This great American democracy?
Posted by Sen on February 27, 2011
A Bahai friend asked about Abdu’l-Baha’s reference to America as a “democracy,” in the talk he gave to the Orient-Occident-Unity Conference in Washington on 20 April 1912. In the course of researching it, I found a short prayer by Abdu’l-Baha for East-West unity, which I have translated, and also discovered that a much loved and quoted reference to the future of America, known as the “prayer for America,” is not authentic.
The context of this query was a discussion of whether the United States is a republic, or a democracy. The question appears to depend largely on definitions: if a republic is a state with an elected head of state and a government answerable to the people, and a democracy is a state with a government chosen in free and fair elections, with freedom of speech and protection of individual and minority rights under the rule of law, the United States would appear to aspire to be a democratic republic, at the intersection of these two terms.
Be that as it may, I was asked about the term “American democracy” in the talk Abdu’l-Baha gave at the Orient-Occident-Unity Conference. The talk was first published in Star of the West volume 3 Number 3, page 8. There are Persian notes in Khataabat-e Abdu’l-Bahaa volume 2 page 30 (p. 336 for those with the one-volume edition). ‘Democracy’ appears three times in the English versions of this talk, but not in the Persian text. The first mention is on page 35 of The Promulgation of Universal Peace: “The mineral wealth of Persia is still latent and untouched. It is my hope that the great American democracy may be instrumental ..” In Star of the West it reads “this American democracy.” That is, the word “great” is an editorial insertion in The Promulgation of Universal Peace.
However in the Persian notes, there is no word for democracy at all. The section reads,
“So far as Iran’s material progress goes, there is nothing better than links with Americans. Also, with an eye to America’s national trade and advantage, there is no better country than Iran, since Iran’s material wealth is all hidden under the ground. My hope is that the nation of America may be the instrument bringing that wealth to light, and that very close links may develop between Iran and America. ” (my translation).
The next two mentions of democracy come together, on the following page of The Promulgation of Universal Peace:
May this American democracy be the first nation to establish the foundation of international agreement. May it be the first nation to proclaim the universality of mankind. May it be the first to upraise the standard of the Most Great Peace, and through this nation of democracy may these philanthropic intentions and institutions be spread broadcast throughout the world. . .
The earlier version, in Star of the West 3.3.9, reads:
… until this American democracy may be the first nation to hoist the banner of international peace. May it be the first nation to promulgate the universality of mankind. May it be the first nation to upraise the banner of the Most Great Peace until these philanthropic institutions and these philanthropic intentions through this democracy, this nation, may be spread broad cast throughout the world.
None of this is supported by the Persian text (translated below), yet Shoghi Effendi cites the The Promulgation of Universal Peace version, with some changes, in Citadel of Faith page 35:
It is for this same American democracy that He expressed His fervent hope that it might be “the first nation to establish the foundation of international agreement,” “to proclaim the unity of mankind,” and “to unfurl the Standard of the Most Great Peace…”
By the standards Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi set, these words are not Bahai scripture, since here is nothing like this in the Persian notes. Abdu’l-Baha specified “”Thou has written concerning the pilgrims and pilgrims’ note. Any narrative that is not authenticated by a Text should not be trusted. Narratives, even if true, cause confusion. For the people of Baha, the Text, and only the Text, is authentic” (translated in Lights of Guidance, p. 438) Shoghi Effendi writes “I have insistently urged the believers of the West … to quote and consider as authentic only such translations as are based upon the authenticated text of His recorded utterances in the original tongue.” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 5)
This is therefore a case in point, in the discussion of ‘authentication by citation.’ Are the words elevated to the status of Bahai scripture because Shoghi Effendi cites them? Are the words – or the books – of the Old and New Testament, and the Islamic traditions, that are cited by Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha to be treated as authentic scripture, or is authenticity a fact that has to be determined by textual criticism? My view, in general and with respect to the citations in Citadel of Faith, is that these authors are not intending their citation to be taken as authentication of the words cited, and that authenticity is a historical and factual question, to be established in each case by ferreting out the sources.
In the Persian notes, the last part of this talk reads (in my translation):
… therefore, pray for that committee [the Committee of Union and Progress] that, day by day, they may be assisted, for they are the cause of liberty and freedom.
In short, I have crossed the Atlantic Ocean and, God be praised, I have arrived here. I see an illumined gathering and spiritual souls. This gathering pleases me very much.
O God, thou the Forgiver, assist this assembly and grant the divine confirmations, that the world may be illumined with the light of unity, that East and West may be set aglow by the radiance of love and harmony. O thou the Living, the Giver, quicken the hearts through the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit, light their faces like a candle, so that they may illumine the world, and make their souls, heavenly souls. You are the Giver, the Bestower, the Loving God.
There are other references to democracy in the talks published in The Promulgation of Universal Peace. There are no Persian notes for all but one of these, so they too are pilgrim’s notes. The one exception is a talk given on 5 July 1912 at 309 West Seventy-eighth Street, New York, in which Abdu’l-Baha refers to the letters Baha’u’llah sent “to the president of the American democracy.” (Promulgation 223) There is a Persian text for this talk, in Khataabat-e Abdu’l-Bahaa volume 2 page 165, where this phrase reads “beh ra’is-e jamhur-e amrika,” to the head of the Jamhur of America. Jamhur is not a specifically political term: it can refer to an assembly, a society, or a republic. It is the word used in the Kitab-e Aqdas paragraph 13, which speaks of power in Iran falling into the hands of the people (the jamhur an-nas; more literally, power falling to the assembly of the people.)
The purpose of the Bahai Faith is not to establish a particular economic system of system of government, but “to reform the morals and beautify the conduct of the human race” (Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveller’s Narrative, 39). Moreover, Persian and even Arabic during the time of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha was still developing a vocabulary to describe modern political and economic questions. This means that Bahais cannot expect to extract a blueprint for a future society from the Bahai writings, in however much detail they may be studied. In fact, the more closely they are studied, the more apparent it becomes that the Bahai Writings give us principles for the relationships between people and peoples, and between the various spheres of human life (religion, politics, science and others), but no prescriptions except in relation to the Bahai teachings and community.
For the sake of completeness, I mention four other references to democracy in The Promulgation of Universal Peace, none of which can be authenticated from Persian notes:
+ A talk on 30 April 1912 at a public meeting concluding the Convention of the Baha’i Temple Unity, in the Masonic Temple, Chicago, Illinois, recorded in The Promulgation of Universal Peace page 67. This reads “Praise be to God! This American democracy manifests capacity, …” which in Star of the West 3.4.8 reads “Praise be to God, this American Democracy presents capacity, …”
+ A Talk at Hotel Plaza, Chicago, on 3 May 1912, recorded in The Promulgation of Universal Peace from page 83, in which, towards the end, it is said “that the banner of international peace may be upraised here and that this democracy may be the cause of the cessation of warfare in all other countries.” In the earlier English version, published in Star of the West 3.3.38, this reads “that the banner of International Peace in reality may be unfurled here, and that American Democracy may be the cause of the cessation of warfare in all other countries.”
+ A talk at Euclid Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, on 6 May, 1912, recorded in The Promulgation of Universal Peace from page 101. In the last paragraph we find: “This American nation is equipped and empowered to accomplish that which will adorn the pages of history, to become the envy of the world and be blest in the East and the West for the triumph of its democracy.” The earlier Star of the West version (3.4.32) reads: “It is equipped to accomplish that which shall surely adorn the pages of history, become the envy of the world, and be blest in the East and the West because of its democracy.”
+ A talk at a reception hosted by the New York Peace Society in Hotel Astor, New York, on 13 May 1912. The report in The Promulgation of Universal Peace on page 125 reads: “This thought is prevailing, and souls are continually arising as defenders of the oneness of humanity, endeavoring to assist and establish international peace. There is no doubt that this wonderful democracy will be able to realize it, and the banner of international agreement will be unfurled here to spread onward and outward among all the nations of the world.” The Star of the West version (3.8.15) reads: “There is no doubt that this revered democracy will be able to realize it, and the banner of international agreement will be unfurled here, permeating through the other countries from here.”
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