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Mitchell’s mistake

Posted by Sen on May 27, 2009

from Remey, 'Observations' 1908

I’ve been looking again at an old claim that Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament was not written by Abdu’l-Baha, that it was ‘fraudulent.’ This claim is the foundation for two small Bahai splinter groups that reject the institution of the Guardianship (established by Abdu’l-Baha in his Will and Testament), and it has also been propagated in Germany in anti-Bahai polemics published by the Lutheran ‘Central Office for Questions of Ideology’ (EZW). In looking through the documents, I’ve noticed something that doesn’t seem to have been commented on in the past.

Let me begin by saying that there is no doubt that the Will and Testament is genuine. At the time it was opened and read, there were some hundreds if not thousands of Persian Bahais, including Abdu’l-Baha’s family and secretaries, and also Persian opponents of the Bahai Faith such as Muhammad Ali, or opponents of Shoghi Effendi such as Mirza Sohrab, all of whom were familiar with Abdu’l-Baha’s handwriting. Not one of them has suggested that the Will and Testament is not written in Abdu’l-Baha’s hand – not even those Persian opponents of Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi who stood most to gain by casting doubt on its authenticity. Mountford Mills, who saw the Will, said that “It is written entirely in the Master’s own hand [and] It is signed by him.” and that the first two parts bore the seal of Abdu’l-Baha. Abdu’l-Baha’s Persian secretary, who would certainly be in a position to know, confirms this. [note 1]
reedpenThe claim that the Will and Testament was fraudulent was based entirely on the opinion of Dr. C. Ainsworth Mitchell, an English chemist and document analyst, whose publications include Documents and their scientific examination, with especial reference to the chemistry involved in cases of suspected forgery … and Forensic chemistry in the criminal courts (1938).
What interests me is not whether the Will is genuine, but how a scientist of Dr. Mitchell’s stature could have ventured to give an opinion in a field in which he must have known that he had no special competence. As we will see, he was not even aware that Persian is written from right to left, so he was certainly not familiar with the Persian alphabet. Handwriting analysis, and even the simple reading of a handwritten text, requires familiarity with the way that letters are formed by the hand. I am not a forensic handwriting expert, but I have completed a course in Middle-Eastern codicology, which means learning to read and transcribe the handwriting styles used for Persian and Arabic in the Middle East over the past millennium, and being able to name the most common styles and to date and place texts by style. In attempting to read such handwritten texts for this course, I often found my fingers twitching as if holding a pen. By imagining how the pen moves in sequence, as the scribe writes, one can see what parts of the letter are significant and which are accidents. What looks like an up-stroke might simply be the pen dragging on the paper a little as it is moved to where it must be to begin the next letter. To know that, you have to know where the letter ends (thus, know the alphabet) and where the next letter is begun (thus, to know penmanship). Does the pen begin at A and move clockwise to B, or does it begin at B and move anticlockwise to A? Does the stroke begin at the top and move down, or begin at the bottom, move up and then track back? Arabic calligraphyOnly by actually writing in that alphabet, in the way scribes are taught for that style, can one learn to read the style with confidence. So for Mitchell to offer an opinion on a text he could not read, in a script he knew nothing about, is something like someone who knows no English deciding that Dickens could not have written Hard Times, on stylistic grounds.
The problem is that Mitchell appears to have been intelligent, and he had experience in document analysis using both chemical and handwriting analysis, so he knew he was not competent to make an analysis based on a photograph of a text in a language and alphabet he did not know. Why did he venture an opinion then? My suggestion is that he saw some very evident differences, between Abdu’l-Baha’s signatures on the envelope of the Will and Testament and what he was told were authentic signatures from Abdu’l-Baha – differences so large that he was confident that, given the original documents, he or another expert actually familiar with Middle-Eastern handwriting would be able to demonstrate they were not from the same hand. Perhaps he really did see glaring differences: but that could be because what he was given as ‘authentic signatures’ were not authentic, or because Abdu’l-Baha used two quite different signatures.

Making the crooked straightThe background

The sequence of events and references to the sources are presented by Ulrich Gollmer in Chapter 11 of Making the Crooked Straight, in Adib Taherzadeh’s The Covenant of Baha’u’llah (page 299..) and again in his book The Child of the Covenant (page 347..) . The latter two are in Ocean and the relevant sections can be found by searching on ‘Ruth White.’

Briefly, the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha appears to have been written in three stages beginning in 1903 (see Gollmer 685 note 33); as Mountford Mills points out, the fact that the 3rd section was signed without using Abdu’l-Baha’s seal probably means it was written after 1912, when his seal was stolen). When Abdu’l-Baha died in Haifa at the end of November 1921, a Will was found in his safe. When opened, it was found to be addressed to Shoghi Effendi, who was at the time studying in Oxford. It was therefore resealed until Shoghi Effendi’s return to Haifa, in the last days of December. On 3 January 1922 the Will was opened and a Persian believer was commissioned to make copies; Shoghi Effendion 7 January it was read in public and copies were sent to Iran: in the same month copies in Persian were sent to interested parties, and a preliminary English translation was read in New York in February 1922.

Abdu’l-Baha’s brother, Mirza Muhammad-`Ali, claimed that he, not Shoghi Effendi, was the rightful heir to Baha’u’llah, but he won little support for his claim and – what is important for present purposes – he did not claim that the Will and Testament was not authentic, but rather that Abdu’l-Baha had no legal right to pass over his brother in favour of his grandson, Shoghi Effendi. The British authorities in Palestine investigated the matter and decided in favour of Shoghi Effendi. Over the years since then, various cases regarding the ownership of properties in Israel have been fought, and won, by the Bahais on the basis of the provisions of the Will and Testament. In none of these was the authenticity of the Will disputed. Ahmad Sohrab, who had been Abdu’l-Baha’s secretary and turned against Shoghi Effendi, explicitly vouched for the authenticity of the Will and Testament, as did many others who were familiar with Abdu’l-Baha’s handwriting and style.

The allegation that the Will and Testament was forged originated from an American Bahai, Ruth White, beginning in 1926. She asked the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States for a photocopy of the Will, and was given it, along with photocopies of the four signatures of Abdu’l-Baha on the envelope containing the Will and Testament. She also obtained photocopies of two messages Abdu’l-Baha had written in 1912, one in the Bible of the Unity Church in Montclair, (USA) and the other in the Guest Bible of the City Temple, London, and what she claimed were authentic signatures on two letters to Mrs. Stannard and one written to Mrs. Devine. However she does not indicate why she thought these were authentic signatures (she could not read Persian herself, and Abdu’l-Baha’s general practice was not to sign his letters, but to initial them with the letters ع ع `ayn `ayn). She was apparently unaware that the words that Abdu’l-Baha wrote in the Bible of the City Temple end with his signature. City Temple LondonWe can use this as our own model of an authentic signature by Abdu’l-Baha, with the reservation that it was probably written with a fine-tipped fountain pen whereas the signatures on the Will and Testament would presumably have been written with the broad tipped reed pen used in the Will itself. So she has 3 signatures which she thinks are authentic, and another which really is authentic, but neither she nor her handwriting expert recognise that the last of these is the signature of Abdu’l-Baha. That already tells us that the 3 signatures which she and Mitchell supposed to be authentic did not resemble the one in the City Temple Bible.

Apart from the signatures, she had photographs of the text of the Will and Testament, and the words Abdu’l-Baha wrote in the two bibles. The reason for using the messages written in the two Bibles as samples of Abdu’l-Baha’s handwriting is that the many letters (‘tablets’) which Abdu’l-Baha sent to the Bahais and others in the West were almost never in his own handwriting (he dictated letters to a secretary), and the addressee would receive a translation, prepared either in Palestine or in America by one of the Persian Bahais living there. The texts written in the bibles, and half a page from the Will and Testament, are reproduced in her book ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Questioned Will and Testament, and I have taken copies from there. She does not reproduce the 3 signatures which she thought were authentic: if she had, our work would be simpler. I will deal with the signatures first, since Mitchell begins with a close analysis of these, and then look at his less detailed remarks about the texts.

The signatures
Ruth White deposited copies of Mitchell’s report with the Library of Congress in the US, and one of the Bahai splinter groups who base their faith on it has put a copy online. His report begins by studying the signatures on the envelope and comparing them with what Mitchell thinks are authentic signatures. He says there are ‘striking differences.’ Mitchel-2-LLOn page 2 of his report, in the left margin at the bottom, he shows as an example two handwritten L’s which he has written from left to right. He comments “In the authentic signatures the width of these characters, compared to their height, is much greater than in the signatures on the envelope [in which the Will and Testament was found].”

This raises two questions:
– Did he not know that Persian is written from right to left? He has written his two L’s with the pen moving from left to right. Apparently he knew nothing at all of the Persian alphabet, since he never names a letter, and never mentions points and other diacritics (which are crucial in Persian).

Signature in the City Temple bible

Signature in the City Temple bible

– He says he found these letters in the ‘authentic signatures.’ But Abdu’l-Baha’s name does not contain any two vertical letters joined side-by-side: let alone two English L’s, and there is nothing like two looping L’s in the authentic signature of Abdu’l-Baha in the Bible of the City Temple (right). And this signature in the City Temple bible is not unique: if you click on the very first image of Abdu’l-Baha at the top of this page, you should be able to see that the signature on it is similar (it is followed by the `ayn `ayn initials). For a good quality scan, click here. On the face of it, the ‘authentic signatures’ Mitchell was given must have been something else.

Abdu'l-Baha's name

Abdu'l-Baha's name

Nevertheless, I thought there was something oddly familiar about Mitchell’s lovely looping ‘L’s. They tug at a memory – it is something to do with Abdu’l-Baha … something I saw in a book … and eventually I found it. Look at the image on the left, which is again the name of Abdu’l-Baha. There you can see those looping L’s again. I will not claim that the two L’s that Mitchell saw must have come from the same hand as these, but there is a definite similarity.

I found my ‘looping-L’ version of the name of Abdu’l-Baha on a photograph of Abdu’l-Baha which has been reproduced in the front of each volume of Badayi’l-athar, a Persian account of Abdu’l-Baha’s journeys to the West, by Mirza Mahmud Zarqani. (The first volume has been translated, as Mahmud’s Diary.) If we zoom out on that image (below left), we can see that the writing says “Abdu’l-Baha, from Isfandiyar Bahram.” I know nothing more about the history of the photograph than what is clear from the inscription: someone called Isfandiyar is sending it to someone, and he or someone else has written the name of Abdu’l-Baha across the photograph. Abdu’l-Baha’s coachman was called Isfandiyar, but it is a relatively common name. There were two brothers called Isfandiyar and Bahram, from Yazd, who farmed one of the Bahai properties at Adasiyyah, but I see no “and” between the two names here. I also found another photograph, with the name of Abdu’l-Baha written in a similar script (below right).

Portrait of Abdu'l-Baha in Badayi'u'l-athar

Portrait of Abdu'l-Baha in Badayi'u'l-athar

Abdu'l-Baha portrait2 cropped The second photograph comes from A History of Persia by Percy Molesworth Sykes, and again shows what look like two looping L’s.
The two L’s that Isfandiyar writes are the “u’l” part in the middle of Abdu’l-Baha’s name, and they should properly be written as two separate letters: a vertical stroke beginning at the top, and then to the left of that a vertical stroke beginning at the top and continuing on to the left, to join the ‘bump’ in the line which is the next letter. The two letters are both vertical strokes, and can only be told apart by the fact that the first, the aleph, is never joined to the following letter, while the second, the lam, always has a tail and joins the following letter. We can see this in Abdu’l-Baha’s signature in the City Temple Bible (below left): he has begun by writing the aleph (numbered 1 in the detail below), and has then lifted his pen off the paper and moved up and right to start the second stroke (the L) at ‘2’. It is nothing like the looping L’s that Mitchell sketches, which he saw in the signatures he had been told were authentic.
al-Baha in the signature in the City Temple bible

al-Baha in the signature in the City Temple bible

On the next page of Mitchell’s report he continues his analysis of the signatures, and again he has written some letters, resembling the English letters ‘wc’, to show what he sees in the specimen signatures. What he has drawn is recognisable as the beginning of the signature, the letters `Abd. The fact that he begins his analysis in the middle of the name, with u’l, and then moves on to `Abd, confirms that he was not aware that Persian is written from right to left. In this case his sketch does not resemble either Abdu’l-Baha’s signature nor the handwriting on Isfaniyar’s photograph of Abdu’l-Baha, or any other Persian handwriting I can think of. He shows a stroke curving towards the vertical on the right (which for him is the end of the word, but is in fact its beginning). Here’s Mitchell’s sketch based on the specimen signatures he was given:

and below (left) the corresponding section from Isfandiyar Bahram’s photograph of Abdu’l-Baha, and (right) from Abdu’l-Baha’s authentic signature, in the City Temple bible.

`abd in Isfandiyar Bahram's handwriting

`abd in Isfandiyar Bahram's handwriting

`abd in the signature in the City Temple bible

Two explanations are possible here: the more obvious is that what Mitchell had been told were authentic signatures of Abdu’l-Baha were not authentic. Perhaps a secretary had written something on the bottom of these tablets, saying that the text was a tablet from Abdu’l-Baha to Mrs Stannard or Mrs Devine. Such colophons would normally include the date of writing. Ruth White, who could not read what was written, made an honest mistake, and told Mitchell he could use these as specimen signatures. He saw that there were very large differences between these and the signatures on the envelope containing the Will and Testament, differences so great that he was willing to give an opinion, even knowing he had no special competence to judge.

At this point he should have had second thoughts. Someone trying to forge a Will would surely make the signature on it resemble the deceased’s signature somewhat? Seeing that the four signatures on the Will are like one another, but nothing like the specimen signatures he had been given, he should have suspected that it was the specimens that were not authentic.

However, there is another possibility: Abdu’l-Baha might have had two or more quite different signatures. Although this will seem implausible, especially to people who are used to using their signature to identify themselves when they sign cheques and other documents, there are several reasons why I think it is the more likely explanation.

First, there is the photograph of Abdu’l-Baha that bears the words “Abdu’l-Baha, from Isfandiyar Bahram.” The normal practice for a Bahai writing these words would be to write “His Holiness (Hazrat) Abdu’l-Baha…” and probably not to write over the chest of the figure. But Abdu’l-Baha would not write ‘Hazrat’ in front of his own name.

The Gouran tablet

Second, the signature with the ‘looped L’s” appears at the bottom of a number of tablets, so often that I think it is implausible to suppose that these are all colophons written by the same secretary who has adopted this peculiarity. One of these tablets, right, is written to Mr. Gouran, the father of Munireh Gouran who lived in our Bahai community at the end of her life, and was buried here on March 3rd, 2010. A photocopy of the tablet was included in the memorial booklet distributed at her funeral. It is dated April 18, 1920.

Tablet to Graham Pale

The next example is a tablet to Graham Pale in Edinburgh, and is undated. At bottom left is the name of Abdu’l-Baha written with the looping ‘L’s, and on the side the name abdul Baha abbas, with only Baha capitalised, in a copperplate script. This is undated.

The next example is one of the postcards on which the Tablets of the Divine Plan were sent to the United States. Because of the First World War, letters were being opened by censors: sending postcards would have reduced the risk of delay or damage. This comes from the US Bahai archives and was provided by Brent Poirier in the comments to an earlier version of this article (a good example of the advantage of interractive blog publication over either journal articles or web pages without feedback). The whole image is here, I have zoomed in on the signatures, or names of Abdu’l-Baha, in Persian and latin script, the first with the looped ‘L’s, the latter in copperplate with only Baha capitalised. The address “Mrs Helen Goodal, c/o Mr. Jos H. Hannen, 1252 = 8th st N.W., Washington, D.C., U.S. America is written in the same purple ink, in a less elaborate copperplate. When Brent showed us this, I and others commented that since the English address is written in the same ink, and it is hardly likely that Abdu’l-Baha would be writing out an address in English, the Persian signature with the looped ‘L’s must be written by a westerner, or a western-educated person. But that was before I had seen the two examples shown above.

Abdu'l-Baha portrait4The texts

Mitchell then turns to the text of the Will itself, and concludes (correctly) that pages 9 and 10 at least were written by the person who had signed the envelope. But he also says that the three parts of the Will and Testament were written by 3 different persons. In fact it was written by Abdu’l-Baha at three different times, presumably with different pens (reed pens are ‘disposables’), and possibly on different paper, with different ink. The first part must have been written around 1904, the last part might have been as late as 1920 or 1921, and handwriting changes with age, especially while one is very young and in old age. So it is hardly surprising that Mitchell detected differences within the Will. Given that he did not know that he was looking at three documents written some years apart, that he had already concluded that the signatures were not genuine, and he could see that pages 9 and 10 were written by the person whom he thinks is the forger of the signatures, it is understandable that he concludes “the writing does not agree with the hypothesis that it was all written by one person.”

Finally, he compares the writing in the Will and Testament, especially on lines 10 to 12 on page 5 of the Will, with the writing in the two bibles, and says he has “failed to detect in any part of the will the characteristics of the writing of Abdu’l-Baha.” Here I think he is simply wrong. He is apparently unaware that there are distinct ‘styles’ of handwriting that have been formalised and are widely used in Persian. In European alphabets, for example, we have copperplate writing and carolingian script and many others. Someone who uses copperplate to write invitations to a dinner party would not use the same script for a shopping list, and a handwriting expert worth his consultancy fee would not try to compare apples with oranges.

Nasta'liq shekasteh

Nasta'liq shekasteh

Diagram of ideal letter proportions in nasta'liq

Diagram of ideal letter proportions in nasta'liq

In the same way, Persian has nasta`liq shekasteh, a flowing, decorative script for formal documents with exaggerated flourishes; nasta`liq, a more moderate version of this; naskh, designed for ease of reading, and also a common handwriting style for everyday personal use, developed for speed of writing. As you can see from the illustration of nasta`liq, in each style, each letter has specific ideal proportions. That means that there is no point in comparing the proportions of letters that are written in different styles: they will differ even in the same writer, because the ‘font’ for each style is different.

Writing of Abdu'l-Baha in the Unity Church bible

Writing of Abdu'l-Baha in the Unity Church bible

Abdu’l-Baha’s handwriting in the Unity Church bible (left) is in a moderately decorative nasta`liq shekasteh.


The Will and Testament (below) is written in much the same handwriting, but with more concessions for speed of writing, which is what one would expect for a long text.

Section from page 5 of Abdu'l-Baha's Will and Testament

Section from page 5 of Abdu'l-Baha's Will and Testament

For example, in the sample from the Will and Testament one can see, top left, a short horizontal line. This represents two dots: they are usually written this way in people’s everyday handwriting, but they are not written this way in the Unity Church text, which follows the rules for formal decorative writing more closely. Allowing for the fact that the Unity Church text has been written with more care, in a ‘higher’ style, there is nothing here to indicate that the Will and Testament could not have been written by the same person. Most of the various flourishes that appear most striking are simply characteristics of the style, and not particular to Abdu’l-Baha. Notice however where I have inserted an X in both examples, that where the tail of a letter is bent backwards (to the right), Abdu’l-Baha tends to make it angular, whereas in nasta’liq and its variants, and even in everyday handwriting, it would usually be a smooth flourish.

The words Abdu’l-Baha wrote in the City Temple bible in London, in contrast, are more like everyday handwriting, influenced by the flourishes of nasta`liq shekasteh.

Abdu'l-Baha's writing in the City Temple bible

Abdu'l-Baha's writing in the City Temple bible

At top left, for example, what looks like an arrowhead pointing upward represents three dots together, and there are several examples of a horizontal stroke that replaces two dots. This is typical of everyday handwriting, rather than calligraphy. It tells us what level of formal handwriting style the writer is aiming at, rather than who is writing. Notice again the angular reversed ‘tail’, marked with an X. Apart from being written in a less formal style, we can see that these words were not written with a flat nib, so that the strokes are all of the same width, unlike those written with a reed nib or the pen used in the Unity Church Bible. The writing is rather shakey: perhaps Abdu’l-Baha was not comfortable with the pen, or was standing in an uncomfortable position. Or perhaps there was no table, and someone is holding the bible up for him as he writes.

We can see that the two texts written in the bibles, both of which Mitchell knew to be the authentic handwriting of Abdu’l-Baha, differ more from each other than either differs from the Will and Testament, which is something between the two in style. How could Mitchell conclude that the Will and Testament was by a different hand, and fail to conclude that, by the same standards, the words in the two bibles would also be written by very different hands?

Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi EffendiSummary

My hypothesis is that Mitchell saw the signatures and thought he was facing an open-and-shut case: the ‘authentic’ signatures and those on the Will and Testament were quite different. In this he was correct, but he didn’t know that Abdu’l-Baha had two different signatures, or that the specimen signatures were not in fact written by Abdu’l-Baha. Then he saw that the Will and Testament was not all of one piece. Nobody had told him that the Will was in fact written at different times, and he could not read Persian to see that for himself (Abdu’l-Baha says this explicitly in the text of the Will). This made him confident that there was some sort of fraud afoot, even though he must also have known he was not competent to judge a text written in Persian script. His confidence regarding the signatures and the differences between the three parts of the Will then led him to a serious professional lapse: giving an ‘expert opinion’ without the required expertise.

All those competent to judge, even the opponents of Shoghi Effendi and Abdu’l-Baha, say that the Will and Testament is written in Abdu’l-Baha’s own hand. It is therefore absurd to claim to follow Abdu’l-Baha, while rejecting the institution of the Guardianship which he bequeathed to us in the Will and Testament, commanding us:

O my loving friends! After the passing away of this wronged one, it is incumbent upon … the loved ones of the Abha Beauty to turn unto Shoghi Effendi … as he is the sign of God, the chosen branch, the Guardian of the Cause of God … He is the Interpreter of the Word of God (The Will and Testament, 10)

~~ Sen McGlinn

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Amended 5 Feb 2010: added the mention of the brothers Isfandiyar and Bahram.

27 Responses to “Mitchell’s mistake”

  1. Matt said

    This is a very good article. Interestingly enough, I had been researching this topic myself and gave me some other questions.

    What do you make of the secondary argument which follows the “Will and Testament is a fraud” argument; that being that Shoghi Effendi changed the teachings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha? That ‘Abdu’l-Baha was like a liberal reformer, and Shoghi Effendi was a pope-like figure who turned the Baha’i Faith into a modern day 12th century Catholic Church?

    Honestly, in my search into the Baha’i Faith, I do get hung up on Shoghi Effendi. I can ‘dig’ the Bab’, Baha’u’llah, and ‘Abdu’l-Baha, but when I come to Shoghi Effendi I just cringe a little. Perhaps it is from experience, but it seems like all of the Baha’is with “fundamentalist” tendencies are hardcore Shoghi Effendi readers. While the “liberal” Baha’is pay attention to books of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s speeches (which I learned are not ‘authoritative’). And these people usually don’t have an “agenda”. They just flock to different texts. So, what I observed was that the Shoghi Effendi crowd becomes more fundamentalist and closed minded, while the ‘Abdu’l-Baha people tend to be more liberal and open minded, but less focused. This is a generalization not meant to be taken too literally, but this is what I have observed for the most part.

    Perhaps my observations are totally off the mark, but this is what I have observed over the years.

  2. A. said

    Ruth White (and her supporters) believed Abdu’l-Baha had stated that the Baha’i Faith could never be organized because it represented “the spirit of the age.” But this view fails to take into consideration the fact that (for example) the First Seven Year Plan embodied an expression of Abdu’l-Baha’s strategy for teaching efforts as outlined in his “Tablets of the Divine Plan,” or that an Egyptian law court concluded the Baha’i Faith possessed laws and institutions peculiar to itself. The claim of fraudulence seems to be used primarily as an excuse to reject the institution of the Guardianship.

  3. Sen said

    I am way out on the progressive end of the Bahai spectrum, and as hardcore a Shoghi Effendi reader as you can get. If it were not for Shoghi Effendi’s interpretations of the Will and Testament, would we know that the Guardian “cannot legislate,” (so we should not treat his words, and his secretary’s words, as if they were Bahai law)? Would we know that the UHJ’s decisions are not, and need not, necesarily be in accordance with the spirit and letter of the scriptures, if Shoghi Effendi hadn’t told us? (see Would we know not to raise the Guardian to some superhuman status, if Shoghi Effendi had not told us not to? Would we have a clear idea of the institutions of World Order that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha intended, if Shoghi Effendi had not outlined them? Would we be really confident that the Bahai Administration is not intended to (and must not be allowed to) replace the national governments, if Shoghi Effendi had not said so in black and white? Would we be confident that the Bahai Faith is not anti-clerical, without Shoghi Effendi’s assurances? Shoghi Effendi gave us the intellectual framework for the progressive and altruistic vision the Abdu’l-Baha bequethed to us.

    He also made a host of minor decisions on matters, or endorsed what his secretaries had said on minor issues. The problem arises not from too much Shoghi Effendi, but from a selective use of Shoghi Effendi that focusses on each decision, elevates each of them to the status of law, and ignores the broader ideas and understandings that are intended to frame the minor points. If people would focus on the general letters he wrote to the Bahai community on fundamental issues, rather than reading Lights of Guidance, they would get a fairer, and more progressive, idea of the man Shoghi Effendi, and of the Bahai Teachings.

    Shoghi Effendi was not born a saint. He had to struggle, and sometimes the side of himself that he strove to improve on comes through, particularly when a family event is particularly painful to him. But he *was* born a genius, and a man of vision, and that vision was entirely in harmony with the open minded universalism of Abdu’l-Baha. He does not invent that vision again for himself, he adopts it and works out what it implies we must be doing as Bahais, at a particular (formative) junction of Bahai history. His plan of action was not something he made up and imposed — it was there in the Aqdas and the Will and Testament and other documents that underlie the Administrative Order. Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha had taken few steps to implement it, whereas Shoghi Effendi did move to systematic implementation, for example through the world-wide election of Assemblies, and ensuring they worked according to bylaws that everyone could know.

    I am a great fan of Shoghi Effendi – the Shoghi Effendi of the grand vision and the general letters, not the Shoghi Effendi we see through a smokey glass in his secretaries’ letters. I am also a great fan of Abdu’l-Baha, and I hope we can do something about the fact that many of his talks are only available in English in unauthentic form. There is a greater volume of his talks recorded in Persian, which he has checked and approved: it is ‘simply’ a matter of translating them.

    ~~ Sen McGlinn

  4. Matt said

    Thanks Sen,

    Do you have any background as to why Mitchell even took on this project?

  5. Sen said

    It would have been a privately commissioned opinion, he would be paid for it. But that doesn’t answer the question. I have no other factual information. Supposing he was a reasonably ethical man, I thought that he must have seen something, or been told something, that made it appear to him that it was an open and shut case, a clumsy fraud that could be detected by anyone with an analytic mind, even an illiterate. The prima facie evidence could not be in the main text, because since Mitchell could not read the language, he could not locate a word or letter in the Will and find the same word or letter in the writing in the bibles. So it must have been in the signatures – you do not have to be literate to compare two signatures. And when I looked at his sketches and description of the specimen signatures, I saw they do not correspond at all to Abdu’l-Baha’s actual signature in the City Temple bible. There, Abdu’l-Baha does not join the aleph and lam (u’l) in his name, he writes aleph underneath and then begins the lam above and to the right of it. So I surmise that the signatures he was given as specimens by Ruth White were not genuine signatures, from examining them he became over-confident that it was a simple fraud, then he saw that the Will was written in 3 parts (none of them like the specimen signatures) and he thought … really clumsy!

    My reconstruction is that it was a case of over-confidence, boosted by circumstances, rather than malice or greed. I suppose that Ruth White believed she was giving him genuine signatures: she was also illiterate in Persian. I suspect that she may also have half-understood something about the Bahai teachings that Holley (and some others she was dealing with) had missed entirely, and that truth half grasped might explain her assurance that what she imagined the Will was saying could not be what Abdu’l-Baha had intended. But that’s another bit of research, and I would have to read all her writings to check it.

  6. Matt said

    That makes sense. I mean, Mitchell didn’t seem to have any interest in the battle of ideas between the Baha’is at the time, so it must have been something he was doing for money because it was his career. The Reform Bahai Faith puts a great deal of importance on Mitchell’s testimony, and that’s where I started to become interested in this aspect of American Baha’i history. But I noticed that even in his testimony, he says that his opinion can’t be absolutely legitimized because he only has a photocopy to work with, and not the original paper it was written on.

    Your reconstruction could be accurate. Perhaps it was just that some of the American Baha’is were becoming too fanatical for their own good, and people like Ruth White and Ahmad Sohrab attributed them to Shoghi Effendi’s influence upon them, instead of seeing them as just people who have the “religious crazies” so to speak. That tends to happen a lot.

  7. Tea said

    Has the original Will and Testament of AbdulBaha ever been examined closely by an team of experts (I am not sure whom that would consist of) independent of Bahai members for authenticity. I would assume at some time in the future if a growing number of folks around the world turn in serious interest towards the Bahai Faith, there would be a demand for that since it really is the foundation of the institution of the Guardianship.

  8. Sen said

    The authenticity of all of the Bahai Writings is important: the authenticity and integrity of the Will and Testament is much clearer than for example the Kitab-e Aqdas, for which we have no version in Baha’u’llah’s hand, and different versions in which some verses are added or omitted. The main evidence of authenticity is the process through which the documents were produced, rather than handwriting analysis, partly because handwriting analysis cannot give great certainty anyway, and because many documents are written in the hands of secretaries, so that proving the secretary wrote it is not proving that it is what Baha’u’llah or Abdu’l-Baha intended. The process of production involved Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha checking the good copies that were made from revelation writing or their own hand, designating trustworthy copyists whose work could be relied on, putting their seals and signatures on documents, and so on.

    That means that in checking the authenticity of Bahai scriptures, an understanding of the processes that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha used to guarantee authenticity, is more important than, say, police training in handwriting analysis. So the expertise to check the authenticity of scriptures will probably always be mainly within the Bahai studies community, which is 99% Bahais. The Bahai community does have many people who are skilled in recognising handwriting, who can for example say at a glance which secretary has copied a document. But for the reasons I’ve outlined, that skill usually does not guarantee authenticity, it just tells us in what period and where a document has been copied, so that we can reconstruct the process through which it was produced, and see whether the process was under the control of Baha’u’llah or Abdu’l-Baha at the critical points. The secretaries often give their name and the date something was copied and something about it, such as who it is addressed to. Sometimes historical information tells us who carried it, and who he delivered it to, or when a particular secretary arrived in Palestine, or left, or ceased to be a trusted copyist. Checking all of this is in the “bahai studies” sphere, and greater expertise with handwriting analysis would not help much.

    If the Will and Testament was found in Abdu’l-Baha’s safe, locked with the key he kept with him at all times, and has the seal of Abdu’l-Baha on it, then that process itself assures us it is genuine. The interesting question for me is, what background and reasoning led Mitchell to write a formal opinion to the contrary? I think I’ve made a plausible reconstruction, that doesn’t involve Ruth White deliberately tricking him, or him being mad, bad or an idiot. It’s more like one of those police dramas, where initial bad information sends the senior detective down the wrong track, and he closes the case and moves on to the next …but the plucky young (and preferably pretty) new recruit has other ideas. Mitchell lacked a pretty neophyte detective co-star

  9. Karen said

    Several years ago, I was involved in a discussion about this question. A friend of mine discovered what Mitchell’s credentials were, and some were having the defensive response that he was a hack who would have said anything that White paid him to say. While I was reluctant to jump on the “Will is a fraud” bandwagon, it seemed to me that this kind of slur was unwarrented. It all led me into a rather interesting investigation into the reliability of handwriting analysis. There really weren’t any studies done until the 1990s, and the results were quite variable. The best of them got an 88% accuracy rate, and others got much worse. The only really accurate way of analyzing handwriting is through the use of computers, which of course, Mitchell never had access to.

    A rather strange tidbit I came up with is that handwriting experts don’t believe that knowledge of the language is a requirement, although they recommend that someone familiar with the language be consulted. Although, I’d think an understanding of which direction a language is written would be important . . .

    Thanks for presenting a sane and reasoned theory of what happened.

  10. Sen said

    Posted on behalf of Randy, who attached his comment to a different post by mistake:

    Randy said:
    Sen asked:

    “Could you clarify on what Ruth White thought? Was she unhappy because Shoghi Effendi’s “machinery of Bahai Administration” was NOT an alternative government, or because she thought (mistakenly) that it was one?”

    I can’t claim to be an expert on Ruth White. She seemed to believe that Baha’i itself would never be organized but that rather the world, politically, would organize itself into the Houses of Justice forseen by Baha’u’llah. She was a universalist, and not the only one to leave Baha’i after the beginning of Shoghi Effendi’s Guardianship (Howard Colby Ives left as well).

    I don’t think she saw the Baha’i Administration as being a nascent World Gov’t (but she may have), but rather saw it as being an attempt to organize the religion itself as one of many competing religions, thus de-universalizing it to some extent.

    So her primary concern seems to have been that aspect of what Shoghi Effendi did, instituting what is more akin to a nascent form of priesthood than a nascent government.

    Cheers, Randy

  11. Sen said

    Randy said White said

    > Baha’i itself would never be organized but that
    > rather the world, politically, would organize
    > itself into the Houses of Justice forseen by Baha’u’llah.

    That’s my sense, but I’d have to read all her writings to be sure. If she like many Bahais of her time thought that the Tribunal and House of Justice were the same thing, then when she saw Shoghi Effendi organising the Bahais to be and run the Houses of Justice, and she saw some senior members of the US Bahai community teaching their own ideas of a Bahai theocracy, she might naturally conclude that this was the old power-grab of religion playing itself out again, and oppose it. If she had not understood that the Tribunal and other institutions of civil government are one thing, and the Houses of Justice something else, which has authority only in the Bahai community, she would think that there was no warrant in the writings for an organisation of the Bahai community. She would think that everything about organisation and governance in the Writings referred to the civil government.

    For me, at present, Ruth White is not interesting enough to see if this is how she thought.

    ~~ Sen

  12. Matt said

    “She was a universalist, and not the only one to leave Baha’i after the beginning of Shoghi Effendi’s Guardianship (Howard Colby Ives left as well).”

    Would you show me the source that states Howard Colby Ives left the Baha’i Faith?

  13. Randy said

    “Would you show me the source that states Howard Colby Ives left the Baha’i Faith?”

    I looked for this Matt and couldn’t find anything. I think I read it in my copy of his book on Abdu’l-Baha, not the original printing but a reprint. Of course he didn’t leave angry but rather I believe he left in order to stay with his Unitarian congregation at the time when Shoghi Effendi told Baha’is that they should leave their previous religions. That’s my recollection anyway.

    Cheers, Randy

  14. Peter said

    Hi Sen,

    Very good investigative reporting!

    Wouldn’t the most sensible way to resolve this issue be to commission a fresh handwriting analysis by two completely unconnected experts, both of whom would be fluent in Persian, and would have worked in this field in Iran? These experts could be supplied with many more authenticated handwriting samples of ‘Abdu’l-Baha than were available to Mrs. White and therefore to Dr. Mitchell.



  15. Brent said

    Here are two other examples of Abdu’l-Baha’s signature. The first is a postcard in the handwriting of Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, of one of the Tablets of the Divine Plan:
    As you can see, Abdu’l-Baha signed in English and also in Arabic characters.

    The second is the same Tablet of the Divine Plan, in calligraphy.
    Abdu’l-Baha’s original signature is at the very bottom, next to the inscription in red ink, bottom left corner.

    I obtained these photographs of the Tablets of the Divine Plan from the US National Baha’i Archives. I have started a blog on this subject, and it may take me a few months to get everything up


  16. Sen said

    Both of your examples show the looping L’s that Mitchell describes in what he thinks are the genuine signatures of Abdu’l-Baha, but which are not found in the genuine signature in the City Temple Bible. The first,
    is hardly likely to be a signature of Abdul-Baha, but rather his name, written by the same person who addressed the postcard. Is it likely that Abdu’l-Baha would write out an address in Western script, when someone else had written the postcard in Persian with a different pen? Far more likely, surely, that the person who wrote ‘Abdu’l-Baha and the address in the “U.S. America” is a westerner, or western-educated.

    Your second example looks very similar. Do you have a particular reason for thinking that this is a signature from Abdu’l-Baha’s own hand, rather than simply the author’s name?


  17. Sen said

    It would be a good method, but I wonder if it is necessary. Numerous people who knew Abdu’l-Baha’s writing very well, including Sohrab who served as his secretary and had every reason to dispute the Will’s authenticity, have testified that it is indeed written in Abdu’l-baha’s own hand. So that is hardly an interesting question to persue. What is puzzling, and therefore interesting, is why Mitchell offered an opinion, when he should have known he was not competent to offer one. My explanation is that he was presented with samples of “authentic signatures” which were not authentic, and differed completely from the signatures on the envelope of the Will, so he thought it was a very obvious case of forgery.


  18. Brent said

    Sen, if you’ll look at the face of the postcard, you’ll see that the ink color is different for Abdu’l-Baha’s English and Arabic signatures, from the rest of the postcard. I think they’re by the same hand.

    In any event, by comparing the looped L’s on both the postcard and the calligraphic version, I think we can confirm that they are His signature in Arabic characters.

    Interesting question about the City Temple in London; don’t know about that one.


  19. Sen said

    It looks to me as if the name Abdu’l-Baha in English and Persian is in the same purple ink, and presumably by the same hand.
    That’s why I do not think that this is a signature. It looks to me as if the writer’s first language is a European one: the English text is more ‘practised’ than the name of Abdu’l-Baha written in the same ink in Persian.

    (I’ve copied the image to a page on my blog, with some loss of quality)

  20. Gerald Keil said

    In Brent’s first example, both the postcard address and the transcription of `Abdu’l-Bahá’s name are rendered in the identical, typically American handwriting style, using what seems to be the same pen and the same ink. In addition, the Persian ‘signature’ of `Abdu’l-Bahá uses the same pen and ink as the address and transcription, so that it is quite apparent that all three were written by the same person and at the same time.

    By contrast, the text of the message uses an entirely different ink and pen, and the handwriting appears to differ from the signature. Look for example at the ‘d’: in the signature, the right join flows into the top of the ‘d’, and the transition from the join to the letter is ‘soft’. By contrast, the ‘d’ in the letter is in each case made with a strong right-joining stroke, then the pen is partially or wholly lifted from the paper and moved slightly upwards and to the write, and finally the stroke of the ‘d’ is completed with steadily increasing pressure.

    These observations confirm that there were two writers involved: one who penned the message, and another who affixed the signature (both in Arabic and Latin letters) and addressed the post-card. So Sen’s question remains quite valid: Which is more likely – that `Abdu’l-Bahá would let someone else write a message in Persian and afterwords affix his signature and address the card, or precisely the reverse?

  21. Badi Villar said

    Excellent article. It’s is one of the best contributions to Baha’i apologetic that I have read in Internet.

  22. Gerald Kiel wrote:

    >>These observations confirm that there were two writers involved: one who penned the message, and another who affixed the signature (both in Arabic and Latin letters) and addressed the post-card. So Sen’s question remains quite valid: Which is more likely – that `Abdu’l-Bahá would let someone else write a message in Persian and afterwords affix his signature and address the card, or precisely the reverse?>>

    In this instance, Abdu’l-Baha revealed the Tablets of the Divine Plan, and his secretary, Ahmad Sohrab, wrote them down. Sohrab then translated from Persian and Arabic into English. Sohrab prepared the postcards containing both the original text, and the English translation; Abdu’l-Baha then signed the postcard containing the text in the original language. Postcards were used because all correspondence during WWI went through a Turkish censor, whose seal of approval is on the face of all the postcards. These Tablets were revealed and sent by post to the USA in 1916 and 1917. After the war’s end, Abdu’l-Baha had a competent calligraphist prepare a beautiful calligraphic rendering of the Tablets, and Abdu’l-Baha signed these as well. So the original language postcards and the later calligraphies were prepared by others and signed by Abdu’l-Baha.

    One more comment on the authenticity of the Will. Not only was Sohrab familiar with the handwriting of Abdu’l-Baha; so were the members of the family who were condemned in the Will — Mirza Muhammad-Ali and Badiu’llah. Neither questioned the authenticity of the Will.

    Ruth White’s delusion was patent — she claimed that the Will was a forgery resulting from a conspiracy between Shoghi Effendi and Mirza Muhammad-Ali!

  23. Gerald Keil said

    Brent Poirier wrote:

    “Sohrab prepared the postcards containing both the original text, and the English translation; Abdu’l-Baha then signed the postcard containing the text in the original language.”

    If `Abdu’l-Bahá signed the postcard, then he also completed the transcription of his name and filled in the address. If you mean to imply that, then I think it would be befitting for you to find an authenticated example of `Abdu’l-Bahá’s handwriting in English (if such a thing exists). It is feasible that he could transcribe his own name using Roman letters without really knowing how to write in English, but that wouldn’t explain the address, for which the handwriting is, I repeat and emphasize, typically American.

    The only other possibility is that someone else (other than the writer of the postcard) completed the postal address (and possibly the transcription of `Abdu’l-Bahá’s name), and that `Abdu’l-Bahá signed the card, using the same pen and ink. So we have three people involved in one postcard. Possible, but to me it sounds a bit too constructed, just for the sake of linking `Abdu’l-Bahá with the signature with the looping alif-lám.

  24. I’ve forgotten, are we talking about this document?

    Without in the slightest implying that I have any handwriting analysis or comparison ability — I don’t. The Arabic “Abdu’l-Baha” and the English transliteration “abdul Baha abbas” both appear to me to be the handwriting of Abdu’l-Baha. That the English signature is in the handwriting of Abdu’l-Baha, is confirmed by the capitalization of only “Baha” whereas “abdul” and “abbas” are both diminutive — expressive of the humility of Abdu’l-Baha. Any other Baha’i writing Abdu’l-Baha Abbas in English would definitely capitalize the “A”s. In this way He is humbling His own name before that of Baha’u’llah; His own name meaning, servant of Baha’u’llah, Abbas.

    It makes sense to me that the address is in Sohrab’s handwriting. There are other comparisons to his writing, so that would not be difficult to determine. There may be some in Star of the West, I don’t know. I do not know if the Arabic / Persian text that makes the body of the postcard, the Tablet itself, is Sohrab’s handwriting, but I assume that it is. It does not look like the beautiful flowing script of Abdu’l-Baha’s I have elsewhere seen in His Tablets. My impression is that Sohrab was chosen as the secretary for these Tablets. But I don’t know for sure if that’s his hand.

    I have no way of making any further statements in support of my personal view of the matter. I’m not trying to push my view; this is just the way I personally make sense of it. I personally think Sohrab prepared the postcard, then Abdu’l-Baha signed it in English and in Arabic characters.

    This appears to be another signature by Abdu’l-Baha in Arabic characters:

    Maybe this was already pointed out in an earlier part of this discussion.

  25. Sen said

    Hi Brent:

    The name of Abdu’l-Baha written here:

    is not a signature, it says:
    “Abdu’l-Baha, from Isfandiyar Bahram”

    That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is in the hand of Isfandiyar Bahram, because he might be illiterate and have asked someone else to write for him. Yes, this does look somewhat like the name of Abdu’l-Baha written in purple ink on the postcard, (the final two characters of Baha’ differ however), but since the person who wrote in purple on the postcard also wrote a full address in English, we can assume that to be someone used to writing in English. In neither case is it reasonable to suppose that Abdu’l-Baha wrote the words. If he was signing his own name on the photograph, he would surely write something like [from Abdu’l-Baha, for Isfandiyar Bahram]. And he would hardly be the person to fill in the Goodall’s address on a postcard!

    I note that the writing on the postcard is very like the writing on the photograph of Abdu’l-Baha in “A History of Persia” by Percy Molesworth Sykes, shown in my blog, including the defective last two characters of Baha’.

  26. Susan said

    Allahu Abha Sen,

    There are numerous references to Abdu’l-Baha’s will in the article but l couldn’t find a copy of the original will itself. Can you please upload a copy of the original will?

  27. Sen said

    The originals of most of the writings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha are held in the Bahai Archives (those that are not lost). What we actually use are copyist’s versions, which are easily legible. The original of the Will and Testament will likewise be in the archives in Haifa, but numerous photocopies were made and sent to Iran and to National Spiritual Assemblies, and one to Ruth White. I suggest asking for a copy from the Research Department at the Bahai World Centre, or looking in Ruth White’s books and papers. There might be a photocopy of the Will among the INBA collections of Abdu’l-Baha’s writings. The problem is that these have not been indexed.

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