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                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Authority and authenticity, and some old translations

[This was a response to a query on Talisman: I have expanded the abbreviations and corrected grammar. It deals particularly with the translations of the Master’s last tablet to America.]

On 3 Feb 2008 at 20:18, XX wrote:

> At this point I kind of leave it be – but in the context of how you said
> about the House essentially tacitly approving something that it allows
> for publication,

Whoa! this is just YY’s idea. People who claim to know what the House tacitly thinks have run out of arguments.

The House has approved for publication Promulgation of Universal Peace, a text in which the author inserted his own ideas, putting them in the mouth of Abdu’l-Baha. It’s a corrupted text. The House has approved the publication of pilgrims’ notes, it allows us to use them even while it says they are not authentic. It has approved Ruhi which uses inauthentic materials to teach us — supposedly — about the Bahai teachings. The Universal House of Justice, and statements produced under its auspices, sometimes cite inauthentic materials. If you have Messages 1963-1968, look on page xxv: among the sources used are Abdu’l-Baha in London, Baha’u’llah and the New Era, Paris Talks and Promulgation of Universal Peace, which are not authentic, as they themselves have stated:

The original of “Some Answered Questions” in Persian is preserved in the Holy Land; its text was read in full and corrected by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself. Unfortunately, ‘Abdu’l-Baha did not read and authenticate all transcripts of His other talks, some of which have been translated into various languages and published. For many of His addresses included in “The Promulgation of Universal Peace” and “Paris Talks”, for example, no original authenticated text has yet been found. However, the Guardian allowed such compilations to continue to be used by the friends. In the future each talk will have to be identified and those which are unauthenticated will have to be clearly distinguished from those which form a part of Baha’i Scripture. This does not mean that the unauthenticated talks will have to cease to be used — merely that the degree of authenticity of every document will have to be known and understood. (23 March 1987) (The Universal House of Justice, 1996 Oct 22, Authentication and Authority)

From this it is clear that the fact that the Universal House of Justice explicitly uses a text does not give that text any authority — so clearly its tacit consent to use, as detected by specially trained antennae, also does not mean that the text is authentic. If the House wants to say something about the authenticity of a particular text, it writes us a letter and tells us what it knows.

> Baha’i World Faith? Or, even if it was published before their
> formation – wouldn’t it have fallen under the authorization of the
> Guardian and thereby, by the same logic, also have been “okay”?

No, there were the some silly things published in the time of Abdu’l-Baha, with his approval — as in, the author presented his book (in English) and Abdu’l-Baha said “well done.” Paris Talks and Abdu’l- Baha in London were published in his days, and continued to be republished to the present day. But it won’t matter if they are published for another thousand years: the authority of a text in the Bahai Faith does not come from it having been published when a good king was on the throne, it comes from the existence of an authenticated original in Persian or Arabic or sometimes Turkish, either composed by Baha’u’llah or the Master, or Persian/Arabic notes of a talk by the Master which he has checked and initialed. Shoghi Effendi writes:

… I have insistently urged the believers of the West to regard such statements as merely personal impressions of the sayings of their Master, and to quote and consider as authentic only such translations as are based upon the authenticated text of His recorded utterances in the original tongue. (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 5)

If by quoting inauthentic texts, the Universal House of Justice was (implicitly) asking us to consider them authentic, then the Universal House of Justice would be disobeying Shoghi Effendi. But I know of nowhere where the Universal House of Justice has given even a hint of this. Rather, they expect us to know that we (and they) may use and quote such texts but we may *not* consider them authentic.

> (That’s how I receive the translation of Seven Valleys. Even though it
> was translated by Marzieh Gail, it was still released with the tacit
> approval of The Guardian, ergo it holds (to me at least – and I love the
> word “ergo”) the same quanta of unerring interpretation as The
> Guardian’s translations.

No no no. !! The Guardian cannot transfer his interpretative authority to Marzieh Gail, or his secretary, or anyone else. He could appoint someone to sit on the Universal House of Justice in his place as its chairman, but there is nothing to allow him to transfer his interpretative authority, except to a successor duly appointed and approved by a majority of the 9 Hands voting in secret ballot etc etc…

Only the translations by Shoghi Effendi embody his interpretative authority. Some other translations from his time or earlier are well used and much loved, but they have no authority. Some Answered Questions was translated by Dreyfus, it has been widely used, is referred to by the Universal House of Justice, and is republished periodically. But it is a poor translation, even downright erroneous in places. It will eventually have to be retranslated, and so will 7 Valleys and 4 Valleys (which are passably good) and Secret of Divine Civilization (which is good, but sometimes skips material) and so on. Only the translations by Shoghi Effendi actually contain his interpretative element, and he is also the best translator we’ve had. Just being done in the days of Shoghi Effendi, or the days of the Master, does not lend any weight to a translation. It works the other way around: re-translations of a given text tend to be better, because the second translator looks at the first translation and builds on it. But that doesn’t mean that all more recent translators are better — Ali Kuli Khan is a better translator than Marzieh Gail, because he understands the material better.

Sorry to labour the point, but the principle is important, and is quite different to the authority principle in Christianity and Islam. In Christianity and Islam, texts and teachings get some of their authority from their antiquity, from their supposed origin in the apostles or companions of the prophet, or from the quality of the ruler at the time: Uthman’s authorised version of the Quran, Constantine calling Councils to determine doctrine, his wife authoritatively determining where the holy places in Jerusalem are, the centuries in which the Vulgate was given authority because it was venerable, rather than because it was accurate … that’s the way it has always been, in religion. The principle in the Bahai Faith is quite different, and we have to unthink the accepted religious approach to the authority of texts that we have brought with us as cultural baggage. This is one respect in which the Bahai Faith is scientific in its methods: authority rests on hard evidence, not on persons or long usage or the habits and opinions of saints or scholars.

As for your particular questions: Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha Abbas is based on written originals, initialed by the Master. The translators are good, even if the style is sometimes unpolished. So you have no reason to avoid relying on it.

Baha’i World Faith contains some scriptural material, well translated (eg by Ali Kuli Khan), but also some unauthentic material. It has to be used case-by-case, tracing back to the original source for each text to see if that is authentic.

In Bahai World Faith, the Master’s “last tablet to America” was authenticated by Shoghi Effendi, who himself attached the Master’s 3 seals to show it was authentic. (Presumably Abdu’l-Baha’s illness and death had prevented him initialling the tablet himself.) This is noted in a handwritten note appended to the translation published in Star of the West, and this note is clearly in Shoghi Effendi’s handwriting. So it’s rock-solid authentic. The Persian of this tablet is published in Mukaatiib hazirat-e Abdu’l-Bahaa volume 3 page 410

Shoghi Effendi did not make the translation himself. There are minor differences between the version in Bahai World Faith and the one in Star of the West vol. 13 p. 19ff, (March 1922) but these are almost all transliteration, punctuation, capitalisation and paragraph breaks. On p 436 of Bahai World Faith, beginning of the last paragraph, the word “here” is not in the Star of the West version, and on page 433 the Bahai World Faith version has Ya Baha’u’l-abha four times, whereas the Star of the West version has “O thou Baha’Ullah” (i.e., ya-Baha’u’llah). But the Bahai World Faith version is the correct one, according to the Persian text I cited.

Also in Star of the West we read “the voice of the Na’ik” whereas Bahai World Faith page 434 has “voice of the Naegh” and this is closer to correct: the Persian (Arabic loan-word in fact) is na`eq, plural naa`eq. Naa’ik is a completely different word, meaning a skirt-chaser. It looks as if the Bahai World Faith version is not only typographically improved, it has been corrected against the Persian original, or at least by someone who knew that the last letter is not a k. So here is an example where Bahai World Faith gives us the best translation available, even though the Star of the West version bears a handwritten note from Shoghi Effendi.

But here’s something odd: what the Persian text actually says at that point is

“with the hand of power, protect this weak one from the croaking (na`iiq) of the two croakers (naa`iqayn). The croakers (naa`eq) are the [golden] calf of the children of Israel.”

In the Bahai World Faith version this is missing. In Star of the West it is muffled away in a footnote: it looks as if the 3 translators thought that Abdu’l-Baha was saying “the word Na’iiq means, the calf the Israelites worshipped”; whereas they knew the word means croaking, so they correct the Master (!) — they shift this part of the text into a footnote, which says: “Na’ik=croaker, also refers to the calf worshipped by some of the Israelites.”

But the word na`iiq or naa`iq does not refer to a calf. I think Abdu’l-Baha is using a metaphor. Na`iiq is also used for calling animals. He means that the croaking of the two croakers calls the people of Baha to break the covenant, just as the golden calf led the people of Israel to break their covenant.

I agree that this last tablet to America is “a real doozy.” It really should be republished. The good news is, that except for omitting the bit about the calf, the text in Bahai World Faith is based on an authentic original and is well translated.

And Peace to you and yours too

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