Erotic Imagery in the Allegorical Writings of Baha'u'llah
by John Walbridge1997
In the Qur'an the "blacked-eyed maidens" (Arab., Pers.: hur`in, hence the English houris) are the beautiful white-skinned, dark-eyed virgins destined for the believers in Paradise. The Islamic tradition followed the Qur'an in classing them among the delights enjoyed by the believers in Paradise, whether taken symbolically or with literalist carnality. Though in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh there are isolated references to the maids of heaven serving the believers in the next life (TB:189 (Suriy-i-Vafa, & 23), almost always they are symbols of the inaccessible holiness of God. They are "behind the veil of concealment" (GWB:153) "in their celestial chambers" (GWB:69).
It is THE Maiden (huriyyih), however, that plays the most important role in Bahá'u'lláh's writings, particularly in the visionary allegorical writings of the Baghdad period such as the Tablet of the Maiden, the Ode of the Dove, the Deathless Youth, the Maids of Wonder, the Holy Mariner, and other similar tablets. [ed. note: some of these tablets can be found in provisional translation. -J.W.] In these tablets the image of the unveiling of the bride symbolizes the joyfulness of Bahá'u'lláh's spiritual experience. In some of these tablets Bahá'u'lláh weaves a spell of sexual yearning, drawing the reader into the intensity of His spiritual experience, only to shatter the atmosphere with haunting images of betrayal, heartbreak, and death.
The Maiden Revealed
Bahá'u'lláh states that while He was in the dungeon of the Siyah-Chal in 1852-53, He had a vision of a Maiden: (Suratu'l-Haykal, in GPB:101-2).
While engulfed in tribulations, I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden--the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of my Lord--suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good-pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the all-Merciful. Betwixt earth and heaven she was raising a call which captivated the hearts and minds of men. She was imparting to both My inward and outward being tidings which rejoiced my soul, and the souls of God's honored servants. Pointing with her finger unto My head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying: "By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand. This is the Mystery of God and His treasure, the Cause of God and His Glory unto all who are in the kingdoms of Revelation and of creation, if ye be of them that perceive."
The Maiden thereafter appears as the personification of the spirit of God. In these works the Maiden's emergence from her hidden chamber symbolizes the appearance of Bahá'u'lláh's revelation in the world, and her afflictions mirror Bahá'u'lláh's. In the Surah of the Bayan Bahá'u'lláh identifies with Himself a passage in the Qayyumu'l-Asma in which the Bab had referred to "the Maid of Heaven begotten by the Spirit of Baha" (Suratu'l-Bayan, cited in GWB:129. Qayyumu'l-Asma, ch. 29, in SWB:54). `Abdu'l-Bahá identifies the Maiden with the New Jerusalem (SWAB:3). Shoghi Effendi identifies her with "the Most Great Spirit," "symbolized . . . by the Sacred Fire, the Burning Bush, the Dove, and the Angel Gabriel" (GPB:101).
The Maiden in Love
"The mystic and wondrous Bride, hidden ere this beneath the veiling of utterance (bayan), hath now, by the grace of God and His divine favor, been made manifest even as the resplendent light shed by the beauty of the Beloved." (Pers. HW 82)
In His allegories depicting the coming of revelation, Bahá'u'lláh turns to the image of the bride. In the Middle East the bride is brought veiled to her husband amidst great excitement and commotion. When she is alone with him, he lifts her veil and looks upon the beauty of his bride for the first time. The bride too, in this culture where arranged marriages are the norm, now may freely behold her husband. Bahá'u'lláh expresses His spiritual joy with such imagery. A particularly fine example is the Tablet of the Deathless Youth (Ghulam al-Khuld), composed in honor of the anniversary of the Declaration of the Bab.
The Arabic portion of this tablet is written in rhymed prose, an Arabic literary form that uses irregular rhyme and rhythm and occupies a place between poetry and prose. Like some other tablets of this period, notably the Holy Mariner, short verses alternate with refrains. The tablet concludes with a section in formal Persian prose.
The tablet begins with the announcement that it is "in commemoration of what hath been made manifest in the year sixty"--i.e., the Declaration of the Bab. The tablet describes how the gates of paradise open and the Deathless Youth--symbolizing the Bab--comes out and stands in the midst of heaven, dazzling all the spiritual beings with his beauty:
"When the gates of Paradise swung wide and the Holy Youth came forth, lo! in His hand was a serpent plain! Rejoice! This is the Deathless Youth, come with a gushing spring. Upon His face a veil woven by the fingers of power and might. Rejoice! This is the Deathless Youth, come with a mighty Name. Upon His head a crown of beauty, light for the people of every heaven, every earth. Rejoice! This is the Deathless Youth, come with a transcendent Cause. Tresses of spirit hung upon His shoulders, black like musk upon a bright and luminous pearl. Rejoice! This is the Deathless Youth, come with a wondrous Cause." (My trans.)
Then the gates of heaven open a second time and the Maid of Heaven appears--the personification of Bahá'u'lláh's spirit of revelation. Her beauty, her song, and the lock of hair that slips from beneath her veil likewise dazzle the creatures of earth and heaven. She stands before the Youth and lifts the veil from his face. When his face is revealed, the pillars of the throne of God tremble and all creatures are struck dead. Then the Tongue of the Unseen is heard proclaiming that the eyes of the ancients longed to behold this Youth. The Youth raises his eyes. By a word he restores the spirits of the creatures of heaven and with a look he raises up the people of the earth. With his glance he indicates only a few of these, and then he returns to his place in paradise.
The tablet continues in Persian, proclaiming to the people that the true morn is dawned, the eternal wine is flowing, the fire burns again on Sinai--appealing to the people to heed the call of the Bab and hinting at Bahá'u'lláh's own station.
Since this tablet is in praise of the Bab, it stresses the beauty of the Youth. The attraction of the Maiden to the Youth symbolizes Bahá'u'lláh's own love for the Bab. However, the tablet also hints at Bahá'u'lláh's approaching open proclamation of prophethood.
In a society where women are seen only by their closest relatives, beauty is revealed through hints, and the poetic description of love and beauty relishes these hints. The veil to be proper must completely cover the woman's hair. When the Maiden "let slip a lock of Her hair from beneath Her luminous veil," she revealed her beauty to the onlookers. But to let the hair slip from beneath the veil is also a sign of distraction: the beauty of the Youth, we are to understand, has so shaken the Maiden that she becomes careless of proprieties.
With language that is beautiful and openly erotic, but in no way crude, Bahá'u'lláh weaves an atmosphere of sexual longing that conveys His spiritual experience in a very direct way. Over the end of the allegory, however, there is a shadow of disappointment that grows larger in other works.
The Maiden Heartbroken
Surely the most remarkable of Bahá'u'lláh's erotic allegories is the Tablet of the Maiden. This is an Arabic tablet composed in Baghdad. It is one of the tablets that Bahá'u'lláh ordered destroyed because the people were unready for it. It was saved at the pleas of Mirza Aqa Jan, Bahá'u'lláh's secretary. For this we must be grateful.
The tablet begins with a prayer of ecstatic praise of God that turns into an account of a meeting between Bahá'u'lláh and the heavenly maiden.
When God desires to manifest His beauty and glory, He sent forth a maiden who had been concealed for all eternity in the pavilion of holiness. Her beauty strikes dumb all the dwellers in heaven and illuminates the earth. She walks through the air and stands before Bahá'u'lláh. He is lost in bewilderment at her beauty:
"I found Myself sick with love and passionate longing for her. I lifted my hand and drew back the hem of her veil from her shoulder. Her hair fell in twining curls nearly to her feet. As the winds stirred it to the right from off her shoulder blade, the heavens and the earth were perfumed with its fragrance. . . . At one time I beheld her like the sweet water of life flowing in the realities of beings. . . Another moment I beheld her like unto fire kindled in the divine tree." (my translation)
Then she came closer to Him and spoke, and her voice was like a song beyond all words, letters, and sounds, and Bahá'u'lláh understood all spiritual meanings in her voice and became further lost in the bewilderment of passionate longing. "I raised My hand once more and uncovered her breast that had been hidden beneath her gown. It shone so as to illuminate the heavens with its scintillating light. All created things were bright with its manifestation and its emanation. Myriad suns shone with its light. Bahá'u'lláh beholds his mystic bride in astonishment and love, while the maids of heaven in their chambers on high watch in wonder."
But now the mood changes. The Maiden is puzzled. She asks Him who He is. He tells her only, "A servant of God and the son of His maidservant." But she is not put off by this evasive reply. She has detected an extraordinary sadness in Bahá'u'lláh and questions Him closely about it, becoming more and more agitated as she comprehends the depth of His sorrows. But He refuses to tell her of His sorrows, for she will not be able to bear to hear a single word of them. "Now when she comprehended the trembling of My inner being, the moaning of My heart, the wailing of My essence, how My bones burned and My skin scorched, how my soul was unquiet and my body troubled, she called to me, "Hast Thou no mother to grieve for Thine affliction?" I answered, "I know not." "Hast Thou no sister to weep for Thy fate, no helper to aid Thee in Thy troubles and to be Thy companion in Thy loneliness?" I said to her, "By my sorrows unrelieved by any joy, ask Me nothing, but look to My heart that that which thou seekest may become apparent to thee."" She lowers her head to behold His heart in His breast. But though she searches all his limbs and organs, she cannot find His heart and she realizes that His sorrows have destroyed it. She looks up at Him in horror, telling Him that it would have been better had He never been born. They embrace and weep together. Once more she examines His inner being, realizing that His sorrows have entirely destroyed His liver--also a seat of emotions in Persian symbolism. She asks Him if He is in fact the Beloved of the worlds and whether His sorrows are from the people of the Qur'an or the people of the Bayan--the Muslims or the Babis. Then she throws herself on the ground at His feet and dies. He washes her with His tears and shrouds her with His own robe. "Then I brought My mouth close to her right ear and told her the glad-tidings of that which none can bear to hear from Me. When I had told her this, she trembled at the Word of God. . ." He takes her body back to the place in paradise from which she originally came. The tablet ends with Bahá'u'lláh's challenge to those who claim to possess understanding to interpret the meaning of His vision.
The tone has changed. While Bahá'u'lláh's joy at the Maiden is undiminished, the Maiden is tortured by His sorrows. This is an old theme in Shi`i Islam where the sufferings of the martyred Imam Husayn are defined in part by the grief of his womenfolk. These sufferings, we infer, result from His rejection and persecution by the Muslims and the Babis. It is betrayal that has slain the Maid of Heaven with grief for the sufferings of Bahá'u'lláh.
This theme is repeated in the Tablet of the Holy Mariner. A Maid of Heaven sends one of her handmaids to try to find the scent of faithfulness to "the Youth," but she finds that "the Youth hath remained lone and forlorn in the land of exile in the hands of the ungodly." She returns with this message to heaven, and having delivered it, she dies.
The tone is one of despair and resignation amidst joy. We may compare this to the complex of emotions that surrounded the events of the Garden of Ridvan: joy and triumph overshadowed by the uncertainty of impending exile and of internal and external enemies.
The Maiden Afterwards
Through the next ten years the great crises of His ministry struck Bahá'u'lláh and then passed. He announced His prophetic claim openly and won the acceptance of the vast majority of the Babis. His brother Mirza Yahya, the appointed successor of the Bab, betrayed Him but failed to inflict permanent damage on His faith. The Turkish authorities banished Him twice and imprisoned Him but failed to destroy Him. In time He won the respect of the authorities, the guards, and the people of the prison-city of `Akka. Prison conditions eased. Even the death of His son seemed to serve as the means by which pilgrims were able to come. Even the folly of His disciples in murdering four of His enemies failed to produce more than a temporary setback.
The healing of these psychic and spiritual wounds and the increasing tranquility of Bahá'u'lláh's later years is seen in the theme of the Maiden in some of Bahá'u'lláh's later works.
In the Suratu'l-Bayan, a tablet revealed in `Akka, Bahá'u'lláh speaks once more of the Maiden: "Say: Step out of Thy holy chamber, O Maid of Heaven, inmate of the Exalted Paradise!. . . . Hear, then, the sweet, the wondrous accent of the Voice that cometh from the Throne of Thy Lord, the inaccessible, the Most High. Unveil Thy face, and manifest the beauty of the black-eyed Damsel, and suffer not the servants of God to be deprived of the light of Thy shining countenance." The tone is different. No longer is Bahá'u'lláh the exile enduring His sorrows in secret. He is the King seated on the Throne, the very voice of God. Now He calls forth the Maid of Heaven, the spirit of His revelation. Likewise, the pain of betrayal no longer dominates His thoughts: "Grieve not if Thou hearest the sighs of the dwellers of the earth, or th voice of the lamentation of the denizens of heaven. Leave them to perish on the dust of extinction. Let them be reduced to nothingness, inasmuch as the flame of hatred hath been kindled within their breasts. . . Thus have We decreed Thy destiny." The enmity, the hatred, the faithlessness of those who tormented Him are now a matter of indifference to Bahá'u'lláh.
On 1 March 1873, the Birthday of the Bab according to the lunar calendar, Bahá'u'lláh had a vision. As He was sitting, a luminous maiden dressed in white came in to Him and removed her veil. She was of surpassing beauty; "We beheld the black hairs upon her white neck, as though night and day embraced in this most glorious spot." She walked about, lost in wonderment in the presence of Bahá'u'lláh. She called to Him, "May my soul be a ransom for Thine imprisonment, O mystery of the unseen in the kingdom of the world." Reaching behind Bahá'u'lláh's neck she drew Him near. Then she leaned her head against the fingers of one hand "as though the crescent moon were united with the full moon." Then she said to Him, "May all being be a sacrifice for Thine affliction, O King of the earth and heaven! Why hast Thou placed Thyself amongst such as these in the city of `Akka? Repair to Thine other dominions, places whereon the eyes of the people of names have never fallen."
The tone of Bahá'u'lláh's telling of this vision is very different from those of a decade earlier in Baghdad. The atmosphere of intense sexual longing is gone, replaced by an inner tranquility. The burning conflict between the spiritual exaltation of revelation and the hostility and betrayal of His enemies is also gone, replaced by a lofty indifference the events of the lower world. In this tablet Bahá'u'lláh looks toward another world. Thus Shoghi Effendi interpreted this tablet as a prophecy of His death nineteen years later.
"Thus We recount for you, O concourse of Paradise, the vision of eternity. Interpret it for me, if ye understand the meaning of the vision of the spirit!" (Tablet of the Maiden)