The female companions of the Garden

The subject of ḥūr ʿīn and kawāʿib as used in the Qur’an

While some well-intentioned Qur’an-centric researchers may baulk at the Traditionalist’s values for these terms (coming as they do from the ḥadīth) a full and systematic comparison of instances and contexts reveals the Traditionalist’s values here to be fully sustainable – though, admittedly, not for the reasons the Traditionalist himself offers.

There is scant internal Qur’anic etymological information with which to work in this case, the terms themselves and those surrounding and supporting them commonly occurring in one or a couple of instances only. Thus, we have limited options for root comparisons or pan-textual analysis.

However, we are able to offer a strong case for our conclusions on the basis of instance location (i.e. where those instances which exist occur); by leveraging established meanings of such known values as intersect with those verses under review; and by referencing surrounding contexts.

ḥūr ʿīn

The term ḥūr ʿīn occurs at 44:54, 52:20, 56:22 and is rendered by the Traditionalist along the lines of fair women with large [beautiful] eyes, or pure, lustrous-eyed maidens (as here).

At 52:20 the verb zawwaja (to match, to pair, to marry) takes ḥūr ʿīn as an object via the preposition bi:

And we match them with pure, lustrous-eyed maidens. (52:20)

While the verb zawwaja may be used without a preposition in the sense of to marry someone to someone else; to match someone with someone else – and is used thus at 33:37, Wehr’s authoritative Arabic-English dictionary notes the same sense with the preposition bi (as is the case at 44:54 and 52:20).

To claim an exceptional case at 44:54 and 52:20 based on the presence of the preposition bi would require exceptional etymological support within the Qur’an; and support of that kind is simply not there.

However, we can point to context, and at 44:51-54 the context is of ‘facing one another’ (44:53) in gardens. The statement that God matches the believers with ḥūr ʿīn at 44:54 is followed by ‘They call therein for every fruit in safety’ (44:55). Certainly, this context suggests human interaction.

At 52:20 the surrounding context is of ‘reclining on couches’ and the progeny of those who heed warning following them to the garden. Again, the context is of a distinctly human, personal type and if we look at the entire surrounding context for 56:22 (56:10-26) we see that it, too, treats of human or personal interaction in the garden; whatever ḥūr ʿīn are, they fit within a human and intimate scenario.

For these reasons, I am satisfied that the term ḥūr ʿīn indicates living persons or personages and that to claim abstruse derivations and interpretations for ḥūr ʿīn is not only not possible on the basis of demonstrable pan-textual etymology, it is not warranted by any of the three contexts in which this collocation occurs.

I will now broaden the enquiry and draw in other elements – including that of kawāʿib – before correlating the findings to reach conclusions which are both demonstrable and sustainable.

abkār, ʿuruban, atrāb

Verses 56:27-40 treat of the ‘companions of the right hand’. Here the contexts and scenarios are comparable with those of the ‘vanguard’ (56:10-26) replete with mention of fruit and carpets.

A key section from this segment follows:

We have brought them into being anew
And made them virgins
Loving, well-matched
For the companions of the right hand. (56:35-38)

Again, some key vocabulary here (underlined) is challenging from a pan-textual point of view given the paucity of occurrences. We shall work through the terms in the order in which they occur.

The term rendered virgins is abkār; abkār occurs only at one other place (66:5) and there can only mean virgins (in the plain sense of never previously married). On that basis, we are confident in taking that confirmed sense here as binding.

The term above rendered here loving (Arabic: ʿuruban) occurs only once – a fact which is initially problematic for the purposes of providing Qur’anic evidence for the word’s intended meaning in the text.

The root of ʿuruban is ʿ-r-b; namely, that root upon which the word Arabic itself is based in the Arabic language. The root sense is of flowing eloquence (cf. ʿaraba – a swift river; iʿrāb – declaration, utterance; expression; ʿarbān – a man chaste, uncorrupt or free from barbarousness in speech). It is traditionally rendered along the lines of loving or devoted, yet a worry persists that what etymological support there is in the lexicons for this value may derive from Qur’anic exegesis based on ḥadīth. We shall discuss ʿuruban again after our general analysis.

The term rendered here well-matched (Arabic: atrāb) occurs three times: 38:52, 56:37, 78:33. All cases treat of the same scenario: the rewards of the believers in the garden.

Etymologically, atrāb shares a root with turāb (soil, dust) – God created man from turāb (3:59) – thus, there is an underlying connection between it and atrāb (mate, companion, peer) since, ultimately, we are all taken out of one dust.

Acceptance of the Traditionalist’s conclusions in this case granted (namely, that ḥūr ʿīn and kawāʿib signify beautiful female companions – a conclusion with which we agree below on the basis of the analysis presented here) well-matched is entirely acceptable as a value given the etymological features of the root in which atrāb participates.

To summarise at this point: our value for abkār of virgins is strong given the proven value at 66:5, while our value for atrāb of well-matched may be considered strong also given that it is fully consistent with the word’s root senses and the context in which it appears in the event that the Traditionalist’s values for ḥūr ʿīn and kawāʿib prove correct (analysis reveals that atrāb demonstrates a connection between certain verses – and thereby assists in locking in the sense the Traditionalist claims for ḥūr ʿīn and kawāʿib – as we shall see below); our value for ʿuruban remains undecided at this stage (it will be demonstrated only once other factors are in place).


This word occurs once only (78:33) and is rendered by the Traditionalist along the lines of ‘maidens with swelling breasts’.

While this word occurs once only, the root occurs also at 5:6, 5:95, 5:97. We are compelled to understand it to indicate ankles or joints in all three of the cases just enumerated since that meaning is objectively established at 5:6 (we simply apply that sense in this work consistently, unlike the Traditionalist) and because that proven sense fits the contexts at 5:95 and 5:97 also.

The word at 78:33 is different, though based on the same root. What connects it with the values at 5:6, 5:95, 5:97 is the concept of swelling or protuberance (ankles – or any other joints – protrude from the limb; breasts, similarly, protrude from the body). Arabic dictionaries give swelling or protuberance as senses for this root (kaʿāb – buxom; kawāʿib – buxom girls).

It is possible to argue that the dictionaries have here incorporated a sense originating in the ḥadīth literature (I argue thus myself on a number of other occasions), and experience has repeatedly shown that it pays to be wary of values the Traditionalist claims for terms which occur only once or twice in the text; however, the fact is that the k-ʿ-b root is established in the Qur’an in my work unambiguously as something for which swelling or protuberance are implicit characteristics. We will return to this question below.

If, for now, we allow the Traditionalist’s value for kawāʿib 78:33 will read:

And well-matched maidens with swelling breasts

How to approach this subject

As we shall see, those rarely-occurring words which indicate the beautiful companions the Traditionalist discerns in the terms ḥūr ʿīn and kawāʿib operate in conjunction with modifiers (well-matched, etc.) which themselves occur a very limited number of times in the text. By regarding the feature of scarcity here as an ally and considering those few instances where these modifiers occur pan-textually, one realises that these supporting words connote by their (admittedly rare) presence a significance which allows us to form a discernible, provable verse set with which we can work in order to achieve objective, demonstrable results.

To give an example of what we mean: if one has a thousand bowls of which 300 are white, 300 are red and 400 are blue, it is a simple matter to identify those colours as sets and to base an analysis upon that observation. It is also a simple matter to advance further conclusions if 30 of those bowls (across all three colours) contain, say, a black counter. However, in our case, we have only 4 counters as it were (i.e. those verses in which ḥūr ʿīn and kawāʿib occur). Yet, if we notice that certain other extremely rare counters (let’s call them turquoise, teal and maroon) occur also in combination with our ḥūr ʿīn and kawāʿib counters, that fact itself becomes a valid path for investigation.

In addition, this feature becomes compelling if we find that sufficient of those rare secondary counters bring with them – or reference – sufficient proven values from outside the immediate limited set to allow us to establish with confidence the values of those terms we wish to clarify which occur within the set.

On such a basis, we may form an appreciation of definitions based upon derivative data; that is, by looking at all those places where key values occur around our core interest (ḥūr ʿīn and kawāʿib) and establishing the connections between such values and any known values, we may rightly infer which among  the ranges of values available to ḥūr ʿīn and kawāʿib are correct.

Such a method is especially pertinent in a case which treats of feminine sexual beauty; the total effect may be likened to that of peering through a latticework window: where part of the vision is hampered, part is not – and by moving our point of vision across the surface we gain a full impression of that which lies beyond.

I will now traverse the full set of verses which pertain to this study and indicate how and where the full vista accumulates.

There are several components; I will mention them as we go.

Component: qāṣirāt al ṭarf

At 37:48 the phrase qāṣirāt al ṭarf is (uniquely) modified by means of ʿīn. The word ṭarf means glance and occurs precisely in this sense outside the contexts we shall be discussing here (see 14:43, 27:40, 42:45).

The word qāṣirāt means (those) shortening or (those) restraining; its form is the feminine plural (thus indicating women). The expression qāṣirāt al ṭarf occurs at 37:48, 38:52, 55:56 (all of which verses are covered in this study).

Thus, a value of maidens of modest gaze or maidens restraining their gaze for qāṣirāt al ṭarf is entirely consonant with Arabic grammar and the established usage of ṭarf in a range of contexts which extends beyond that where the collocation qāṣirāt al ṭarf occurs.


Since at 37:48 the collocation qāṣirāt al ṭarf is – and, again, we emphasise uniquely – modified by means of ʿīn, this fact acquires significance for us because ʿīn forms part of one of the key components of our investigation: ḥūr ʿīn.

Pan-textual investigation reveals that ʿīn occurs four times only in the entire Qur’an: here at 37:48 and as part of the collocation ḥūr ʿīn (44:54, 52:20, 56:22). Thus, an undeniable connection exists between what we know to be the value for qāṣirāt al ṭarf ʿīn at 37:48 (i.e. one incontrovertibly treating of vision, looking, glances, etc.) and that of ḥūr ʿīn at 44:54, 52:20, 56:22.

If we claim a value for ʿīn of human eyes at 37:48 (and we must given what supports that value both at that verse and beyond it), then we must hold to that value for ʿīn at 44:54, 52:20, 56:22 also.

Component: ḥūr ʿīn

Thus, the Traditionalist’s value for ḥūr ʿīn which concentrates on eyes (namely the lustrous nature of eyes in which there is a marked contrast between the white of the cornea and the black of the iris) is fully sustainable since that valid option within Arabic etymology which has ḥūr as the lustrous contrast between the cornea and iris is corroborated by eyes which is now the proven value for ʿīn.

On this basis the sense may be demonstrated to refer to modest, lustrous, restrained eyes pertaining to females – and I render ḥūr ʿīn as pure, lustrous-eyed maidens.

Component: ḥūr

There remains the question of the meaning of ḥūr as a single word. It occurs once outside the ḥūr ʿīn collocation (55:72); the context there is unquestionably of a human, personal type and treats of the garden and the pleasures of the believers therein.

In the immediate context, ḥūr are described as ‘guarded in pavilions’ (an image the chapter’s recurrent motif ‘Then which of the blessings of your lord will you repudiate?‘ itself serves to compound, operating as it were as a series of posts hedging about the occupants like the poles of a pavilion)

Both the words rendered here guarded (Arabic: maqṣurāt – related by root to qāṣirāt found at 37:48, 38:52, 55:56) and pavilions (Arabic: khiyām) occur only once each in the text.

These facts serve to lock ḥūr into place within the construct of what we now know about ḥūr ʿīn, and on that basis I regard it as a truncated version of the same; I render it pure-eyed maidens.

Component: ṭamatha

To continue from the previous point, the verse following the repeating motif Then which of the blessings of your lord will you repudiate? then reads:

Whom neither man nor jinn have touched before them (55:74)

The verb here rendered touched in the Arabic is ṭamatha. This verb occurs only at two places: 55:56 and 55:74 (fittingly, perhaps, given the supremely dual character and tone of the chapter); its primary signification is that of deflowering (in the sense of coitus causing bleeding).

In the light of this, it is impossible to consider the context in any seriousness beyond the sensuous terms the Traditionalist claims for it.

Component: atrāb

We have touched upon this term above. It tends to be rendered well-matched and synonyms.

We note that atrāb participates in 38:52 where it is found in combination with qāṣirāt al ṭarf. Moreover, it is found also at 78:33 in combination with our solitary instance of kawāʿib (for which term the Traditionalist’s value suggestive of female breasts is confirmed below).

As we saw previously, atrāb occurs also at 56:37 where the preceding context is of virgins – a word the value for which is unquestionably virgins (in the direct sense of women never before married) at its only other place in the text (see 66:5).

Outside the three places just mentioned, atrāb occurs nowhere. Thus, atrāb is fused by association to the concept of modest, physically desirable virgins.

Given these facts, a value of compatibility for atrāb is entirely appropriate. To claim otherwise requires that we demonstrate an alternative value for virgins at 66:5 (which, given the context at that verse, is impossible); to overturn the established meaning of ṭarf at 14:43, 27:40, 42:45; and to dismiss the obvious and accepted sense of qāṣirāt (one confirmed by implication at 55:72).

On the basis of the above,  I am confident in rendering atrāb as commonly rendered: well-matched.


The list below comprises the verse references for each of the key words we have treated thus far.

It is important to note that this list comprises all occurrences of each value – no value cited here occurs anywhere outside of these verses.

It is equally significant that each of the verses listed here is firmly entrenched in contexts which treat of the rewards of the garden for believers.

We should also remember that the value of virgins (56:37) and of glances or gaze (37:48, 38:52, 55:56) are established beyond reasonable doubt outside this set.

Additionally, the verb ṭamatha objectively means to deflower (in the sense of to devirginalise) and occurs only at 55:56 and 55:74.

Lastly, ʿīn – which can only mean eyes in the context of qāṣirāt al ṭarf at 37:48 – is found also only in the collocation ḥūr ʿīn at 44:54, 52:20, 56:22 and nowhere else. To assume the sense where it occurs in this collocation to be connected with anything other than eyes is repugnant to the established sense at 37:48.

Thus, the items listed below occur nowhere else in the Qur’an:

37:48 qāṣirāt al ṭarf | ʿīn
38:52 qāṣirāt al ṭarf | atrāb
44:54 ḥūr | ʿīn
52:20 ḥūr | ʿīn
55:56 qāṣirāt al ṭarf | ṭamatha
55:72 ḥūr | maqṣurāt | khiyām
55:74 ṭamatha
56:22 ḥūr | ʿīn
56:37 atrāb | ʿuruban
78:33 kawāʿib | atrāb

A second look at ʿuruban

We were unable to discern a strong value for ʿuruban above. It occurs only once in the text (56:37), and as we stated, the values claimed for it (generally: loving but also rendered as pious, chaste and devoted) find no strong purchase in the lexicons.

This article is – by force of circumstance – predicated upon a derivative form of analysis, since our primary, staple methods (namely, Qur’anic definitions and pan-textual analysis) proved impossible in this case. Let us then extend our process of derivative analysis one step further to see if it permits us to gain purchase upon the meaning of the solitary instance of ʿuruban.

Here is the text under discussion once again with a common translation for ʿuruban underlined:

We have brought them into being anew
And made them virgins
Loving, well-matched
For the companions of the right hand. (56:35-38)

We may reasonably accept ʿuruban as a modifier or intensifier not only of virgins, but also as a value pertaining to well-matched (Arabic: atrāb); and if we accept that, it is reasonable to allow – given the tight, closed-system environment we have demonstrated for this lexical set – that in those other contexts where well-matched (Arabic: atrāb) occurs, ʿuruban is present also, albeit at one place removed.

The two remaining places where atrāb occurs are 38:52 and 78:33. I provide both verses with a little of their following contexts below:

And with them maidens of modest gaze, well-matched. (38:52)

This is what you are promised for the Day of Reckoning. (38:53)

And well-matched maidens with swelling breasts (78:33)

And a cup overflowing (78:34)

They hear therein neither vain speech nor lying (78:35)

A reward from thy lord
(A bestowal
A reckoning) (78:36)

In the first case (38:52) the statement is clearly concluded by what follows at 38:53.

The situation at 78:33 is different. The statement there leads naturally into the following two verses (78:34-35) before the segment is concluded by 78:36 in a manner similar to that of 38:53.

The expressions ‘a cup overflowing’ (78:34) and ‘neither vain speech nor lying’ (78:35) happen also to occur nowhere else in the text. If we cast our minds back to our original comments on ʿuruban, we find the very concepts mentioned there as core values of the root upon which ʿuruban is based embedded into 78:34-35; namely, flowing and verity in speech.

For this reason, I do not accept the Traditionalist’s value of loving (and synonyms) for ʿuruban (or, at least, consider them too vague to be fit for purpose) and, instead, render ʿuruban as pure of speech. The underlying sense is of a flow of communication which is at once alive and pure, and free of the slightest imperfection or deceit.

(It is interesting in this regard to note the testimony of a considerable number of persons claiming after-death experiences who say that their communication was both telepathic and incapable of subterfuge of any kind.)

A second look at kawāʿib

The Traditionalist’s value for kawāʿib (one which is suggestive of female breasts) is entirely consonant with the etymological meanings (derived either by primary or derivative means) of all supporting values listed above; with all the surrounding contexts where those supporting values occur; with the context where kawāʿib itself occurs; with the fact that the sole meaning for the k-ʿ-b root which may claim purchase upon the Qur’an in this work is unambiguously one for which swelling or protuberance are core characteristics; and with the fact that the word form is allowable as a feminine plural.

On this basis, I render kawāʿib as maidens with swelling breasts.


We have found the low incidence of the component parts which make up this study to indicate a closed-system environment. We noted also that all contexts in which these terms are found treat of the rewards of the faithful in the garden. These terms are provably correlated – both directly and indirectly – with such unavoidably sensual terms as virgins and deflower.

The construct our analysis reveals echoes the classical feminine virtues; it signals its purposes indirectly by means of hint, clue and implied association; it achieves its purposes by means of context and derivative meaning; it drops its handkerchief that we may pick it up – dignity and modesty permit no more.

It is possible that the process of derivative contextual analysis demonstrated in this article may be further developed and applied in additional contexts where the Quranite hermeneutic stalwarts of Qur’anic definitions and pan-textual analysis are not possible.

Final thoughts

I accept that the Traditionalist is demonstrably correct – at least generally speaking – in his understanding of ḥūr ʿīn and kawāʿib, but for reasons he has hitherto never articulated on a Qur’anic basis.

I accept also that the Qur’an’s description of the joys of the garden are metaphorical, and that they apply both to men and to women.

And bear thou glad tidings to those who heed warning
And do deeds of righteousness
That they have gardens beneath which rivers flow
(As often as they are provided with the fruit thereof they say:
This is what was given us as provision before.
And they are given thereby a likeness.)
And they have therein purified spouses.
And they abide therein eternally.
God is not ashamed to present an example be it of a gnat or what is above it.
Then as for those who heed warning:
They know that it is the truth from their lord.
And as for those who are indifferent to warning:
They say: What means God by this example?
He leads astray many thereby.
And he guides many thereby.
And he leads astray thereby only the wantonly perfidious (2:25-26)

And whoso does any deeds of righteousness whether male or female and is a believer:
These enter the garden
And they are not wronged so much as a speck on a date-stone. (4:124)

About the Author Sam Gerrans

Sam Gerrans is an English writer and activist with professional backgrounds in media, strategic communications, and technologies. He is driven by commitment to ultimate meaning, and focused on authentic approaches to revelation and Realpolitik. He is founder of and author of The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation where his consistent, Qur'an-centric hermeneutical methodology is applied to the text of the Qur’an in its entirety. Read more...

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