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                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Knowledge: project or process?

Posted by Sen on May 4, 2009

encyclopaediaprojectThe Bahai Encyclopaedia Project has begun to put up a selection of online articles. As of today, there are 21 articles online, so it is just a small beginning. Two are classified under “teachings and laws,” but one of these is misfiled: it is on the Letters of the Living and belongs in the history category. That leaves one article on the Bahai teachings, the one entitled ‘children.’

Looking down this article, I was surprised to see that even where better sources are easily available, it draws extensively on The Promulgation of Universal Peace, which is not an authentic source. In a footnote to the footnotes the Encyclopaedia editors even list Promulgation of Universal Peace among ‘scripture and other authoritative texts.’ The author and editor are clearly not aware of source-critical issues, which is not a promising start for such a project.

An encyclopaedia is a compendium of knowledge in a particular field, which implies that the more basic issue of what constitutes knowledge in that field, and what sources it comes from, has already been settled. An encyclopaedia of astronomy for instance draws on observations, and uses the best quality of observation available: it will not derive information about Venus from Latin mythologies, nor will it use a fuzzy earth-based photograph from the fifties, if there’s better data from an orbiting telescope available. The equivalent to using the best observation available, in all the humanities, is that one refers to primary texts and not later adaptions or modifications of them, or at least, one gets as close as possible to the primary source. A source critical approach is far from sufficient, but it is absolutely necessary.

As an example, take the very first source that the article cites:

The hearts of all children are of the utmost purity,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states. “They are mirrors upon which no dust has fallen.”

The source of this is Promulgation of Universal Peace page 72, in the new edition (2007). But where did the editor of Promulgation of Universal Peace obtain his text? The editor of the first edition was Howard Macnutt; later editions are based on his work, with some changes. Usually, Macnutt draws on reports of Abdu’l-Baha’s talks that were published in Star of the West magazine, changing them as he sees fit. But in this case, no detailed report of this meeting with the children was published in Star of the West at the time. All that Star of the West gives us is an account by Joseph Hannen entitled ‘Abdu’l-Baha in Washington’ which says simply:

On Wednesday afternoon one of the most beautiful functions of the week was successfully planned and carried out. At the Studio Hall more than 100 children, with as many adults, parents and friends, gathered. Abdul Baha received and embraced each child, seeming most happy in their presence, and then delivered a wonderful address. Abdul-Baha presented each child, before he left, with a gift. (Star of the West, Vol. 3, No. 3, p. 7)

mahmudsdiary Two of the Persians in the party also report that meeting with the children in their diaries, but neither report includes the words quoted in Promulgation of Universal Peace (Zia Bagdadi’s report is in Star of the West Vol. 19, p. 89, 1928; Mahmud Zarqani’s account is in Mahmud’s Diary pages 56-7).
What the Star of the West does offer us, in September 1912, is a photograph of Abdu’l-Baha sitting amidst a group of Bahais, with children at his knee (Vol. 3, No. 10, page 3). The caption reads “The souls of little children are as mirrors upon which no dust has gathered.”

So we have three reports that Abdu’l-Baha spoke to children on that day, and evidence from the photograph caption that, by late 1912, words similar to those found in Promulgation of Universal Peace and cited in the encyclopaedia article were being attributed to Abdu’l-Baha. And that’s all: there are no Persian notes of this talk published in Khatabat-e Abdu’l-Baha.

Even for those without any knowledge of the formal principles that define the authoritative sources of Bahai teachings, it should be obvious that the train of transmission here is unreliable. Abdu’l-Baha spoke in Persian, an interpreter whose name and skills we do not know gave an interpretation, Joseph Hannen took notes, presumably in shorthand, which would later be worked up into a grammatical longhand version, which was not published but was presumably available to Howard MacNutt, the editor of Promulgation of Universal Peace, a man who is known to have taken great liberties with texts he edited, even where the original was already published and his changes would be evident to a critical reader. On occasion, his editing went so far as to put words and ideas into Abdu’l-Baha’s mouth which are simply invented, and pupcover3entirely contrary to Abdu’ul-Baha’s authentic writings (I see I must write another blog article on MacNutt’s editing practices: there’s one example in pdf format here). It is evident that Abdu’l-Baha’s message to the children could have been much altered during this chain of transmission, particularly through the inadequacies of the interpreter and the unreliability of this editor.

The same is true of the subsequent transmission of the text: the encyclopaedia project has chosen to use the third edition of Promulgation of Universal Peace, which is not the same as the first edition. Successive editors have adjusted the text of Promulgation of Universal Peace for their own purposes. It is the most elementary principle of scholarship that one uses the earliest edition available unless there is evidence that a later edition has drawn on another source closer to the original. For example, in the talk to the children we are discussing, Macnutt’s first edition at one point says:

His Highness Christ has addressed the world, saying “Except ye become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom,”

but in the second edition this becomes

Christ has addressed the world, saying, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven

The text in the later editions has been aligned with Matthew’s version (Matt 18:3). But for all we know, Abdu’l-Baha may actually have cited Mark 10:14: “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.” In choosing to align the text with Matthew rather than leave it as was, or follow Mark, the editor has put the words ‘and convert’ into the mouth of Abdu’l-Baha. Would Abdu’l-Baha say such a thing? Would it be what he would say in speaking to children?

This example could be repeated a hundred times, with more or less serious examples of changes to the text. Every time an editor ‘corrects’ the text, not by reference to an original source, but according to his or her own view of what is right, the information is corrupted a little more. And because texts are so slippery, changeable, untrustworthy, when we draw conclusions from texts, as we do in theology and all the liberal arts, we must always use the best quality text we can get.

In any case, quite apart from the principles that apply in the humanities to any texts, such sources are ruled out of court by specific ‘principles of evidence’ that apply to the Bahai teachings. The rule is that words attributed to Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi without an original text from them, or approved by them, cannot be treated as authentic sources, even if there is no interpreter or editor in the chain of transmission. Such texts are often known as ‘pilgrim’s notes’ since those first used in Western Bahai communities were produced by Western Bahais who went on pilgrimage to visit Abdu’l-Baha during his imprisonment in Palestine. Later Abdu’l-Baha travelled to Europe and North America, and his words were abdul-bahachicago1interpreted and recorded in ‘talks,’ yet the principle is the same: reports of the spoken word may be interesting but they are not acceptable sources of Bahai teachings. This is one of the strong distinctions between the Bahai Faith and Islam, where such traditions and narratives (hadith and akhbar), if authentic, are regarded as authoritative alongside the Text of the Quran itself. It is a distinction explicitly made by Abdu’l-Baha himself:

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.”
(‘from a previously untranslated tablet,’ cited in Lights of Guidance, 438)

The Guardian’s secretary expressed it this way:

Nothing can be considered scripture for which we do not have an original text. A verbatim record in Persian of His talks would of course be more reliable than one in English because He was not always accurately interpreted …” (Unfolding Destiny. 208)

Shoghi Effendi even asked that such material should not be published in official Bahai organs. Surely the Encyclopaedia project would qualify as an official organ, and thus be required to follow this practice? Should it not at least adopt the spirit of this policy, to prevent the infiltration of unauthentic materials into the canon of authoritative Bahai texts?

In short, whether from the point of view of good scholarship, or in the light of the definition of the ‘canon’ of Bahai Writings, explicitly given in those Writings, the article gives a bad first impression of the encyclopaedia. This first citation is not an exception in this article: the quotes used at footnotes 6, 9, 16, 24 and 25 are all pilgrim’s notes for which no Persian notes have been published. All but the last were unpublished before MacNutt included them in Promulgation of Universal Peace, so we cannot see how much he may have changed the first versions of these notes.

encyclopaediaset1In fact, is a Bahai encyclopaedia project even desirable? The historians may well object that, at least in the field of Bahai history, there are sufficient Bahai authors who know what the rules of evidence are in history, and they would be correct: the writing of Bahai history has developed earlier and much further than Bahai theology has. This single article under the heading of ‘Bahai teachings’ should not be representative of what an encyclopaedia-style project can achieve, in other fields. Yet even if it were confined to the field of history, or other areas in which the writers and editors are skilled, I think the project is a mistake.

An encyclopaedia project such as this is predicated on a model of knowledge production, validation and distribution which was never appropriate to the way knowledge is used in a Bahai community, and which has been rendered obsolete by technologies for user-generated content that do fit very well with the use and distribution of knowledge in the Bahai community. doctorAn encyclopaedia project consists of a group of expert writers, even more expert editors, an eventual product which is a compendium of knowledge – and a group of consumers whose role is to cry ‘Praise the Lord’ and seize. adopt and use what is given to them. (The same two criticisms apply to the materials used in the Ruhi project, discussed here: the people preparing the materials lack the basic skills required, and perpetuate an inappropriate top-down model of knowledge production).

I am quite comfortable with this as a way of producing a catalogue of pharmaceuticals and their names and active ingredients. I can see the possibility of a ‘Catholic Encyclopaedia’ project too, with more reservations. The Catholic church does at least have the necessary ecclesiastical hierarchy, a clerical structure that distinguishes between religious experts and consumers, and a great depth of actual scholarship. But what sense does an official encyclopaedia project make in the Bahai community: a community in which no institution has a claim to possess true knowledge, which does not have a large cadre of potential writers and editors with a knowledge of basic methods and the specific rules of evidence embodied in the Bahai Writings themselves, and moreover a community which should be moving from that old paradigm of bahaikipediaknowledge production and consumption – the expert and the congregation model – to a model of participation and partnership? Moreover, religious knowledge is more like ethics than a pharmaceutical manual. Medicine works for me whether I understand it or not, but religion is a bit different.

The only excuse I can see for beginning the Bahai Encyclopaedia project, is that at the time it was begun the world wide web, wiki-type software and blogging did not exist. A compendium of knowledge was by definition a printed book, and it couldn’t be open to user generated content. Since then, a lot of people have put a lot of work into the encyclopaedia project, and with results: in addition to the twenty-one articles on the newly launched site, some articles from a previous attempt are available here and here not to mention that John Walbridge has put his articles into a book.

wikipediafarsiBut now it’s time to read the writing on the wall. An ‘official project’ approach to knowledge production is already out of date; twenty years from now it will be a quaint old curiosity. Moving the product from the printed page to the web, while retaining the hierarchical structure of knowledge production, is not radical enough. The next generation Bahai encyclopaedia is already here, at bahaikipedia and, in many different languages, at wikipedia. These wikis have their shortcomings, certainly. But they are processes, not products, inclusive, not hierarchical. They will not only generate better knowledge, in the process they will train their participants to develop skills, and to own the knowledge they know.

~~ Sen McGlinn

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Related content:
Compilation on the learned
What is theology, and what’s it good for ? (2008)
The knower as servant (response to Paul Lample) (2008)

and in the email archive:

Scholarship and review in the Bahai community (1990)
Scholars in the Bahai Community 1 (1996)
Scholars in the Bahai Community 2 (1996)
Foreword to ‘Church and State’ (2005; see the section on the limits of theology)
Theology – 2005-12-03
Theology 2005-10-17
Theology 2005-10-21
Theology – 2005-12-03
Theologians, the learned and the wise (2006)
Theology 2006-02-13
Theology 2007-01-01
Theology 2008-06-03
Church, State, experts, consensus (Oct. 2009)
Theology – a defence (2009)
No Clergy?” (2009)
Theology 2009-10-00
Bahai Studies and the academic study of religion” (2010?)
Method and focus in my Church and State (2010?)

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