At this point, you are probably asking, "What's so special about martyrdom?" If you're not, go ahead and humor me by asking it anyway. Thank you.
Martyrdom is special because it gets you into heaven immediately and the heaven depicted in the Koran and other Islamic texts is a pretty appealing place for young suicide bombers. In the Koran, heaven is depicted as a place with lots of tree-shaded comfortable silk couches where people recline while eating fruit and poultry, as pure water gushes nearby. In other words, heaven is just like my aunt's house with the sprinklers on.
The Koran is a seventh-century text, so I presume that since it was dictated by the Almighty to the Prophet Mohammed all those years ago that heaven has acquired some modern amenities. Young martyrs would probably appreciate a Playstation, a DVD player or one of those new iMacs with the flat screen.
According to Islam, though, heaven also has some features that you can't find at a shopping mall or an aunt's house (that is unless of course your aunt is the headmistress at an all-girl's boarding school.) I am of course referring to virgins. Lots of them. The Koran says that in heaven there are virgins available to be your lovers and companions. Clearly, the Muslim version of heaven was designed only to appeal to men. I don't know of any woman whose idea of heaven includes sex with virgins.
Since 9-11, there have been conflicting reports in the press about the exact number of virgins that martyrs are entitled to once they cross the great divide. The most definitive statement that I could find about virgins comes not from the Koran but from one of the Hadiths (texts based on the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammed). According to various Hadiths, the Prophet mentioned that heaven's bounty includes an enormous ruby, pearl and aquamarine dome under which you will live with 72 virginal wives and 80,000 servants. Presumably the gaudy dome is in addition to the tree-shaded silk couches mentioned in the Koran. Another Hadith describes the heavenly abode as a hollowed-out pearl that stretches for 60 miles. No word on whether the meat from the enormous oyster that produced it is available to the 72-wived men who will undoubtedly need it.
In addition to the myriad of supposed heavenly benefits, martyrdom also has some tangible earthly perks. The families of bombers receive thousands of dollars from the organization that sponsored the bombing and from troublemaking Israel-haters like Iraq. Palestianian suicide bombers are also the subjects of honorific graffiti, martyr of the month calendars and anthemic songs. Believe me, you'll never understand the lure of martyrdom until you've heard Eddie Money's "Two Tickets to Paradise" in Arabic.
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