What is the source of the apparent claim that every person who dies a “martyr” in jihad will have seventy-two virgins awaiting in Paradise?
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The Qur’an itself mentions nothing of the sort, referring only to the presence of houris (dark-eyed maidens, perhaps) in the “gardens” of reward, and with no reference to martyrdom in that context. Only two hadiths (sayings of Muhammad), each found in only one of the “six” authoritative collections of hadiths (those of Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah), seem to refer to this claim. One of the traditions places seventy-two houris among the “eighty thousand servants” (not seventy-two for each) residing on the “lowest Heaven” and makes no mention of martyrs there (Ibn Majah); and martyrs are typically said to reside in a loftier Heaven. In the version most quoted we find: “The martyr has six distinctions in the view of God: he will be forgiven from the start, be shown his resting place in Paradise, be protected from the torment of the tomb, be secured from the greatest terror, have a crown of dignity put on his head, of which one ruby will be better than the world and all that is in it, be married to seventy-two wives among the houris and be given to intercede for seventy of his relatives” (Tirmidhi). Note that this hadith says nothing about precisely what constitutes “martyrdom,” while equally ancient and much better-attested traditions condemn all forms of suicide unequivocally.
Both traditions are attested by only one transmitting source, and are thereby judged by most scholars to be well below the maximum level of authenticity and credibility. Attestation of a saying by so few authoritative sources, and its correspondingly low authenticity rating, are among the criteria that undercut the credibility of a saying attributed to Muhammad. In other words, the text almost automatically cited in news reports as clear motivation is not only flimsily attested, according the well-known judgments of ancient Muslim scholars, but does not in fact say precisely, let alone clearly, what popular reporting (both Muslim as well as non-Muslim) claims it says.