Do You Know the Way to Paradise?

October 4, 2001

Nawaf Alhazmi, one of the suspected Sept. 11 hijackers, left behind a letter that outlined last-minute things he should do and think about, such as not forgetting his passport and ensuring he was not being followed. The letter, according to the FBI, also included these lines: “Keep a very open mind, keep a very open heart of what you are to face. You will be entering paradise. You will be entering the happiest life, everlasting life.”

It has become unfortunately common for suicide bombers to state, in eerie before-death videos that are released after an explosion kills dozens on an Israeli street, that they are looking forward to their fatal missions because they know they will reach paradise. That is questionable. The Quran forbids suicide and the killing of innocent people, so it’s more than likely that the 19 men who murdered more than 6,000 civilians last month will wake up in the last place they expected to be—hell.

But the question remains—why do Islamic suicide bombers believe they will go to paradise, and why are they so eager to go there? These questions are easy to explore in Peshawar, where it is hard to say a prayer without being overheard by a mullah. Peshawar, a conservative city in Muslim Pakistan, is near the Afghan border and gave birth to the Taliban’s ideas. Many Taliban leaders were trained at local madrasahs, or religious schools.

My exploration began by driving onto the manicured grounds of Peshawar University, which was built by the British during the days of the raj and still has a colonial feel. Students were playing cricket at dusk, and the campus atmosphere was more Oxford than Pakistan. I stopped at the white-washed residence of professor Qibla Ayaz, a leading Islamic scholar, and we were soon joined by professor Maraj ul Islam, whose expertise involves the interpretation of paradise.

Over tea and sweets, the Quranic discussion began. Paradise is explained quite vividly in suras (or chapters) 55 and 56 of the Quran, which note that those who enter paradise will enjoy “abundant fruits, unforbidden, never-ending.” There will be “gushing fountains” and everyone “shall recline on jeweled couches face to face, and there shall wait on them immortal youths with bowls and ewers and a cup of purest wine.”

Wine? Islam forbids alcohol, but only in the earthly life. In paradise, alcohol is no problem at all. It is available not simply for the asking, but for the mere thinking. If you think you want a glass of wine, or anything at all, you shall have it. And that is not the only item forbidden in this life yet plentiful in paradise.

“Therein are bashful virgins whom neither man nor jinnee will have touched before … virgins as fair as corals and rubies,” states sura 55. A few lines later, we are reminded of “virgins chaste and fair … they shall recline on green cushions and fine carpets.”

When I asked professor ul Islam, who has a doctorate from Leeds University, what the usefulness of these virgins might be for a male resident of paradise, he patted my forearm in a friendly way and said, “You will know when you get there.” His laughter was abundant; I got the joke.

But why does Allah offer luxuries in paradise that are sinful on earth? Free sex, alcohol, bejeweled furniture—paradise would seem a strangely un-Islamic place.

“You are put to the test in this world,” professor Ayaz explained. “If you pass, there are no bans in the next world. It is free.” He went on: “What is the meaning of life? Is life a big house, a good job, a comfortable bank balance? Muslims who believe in their faith are not trying to have a comfortable life here. They are trying to please Allah.” An eternally comfortable life will come in paradise, which is the payoff for the hard times required by Allah on this side of the great divide.

Professor Ayaz raised, without prompting, the question of a typical suicide bomber.

“What is the force that leads him to this act, leaving his family and friends? It is because he is convinced he is going to paradise.”

Professor Ayaz does not believe suicide bombers, such as those responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington, will wake up in a roomful of virgins. Because those men committed suicide and killed innocents, they are going to hell. Professor ul Islam agreed but downplayed paradise as a motivating factor. He noted the presence in our world of suicide attackers who aren’t paradise-besotted Muslims—the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, as well as the fanatics who shoot up post offices or fast-food restaurants in the United States. “They don’t do it for wine,” Professor ul Islam said. That’s certainly true, but the allure of paradise cannot be ignored. If it’s not important, why would bombers mention it?

In search of more answers, I drove a few miles down the road from professor Ayaz’s house, which is surrounded by a tranquil garden, to another universe, filled with tumult, smog, poverty, laughter, and anger. This is the main bazaar of Peshawar, where beggars and peddlers and cars and donkeys are in a war of noises. I visited a mosque presided over by Movlana Fazle Ahad, a mullah who is also a leader of the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a political party that strongly supports the Taliban. The mullah sat on a rug in a sparse room of the mosque, which doubles as a madrasah, and explained the most important aspect of paradise.

“Jihad”—holy war—”is the way of Allah, fighting against people who are harming Muslims,” he said. “In the Quran, Allah says that jihad is the best way for entering paradise.” There are many ways of doing a jihad, he noted, such as donating money to the cause, but the best method, he said, is to risk and lose your life in battle.

“The West is very materialistic, and people believe only in this world, with all its luxuries,” Fazle Ahad continued. “They have no faith in the next life. But my students are very aware and confident of the next life. Because they are my students, they know about the reward of paradise in a jihad. They are not afraid.”

Fazle Ahad noted the injunction against killing innocents and condemned the World Trade Center attacks as atrocities. But in his view, suicide bombing, if committed properly, is Islamic. For example, he believes the suicide bombers in Israel aim to kill soldiers and that civilian casualties are collateral damage of an unfortunate nature, but not paradise-nullifying.

“It is my hope that [the Palestinian bombers] are going to paradise because they are on a jihad, working for Allah,” he said. “They are defending Islam and Muslims, so they must go to paradise.”

Nearly 50 boys attend Fazle Ahad’s madrasah, all of them from Afghanistan, and a dozen of them were sitting outside the room where the mullah and I were meeting. They were studying the Quran, which is, typically, the only subject at madrasahs. No social studies, no foreign languages or current events, just the Quran, constantly. The mullah’s interpretation prevails.

Just as life is not easy for most people in Pakistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, life is not easy for Fazle Ahad’s students. They sleep on a hard floor in a room that is unheated in winter and without air conditioning in the summer. They have no contact with females. The food they eat is not in paradise-like proportions. There are no chubby students at the madrasah, and their clothes are a few threads from threadbare.

I sat down with the pupils. Atta Ullah, who is 19 and was born in a village near the Afghan city of Jalalabad, offered me what he believes to be the most important bit of information about paradise: “It is for those who go on a jihad, and if they are killed, they will go to paradise.” And what happens up there? “Life in paradise is whatever you want it to be—you can have all the fruit you want, all the beautiful women you want. All of these things are available in paradise.”

Looking around the sparse mosque, and noticing a pile of cast-off bread that seemed likely to compose the midday meal, I could understand the attraction of paradise, and I feared the malleability of the students’ minds. That evening, reading the Quran, I noticed, in sura 56, the following lines about Muslims who go to hell: “They shall dwell amidst scorching winds and seething water, in the shade of pitch-black smoke.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.