Allusions to pure female companions—called hur in Arabic and referred to as houris or "virgins" in English—are so commonplace that they represent pervasive assumptions about Islam. The intense focus on houris may be a twenty-first century trend; however, the fascination with these celestial beings began long before September 11th. This presentation provides an account of how an ambiguous figure found within Islamic theological writings gained a distinctive place in English, French, and American literature since the eighteenth century. It argues that Americans inherited a developing European understanding of the houri and incorporated it within their early notions about Islam in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The events of September 11th and the explosion of new media, however, amplified the houri into a metonymy for Islam. What was formerly an Islamic theological figure has transformed, in the last decade, into a distinctly Atlantic symbol of Islam.
Nerina Rustomji, a historian in residence in the Library's Wertheim Study, is Associate Professor at St. John's University. Her first book The Garden and the Fire: Heaven and Hell in Islamic Culture, which won a Choice Outstanding Academic Title in 2009, narrates a history of heaven and hell in Islamic texts, material cultures, and book arts from the seventh century C.E. She is currently completing The Virgins of Islamic Paradise: A Global History, which examines one of the most sensational tropes about Islam: pure female companions or houris in Islamic Paradise. The project has received fellowship support from the American Council of Learned Societies (2007-2008) and the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan (2008).
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