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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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4 Responses to “Authority and authenticity, and some old translations”

  1. Paul Desailly said

    Quite rightly Sen asserts that the Guardian’s interpretative authority isn’t transferred, even to Balyuzi, Taherzadeh or to Marzieh Gail whose long-term devoted service was nevertheless, as with us all save Shoghi Effendi and the central Figures, imperfect, as this extract from page 5 of part 2 of FB2B illustrates. I am referencing Bahá’u’lláh’s, “The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf” where He expounds about a “devised language” and begins thus: “One day, while in Constantinople, [1863] Kamál Páshá [a high ranking minister of state at the Ottoman court of Sultan ‘Abdu’l-‘Azíz (1830-1876, reigned: 1861-1876, abdicated 30th May, murdered five days later)] visited this Wronged One. (*p39)

    My research reveals no one asking Him about this newly devised language and script. More assertively, though un-sourced, in an otherwise splendid nineteen-page 1953 Introduction to the same Epistle, Marzieh Gail (1908-1993), whose fluency in Arabic, English, French, Persian and Turkish is epic, tersely states that the language and script in question “were never communicated to anyone by Bahá’u’lláh.” One year after the publishing in 1891 of “The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf”, Bahá’u’lláh ascends, by which juncture Esperanto, already as a five-year-old published project, circulates widely in print in the neighbouring Czarist empire and from Warsaw spreads much farther abroad. In April 1890, many months before Bahá’u’lláh writes that “a new language and a new script have been devised”, the famous Cambridge orientalist Professor E. G. Browne (*p39) is granted several audiences during which doctor Zamenhof’s (*p19-27) ingenious creation perchance comes under scrutiny. By its admirers, Esperanto is known as the planned or devised language while certain naysayers pejoratively label this planned device – so esteemed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, (*p45) Shoghi Effendi, (*pp43,62) various Hands of the Cause of God (*p79) including ace titleholder Martha Root, (*p30) and possibly, even by Bahá’u’lláh himself – as the artificial language. (*pp3,67,142) (PD’s emphasizing.)

    (*p39) See NSA-sanctioned book::

    Baha’i love


  2. Paul Desailly said

    Having now read Sen’s ideas about future editions of PT, PUP, BNE, DP, ABL, I see that he has already wisely answered my inquiry.

    A lot of work faces us. For example, for ten years while wandering around China I often heard the dear Chinese and western friends reverently refer to the China Tablet as Scripture. It seems to me though that more serious scholarship is essential given in a sentence or two its exclusive eulogising of members of a single race. (Sohrab again!)

    On the other hand I feel that too few of the friends realise or appreciate the status of “Mahmouds Diary”.which I cite from p. 179:

    “He [‘Abdu’l-Bahá] was invited later to the Golden Links Club [Boston Syrian community] where he was asked whether Arabic might become the universal language. [Dr. Zia Bagdadi’s account in Star of the West, January 1929, refers to ‘the international language’.] He said that it would not. He was then asked about Esperanto. He replied: ‘A few weeks ago, I wrote a letter from New York to one of the promoters of Esperanto telling him that this language could become universal if a council of delegates chosen from among the nations and rulers were established which would discuss Esperanto and consider the means to promote it.’ ”

    Of interest to scholars, as recorded on page viii of Mahmoud’s Diary, the Universal House of Justice notes in its letter of 30 April 1984 to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States that it: “…attaches great importance to this work which, as you may know, is regarded as a reliable account of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s travels in the West and an authentic record of His utterances, whether in the form of formal talks, table talks or random oral statements.”

    My work on the language principle to a small degree references “Divine Philosophy” but I’m not sure now whether my statement below about its 1918 status is a bit too vague. A benefit associated with eBook publishing is the ease re emending. I’m no sure about emending eBooks once an ISBN number appears. I’m about to pull down my oeuvre at Gumroad (San Francisco) so as to inter alia add 5 ISBN nos.

    On ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s ‘Divine Philosophy’:

    In this work, the Master devotes chapter 4 in toto to “the value of a universal language”, viz: “divine benefits on all peoples”, “informed of the scientific accomplishments of all” because “knowledge and instruction will likewise become universal” “for all tribes and nations.” Although ‘Divine Philosophy’ appeared in authorized form in Boston well before the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (compiled in 1918 by Isabel Fraser Chamberlain from his talks) we Bahá’ís value this fine work’s wisdom primarily as a guide, not as a verbatim account of his teachings. For example, more recent Bahá’í parlance invariably bespeaks gender neutral usage such as ‘humankind’ over ‘mankind’ and upper-case pronouns in the third person such as ‘He’ and ‘They’ vis-a-vis all Manifestations of God. [Editor, March 2015: ‘Divine Philosophy’ is a primary source gratis on the internet, re-introduced as a paperback for a fee by Amazon, 19th February 2014.]

    Baha’i love


  3. Sen said

    The best way to deal with Promulgation of Universal Peace, Abdu’l-Baha in London and Paris Talks is not to correct them, but to replace them with translations of Abdu’l-Baha’s talks from the authenticated Persian/Arabic records of his talks published in the Persian sections of Star of the West and — with his imprimatur — in the three volumes of Khetabat-e Hazrat-e `Abdu’l-Baha dar safr-e-Europa (Talks of ‘Abdu’l-Baha in his European travels). I have begun this work on my Abdu’l-Baha Speaks blog:
    The London 1911 section is almost complete.

    As regards Mahmoud’s Diary, I do not put any weight on the words attributed to the House of Justice on page viii. A report in the original language of a talk that Abdu’l-Baha gave becomes scripture when it is authenticated by Abdu’l-Baha. It was his habit to check and correct the reports sent to Star of the West for publication, but not to check the personal diaries of his entourage. This is historical, objective criteria that determines our canon of scripture. The House of Justice is the head of the Bahai community, but it is not empowered to decide what is authentic scripture and does not seek to do so. In addition to that central issue, in many cases words are attributed to the House of Justice when they come from the secretariat, the difference being that communications from the secretariat are drafted by someone and circulated among the members of the House. They are not — or not necessarily — discussed in the meeting of the House, and as you know, Abdu’l-Baha states that the infallibility of the House is not possessed by its individual members. Bahai authors and institutions are so careless about their citations, that I do not rely on any attribution until I have checked it myself, and this one I cannot check, so it’s a moot point for me. Moreover, the letter says only that the diary “is regarded as a reliable account … and an authentic record of His utterances.” They do not say who does the regarding here. I assume the meaning is, it is widely regarded as reliable and historically authentic. Which it is – but it just one man’s recollections of what he saw and heard, it is not the voice of the Master.

    Divine Philosophy is better discarded. There are some Persianisms in the language, and I have identified one Persian source behind a text, but given the lack of identified sources and the uncritical mixture of good and bad materials it cannot be relied on. It was the first Bahai book to go to the review process in the United States, and the first to fail review, but it was published anyway. So far as I know, the Bahai Temple Unity Convention appointed a three-member committee to review Bahai literature, one member being Harlan Oban, who reports this in his papers (unpublished, Wilmette Archives, my information is indirect). The committee reviewed the book and said it shouldn’t be published because it consisted largely of quotations from Abdu’l-Baha of very uncertain origin and reliability. The compiler published it anyway, although possibly with amendments (I have not compared the 1916 and 1918 editions, I suspect it was the 1918 republication that was reviewed). The colophon “Approved by Baha’i committee on publications” is not true. In 1936 the Guardian instructed that it should not be republished because “‘this book has in large part been taken from notes recorded at the time but which do not constitute an authentic text of the Master’s words.”

    The Divine Philosophy text for which I found an authentic Persian source is one that mentions the principle of a universal language. It is dated February 13, 1913, so when I get as far as 1913 I will provide a translation. Esperanto is not mentioned by name in the Persian, but the Divine Philosophy text says “One sign of unity is the construction of an international auxiliary language, Esperanto. Let us strive untiringly to spread this language.” Having read the whole Persian text of this talk, and scanned the DP version, I think it’s very likely that DP has found a translation by Sohrab, who weaves in and out between translation and embroidery, and here adds something of his own ideas.

    It is not correct to say that the Master devotes chapter four of the book to universal language. The compiler has made a thematic compilation, and the Master was not asked about it! Most of this particular talk is about metaphysics, as you would expect when the audience is theosophists.

  4. Sen said

    It seems quite plausible that the “new language” that Baha’u’llah references in Epistle to the Son of the Wolf was Esperanto: he read the newspapers and talked to Abdu’l-Baha who read in many languages and corresponded even more widely. What is translated as “a new script” is khatt-e badi` (خط بدیعی) and probably refers to a script known by that name devised by Abdu’l-Baha’s brother Muhammad Ali: it could also refer to Akhundzadeh’s alphabet reform proposals. In both cases, the mention that this has been done serves to underline that a new language and a new script is possible. There is no overtone of approval in the Persian text or in the Guardian’s translation.

    On the Khatt-e Badi` see :

    On Akhunzadeh’s ultimately influential new script see:

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