So, what’s next for Osama bin Laden? Yeah, he’s dead. And like Luca Brasi, he now apparently swims with the fishes. But now what? Bring on the 72 virgins, right? Well, not so fast. Those who study the Qur’an aren’t entirely certain bin Laden will be spending eternity partying with his martyr pals in the Muslim equivalent of the Playboy Mansion. All but the most feverish fundamentalists tend to knock the notion that Muslim heaven is one endless frat bash. It does, however, seem to have its rewards.
But 72 virgins aren’t among them. Not exactly. This Snopes bait that surfaced in the wake of the September 11 attacks is more urban legend than theology. In fact, you can go blind searching the Qur’an for anything hinting at a number. Virgins? Maybe. Seventy-two of them? Sorry. Presuming bin Laden wasn’t tossed overboard with a pork chop in each pocket (okay, cue the fatwah), his only hope of scoring with three score and 12 rests with “interpretations” of Islam’s holy book. These are known as the Hadith. And they aren’t universally accepted.
The Qur’an, Muslims profess, was dictated by the Prophet. The Hadith, on the other hand, are pretty much based on sketchy recollections of what somebody told somebody what somebody’s brother-in-law supposedly heard the Prophet say to somebody while getting his camel groomed. Or something. The Hadith promise that the least a presumed paradise-bound bin Laden can expect is 80,000 servants — and 72 wives. Repeat, wives. The 80,000 servants works for most of us, but we need to give some hard thought to those 72 wives. Give each one a weekend “honey do” list and bin Laden could be spending eternity at the Home Depot. But again, the Hadith ain’t the Qur’an.
Not that the Qur’an doesn’t hint at what most of us (the male version of most of us, that is) would likely consider a good time. First, there’s wine. Open bar. No tipping. Then there are the babes. Not just ordinary babes, babes with “large eyes and big breasts.” Virgins (perhaps) with large eyes and big breasts. Just not 72 of them. Not sure about you, but I’ve always been a large eye type of guy. Show me a set of large eyes and … Anyway, this is the “great reward” promised by the Qur’an for those who “fight in the cause of Allah and is slain or gets victory.” Bin Laden would seem to qualify on the slain part. There are, of course, other bennies. But most include large eyes. And breasts. Also gardens and vineyards, presumably for when the other stuff gets stale.
Most scholars warn not to take the virgin thing too literally, no matter what the number ultimately turns out to be. If any. Moderates believe the term is just a metaphor, and the Judeo-Christian Bible is filled with its own metaphors, to make the case that the afterlife isn’t the worst place to spend a little spare time.
Interpreting the Qur’an is also dangerous. In many, many ways. Including having to hire someone to start your car in the morning. But it’s also dangerous from an academic and theological standpoint. It means many different things to many different people. Wars have been fought over these meanings. Wars are still being fought over these meanings. Once the hard news exhausts itself and the talking TV hand puppets take over, the odds are better than even that more than a few opinion heads will work in a clever reference to virgins and the number 72 . Actually, they have.
Scholars tend to agree, however, that wherever bin Laden now calls home, and this is also open to debate, 72 virgins aren’t going to be part of the deal.