Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

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. . .
(emphasis added)

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.”

Short link: http://wp.me/pcgF5-1HM

About these ads

8 Responses to “This great American democracy?”

  1. Sen:

    Interesting blog. The Research Department, in its Memorandum dated 28 December 2001 to The Universal House of Justice, states that the “Prayer for America” is authentic. This prayer, to which you briefly refer, is as follows:

    O Thou kind Lord! This gathering is turning to Thee. These hearts are radiant with Thy love. These minds and spirits are exhilarated by the message of Thy glad tidings. O God! Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious. Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world. O God! This American nation is worthy of Thy favors and is deserving of Thy mercy. Make it precious and near to Thee through Thy bounty and bestowal.

    – `Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 67.

    The Memo states, in relevant part:

    * * * * *

    Prayer for America

    In his email of 27 September 2001, Mr. ____ ______ raises a number of questions about the revelation of the “Prayer for America”. He is particularly interested in when and where the prayer was revealed and where it is published. We provide the following response.

    It is the understanding of the Research Department that the prayer referred to by Mr. Thomas is the one that begins with the words, “O Thou kind Lord! This gathering is turning to Thee.” This particular prayer is published in “Baha’i Prayers”. It is also included in “The Promulgation of Universal Peace”. The prayer may well have been first published in “Star of the West” in 1912, when it appeared in two consecutive issues of volume 3-issue 3 (28 April), page 4, and issue 4 (17 May), page 8.

    With regard to when and where the prayer was revealed, according to information contained in “Star of the West” and in “The Promulgation of Universal Peace”, the prayer was recited at the end of an address delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Baha on 30 April 1912. The Master’s talk was given at the “Public Meeting Concluding [the] Convention of Baha’i-Temple Unity” which took place at the “Drill Hall, Masonic Temple, Chicago, Illinois”. It would appear that the prayer was revealed in the course of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s address.

    For Mr. _______’s information, we cite below a second authentic prayer for America, published in “The Baha’i Magazine” (formerly “Star of the West”), volume 24, issue 9 (December 1933), page 258.

    O God, Almighty Protector! O Thou Who art the confirmer of every just power and equitable empire in eternal glory, everlasting power, continuance and greatness! Strengthen with the abundance of Thy mercy every government which acts with equity towards its subjects, and every dominion under whose flag the poor and weak find protection.

    We ask Thee by Thy holiness and bounty to pour out Thy blessings upon this government which has stretched its tent over citizens from every land, that its inhabitants, its industries, its territories may be penetrated by justice.

    O God! Strengthen its executives, give authority and influence to its word and utterance, protect its territories and dominions, guard its reputation, make its ideals to echo throughout the world, reveal its traces and exalt its principles by Thy conquering power and wonderful might throughout the kingdoms of creation.

    Thou art the confirmer of whomsoever Thou willest. Verily, Thou art the powerful and the mighty!

    cc: National Assembly of the United States (by email)

    * * * * *
    Note that the terms “revealed” and “authentic” are used with reference to both these prayers. Could it be that there is an additional criterion for authenticity that you have not considered?

    In this blog, you stated:

    * * * * *
    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.

    * * * * *

    I respect your position, which is well argued. However, I would question whether Shoghi Effendi would cite a Baha’i text that he did not consider authentic. Furthermore, the Universal House of Justice, the Research Department, and the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States have, at various times, relied on these citations by Shoghi Effendi as authentic, if memory serves. So, rightly or wrongly (i.e. if authenticating Persian texts are lacking), I would not be so quick to dismiss “authentication by citation,” as you have aptly put it.

    Edward Granville Browne’s account of his interview with Baha’u’llah in 1890 is another case in which a Persian original is lacking, yet the English text is regarded as an authoritative translation from an authentic utterance in Persian.

    That’s why I think that there may be other criteria for authentication that you may not have considered. But it is not immediately clear to me what these may be.

    Christopher Buck PhD JD · Attorney at Law · Author ·  
    Religious Myths and Visions of America (2009)
    http://www.amazon.com/Religious-Myths-Visions-America-Redefined/dp/0313359598 ·  

  2. Sen said

    The prayer, and the talk, Abdu’l-Baha gave to the Orient-Occident-Unity Conference in Washington on 20 April 1912 are authentic, since Persian notes are extant and it was Abdu’l-Baha’s practice to check and correct these notes. That does not mean that the translation known as the “prayer for America”, as published in Promulgation of Universal Peace is accurate. In fact, it bears no resemblance to the Persian text. Yes, a prayer was revealed on that occasion (this is a historical question). Yes, there is an authentic text of it – the one in Persian (this is a textual question; in some cases we know something was revealed, but do not have an authentic text). However the only English translation of that prayer that I know of is the one I provided in my blog:

    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. (My trans.)

    This is an unauthorised translation, that is, it has not been approved by the Bahai World Centre. I think if you separate the historical question of whether something was revealed, and the question of the authenticity of the recorded text, from the Bahai institution’s recognition of the value of a translation, all will be clear. The Research Department’s memo does not state that the translation in PUP is reliable or accurate. They do however provide an alternative prayer, which is contained in a Tablet of Abdu’l-Baha revealed about 1900 (according to Star of the West Volume 8 page 141). Unfortunately they quote an edited version of this prayer, the first published version reads as follows:

    O God — O thou who art the confirmer of every just power and equitable empire in eternal glory, everlasting power, continuance, steadfastness, firmness and greatness! — strengthen by the Abundance of thy mercy, every government which acts rightly towards its subjects and every dominion that protects the poor and weak by its flag.

    I ask thee, by the abundance of thy holiness and that of thy bounty, to assist this just government which hath stretched out the ropes of its tent to far and wide countries; the justice of which hath manifested its proofs throughout the well inhabited, cultivated and flourishing, regions belonging to such government.

    O God, strengthen its soldiers and flag, give authority and influence to its word and utterance, protect its territories and dominions, guard its reputation, make its renown widely spread, divulge its traces and exalt its flag, by thy conquering power and wonderful might in the kingdom of creation.

    Thou are the confirmer of whomsoever thou willest. Verily, thou art the powerful and the almighty!

    (signed) ABDUL BAHA ABBAS
    (Star of the West volume 8 page 14, September 27, 1917

    As you can see there are considerable differences. The older version refer to the government stretching its tent to far and wide countries, which — given that balad can mean the area around a city as well as the boundaries of a country — probably refers to the government’s extensive territories. The edited version turns this into welcoming people from every nation. This is an Americanisation of a prayer that, in its earlier form, is not specifically for America but for any just government. Further, the older version says “strengthen its soldiers and flag” while the later one has “strengthen its executives.” The earlier has “exalt its flag” and the later one “exalt its principles,” another Americanisation.

    As for authentication by citation, we have to distinguish between a citation by Baha’u’llah or Abdu’l-Baha, which becomes Bahai scripture by virtue of being cited, even if the text cited was not authentic scripture, and citations by Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice, who make no claim to write scripture.

    There’s a letter on behalf of the Guardian that says,

    As many times passages in the Gospel of St. John are quoted we may assume that it is his Gospel and much of it accurate.” (January 23, 1944, to an individual believer)

    I respectfully disagree. The historical evidence is that the Gospel of St John was not written by the disciple known as Saint John, and I don’t think it is reasonable to suppose that, when Baha’u’llah tells his reader which gospel or book he is referring to, he intends to tell us that the attributed author really is the author. Suppose Baha’u’llah knew, by inspiration or by normal scholarly means, that the author was really Joshua of Alexandria (a fictional figure). If he wrote, in the Gospel of Joshua of Alexandria it is recorded, “When the comforter is come…” — that would be no use at all to his audience. If they want to check their Bibles, they have to look up the Gospel called the Gospel of John. The Manifestation has to use the knowledge, forms, sources available to his hearers and readers – that does not mean that all the knowledge he refers to is correct! Certainly, when something is quoted by Baha’u’llah, it becomes absolutely authentic Bahai scripture, just as the poems Baha’u’llah cites become part of Bahai scripture. Where he quotes it in two different forms, both become Bahai scripture – but this does not imply any judgment about whether either form was authentic Christian or Islamic scripture. The way the letter from Shoghi Effendi’s secretary is formulated, it sounds as if it means “what has been quoted by Bahá’u’lláh and the Master must be [historically] authentic [Christian scripture].” I don’t suppose there’s any way of knowing whether that was what Shoghi Effendi intended when he instructed his secretary to reply (he generally didn’t dictate replies, so such letters are in the secretary’s words, not his own). But that’s the way it looks, and I don’t think it’s tenable.

    A separate case is where Shoghi Effendi or the Universal House of Justice cite something. This does not imply that what they cite is Bahai scripture, and even where they say explicitly that something is scripture, they may be wrong about the attribution, just as they may be wrong about other historical facts. For example, there is a section in Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah that appears to be written by Abdu’l-Baha (Gleanings XXXIV; because there is no authenticated original for the text, this is not authenticatable as Bahai scripture, regardless of its author), and there’s a tablet in “Tablets revealed after the Aqdas” that was revealed before the Aqdas. In Christianity, the authority of the church established the canon of scripture, and in Islam the early Caliphs (Abu Bakr and especially Uthman) established the authority of a written form of the Quran. Neither scripture contains a usable hard criterion for identifying what is scripture, so the question has been decided by authority within the religious community. However in the Bahai Faith, canonical authority is a historical question, based on criteria that are scriptural, and that have been interpreted by Shoghi Effendi:

    ”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)
    “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)

    If, given our current state of knowledge, a section of Gleanings cannot be authenticated by a Text, then so be it. It is not authenticated as scripture. If at some stage in the future, Persian notes supporting the “Prayer for America” as we have known it come to light, it becomes scripture. It is not impossible that the Prayer for America might be historically accurate, although it’s very unlikely at this stage that we will obtain an authentic text. For example, Abdu’l-Baha might have delivered first the prayer for the unity of east and west that I have translated, and gone on with another prayer that was either not recorded by the Persian secretary, or that was recorded but was struck out of the record when Abdu’l-Baha checked the notes.

    As for E.G.Browne’s memories of the words of Baha’u’llah, I have no reason to think that anyone considers them “an authoritative translation from an authentic utterance in Persian.” They are much loved, but in the nature of things cannot be authenticated.

  3. Gary said

    You state “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…”

    Actually, I always thought it was a “constitutional republic”… (see link)

    http://www.stopthenorthamericanunion.com/NotDemocracy.html

  4. Sen said

    According to that article, if a democracy “has a Constitution that limits the powers of the government” and “spells out how the government is structured, creating checks on its power and balancing power between the different branches.” then it is not a democracy! I think that’s merely slight of hand with definitions, but if people want to define democracy as applying only to countries with elected government, and without constitutions, they are free to do so. I don’t think it’s going to catch on.

  5. Actually, Sen, Gary is using the correct definition. It was the way democracy was used before the 20th century. Progressive started using the word democracy for ideological reasons which is why democracy has been redifined colloqially to the way people use it incoreectly today.

  6. Sen said

    The site Gary refers to says: “A Constitutional Republic has some similarities to democracy in that it uses democratic processes to elect representatives and pass new laws, etc. The critical difference lies in the fact that a Constitutional Republic has a Constitution that limits the powers of the government. It also spells out how the government is structured, creating checks on its power and balancing power between the different branches.” That is their definition, and they are entitled to it. It means that if a country does limit the powers of government and establish a constitution, it ceases to be a democracy, and becomes a republic.

    I will continue to use the word democracy to refer to government by the all adult citizens who wish to participate, whether by direct referendums or through elected representatives.

  7. Sen: Would you please post a link to the Persian text of the prayer for America published in Star of the West, Vol. 9.6 (June 24, 1918), p. 75, and elsewhere? Any other prayers for America extant in Persian? Thanks in advance. — Chris

  8. Sen said

    Sorry, I do not know where the text for that is located, or who might have translated it. I did check through the following volumes of Abdu’l-Baha’s prayers, and found no hits for Amrika / امریکا

    مجموعه مناجاتها حضرت عبدالبهاء
    مناجاتهاى حضرت عبدالبهاء جلد ١
    مناجاتهاى حضرت عبدالبهاء جلد ۲
    مناجاتهاى حضرت عبدالبهاء جلد ۳
    هوالله جلد ١
    هوالله جلد ٢

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 152 other followers

%d bloggers like this: