There’s something deeply disheartening and disempowering about constantly, almost on a daily basis, being bombarded with sexist and otherwise exclusionary images of heaven that don’t appeal to me or to most Muslim (or other) women at all. I sometimes accidentally come across sermons (of men, of course, because Muslim patriarchy doesn’t allow women to give sermons – that’s literally how much religious patriarchy hates women) where I’m given descriptions of these women, and it’s vomitrocious. And the men in these videos are watching and listening intently fucking drooling, like oh my God, what can I do to just die right this moment and go to heaven. I like how they assume or expect they’ll go to heaven, despite the shittiness of their attitude towards women. If God spares these men, I’ll be having a long conversation with Her.
How wonderful, how pleasant it would be to not have to go through so much to find alternative readings of the Qur’an, alternative meanings of verses that have been presented and represented as sexist, sometimes (but not always) to no fault of the androcentric reader himself. Re-writing women, making space for women, in tafsir is not easy and not fun. We have to prove our existence, prove that God is ours too, that Islam is ours too, prove that God doesn’t exclude us the way men have done so for centuries. Because traditional, historical Muslim scholars didn’t have enough respect for women to think about us, too. We have to literally write ourselves in our own history because men didn’t have the humanity to do so. And to think how seriously we take these men … men who legit had no problem explaining how stupid, how incompetent, how intellectually deficient women are and how superior men were to women. And a lot of people still hold these ideas to be divinely sanctioned. #astaghfs #chills #myfeministeyeballsarerollingsohardtheyhurt.
Traditional Islam is literally men’s Islam. Textual Islam is men’s Islam. Historical Islam is men’s Islam. This is a real thing, and it’s tragic. And going through the entire tradition, some 1400+ years of Muslim and Islamic history to find yourself in it, to write yourself in it, is a painstaking exercise that a lot of brave and brilliant Muslim feminists have taken up. May God make it easy for them and give them the strength to continue on, aameen.
A few Muslim male scholars understand our dilemma, and they try to help us process it and figure out a way around it so that heaven can be appealing to women too, or to men who don’t find these terribly sexist and sexual descriptions of the hoor appealing and inviting to heaven. If these descriptions are supposed to entice us, then I’m afraid huge segments of human populations across time and space have no reason to go to heaven.
Sometimes the text of the Qur’an is difficult like that, sometimes it appears to exclude women like the way men have made us believe, and other times men read patriarchy into it where none can be found in the text itself.
It’s painful to make sense of some of the verses in the Qur’an. It’s easy to ignore them or deny them, and different individual Muslims have different strategies of dealing with the verses that hurt their hearts. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that not all Qur’anic verses speak to you equally and beautifully, that not all of them move you to tears, that some of them hurt more than others because either you see yourself ignored and excluded or not at all acknowledged, or because you feel hated in them, or you feel violence is being encouraged or endorsed against you.
Where the Qur’anic text uses hoorun ‘īn, male translators see, “white-skinned young women.” Literally a verse will say “hoorun ‘īn” and a long-ass translation and tafsir will follow with descriptions of how this is a sexual being. Incompetent-ass men love to sexualize everything. Tell me more about how harmless patriarchy is.
And when you ask contemporary male Muslim “scholars” this question, they completely dismiss it – they tell us that we’re embarrassed of our religion and want to make it palatable to the “West” and so we are ashamed of what’s in the Qur’an. They say that because all of the classical exegetes of Islam said that the hoors are what most of us are mistaught they are, any contemporary re-readings of the hoor or the Qur’anic descriptions of what’s in heaven are invalid and ridiculous. This dismissive attitude only harms Muslim women and others who are concerned with justice and compassion, in all worlds. I need Muslim men to take these concerns seriously, to take Muslim women seriously, to take our questions seriously. We DO care what we get in heaven. Otherwise, seriously, who cares about heaven? If we’re to spend eternity there, it better be what we want.
Listen, Muslim male scholars: you’re playing with Muslim women’s faith and fate when you ridicule us for the questions we ask and dismiss us like we’re stupid and irrational and don’t know what we’re asking and thinking — and demanding of you. While I don’t trust ANY of y’all, a lot of other Muslim women do, and you have a responsibility to take them seriously, to recognize their needs and concerns because they’re putting their faith in you. They’re chosen – they’ve willfully chosen – to allow you to filter Islam for them, they’ve chosen to trust your interpretations of Islam and they’re trust you to guide them.
When we ask questions about gender, it’s not about the west. It’s not about appealing to “the west,” whatever the hell that is. (Although if you think every thinking Muslim woman who comments or ask a question about Islam is doing so because she’s inspired by “the west” to do so, I worry what your alternative of “the west” is – does Islam not command us to think?) This isn’t about making Islam appealing to non-Muslims or Islamophobes. This is about us, about Muslim women, about Muslim men who refuse to accept sexist and racist ideals as divine. Your sexism and racism are not divinely ordained, and you need to stop pretending they are. This is about correcting a depressing trend of such ideals being appealing to a group of Muslims while unsettling, even disturbing, to another group whose faith is being jeopardized by patriarchy.
We ask these questions, we ask what we women get in paradise, and our questions are dismissed with mockery. “hahaha what, you want 70 male virgins?! That’s not very womanly!” Because women supposedly don’t have desires or any ideas of what they’d like in another person, even their heavenly partners if they’d like a partner in heaven. Oh but the myth of women’s lack of sexual desire!!! (Read about this here.) And don’t start with, “Oh c’mon – do you really want more than one husband, in any world?” What the hell. It’s irrelevant that you think men are so terrible that why on earth would a woman want more than one man, or even one man, to begin with. That’s missing the whole point, that’s dismissing a real, valid concern.
We’re told, “Chill. It’s enough for you to know that you get whatever you want in heaven.” But this isn’t enough, actually. This is also missing the point. Why? Because, according to the standard interpretation of the Qur’an, the believing male reader gets an apparently clear, elaborate description of what he’ll get in heaven, but the only thing I as a believing female get is “whatever I want” when the male gets that plus, in addition to, besides, alongside, all this other stuff? If the believing male gets a little virgin girl, if those descriptions are for men only, then the rest of the descriptions of heaven are also for men only. Which means that heaven, rivers of milk and honey and wine and shade and abundant fruits, etc. are also just for men. Because it makes no sense to think that “no, no, the whole description except the hoor part is for men and women.”
See, here’s the thing. As a woman, you tell yourself, as “scholars” tell you and as the whole of patriarchy tells you, that the oppressions in this world will pay off in the next because God will compensate you for all the dhulm you have to endure. And then you learn that wait a minute, even heaven – which is supposed to be a reward in itself – is actually male territory, caters to male imagination and sexual fantasies, and is intended for sexist men and that’s why all this hoor stuff. So you feel like even heaven isn’t designed for you. So much for heaven as a reward, then, and so much for being rewarded for all the injustices you are silenced into accepting. In other words, you get nothing in this world OR in the next. Have you ever wondered why men in certain religious traditions, or of certain religious leanings, literally thank God every morning for not making them women? Yeah, this is partly why.
But the good news is that the Qur’an tells us that heaven is whatever we want (Q. 39:34). This means to hell with the “tradition’s” take on what heaven is and isn’t like. To hell with traditional men’s descriptions of heaven. SINCE the Qur’an tells us that heaven is whatever we desire, patriarchal Muslim male scholars took the liberty to tell us at length what it is that they desire. Because they are the folks with the power to interpret, to define. They decide what you and I will read and understand and even imagine and desire. And their imagination became the dominant (only?) narrative of what we get in heaven, and in this narrative, the Muslim woman is completely absent. Literally non-existent. If she’d like to remain with her husband or lover of this world in heaven, it looks like she might not even get that—according to this narrative. As with everything else, women are overlooked in all descriptions of heaven, except to be invoked as objects of desire *not as themselves* but as feminine creatures that will exist solely for the fulfillment of sexist sexual mal desire in heaven.
To the Muslim women thinking about this topic and asking legitimate questions: You’re not alone in your thinking and your struggles, and it helps to know that many other Muslim women have struggled with similar questions. What helped me was giving Muslim women scholars and their interpretations of the Qur’an a chance. There are times when you’ll disagree with them strongly, and other times when they’ll speak so deeply to you it’ll change your life in a beautiful way. But the important thing is that these conversations are taking place, and we don’t have to feel alone. When women read the Qur’an, they don’t always see the same things that the entire Muslim male tradition has seen, and males have tended to regurgitate the same nonsense of their predecessors. (My own dissertation literally even engaged this question of what makes a tradition and why it is that women’s interpretations don’t supposedly count as a PART OF the tradition rather than as operating outside of this imaginary tradition so as to be dismissed.) What women’s scholarship helped me with, among answering some of my most imp questions and addressing some of my deepest anxieties about God, faith, the Qur’an, etc., was to show meaningfully why male history and male scholarship has survived and women’s hasn’t (or women’s continues to be ignored and dismissed), why we have inherited and internalized the idea that the Qur’an speaks only to men and addresses only men’s concerns and insecurities and not women’s; it also taught me that there are way too many instances when a Qur’anic verse is about ALL people but male scholars gender it because they imagine God as male and God as speaking only to them even in instances where God is speaking to everyone.
I’ll end Part I here. Part II will be an analysis of the Qur’anic verses on the hoor. Satay tuned.