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faculty notes by Jonah Winters, Michael Sours

Notes by Jonah Winters

A clue to the importance of female qualities for the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh and his new world order — one which 'Abdu'l-Bahá said would be "more permeated with the feminine ideals" (Lights of Guidance, 615) — is offered by the imagery of the Maid of Heaven. The Báb referred to himself as the Maid of Heaven bringing the new revelation (Selections from the Writings of the Báb, 54). For Bahá'u'lláh, the Maiden was the bringer of the revelation in much the same way as Gabriel brought the Annunciation to Mary and the Qur'án to Muhammad. In places, the Maiden was the personified symbol for the revelation itself. Another feminine religious symbol is the Islamic notion of the "Mother Book," which in Bahá'u'lláh's language is more often the "Mother Word" or the "Mother Tablet."

Bahá'u'lláh writes of the Maid of Heaven in Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, 511-12 (Gleanings, 282-4) and 46 (Hidden Words Persian #77, also preserved as Gleanings, 91-2). Shoghi Effendi quotes Bahá'u'lláh's description of the Maiden's revelation to him in God Passes By, 101-2 and 121-122. Most of Bahá'u'lláh's tablets featuring this imagery have not yet been published in authoritative translation.

Adib Taherzadeh explains in a few places some of the significances of the Maid of Heaven for Bahá'u'lláh, including Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, volume 1, 82-3, 213, 218, 242; volume 3, 143, 223-4; and volume 4, 16-7. The published scholarship on the topic includes Michael W. Sours' "The Maid of Heaven, the Image of Sophia, and the Logos Personification of the Spirit of God in Scripture and Sacred Literature," in Journal of Bahá'í Studies, 4.1 (Mar.-June 1991); Paula A. Drewek's "Feminine Forms of the Divine in Bahá'í Scripture," in Journal of Bahá'í Studies, 5.1 (Mar.-June 1992); and Lil Abdo's "Female Representations of the Holy Spirit," in Bahá'í Studies Review, 4.1 (1994). John Walbridge discusses the symbolism of the Maiden as found in some as-yet untranslated tablets in Sacred Acts, Sacred Space, Sacred Time, 158-164, 166-7, and 239. Ross Woodman examines feminine imagery and mystical union in "In the Beginning Was the Word: Apocalypse and the Education of the Soul," in Journal of Bahá'í Studies, 5.4 (Dec. 1993-Mar. 1994).   (excerpted from the Resource Guide on "Female Imagery / Maid of Heaven")

You might also find parts of my paper on these mystical themes at Bahá useful — see especially the section on Ibn al-Farid and his "Ode in the rhyme of T," under "1.4: Elements of the Erotic in Sufism." This ode is the one Bahá'u'lláh expressly mimics, by request of his Sufi audience, in his "Ode to the Dove." See a discussion of this in God Passes By page 123. This female angelic presence is an analog to Bahá'u'lláh's Maid of Heaven.

      Jonah Winters

Notes by Michael Sours:

Concerning the Tablet of the Holy Mariner: First, I would like to point out that there are many ways to say things or express a message. As you know, the Tablet of the Holy Mariner conveys a message using allegory or symbolic narrative. But what might it look like if it was written in an expository way instead? In many ways it might look very much like the Íqán. The Íqán follows the same outline, but without the use of pure allegory and in much greater detail. For example, a few parallels are:
  1. The Íqán begins with the ocean voyage metaphor.
  2. Bahá'u'lláh is the mariner/expositor guiding us through the waters of past revelations to the summit of understanding.
  3. Those cast out who try to be more than they really are, are the clergy who failed to understand the scriptures and denied the Manifestations, and especially Karim Khán (discussed in part 2 of the Íqán). In the Tablet of the Holy Mariner there is the meteor, in the Íqán, the exposition of the Matthew 24, the stars (clergy) failing from heaven.
  4. The handmaiden's search for the faithful is mirrored in part 2, the quest of the true seeker.
  5. The seemingly gloomy ending of the Tablet of the Holy Mariner is likewise repeated in the Íqán:
    "We perceive none, however, amongst the people of the earth who, sincerely yearning for the Truth, seeketh the guidance of the divine Manifestations concerning the abstruse matters of his Faith. All are dwellers in the land of oblivion, and all are followers of the people of wickedness and rebellion. God will verily do unto them that which they themselves are doing, and will forget them even as they have ignored His Presence in His day. Such is His decree unto those that have denied Him, and such will it be unto them that have rejected His signs." (Íqán 256-7)
One student asked "How are the first and second part of his tablet related? It seems that many are called to enter the ark but none are found worthy of entrance..."

Many enter the ark, are taken to the burning bush, and ascend to heaven, but it is not clear that all are expelled. Rather I think only some are expelled. But it is significant that those who are expelled first attain great heights. The relationship of the two parts of the Tablet is this: the expulsion from heaven of these passengers of the ark is a dramatic event for the community, a great test. The Maid of Heaven is saying why they are expelled — i.e., they don't have true love for God or the Messenger so they cannot ascend to the higher stations, rather they are cast out. There are many ways to understand the second part as it unfolds. For example, the worldly heart, i.e., those whose hearts occupy the worldly level or plain will never prove faithful, hence the maiden finds none who are. Or it can be interpreted to mean that on this plain, humans live in the station of relativity and not absoluteness, hence they are never wholly free of faults and errors, self-centeredness, etc"

It was asked "The ending of this tablet seems quite dismal and hopeless. Does the second part that was revealed in Persian restore any sense of hope?"

Outwardly, the Tablet is written as a tragedy. Inwardly, the maids of heaven who hastened forth from their chambers represent hidden meanings or virtues which were previously unseen or not understood, hence "the eye of no dweller i n the highest paradise had ever gazed" on them (see Íqán, page 70). They are the "huris [i.e., maidens] of inner meaning that are as yet concealed within the chambers of divine wisdom." So one meaning is this: When you become a Bahá'í or follower in any religious traditions, you'll encounter the faithlessness and faults of others, and these may cause your soul to fall upon the dust in despair. You can let your faith die then and there, or you can learn from this experience, i.e., see maidens of inner meaning which in your highest heaven of understanding you had previously failed to understand.. That is, you can fail or pass life's spiritual tests."

The dwellers of the ark are later bid not to "tarry in the sacred snow-white spot." The snow-white spot represents the valley of tuwa (Old Testament/Qur'an), signifying the place of the burning Bush. One meaning here is that the seeker is destined to go beyond the station of mere recognizing and intellectual learning, and ascend to the higher stations, i.e., religious practice and action.

As noted above, for Bahá'u'lláh the Maiden was the bringer of the revelation in somewhat the same way as Gabriel brought the Annunciation to Mary and the Qur'an to Muhammad.

Concerning Gabriel, Bahá'u'lláh also uses this symbol. His theophanic accounts can be understood in a deeply symbolic way, though they might seem at first to be descriptive of specific celestial beings performing functions, an actual singular event, or physical sensations. Each time Bahá'u'lláh mentions His theophany He describes it differently, and these variants in themselves suggest just how thoroughly the language is symbolic. In the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, the reference to water, for example, is a symbol often used in past scriptures to signify the Word of God. Here's an outline of some different instances and symbols used:

      Epistle to Nasiri'd-Din Sháh:
            *   the breezes of the All-Glorious
            *   the hand of the will of Thy Lord

      Súrah of the Temple:
            *   a Maiden

            *   the Voice of the Holy Spirit, standing on his right
            *   the Most Great Spirit appearing before his face
            *   Gabriel overshadowing him
            *   the Spirit of Glory stirring within him

      Words of Paradise:
            *   Wisdom personified

      Epistle to the Son of the Wolf:
            *   a voice
            *   a flowing torrent
            *   a fire

Viewed comparatively like this, they appear to be symbols, most of which we can readily locate in the previous sacred Books of the Bible and Qur'an. This connection to former Books in itself is important in that it shows the oneness of God's religion, the continuity between the different stages in the religion of God throughout human history. That is, He's using the same symbols rather than different ones — i.e., Islam, Gabriel; Bahá'u'lláh, the Maiden.

This variety and similarity is significant in that we can observe that Bahá'u'lláh makes no attempt to correlate or harmonize one description with another which suggests that the descriptions are not rigid attempts to describe a single literal occurrence, such as the actual existence or hypostasis of a Maiden or sensation of falling water.

One of the things I find most interesting is the historical context into which Bahá'u'lláh places His theophany in later writings, especially given the message in the Wisdom of Solomon. Especially in this paragraph in the Epistle to Shaykh Muhammad Taqi: "During the days I lay in the prison of Tihrán, though the galling weight of the chains and the stench-filled air allowed Me but little sleep, still in those infrequent moments of slumber I felt as if something flowed from the crown of My head over My breast, even as a mighty torrent that precipitateth itself upon the earth from the summit of a lofty mountain. Every limb of My body would, as a result, be set afire. At such moments My tongue recited what no man could bear to hear." (Epistle, par. 36)
Rather than a singular visionary experience in moments of sleep, this seems to be an allegory of the Word of God entering the wayward world of humankind periodically in human history and, in this instance, the Bahá'í Revelation is likened to a mighty torrent, a huge waterfall plunging down from its celestial heights upon the souls of humankind. Bahá'u'lláh may have picked this moment in history because it was when the Bábís had become most filled with hate and lawlessness, and as such it serves as the best point to mark the beginning of His redemptive mission in this world. His effort and ability to regenerate the Bábí community is an example to the world, an example of the greater redemptive mission that He is to achieve in the whole world. Bear in mind, that Bahá'u'lláh does not treat the evil deed of the assassins as isolated to them, rather He writes:
"Day and night, while confined in that dungeon, We meditated upon the deeds, the condition, and the conduct of the Bábís, wondering what could have led a *people* so high-minded, so noble, and of such intelligence, to perpetrate such an audacious and outrageous act against the person of His Majesty. This Wronged One, thereupon, decided to arise, after His release from prison, and undertake, with the utmost vigor, the task of regenerating this people."

The assassins were dead. So He isn't talking about regenerating them. He's talking about the whole community. When His ministry comes to a close, Bahá'u'lláh reveals the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, which states plainly to the authorities in Persia, and to the world, that He has achieved this mission and the evidence is clear for those who look to see. The community is regenerated and this potential for redemption now stands as witness before the rest of the peoples of the world.

The "mighty torrent," by the way, that "flowed" over Him is a use of the ancient water symbolism characteristic of biblical references to the Word of God, such as the prophetic verses that say "His voice was like the noise of many waters" (Ezek. 43:2; Rev. 1:5, 19:6) and the "earth will be full of the knowledge of the Glory of the Lord as the waters cover the depths of the sea" (HabAkkák 2:14). Water finds many expressions in the scriptures to indicate the Word of God. "The water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water, welling up for eternal life" (John 4:14) "The Lord is the fountain of living water" (Jer. 17:13). Bahá'u'lláh speaks of His writings after this period as a "a copious rain" which He sent out to "various parts of the world" (par. 35).

In some instances, we have authoritative interpretations indicating that specific theophanic descriptions are symbolic, such as the reference to Bahá'u'lláh being "asleep" upon His couch, when lo, the "breezes of the All-Glorious" were wafted over Him or the appearance of the "Maiden." I know of no authoritative interpretation of the passage in the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, but given that the reference to sleep has been explained elsewhere as a symbol — that is, not sensible, but rather an intellectual reality — and the prevalence of water to symbolize revelation in scripture, I suspect that this passage is also symbolic. ...

Question: Is it true that Abdu'l-Bahá's existence as the Perfect Exemplar was a gift from Bahá'u'lláh and God to mitigate the dire outcome of this poem?

Answer: In my limited understanding, the Tablet of the Holy Mariner is prophetic primarily in the archetypal sense, so it can refer to insincere and faithless believers at any time in the history of the community. That is, the symbolic narrative or allegory has no singular outcome, but rather prepared the believers at the beginning (1863) for the trials ahead and this remains true today as well (the focus of the Íqán was mainly the past, the Holy Mariner Tablet, the future). In a way, the Tablet of the Holy Mariner is telling us to be aware and understand that when a community forms, it creates power to do good, but there will always be some people who seek to misuse that communal power to serve or elevate themselves.

So one might argue that the ministry of 'Abdu'l-Bahá mitigated some instances of what the tablet refers to or that the House of Justice today mitigates some instances. But ultimately some believers were also not faithful to 'Abdu'l-Bahá and that sort of faithlessness is certainly what the Tablet is concerned with. So the Tablet is about faithlessness to the covenant in the broadest sense as well, people trying to be more than they are, rebellion, faithlessness, etc., and this happened in and after 'Abdu'l-Bahá's ministry and will continue to happen.

Note that the Tablet twice addresses this question, once with the believers being cast out of heaven and once with the handmaiden's unsuccessful quest to find faithfulness "at a time that knoweth neither beginning nor end." In each of these two instances the central point is expressed three times, each time in different words with slightly different implications. These differences help express or suggest the universalism in the message.

      Michael Sours

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