There is an old mystical tradition in Islám, generally attributed to Sufis and Persian poets that represents God as “the beloved,” a beautiful “youth” who can sometimes border on the erotic. It seems to be that some more subversive poets such as Hafez made use of this equivocation between God and desire in taking license to celebrate wine, women, and song. Where did this sense of God as the obsession of a drunken lover come from? I haven’t studied this topic nearly enough to hope to have anything new to contribute on the matter, but here’s what I’ve got.
Let’s go back to the old Zoroastrian tradition of Daena, the goddess or daemon that greets each soul three days after death. The old tradition says that good souls are greeted by a beautiful, even voluptuous maiden, but bad souls are greeted by an old hag. I composed (or perhaps plagiarized) a poem on the subject years ago. It turns out that Daena, that heavenly reward for the good and punishment for the wicked is really just a reflection of the soul’s own character, expressed esthetically and sexually. The “paradise” of this model is the paradise of one’s own character. As Heraclitus is known to have said, “character is destiny.”
Daena does not appear alone: she is accompanied by dogs, perhaps because Iranians believed that dogs could sense the presence of spirits and thus employed dogs in funerary rites.
Whether Daena was just sexual compensation or a sexual embodiment of “virtue is its own reward,” she may have influenced Muhammad’s conception of gazelle-eyed “houris” that await the faithful in Paradise. These heavenly companions are clearly quite carnal and servile, whereas Daena seems more of a ominous gatekeeper. A Houri does not come with a squad of dogs.
Having been raised a Bahá’í, I was introduced to a very special houri at a young age, the very “Maiden of Heaven” that Bahá’u’lláh met while in a miserable hole of a prison in Tehran. Bahá’u’lláh’s actual term for this “Maiden of Heaven,” the equivalent of Muhammad’s Angel Gabriel and the burning bush of Moses, was “Houri,” in reference to the beautiful and compliant houris of the Qur’án. Though Bahá’u’lláh would later express his meeting with her in almost erotic terms, his personal houri was clearly more like Daena than any of the eternal virgins of the Qur’án. His “Maiden of Heaven” was as much a Houri of Hell as one of Paradise, for she made a paradise of the “Black Pit of Tehran.”
The idea that Bahá’u’lláh received his revelation from God in the form of a houri is thought-provoking. As a man claiming a special and exclusive revelation from God it seems rather unprecedented, but it would have not been unprecedented for an Iranian mystic to see God in a sexually alluring avatar. This was nothing new to Persian poetry after all. It presents us with a prophet, whether false or true, who is born of the Persian mystical tradition. It also presents us with a religion born of a vision of great beauty; hence a religion with a potential to represent beauty as the chief characteristic of the divine.