There is a common misconception among modern Muslim men that they will be rewarded with white women in Paradise. This attitude has even caused some to justify their preference of light-skin women and Western women through Islamic texts that describe beautiful women in this world and the Hereafter. They put white skin on a pedestal, which both sidelines women with darker complexions, and objectifies women with lighter skin. I would like to investigate the claim that the heavenly maidens of Paradise are essentially "white girls".
Heaven is unlike anything
In the hadith literature, Paradise is described as what the eye has not seen, what the ear has not heard, and what the heart has not imagined. ( مَا لَا عَيْنٌ رَأَتْ وَ لَا أُذُنٌ سَمِعَتْ وَ لَا خَطَرَ عَلَى قَلْبِ بَشَرٍ ). You will be an entirely new creation in Paradise, which will cause those who suffered most in this world to completely forget their suffering. Therefore the descriptions of the pleasures of Paradise are, at most, symbols of things that we cannot exactly know.
The meaning of abyad
The word that modern Arabs use to refer to the colour "white" ( أبيض ) has certainly been used to describe the women of Paradise. In one narration, the Prophet (s) says that the women of Paradise will be every shade of "white" ( ان في الجنة نهرا حافتاه الابكار من كل بيضاء ). In another narration, Imam ar-Rida recites a poem in which he describes beautiful "white" women ( أَرَى الِبيضَ الْحِسَانَ يَجِدْنَ عَنِّي ). Other narrations associate this "whiteness" with pleasure ( سعادة الرجل أن يكشف الثوب عن امرأة بيضاء ).
But what does all of this mean? Abyad comes from the root word bayada ( بيض ), which means "to lay eggs". An egg is a bayda ( بيضة ), and eggs can be white or brown, depending on the colour of the feathers of the chicken. In Arabic, there is no special word for either type of egg, both are given the name bayda, which is related to the word for "white".
Several Arabic dictionaries have interpreted abyad to mean pure, fair, and without blemish; rather than strictly "white". Here are a few references:
In Lisan al-`Arab:
إذا قالت العرب فلان أبيض، وفلانة بيضاء، فالمعنى نقاء العرض من الدنس والعيوب لا يريدون به بياض اللون، ولكنهم يريدون المدح بالكرم، ونقاء العرض من العيوب وإذا قالوا: فلان أبيض الوجه، وفلانة بيضاء الوجه، أرادوا نقاء اللون من الكلف والسواد الشائن
“When the Arabs say that a man is white or a woman is white, they mean that he has an appearance that is pure and clear from defects. They don’t mean that he has a white complexion, but they mean that someone has an appearance that is pure from defects. When they say that a man or woman has a white face, they mean that their colour is pure from blemish and darkness.
”العرب لا تقول : رجل أبيض من بياض اللون إنما الأبيض عندهم الطاهر النقي من العيوب”
The Arab does not say that a man is white in terms of the colour white. Rather, the "white" for them is he who is pure from any defects.
Abu Tayyib al-Lughawi says in Kitab al-Idad al-`Arab:
” و انما الأبيض من الناس البعيد من الدنس، النقي من العيب“
The whitest of people are those who are far from impurity, and are purified from defects.
Ibn Atheer says in an-Nahaya fii Ghareeb al-Hadith:
الغر : جمع الأغر ، من الغرة : بياض الوجه ، يريد بياض وجوههم بنور الوضوء يوم القيامة
The innocent (al-ghurr); its plural is al-aghur, from al-ghurra: a white face, meaning, a face whitened by light and illumination on the Day of Resurrection.
al-Dhahabi says in Siyar A`laam an-Nubala':
“إن العرب إذا قالت: فلان أبيض ، فإنهم يريدون الحنطي اللون بحلية سوداء”
When Arabs say a person is white, they mean tawny in colour with black hair.
So according to these dictionaries, "whiteness" in a person is either: (1) purity in their reputation, (2) purity in their appearance with no blemishes or defects (scars, birth marks, discolouration, wrinkles, moles, bumps), (3) tawny or wheat-coloured skin, (4) light and illumination, (5) a strong contrast between their face and hair colours.
The meaning of hoor al-`ayn
The Quran describes the houri (hoor al-`ayn) as a heavenly beauty that has been gifted exclusively to a good, believing person. The Quran does not provide much more detail than that. The hoor al-`ayn can be translated as "one with contrasting eyes", and it is often tied to the related word hawra', which refers to a person who has a strong contrast between her dark pupil and white sclera (white part of the eye). If this is the meaning of hooriya, then her "whiteness" may have more to do with her eyes than her skin. The word hawar can also mean "to bleach", but also "to tan". The same word is used in the Quran to refer to the apostles of Jesus, who were "purified" from evil ( فَسُمِّيَ الْحَوَارِيُّونَ حَوَارِيِّينَ لانَّهُمْ كَانُوا مُخْلَصِينَ فِي أَنْفُسِهِمْ وَمُخْلِصِينَ لِغَيْرِهِمْ مِنْ أَوْسَاخِ الذُّنُوبِ ). The word therefore may also be an indication to the maiden's spiritual purity and not just her physical beauty.
The word hoor also means to change, alter, remodel, and modify, so perhaps one feature of this heavenly beauty is constant rejuvenation and transformation.
Another related word means to converse and discuss - it is possible that there is more to the houri than her looks!
I have heard that there may be a relationship between hooriya and hayara, which means "to be confused, bewildered, perplexed, baffled, embarrassed", because the believer will be perplexed by the startling beauty of the hoor al-`ayn.
Remember that we cannot imagine Paradise, so the skintone of the heavenly beauty would also be beyond comprehension.
The word for "pale" in Arabic is actually yellow
When Arabs describe a pale complexion, such as a pale face of an ill person, they use the word musfar (مصفر), which means "yellowed", rather than saying he has been whitened.
The Prophet's colour
Many hadiths describe the Prophet Muhammad (s) as being abyad, but these could be descriptions of the fairness of his skin or the purity of his character. Other hadiths say that the Prophet was reddish. To reconcile both sets of narrations, one can say that he had a tawny or wheatish complexion, which was light in Arabia but unlike the pale western Europeans. While modern Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, and Germanic peoples have a monopoly on "whiteness" today, most people in the Middle East would have never met such people by the 7th century.
White faces on the Day of Resurrection
The Quran describes the believers' faces on the Day of Resurrection as "white" (3:106), but this will be due to their illumination. Some hadiths describe that the body parts washed in wudu will glow in the Hereafter, which includes the face, and other hadiths say that the wudu washes sins away from a person. Similarly, other narrations discuss the illumination of the faces of those who stay up to pray at night. These are not references to pigment.
"Whiteness" will be due to light, and the colour of light, which was found in the Sun, Moon, and fire, ranges from orange to light yellow.
Lady Fatima was a human houri
Several narrations describe Lady Fatima (as) as a human houri. Her houri nature in Paradise was a dazzling light ( نورا ساطعا ) - first she was beneath the Throne, and then she resided within a fruit in Paradise - both in the form of a beautiful lady of light.
Paradise is much more than this world
In conclusion, there is much more to look forward to in the next world than conquering a colonial inferiority complex. Muslims have a very complicated relationship with white folks - from lust, to hatred, to jealousy, to emulation - and our relationships with other races are no where near as complex. The first step to overcome something is to realize and understand it. Allah gave us all of our hues so that we may learn about one another, and understand that the Creator of spectrums is beyond all spectrums Himself. If the hoor al-`ayn is simply a pretty white girl, then she would not be a sufficient reward for the believers, since there are plenty of them in this dunya. Paradise is more than a brothel, open bar, and buffet. It's a chance to gain true proximity to Allah, through His Prophet and Ahl al-Bayt, and to gain gnosis. The journey into timelessness starts in this world, and it culminates in the Hereafter.