In search of the elusive houri
One of the reasons Nietzsche hated Christianity was that it "made something unclean out of sexuality", whereas Islam, many would argue, was sex-positive. One cannot imagine any of the Church fathers writing ecstatically of heavenly sex as al-Suyuti did, with the possible exception of St Augustine before his conversion. But surely to call Islam sex-positive is to insult all Muslim women, for sex is seen entirely from the male point of view; women's sexuality is admitted but seen as something to be feared, repressed, and a work of the devil.
Scholars have long pointed out that these images are clearly drawn pictures and must have been inspired by the art of painting. Muhammad, or whoever is responsible for the descriptions, may well have seen Christian miniatures or mosaics representing the gardens of paradise and has interpreted the figures of angels rather literally as those of young men and young women. A further textual influence on the imagery found in the Koran is the work of Ephrem the Syrian [306-373 CE], Hymns on Paradise, written in Syriac, an Aramaic dialect and the language of Eastern Christianity, and a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and Arabic.
This naturally leads to the most fascinating book ever written on the language of the Koran, and if proved to be correct in its main thesis, probably the most important book ever written on the Koran. Christoph Luxenberg's book, Die Syro-Aramaische Lesart des Koran, available only in German, came out just over a year ago, but has already had an enthusiastic reception, particularly among those scholars with a knowledge of several Semitic languages at Princeton, Yale, Berlin, Potsdam, Erlangen, Aix-en-Provence, and the Oriental Institute in Beirut.
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.
As Luxenberg's work has only recently been published we must await its scholarly assessment before we can pass any judgements. But if his analysis is correct then suicide bombers, or rather prospective martyrs, would do well to abandon their culture of death, and instead concentrate on getting laid 72 times in this world, unless of course they would really prefer chilled or white raisins, according to their taste, in the next.