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Apr 5, 2022

The fascination with the houri, the pure female of Islamic paradise, began long before September 11, 2001.

The Beauty of the Houri: Heavenly Virgins, Feminine Ideals demonstrates how the ambiguous reward of the houri, mentioned in the Qur’an and developed in Islamic theological writings, has gained a distinctive place in the cultural eye from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century.

We talk with Nerina Rustomji, an associate professor of History at St. John’s University and the author of The Beauty of the Houri: Heavenly Virgins, Feminine Ideals.

The houri had multiple functions in Islamic texts that ranged from caretaker, to pure companion, to personal entertainment. French, English, and American writers used the houri to critique Islam and Muslim societies, while also adopting the houri as a model of feminine beauty.

Unlike earlier texts that presented different forms of the houri or universalized the houri for all women, writings about the houri after September 11th offer contradictory messages about Islam. In the twenty-first century, the image of the houri has come to symbolize a reward for violence and the possibility of gender