Houri

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Houri

Houri (or huri) refers to a pure feminine being in Islamic paradise that the Koran promises to the Muslim believer. In Arabic, the plural (hur) and singular (hawra') are related to the verb root hwr, which is associated with whiteness. In particular, the Koranic phrase hur 'ayn is understood to refer to the sclerotic part of the eye. By implication, the houri is a being with large or dark eyes like a gazelle; as a result, the houri is often understood as a doe-eyed beauty.

In the Koran and early Islamic textual tradition, the houri emerges as a pure female companion for believers. In the Koran, houris are mentioned or referred to as "companions" (44:54, 52:20), "restrained" (55:72), "like pearls well-guarded" (56:22-23), and "virginal" (56:35-37). In the sura (chapter) of the Koran called al-Rahman (The Merciful), their conditions are discussed: They live in pavilions or tents; no man or jinn has touched them before; and they recline on rich carpets of beauty (55:54-56).

In early Islamic tradition, houris may also have had an earthly dimension. In the Sirat Rasul Allah, the first chronicle of the life of Muhammad, composed by Ibn Ishaq (c. 704–767 ce) and edited by Ibn Hisham (d. 834 ce), houris are first described as rewards for the wounded:

    … yet I am a Muslim
    I hope in exchange for life near to Allah
    With Houris fashioned like the most beautiful statues
    With the highest Garden for those who mount there.
                         (Ibn Ishaq 2001 [1955], p. 350)

Houris are also mentioned as female caretakers of the dying in battle.

As Islamic tradition developed, descriptions of houris became more sensual. In hadith, the canonical collections of the traditions of the prophet Muhammad, houris were identified by their pure skin and translucent limbs. Their white limbs are so fair and fine that their bones can be seen through them. Their white gauzy garments flow in the breeze. When they walk into the marketplace, their scent wafts for miles. In al-Tirmidhi's (d. c. 892 ce) collection, the houris also speak in their melodic voices: "We live forever and never pass away, we are affluent and never austere, we are content and never discontent. Blessed are those who belong to us and to whom we belong" (translated from Tirmidhi n.d. [892], p. 696). In the allegorical mystical tale of al-Muhasibi (c. 781–857 ce), the houri figures in the narrative as a beautiful alluring woman in the male believer's courtyard palace in paradise.

In European discourse, the term, which enters English through French from the Persian plural hurriyat, signifies beautiful Oriental maidens. In particular, in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819), the term houri plays a role in the description of Rebecca the Jewess: "What is she, Isaac? Thy wife or thy daughter, that Eastern houri that thou lockest under thy arm?" (Scott 1998 [1832], pp. 93-94).] Within Islamic contemporary discourse, houris are not just seen as virginal beauties; instead, their significance is contested. Some modern theologians suggest that the houri should be interpreted metaphorically instead of literally. Others see the houri as an example of the patriarchal nature of Islam. Yet others suggest that houris are considered rewards in only the early stages of Koranic recitation. Whereas scholars question how to interpret houris, many Muslims consider the houri a reward of paradise, and contemporary jihadists, in particular, cite the houri as among the rewards awaiting martyrs. The issue of how to interpret the houri and what her purity means, then, remains an active issue in Muslim discourse.

see also Islam.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ibn Ishaq. 2001 (1955). The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ishaq's "Sirat Rasul Allah," trans. A. Guillaume. Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford University Press.

Muhasibi, al-. 1978. Une vision humaine des fins dernières: Le Kitab al-tawahhum d'al-Muhasibi [A human vision of the last days: the book of imagination of al-Muhasibi], trans. André Roman. Paris: Klincksieck.

Scott, Sir Walter. 1998. Ivanhoe. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Jane Idelman, and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad. 1981. Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Tirmidhi-al. (n.d.) 892. al-Jami' al-Sahih: wa huwa Sunan al-Tirmidhi Vol. 4, eds. Shakir, Ahmad Muhammad, et al. Beirut: Dar Ihya' al-Turath al-'Arabi.

Wadud, Amina. 1999. Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

                                          Nerina Rustomji

houri

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houri a beautiful young woman, especially one of the virgin companions of the faithful in the Muslim Paradise. The word (recorded from the 18th century) comes through Persian from Arabic, meaning ‘having eyes with a marked contrast of black and white’.

houri

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houri nymph of the Muslim paradise. XVIII. — F. — Pers. hūrī, f. Arab. ḥūr, pl. of ḥaurā' black-eyed.

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