More Israelis and their friends in this country talk about 72 virgins, as heavenly reward, than Muslims. From what I have been able to trace, it all started with the CBS’ 60-Minutes show in 1996 in which two Palestinian “terrorists” were shown perhaps jokingly referring to Abdullah `Azzam’s book, “Join the Caravan,” which had come out just a few months earlier in 1995. One of them stated that Muslims are promised 72 virgins in heaven for martyrdom. From that point onwards, there has been relentless propaganda that suicide bombers have been blowing themselves up so that they can go to heaven and get their 72 virgins. You can also test this theory on Google Groups Advanced Search. Although there have been great many controversies about Islam on Usenet, there is hardly any post that refers to 72 virgins before 1996. So this myth started with CBS’ 60 Minutes, which is an extremely pro-Israeli show and is quite notorious for doing a job on those who are against Israel.
Quran does not say anything about 72 vigins. For other sources one must turn to the six (recognized) books of Hadith, among which Malik’s Muwatta and Bukhari are more reliable. But neither Malik nor Bukhari considered their compilations perfect. Out of the other four Hadith books, Tirmidhi is the main source for the belief that martyrs may get up to 72 Houris. It was only in the sixth century A.H. that Tirmidhi’s “Jami'” was accepted as one of the canonical books on Hadith. Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abu Dawud and Sunan Nasai all received acceptance before Tirmidhi’s Jami’. The other source is Ibn Khatir’s “tafseer” (commentary) on the Quran. In a recent translation of his work, one can find a note from the publisher saying, “We are aware that Ibn Kathir’s original work does contain some weak narrations as well as a number of Traditions related from the People of the Book (i.e. Jews and Christians}.” Therefore, one can say that if a theological issue only has to rest on Tirmidhi and Ibn Khatir’s commentary, it probably wouldn’t be considered as very reliable. [By the way, the number 72 was a significant number in Jewish mysticism and among Christian Gnostics, and that’s probably how it got into Hadith literature. But that’s another topic].
Quran does mention Houris and describes them as beautiful women of Paradise, who will be “married” to those men who make it to Heaven. But the exact number is not given. In Bukhari, there is a Hadith that two Houris will be given to each man, but it’s narrated through Abu Huraira, a man about whose credibility many Muslims, especially the Shiah, have expressed some grave doubts about throughout Islamic history.
Quran makes it certain that people will enter Heaven with their wives and children: “And (as for) those who believe and their offspring follow them in faith, We will unite with them their offspring…”(52:21). Verse 40.8 also says the same thing, ” Our Lord! and make them enter the gardens of perpetuity which Thou hast promised to them and those who do good of their fathers and their wives and their offspring, surely Thou are the Mighty, the Wise.”
As far as the descriptions of Paradise are concerned in the Quran, the idea is that each person who believes in God and has good deeds would be rewarded in the hereafter with whatever his or her heart desires. [It is expected that a person would be wise and noble before he or she enters Heaven]. There is a well known Hadith, reported both in Bukhari and Muslim, that says, “God has said that for my good and obedient servants, I have prepared that which no eyes have seen, no ears have heard, and no heart has considered.” Ibn Abbas, one of the companions of the Prophet (s.a.w), also stated that except for names, there is no comparison between what exists on earth and what will be in the hereafter.