Baha'i Library Online

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COLLECTIONUnpublished articles
TITLERevelation in the Voices of Baha'u'llah
AUTHOR 1Alison Marshall
ABSTRACTPaper examines how the process of revelation can be understood by examining how ordinary human beings create speech and write, and explores the voices Bahá'u'lláh uses in six of his mystical works.
NOTES Presented as a homework assignment for the Wilmette Institute's "Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh" Course, year two.
TAGSMaid of Heaven; Revelation; Voices of revelation
    The concept of revelation in Islam
    The dual station of the manifestation
    The revelation process
    The voices of Bahá'u'lláh
          The voice of God
          The voice of the Houri
          The voice of Bahá'u'lláh
    Discussion of the tablets
          Rashh-i 'Ama (Sprinkling of the Cloud of Unknowing)
          Hur-i `Ujab (Wondrous Maiden)
          Subhana-Rabbiya'l-Ala (Praise to the Exalted Lord)
          Qasidiy-i-Varqa'iyyih (Ode of the Dove)
          Lawh-i-Huriyyih (Tablet of the Maiden)
          Untitled tablet ("The Emblem")


In his essay, "Revelation, Interpretation and Elucidation", Rob Stockman states that the popular Bahá'í understanding of revelation is "probably similar" to that of conservative Protestant Christians, inasmuch as Bahá'ís see the text of Bahá'í scripture as:
literally true - that it does not contain factual errors - and that it is perspicuous, that is, the average Bahá'í can read and figure out the meaning of the text without someone else - a Bahá'í scholar, for example - explaining it to him.[1]

The idea that scripture is magically unerring and clear carries with it the assumption that such characteristics are surely what one would expect from a text that has been sent down word for word by God.

A broadly similar view is held by Muslims, and that is that the Qur'an as immaculate, absolute, immutable. This view is based on a belief that Muhammad received the text of the Qur'an verbatim from God's messenger, Gabriel, and sometimes directly from God. The Qur'an is thought of as a collection of recitations, which Muhammad was instructed to say, hence the common use of the word "Say", which we also find in Bahá'í scripture.

I will argue that the simplistic notion that scripture is set text sent word for word by God was not held by Muhummad's contemporaries, who witnessed the revelation of the Qur'an, and does not fit with Bahá'í theology. Using an argument from Bahá'u'lláh, that humans can best understand how God works by looking at how they themselves act, I will argue that the process of revelation is best understood by examining how we as ordinary human beings create speech and write.

Following this discussion of the process of revelation, I will examine six of Bahá'u'lláh's mystical works - four poems and two tablets. Five of these are from the Baghdad period and the sixth is untitled and undated. It will be apparent from these that a simplistic notion of revelation makes it impossible to appreciate these writings. I will also look at these works from the point of view of three voices Bahá'u'lláh uses in them: the voice of God, the voice of the Houri and the voice of Bahá'u'lláh.

The works I will look at are:
    *      Rashh-i 'Ama (Sprinkling of the Cloud of Unknowing)
    *      Hur-i `Ujab (Wondrous Maiden)
    *      Subhana-Rabbiya'l-Ala (Praise to the Exalted Lord)
    *      Qasidiy-i-Varqa'iyyih (Ode of the Dove)
    *      Lawh-i-Huriyyih (Tablet of the Maiden)
    *      An untitled tablet, which constitutes section XL of Gleanings of the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh. This short piece is referred to in the Leiden List[2] as "The Emblem."

The concept of revelation in Islam

In Divine Word and Prophetic Word in Early Islam, William Graham discusses the concepts of revelation in early Islam. Islamic theology, he explains, makes a distinction between the word of God and the word of the prophet. Fundamental Islamic theory has it that the Qur'an is a series of recitations that Muhammad received word for word from Gabriel in dreams, visions and trances. This concept of revelation stresses "the didactic, `external' nature of Gabriel's `teaching' of specific `texts' to the Prophet."[3] In contrast to this, hadith is considered the word and example of the prophet, which was inspired in meaning but not fixed in wording. For this reason it was not included in the Qur'an but was preserved as tradition. This distinction was considered necessary in light of the belief that God has no partner; if God has no partner, then the word of God must come from God and not from the prophet.[4]

Graham demonstrates that the fundamental distinction between the word of God and the word of the prophet was not held by Muhammad's contemporaries. Rather, they believed that everything that Muhammad said was divine revelation.[5] Graham argues that the very concept of waHy, or revelation, was not then understood as the revealing of a text or book, but rather as the revealing of God through the life of Muhammad. "It is only comparatively late that the verbal noun waHy becomes a concrete noun that refers primarily to a text rather than a happening."[6]
As evidence that revelation was not the simplistic notion it later came to be thought of, Graham cites the following tradition, which indicates that it was the inspirational and non-didactic experiences that Muhammad particularly remembered:
The Apostle of God used to say: "Revelation used to come to me in two ways. [Sometimes] Gabriel would bring it to me and tell it to me as one man speaking to another, and that would [afterwards] be lost to me. And [sometimes] it would come to me as with the sound of a bell, so that my heart would become confused, [but] that would not be lost to me.[7]

Graham also shows that the process of putting the Qur'an together was not a precise one. It is reported in a tradition that when two of Muhammad's scribes disputed over the meaning of a passage, Muhammad said that the Qur'an was revealed "in seven different ways", meaning that all possible meanings were right.[8] In his talk, "Verbal Inspiration? Language and revelation in classical Islamic theology," Joseph Van Ess discusses various takes on revelation and refutes the word-for-word theory by pointing out that even in the fourth century of the Muhammadan era, "only the consonants of the text [of the Qur'an] were standardised whereas the consonantal skeleton itself could still be read in seven different ways which, in principle, were considered to be of equal value."[9]

Graham cites a modern Muslim Islamicist, Fazlur Rahman, who argues that although the Qur'an was a series of recitations sent direct from God, nevertheless, it is impossible for the revelation process to have occurred `outside' of Muhammad. Rahman argues that the Qur'an is both the Word of God and the word of Muhammad, and cites as proof-texts two verses that state that the revelation came to the heart of Muhammad (2:97 and 26:193-4).[10]

The dual station of the manifestation

An understanding of the nature of revelation is helped by Bahá'u'lláh's explanation of what a manifestation is. He explains that because "there can be no tie of direct intercourse"[11] between God's Essence and creation, God raises up manifestations to take on the role of mediator between them. He then goes on to explain that the manifestation of God has both a divine and a human nature, and a divine and a human station:
Unto this subtle, this mysterious and ethereal Being He hath assigned a twofold nature; the physical, pertaining to the world of matter, and the spiritual, which is born of the substance of God Himself. He hath, moreover, conferred upon Him a double station. The first station, which is related to His innermost reality, representeth Him as One Whose voice is the voice of God Himself. To this testifieth the tradition: "Manifold and mysterious is My relationship with God. I am He, Himself, and He is I, Myself, except that I am that I am, and He is that He is." And in like manner, the words: "Arise, O Muhammad, for lo, the Lover and the Beloved are joined together and made one in Thee." He similarly saith: "There is no distinction whatsoever between Thee and Them, except that They are Thy Servants." The second station is the human station, exemplified by the following verses: "I am but a man like you." "Say, praise be to my Lord! Am I more than a man, an apostle?"[12]

In effect, this divides the manifestation into a higher and a lower self, much like ourselves, except that the manifestation's two selves are different from our own. The manifestation's higher self can be thought of as God, as Bahá'u'lláh explains above. Because God's Essence is beyond creation, the higher self of the manifestation is the closest humans ever get to God, so it is a sort of shorthand to refer to this self as God. This point is neatly stated by Moojan Momen:
Indeed, one of the most interesting and original of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings is his assertion that, since the Essence of God is hidden, unmanifested, and unknowable, in fact, all statements made about the actions of God in former scriptures concern this level, and in fact, relate to the Manifestations of God - not to God's Essence.[13]

This being the case, then, there is no distinction between the word of God and the word of the prophet, as is held in traditional Islamic theology, because all references in the Qur'an to God acting and speaking are in reality references to Muhammad's higher self acting and speaking.

As to the lower, or human, station of the manifestation, this undergoes the human-like processes of growth, development and change that we each personally undergo ourselves.[14] One particular reference to this in Bahá'u'lláh's writings is found in his notes to the Ode of the Dove (Qasidiy-i-Varqa'iyyih), a poem that we will be looking at below. Bahá'u'lláh discusses the self-purification process that Moses went through on Mount Sinai when he encountered God in the burning bush, and finishes by explaining that it was not the higher self of Moses that went through this process, for in reality it was always of God. Rather, the self-purification relates to the process of the attributes of God being manifested in the external world in the person of Moses. This is the reason, Bahá'u'lláh explains, why Moses could both be a person who committed manslaughter and a manifestation at the same time. Bahá'u'lláh says:
All that of which mention hath been made concerning the ranks of guidance and the grades of self-purification in the station of Moses--may peace be upon Him and our Prophet--hath reference to the manifestation of these effulgences in the world of outward appearances. Otherwise, that Exalted One was always and shall forever be led by the guidance of God. Nay, more, it was from Him that the sun of guidance dawned and the moon of God's grace appeared. It was from His essential being that the flames of the divine Essence were ignited, and from the brilliance of His forehead that the light of eternity became radiant. He Himself resolved such doubts by the words He spoke when questioned by Pharaoh about the man He had killed. He responded, "I did it indeed, and I was one of those who erred. And I fled from you when I feared you; but My Lord hath given Me judgment and hath made Me One of the Apostles." (Q. 26:20-21).[15]

This purification process enables the manifestation to attain the station of fana', or annihilation of self, which makes the human self divine. In Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Bahá'u'lláh explains that by his claiming "divinity" he means that his will is merged with that of God:
O Shaykh! This station is the station in which one dieth to himself and liveth in God. Divinity, whenever I mention it, indicateth My complete and absolute self-effacement. This is the station in which I have no control over mine own weal or woe nor over my life nor over my resurrection.[16]

Bahá'u'lláh's human self, then, is "divine" in the sense that it is wholly taken over by God, but this condition does not result in its no longer having human characteristics such the ability to grow, to experience emotions such as grief and love, and so forth. In the discussion on the mystical writings below, we will hear the voice of the `human' Bahá'u'lláh grappling with the emotions that being the divine leads him to experience.

Having dwelt on the distinction between the two natures of the manifestation, it is important to emphasise that, as Juan Cole suggests in his "The Concept of Manifestation in the Bahá'í Writings," the two natures of the manifestation are complementary, not exclusive, and that manifestations speak from the perspective of one or the other depending on what suits their purposes.[17] As we will see in the mystical writings, it is not always possible or even profitable to try to determine from what perspective Bahá'u'lláh is speaking. But in other situations it is very worthwhile to make the distinction. Also, as we will see in the next section, the process of revelation is a unitary one and it is important not to let the idea of the two natures of the manifestation impinge on this unitary concept.

The revelation process

I suggest that the process of revelation can best be understood by examining the creative process in humans. The idea that we should look to ourselves is stated by Bahá'u'lláh in his "Tafsir hurufat al-maqatt'ah", the "Tablet of the Disconnected Letters" (also known as "Lawh-i ayah-yi nur", "Tablet of the Light Verse"),[18] where he argues that the overall functioning of the human being, with regard to actions like speech, is patterned on the way God works.

The "Tablet of the Disconnected Letters" comprises four informal sections in which Bahá'u'lláh deals with various topics relating to mysticism. In particular, he interprets the meaning of the Arabic letters alif, lam and mim, which appear at the beginning of a number of suras of the Qur'an and are known as disconnected letters.[19] One of the major themes of the tablet is an extended discussion of the meaning of the letter alif, which Bahá'u'lláh says symbolises the manifestation, who is the central axis around which the whole of creation revolves. He argues that the only way humans can get a grasp on how this alif works is by focussing on the manifestation of the alif in themselves.

In a passage that functions much like a meditation, Bahá'u'lláh asks the reader to observe how she is able to perform an action. "In reality," he says, the action is "abstracted" from whatever we say about it. For example, a person might focus an action in the tongue and manifest speech, which is a "trace" or an attribute of that action, but no matter what name we give that trace or what attributes result from the action, this does not alter the action itself. The action is brought about by our "turning towards" the various bodily functions that are given to humans, as when a person turns to the tongue to produce speech. Bahá'u'lláh argues that this same process occurs in our `inner' selves. If we focus our inner vision on the parts of our inner body, such as the mind or heart, the interplay between these parts and the various Names produces effects like "the intellect, the spirit, and the inmost heart."[20] In this way, God 'manifests' the alif in us in many different ways within ourselves and we are able to produce all kinds of effects even though the alif is one reality. God creates diversity by altering the locus of the alif and the traces that come about as a result. Despite the diversity, the "Manifesting Reality" remains One and the "thing manifested" remains One.[21]

Bahá'u'lláh is therefore saying that we have in us a single reality, which he symbolises as the alif, which is the source of all our actions. From this one source, we turn our focus to the various parts of our body, both outer and inner, and thereby produce particular effects. These effects carry traces of the Names and Attributes of God, such as speech. In this way, we manifest our `alif', or self, in an action and this produces an effect such as speech. This process could be described as a unity-in-diversity: the reality that is manifested in the action is not altered by the diverse effects it produces because it is "abstracted from" them, but, at the same time, the reality manifested in the action is one with its effects. In the same way, Bahá'u'lláh explains, God "created these [various] abilities" in us so that we can understand that God created the Names and Attributes but is, at the same time, sanctified from them.[22]

In the same tablet, Bahá'u'lláh describes the Self of the Manifestation as a Book that is the source of all mysteries and of creation. This Book derives from a "Hidden Preserved Book", which can be understood only by God. It contains all the past and future knowledge and guides the righteous; all scripture is but a letter of it. "Everything," Bahá'u'lláh goes on, "is capable of being registered on the level of description except this Hidden Book, which is abstracted beyond all that can be characterised... And He creates from it all that hath been and will be through His saying 'Be! And it is!'"[23]

From this, I think we can get an idea of the process of revelation. It originates with the Essence of God, which I suggest is the same as the Hidden Preserved Book that Bahá'u'lláh refers to above. We know from the previous section that the Essence of God is unknowable even to the manifestation, and Bahá'u'lláh confirms here that this Hidden Book is abstracted from all. This Hidden Book is the Source of the Book of the Self of the manifestation, which is the higher self. The Self of the manifestation acts like the self in us, in that it manifests itself in various actions, including speech and writing, and in this way the written revelation is produced. But just as the speech of a person is the same, but abstracted from, the reality of the action that produces it, the text of the written revelation is the same but abstracted from the Self or Book of the manifestation. For this reason, Bahá'u'lláh states that the first proof of his truth "is His own Self", the next proof being his revelation, and for those who "faileth to recognize either the one or the other He hath established the words He hath revealed as proof of His reality and truth."[24]

In his essay, "Revelation, Interpretation and Elucidation", Rob Stockman briefly discusses the nature of revelation from a Bahá'í perspective. He argues that revelation has a dual nature: "divine concepts and principles, earthly languages and words; divine origin and earthly expression. God's ideas must be expressed on this earthly plane ... The words, the grammar, the style, the brain and the hand or voice will all leave traces that we can identify in the thought of God when it becomes text."[25]

This characterisation dwells on the content of revelation, rather than on the process of revelation, which I have discussed. However, I see no problem with the idea that the content of revelation has a dual nature, as described. This dual nature of revelation roughly lines up with the dual nature of the manifestation. The "divine concepts and principles" come from Bahá'u'lláh's higher self, which we know is the source of revelation, while his human self interprets them into the text of sacred scripture. In other words, the higher self is the alif or Book of the manifestation, and this produces the various effects of revelation in the human person of Bahá'u'lláh.

Stockman also cites a passage in which Bahá'u'lláh gives an actual description of what happens to him when he wants to cite from texts written in the past:
Thou knowest full well that We perused not the books which men possess and We acquired not the learning current amongst them, and yet whenever We desire to quote the sayings of the learned and of the wise, presently there will appear before the face of thy Lord in the form of a tablet all that which hath appeared in the world and is revealed in the Holy Books and Scriptures. Thus do We set down in writing that which the eye perceiveth. Verily His knowledge encompasseth the earth and the heavens.[26]

From this, Stockman identifies two processes of revelation: the one in which Bahá'u'lláh reads from the tablet that appears before him when he wants to quote the learned and wise, and the one that is already taking place in the revealing of the tablet in which Bahá'u'lláh wishes to place the quote. Stockman describes these two types of revelation as "one that comes directly from God and one that allows Bahá'u'lláh to utilize earthly sources of knowledge in a divine way."[27]

I suggest that we should not read the passage from Bahá'u'lláh literally. I think that Bahá'u'lláh is speaking of his `inner' eye and that the text is written on Bahá'u'lláh's heart or mind so that he `knows' it. Recall that the Book of the manifestation contains all knowledge of the past and future? I suggest that the reference to his being able to see "all that which" has appeared and been revealed is a statement indicating that by way of revelation, Bahá'u'lláh can recall any historical text he choses. So, for example, his alif is focused on remembering the text of a particular scripture, and the effect is the recall of the words in his self. In a similar way, we are able to recall words that we have once read when we set our minds to it, even though we may initially think we have completely forgotten them.

I am unwilling to limit the processes of revelation to two in the way that Stockman has. Instead, I would argue that all that Bahá'u'lláh produces, in whatever way he produces it, is revelation. All that pertains to the manifestation is `of God'; the higher station of the manifestation can be said to be God, and the lower self is annihilated so that Bahá'u'lláh can say of his heart that "In truth naught doth it mirror forth but the revelations of God."[28] Just exactly how Bahá'u'lláh arrives at the written text he does - be it as a result of `seeing' text in a vision or trance, or as a result of his simply expressing his emotions or describing a dream - all methods can properly be understood as revelation, which is a unitary concept in that it entails the whole experience of the manifestation. If the alif of revelation is both abstracted from, and one with, its effects, the most correct statement is that revelation is both not of God and one with God. But revelation is not of God, only in the sense that the Essence of God is beyond creation. All that pertains to the manifestation is revelation.

As we will see, it is important to understand this if we are to gain a real appreciation for Bahá'u'lláh's mystical writings. It is important to get right away from literal notions that the manifestation merely records word for word what he is told to by God or a divine messenger, or that there is any expression from the manifestation that is not `of God'.

The voices of Bahá'u'lláh

Bahá'u'lláh revealed different kinds of writings. He wrote tablets about political affairs and the organisation of society and sent them to kings and religious leaders; he wrote tablets that were interpretations of scripture such as verses from the Qur'an; he wrote tablets that described visions; and he also wrote poetry in the traditional styles of the culture in which he lived.

I will be discussing six of Bahá'u'lláh's works, four poems and two tablets, one of which is based on a vision that Bahá'u'lláh had. In these works, Bahá'u'lláh uses different voices, like in a play, and it is these voices that I want to look at. In particular, I have identified three voices that I will look at: the voice of God, the voice of the Houri, and the voice of Bahá'u'lláh. I do not claim that these are the only voices Bahá'u'lláh uses, I have simply narrowed them down to these three for the sake of this discussion. In a sense, it would be absolutely correct to say that all the voices are variations of the one voice of Bahá'u'lláh.

The voice of God

What I am calling the voice of God is the voice of the omnipotent narrator, who appears to preside over and witness absolutely everything. This voice is not gendered. It is all-knowing and all-seeing. It is not used much in the writings we will be examining.

The voice of the Houri

In his mystical writings, Bahá'u'lláh often symbolises his divine or higher self as a houri. Houris are female angels, which the Qur'an says live in paradise.[29] Although there are many houris in paradise, Bahá'u'lláh's houri is The Houri.[30] In English translations, she is often referred to as the Maid of Heaven.

Bahá'u'lláh's Houri is the Spirit of God - that is, the One who inspired him with the revelation. Shoghi Effendi explains:
... the Most Great Spirit, as designated by Himself, and symbolized in the Zoroastrian, the Mosaic, the Christian and Muhammadan Dispensations by the Sacred Fire, the Burning Bush, the Dove and the Angel Gabriel respectively, descended upon and revealed itself, personated by a Maiden to the agonized soul of Bahá'u'lláh.[31]

To our knowledge, the Houri first appears to Bahá'u'lláh in a vision, when he is imprisoned in the Siyah Chal. He describes this vision in the Suratu'l-Haykal:
"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."[32]

Obviously, the Houri's voice is female. We will see that she has a number of different moods, which show through in the various ways she talks to Bahá'u'lláh.

The voice of Bahá'u'lláh

The voice of Bahá'u'lláh is the most common voice in the writings. By it, I refer simply to the voice we are used to hearing when we read Bahá'u'lláh's writings. The voice of Bahá'u'lláh can be speaking from the point of view of the divine or human station of the manifestation. In some cases, it is not useful to make the distinction, sometimes a shift from one perspective to the other can happen seemingly imperceptibly.

The voice of Bahá'u'lláh in the mystical writings is often clearly male. It is common for Bahá'u'lláh to write as though he is having a dialogue with the Houri, and in these cases he speaks to her as her lover. By eavesdropping on their conversation, we can glean a fair amount about the nature of his relationship with her, and, by implication, what it was like to be a manifestation.

The idea that dialogue takes place between the selves of the manifestation is analogous to conversation that takes place between the selves of humans. When `Abdu'l-Bahá was asked whether a person can converse with someone in the next world, he said yes, citing conversation with the higher self as an example of such communication:
'Can a departed soul converse with someone still on earth?'
Abdu'l-Bahá. - 'A conversation can be held, but not as our conversation. There is no doubt that the forces of the higher worlds interplay with the forces of this plane. The heart of man is open to inspiration; this is spiritual communication. As in a dream one talks with a friend while the mouth is silent, so is it in the conversation of the spirit. A man may converse with the ego within him saying: "May I do this? Would it be advisable for me to do this work?" Such as this is conversation with the higher self.'[33]

Discussion of the tablets

Rashh-i 'Ama (Sprinkling of the Cloud of Unknowing)

This poem is the first known writing of Bahá'u'lláh. It is believed to have been written in the Siyah Chal. Certainly it is about the vision of the Houri that he had in the Siyah Chal; her appearance signifies the beginning of the outpouring of his revelation to the world. For the full text of this poem, see Appendix 1.

The poem is written in just the one voice, that of Bahá'u'lláh. I quote from it here in order to introduce Bahá'u'lláh's voice and also to introduce the Houri, who will be speaking later.
[14] Observe the Deified Countenance! Behold the God-like Maiden!
See thou that the Terrestrial Effulgence raineth down from the Mystery of
the Cloud of Unknowing!

Note that in verse 15, Bahá'u'lláh refers to the Houri as the One holding the cup and in the second line refers to it as "Our" cup. This is a clear indication that Bahá'u'lláh is in reality the same as the Houri. The image of the Houri pouring the revelation out to those who chose to take it is one Bahá'u'lláh uses a number of times.
[15] Observe the All-Enduring Face! Behold the Visage of the Cupbearer!
See thou that the Sparkling Draught raineth down from Our Goblet!

In the second line of verse 19, Bahá'u'lláh refers to the annihilation of his self ("mystical death"), which I discussed in the section on the two natures of the manifestation. Here, Bahá'u'lláh is saying that his union with the divine has caused the heavenly birds to sing:
[19] This is the Lament of the Heavenly Birds which sprinkleth out from the
Fount of Mystical Death.

Hur-i `Ujab (Wondrous Maiden)

In this poem (for the full text, see Appendix 2), Bahá'u'lláh is again referring to his new revelation and symbolising it as the Houri. He uses various images relating to her that he repeats in other poems, such as the removal of her veil from her face and hair.
Say: the houri of eternity removed the veil from her face--
Then a black strand of hair appeared from her, an adornment for the
soul in the gloom of hindrances,

As in the previous poem, she pours wine for those who want it; she also causes lovers' hearts to bleed:
Her palm is dyed crimson with the blood of lovers,
She passed around the wine of life in jugs and cups,

Again, this poem is entirely in Bahá'u'lláh's voice, but this time he reports the voice of the Houri, who is addressing a wayward humanity, which has rejected her beauty in favour of its own pride and arrogance. She is the voice of God, telling the people what she thinks of their behaviour. And although grief-stricken at their rejection of her, she is nonetheless commanding in her address:
She said, "Do not reject me, people of the Book."
"Are you the people of guidance and are you the friends?"
She said, "We shall not return to you, my companions."
"We shall conceal the mysteries of God that are in his scriptures."
"You shall not find me until the promised one appears on the Day of Return."

Subhana-Rabbiya'l-Ala (Praise to the Exalted Lord)

This is an interesting case. The poem is divided into two sections. In the first section (down to the Say passage), it seems the voice of God is speaking and, in the second section, the voice of Bahá'u'lláh is speaking. (For the full text, see Appendix 3.) What is not clear, however, is who is being addressed by God in the first section.

The poem begins, it seems, with God addressing the Houri:
Letter of eternity, put on the bridal trousseau of detachment and walk upon the exalted brocade runner;

There is some doubt about the accuracy of the translation "bridal trousseau", however, in other tablets, such as Breath of the Spirit, Bahá'u'lláh describes the Houri walking on a brocade carpet.[34] This supports the conclusion that the addressee is female.

But further on, the addressee appears to have switched to Bahá'u'lláh (or a male), because the imagery is of houris in paradise:
You shall be attracted by the glances of loveliness in resplendent chambers;

To my mind, God is addressing the female, higher, Bahá'u'lláh, asking her to prepare for the wedding (which symbolises the beginning of the new revelation), and then addresses Bahá'u'lláh, the human male, describing what spiritual states he will experience as a manifestation.

At the beginning of the Say passage, or second section, the speaker seems to shift back to Bahá'u'lláh, who is reporting the appearance of the Houri, just as he has done in the previous two poems. In this case, I think it is the human Bahá'u'lláh talking. The imagery is sexual and is spoken by someone who is personally affected by the experience - especially:
She bared her head and a ringlet of hair dangled on her breast;
The voice of God was manifest in the strands of her hair, making mention of
her Lord, the exalted, the most high;

The reference to God in the third person confirms that it is not God talking.

The poem also contains two lines in which the voices of God and the Houri are reported:
She [the Houri] said, "Am I not the beauty of the beloved in the midst of the forenoon sky?" And, behold, the visage of grandeur cried out with the lips of the
beauty of being, saying, "Yes, and again, yes!"

The Houri is asking a rhetorical question concerning her station as the Beloved of the world, and God confirms that this is her station.

Qasidiy-i-Varqa'iyyih (Ode of the Dove)

This poem[35] has two voices, the voice of the human Bahá'u'lláh and voice of the Houri. In this case, they are both given a series of verses forming quite long passages, and these constitute a conversation between them.

The poem begins with a soliloquy in which Bahá'u'lláh tells us about the Houri, how much he loves her and what he has said to her:

17. I said, "To meet, I'd offer Thee My all.
      Have mercy, do not publish My disgrace.
18. Since I love Thee too well, then make us one--
      That we might for eternity embrace."

After 36 verses of this, the Houri speaks directly to Bahá'u'lláh as though she has been listening to him. She's already tired of his professions of love and tells him he isn't up to the mark from her point of view:

37. Then from behind Me She cried out, "Be still!
      and hold Thy tongue from all that it hath told.
38. How many Husayns like Thee wanted Me;
      there love Me, just like Thee, 'Alis untold.
39. How many intimates I had who were
      thy peers--and loves, superior to Thee
40. Who always wail but cannot reach My gaze
      one instant, by the light of unity.

The Houri tells Bahá'u'lláh that he doesn't love her really, he only loves her attributes and is not sufficiently self annihilated to truly know her essence. She explains to him how he must suffer and die if he is to win her.

At verse 62, Bahá'u'lláh strongly protests her harsh assessment of him, giving evidence of how much he has suffered on her account and how in fact he did die completely within himself for her. He says that if he saw any attributes in her it was because they were really there:

89. If I had limits, they appeared from Thee;
      If I had traits then they derived from Thee.

This section ends with four verses in which Bahá'u'lláh speaks directly to his self and not to the Houri, indicating that the human Bahá'u'lláh was driven beyond endurance:[36]

94. I call on thee, life-spirit, to depart;
      within Me, no part is left of the whole.
95. Transcendent spirit, climb down from thy throne;
      for thee, My stigma is no source of blame.
96. I waken thee, My heart: thou must depart;
      thou hast no honor in this realm of shame.

The final section of the poem begins with the Houri speaking to Bahá'u'lláh again, explaining that she knows how he has suffered, but that he has not reached her and cannot do so.

98. In spirit, She told Me to persevere:
      "I knew of all the proofs Thou dost display.
99. Forget all that Thou hast known and adored;
      idolatry, for Me, is unity;

The poem reveals a great deal about how Bahá'u'lláh experienced being a manifestation. It shows the human side of Bahá'u'lláh grappling with his love for his divine self. Through a passion that was wholly consuming of his self, he was controlled, captivated and inspired by his love for God, who he saw as a woman and who rendered him a slave willing to undergo anything she demanded of him.

For her part, she is heartless, merciless, relentless in her demands for sacrifices and demonstrations of slavish devotion. She is awful, all-powerful, unattainable, impersonal and, initially, dismissive. Bahá'u'lláh has suffered terribly for her; one verse makes reference to the marks on his neck and legs that were left by the chains in the Siyah Chal. It seems that God can never be satisfied. Only when Bahá'u'lláh eventually stands up to her and says that no matter what she says, he knows how he feels, does this seem to placate her a little.

Lawh-i-Huriyyih (Tablet of the Maiden)

This tablet is a description of a vision Bahá'u'lláh had of the Houri.[37] Like the Ode of the Dove, it contains a dialogue between Bahá'u'lláh and the Houri, but it reveals a completely different relationship between them than the one portrayed in the Ode. It is also very interesting for its switches in point of view; that is, its changes in voice. The tablet is also different in that it gives us information on the subjective experience of the Houri.

It begins in the first paragraph with the voice of Bahá'u'lláh praising God. Then suddenly the second paragraph begins with the human Bahá'u'lláh reporting his meeting with the Houri. For several paragraphs he describes how wonderful she is and the effect she has on him. Then he reports a conversation between them. This conversation is quite different to the one in the Ode. Bahá'u'lláh reports how the Houri nearly swoons inside herself, and then settles her focus on him and opens up conversation:
She asked, "Who art Thou?"
I said, "A servant of God and the son of his maidservant."

She doesn't know who he is and he is evasive about telling her. She goes on to say that she detects that he is very, very unhappy and asks him to explain why. Again, he is evasive in his reply, explaining that he is unable to tell her anything of his experience. When she sees the extent of his suffering, she asks:
"Hast Thou a mother to bemoan Thy tribulations?"
I said, "I do not know."
She asked, "Hast Thou a sister, to weep at Thy fate, or a helper, to aid Thee in Thy trial and to give Thee company in Thy loneliness?"

The Houri examines Bahá'u'lláh to try and determine the reasons for his terrible state and, as a result, becomes so distraught by what she finds that she cries out and weeps blood. She and Bahá'u'lláh then weep together. She continues to examine him and realises that he is the Manifestation - "By Thy life, I perceive from thee the fragrance of the beloved. Thou art the darling of the worlds" - and, after further examination, she dies of grief. Then comes an interesting - the final - passage:
Then I brought my lips close to Her right ear and gave Her the glad tidings of what no one can hear from Me in Her regard. When I had spoken to Her, She trembled at the Word of God. Then She gave Me the glad tidings of what I must not mention or even breathe. Thereafter, I consigned Her to the sacred receptacles and returned Her to the place of intimacy, the station that we had foreordained for Her.

Bahá'u'lláh, as the Logos and not the human, whispers in the ear of the Houri, also the Logos. Here the male aspect of the Logos speaks to the female aspect, giving her the glad tidings, then the situation is reversed, She gives him the glad tidings. Within the realm of the Logos, the two speak to each other, giving each other the glad tidings.[38] Then he puts her back into the place of intimacy inside himself, where she is destined to live. In other words, the vision has ended and the illusory separation of the two lovers for the purposes of the vision is over and she goes back to being one with him.

As is clear, the dialogue between the two lovers is very different to that of the Ode. Here Bahá'u'lláh seems to gender his higher self into a male and a female aspect, rather than just as a wholly female or male one. The Houri is the higher self in that she is depicted at the beginning of the tablet as the Source of all being, but her wholly spiritual self is innocent of the cares of the human world until she witnesses them in the other, male aspect of Bahá'u'lláh's higher self. He is aware of his own station as a Manifestation of God and speaks with the authority of God. He shows a paternalistic protection of her; he comes across as a typical hero, seeming to bottle up all his troubles so as not to burden her. However, what is not typical is his regard for her as an equal.

She plays a wholly feminine, caring, loving, compassionate role. Her voice is one of deep concern. Her enormous affection for him shines through in the way she speaks: "Inform Me, that I might know Thy circumstances with no departure from the whole truth, though it be less than a bit of overflowing foam." She asks him about the natural relationships with women that he would have, asking after the whereabouts of his sister and mother, who she is sure would share the burden of his woes. She loves him desperately - "At that point She was gazing at Me as a lover looketh on the beauty of the beloved" - and dies for him. It would seem that he has no one else who is capable of sharing the burden of his sorrows. As implied by the reference to Bahá'u'lláh's mother and sister, Bahá'u'lláh derives consolation from sharing his emotions with women close to him and, for this reason, God has played a wholly feminine, listening role.

Untitled tablet ("The Emblem")

In an untitled and undated tablet published in Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, a similar dialogue takes place between Bahá'u'lláh and God. It is not clear from the text whether God speaks with the voice of the Houri, but I suggest that the voice is so similar to the voice of the Houri in the "Tablet of the Maiden" that it is the same.

In this tablet, Bahá'u'lláh is willing to speak about his trials, and in fact is overwhelmed by them. This suggests that he is speaking from the human side, and not that of the Logos, which is also confirmed by the reference to being divorced from his self.
O My Well-Beloved! Thou hast breathed Thy Breath into Me, and divorced Me from Mine own Self. Thou didst, subsequently, decree that no more than a faint reflection, a mere emblem of Thy Reality within Me be left among the perverse and envious. Behold, how, deluded by this emblem, they have risen against Me, and heaped upon Me their denials! Uncover Thy Self, therefore, O My Best-Beloved, and deliver Me from My plight.
Thereupon a Voice replied: "I love, I dearly cherish this emblem. How can I consent that Mine eyes, alone, gaze upon this emblem, and that no heart except Mine heart recognize it? By My Beauty, which is the same as Thy Beauty! My wish is to hide Thee from Mine own eyes: how much more from the eyes of men!"[39]

In the same caring way as in the previous tablet, the Houri wants to protect Bahá'u'lláh from his sufferings. She loves him so much she finds it difficult to look at him herself, much less imagine that people who hated him should ever have the honour of viewing his countenance.

Notice again, the reference to her beauty being the same as his beauty, which indicates that she and he are the same.


Islamic dogmatic theology makes the distinction between the word of God, which is preserved in the Qur'an, and the word of the prophet, which is preserved in tradition. The word of the Qur'an is thought to be verbatim what the prophet Muhammad heard from God in dreams, visions and so forth. This understanding of revelation is not born out in Bahá'í theology. First of all, the manifestation has a dual nature, and both of these natures can be said to be `of God'. The higher nature is the voice of God (although not God's Essence) and the lower nature is annihilated and thereby becomes divine. Because of this, I argue that all that springs from Bahá'u'lláh can be properly said to be `of God'.

In a passage from Bahá'u'lláh's "Commentary on the Disconnected Letters", Bahá'u'lláh argues that the relationship between God and creation can only be understood by humans if they look at the way they produce various effects within themselves. For example, by focusing an action on the tongue, humans can produce speech, an effect displaying the name of God, Speech. Bahá'u'lláh says that the impulse to produce the effect and the effect itself are abstracted from each other, but are also one. In this same way, Bahá'u'lláh explains, God produces the Names and Attributes but is sanctified from them. Following this model, I suggest that we can understand the process of revelation as one in which the higher self of the manifestation inspires various effects in the person of the manifestation, including written scripture. The process of authoring revelation can then be thought of as similar to the way a person would write a poem or essay, but in our case, the source of inspiration is not God.

The dual nature of the manifestation comes through in Bahá'u'lláh's mystical poetry, in which Bahá'u'lláh often gives his higher self a female voice and his lower self a male voice. The female voice is given to The Houri, who symbolises the new revelation inspired in Bahá'u'lláh. The mystical writings discussed show that Bahá'u'lláh thought of the Houri as his beloved and he responds to her as a devoted lover. The writings show that their relationship displayed many of the characteristics that we would expect in a loving relationship; for example, declarations of unfathomable love, demands for proof of affection, intimate conversation, devoted caring and concern, adoration of the beloved's beauty. These voices are most striking in that they show how `human' God is, or, put more correctly, how divine people are in their humanity.

    [1] Rob Stockman: "Revelation, Interpretation and Elucidation" in Scripture and Revelation Bahá'í Studies Volume III, edited by Moojan Momen (Oxford: George Ronald, 1997) p. 54
    [2] The Leiden List is the most complete list of Bahá'u'lláh's works available. It can be accessed at
    [3] William A. Graham: Divine Word and Prophetic Word in Early Islam (The Hague: Mouton, 1977) p. 26
    [4] ibid p. 14
    [5] ibid p. 29
    [6] ibid p. 10
    [7] ibid p. 26
    [8] ibid p. 31
    [9] Joseph Van Ess: "Verbal Inspiration? Language and revelation in classical Islamic theology" in The Qur'an as Text edited by Stefan Wild (Leiden: E J Brill, 1996) p. 180
    [10] Graham p. 26
    [11] Bahá'u'lláh: Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 66
    [12] ibid pp. 66-67
    [13] Moojan Momen: "Relativism: A Basis for Bahá'í Metaphysics" in Studies in Honor of the Late Hasan M Balyuzi Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions, Vol. 5. Ed. Moojan Momen (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1988) p. 193
    [14] See e-mail message to discussion list by Juan Cole, dated 16.12.95
    [15] Bahá'u'lláh: Qasidiy-i-Varqa'iyyih ("Ode of the Dove"). Translation by Juan Cole. Complete provisional translation at A translation and discussion of this passage is also in Stephen Lambden: "Sinaitic Mysteries: Notes on Moses/Sinai Motifs" in Studies in Honor of the Late Hasan M Balyuzi Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions, Vol. 5. Ed. Moojan Momen (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1988) pp. 114-115
    [16] Bahá'u'lláh: Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 41
    [17] Juan Cole: "The Concept of Manifestation in the Bahá'í Writrings" in The Journal of Bahá'í Studies Volume 9 1982 p. 23
    [18] Translation by Stephen Lambden, which he posted to the H-Bahá'í list (H-BAHAI@H-NET.MSU.EDU) in November 1998. For referencing purposes, I will use the numbering system Lambden uses in his translation. This is characterised by a section number in Roman numerals, followed by verse numbers.
    [19] See, for example, sura 2
    [20] Bahá'u'lláh: "Tablet of the Disconnected Letters" VIII: 6-14
    [21] ibid VIII: 15-19
    [22] ibid VII: 84-86
    [23] ibid V: 7-16
    [24] Bahá'u'lláh: Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 105
    [25] Stockman, pp. 54-55
    [26] Bahá'u'lláh: Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 148-9
    [27] Stockman p. 59
    [28] Bahá'u'lláh: Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 149
    [29] Qur'an 44:54 and 52:20
    [30] John Walbridge: Erotic Imagery in the Allegorical Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, which can be found at
    [31] Shoghi Effendi: God Passes By p. 101
    [32] Bahá'u'lláh. Quoted by Shoghi Effendi in God Passes By, pp. 101-102
    [33] 'Abdu'l-Bahá: Paris Talks, p. 179
    [34] "Then the permission to come out arrived from the heaven of manifestation, and that houri of the spirit emerged from behind the most great curtain, bestowing true spirit upon those who dwell among the people of the heavens and the earth. She stood upon the brocade carpet and began to move." From Bahá'u'lláh's "Breath of the Spirit." Translated by Juan Cole. Full text posted to disucssion list 19 September 1996
    [35] Translation by Juan Cole. Complete provisional translation at
    [36] I quote these lines here because they are three of my favourite ones.
    [37] Translation by Juan Cole. Complete provisional translation at
    [38] To my mind, this passage is the best evidence of the principle of the equality of men and women.
    [39] Bahá'u'lláh: Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 90
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