Introduction by Alison Marshall
Tablet of the Houri, like Tablet of the Vision, is a description of a vision Baha'u'llah had of the celestial woman who symbolises the spirit of his revelation. He refers to her using the Arabic word 'houri', which is the term used in the Qur'an (55:56; 55:72) to refer to the celestial women in paradise. Baha'u'llah wrote Tablet of the Houri during the decade when his family lived in Baghdad (1853-63). Many of the tablets he wrote about the houri were written at that time.
When Baha'u'llah produced his works, he didn't write them down, he spoke them out loud. Baha'is say that he 'revealed' them. During the revealing process, Baha'u'llah would be overcome by an inner power and he would pace the room and chant or speak his words. Baha'u'llah had an amanuensis named Mirza Aqa Jan, who quickly took down the words that Baha'u'llah spoke during these periods of inspiration. The result was a scrawl that only a handful of people could read. Sometimes, Baha'u'llah would instruct Mirza Aqa Jan to throw these writings into the Tigris River. However, Mirza Aqa Jan appealed to Baha'u'llah to spare some of the writings and Baha'u'llah agreed to this. One of the tablets that was spared was Tablet of the Houri.
Baha'u'llah's description of his vision is prefaced by an introductory paragraph that is difficult to understand. It seems to be an account of how God brought Baha'u'llah's revelation into being in creation. It begins with Baha'u'llah telling us that the sun of the Godhead has risen from the horizon of oneness and, due to an encounter with the kingdom of self-sufficiency, the divine lights beamed out, lighting up the physical world with God's Cause. This light caused the garden of paradise to come into being. The trees of God's quintessence were planted there, and the breezes of God's spirit and the breaths of God's sanctity blew there. The gems of God's bounties and the treasures of God's knowledge and mystery were concealed there. Streams of God's glorious life, canals of God's eternality and springs of God's inaccessibility flowed there. Baha'u'llah tells us that, to make the garden appear, God "raised it up to the throne of grandeur and greatness" and added to it the "rays of might and power" and the effulgence of God's essence. God also illumined the garden with the sun of oneness, which came from the "pre-eternal lights of God's features". God then decreed that a beautiful figure might appear from the garden, so that the beauty of God might be manifest to those on earth and the glory of God might be seen by those who live in the realm of God's Cause.
The next paragraph begins by making it clear that the beautiful figure to appear from the garden of paradise was the houri. Baha'u'llah then devotes the next five paragraphs, about a third of the tablet, to a description of her extraordinary features. He tells us that she has never been seen by anyone in creation before because, up to now, she has been living in pre-eternity in the realms of holiness. When she emerges out of her palace, she looks around her at the heavens and the earth and walks through the sky in mid-air. Baha'u'llah and all creation are stunned as they witness the beauty and power of her presence and movements. She flies down from the sky to meet Baha'u'llah, who removes her veil and finds that her hair hangs in long ringlets and gives off a scent that perfumes all creation. He continues to examine her being and discovers that she is both the water of life flowing through "the realities of beings" and the fire in the Burning Bush, which gave rise to the element of fire in creation. He expresses his great attraction to her. He listens to her songs, which are about the exalted and glorious nature of God, but are without words or sound. He lifts her gown and reveals one of her breasts, which he says floods creation with light as if "infinite numbers of suns ... trekked through heavens that were without beginning or end".
The rest of the tablet is an account of the dialogue and related interaction between the houri and Baha'u'llah. She is intrigued to know who he is because she senses that he is very sad. He is evasive about his identity and says that he won't tell her about his sadness because she couldn't bear to hear about it. He suggests that she return to her pavilions in paradise. But she is drawn by the all-consuming sorrow she sees in him and insists on knowing what's going on. Because he is unable to describe his sorrow in words, Baha'u'llah suggests that she examine his inner self to find out what she wants to know. She then scrutinises his heart and breast "as if she had lost something and sought it everywhere". Gradually, she realises the extent of Baha'u'llah's suffering and discovers that his grief is so great that it has extinguished his heart and breast. In her bewilderment, she asks how he could survive on earth without them. She is overcome with emotion, her soul trembles and her heart quivers, and she screams, causing the sky to split, the earth to break open, mountains to be pulverised and lands to move. Then she realises who Baha'u'llah is - the Beloved of the worlds.
She asks him why he has disguised himself. In response, he motions to her to examine his soul. There, she learns how Baha'u'llah has been treated by the Muslims ("the people of the Qur'an") and the Babis ("the people of the Bayan"). This knowledge causes the houri to wail and shake so much that she collapses at Baha'u'llah's feet and dies. The houris who had been floating around in the air watching the drama unfold are devastated and hasten away to their pavilions. Baha'u'llah washes the houri with his tears and wraps her body in his clothes. Then he whispers glad tidings in her ear, which seem to resurrect her, for she then whispers glad tidings in his ear too. Finally, Baha'u'llah sends the houri back to the place of intimacy that God had foreordained for her.
Baha'u'llah ends the tablet with a challenge to the people of paradise to interpret his vision of eternity and the spirit.
For further discussion on Tablet of the Houri, see:
- John Walbridge, Sacred Acts. Sacred Space. Sacred Time (Oxford: George Ronald, 1996) pp 158-161
- John Walbridge: "Erotic Imagery in the Allegorical Writings of Baha'u'llah" at the Baha'i Library Online.