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Research Department memo 14 August 1996 Re: The Translation of the terms zina’, liwat, and khiyanah

To: The Universal House of Justice
From: Research Department
Date: 14 August 1996

Questions Concerning the Translation of Certain Terms into German

We have studied the questions raised by Dr Udo Schaefer in his letter of 15 May 1996 which concern the best translation into German of the terms ‘adultery’, ‘sodomy’, and ‘lechery’ as they appear in an extract from one of Baha’u’llah’s Tablets quoted in the letter of 11 September 1995 written to the National Assembly of the United States on behalf of the Universal House of Justice on the subject of homosexuality. The excerpt reads as follows:

Ye are forbidden to commit adultery, sodomy and lechery. Avoid them, O concourse of the faithful. By the righteousness of God! Ye have been called into being to purge the world from the defilement of evil passions. This is what the Lord of all mankind hath enjoined upon you, could ye but perceive it. He who relateth himself to the All-Merciful and committeth satanic deeds, verily he is not of Me. Unto this beareth witness every atom, pebble, tree and fruit, and beyond them this ever-proclaiming, truthful and trustworthy Tongue.

Dr Schaefer is particularly concerned about the legal consequences of the chosen equivalents, feeling that imprecision in this area may result in distortions of the Baha’i legal and ethical system, as expressed in German, and he questions whether the contents of the legal terms, used in the Writings of Baha’u’llah, especially those in the field of sexual morals, are identical with the same terms in the Qur’an or generally in Islamic legal usage.

Clearly, accuracy of expression is of the essence for any document liable to be subjected to rigorous scrutiny in a court of law, but for a number of reasons the Research Department feels that Dr Schaefer’s concern to uphold a similar accuracy of expression in the German translations of the Baha’i Writings may not be fully warranted. As he himself observes, no translation can be entirely faithful in every particular to the original, so that in the matter of placing particular legal constructions on any text, it is always to the Arabic or Persian that the Universal House of Justice will have recourse.

The peculiar exigencies of juristic practice and inquiry have in fact resulted in a highly specialized form of legal language coming into existence in every tongue with a developed legal tradition — a language which has its own vocabulary, usages and conventions, and which is quite distinct and separate from the language of the people, whether in its classical, literary [or] contemporary forms. The chief object of this legal language is to eliminate all hint of ambiguity, rather than to achieve eloquence or even clarity of meaning and so the words it uses are often accorded restrictive and narrowly defined significations which greatly diminish the range of sense and nuance they would actually be capable of conveying if used in other, non-legal situations.

It is important to realize that in His Writings, even those of an ostensibly legal character like the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha’u’llah never employed this restrictive, legalistic style of diction, but rather used His words in a manner which, while generally consonant with their lexicographically received denotations and connotations, imbued them, in view of the pre-eminently rhetorical, poetic, or exalted context in which they occurred, with further layers of meaning and depths of resonance. Prevalent as this phenomenon is throughout the whole of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation, it finds expression in the Kitab-i-Aqdas by His use of particular Islamic words which, while not necessarily used in restrictive legal senses in the Qur’an itself, have tended to be accorded such significations as a necessary step towards the subsequent evolution by Muslim jurists of a comprehensive Islamic legal code.

Thus it is that ‘diyah‘, understood in Muslim jurisprudence to denote either the ‘bloodwit’ payable in cases of homicide, or, more generally, an indemnity for bodily injury, has been ‘irregularly’ used by Baha’u’llah in paragraph 49 of the Kitab-i-Aqdas to denote the ‘fine’ incurred in cases of adultery. A similarly ‘loose’ use of Islamic terminology may be observed in the passage of the Kitab-i-Aqdas dealing with divorce (paragraph 68), in which the term ‘talaq‘ seems to fluctuate in meaning between the Islamic sense of ‘repudiation’ and that of ‘divorce’ proper, while the Islamic concept of ‘ruju‘, or ‘return to one’s wife’ after talaq, alluded to in this same passage, has apparently undergone a corresponding shift in sense. This is all in conformity with the idea of the Kitab-i-Aqdas as a book which, to a significant degree, sets out to reform the Islamic Shariah, and to recast some of its important provisions in new, contemporary, and unprecedented forms.

There is, then, a certain fluidity and imprecision inherent in the very language of Baha’u’llah, and this quality is naturally of service to Him in alluding to a number of profound and far-reaching concepts with the utmost economy of diction. But in addition to this feature, there is a further aspect of Baha’u’llah’s Writings, and particularly of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, which it is essential properly to appreciate if one is not gravely to misconstrue the aim and purpose of this book. This is its observable tendency to deal with whole areas of legislative concern by reference to a single representative example, or illustrative instance, from which conclusions can then be drawn about a range of other matters comprised within the category it represents.

Thus, in paragraph 46 of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the prohibition against plunging one’s hands into the contents of bowls and platters has apparently been provided, in view of the following general exhortation to ‘Hold … fast unto refinement under all conditions’, as but one example of the sorts of transgressions against refinement to be avoided by the believers. In like manner, the highly specific counsels concerning sanitation provided in paragraph 106 lead up to the wholly universal statement ‘Truly, We desire to behold you as manifestations of paradise on earth, that there may be diffused from you such fragrance as shall rejoice the hearts of the favoured of God.’

Again, in paragraph 107, the prohibition against marrying one’s stepmother is clearly not intended as a comprehensive elaboration of the prohibited degrees of marriage, but rather as an indication that such a system does indeed exist in the Baha’i scheme of things. It would be similarly idle to maintain that Baha’u’llah’s expression of shame at ‘treating of the subject of boys’ in the following sentence should be understood as bearing exclusively upon paederasty, since here again the intention is so clearly, by focussing upon one particular instance of sexual waywardness traditionally prevalent in the East, and thereafter dramatically expanding the purview of the passage by admonishing mankind generally to ‘be not of those who rove distractedly in the wilderness of their desires’, to reprobate all manner of such deviations from the norm. From this, it may be seen that even though the manner in which Baha’u’llah treats of sexual perversity in the Kitab-i-Aqdas might seem deficient from a ‘legal’ standpoint, when considered rather with an appreciation of this peculiarly ‘elliptical’ quality of the book, it adequately fulfils its purpose.

In further considering the wisdom of the ‘elliptical’ approach employed by Baha’u’llah in enunciating His legislative system, a number of other factors should also be borne in mind. One of these is that the provisions of the Kitab-i-Aqdas are not to be regarded as standing on their own, but rather as functioning integrally within the Baha’i system as a whole, i.e., as subject to clarification through authoritative pronouncement, and to elaboration by legislative enactment — all of this, of course, on the authority of Baha’u’llah Himself. Thus, although in paragraph 34 Baha’u’llah appears to restrict Himself to prohibiting the kissing of hands, the fact that it is not so much this action in itself about which He is concerned, as the condition of self-abasement that it represents, is demonstrated by His having elsewhere in His Writings expanded the prohibition to cover the display of all such forms of obsequious reverence and undue veneration towards one’s fellow mortals.

The provisions of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, similarly, are both evolutionary and organic in conception, so that, expressed as they are in certain cases in a ‘seminal’ or ‘schematic’ manner, they are thus enabled to develop, progress, and burgeon over time under the aegis and direction of the Head of the Cause. The momentous question of the Guardianship, for instance, is treated in paragraph 42 as only incidental to that of the disposal and supervision of charitable endowments, while the major institutions of the Nineteen Day Feast and the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar have both likewise grown out of more or less seminal formulations in the Kitab-i-Aqdas — particularly the former, which is described as though it were a purely hospitable and convivial occasion, an opportunity for breaking bread together and for sharing fellowship.

As explained in the Introduction to the English edition of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the laws of that Book ‘constitute the kernel of a vast range of law that will arise in centuries to come. This elaboration of the law will be enacted by the Universal House of Justice under the authority conferred upon it by Baha’u’llah Himself.’ This continuing control through the Covenant upon the elucidation and development of Baha’i law removes the concern expressed by Dr Schaefer in the third paragraph of his letter.

Yet another important factor to bear in mind when considering the provisions of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, and one intimately associated with all of the above, is that they must be understood according to their informing spirit, and not according to the letter of the law. Indeed, in a number of passages concerning matters of personal deportment such as hygiene, dress, music, and so forth, there is a noted tendency to refrain from spelling things out, but rather to provide a general statement of principle, and thereafter to leave it to the discretion of each individual to decide, in the light both of their own sound judgement and of the guidance provided by the Writings as a whole, how best to implement it in the circumstances of their own lives — as if in recognition that humanity has now entered upon its collective coming of age.

The reason we have dwelled at length upon these aspects of the Kitab-iAqdas is to allay the fears expressed by Dr Schaefer that a degree of apparent terminological inexactitude or imprecision (from a jurist’s point of view, that is) would substantially detract from the value and reliability of the Sacred Text in its translated form. On the contrary, to the degree that precise legal equivalents for words used by Baha’u’llah would tend too narrowly to define them, or to suggest that they were to be analysed on a purely legal basis, the Research Department feels there might be very positive advantages to be gained from a freer, less restrained, and more impressionistic approach.

The strictures Dr Schaefer expresses about the words ‘Ehebruch‘ and ‘sodomie‘ as translations for ‘adultery’ and ‘sodomy’ are broadly true of the corresponding English terms too, for according to both the general and the legal understanding, ‘adultery’ is likewise exclusively ‘sexual intercourse between a married person and someone who is not his or her spouse’, while in common parlance ‘sodomy’ can certainly include ‘intercourse with an animal’. Such considerations, however, have not prevented the English translators from preferring the straightforward economy and directness of these two words, even used in senses with which the general public might not be immediately familiar, to any more laboured and legal-sounding circumlocution.

So far as the word ‘sodomy’ is concerned, this derives, whether in English or in German, from the ancient town of Sodom in which, as the Bible and Qur’an inform us, homosexuality was widely practised amongst the male population. It is therefore likely that at some stage of its lexicographical development in German, the word did in fact denote homosexual relations, despite the more recent evolution of its meaning. The word is particularly appropriate as a rendering of ‘liwat‘, in Arabic, since this latter word is also connected to the town of Sodom, being derived in this case from the name of the Prophet, Lot, who dwelt there. It should be noted that ‘liwat‘, strictly means only ‘committing the act of the people of Lot’, without denoting any particular form of sexual congress (in fact it is recorded that the perversity of the male inhabitants of Sodom drove its female inhabitants to lesbianism as well), and to the extent that ‘Unzucht zwischen Mannern‘ does this, it would be restricting the sense of the text, as well as detracting from its literary flow. ‘Außerehelicher Beischlaf‘ has similar disadvantages, and it is unclear whether the text would really benefit substantially from its use.

As regards the translation of ‘khiyanah‘, the Research Department agrees with Dr Schaefer that the meaning of ‘khiyanah‘ is ‘faithlessness, falseness, disloyalty, treachery, perfidy, breach of faith, betrayal, treason’. Indeed it is the very word translated ‘faithlessness’ in one of the passages in the Aqdas referring to misuse of the Huququ’llah. It is not known why the translation committee chose ‘lechery’ as the rendering of the word in this context, but it might well be because it is, as Dr Schaefer points out, one of a triad of terms clearly referring to sexual relations. ‘Lechery’ does not, in English, refer more to an ‘appetite’ than an act. A ‘lecher’ is a man addicted to lewdness (‘lewd’ originally meaning ‘ignorant’ has come to mean ‘lustful’, ‘unchaste’), ‘a fornicator’, a ‘debauchee‘. The implication of ‘lechery’, therefore, is that of improper sexual behaviour, including faithlessness.

Reading the three terms ‘zina’‘, ‘liwat‘, and ‘khiyanah‘ together, one could take them to imply the prohibition of all kinds of extra-marital sexual intercourse with the opposite sex, all kinds of perverted sexual behaviour, and sexual behaviour which involves faithlessness and betrayal. Betrayal in a sexual context could, of course, extend beyond disloyalty to one’s spouse to include betrayal of the trust reposed in a parent or guardian in relation to children or wards. We suggest, therefore, that the German translators seek for a group of three terms in German which give the same impression to the reader, even though it may not be possible to establish a definite one-to-one identification between the German words and the three terms in Arabic or English.

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One Response to “Research Department memo 14 August 1996 Re: The Translation of the terms zina’, liwat, and khiyanah”

  1. Sen said

    The tablet which is being discussed here is quoted on page 338 of Ishraq-Khavari’s “Ganjineh-ye-Hudud va Ahkam” (Treasury of Laws and Ordinances), and is dated by him 17 Jumada II 1291 or 8 August 1874. He does not indicate where he found the tablet.

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