Martyrs who die fighting for Islam are promised seventy-two virgins in paradise.
Scholars argue over whether this was actually ever promised in sacred texts. They debate too whether there was a correct interpretation of the concept. One scholar, Christoph Luxenberg*, suggests that a more accurate articulation would be something like ‘white raisins of crystal clarity’ rather than delightful virgins.
Of course, the whole idea is a metaphor for the pleasure that awaits the faithful in the after-life.
My own musings on this, deconstructing the patriarchal sexism, have pondered whether the promise of middle-aged, male virgins would be quite so alluring.
Fight the good fight and your reward will be a posse of clumsy, embarrassed and apologetic blokes nervously awaiting your advances.
Like geeks the world over, they might suggest that all your problems could be fixed if you would just switch off the machine, wait a few seconds and then switch it on again. A bit like death and reincarnation.
All of this is a preamble to a spiritual rant against certainty and religious indoctrination. Religious leaders, all leaders, should have higher ethical standards. They should know better than to manipulate insecure people with false promises. Seventy-two virgins!
There are essential tools that everyone should have in their tool bag of spiritual skills and practices. One of these is to be wisely sceptical of snake-oil salesmen, false prophets and spiritual teachers who offer certainty. To put it another way, people on the path of spiritual development need to be comfortable with unknowing.
The path of love, compassion and expanded consciousness, is full of mystery and unknowing.
I was in an enjoyable dialogue recently with a group of Jungian therapists. For me, that is a good mix: Explore archetypes and unseen connections, and care for people.
One very nice guy pondered that the path of spiritual growth seemed to him to be a complete waste of time. You end up, he mused, in this eternal, ecstatic, white light state. That was it. A brick wall. Nothing more. Boring. A waste of time.
I loved the provocation.
No, I responded, it is not like that at all. In my experience, and echoing many other mystics, what happens is this:
On our spiritual journey, we do indeed enter an ecstatic state. But it does not end there.
Using spiritual practices, we repeat being in that ecstatic state.
We develop those practices (usually in meditation) so consistently that the ecstatic state becomes a plateau, a normal experience. It is no longer a peak experience. We have expanded and that altered state of consciousness is now our norm.
Then, from that plateau, we continue to develop and grow. Our consciousness, our awareness of all that is, expands. And so we then, on a higher turn of the spiral, reach a new peak, a new plateau of experience
But that process of consciousness expansion and spiritual growth is always at an edge of mystery. It is a mystery because we are not capable of comprehending what comes next.
That is the essence of consciousness expansion. To repeat, we are not able to comprehend the next state – because it is beyond our current level of consciousness.
We don’t know what we will meet when our consciousness expands. We can only guess at, intuit or imagine, what the next state of consciousness will be like.
It is an unfolding mystery.
So . . . Far from ‘enlightenment’, ‘samadhi’ or ‘nirvana’ being a boring waste of time, a brick wall, the end, there is further exploration of the new — into something even more divine, extra-ordinary and metaphysical. It is an unfolding mystery.
It is essential then that we have that tool in our spiritual tool-bag, that we can be comfortable with unknowing.
It also calls for courage and purpose, wisdom, increased love, compassion and benevolence — as we melt and rebirth in the ocean of cosmic fire.
What could be more exciting?
Ah, asks the martyr, what about the seventy-two virgins?
The middle-aged geeks? I respond affectionately. I don’t think so.
The real reward is far more extraordinary, incomprehensible and enjoyable.
* ‘Die Syro-Aramaische Lesart des Koran’ quoted in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/jan/12/books.guardianreview5