Century of light
Posted by Sen on January 15, 2009
BahaIn Century’s end, I showed that Bahais of my generation widely expected universal peace to arrive in the twentieth century. Some of the texts on which this belief was based did not refer to the twentieth century; others did refer to the twentieth century or dates in the 20th century, but were pilgrims’ notes. There may be more, but I have found five such unauthentic sources:
– The Maxwell’s pilgrim’s notes, anticipating the Lesser Peace by 1953.
– Esselmont’s pilgrim’s notes, in the first edition of Baha’u’llah and the New Era, anticipating universal peace by 1957. As Dan Jensen has pointed out, the 1950 edition changed the date to 1963, but it is still just a pilgrim’s note, and universal peace was also not achieved in 1963.
– Sarah Kenny’s Haifa notes anticipating the Lesser Peace in the 20th century.
– A report in the Montreal Star on September 11, 1912, printed in Abdu’l-Baha in Canada p. 35, saying that peace would be universal in the 20th century.
– A talk reported in The Promulgation of Universal Peace page 126, and in Star of the West 3.8.14, calling the twentieth century the century of international peace.
A sixth source, in the pilgrim’s notes of Laura Barney, from her pilgrimmage in October 1900, says that “All the centuries are the bringing forth of the Twentieth” but does not relate this to peace. (see item 181 in the Barstow collection).
The fusion of these unauthentic indications of a peace to be achieved in the twentieth century, with authentic statements about things to be achieved in this century, led to an end-of-century hype among the Bahais, particularly in the United States, which did our reputation no good and led to an irrational agenda of things to do by the year 2000. After 2000, the failed prophecy led to disillusion and cynicism on the one hand, and more fervent (but not more effective) efforts to attract the masses on the other. If people could be persuaded to enter the Faith in troops, groups or even small handfuls, the confirmation this would give to the faithful would outweigh the disconfirmation they had just suffered. The problem is, when we ‘teach the Faith’ to someone because we need to receive psychological confirmation from their interest, this is repulsive. What is attractive is when we share what we have, to meet the needs and interests of the other person.
There have been various strategies after the failed prophecy to deal with the situation. One is to fudge the deadline, by claiming that “the political unity of nations … known as the “Lesser Peace”.. can already be detected on the political horizon … the process [leading to it] can be seen as having been definitely established in the twentieth century.” (BIC, ‘Peace Among the Nations‘, 1999)
Another strategy is to distinguish between ‘unity of nations’ and the Lesser Peace, but this does not help. If the processes of unification in ‘these United States’, and in Europe, and countries such as Germany and Italy are any guide, the Lesser Peace will have to function at the level of laws and administration for at least two generations, before the people of the world come to think of themselves as “citizens of one common fatherland” rather than citizens of the member states. The Lesser Peace must therefore come before ‘unity of nations’, as it is defined by Abdu’l-Baha, and neither the Lesser Peace nor the unity of nations was achieved in the 20th century. If Abdu’l-Baha promised that either would be, we still have a failed prophecy to deal with.
A better founded approach is to re-examine the texts. It is then obvious that those that refer to the Twentieth century in this connection are not authentic. There never was a prophecy about the year 2000, that was a misunderstanding. We should learn the lessons from that, move on, and try not to make the same sort of mistake regarding 2012, 2021, 2063 or any other special date that may be proposed. The only dated fulfilled prophecy we have is 1963, the date of the election of the Universal House of Justice. That momentous act assured the continuity of the Bahai community following the death of the Guardian. It was achieved on the centenary of Baha’u’llah’s declaration, not because God intervened on schedule but because the Guardian gave us realistic plans to achieve it, and the Bahais worked hard to make it happen.
Having disposed of the ‘prophecy,’ what remains is to see what Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha mean when they speak about “this century.” Two texts stand out here: Shoghi Effendi’s citation and interpretation of Some Answered Questions in The Promised Day is Come, and the Tablet of Abdu’l-Baha known as the “Seven Candles of Unity”, which Shoghi Effendi cites on the same pages of The Promised Day is Come, and also in The World Order of Baha’u’llah. Because these texts are what I am most interested in, I will leave them to last, so I can read them with an awareness of the way ‘century’ and other key terms are used elsewhere in the Writings.
What is ‘this century’?
In English, ‘century’ has a specific meaning because the Latin root cent means literally “one hundred” and whether we talk about Anno Domini or Common Era, we all know which calendar we are referring to. The problem is that Persian doesn’t routinely use a word that means ‘exactly one hundred years.’ The usual word translated as ‘century’ is `asr, which means ‘era’. For instance, one can refer to `asr-e Qaajaar, the period in which the Qajar dynasty ruled Persia: the Qajar era. There’s also qarn, which can best be translated ‘a span of years.’ When Shoghi Effendi wants to refer to a literal century in his Persian writings, he uses qarn. The Persian word for a hundred is sad, and there’s a word derived from it, sada/sadeh – but in the 19th century that was used for a group of a hundred soldiers. Today, both qarn and sadeh are used to refer to a literal hundred years. But Persian in the Qajar era, the time in which Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha lived, was short of unambiguous terms for ‘100 years.’
Old English had the same lack: honderd originally meant 50, and years then were counted by the honderds, scores and dozens. The Teuton hondert was 120, so after the Teutons had arrived, people in England were using ‘small hundreds’ and ‘long hundreds’ side by side. In short, there is nothing self-evident about counting years by the 100 – even the decimally organised Romans initially named their years after the Consul in charge.
Not only is ‘century’ not well defined in Persian, the centuries in the Islamic lunar calendar don’t correspond to those in the western calendar, and Persians used a Persian solar calendar for most purposes. Moreover the Baha’i solar calendar begins in 1844. So there is lots of room for confusion, when Persian speakers or writers are being translated into English.
All of which is to say: the word ‘century’ is a problem: to see what it means when Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha use it, we will have turn to the Bahai Writings.
Most of the references to ‘this century’ in the works attributed to Abdu’l-Baha are in books such as The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Paris Talks, Abdu’l-Baha in London etc. In most cases there is no way to know what exactly he said in such talks. However there are also some references in authenticated tablets that Abdu’l-Baha sent to Bahais in the West. Even without examining the Persian texts, we can see in some of these that ‘century’ is not 100 years. Often it means the Bahai dispensation, the period between Baha’u’llah and the next great prophet, which will be at least 1000 years according to Baha’u’llah. For example:
1. The Spiritual Assemblies to be established in this Age of God, this holy century, have… had neither peer nor likeness in the cycles gone before.
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, page 82)
2. The teachings of Baha’u’llah are the light of this age and the spirit of this century.
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, page 107)
3. In every century a particular and central theme is, … confirmed by God. In this illumined age that which is confirmed is the oneness of the world of humanity.
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, page 114)
4. Gradually whatsoever is latent in the innermost of this Holy Cycle shall appear and be made manifest, … Ere the close of this Century and of this Age, it shall be made clear and manifest how wondrous was that Springtide …
(quoted in Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 16)
5. … in any of the past cycles and dispensations, no assemblies for women have ever been established … This is one of the characteristics of this glorious Dispensation and this great century.
(Compilation on Women,; Compilation of Compilations page 397)
I’ve selected these examples because century is used in parallel with other terms, so those who know no Persian can see what is meant. In the first of these, ‘this century’ is parallel to ‘this Age of God.’ In the second, third and fourth, ‘century’ is parallel to ‘age,’ and it is clear that the age characterised by the oneness of humanity is not the twentieth century, but rather the Bahai dispensation. In the fifth quote, century is parallel to ‘dispensation,’ which is parallel to ‘cycle.’
Baha’u’llah uses these terms in a similar way:
6. ““This is the Day which past ages and centuries can never rival…” to “Peerless is this Day, for it is as the eye to past ages and centuries, and as a light unto the darkness of the times.”
(Cited in Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 79)
7. Briefly, in every age and century differences have arisen in the days of the manifestation of the Daysprings of Revelation, …
(Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 120)
8. Such objections and differences have persisted in every age and century.
(Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 81)
9. In every age and century, the purpose of the Prophets of God and their chosen ones …
(Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 120)
Examples 6 to 9 are all translated by Shoghi Effendi. Examples 1 to 3 above, translated by the World Centre, are modelled on the way Shoghi Effendi translated similar phrases in the writings of Baha’u’llah. We can see that, most often, Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha use “age and century” (or one or the other term) to mean the dispensation of a Prophet.
In other cases, ‘this century’ could be a period within the development of the Baha’i Faith, particularly the period corresponding to the early church in Christian history:
In the ages to come, though the Cause of God may rise and grow a hundredfold … yet this present century shall stand unrivalled, for it hath witnessed the breaking of that Morn and the rising of that Sun.
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, page 67)
This is the first age, and the early beginnings of the dispensation of the Most Great Light, wherefore, within this century, virtues must be acquired, goodly qualities must be perfected within this span of time.
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, page 232)
The period discussed here may or may not be roughly a hundred years (in the first, from reading the context, I think that the ‘present century’ is the Bahai dispensation, and the ‘ages to come’ refers to the 500,000-year cycle of fulfillment). There is in any case no indication it means a 100 years counted in the Gregorian calendar.
In his own writings in English, Shoghi Effendi also uses century in the sense of 100 years, but then usually in the Bahai calendar, not the Gregorian one:
First Century of Baha’i era drawing to a close. … Would to God every State within American Republic and every Republic in American continent might ere termination of this glorious century embrace the light of the Faith of Baha’u’llah and establish structural basis of His World Order.
(Shoghi Effendi, Messages to America, p. 6)
Broadly speaking then – when Shoghi Effendi is translating the words of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, ‘century’ means an age or era, when he is writing in English it is 100 years, sometimes in the Gregorian calendar but usually in the Bahai calendar. However there’s at least one place where he mixes these two uses:
Such, dearly-beloved friends, is the effusion of celestial grace vouchsafed by the Almighty to this age, this most illumined century! We stand too close to so colossal a Revelation to expect in this, the first century of its era,
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 63)
In the first sentence, this ‘illumined century’ is parallel to ‘age’ and to ‘era,’ meaning the dispensation of Baha’u’llah, but in the second sentence, “the first century” is 100 years, in the Bahai calendar, ending in 1944.
The Seven Candles of Unity
The Tablet we know as the ‘Candles of Unity’ was not written to a Bahai, but to a Christian lady, Mrs Alexander Whyte of Edinburgh, who had visited Abdu’l-Baha in Akka around 1906 (see H.M. Balyuzi, Abdu’l-Baha, the Centre of the Covenant, pages 355-368). Parts of it have been translated by Shoghi Effendi, in The World Order of Baha’u’llah and in The Bahai World Vol 2 pp 50-51 and volume 4 pp 129-130. A complete translation is in Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, which I will use except where it differs from Shoghi Effendi’s translations. The Persian text is in Muntakhabati az Mukaatiib-e Hazrat-e Abdu’l-Baha volume 1 (download from http://reference.bahai.org/fa/t/ab/; the relevant section is on page 30).
In this tablet, Abdu’l-Baha writes:
The Prophets of God one and all, Christ Himself, as well as the Blessed Beauty (Baha’u’llah), have all appeared and raised the call with the one purpose of transforming the world of man into the Kingdom of God. … O Esteemed One! In cycles [duur-haa] gone by, though harmony was established, yet, owing to the absence of means, the unity of all mankind could not have been achieved. … [but] the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. Verily this is none other but one of the wonders of this wondrous age [`asr], this glorious century [qarn]. Of this past ages [quruun] have been deprived, for this century [qarn] — the century [qarn] of light — hath been endowed with unique and unprecedented glory, … Eventually it will be seen how bright its candles will burn in the assemblage of man.
… The first candle is unity in the political realm, the early glimmerings of which can now be discerned.
The second candle is unity of thought in world undertakings, the consummation of which will erelong be witnessed.
The third candle is unity in freedom which will surely come to pass.
The fourth candle is unity in religion which is the corner-stone of the foundation itself, and which, by the power of God, will be revealed in all its splendour.
The fifth candle is the unity of nations — a unity which in this century [qarn] will be securely established, causing all the peoples of the world to regard themselves as citizens of one common fatherland.
The sixth candle is unity of races, making of all that dwell on earth peoples and kindreds of one race.
The seventh candle is unity of language, i.e., the choice of a universal tongue in which all peoples will be instructed and converse.
Each and every one of these will inevitably come to pass, inasmuch as the power of the Kingdom of God will aid and assist in their realization. (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, page 32)
At the risk of boring you all: note again that there is no twentieth century here. It speaks of past cycles and then about the present cycle [duur], which is alternatively called this age/`asr or this century/qarn.
Qarn is an Arabic word, from the verb qarana which means to connect or yoke together; a qarn (plural quruun) in pre-Islamic usage, it meant a group of people, and in the Quran and traditions, it is a religious community or the era of a religious community: in Bahai terminology, a ‘dispensation.’ In Islamic traditions it is also used in the sense of a generation: the companions of the prophet are described as a qarn. From there, it came to be defined as a lifespan, of 70 or 80 years, while still being used for a group of contemporaries. [source] When used in Persian, according to Steingass’ dictionary dating from the 1880’s, qarn means yoking together, the horns of an animal, a decade, a generation, an age, one heat of a race, and so on. It is not a word with a single precise meaning corresponding to 100 years.
In the ‘Seven Candles,’ (written in Persian) Shoghi Effendi translates qarn as century, but in other places he translates it as ‘dispensation,’ for example, “in every dispensation [qarn], the light of divine guidance …” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah p. 36)
In other places he translates it as century, but the context shows that he did not mean 100 years:
..this wondrous revelation [duur], this glorious century [qarn] (The Promised Day is Come, p. 119)
..ere the close of this century [qarn] and of this age [`asr] (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 205)
Moreover, he translates the plural, quruun, as ‘past ages’ in the “7 Candles” itself, and elsewhere as “ages” (Gleanings pp. 132, 145), “generations” (The Promised Day is Come, p. 4) and “dispensation.”
In short, in the “Seven candles” and elsewhere, where Shoghi Effendi translates qarn as century, he expects us to see that it is simply a synonym for age or dispensation. This is very good news twice over: we do not have a ‘failed prophecy’ to explain, and it means that the century [qarn] of light has not died with a whimper, it is just dawning. (see Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 39)
What Abdu’l-Baha says in Some Answered Questions is even more far-reaching than ‘unity of nations.’ This is how it is quoted by the Guardian in The Promised Day is Come:
“One of the great events,” Abdu’l-Baha has, in His “Some Answered Questions,” affirmed, “which is to occur in the Day of the manifestation of that Incomparable Branch [Baha’u’llah] is the hoisting of the Standard of God among all nations. By this is meant that all nations and kindreds will be gathered together under the shadow of this Divine Banner, which is no other than the Lordly Branch itself, and will become a single nation. Religious and sectarian antagonism, the hostility of races and peoples, and differences among nations, will be eliminated. All men will adhere to one religion, will have one common faith, will be blended into one race, and become a single people. All will dwell in one common fatherland, which is the planet itself.” This is the stage which the world is now approaching, the stage of world unity, which, as Abdu’l-Baha assures us, will, in this century, be securely established. (The Promised Day is Come p. 120; Some Answered Questions, p. 64, chapter 12
The words in italics are from Shoghi Effendi. What did he mean by them?
That all men could have one common faith and be blended into one race within the twentieth century, or the first Bahai century, was not a realistic expectation in 1941, when Shoghi Effendi wrote these words. The question then is, where does Abdu’l-Baha assure us that this will all be achieved “in this century?”
There are at least two possibilities that Shoghi Effendi could have had in mind. One is the “Seven candles” passage discussed above, which says that unity of nations, in which all the peoples of the world will regard themselves as citizens of one common fatherland, will be securely established in this century [qarn]. There is not much difference between ‘All will dwell in one common fatherland, which is the planet itself’ (SAQ) and ‘regard themselves as citizens of one common fatherland’ (7 Candles), so perhaps Shoghi Effendi saw the first of these, and it made him think of the Seven Candles, in which case this is a cross-reference to the Seven Candles.
The second source is just a few lines further in the same chapter of Some Answered Questions, where Abdu’l-Baha says:
Now consider, in this great century [`asr] which is the cycle [qarn] of Baha’u’llah, what progress science and knowledge have made, … Before long, material science and learning, as well as the knowledge of God, will make such progress and will show forth such wonders that the beholders will be amazed. Then the mystery of this verse in Isaiah, “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord,” will be completely evident.
The qarn of Baha’u’llah is translated here as the cycle of Baha’u’llah. That is correct, ‘dispensation of Baha’u’llah’ would have been equally good. The word which Dreyfus and Barney have translated as century is `asr, another Arabic loan word. The verbal root `asara means to squeeze, and an `asr is a pressing, the act of pressing, an age, a time period, epoch, or afternoon. It’s the term used for afternoon prayers. The stone age is `asr al-hajarii in Arabic, and I mentioned above that the Qajar era is `asr-e qaajaar in Persian. Shoghi Effendi usually translates `asr as ‘age’ or ‘century, and less often as ‘day’ (in the metaphoric sense) or dispensation. For example:
..the divines and doctors living in the days (Iqan 164)
..the point of adoration unto His Dispensation (Iqan 51)
..the learned men of that generation (Gleanings 83)
..a new life is in this age stirring (Gleanings 196)
..the divines of every age (Iqan 16)
“In this wondrous Revelation, this glorious century, the foundation of the Faith of God … is the consciousness of the Oneness of Mankind.”
(The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 36)
..if, at one time , through the care of an able physician (Gleanings 255)
..no age or dispensation (God Passes By, p. 28)
..this wondrous age (The Promised Day is Come, p. 120)
… Hath any age witnessed such momentous happenings? (Gleanings, p. 182)
And Shoghi Effendi translates the plural a`saar:
..bygone ages have never witnessed (Gleanings 319)
..the days of every Manifestation (Iqan 118)
…Reflect, O people! What hath become of your bygone days, your lost centuries? (From the Aqdas, in Gleanings, p. 138)
…generate, through successive ages (Gleanings 142)
Whether Shoghi Effendi was looking back to the promise about “this qarn” given in the “Seven Candles” or was alluding to the reference to “this great `asr which is the qarn of Baha’u’llah” in Some Answered Questions itself, it is clear that when Shoghi Effendi says that “world unity … as Abdu’l-Baha assures us, will, in this century, be securely established” he is not using ‘century’ to refer to a period of 100 years, but to a long period, apparently the equivalent of the “cycle of Baha’u’llah.” A long long – long – century, when “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)