All Palestine their home: a prophecy of Abdu’l-Baha?
Posted by Sen on September 4, 2016
In the older editions of Some Answered Questions (pp 65-66 in the 1985 edition), Abdu’l-Baha says,
In the same way, Israel, scattered all over the world, was not reassembled in the Holy Land in the Christian cycle; but in the beginning of the cycle of Baha’u’llah this divine promise, as is clearly stated in all the Books of the Prophets, has begun to be manifest.
You can see that from all the parts of the world tribes of Jews are coming to the Holy Land; they live in villages and lands which they make their own, and day by day they are increasing to such an extent that all Palestine will become their home.
The question was asked, is this a fulfilled prophecy of the Master, or is it yet to be fulfilled?
The answer – in my opinion — is that this is not a prophecy at all, it describes the conditions in Palestine in Abdu’l-Baha’s time, which he and his listeners could see around them. The 2013 translation of Some Answered Questions, revised by “a committee at the Bahai World Center” reads:
Likewise Israel, which had been scattered throughout the world, was not gathered together in the Holy Land in the course of the Christian Dispensation, but in the beginning of the Dispensation of Baha’u’llah this divine promise, which has been clearly stated in all the Books of the Prophets, has begun to materialize.
Observe how from all corners of the world Jewish peoples are coming to the Holy Land, acquiring villages and lands to inhabit, and increasing day by day to such an extent that all Palestine is becoming their home.
The new translation is better, although the differences are small. In the first sentence, it is just that the terminology has been aligned with Shoghi Effendi’s choices. Cycle is changed to Dispensation for example. The alignment with Shoghi Effendi’s vocabulary is important, because as long as we use translations that are not aligned with one set of preferred translations for key terms, the community will spend some time discussing “differences” that only arise because of different translation choices. Shoghi Effendi adopted a lot of EG Browne’s chosen terms, I assume for the same reason. In his day, Browne’s translations were quite a large part of the texts available in English. Some Answered Questions is not the only text to be revised so as to align with Shoghi Effendi’s vocabulary choices: Tablets of Baha’u’llah revealed after the Aqdas and Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha have gone through the same process.
In the second sentence, “(the) tribes of Jews” in the older translation is what is literally there in the Persian, the revision committee has judged – and I agree – that the word “tribes” gives the probably unintended implication of the 12 tribes of Old Testament history. This is another alignment with Shoghi Effendi’s choices: he translates this word (طوايف) as peoples, kindreds etc.
“Acquiring” villages and lands, rather than the old translation’s “make their own” is more accurate. There is an implication in the Persian of purchase, without that being stated, while “make their own” suggests expropriation.
“To inhabit” is closer to the Persian than ‘they live in.’ I would prefer “they settle.” A more significant difference is that the sequence of events in the old translation is wrong: it is not that the Jews live in villages and make them their own, but rather that, (first) acquiring lands and villages, they (then) settle there.
Finally, the point which prompted the question of prophecy in the first place: “all Palestine is becoming their home” is correct, whereas the old translation had “will become their home.” Abdu’l-Baha’s argument would miss its point if this was a prophecy for the future, because he is expecting his listeners (1904-1906) in Palestine to look at the situation around them, see that this is happening, contrast it to the situation throughout the Christian era, and conclude that something fundamental has changed – the Bahai era has begun. If this were a prophecy, he would be asking people to believe something (a new era has begun) on the basis of what he says will happen! It would not be a persuasive proof. But this is the reading put onto the text by Helen Hornby, the editor of the compilation Lights of Guidance. She introduces the second sentence in our quote with the heading “All Palestine to Become Home”(p. 498). Which, if one forgets the historical context, might lead some to see a prophecy of a state here, rather than an observation about Jewish settlers making Palestine their home.
The Persian text for these two sentences reads:
و همچنين اسرائيل پراکنده در جميع عالم
در دوره مسيحی در ارض مقدّس مجتمع نشدند
امّا در بدايت دوره جمال مبارک اين وعد الهی
که در جميع کتب انبيا منصوص است
بنای ظهور گذاشته ملاحظه
مينمائيد که از اطراف عالم طوايف يهود بارض مقدّس آيند
و قرايا و اراضی تملّک نموده سکنی کنند
و روز بروز در ازديادند
بقسمی که جميع فلسطين مسکن آنان گردد
The last verb, گردد / gerdad, is the present tense of گشتن/ gashtan, to become. Because of the meaning of “become”, the word has to be translated as a present continuous: [all Palestine] is becoming [their home]. Compare to the expression قطره قطره جمع گردد وانگهی سیل شود, meaning roughly “Drops gather one by one, and suddenly become a flood.” In light of this, the change in the new translation to “all Palestine is becoming their home” is justified.
The next question is, can we assume that Shoghi Effendi, who must have seen the older translation, was satisfied with it? That Shoghi Effendi saw the older translation is certain, although it is impossible that he saw the 1985 edition of Some Answered Questions. The book was first translated into French by Hippolyte Dreyfus, and then into English by Dreyfus and his wife Laura Barney. The 1908 text was edited and corrected in various editions, so in general, when investigating what Shoghi Effendi saw in Some Answered Questions, one has to go back to editions of his lifetime. However with regard to our quote about Palestine, the relevant sentence in the 1985 and 1990 editions is the same as it was in the first, 1908, UK edition (p. 76).
Shoghi Effendi was supervising the publication of The Bahai World when, in 1955 (volume 12, 1951-1954, p. 103), this section was quoted using the old translation. But as we have seen in my previous posting, on Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablet of Emanuel, Shoghi Effendi concentrated on main points and left minor things to be sorted out in the future. He read and approved a great deal, but this does not make all that reading equivalent to his own compositions. He also concentrated on translating Baha’u’llah’s major tablets and rarely made a new translation of Abdu’l-Baha. So all we can say from this citation in The Bahai World is that the older translation, in which this appears to be a prophecy of the Jews taking over all of Palestine, did not draw his dissatisfaction to such an extent that he would put his other responsibilities aside to fix it.
The 1937 pilgrim’s notes of Mary Maxwell also report Shoghi Effendi as citing the text in English, using the wording of the 1908 translation, but no weight can be put on this since, in writing up her notes, Mary Maxwell would naturally go to the book itself to get the exact quote.
Gary Matthews and Michael Sours, and perhaps other Bahai authors, have cited the text in its old translation and built arguments upon the words “will become” and the idea of prophecy. This underlines a point I’ve made previously, that when dealing with texts in translation, and especially in the case of early translations of Bahai texts into European languages, one must never put any great weight on a single word or phrase, for it might be evidence only of the translator’s clumsiness. Although the book has been well loved and intensively used in the Bahai community, the 1908 translation of Some Answered Questions falls in the category of ‘early translations’ that are to be treated with caution.