is in fact a mistranslation of the original text. The correct translation was supposed to be “70 white raisins.” Imagine the disappointment on these people’s faces who upon dying, awake to find themselves to be surrounded on their bed not by virgins but raisins.

Here’s a Guardian article on the mistranslation:

Luxenberg tries to show that many obscurities of the Koran disappear if we read certain words as being Syriac and not Arabic. We cannot go into the technical details of his methodology but it allows Luxenberg, to the probable horror of all Muslim males dreaming of sexual bliss in the Muslim hereafter, to conjure away the wide-eyed houris promised to the faithful in suras XLIV.54; LII.20, LV.72, and LVI.22. Luxenberg ‘s new analysis, leaning on the Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, yields “white raisins” of “crystal clarity” rather than doe-eyed, and ever willing virgins – the houris. Luxenberg claims that the context makes it clear that it is food and drink that is being offerred, and not unsullied maidens or houris.

In Syriac, the word hur is a feminine plural adjective meaning white, with the word “raisin” understood implicitly. Similarly, the immortal, pearl-like ephebes or youths of suras such as LXXVI.19 are really a misreading of a Syriac expression meaning chilled raisins (or drinks) that the just will have the pleasure of tasting in contrast to the boiling drinks promised the unfaithful and damned.


Scholars like Mr. Luxenberg and Gerd- R. Puin, who teaches at Saarland University in Germany, have returned to the earliest known copies of the Koran in order to grasp what it says about the document’s origins and composition. Mr. Luxenberg explains these copies are written without vowels and diacritical dots that modern Arabic uses to make it clear what letter is intended. In the eighth and ninth centuries, more than a century after the death of Muhammad, Islamic commentators added diacritical marks to clear up the ambiguities of the text, giving precise meanings to passages based on what they considered to be their proper context. Mr. Luxenberg’s radical theory is that many of the text’s difficulties can be clarified when it is seen as closely related to Aramaic, the language group of most Middle Eastern Jews and Christians at the time.

For example, the famous passage about the virgins is based on the word hur, which is an adjective in the feminine plural meaning simply “white.” Islamic tradition insists the term hur stands for “houri,” which means virgin, but Mr. Luxenberg insists that this is a forced misreading of the text. In both ancient Aramaic and in at least one respected dictionary of early Arabic, hur means “white raisin.”

Mr. Luxenberg has traced the passages dealing with paradise to a Christian text called Hymns of Paradise by a fourth-century author. Mr. Luxenberg said the word paradise was derived from the Aramaic word for garden and all the descriptions of paradise described it as a garden of flowing waters, abundant fruits and white raisins, a prized delicacy in the ancient Near East. In this context, white raisins, mentioned often as hur, Mr. Luxenberg said, makes more sense than a reward of sexual favors.

In many cases, the differences can be quite significant. Mr. Puin points out that in the early archaic copies of the Koran, it is impossible to distinguish between the words “to fight” and “to kill.” In many cases, he said, Islamic exegetes added diacritical marks that yielded the harsher meaning, perhaps reflecting a period in which the Islamic Empire was often at war.

Here’s the motherlode of PEN audio 

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