In the Western traditions, God is depicted and thought of as male. Although members of these religions will hasten to tell you that the One God has no gender, the Divinity is nearly always referred to as "He", the prophet or messenger who speaks for God is male, many of the scriptural commands are directed at men, etc. Certainly, men hold most positions of power in these faith communities. Alongside this masculine perspective, however, there are esoteric teachings in which the feminine holds a higher place. Of course, the veneration that Christians give to the Virgin Mary shows the role that a maternal figure can hold in the hearts of believers. But in both Jewish and Christian mysticism, Wisdom is thought of as female (Hekhmot in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek). There are Sufi traditions as well, where the divine feminine is revered. However, these all remained part of an esoteric fringe.
The Baha'i Faith clearly grants women a higher status than any of its Abrahamic predecessors, with the equality of the sexes being proclaimed as a fundamental principle. Unlike the religions of the past, women hold key positions of authority throughout the administrative hierarchy. In spite of this, there are some areas of Baha'i belief and practice that give preference to the male: Women are excluded from serving on the Universal House of Justice, the religion's supreme governing body. Men are spoken of as "heads of households" and are assumed to have economic responsibility for the family. In the inheritance laws used in cases of intestacy (the law exists in Baha'i scripture but is not currently applied), male heirs are preferred in some respects. God is still referred to by the masculine pronoun, and even in private devotions women are told they should read the prayer translations exactly as written, referring to themselves as masculine, e.g. "the son of Thy servant". Overall, however, considering that the Baha'i Faith emerged from 19th century Iran, the amount of consideration given to the rights of women is quite remarkable.
Another remarkable aspect of Baha'i scripture is that Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i Faith, has written a number of works describing his encounter with the divine feminine. In official translations, this feminine figure is described as the "Maid of Heaven" and she is thought to be symbolic of the spirit of revelation, having a role comparable to Gabriel in Islam. She first appeared to Baha'u'llah in 1852 when he was imprisoned in the Siyah-Chal (Black Pit) of Tehran:
While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden - the embodiment of the remembrance 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, 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 creation, if ye be of them that perceive. [Surih of the Temple, official translation by Shoghi Effendi]
The original Arabic word that is translated "Maid of Heaven" is "huri", or as more commonly known in English "houri". This is the name of the female companions promised in the Qur'an to righteous men in paradise. In the original language, the term carries clear erotic overtones. In the "houri tablets", as these works are generally called, Baha'u'llah uses sexual desire as a symbol for the soul's desire for God. He weaves a spell of almost tantric intensity, sometimes singing joyful songs in praise of his beloved, at other times describing her grief at his rejection by the world, even depicting her as dying of sorrow.
Baha'u'llah's houri is neither a blushing, shy maiden, nor a sexual plaything. She is a powerful and mesmerizing object of devotion. Here is how the encounter is described in Baha'u'llah's Tablet of the Houri: Praise be to Thee, O my God, for all the wonders of Thy handiwork that Thou hast shown Me in Her, for the ensemble of Thy power, manifest in Her creation. She hung there, suspended. Then She journeyed through the sky as though striding across the horizon in mid-air. It is as though I discovered that the chain of being was set in motion by Her footfalls. She descended, drew nigh, and came until She halted before me. I was bewildered by the subtleties and wonders of Her creation. Behold, I discovered within myself a passion that grew out of my yearning for Her. I raised my hands towards Her, and lifted the hem of Her veil from Her shoulder. I found Her hair to be sandy, wavy, and curly, lying on Her back in ringlets, hanging down almost to Her legs. And when the gales blew it to the right of Her shoulder, it perfumed the heavens and the earth. When it was blown to the left, from its fragrance there spread a holy, musk-like scent. It is as though the motion of Her tresses caused the spirit of life to quake in the inner essence of creation, and caused the kingdom of mystical insight to tremble in the reality of being. [Provisional translation by Juan R.I. Cole]
Another aspect to the houri is that sometimes she plays the coquette, alternately encouraging then spurning her lover. This comes from a long tradition of Persian love stories, most famously in the tales of Majnun and Layli. In a culture where women are largely hidden, sheltered, and given away in arranged marriages, the only sort of love affair that could take place was illicit and could mean death. So no matter what her true feelings, a woman was obliged to reject any overtures from a man, while the man was left to desperately look for any hint that she was really in love with him, in spite of this rejection. This set up a rather sadomasochistic love-play, with the woman in a position of power. This is seen in Baha'u'llah's "Ode of the Dove" in which the houri both rejects and encourages his devotion.
While in former religions the divine feminine has been available only for those who have esoteric training under a shaykh or spiritual master, in the Baha'i Writings She is available to all. The Baha'i World Center has been relatively slow to translate the houri tablets, but scholars have made them available on the web.
Examination of these tablets gives the reader a whole new perspective on the writings of Baha'u'llah.
Author's note: This article first appeared in Themestream December 20, 20000. It was published on IAMValley April 12, 2001.
A collection of the Houri tablets.
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