a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

is there any sex in heaven?

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I’ve been reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and fall of the Roman Empire off and on for years now, and still nowhere near finished, but today I was reading his account of the life of Mohammed and the rise of Islam. Gibbon makes an attempt to sympathetically explain Mohammed in both historical and religious terms, and tries to flesh out his metaphysics and his concept of the deity, the sort of stuff that tends to make my eyes glaze over – and my boredom and irritation are compounded by the fact that Gibbon never provides primary sources for his often idiosyncratic character sketches, anecdotes and interpretations.

However, I was mildly amused this time. As with Jesus, the portrait of Mohammed is – well, just a wee bit idealized:

According to the tradition of his companions, Mohammed was distinguished by the beauty of his person… They applauded his commanding presence, his majestic aspect, his piercing eye, his gracious smile, his flowing beard, his countenance that painted every sensation of the soul, and his gestures that enforced each expression of the tongue….

Gibbon goes on for a while in this style, describing the prophet’s modesty, his affability, his firmness, his support for the poor, his accommodation of the rich, his flowing speech, his courtesy, his universal benevolence etc etc. In short, if you’re religiously inclined but don’t want to be so conformist as to let Jesus into your heart, why not consider Mohammed? In fact he might be a better choice, since Jesus was pretty down on the rich (Matthew 19:24) and was rather less of an upholder of ‘family values’ than the prophet (despite the latter’s philandering), to put it mildly (Luke 2:41-51, 14:26, John 2:1-5, Matthew 23:9, to name just a few passages). But I don’t want to dwell on these characters – truth to tell I’ve always been a bit nervous of writing anything critical of Islam – because I want to focus on another passage in Gibbon, treating of the Islamic heaven. Myths of heaven and hell, and the judgment that consigns us to either region, are commonplace in the ancient world, and as with creation myths, it’s useful to trace connections and influences. Gibbon mentions the Koran often in his chapter on Mohammed and the Arabs, but it’s never clear whether his descriptions of their practices and beliefs derive directly from that book. So make that you will of Gibbon’s presentation and commentary here:

According as the shares of guilt or virtue shall preponderate, the sentence will be pronounced, and all, without distinction, will pass over the sharp and perilous bridge of the abyss, but the innocent, treading in the footsteps of Mohammed, will gloriously enter the gates of paradise, while the guilty will fall into the first and mildest of the seven hells. The term of expiation will vary from nine hundred to seven thousand years; but the prophet has judiciously promised that all his disciples, whatever may be their sins, shall be saved by their own faith and his intercession from eternal damnation. It is not surprising that superstition should act most powerfully on the fears of her votaries, since the human fancy can paint with more energy the misery than the bliss of a future life. With the two simple elements of darkness and fire, we create a sensation of pain, which may be aggravated to an infinite degree by the idea of endless duration. but the same idea operates with an opposite effect on the continuity of pleasure; and too much of our present enjoyments is obtained from the relief or the comparison of evil. it is natural enough that an Arabian prophet should dwell with rapture on the groves, the fountains, and the rivers of paradise; but instead of inspiring the blessed inhabitants with a liberal taste for harmony and science, conversation and friendship, he idly celebrates the pearls and diamonds, the robes of silk, palaces of marble, dishes of gold, rich wines, artificial dainties, numerous attendants, and the whole train of sensual and costly luxury which becomes insipid to the owner, even in the short period of this mortal life. Seventy-two houris, or black-eyed girls, of resplendent beauty, blooming youth, virgin purity, and exquisite sensibility will be created for the use of the meanest believer; a moment of pleasure will be prolonged to a thousand years; and his faculties will be increased a hundredfold to render him worthy of his felicity. Notwithstanding a vulgar prejudice, the gates of heaven will be open to both sexes, but Mohammed has not specified the male companions of the female elect, lest he should either alarm the jealousy of their former husbands or disturb their felicity by the suspicion of an everlasting marriage. this image of a carnal paradise has provoked the indignation, perhaps the envy, of the monks: they declaim against the impure religion of Mohammed; and his modest apologists are driven to the poor excuse of figures and allegories.

This is a lengthy passage, but it’s worth quoting, for what it reveals of Gibbon’s style as well as the Islamic view of heaven. ‘Superstition’ is a favourite word of his, trotted out whenever religion’s in question, yet in spite of these enlightenment values Gibbon was a staunch, church-going conservative, properly disdainful of the vulgar and the feminine (largely synonymous terms to his mind). His attitude towards religion was obviously complicated, shot through with continental influences and conservative family – and reputational – concerns. I suspect his view, at least publicly, would be that religion is the opiate of the masses, and a good thing too – and if he had to attend church regularly, to provide a good example to his more vulgar constituents (he was a Tory MP), as well as to placate his family, that was a small price to pay.

But what to make of this sensual – not to say sexual – paradise? The Islamic term is Jannah, and the Wikipedia account, drawn from various Koranic passages, makes no mention of 72 houris ‘of virgin purity’, and generally tends to downplay the sensual elements, probably for political reasons. Even so, the idea of excess – of food and clothing, perfume and jewellery, and ‘immortal youths’, makes it pretty clear what to expect up there. Of course Gibbon didn’t pluck those 72 virgins out of the air; according to Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope, hadith 2562 of the Jami` at-Tirmidhi collection has this:

The least [reward] for the people of Heaven is 80,000 servants and 72 wives, over which stands a dome of pearls, aquamarine and ruby.

Of course, this stuff about 72 virgins was all over the place after the September 11 attacks, and Moslem sites sought to refute it, claiming the hadith to be a weak one, and pointing out the difference between wives and virgins (as if that mattered), but nobody seems to have noticed that this western interpretation of the hadith would have almost certainly derived from Gibbon.

Gibbon also points out that Mohammed’s disciples will enter paradise, as a result of their faith and in spite of whatever sins they may have committed. He doesn’t make clear whether he means a small discipleship, like the twelve of Jesus, or all believers, numbering hundreds of millions. In any case, presented in this bare fashion, this creates a serious moral dilemma, presented concisely by Matt Dillahunty on an episode of The Atheistic Experience. This is the dilemma between justice and mercy. As Dillahunty puts it, you can’t be absolutely just and totally merciful at the same time, because there is an inherent contradiction. To offer mercy and forgiveness and entry to paradise to believers, simply because they believe, no matter what their crimes, is incompatible, it seems, with any reasonable sense of justice, let alone absolute justice. And it presumably follows that if you don’t believe, no matter what your life has been, you’ll be debarred from heaven and will necessarily be eternally damned, there being no alternative.

Actually, though, because Jannah is written about in far more detail in the Quran that heaven is in the Bible, there may be a whiff of a response to the problem posed by Dillahunty. The response would be that Allah’s judgment is much more subtle and, of course, fair-minded, than a simple saved/damned dichotomy would suggest, for Jannah (heaven) and Jahannam (hell) are ‘streamed’, just like my old high school. Jannah has eight gates, and Jahannam seven, with each gate representing a different class of virtues, or vices, graded as to quality or lack thereof. It might be that simple unbelief, allied to good deeds, will get you into the least nasty of hell’s gates, which may be little worse than the meanest of heaven’s gates, especially if your unbelief is based on ignorance rather than wilfulness (and Allah knows all). According to one Islamic commentator, reflecting on whether Christians could ever get into heaven, ‘Though one must do good deeds and believe in God, salvation can only be attained through God’s judgement’. So the ultimate arbiter is ‘God’, who will decide not only whether the deeds are goodly enough to get into the top-graded gate, but also whether the god the believer believed in was the ‘rightest’ god. After all, the Christian believes in ‘God’ too, and, arguably, some Christians may believe in a god that, though they think of him as a Christian, is closer to the Koranic god than is the god in the head of some Islamic worshippers. So it wouldn’t be absurd to find Christians being ushered through one of the gates of Jannah, hastily brushing up on their Arabic and looking suitably bewildered.

But anyway I was supposed to be writing about sex in heaven, so I’m proving to be a bit of a disappointment there. And it depends on which heaven you’re talking about. Islamic heaven is as sexual as Mohammed seems to have been, while the Christian heaven is as sexless as Jesus. But it doesn’t matter, either way you’ll be blissed out, and the fact that we mostly think of bliss in sensual/sexual terms just shows how far we still are from attaining the transcendence of the Godhead. Ummmmm…


Written by stewart henderson

March 11, 2013 at 12:20 pm

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