Soon after the murder of five servicemen in Chatanooga, politicians and government officials began to refer to the massacre as “senseless”. Defense Secretary Ash Carter called it a “senseless act of violence,” Hillary Clinton pronounced it “an act of senseless violence,” and Tennessee Congressman Scott DesJarlais concurred that it was a “senseless act of violence.”
But was it? Not from the point of view of Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez. By all accounts, he was a devout Muslim and his blog posts suggest that he sought a more “comprehensive” understanding of Islam. One of the main themes of his blog concerns the vanity of this-worldly distractions compared to the everlasting rewards of heaven: “Allah says live for this life and the hereafter according to their length. Rasulullah [Muhammad] says the life on this world is like a drop compared to an ocean.”
These are not the rantings of a person who has taken loss of his senses. Indeed, the vanity of worldly pleasures is emphasized both in the Bible and in the works of the great philosophers. Likewise, numerous Christian saints have taught that transient earthly rewards are not to be compared to heavenly ones.
Both Abdulazeez and the Christian saints are agreed on the superiority of the afterlife. The place where they part company is on the means used to obtain the heavenly rewards. Although faith and good works makes one eligible for the Islamic paradise, the only guaranteed way of getting there is to die while fighting in Allah’s cause. Indeed, the honor and superiority of martyrdom is so great that, according to a number of Hadiths, the martyr upon reaching heaven will ask to go back to the world so he can be martyred again. To get an idea of just how highly the martyr is valued, recall the jubilation in the Muslim world after the 9/11 martyrdom attack. Or consider that in Palestine, streets and monuments are named in honor of martyrs whose sole achievement in many cases was the murder of innocent families.
So, by his own lights and according to a very strong tradition in Islam, Abdulazeez’s actions were not senseless. Moreover, although any non-believer is ipso facto an enemy of Allah, Abdulazeez took pains to target soldiers—fitting representatives of the Dar al-Harb or “House of War,” Islam’s perpetual enemy. It’s probable that, like Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood killer, he considered himself a “soldier of Allah” and therefore sought other soldiers as opponents.
One other indication that the killings were not senseless is that Abdulazeez chose the month of Ramadan to execute his plan. It is commonly believed by Muslims that the reward for committing good deeds is multiplied from ten to seven hundred times during Ramadan. Moreover, worship done on Laylat al-Qadr (“The Night of Power”) is worth more than worship done in a thousand months. Although the specific date is not known, it is believed to fall during the last ten days of Ramadan. Abdulazeez committed his crime on the next to the last day of the holy month.
However odd the Ramadan dating system, there appears to have been nothing about Mohammod to indicate that he was odd in the head. He suffered from bouts of depression and alcohol abuse, but that sort of thing has become fairly common for men of his age. If anything, he seemed to understand the odds very well and thought it worth the chance. If he searched various mainstream Muslim websites for “rewards of Ramadan” (as he likely did), he would have found some encouragement for putting all his chips on Ramadan. Not that the sites recommend violence, but the four that I checked all present Ramadan in terms of a great bargain—or, in the words of one site, “the sale of the year” when “every good deed comes with bonus points.” Another site promotes good deeds in Ramadan as a “huge investment for the afterlife.” Still another ends up its sales pitch for observing Ramadan with “Imagine the reward, and don’t waste this chance, not even a second of it.” And what good deed ranks the highest? Here’s the answer from the most authoritative Hadith collection:
Allah’s Apostle was asked, “What is the best deed?” He replied, “to believe in Allah and His Apostle [Muhammad], the questioner then asked, “What is the next [in goodness]?” He replied, “to participate in Jihad [religious fighting] in Allah’s Cause” (Bukhari 1.2.25)
Much has been made of Abdulazeez’s problems—his drinking, his marijuana use, and his pending bankruptcy. Supposedly, these factors and not his religious beliefs somehow explain his actions. Yet Abdulazeez was well aware of his faults and he may have been seeking a way to compensate for them. As Robert Spencer puts it:
If a jihadist knows he is about to wage a great jihad, he knows its value will outweigh anything evil he has done. He knows that he can assuage his guilty conscience over drinking and smoking marijuana and guarantee for himself a place in Paradise.
With the exception of the terminally naïve, just about everyone now realizes that the main reward for a male Muslim martyr is supposed to be 72 virgins—or, in the case of Mr. Abdulazeez (if his timing was right), 72,000. So from a profit-loss perspective his jihad assault could hardly be considered “a senseless act.”
Fighting the radical Islamic ideology
Fortunately, at least one politician did have something sensible to say about the attack. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal challenged Muslim leaders to denounce radical Islamic terrorists by name. “It’s not enough to just denounce violence in general,” he said, “you need to publicly and privately, and every other way, say these individuals are not martyrs, they’re not going to enjoy a reward in the afterlife, they are going straight to Hell.”
When security experts are asked by TV hosts to come up with a solution to jihad, they invariably say that we have to fight the ideology. Governor Jindal has just proposed a very good way of fighting it. After all, virgins in paradise are a major part of the motivation for waging jihad. The “high-bosomed” houris, as they are sometimes called, seem to loom large in the imagination of jihadists, including Muhammad Atta, who packed a wedding suit and a bottle of cologne for his 9/11 trip to paradise.
It therefore makes a lot of sense to challenge the notion that jihadists are going to enjoy the companionship of dozens of lovely maidens in the hereafter. If jihadists could be persuaded that there are seventy-two demons in Hell awaiting them rather than seventy-two damsels in paradise, jihad would quickly lose its allure. At that point, it would become a truly senseless act and therefore an infrequent one since most men, no matter how depraved, like to believe that there is some sense to what they do.
How might this ideological undermining be accomplished? Jindal is right that the major onus should fall on Muslim leaders. Quite obviously, their word will carry more weight with other Muslims than anything that an infidel like Bobby Jindal might have to say. On the other hand, asking the leadership to take such a stand is a tricky proposition because many of them also believe in the seventy-two and are undoubtedly hoping for their own reward.
Nevertheless, let’s try to imagine ways to get jihadists to think a little more deeply about this whole virgins-in-paradise business. One venue is the TV news interview. Let’s suppose, for instance, that a Fox News host is interviewing a prominent imam on the subject. Here are some questions that could be posed:
Imam, a number of experts say that jihadi terrorists are motivated by the conviction that they will be rewarded with 72 virgins in paradise. Is that what Islam teaches? And where does that figure of 72 come from?
Imam, Governor Jindal says that Muslim leaders should denounce jihadists by name and assert that they will receive no reward in paradise. Are you willing to do that here tonight in regard to Mohammod Abdulazeez? In your opinion, is Mr. Abdulazeez in Heaven right now or in Hell?
(Assuming that the imam consigns Abdulazeez to Hell). Imam, according to Islamic scripture, a warrior who is killed fighting in the cause of Allah is guaranteed entrance into Paradise. Are there any jihad causes that are legitimate? For example, will a Boko Haram warrior be rewarded with virgins should he be killed in battle? How about an ISIS warrior? An Hamas warrior? An Al-Qaeda warrior? A warrior for Hezbollah?
Most potential jihadists are probably not regular viewers of the Fox News channel. On the other hand, should the prominent imam proclaim Abdulazeez a denizen of Hell, the news would be picked up by other sources, and the segment could well go viral on YouTube. In addition, Muslim clerics from every mosque in America could be asked to sign a pledge to the effect that Mr. Abdulazeez doesn’t qualify for heavenly rewards, and a statement to that effect could be read during the Friday sermon.
A unified denial of Abdulazeez’s claim to paradise might give pause to many potential jihadists. But others might not be dissuaded. In his blog, Abdulazeez warned his “brothers and sisters” not to let “other prisoners [of this deceptive world], whether they are so-called ‘scholars’ or even your family members, divert you from the truth…Allah will guide you to what is right.” Thanks to the Internet, many would-be muhajideen feel more allegiance to radicals half a world away than they do to their local mosques.
An exclusive, senseless paradise
However, even if a majority of jihadists were to be unimpressed with authoritative mainstream condemnations, there is another, somewhat more subtle benefit that comes from bringing the topic of virgins-in-paradise into public discussion.
The problem with the doctrine of the 72 is that it’s the kind of thing that suffers from too much exposure. The more you talk about it, the more ridiculous it seems. For one thing, there is the sheer inequality of the scheme. Men get 72 virgins, but what do women get? The Koran is largely silent on the subject. Presumably, they get the gardens with running waters, the rivers of wine, and the fruit-laden trees, but the Koran, which is so solicitous of the companionship needs of men, makes no similar provision for women.
What’s more, the gates of paradise are apparently closed to non-Muslims. For example, it doesn’t matter how many good works a Christian does or how firmly he trusts in God. If he still persists in worshipping the Trinity, he goes to Hell.
The Islamic paradise is an exclusive club—more accurately, an exclusive men’s club. The place seems to have been designed to cater above all to the dreams and desires of men—and not very mature men at that. In the Koran, the Hadith, and the various commentaries, there is an almost obsessive concern with the physical qualities of the seventy-two “wives.” They are variously described as “high-bosomed,” “fully rounded,” “dark-eyed,” and “delightfully passionate.” They are specially created for their husbands, they are all of the same age, they never grow old, and their virginity is restored on a daily basis. Moreover, according to several hadith, the Muslim male in paradise will be given a supernatural sexual stamina. In short, there may be little time left over in the daily routine to discuss the poetry of Omar Khayyam or any other book of verses.
All of this seems fairly ridiculous from a Western point of view, and Muslims ought to at least get a taste of just how nonsensical this adolescent pipedream is. Unfortunately, most of us can’t get beyond the notion that we have to respect all other beliefs—no matter how ridiculous or dangerous. And so, in regard to Islam, we take our cues from Muslims as to what we can say and what we can’t say. It’s okay to talk about the fairly innocuous Five Pillars of Islam—the declaration of faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage—and so that is what our schools teach about Islam. On the other hand, there are subjects that Muslims don’t want us to approach, and so we step gingerly around them. Virgins in paradise seems to be one of those subjects. From the lack of public discussion about the paradisiacal reward system, one gets the impression that, like the Korans in Guantanamo prison, the topic needs to be handled with kid gloves.
You could argue that it might be offensive to Muslims to debate such a delicate matter. Undoubtedly, many a young Muslim male has protective feelings about his cherished brides-to-be in the afterlife. And many non-Muslims will likely agree that it’s insensitive to step all over another person’s private beliefs.
The other side of the coin is that the doctrines and traditions of Islam are already in the public record. They can readily be found in Islamic sources or in encyclopedias or on the Internet. Moreover, when “private beliefs” become an incentive to public jihad, there is no excuse for not opening them up to debate.
There could be many forums for the “debate”: the Internet, social media sites, TV news programs, radio talk shows. The more discussion, the better. The point is not necessarily to embarrass anyone, but to allow the embarrassing nature of the belief to reveal itself: the sharp inequalities, the perception of women as nothing more than sex objects, the childish obsession with large numbers (according to one hadith, each male in Paradise gets 80,000 servants in addition to the 72 wives).
As I said before, some ideas don’t stand up to too much exposure. Muslim men and youth deserve to know that the rest of the world considers their idea of heaven to be nothing more than a childish fantasy. The question can be put as delicately and as sensitively as possible, but Muslim males need to be prompted to ask themselves something along the following lines: “What is it about you, other than sheer adolescent self-centeredness, that makes you think you are so important that God will specially create 72 human beings for the sole purpose of catering to your desires?”
This leaves aside the question of whether the houris are actually human beings or whether they are more like bionic Barbie dolls. But in such matters, it’s probably best to ask only one question at a time. However, there is one more question that jihadis and would-be jihadis should be asking themselves: “Isn’t it likely that maidens-in-paradise is nothing more than a clever recruiting tool made up by Muhammad to convince men to fight for him? Could it be that you are being duped in a similar manner today?”
Again, there are those who will think it churlish to inquire too closely into the deeply held beliefs of others. But there is a time for politeness and a time for frank discussion, and the present time seems to be of the later variety. As I wrote previously:
Since the lure of paradise is such a central motivator in the lives of jihadists, it makes sense to disabuse them of that belief. By undercutting that certitude, you also undermine the will to fight. Who wants to die for an illusion? Those of us who would prefer not to become a jihadist’s ticket to paradise have a vested interest in sowing doubts in the minds of Muslim believers about the nature of paradise.
By the way, I am in no way suggesting that anyone ought to be making fun of virginity per se. It is largely because we have ridiculed concepts such as virginity, chastity, honor, faith, family, and a whole host of other Western values that we are in the fix we are in. As it turns out, all of the relativistic “values” we have put in their place are not much good when it comes to resisting determined true believers. So it may be time to stop worrying about other people’s deeply held beliefs and start paying attention to our own. Here’s one observation from our tradition that we might share with our Muslim brothers:
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. (1 Cor 13:11).