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Abdu’l-Baha and the African tribe

Posted by Sen on September 15, 2009

Abdu’l-Baha and his critics

Abdulbaha

You can ‘prove’ just about anything, by pulling words out of context. A few years ago there was an example of this tactic on a web site opposing the Bahai teachings, called ‘Answering Bahaullah.’ One page there purported to show examples of racism in Bahai scripture. That site is no longer functioning, although the web archive has a copy, but the material from that page is being recycled by various bloggers and has been reproduced in the ‘Bahai Combat Kit’ at page 73 (image later in this entry).

So let’s look at these “proofs” of racism in the Bahai scriptures. But first let’s look at Abdu’l-Baha. racismWhen he was in the United States, Abdu’l-Baha met with African Americans, invited them to the homes of wealthy white society hosts, and spoke tirelessly on the subject of racial equality as he toured the United States. He suggested to the first educated and articulate African-American Bahai, the lawyer Louis Gregory, that he marry Louise Matthews, a white English Bahai. While staying in Dublin, New Hampshire, he arranged a Sunday afternoon meeting especially for the servants of the wealthy families in the area, and spoke to them of this forthcoming marriage and the need for “amity between blacks and whites.” Mahmud Zarqani reports this meeting (p 189) and says that, in the context of America at the time “splitting the moon in half would be an easier accomplishment.” In Washington he spoke on the same themes at Howard University, which had begun as a Black University, and when Louis Gregory was turned away from a society dinner in the city, Abdu’l-Baha had him called back, rearranged the chairs, and seated Gregory on his right. Abdu’l-Baha personally addressed the fourth annual conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in 1912 (a text is here; it may not be reliable). When he was back in Palestine, he continued to urge the American Bahais to demonstrate their own freedom from racial prejudice, to hold meetings where whites and blacks would mix and socialise, and to be active in fighting prejudice and discrimination in society. He wrote, for example:

Strive with heart and soul in order to bring about union and harmony among the white and the black and prove thereby the unity of the Bahai world … Variations of colour, of land and of race are of no importance in the Bahai Faith…
(Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, 112)

He sent messages of encouragement to African-American Bahais:

As to . . . and . . ., verily the faces of these are as the pupil of the eye; although the pupil is created black, yet is it the source of light. I hope God will make these black ones the glory of the white ones and as the depositing of the lights of love of God.
(Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, 292)

When Mrs Parsons went to Palestine on pilgrimage, Abdu’l-Baha encouraged her to initiate the first Convention for Race Amity, which was held in 1921 in the First Congregational Church in Washington. AmityCongressA photograph of one Amity Convention below illustrates the practical effects of Abdu’l-Baha’s teachings in eliminating the barriers of prejeudice. Local activities went under the name of ‘Rainbow Circles’ and in some Bahai communities were weekly events, with mixed audiences.

Such knowledge about Abdu’l-Baha’s character and the things he put his energy into, and what he achieved by it, is also part of the con-text we need if we are to understand the text correctly.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Bahai community of the United States sponsored a series of 'race amity' conferences and meetings, like this one held by the New York Bahai Assembly and the New York Urban League in New York City in 1930.Source here

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Bahai community of the United States sponsored a series of 'race amity' conferences and meetings, like this one held by the New York Bahai Assembly and the New York Urban League in New York City in 1930.

 

Baha_(Lafayette)

‘As wandering savages’

In the Bahai Combat Kit, all but one of the examples of ‘racism in Bahai scriptures’ are from The Promulgation of Universal Peace: that is, reports of what an interpreter said Abdu’l-Baha had said, in many cases altered later by the editor of this book. I will come to those later. The exception is the last one on the page, where Abdu’l-Baha is quoted as writing:

The inhabitants of a country like Africa are all as wandering savages and wild animals; they lack intelligence and knowledge; all are uncivilized; On the contrary, consider the civilized countries, the inhabitants of which are living in the highest state of culture and ethics, solidarity and inter-dependence; possessing, with few exceptions, acute power of comprehensions and sound mind.
Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, 576

This quote is from the beginning of a letter from Abdu’l-Baha about the importance of education, for boys and girls, and the limits of education. You can read the whole letter, in the old translation in Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha Abbas volume 3 (1916) here.

The Persian text is available in a collection of Abdu’l-Baha’s letters called Min mukaatiib Haziratu’l-‘Abdu’l-Baha vol. 1, section 110. (Also in the compilations Payam-e Malakut and in Amr wa Khalq.) I have done a new translation of the beginning of the letter. My translation doesn’t differ much from the old one, but what a difference it makes to read the context of the words that are twisted by selective misquotation in the Bahai Combat Kit!

O ye beloved of God and maid-servants of the Merciful!
Many intellectuals believe that the diversity of intellect and insight is due to differences in education and socialisation. That is, that minds are initially at the same level, but education and socialisation cause intellectual capacities to differ and lead to the distinction between people’s understandings, and that these differences are not innate, but due to education and socialisation: that no soul has any inherent distinction. Therefore, all members of the human race have the capacity to achieve the most exalted station.

To prove this they say:
The inhabitants of one region, such as Africa, are all like voracious beasts or wild animals; without understanding or knowledge, all uncivilized; not one civilized and wise man exists among them. This they contrast to civilized countries: all the inhabitants living in the highest state of culture and ethics, in cooperation and solidarity, and with few exceptions, with acute understanding and sound reasoning. Therefore, it is made clear and established that the superiority and inferiority of minds and comprehensions arises from education and teaching, or the lack of them. A bent branch is straightened by training and the wild fruit of the jungle is made the fruit of the orchard. An ignorant man becomes knowledgeable through teaching, and through the bounty of a wise educator, the uncultivated region becomes a civilized kingdom. The sick may be healed by the physician’s art, and the poor man, by learning the arts of commerce, can achieve independence. The follower, by attaining the virtues of the leader, becomes great, and an abject man, through the education of a teacher, rises from the depths of abasement to the heights of glory.”

This is their argument.


The Prophets concur with the idea that education has the greatest effect on a person. They affirm, however, that differences in intelligence and perceptiveness are innate. This is obvious, and cannot be denied. We see that certain children of the same age, country and race, or even from the same household and being taught by the same person, nevertheless differ in intelligence and perceptiveness. One makes rapid progress, another is gradually illumined by instruction, while another remains at the lowest level….

The words that were quoted out of context as proof of ‘racism in the Bahai writings,’ are Abdu’l-Baha’s outline of the position on education taken by some intellectuals – a position he then refutes. The bare bones of the argument are:

* Many intellectuals believe that the diversity of intellect is entirely due to differences in education. That is, that all minds are initially at the same level. Therefore, all children have the capacity to achieve the most exalted station.
* They ‘prove’ this by comparing Africans to civilized people (Europeans): since they say the whole population in Africa are like animals, and almost all people in Europe are cultured and ethical, they argue that the difference must be due to the education available, not to natural variation. [If it was due to natural variation, there would be intelligent people in Africa, and savages in Europe, and these (European) intellectuals think there are none.]
* However the Prophets [and Abdu’l-Baha] agree only partially. Education is very important, but differences in intelligence and perceptiveness are innate. Children of the same household taught by the same person, nevertheless differ in intelligence and receptiveness.
* If there was no educator, all souls would remain uncultivated, which is why education for all is obligatory in the Bahai dispensation.

Abdu’l-Baha’s point, in this first part of a long tablet about education, is that the idea that everyone is born equal in all capacities is just not true. Perhaps he begins his letter with this point in response to some idea or question that had been addressed to him. However the concept is generally important because the idea denies inborn individuality, and also because some modernist philosophers 107px-Zacharias_(Michelangelo)had suggested that the founders of religions were just super-refined or highly-educated humans, and all could potentially reach the ‘highest station’ – that of the prophets. So with sufficient education, religion would become redundant. The agenda behind such claims was that religious teachers had been the leaders of thought and society, when humanity was at a superstitious/religious stage of development, but now in the modern and scientific age, the philosophers and scientists (the very ones presenting this argument!) would take their place.

Abdu’l-Baha argues however, that while education is important, it does not give the most educated the “highest station.”

‘Even the Prophetic Degree’

Abdul-baha portraitThe argument that the Prophets are not super-refined philosophers, but rather something unique is clearer in an almost identical talk which Abdu’l-Baha gave on 3 May 1912 in Chicago. There are no Persian notes for this talk, so it is a pilgrim’s note, that is, a report of the interpreter’s words, which is not entirely reliable. The version of this talk published in The Promulgation of Universal Peace is available here but I am going to use an earlier version of the same notes, published in Star of the West, Volume 3, no. 4, pages 18-19. The editor of The Promulgation of Universal Peace allows himself a very free hand, adding things of his own invention and changing other things (see ‘a consummate union’ for an example), so it is best to avoid the book where possible. I’ve put the full text of the version in Star of the West on another page. It says, in part:

THE difference, in humankind, from the highest to the lowest the philosophers declare, is due to education or lack of education. The proofs advanced with regard to this are these: The inhabitants of Africa are human, the inhabitants of America are also human, the inhabitants of Europe are human. What is the cause of the difference which exists between the inhabitants of Africa and those of America or Europe? The inhabitants of America are civilized, generally speaking; the inhabitants of Africa, generally speaking, are pronounced to be savage, with few exceptions. What causes this difference? There is no doubt that the inhabitants of America are civilized because of education, whereas the people of Africa have been deprived of education. … Therefore the differences apparent in humankind – in the world of humanity, namely that some occupy lofty degrees, others occupy the abyss of despair, is mainly due to education or its absence. Every individual member of the human race can attain to the loftiest degrees. He can even reach the prophetic degree. This is the statement of the philosophers.

Christ_teacherThe prophets of God also state that education is most effective; that it does give man sublimity; it does confer on man civilization; it does improve the morals of society; but they further state that in creation there is some difference. For example, take ten given children of the same age, of the same progeny, in the same school, … we find out ere long that two of these appear exceedingly intelligent; some are in the medium, and some at the bottom of the school. …. hence it becomes evident that in existence, in the very existence of man, mankind is not equal. In capacity they differ; in their intellectual capability they differ. They are different, but every member of the human race is capable of becoming educated. They must be educated. The prophets of God are the first educators, they educate the human race generally, they give them universal education, they cause them to leave the lowest degrees or grades of savagery and attain to the highest pinnacle of civilization. …

Once again, we can see that the reference to Africans comes in Abdu’l-Baha’s outline of the thinking of certain philosophers, and that the purpose of mentioning their ideas is to refute them, on the grounds that differences between individuals are in fact innate (not innate to races, but to all individuals because they are individual), and also to argue against the philosophers’ supposition that sufficient education would elevate a man to the level of the Prophets. For Abdu’l-Baha, however diligent we are, as students in the ‘education’ of religion (i.e., as disciples), we never become the master. Education of all kinds is good, but we always have to turn to the Prophet. That is, humanity never grows out of religion, however modern and civilized it may become. And we should get our religious ‘education’ from the prophets themselves, not from what other people have made of religion.

‘The savage tribes of central Africa’

Nova_Orbis
Another of the ‘racist’ texts cited in the Bahai Combat Kit is this, printed in The Promulgation of Universal Peace page 308:

If man himself is left in his natural state, he will become lower than the animal and continue to grow more ignorant and imperfect. The savage tribes of central Africa are evidences of this. Left in their natural condition, they have sunk to the lowest depths and degrees of barbarism, dimly groping in a world of mental and moral obscurity.

SoW5-96‘Combatting Bahaullah’ misquoted this as ‘The savage African tribes of central Africa’ and the same misprint has been taken over by the Bahai Combat Kit and others. The text comes from a talk about education that Abdu’l-Baha gave in Montreal on 2 September 1912. Persian notes of the talk were published in the Persian section of Star of the West, volume 5 page 96 (see image) and in Khatabat-e Abdu’l-Baha vol 2 page 233 (download here). What Abdu’l-Baha says, according to the Persian notes, is :

If we look closely at the world of nature and penetrate to the depth of its secrets, it will be observed that the world of nature is defective and dark. For example, if we abandon a piece of land and return it to the state of nature it becomes thorny …
… In the same way, if man is abandoned to nature, he becomes worse than an animal. He remains unenlightened and ignorant, like the inhabitants of Central Africa. Therefore, if we are continually seeking this dark world we become like the Turanians [legendary enemies of the Iranians in the Shah-Nameh epic]. [If] we have education, uncultured people become cultured, those with bad characters gain good characters.

This is representative of a number of Abdu’l-Baha’s talks, recorded in Persian and in English, in which he discusses the imperfection of humans in the ‘state of nature.’ He is arguing against the contemporary cultural fad of primitivism (the ballet L’après-midi d’un faune was first performed in 1912) and, specifically in relation to educational theory, the idea of Rousseau that nature is inherently perfect, and that ‘uncorrupted morals’ prevail in humans in ‘the state of nature.’ The phrase “the noble savage” is often attributed to Rousseau, but ‘savage’ is a mis-translation. The French word “sauvage” means ‘wild,’ as in ‘a wild flower,’ it should be translated with ‘natural’ or ‘uncultivated’ rather than ‘savage.’ Rousseau argued for the nobility of the natural man.

CecilRhodesbySambourneThe talk I cited above is interesting, because Abdu’l-Baha gives two examples of what people are like if left in the state of nature: one is a fictional ancient people, the Turanians, and the other is the people of ‘Central Africa.’ Abdu’l-Baha is asking us to imagine what people are like if left entirely in the state of nature. Today, we might say, “imagine an isolated group who have never been contacted, in New Guinea or deep in the Amazon.” Such thought experiments are not derogatory references to an actual people, because obviously once we know about an actual people, they also know about us, and we can no longer imagine them as a people untouched by our ways. So the ‘natural man’ is always imagined living in unexplored territory. In the lead-up to World War I, Central Africa was used in this figure of speech, because Central Africa had captured European imagination through the exploits of the 19th century explorers and the machinations of the colonial powers’ ‘scramble for Africa.’ The map of the continent had largely been coloured in, but what lay within the claimed territories was still a matter of speculation. In the world of sober fact, New Guinea and the Amazon and Orinoco basins were even more uncharted in those days, but in the world of imagination, ‘Africa’ was the name to conjure with. Moreover, because of the impact of the slave trade and of European and Arab incursions, societies in Central Africa may well have been at a deep point, even compared to their own past.

If we are being strictly consistent with Bahai teachings, both the ancient Turanians and a hypothetic people in (nineteenth century) Central Africa are inappropriate examples of ‘humanity in a state of nature,’ since the Bahai teachings say that God has never left any people without grace and the guidance of prophets and saints; moreover, the word I have translated as ‘training’ or ‘education’ means something much broader than formal education: it includes the upbringing that parents give to their children. Can we even imagine a people without that? The pure ‘natural man’ without such education is obviously a fiction, a figure of speech.

Emerson said that consistency is the foible of weak minds: a little doctrinal inconsistency doesn’t seem to have inhibited Abdu’l-Baha in expressing his views on the theories about human beings in ‘the state of nature.’ In one case, during a talk given at the London home of Lady Blomfield, on Christmas eve 1912, he first removes the adults from the scene, and then reintroduces the ‘Central Africans:’Desert_SceneryArgentina

“…if children were left in the desert, never receiving education, it is certain that they would remain ignorant, that they would know nothing of civilization, they would have neither skilled crafts, nor trade, nor agriculture. They would be like the inhabitants of Central Africa, who are wild in the extreme. The difference between Europe and Africa is certainly due to education, for people in Europe receive an education, while people in Africa do not. This is clear proof that humans are in need of education. Education is of two types: spiritual and worldly …” (My translation: see the Persian notes here)

In these arguments Abdu’l-Baha is adopting a current discourse in which Central Africa was the supposed home of ‘natural man,’ and uses it, but he is not adopting racial stereotypes about the negro race. We can see this from his own behaviour, and also from a letter with a similar argument which he wrote to one of the friends in China. In it he says:

…the world of existence is in need of an educator, and educators are of two kinds, the one who trains the natural world, and the one who enlightens the world of true reality. If the earth is left in the state of nature, it becomes a jungle or a thorn thicket. But with the intervention of a benevolent gardener, the jungle becomes a garden, the thorns give way to flowers. So it is evident that training is needed in the world of nature. Likewise, observe that if the human race were to be deprived of training and education, it would become a corrupted body, just as the wild tribes are not differentiated from the animals. For example, see how great the difference is, between the blacks in Africa and the blacks in America. One is a beast God created in human form, while the other is civilized, perceptive and cultured. In this journey [to America] I delivered complex addresses at the meetings and churches and schools of the blacks in Washington. They mastered every point, just like the philosophers of Europe. And what difference is there, between blacks in these two places, the one in a most benighted state and the other at the summit of civilization, except for education? It is certain that teaching and education is the cause of the high attainment of the one, and lack of education has led to the wretchedness of the other.

Some Answered Questions

Abdulbaha2What has been said above about the talks and tablets in which Abdu’l-Baha argues that a natural man would be far from noble also fits the first mention of Africans in Some Answered Questions. The chapters in Some Answered Questions are talks, in response to questions, but they were recorded in Persian and Abdu’l-Baha checked and corrected the transcripts, so they are as reliable as the works Abdu’l-Baha wrote with his own hand. However the early (1908) translation into French by Hippolyte Dreyfus, and the re-translation into English by Barney and Dreyfus in the same year, leaves a lot to be desired. I have therefore made my own translation.

That first mention comes in the third chapter (on page 7 of the Dreyfus-Barney translation), entitled ‘demonstrating the need for an educator:’

“… man, if he is left without education, becomes bestial, and, if left under the rule of nature, becomes lower than an animal, whereas if he is educated he becomes an angel. For most animals do not devour their own kind, but people in the Sudan, in the central regions of Africa, may kill and eat their own kind…. If a man lived in a wilderness where he sees none of his own kind, there is no doubt that he will become a mere brute; it is then clear that an educator is needed.” (Persian text in Mufawazat, pages 5-6)

The term ‘Sudan’ here could refer to the French Soudan, present-day Mali, or more probably to the whole region known in Arabic as the Sudan, the ‘land of the blacks’ extending from east to west across tropical Africa.

The next mention in Some Answered Questions is in chapter 7 which describes the state of the Arabs before the coming of Muhammad. In the Dreyfus and Barney translation it reads:

These Arab tribes were in the lowest depths of savagery and barbarism, and in comparison with them the savages of Africa and wild Indians of America were as advanced as a Plato. The savages of America do not bury their children alive as these Arabs did their daughters, …

However there is no mention of Africa in the original text. The Persian text (available here, see page 14) says:

These Arab tribes and clans were extremely pugnacious and deprived of civilization, such that, in comparison with them, the barbarians or wild men of America were the Plato of the age, for the barbarians of America do not bury their children alive ….

The passage raises two translation issues. Dreyfus and Barney have translated the word biraabir (meaning ‘barbarians’) in the first case as ‘savages of Africa,’ and it is true that one meaning of the word is ‘Africans’ especially those of North Africa. Dreyfus, being French, may perhaps have come across the word only in this sense. But the second use in this sentence allows only the meaning ‘barbarians of America,’ so there is no reason to suppose that the first use was talking about African barbarians. ‘America’ here probably does not refer to North America, where one could scarcely speak of ‘wild men’ at the time Abdu’l-Baha was speaking, but rather to the Amazon region. Today, we know that the tribes there were not people untouched by civilization, but rather the remnants of a substantial civilization that was destroyed by introduced diseases.

Mauritania desertA second point to note in the Dreyfus and Barney translation are the two related words tawahhush and mutawahhish-ayn, which I have rendered ‘deprived of civilization’ and ‘wild men.’ Tawahhush has the connotation of a scene of desolation, it is a place of ‘wild’ life without amenities and comforts. Dreyfus and Barney translate it as ‘savagery,’ probably because the French word sauvage has just the right connotation of the natural and unimproved. Mutawahhish-ayn are the inhabitants of a place that is tawahhush, so I have translated it ‘wild men’ whereas Dreyfus and Barney use ‘savages.’

The next instance in Some Answered Questions is at page 119, in the Dreyfus and Barney translation.

A man who has not had a spiritual education is a brute. Like the savages of Africa, whose actions, habits and morals are purely sensual, they act according to the demands of nature to such a degree that they rend and eat one another.

In the Persian text (Mufawazat) this is at the bottom of page 90. There is no word for ‘savages’ in the Persian text: it seems that ‘Africa’ and ‘savage’ (or sauvage) were such a familiar pair for the translators, that they felt ‘savage’ had to be inserted where Africa was mentioned. However the meaning is not much changed by the addition, since the context says that these are indeed savages. What is lost where ‘savages’ has been inserted is more important: the text refers ambiguously either to ‘the inhabitants of Africa’ or to ‘a certain African people.’ ‘Inhabitants’ would be much the more usual meaning, but Abdu’l-Baha had lived himself in Alexandria, so it is hardly plausible that he meant that all inhabitants of Africa were cannibals! The reference must again be to a notional or rumoured people living somewhere in Africa, perhaps to some recent exploration report about such a people.

Lutherans in Sudan

SDC coverThe last mention of Africans by Abdu’l-Baha I have come across is the first in time, in his book The Secret of Divine Civilization. It appears on page 42 of Marzieh Gail’s translation:

The leaders of this religion [Lutherans or Protestants] are still making every effort to promote it, and today on the East Coast of Africa, ostensibly to emancipate the Sudanese and various Negro peoples, they have established schools and colleges and are training and civilizing completely savage African tribes, while their true and primary purpose is to convert some of the Muslim Negro tribes to Protestantism. Every community is toiling for the advancement of its people, and we [i.e., Muslims] sleep on!

In the Persian text, the words in question are at the bottom of page 50. The only comment to make on Gail’s translation is the reference to ‘savage’ African tribes. The original is mutawahhisheh, another variant on the words discussed above. In my (still unpublished) translation of this work, I render it “they … are educating, training and civilizing completely benighted African tribes.” Mutawahhisheh does not have the connotation of violence and savagery, but rather of people who live in desolate places. It is well translated by the French word sauvage but not by the English word ‘savage.’

A number of the early Bahais were exiled to the Sudan in the years 1868-1877: Abdu’l-Baha wrote this book in 1875, so his picture may reflect reports received by the Bahais in exile.

Conclusions

113px-Abdul-baha_in_ParisThe common theme in this is the importance of context for understanding. We need to read the wider text from which a particular quote is extracted, we need to know about the person who is speaking (what kind of person was this? What priorities were imposed by his or her situation?), and also the social and intellectual context of the time.

Looking back over all this material, some points stand out. First, how much energy Abdu’l-Baha devoted to refuting Rousseau’s idea of the nobility of man ‘in a state of nature’ as related to education. There are more talks and tablets on this subject than I have discussed above, but they tend to follow the same pattern. Perhaps this was for him a section in the book he planned, but never wrote: a sequel to The Secret of Divine Civilization on the topic of education. I was at first surprised by his engagement with this contemporary intellectual current: would his audiences really have accepted, or cared about, Rousseau’s ideas? Perhaps the explanation lies in Abdu’l-Baha’s awareness of his own responsibilities, as leader and standard-setter for a whole community. He would not have served the future generations of Bahais if he had been less than emphatic about the value of education, and thus the degeneracy of ‘man in the state of nature.’

AAbdul-baha_late_lifeSecond, it is evident that Abdu’l-Baha has a very high valuation of the things available in urban civilization (education first, and also law, accumulated knowledge, medical expertise, community religious observances… ). So people who live in “desolate places” – in uncitified places — are by definition deprived. This applied in Abdu’l-Baha’s time to Africans south of the Sahara, and in Secret of Divine Civilization he says that the ancient Europeans — presumably in the time of classical Greece — “were the most savage of the world’s peoples, the most ignorant and brutish. They were even stigmatized as barbarians — that is, utterly rude and uncivilized.”

This high valuation of city-civilization goes with a resolute belief that every people can be improved by the arts of civilization, just as women can be advanced by giving them education. All kinds of people have human capacities, but they do not have equal access to the means of developing them, as they ought to. You could say that this high valuation of the facilities offered by urban civilization is typically Islamic, which it is. It is echoed in the Aqdas laws that differentiate between city dwellers and others. But it is also the way city-civilizations have usually thought, and with good reason. Until the mobility and communication of the late 20th century, people growing up outside of cities, anywhere in the world, really were severely limited in how far they could develop their innate capacities.

In Abdu’l-Baha’s talks and tablets, a people living in a state of nature are often located in Africa. In Abdu’l-Baha’s time, Africa south of the Sahara was the natural example of people-without-cities: the city civilization of Zimbabwe was unknown, and the cities that did exist were remnants of earlier glories, or colonial creations.

This high valuation of urban civilisation does not mean that Abdu’l-Baha thought people in urbanised societies were morally superior. He is equally frank about the injustice and decline of eastern civilizations, notably Persia, and in The Secret of Divine Civilization he rails against the European society of his time, calling it “a superficial culture, unsupported by a cultivated morality” and a “nominal civilization, unsupported by a genuine civilization of character.” He pointed to the militarism and expansionism of the European powers as evidence, and to their habitual hypocrisy and oppression of their poor. (pages 60-61). In a letter that appears to refer to the build-up to World War 1, he writes:

… the most advanced and civilized countries of the world have been turned into arsenals of explosives, … the governments of the world are vying with each other as to who will first step into the field of carnage and bloodshed, thus subjecting mankind to the utmost degree of affliction.” (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, 284)

But wherever he highlights the dark side of humanity, whether in natural man or citified man, Abdu’l-Baha does so to urge us to acquire the light. His response to this ‘superficial culture’ is not to turn away from technical advance and urban civilization, but to combine them with a moral education and religious guidance:

“… this civilization and material progress should be combined with the Most Great Guidance so that this nether world may become the scene of the appearance of the bestowals of the Kingdom, and physical achievements may be conjoined with the effulgences of the Merciful.” (Ibid)

Abdu’l-Baha is aware that moral civilization is something different to acquired culture, and that entire cultures can degenerate into immorality. He frequently uses derivates of the Arabic root JHL, such as Jahilliya (meaning ignorant, brutish, culturally degenerate) to refer to contemporary Europeans, contemporary Arabs and others, and to refer to the state of the Arabs before the time of Muhammad – which is the usual reference of the word. This does not mean that these people had been deprived of true religion, because according to Muslim belief the Kaaba had been built by Abraham who founded the religion of the Arabs. Rather it means that religions can be corrupted or ignored, and cultures can degenerate. Africans are not exempt, but neither are Arabs or Europeans. Mechanised European wars, Persian religious obscurantism, and cannibalism are all jahil, brutish and degenerate, and this is a moral judgement independent of race or degree of citification.

Baltimore Bahais in 1975

Baltimore Bahais in 1975

~~ Sen McGlinn
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Further reading

Mahmud’s Diary, by Mirza Mahmud Zarqani, gives an account of Abdu’l-Baha’s trip to North America.

Abdu’l-Baha in America: Agnes Parsons’ Diary.

Richard Thomas, ‘A long and thorny path: race relations in the American Bahai Community’ in Anthony Lee (ed.) Circle of Unity

Selected profiles of African-American Bahais

236 Days in America: Abdu’l-Baha’s Journey in America, by Allan Ward, Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1979. (Appears to be out of print)

Black Pearls: Servants in the Households of the Bab and Baha’u’llah by Abu’l-Qasim Afnan

The Power of Unity: Beyond Prejudice and Racism, selections from the Writing of Bahá’u’lláh, the Báb, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice, compiled by Bonnie Taylor of the National Race Unity Committee (Compilation published by the National Spiritual Assembly of the USA, appears to be out of print.)

A vision of Race Unity (web site)

Abdu’l-Baha Answers, a web site that collects stories and pen portraits of Abdu’l-Baha, his answers to questions, photographs and other materials.

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43 Responses to “Abdu’l-Baha and the African tribe”

  1. Ross McKie said

    Again, many many thanks, Sen, for your wonderful insight and understanding into a more definitive– dare I offer?– Baha’i Hermeneutics. I learned so much reading this essay. Peace.

  2. Frances Shinsato said

    >consider the civilized countries, the inhabitants of which are living in the highest state of culture and ethics, solidarity and inter-dependence; possessing, with few exceptions, acute power of comprehensions and sound mind.<

    It occurs to me that surely Abdu'l-Baha could not have known of a single country at that time in history where the generality of the people were fulfilling the positive attributes he described.

    But in the West the "civilizations" of that day who considered themselves educated, cultured, moral and refined looked down upon the Africans as inferior.

    I think that perhpas Abdu'l-Baha was subtly trying to get across the fact that it was a wrong for white westerners to vaunt themselves over the peoples of Africa.

    Relative to his description of the citizens of a Divine Civilization, the West, even in that day, was barbaric.

    Perhaps you've already made this point of course, I will continue reading through your fine article.

    Blessings

  3. Frances Shinsato said

    I am finding your article very enjoyable, Sen, you raise many worthy points.

    Abdu’l-Baha points out in SDC concerning the missionaries in Eastern Africa that:

    “their true and primary purpose is to convert some of the Muslim Negro tribes to Protestantism.”

    I have relatives who have been engaged thusly in the last 5 years. They are good people with good intentions.

    But now war breaks out continuously along the border area between Christian and Muslim.

  4. Sen said

    The paragraph says:

    “… the proof they [philosophers] adduce therefor is this: “The inhabitants of a country like Africa are all as wandering savages and wild animals…. [but in] the civilized countries, the inhabitants of which are living in the highest state of culture and ethics, … These are the proofs of the wise men. The prophets also acknowledge this opinion, to wit: That education hath a great effect upon the human race, but …”
    (Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v3, p. 576)

    As the philsophers whom Abdu’l-Baha is referring to are Euopeans, they have a very high opinion of European ethics and culture. Abdu’l-Baha did not agree with that — he called Europe “morally uncivilized” (The Secret of Divine Civilization, 63) and described it as an arsenal about to explode. But the quality of European civilization (or African civilization) is not the topic in this case, so rather than dispute the point, he goes on to say: “The prophets also acknowledge … That education hath a great effect … but they declare that minds and comprehensions are originally different. … children … differ in their minds and comprehensions.”

    On the one hand, this means that children are not to be treated as blank tablets to be written on as we will – each child is individual with his/her own capacities and “and every soul its particular aspiration.” (Baha’u’llah, The Tabernacle of Unity). On the other hand, it means that “training doth not change the human gem (i. e., human nature or entity)” (Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v3, p. 577): ‘civilization’ science and (European) culture does not make super-man.

    Perhaps Abdu’l-Baha was already foreseeing where this trend in European philosophy was leading – to the ideas of the perfectability of human nature by right training, and the redundancy of religion and other supersititious vestiges, in training Scientific Man.

  5. Sen: A great defense! By showing that these controversial statements were wrenched out of context, you have persuasively demonstrated that ‘Abdu’l-Baha was characterizing the arguments of some contemporary intellectuals and “philosophers.” I commend your provisional translations as well. “Abdu’l-Baha and the African tribe” is one of your finest pieces. Impressive, skillful, useful.

  6. Stephen Kent Gray said

    Abdu’l-Baha is aware that moral civilization is something different to acquired culture, and that entire cultures can degenerate into immorality. He frequently uses derivates of the Arabic root JHL, such as Jahilliya (meaning ignorant, brutish, culturally degenerate) to refer to contemporary Europeans, contemporary Arabs and others, and to refer to the state of the Arabs before the time of Muhammad – which is the usual reference of the word. This does not mean that these people had been deprived of true religion, because according to Muslim belief the Kaaba had been built by Abraham who founded the religion of the Arabs. Rather it means that religions can be corrupted or ignored, and cultures can degenerate. Africans are not exempt, but neither are Arabs or Europeans. Mechanised European wars, Persian religious obscurantism, and cannibalism are all jahil, brutish and degenerate, and this is a moral judgement independent of race or degree of citification.

    There is no actual archeological support for the Muslims prehistory theories ascribing he Kaaba to either Adam or Abraham. The earliest it could have existed was either during the first or second century AD.

    The term jahiliyyah is used several places in the Quran, and translations often use various terms to represent it:

    Idolatry
    (3:154) Then, following misery, He sent down upon you a feeling of security, a slumber overcoming a party among you, while another party cared only for themselves, thinking false thoughts about God, thoughts fit for the Age of Idolatry.

    Paganism
    (5:50) Do they truly desire the law of paganism? But who is fairer than God in judgment for a people firm of faith?

    Barbarism
    (33:33) Remain in your homes, and do not display your adornments, as was the case with the earlier Age of Barbarism.

    Lawlessness
    (48:26) For the unbelievers had planted in their hearts a zealotry, the zealotry of lawlessness …

    Use of the term for modern Muslim society is usually associated with Qutb’s other radical ideas (or Qutbism) – namely that reappearance of Jahiliyya is a result of the lack of Sharia law, without which Islam cannot exist; that true Islam is a complete system with no room for any element of Jahiliyya; that all aspects of Jahiliyya (“manners, ideas and concepts, rules and regulations, values and criteria”) are “evil and corrupt”

    Non-Muslim societies may also be termed jahili (Arabic: جاهلي‎ ǧāhilī ). One western academic has compared the idea of contemporary Jahiliyya in some radical Islamic circles to the secular Marxist idea of false consciousness – in each case the masses being unaware they are not following their true consciousness by rising up to overthrow the capitalist system and replacing it with socialism (in the case of Marxism); or overthrow the secular state and replace it with the true Islam of strict sharia law (in the case of Qutbism).

  7. Hossein said

    Sen,
    You have stated that the following are the words of the wise:

    “The inhabitants of one region, such as Africa, are all like voracious beasts or wild animals; without understanding or knowledge, all uncivilized; not one civilized and wise man exists among them. This they contrast to civilized countries: all the inhabitants living in the highest state of culture and ethics, in cooperation and solidarity, and with few exceptions, with acute understanding and sound reasoning. Therefore, it is made clear and established that the superiority and inferiority of minds and comprehensions arises from education and teaching, or the lack of them. A bent branch is straightened by training and the wild fruit of the jungle is made the fruit of the orchard. An ignorant man becomes knowledgeable through teaching, and through the bounty of a wise educator, the uncultivated region becomes a civilized kingdom. The sick may be healed by the physician’s art, and the poor man, by learning the arts of commerce, can achieve independence. The follower, by attaining the virtues of the leader, becomes great, and an abject man, through the education of a teacher, rises from the depths of abasement to the heights of glory.”

    This is not the case. The first part of the aforementioned section is the words of the wise:

    ““The inhabitants of one region, such as Africa, are all like voracious beasts or wild animals; without understanding or knowledge, all uncivilized; not one civilized and wise man exists among them. This they contrast to civilized countries: all the inhabitants living in the highest state of culture and ethics, in cooperation and solidarity, and with few exceptions, with acute understanding and sound reasoning.”

    While the remaining are the words of Abdu’l-Baha and he affirms what the wise say. The tone of the sentence clearly changes:

    “Therefore, it is made clear and established that the superiority and inferiority of minds and comprehensions arises from education and teaching, or the lack of them. A bent branch is straightened by training and the wild fruit of the jungle is made the fruit of the orchard. An ignorant man becomes knowledgeable through teaching, and through the bounty of a wise educator, the uncultivated region becomes a civilized kingdom. The sick may be healed by the physician’s art, and the poor man, by learning the arts of commerce, can achieve independence. The follower, by attaining the virtues of the leader, becomes great, and an abject man, through the education of a teacher, rises from the depths of abasement to the heights of glory.”

    To compare the words of the wise with that of the Prophets he says:

    “This is their argument.”

    Apparently, this little sentence confused you and the original translators to attribute all of the aforementioned quotes to the wise which is not the case. Abdu’l-Baha does not reject the belief of the wise and as it is evident he affirms them, then says the Prophets add something else to it, which you translated like this:

    “The Prophets concur with the idea that education has the greatest effect on a person. They affirm, however, that differences in intelligence and perceptiveness are innate. This is obvious, and cannot be denied”

    You have clearly made a mistake in translating this section and have used it as proof of the Prophets contrasting the words of the wise. This is the correct translation, pay attention to the CAPITALS:

    “The Prophets TOO (niz) concur with THIS (een) idea that education has the greatest effect on a person. They affirm, however, that differences in intelligence and perceptiveness are ALSO innate. This is obvious, and cannot be denied”

    Those three small words make the difference in all the translation. Abdu’l-Baha says the Prophets affirm what the wise say but also add the matter of difference in intelligence.

    Abdu’l-Baha in no way refutes the words of the wise about the Africans but to the contrary affirms them, this can be seen in many of his other speeches where he frequently calls the Africans animals.

    If it is spiritual teaching and guidance that changes a man from an animal to a human, then most of the civilized world then and now can easily be called animals by using Abdu’l-Baha’s reasoning, because they lack spiritual teaching and guidance. But they were never labelled by Abdu’l-Baha as animals. It is always the indigenous tribes that are bestowed with these titles.

    He never calls the American settlers for massacring Indians Animals and he never calls the colonialist European countries and monarchs that oppressed many nations as animals. There is a major problem here. That is why Abdu’l-Baha is called racist. I bet he wouldn’t have said those words in the face of the native Africans and Americans, would he:

    Hello you African savages. Since you haven’t been educated, we believe you are beasts and animals. Have a good day!

  8. Sen said

    I am sure he wouldn’t have said those words at all.

    There are no speech marks or other punctuation in the original, so you are free to divide it up any way you like. However you are reading the text without the con-text, and a reading that is contradicted by the context is implausible. In my posting I have pointed to two contexts: the author, and the ideas he was engaging with. It’s common enough for someone (usually a man!) to climb the pulpit and trumpet noble words, only to go home and bully his children or cheat on his taxes. But have you ever encountered someone whose life is noble, but who preaches vile things? Abdu’l-Baha’s life is an example of freedom from prejudice, and he created a multi-racial community (hence the photograph at the bottom of my blog posting). It is hardly plausible that on this occasion he intended to preach racism.

    The second context, and the reason that I have inserted the speech marks where I have, is that many of Abdu’l-Baha’s talks in Europe and North America, and some of his tablets, are clearly aimed against the idea of the noble savage, ie, that human beings are at their best when uncivilized. In various cases he talks about the Turabians, or the Arabs before Muhammad, or the Europeans, or children in a desert, or a (South?) American or African tribe. The details vary, but the message is the same. It’s clear what he is “getting at”, and to read his words in the contrary sense is perverse.

    Moreover, in numerous talks and writings Abdu’l-Baha says specifically that colour does not matter. For example:

    Strive with heart and soul in order to bring about union and harmony among the white and the black and prove thereby the unity of the Bahai world wherein distinction of colour findeth no place, but where hearts only are considered. Praise be to God, the hearts of the friends are united and linked together, whether they be from the east or the west, from north or from south, whether they be German, French, Japanese, American, and whether they pertain to the white, the black, the red, the yellow or the brown race. Variations of colour, of land and of race are of no importance in the Bahai Faith; on the contrary, Bahai unity overcometh them all and doeth away with all these fancies and imaginations.” (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 112)

    This is part of the context of Abdu’l-Baha’s words. There is no plausibility in a reading of any author’s words in a way that is flatly contradicted by their oeuvre as a whole.

    Abdu’l-Baha and his father do condemn the colonial pretense to bring civilization, while actually seizing territory. I assume that you are unaware of these texts. There’s a good discussion of Baha’u’llah’s critique of colonialism in Juan Cole’s book Modernity and the Millennium.

  9. Hossein said

    Sen,

    I believe you missed a very important point in my comment. What I meant by racist was not color. I meant a discrimination when referring to race. There are multiple groups who can be called animals according to Abdu’l-Baha’s reasoning, but he always single’s out the Africans (and sometimes American Indians) for direct reference to being Animals.

    Are there Instances where he calls the war mongering or colonialists of the allegedly civilized world animals? Like, for instance, stating: “those who shed blood and plunder the wealth of other nations are Animals, like some of the people of France and England. They are pigs that God has created with human faces. The white settlers have no superiority over Animals. They massacred the Indians to take there land. They are donkeys with human faces.”? No.

    Are there instances where he himself calls uneducated black Africans animals? Yes: “The wild tribes have no superiority over animals. For example, what is the difference between African blacks and American blacks? The [black Africans] are cows that God has created with human faces. The [black Americans] are civilized, intelligent, and have culture.” (Khatabat, vol. 3, p.48)

    Is there an instant anywhere, where Abdu’l-Baha says the wise are wrong for calling the uneducated Africans Animals and they should use a better parable or example? No.

    And to be Frank, how would the world react if for instance, the queen of England or Bill Clinton, used those same words to describe uneducated black Africans? Wouldn’t there be outrage? New York Times: “Queen says wild uneducated Africans are Cows with human faces.”

    See what I’m getting at.

  10. Sen said

    Your quote (Khatabat, vol. d, p.48) does not support your argument. You say that Abdu’l-Baha is racist in the sense of discrimination when referring to race. But even apart from the translation question (see my translation in the posting), your quote does not support this for two reasons: he does not say that whites are civilized and have culture while blacks do not; rather he says that blacks in America are civilized, intelligent and have culture while those in Africa, lacking this, are beasts in human form. (As we all are, but I will get back to that point). So clearly the issue being discussed here is not the merits of various races, rather it is nature versus nurture. Abdu’l-Baha argues, not just here but in many places, that it is civilization that distinguishes us from the animal, and particularly that spiritual civilization that is fostered by religion, although he does not despise the material civilization that gives us so many opportunities to develop the human spirit. You persist in reading this text as if it was about racial inequality, but if you look at the texts in which Abdu’l-Baha does address the question of race, you will see that his ideas are not at all racist. A reading that supposes the author contradicts himself so obviously is not plausible: it is more likely that the reader has missed the point.

    Second, note that he says “wild tribes are not differentiated from animals.” He does not say, wild Africans. His point applies to all peoples. In another of the passages I translated in this posting, he says ” if man is abandoned to nature, he becomes worse than an animal.” Obviously, he is talking about the importance of civilization, not about racial characteristics. Not only are human beings morally like animals if they are not educated, they are in fact animals in body. The form (not face, as you translate it) is not what differentiates humans from animals. He says that humans are, in their bodies, animals in various places in his discussions of evolution, but that is another question that need not be developed here, since the text you quote already says that “wild tribes are not differentiated from animals.”

    When Abdu’l-Baha looks for examples of what humans would be if not in contact with civilization, his contemporary examples are set in Africa and South America, because in those days those peoples were still largely unknown and uncontacted. Naturally he does not use a European example, because what European tribe in the 19th century was out of contact with civilization? He also refers to an ancient and probably mythical central Asian tribe, the Turanians. And in another of the examples I translated, he simply does a thought-experiment:

    …if children were left in the desert, never receiving education, it is certain that they would remain ignorant, that they would know nothing of civilization, they would have neither skilled crafts, nor trade, nor agriculture.

    If Abdu’l-Baha is racist as you argue, then my the same logic he is a childist, since he believes that children who are entirely uneducated will be deprived.

  11. Nicos said

    The most disturbing aspect of these quotes is the evident contempt for indigenous cultures. It’s a lie that pre-industrial people are like animals. It is not romanticizing these cultures to say that they are quite complex, and quite human: they have morality, they have social rules, and, yes, they have wisdom traditions. Some of them have used shamanic practices, including the use of entheogenic plant technologies, that put them in direct contact with higher spiritual realms that guide them into harmonious living. They have lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years, whereas “civilized man” is so alienated and estranged from nature that he is on the eve of destruction. No question that these peoples occasionally exhibit the darker side of humanity including murder and warfare, but that’s just proof that they are human like their “civilized” brothers and sisters.

  12. Sen said

    This is what makes these quotes disturbing to a 21st century reader, but it is not at all what Abdu’l-Baha is saying. An author has first to be understood in the context of his time, and in relation to the discourse he is part of it at that time. Only then can one make a well-founded judgement about what he is saying and its suitability for today. Abdu’l-Baha is not talking about indigenous cultures and pre-industrial peoples: those are the categories and concerns of a 21st century world. Abdu’l-Baha might have found it difficult even to grasp how you got to such issues on the basis of his words. He himself is a proud Persian and Iranian, the product of an indigenous culture that had its glory time in the pre-industrial age. What he is talking about here is civilization in the sense of opportunities for the refinement of the human spirit and the development of individual potentials, and for Abdu’l-Baha, as for Persians generally over several millenia, these opportunities are tied to urban life and law. The same may be said of the ancient Greeks, but in the case of Iran the water economy of the Iranian plateau made the association of humane civilization and urban life even more self-evident. Outside the built-up areas — called the irrigated lands in Persian — one steps into a stony desert, or a sandy desert, or a saline swamp devoid of life. Human life can only produce the refinements of culture where there are enough people, capital, and law to build and maintain the qanats and reservoirs. And it requires religion, which cultivates the character of people as the state cannot (See ‘pluralist society‘ on this blog, and particularly the discussion with Stella Ramage in the comments to that post). Life outside a town is assumed to be a hardship and a constraint on human potential. Baha’u’llah comes from this background and has the foresight to see that excessive urbanisation could also be harmful, but he is not a 19th century Romantic by any stretch of the imagination, and neither is Abdu’l-Baha. See Civilization on this blog.

    When Abdu’l-Baha began to travel in the West, he stepped into a world in which Romanticism and its ugly child, early fascism, were being discussed and were affecting the way people related to one another and governments made their policies. Bear in mind that his first contacts with the intellectual world of Europe were as much French and Italian as English. As a religious leader, and a participant in the debate about the future of religion in modern society (See for example his response to Voltaire in The Secret of Divine Civilization), the Romantic glorification of the “undomesticated” (sauvage) man was an attack on the role of religion in society. If undomesticated man was noble, and cultured man was degenerate, then religion, or at least organised religion, would be redundant. The prophets would be redundant, since we would only need to consult our inner sauvage to live in harmony. Abdu’l-Baha rebuts the Romantic premise at the beginning of The Art of Governance:

    It is evident, and indisputable that, in their inherent disposition and natural created form, all created things possess the power and capacity to manifest two kinds of perfections. One is inborn perfections: these are solely the divine creation, without any intermediary. The other kind is acquired perfections, which are dependant on the education of a true Master. Consider the outward characteristics of things: the trees, flowers and fruits contain an inherent freshness and delicacy which is solely the gift of God. In addition to this, there is a vigour in growth and an indescribable sweetness of flavour that become evident through the attentions of a careful gardener. For, if left to itself, the garden would turn into jungle and undergrowth. The flowers and blossoms would not open, the tree would give no fruit and would be fit for burning. But when it comes under the training and care of a master, it becomes a garden, a rose-bower, or an orchard. Blossoms and fruit appear, and the face of the earth is adorned with flowers and fragrant herbs. It is the same with human societies and social structures: if left in their natural condition, people would swarm like vermin, and would be considered as beasts and predators. They would learn ferocity, cruelty and bloodthirstiness, and be consumed in the flames of rebellion and lawlessness.

    Human beings are children, studying in the school of the world, but they fall ill and are enfeebled because of chronic defects. Those great and holy figures, the prophets and holy ones, are the professors in the academy of God and the healers in the hospital of the Lord. They are the heralds of grace, and suns in the highest sphere of guidance. Through them, the radiant flame of spiritual and outward perfection, that has cooled and died within the lamp of human reality, may be rekindled from the blazing fire of God. Chronic diseases are eliminated through the over-flowing grace of the All-Merciful and the messianic spirit.

    Thus it has been demonstrated with sublime proofs that human society requires the training and cultivation of a true master, and that human souls need a governor, one who binds and restrains, prohibits and encourages, one who stimulates, impels and inspires. For the garden of creation cannot attain beauty, delicacy and plenty except through the training of the kindly gardener, the grace of God, and the government’s just policies.
    (Abdu’l-Baha, The Art of Governance)

  13. sunshine said

    Mr McGlinn,

    I’ve been seeing a different version of this: “One is a beast God created in human form” on anti-Baha’i websites. They claim the correct translation is “One is a cow God created in human form”. I got one of my colleagues to check the translations and it seems that the anti-Baha’i version is correct. Is there a special reason that you have used the word ‘beast’ instead of ‘cow’?

    ‘Some’ of the justifications you have provided are plausible if Abdu’l-Baha had indeed used the word ‘beast’ but since he uses the term ‘cow’ your justification does not hold much water.

  14. Sen said

    Cow is female, and implies that the cow has had a calf (otherwise she is a heifer) but neither the Persian word nor the context of Abdu’l-Baha’s words suggest he was intending a gendered reference. A gav can be a cow, steer (bullock), bull or ox. The nearest translation in English is ‘beast,’ a bovine whose sex and age is not specified, although this has the disadvantage of not being understandable to many Americans (it is British and Empire usage) and a bigger disadvantage, of having a second meaning: if someone is “a beast” or “beastly” we mean he has a nasty character. But I do not think that the reader here will take the word in that sense.

    Translation is an inexact art, but in this case I think the small risk of some people reading ‘beast’ as ‘beastly’ is outweighed by the likelihood, if “cow” is used, that many readers will take it as a gendered insult. An alternative if you would like one would be “cattle beast,” the singular of “cattle,” i.e., a bovine of unspecified age and sex. It is a perfectly accurate translation of gav, but is an awkward, unfamiliar word.

  15. sunshine said

    Mr McGlinn,

    I checked your response with my colleague. Apparently the word Abdu’l-Baha uses is not the Persian word ‘gav‘ but the Arabic word ‘al-baqar‘ which used to refer to the ‘cow’ species regardless of sex, as in English where the word ‘cow’ can be used to refer to “2: a domestic bovine animal regardless of sex or age (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cow).” According to Merriam Webster Dictionary the word ‘cow’ seems to be a perfect and very familiar translation for ‘al-Baqar’ and using the word ‘beast’ is inaccurate and gives a wrong impression.

  16. Sen said

    Thank you, your are quite right. I assumed you were asking about a different text. Please disregard my previous reply. I am going to make a new reply with the correct reference, but I will leave this comment and yours, and my previous reply, here for a few days so you can copy them if you wish.

  17. Sen said

    In response to Sunshine at #13:

    The phrase you ask about is an Arabic rhyming idiom that Abdu’l-Baha has used in a Persian text. The source is available at the Bahai Reference library here: six lines from the bottom of the page. The idiom contrasts bashar and baqar, humanity and cattle. It comes in various forms, which I will copy here, so that you can use them in a search engine. The first is the form Abdu’l-Baha uses:

    خلق الله البقر علي صورة البشر
    سبحان من خلق البقر في صفة البشر
    سبحان من خلق البقر في صورة البشر

    It is an expression of astonishment, meaning more or less, “how could God create such people!.” In my view, “cattle” (baqar) is used in this idiom simply because it rhymes with “humanity” (bashar). I do not think there is an implication that the people are bovine, particularly, just that they are not behaving like human beings.

    An idiom need not be translated literally, and in any case a translator should carefully avoid making the translation more specific than the original. “Beast” is in my view a very good translation, since in UK English and in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it is a general word for any cattle beast (the singular of cattle) that includes cows, bulls, heifers and oxen AND it is also an English word for an animal, especially a largish one. “Animals in human form” would be an accurate translation, but I came up with “beast,” a word that also has the flavour of the original idiom.

    “Cows” is not a good choice here, because it makes the image more specific than the original. A reader might think that Abdu’l-Baha is referencing milk-giving and hence older women. (A cow is a female cattle beast that has had a calf, and is able to give milk; a heifer is a female cattle beast that has not had a calf). “Cattle beast” is an accurate translation, but it is an awkward word that is not widely used.

    English has another word for the singular of cattle, kine [pronounced like “kind”], and one could make a nice translation along the lines of “they are ‘not mankind but kine.'” This captures the meaning of Abdu’l-Baha’s words perfectly, with the compactness and rhyme of the idiom, but 95% of readers will have to go to a dictionary to see what the word means, as it has been out of use for centuries.

    There are some who will read any metaphor in the Bahai writings literally, and out of context, if it can be used to attack the Bahai Faith. There is no point in trying to enlighten them:

    All I can do is keep my arm
    from doing others any harm;
    I cannot give the enviers ease,
    they are themselves their own disease.

  18. sunshine said

    Mr McGlinn,

    My colleague had doubts about the 3 Arabic sentences that you stated are idioms. Google turned up only Abdu’l-Baha’s words for the first sentence and only one result for the second and third statements, both in fairly insulting contexts. Furthermore, we asked a number of Arabs and none have given us a positive response about these statements being Arabic idioms. If you believe these are idioms, we would appreciate a reliable source which states this.

    Going back to the three Arabic statements, the translation of statements 2 and 3 is: “Glorified is he who created the cow with the form/attributes of the human.” The term ‘cow’ and the literal meaning aside, this seems to be an insulting statement that is intended to ridicule someone and show ‘astonishment’ and ‘surprise’ regarding their stupidity. I would not use any of these three sentences under any circumstances to describe another person or group of people.

    Another problem arises in the context that Abdu’l-Baha uses that statement. The element of ‘astonishment’ and ‘surprise’ is conferred from the word glorified ‘subhana’ in statements 2 and 3. This word is lacking in the statement uttered by Abdu’l-Baha which no longer has the element of ‘astonishment’ but retains the other meanings. Yet, another problem is the context in which Abdul-Baha uses the first statement. In the standalone form that you have presented the first sentence, one can translate it to: “God has created the cow in human form” which is fairly meaningless, but when used in the context of Abdu’l-Baha’s words, the statement translates to: “One is a cow God created in human form” which does not fit the meaning that you have implied is intended: “how could God create such people!”

    As I already stated, I do not find it convincing to translate the word ‘cow’ to ‘beast’ on the grounds that you have stated because ‘cow’ is commonly used in the English language to refer to “2: a domestic bovine animal regardless of sex or age (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cow).”

  19. Sen said

    I have no doubt at all that these words are either a quotation or an idiom, since they are not just Arabic words: they are a complete expression in Arabic, beginning with the verb as in an Arabic sentence. This sentence is dropped into the middle of a text in Persian. That means, ipso facto, that it is a borrowed idiom, just as ipso facto is a borrowed idiom. The only alternative is that it is a quotation. When Abdu’l-Baha drops into Arabic it very often does turn out to be a quotation, from the Quran, the traditions, the Nahj al-Balagha, or more rarely from an Arabic historian or literary figure. In this case, I have not found any such quotation in the classical sources, so I conclude it is an Arabic idiom that was used in the Persian of Abdu’l-Baha’s time. He wrote after all to communicate, and he must have expected that his Persian readers would know what these Arabic words meant.

    Arab speakers would not necessarily help you with this: you need to ask educated Persians if you are in any doubt. But it is common sense: a foreign phrase used in the middle of a discourse must be an idiom which is one unit of meaning, like comme il faux. The meaning is not built up from the meanings of the separate words. A good translator translates the meaning conveyed by whole sentences and paragraphs. In this case, in my opinion, the meaning of the phrase is that the human is compared unfavourably to the animal in an expression of astonishment. The word baqer is used because it rhymes with basher, not because cattle are any more relevant than whales or horses. Which incidentally leads me to an English literary parallel to this expression: the Houyhnhnms and Humans in Gulliver’s Travels. The first are horses like humans, the latter are humans like horses, and their names sound similar. But it’s not really about horses.

    You may or may not be persuaded by Abdu’l-Bahas argument, here and elsewhere, that uncultured humans are as animals, or worse. But that is what he is saying. It’s not about the cows.

    In sorting out what Abdu’l-Baha meant with this discourse, and what he meant by the example of the Africans in particular, I treat religious literature as a type of literature. It is to be approached with the reading skills and attitudes of literary appreciation. The enormous prestige of the hard sciences and of science education in the 20th and 21st centuries, the decline in the standing of religious hierarchies, and the growing ignorance of the traditions of interpretation that the religious institutions had transmitted, are in my view largely responsible for the blight of fundamentalist literalism that has marred the Christian and Islamic (and perhaps other) religious communities. What we see is people who in many case have the confidence and standing of a scientific education and profession, or who have been successful in business, but with no training in religion and no interest in literature, pronouncing on the meanings of religious literature! What are often called fundamentalisms are religious movements of cultural impoverishment. Among their founders we find a haberdasher, a farmer and a military man, a physicist, a couple of medical doctors, an educational administrator — but narry a poet, a professor of literature, or a properly trained cleric among them. The result is that they miss the point, more often than not. If you are looking for help in understanding literary or religious texts, you should not look in that direction, but rather consult with people who have developed their own literary skills and can critique your readings to help you to learn the same skills.

  20. sunshine said

    Mr McGlenn,

    None of the people we have asked, neither Iranian nor Arab, have heard about what you are claiming is an idiom. None of our sources have encountered these words in literature. There are many Farsi and Arabic websites that have placed thousands of pages of modern and classic literature for all to see, but what you claim is an idiom cannot be found in them. Furthermore, using rhyming Arabic words or short Arabic sentences in the middle of Farsi statements occurs frequently in the words of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha and are in most cases neither idioms nor parts of poetry. It is up to you to provide a credible source that the words of Abdu’l-Baha are in fact idioms for your speculations cannot be verified.

    Indeed, I am not persuaded by Abdu’l-Baha’s arguments that wild tribes are as animals, or worse, because the examples he uses are irrelevant and a careful analysis of the tribes Abdu’l-Baha calls wild shows that they too have their ethics, morals, and rich cultures.

    Religious text is intended to be understood for all people in the tongue they understand. Stating that only a group of learned people proficient in literature can interpret religious texts is an overstatement that anyone can use to dismiss the understandings of other people about religious texts. Specially, when attributing meanings to religious statements that cannot be verified.

  21. Sam said

    Sen, you wrote: “In these arguments Abdu’l-Baha is adopting a current discourse in which Central Africa was the supposed home of ‘natural man,’ and uses it, but he is not adopting racial stereotypes about the negro race.”

    Is there not a much simpler third alternative explanation : Abdu’l-Baha is simply making a factual observation about the lack of civilization in African society. Observing this deficiency need not mean embracing stereotypes about the negro race.
    It also need not mean elevating “civilization” above it’s due importance in the context other Holy writings. (e.g. “If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation…”)

  22. Sam said

    Sen, you wrote: “In these arguments Abdu’l-Baha is adopting a current discourse in which Central Africa was the supposed home of ‘natural man,’ and uses it, but he is not adopting racial stereotypes about the negro race.”

    Is there not a third alternative explanation? : Abdu’l-Baha is simply making a fact-based observation about the lack of civilization in African society. Observing this deficiency does not equate to embracing stereotypes about the negro race.

    It also need not mean elevating “civilization” above it’s due importance in the context other Holy writings. (e.g. “If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation…”)

  23. Sen said

    I do not believe that this was the focus of his attention. From a broader reading of Abdu’l-Baha’s writings and reported comments I believe that he was significantly concerned by the European idealisation of ‘natural man’ or ‘the noble savage,’ in part because he put a lot of weight on the facilities for human development that an urban civilization affords, but primarily because, if natural man is ideal man, then religion, learning and philosophy are redundant. The “noble savage” picture of human nature is anti-religious in effect. If it came to comparisons of real contemporary cultures and civilizations, I rather think he would have rated Africa above Europe (see his comments in The Secret of Divine Civilization for example), since the facilities of urban civilization are not much use if they are turned to developing and deploying better means of killing one another.

  24. Sam said

    Sen,

    I agree that this was not the focus, merely a fact-based observation in support of the ideas you mentioned regarding the myth of the noble savage, etc.

    I think Abdu’l-Baha had a balanced view of “civilization.” His writings reveal a high esteem for the arts and sciences of European civilization, but also caution against the excesses. The facilities of civilization were used to great benefit in the “west” to develop, among other things: communication technology, refinements to the rule of law, modern medicine and surgery, trans-continental transportation. Indeed the tens of thousands of migrants each year who risk their lives to leave Africa seeking a better life in Europe (and the lack of migrants moving the opposite direction) attest, in part, to these benefits.

    As for developing means of killing one another, the European society of Abdu’l-Baha’s time certainly seems to have been in the lead. But currently I’m not so sure : the wars in Congo and Sudan (all since the 1980’s) are estimated to have claimed 6-8 million lives.

  25. mike4ty4 said

    @Sam: But does that mean there is no value in non-Western cultures? If “European civilization” is held in high esteem, but others are not held in such high esteem, then what does that say about their value?

  26. Sen said

    I am not clear what “this” is or who holds European civilization in high esteem, and not others. It seems likely you have misread something, or have not read the post or comment you are responding to.

  27. Sam said

    @Mike4ty4 : My understanding of Baha’i teaching is that we are all members of one human family. We are all, collectively, heirs to the blessings and the curses of civilization. It is our task to sort out the good from the bad and build a new world. This task will involve avoiding the “excess of civilization” that we are warned about in the Writings.

    But Baha’i teaching does not (as far as I can see) radically re-define “civilization” to make it mean its opposite. Cultures that struggled to maintain basic sanitation, clean water, steady food supply, honest governance, literacy, scientific education and exploration, etc. , were not as advanced in “civilization” as other cultures that excelled in these areas. That doesn’t mean that the people who were born into those cultures had more or less “value.”

    “Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess…The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.”

  28. Sen said

    Good points Sam. I would add low infant mortality to your list of markers of civilization. You might also be interested in the posting on “civilization” on this blog.

  29. dany said

    Why does Abdu’l-Baha use such inappropriate words to describe different situations. There is also another instance where he compares Baha’is with non-Baha’is and states: “A Baha’i nigger is better than a non-Baha’i nymph”

  30. Sen said

    Duh! Abdu’l-Baha spoke in Persian (and Arabic and Turkish). If someone says he said “nigger,” that word is their choice. Chosen, I guess, for propaganda purposes. How can anyone smart enough to write grammatical sentences, not be smart enough for critical thinking? The words people use when they communicate to you, are intended to influence you. The trick is, to see when you are being manipulated, by thinking about what’s behind the words. Critical thinking 101 is recommended for you.

    What this quote tells us, is that someone wants you to dislike and distrust Abdu’l-Baha. Why would that be? Is it because of their own agenda in relation to Abdu’l-Baha, or their agenda in relation to you? Where are they taking you with this allegation?

  31. dany said

    The words people use when they communicate to you, are intended to influence you. The trick is, to see when you are being manipulated, by thinking about what’s behind the words.
    What this quote tells us, is that someone wants you to dislike and distrust Abdu’l-Baha. Why would that be? Is it because of their own agenda in relation to Abdu’l-Baha, or their agenda in relation to you? Where are they taking you with this allegation?

    I read that quote on a blog. The author was claiming similar things about a Baha’i translator distorting Abdu’l-Baha’s statements to whitewash them. There was even a reference to Abdu’l-Baha comparing Jews to monkeys or something like that.

  32. Sen said

    Abdu’l-Baha spoke in synagogues when he travelled, and was on friendly terms with Jews in Palestine (although he worried about the immigrants arming themselves and keeping separate from the Arabs). And he was the leading proponent of a religion that claimed that all men are brothers, and all religions worship one God. So even if he had some secret antisemitic thoughts, how likely is it that he would ever express them, and so discredit his own Faith?

    Once again, critical thinking is required. When claims are made that are obvious rubbish, they should not be taken as a little bit true. Rubbish is rubbish, and people with an agenda who blacken the names of other people, are not to be trusted a little bit.

  33. Matthew said

    That nonsense is all from the avazedohol Shia anti-Baha’i propaganda site hosted in Tehran. :/

  34. shahrooz said

    I had a look at the avazedohol website. The mentioned quotes do exist in the scanned images provided there but I don’t automatically trust anti-Baha’i material. Sen, do you know where I can get hold of the original Farsi manuscript to double check the quotes? A pdf file was uploaded to Ahang Rabbani’s website but that is no longer accessible:

  35. Sen said

    So far, I have found that the sources quoted on avazedohol do exist, and the quotes have not been tampered with except in some cases by being taken out of context, as when Abdu’l-Baha quotes a view that he then refutes, and avazedohol quotes that view as his own. However many of the quotes are pilgrim’s notes in Persian: they are recollections by Persian Bahais of what they heard Abdu’l-Baha say, in some cases his stories about Baha’u’llah. A Bahai reader would take such a recollection, whether in Persian or in English, and see whether it is consistent with what Abdu’l-Baha or Shoghi Effendi wrote and how the central figures of the Faith lived their lives. If it is not consistent, then it tells us something about the diarist, and the Bahai community of the time, but has no value as regards the actual thinking and behaviour of the central figures. The avazedohol technique is to take such a snippets as evidence that the mass of authentic texts and historical evidence to the contrary is a sham. They suppose the straw is heavier than the mountain, and conclude that the mountain is unstable. Another technique, or perhaps an honest misreading, is to read metaphors and figures of speech literally. They are fluent in contemporary Persian, and classical Arabic, but do not seem to be familiar with Qajar era Persian, or with literary analysis in general. It is like the thinking of a contemporary engineer reading the King James Version of the Bible with an agenda, to locate and crow about inconsistencies.

    Since you do not say which source you want me to check, I cannot point you to another copy to compare. However most of what Ahang Rabbani translated was pilgrim’s notes, rather than scripture. If you look at the pilgrim’s notes in English, you will get a general idea of the quality of these things (with the proviso that the English notes have an interpreter confusing the picture as well). The early days of a new religious movement are turbulent, and the early Babi and Bahai believers often had rather strange beliefs and a tendency to read what would be relevant to them into their new Faith. There is an excellent theoretical discussion of this in the introduction to Lil Osborne’s “Religion and Relevance”, a history of the early UK Bahai Movement. It’s available from Kalimat. Basically, people are not so much converted to a new faith, they locate something in it that is relevant to themselves, and transmit that message of relevance through their own networks.

  36. shahrooz said

    Oops, sorry about that. I was looking for a copy of the Farsi manuscript of Khalil Shahidi’s memoirs for double checking. According to Dr Rabbani, he had uploaded it to his website but it is no longer accessible:

    [[The author’s granddaughter, Alham Mirzai (a daughter of the
    author’s daughter Rúhíyyih), graciously shared the two pictures of
    her grandparents which appear in the opening pages. She also
    shared an unmarked copy of the original manuscript published as a
    pdf file at: http://ahang.rabbani.googlepages.com/shahidi.%5D%5D

    What you mentioned about the avazedohol website is interesting, although I must admit some of the subjects they have brought up are controversial (aren’t all polemical works 🙂 ). I didn’t encounter any quotes that had been taken out of context in the links that I read. Can you point me to instances where such tactic has been practiced?

  37. Sen said

    I haven’t found a source for the Shahidi memoirs.

    As for out-of-context, the first thing I looked at on the front page (left column) on the Avazedohol English site was these words are attributed to Abdu’l-Baha:

    The inhabitants of a land like Africa are all like wild savages and land-dwelling animals that lack common-sense and knowledge.

    The words quoted out of context as if from Abdu’l-Baha are actually his outline of the position on education taken by some European intellectuals – a position he then refutes. The letter is translated in Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, 576. The bare bones of the argument are:

    * Many intellectuals believe that the diversity of intellect is entirely due to differences in education. That is, that all minds are initially at the same level. Therefore, all children have the capacity to achieve the most exalted station.
    * They ‘prove’ this by comparing Africans to civilized people (Europeans): since they say the whole population in Africa are like animals, and almost all people in Europe are cultured and ethical, they argue that the difference must be due to the education available, not to natural variation. [If it was due to natural variation, there would be intelligent people in Africa, and savages in Europe, and these (European) intellectuals think there are none.]
    * However the Prophets [and Abdu’l-Baha] agree only partially. Education is very important, but differences in intelligence and perceptiveness are innate. Children of the same household taught by the same person, nevertheless differ in intelligence and receptiveness.
    * If there was no educator, all souls would remain uncultivated, which is why education for all is obligatory in the Bahai dispensation.

  38. shahrooz said

    Thanks for the response Sen. I hate it when I can’t find a book I’m looking for. If only Ahang was still alive and his blog running… It amazes me how we have such a hard time finding many Baha’i books while someone indulged in writing Baha’i polemics manages to lay hands on them.

    I’ve been looking into the quote that you believe has been taken out of context. I’ve read the Persian text a number of times and it is fairly ambiguous. I don’t know what to make out of it. The Farsi wording is somewhat confusing. Reading back through the comments, it seems at least one of the commenters differed with you on its interpretation. I’m too tired to make a judgement on this.

    Thanks again.

  39. Sen said

    The argument is perfectly clear. He first outlines the argument of the philosophers, or in my translation, the intellectuals, who say that no soul has any inherent distinction. Therefore, all members of the human race have the capacity to achieve the most exalted station (i.e., prophethood). Then he contrasts this with the view of the Prophets. Naturally he concurs with the prophets, not with the intellectuals. The Persian is not difficult in itself, but a reasoned discourse such as this does demand a fairly high reading level, since one must see the structure of the argument, without the help of paragraphs or full stops, and hold that structure in mind while reading each sentence. Perhaps I have a certain bias since my first degree was in literature, but I have often said that religious literature is first of all a literature, and the best training for reading it is the systematic study of a literature, in any language.

  40. Keywan said

    Sen, you have stated that the avazedohol website has attributed quotes to Abdu’l-Baha that he was refuting and as an example you have mentioned the African quote: “The inhabitants of a land like Africa are all like wild savages and land-dwelling animals that lack common-sense and knowledge.” In the book on the website it is stated before the aforementioned statement that: “He claimed that wise people believe that…” A number of arguments are then mentioned as to why Abdu’l-Baha holds these beliefs too:
    https://books.google.de/books?id=LWLBAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA69&dq=%22He+claimed+that+wise+people+believe+that%22&hl=de&sa=X&ei=y7sGVbLRAsG_ywOa9IEo&ved=0CCEQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22He%20claimed%20that%20wise%20people%20believe%20that%22&f=false

    In fact, what you claim was being refuted by Abdu’l-Baha is clearly affirmed in his other writings such as these direct quotes that convey similar meanings:

    ““The wild tribes have no superiority over animals. For example, what is the difference between African blacks and American blacks? The [black Africans] are cows that God has created with human faces. The [black Americans] are civilized, intelligent, and have culture,” `Abdu’l-Baha, Khaṭabat (Tehran), vol. 3, p. 48.”

    “If a child is born and we do not nurture him and we abandon him in his natural state what will happen? Without a doubt, he will remain ignorant and without cognition and he will be an animal. Look at (the inhabitants of) central Africa who are like animals and even inferior. Thus we can see how divine nurturing influences the world of humanity. The world of nature is the world of the animal.” (Abdu’l-Baha, khatabat, vol. 2, p. 236-7)

    I understand that he was speaking about the importance of nurturing and education, and this point has also been emphasized throughout the avazedohol book. But, nothing has been taken out of context and there was no intention of attributing something to Abdu’l-Baha that he was refuting (which he clearly wasn’t).

  41. Sen said

    I do not think your reading of Abdu’l-Baha’s argument is tenable. It’s a perfectly simple argument: he first quotes what the generality of the wise (جمهور عقلاء) say, ie that it is education (in the broadest sense), not racial characteristics, that account for the differences between the cultures of nations. This section concludes with “this is how they reason” ( اين است برهان آنان). Then he contrasts this to what the prophets have taught, saying that they too have taught the importance of education BUT (ولی) they have also taught that there are differences between the natural capacities (فطرت) of individuals. The words quoted in that ’12 principles’ book about Africans are in the first part of this: they are the words of “the generality of the wise,” which Abdu’l-Baha quotes because that indeed is how the argument was framed at that time, by those who argued for innate equality of capacity. The twisting of Abdu’l-Baha’s argument by selective quotation, in the “12 principles” book, is dishonest.

    As I have said in the posting “Abdu’l-Baha and the African tribe,” one can understand an author’s words by looking at his life. Abdu’l-Baha’s daring actions in support of racial equality are documented: to suppose that he outwardly worked for racial equality and the end of prejudices, while secretly being prejudiced himself, which he revealed in this or that particular text, is patently absurd. It’s spin doctoring: picking out the evidence that can be spun as you want, and ignoring the big picture which rather obviously goes in the opposite direction.

    The next quote you refer to is again a quotation Abdu’l-Baha uses within his text, as is obvious from the fact that it is in Arabic, while the letter is written in Persian. This has already been discussed above; see comment 17. If I used a French idiom in an English text, such as “parlez du diable,” you would not deduce that I believed in the devil. Or perhaps you would, but you should not. Idioms are not to be read according to their literal meaning, and that goes double for an idiom that a writer quotes in a foreign language.

  42. Keywan said

    I’ve read all the comments not just number 17. Both your statements about “the words of the wise” and the ‘cow’ quote being an ‘idiom’ have been disputed by a number of readers using plausible arguments. It seems that you have yet to prove that the cow quote is indeed an idiom (in light of your dialogue with Sunshine).

    Although you have labelled the statement in the ‘Twelve Principles’ book as “dishonest”, the section which mentions these quotes in the ‘Twelve Principles’ book, in no wise speaks about “RACISM” or Abdu’l-Baha being “RACIST”. It emphasizes the inappropriate words used by Abdu’l-Baha to describe uneducated Africans and how he compares them with animals. The statement attributed to Abdu’l-Baha regarding Africans on the avazedohol website seems to be a snippet from the text of the book where the explanations have been left out. The particular statement you quoted indeed appears to be out of context on the website but not in the book. I’m leaving a comment on their comments section to see how they will respond.

  43. Sen said

    The fact that Abdu’l-Baha switched language, and used a phrase that rhymes, leaves no room for question that he was quoting something, either a simple oral idiom or a snippet from a written text that has become an idiom (compare, for example, “a rose by any other name”). Those who say they do not think it was an idiom, presumably mean that they cannot identify it, or determine its meaning. That’s OK, neither can I. I found only a few similar usages, which means that it fell out of use before Arabic texts were placed on the internet en masse.

    When one encounters this sort of thing as a translator, one can only translate it literally and place the words in italics and quotes, to tell the reader that it is a quote from something, and is in a different language. Ideally, I would like to know the source and something about its usage and connotations at the time.

    What is “appropriate” differs quite a lot in different languages. Dutch for example has pungent metaphors involving bodily functions, which refer to everyday things, and are used every day, even in published media. Before one judges the Arabs by their idioms, one would need to know a great deal more about this example.

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