Read: Revelation, Interpretation, and Elucidation in the Baha'i Writings


Draft of an article published in Scripture and Revelation,
ed. Moojan Momen (Oxford: George Ronald, 1997)



     The 1993 release of the English translation of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas has stimulated a closer examination of the Bahá'í teachings and has raised an entirely new series of questions about the nature of Bahá'í law. Often these questions are based on assumptions about the nature of revelation (the term used to describe the process of writing followed by Bahá'u'lláh); interpretation (the term used to describe the process of composition followed by 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, a term that probably conflates two similar though different processes together) and elucidation (one process followed by the Universal House of Justice).[1]

     Academics outside the Bahá'í community often reject the concept of revelation entirely or radically redefine it. The idea of revelation has even become unfashionable among those who study religion; when Harvard Divinity School chose a new dean about 1985, many noted with surprise that he believed in revelation. Few liberal scholars have focused their attention on developing philosophical language for discussing revelation. Conservative Christian scholars have developed elaborate schemes for understanding the Bible as revelation, but these notions may not be particularly useful to Bahá'ís. For example, there is the view of Charles Hodge, the great early twentieth-century Princeton theologian, that the original autographs of the Bible--now lost--were inerrantly inspired word by word, and that the circulating text of the Bible is close, though not identical to, the originals.

     The popular conservative Protestant notion of revelation is that the biblical text itself is inerrant, word by word; that it is perspicuous, that is, its meaning is plain for anyone to see; and that the text is literal, that is, metaphorical interpretations are rarely necessary and should be avoided in favor of the surface meaning of the text.

     The popular American Bahá'í notion is probably similar; the major difference would be that American Bahá'ís recognize the central role of metaphor in the Bahá'í scriptures. The popular American Bahá'í understanding of the nature of the Bahá'í revelation probably maintains that the text is literally true--that it does not contain factual errors--and that it is perspicuous, that is, the average Bahá'í can read and figure out the meaning of the text without someone else--a Bahá'í scholar--explaining it to them.

     Is this concept of revelation adequate? As one digs deeply into the texts, the situation appears to be more complicated than one might initially think. Study uncovers several dilemmas, for on the one hand one must not weigh "the Book of God with such standards and sciences as are current" among humanity (Kitáb-i-Aqdas, |br99) but on the other hand one must pursue an independent investigation of truth. Or, on one hand, one must show respect for the revelation of God and for the faith of the believers, but on the other hand one must explore the meaning and purpose of the revelation rigorously and thoroughly in order to understand it. And in the process of such exploration one should feel free to ask tough questions from the perspective of faith, for non-Bahá'ís will ask such questions but without such perspective. This paper will assume that an investigation of revelation does not require a choice between honesty and respect; rather, both are necessary.

     Further, this paper argues that revelation has a dual nature: divine concepts and principles, earthly languages and words; divine origin and earthly expression. God's ideas must be expressed on this earthly plane, consequently that expression is inevitably tied up with aspects of this plane. Not only must the revelation use words, but it must be expressed in a grammar, it must be composed in a style, and it must be transmitted through a brain, a hand, and a voice. The words, the grammar, the style, the brain, and the hand or voice will all leave traces that we can identify in the thought of God when it becomes Text. They may all generate limitations on the revelation, as Bahá'u'lláh Himself suggests when He laments "how great the multitude of truths which the garment of words can never contain!" (Gleanings, LXXXIX).

     An early American Bahá'í, Thornton Chase, gives one example of the earthly limitations that 'Abdu'l-Bahá faced. Chase spoke about situations where American Bahá'ís often would not tell 'Abdu'l-Bahá about the problems in their Bahá'í communities:

I think we have been silent too long, and that it is our spiritual duty to the Cause to send Him ['Abdu'l-Bahá] information by material means of the things and acts which cause the real hindrances to the spread of the Cause in this country. He, of course, knows the spiritual conditions, of both individuals and communities, but He does not know the especial acts which cause those conditions, except as He is informed. He, while here, is "under the law" and needs to learn by the conditions and laws of this plane, the same as any human would have to do. His Spiritual Perception is, of course, perfect, but that does not signify that He "knows everything" that is done.[2]

Chase puts his finger on a very real problem that can arise when one takes the concept of divine revelation too seriously: one can decide not to tell the Head of the Faith something on the grounds that He already knows it omnisciently. There are many stories in the Bahá'í community about the supernatural access to information that Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi had. My point here is not to dispute these stories; merely to say these superhuman mechanisms do not seem to have been working at every instant. If they had, Bahá'u'lláh would not have read newspapers, as He suggests He may have done; 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi would not have constantly written the friends asking for news; they would not have pumped visiting pilgrims for their knowledge and evaluation of places, peoples, cultures, and individuals; and Shoghi Effendi would not have had to do massive, monumental research in order to edit The Dawn-breakers or write God Passes By.

     One must also consider the fact that Bahá'u'lláh's writing is in a style distinct from the Báb's and Muhammad's, a fact that suggests a role for the human experience of Bahá'u'lláh in clothing the divine revelation in words. There is the fact that in Epistle to the Son of the Wolf Bahá'u'lláh frequently quotes from His earlier writings, but when He does so there are occasional very slight differences in wording; as if the revelation of God were transmundane and wordless, and the process of clothing it in words is partly under the control of the creative genius of Bahá'u'lláh Himself.

     Further, when one examines the historical and cultural information contained in Bahá'u'lláh's writings one notes that the knowledge to which He customarily refers is information that would have been available to Him via ordinary nineteenth-century means. Bahá'u'lláh never reveals a commentary on Confucian ethics or Buddhist cosmology, neither of which would have been readily available in nineteenth-century Persian or Arabic. He does not discuss Olmec hymns or Indo-European myths, none of which are available to even twentieth-century scholars, but which must have existed and which must have contained profound statements worthy of discussion, commentary, and praise by a Manifestation of God. Bahá'u'lláh revealed in pure Persian--much to the astonishment of the Zoroastrians--but never revealed in ancient Avestan, Iran's ancestral tongue.

     In short, Bahá'u'lláh's earthly knowledge is miraculous, but not too miraculous. Perhaps the reason for this is given in Gleanings (XXIX) when Bahá'u'lláh describes the principle of separation and distinction. According to this principle, God does not force anyone to accept the Manifestation of God; rather, evidence sufficient for the spiritually minded is presented, so that they may recognize the Manifestation of God and thus be distinguished and separated from those who do not have such a spiritual suseptibility. Consequently no miracle by a Manifestation can be too miraculous, for it would force all to acknowledge Him.

     One might also consider a fascinating comment by a wise Bahá'í who described the Kitáb-i-Aqdas as consisting of a series of distinct, concatenated flashes of revelation. Indeed, one gets this impression sometimes.[3] Consider the last four paragraphs of the Aqdas, 187 through 190. All but one consists of two or three short sentences. The pattern followed by each paragraph is as follows: first there is a sentence giving legislation: the four pronouncements in this case are 1) not to overburden animals, 2) what to do if someone unintentionally takes another person's life, 3) the exhortation that the world's parliaments select a universal language and script, and 4) the prohibition of smoking of opium. The sentence revealing divine legislation is then followed by one or two sentences that either exhort the reader to follow the commandment, emphasize the divine nature of the commandment, or comment on the purpose of the commandment.

     One is struck by the fact that the last paragraph of the Aqdas forbids opium; there is no concluding paragraph, no wrap-up, no parting exhortation. This is even more surprising when one notes that the prohibition on smoking opium had already been given in paragraph 155, so its repetition in paragraph 190, strictly speaking, is not necessary. Furthermore, penalties for murder such as the one stated in paragraph 188 are also found in several widely-scattered paragraphs of the Aqdas, rather than being bunched together systematically.

     Certainly one cannot argue that Bahá'u'lláh was untidy and unsystematic in His presentation; in several places the Kitáb-i-Íqán is masterful in the way it crafts and builds arguments logically. Perhaps, for reasons best known to God, the revelation of the Aqdas came to Bahá'u'lláh in discrete flashes. The style of some of the other tablets revealed after the Aqdas--especially the ones with lists--also gives this impression.

     Bahá'u'lláh offers what might be called a classic description of how He received revelation in the Lawh-i-Hikmat. There He states:

     Thou knowest full well that We perused not the books which men possess and We acquired not the learning current amongst them, and yet whenever We desire to quote the sayings of the learned and of the wise, presently there will appear before the face of thy Lord in the form of a tablet all that which hath appeared in the world and is revealed in the Holy Books and Scriptures. Thus do We set down in writing that which the eye perceiveth. Verily His knowledge encompasseth the earth and the heavens (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, 148-49).


     Presumably Bahá'u'lláh was not claiming complete innocence of earthly sources of knowledge when He says "We perused not the books which men possess and We acquired not the learning current amongst them." It seems very unlikely--though it cannot be proved--that Bahá'u'lláh never read a book. Rather, this statement probably was meant to reinforce Bahá'u'lláh's claim that he was not an expert via earthly means; He had never attended a clerical madrasih, a Súfí takíyih, or a western-style college.[4]

     The purpose of Bahá'u'lláh's statement, one can argue, is to describe His divine access to knowledge. If one takes Bahá'u'lláh's statement at face value--a dangerous assumption, since it is probably metaphorical in some sense--one notes that Bahá'u'lláh does not claim to have constant and instantaneous access; first He must "desire to quote the sayings of the learned and of the wise," and then He waits until a tablet containing all knowledge appears before Him. If this description is literal it raises some intriguing questions. Bahá'u'lláh says the tablet containing all knowledge appears when He wishes to quote a saying of the "learned and of the wise"; if He is describing a process that is occurring while He reveals a tablet, what is the source of His revelation before He summons up the tablet of all knowledge in order to quote the learned? Surely He is not creating His tablet via a normal human process of meditation, thinking, and inspiration, and then tapping into a tablet of all knowledge, as it were, to bolster His points with a few juicy quotations and flesh out His footnotes! Perhaps two types of revelation exist, one that comes directly from God and one that allows Him to utilize earthly sources of knowledge in a divine way. Two types of revelation seem to be at work in the Fire Tablet, which appears to be a dialogue between Bahá'u'lláh and God.

     A short tablet in Gleanings (XL) may provide another window into the process of revelation. In the first paragraph Bahá'u'lláh is speaking to God. It laments that "Thou hast breathed Thy breath into me, and divorced Me from Mine own Self." It goes on to give a glimpse into the nature of Bahá'u'lláh's superhuman humanness. The second paragraph begins "thereon a Voice replied" and apparently represents a divine response. The third paragraph states "I was preparing to make reply, when lo, the Tablet was suddenly ended, leaving My theme unfinished, and the pearl of Mine utterance unstrung." One cannot but wonder what happened; did Bahá'u'lláh's reception of the tablet of all knowledge suddenly break down? What processes were at work in the composition of this tablet, including the part involving Bahá'u'lláh's own voice?

     A statement in the Íqán raises interesting questions about historical information present in Bahá'u'lláh's tablets. The Íqán begins with descriptions of the lives and trials of the various Manifestations of God. When talking about Noah Bahá'u'lláh notes that several times Noah prophesied, but "the divine promise was not fulfilled," which caused many of Noah's followers to abandon Him. This statement itself raises questions about the nature of revelation and whether God can change His mind.

     Bahá'u'lláh then adds the following: "Finally, as stated in books and traditions, there remained with Him [Noah] only forty or seventy-two of His followers" (Íqán, 7-8). This certainly looks like an example of Bahá'u'lláh tapping the tablet of all knowledge; but in this case the Most Great REFER program brought up at least two statistics, and they conflicted (assuming the information is meant to be taken literally, of course; perhaps Noah could have had forty followers in one sense and seventy-two in another). Rather than give the "correct" number, Bahá'u'lláh chose to give both traditional numbers and passed over their apparent logical contradiction without comment.

     Related to this example is Juan R. I. Cole's detailed and controversial exploration titled "Problems of Chronology in Bahá'u'lláh's Tablet of Wisdom" (World Order, vol. 13, no. 3 [Spring, 1979], pp ?). Cole noted that Bahá'u'lláh both quoted from and paraphrased Islamic philosophers, including historical information from them that contradicts the far more precise understanding of the ancient world that modern history and archaeology have constructed.

     For example, Bahá'u'lláh states that the Greek philosopher Empedocles "was a contemporary" of King David, "while Pythagoras lived in the days of Solomon" (Cole, p. 31; Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, 145). Modern historians place David's reign from circa 1010-970 B.C.E. and Solomon's as 970-30 B.C.E.; Empedocles's birth and death dates as c. 490 and 430 B.C.E. and Pythagoras' as c. 580-500 B.C.E.[5] In short, modern history places a 400-500 year gap between the Greeks and the Israelites and reverses the birth order of the philosophers. Modern historians would view the dates as extremely reliable, with errors of a few years to a decade at most; a greater change in the dates would violate radiocarbon dates, ancient Egyptian written records, and do severe violence to ancient Greek histories. Cole even notes that the statement of Muslim historians that David, Solomon, Empedocles, and Pythagoras were contemporaries contradicts the general Muslim historians' understanding of ancient dates, which were usually only a few decades different from modern dating.

     Cole concludes that "the central propositions contained in the Tablet of Wisdom can be infallibly and eternally true, although particular statements that express or support those propositions might prove inaccurate outside their original context" (p. 39 [italics in original]). Shoghi Effendi's statement that "we must not take this statement [the contemporaneity of the four men] too literally" (Cole, p. 37n) does help resolve the matter, but again underlines the fact that Bahá'u'lláh is not literally, historically correct.[6]

     When one turns to the writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi one finds a similar situation. 'Abdu'l-Bahá is reported to have stated "I do not know everything. But when I need to know something, it is pictured before Me."[7] This statement bears remarkable resemblance to Bahá'u'lláh's description of revelation in the Tablet of Wisdom. Again, it expresses both divine access to knowledge ("it is pictured before me") and limitation ("I do not know everything").

     In The Secret of Divine Civilization 'Abdu'l-Bahá states that Luther "was originally one of the twelve members of a Catholic religious body at the center of Papal government" (p. 41). This statement is an aside in a discussion of the Protestant Reformation, a reform, 'Abdu'l-Bahá noted, that was "demonstrably correct." Luther's membership in such a body would greatly surprise Luther scholars, who would be hard pressed to find any hint about involvement in it in the thousands of pages of Martin Luther's personal papers, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of pages of biographies, memoirs, popular pamphlets, and attacks on Luther penned by his contemporaries. For that matter, Catholic historians probably are unable to find any evidence in the extensive Vatican archives of a twelve-member body "at the center of Papal government."

     It seems likely that 'Abdu'l-Bahá was repeating an understanding of history circulating in the nineteenth-century Middle East. This inference is reinforced by the following:

One of the friends in Yazd wrote to him [Shoghi Effendi] stating that the account given by 'Abdu'l-Bahá in one of His Tablets about events related to the martyrdom of some of the believers in that place was in conflict with known facts about these events. Shoghi Effendi replied saying that the friends should investigate the facts carefully and unhesitatingly register them in their historical records, since 'Abdu'l-Bahá Himself had prefaced His recording of the events in His Tablet with a statement that it was based on news received from Yazd (Universal House of Justice, letter to an individual believer, July 25, 1974).

This does not prove that 'Abdu'l-Bahá was drawing from ordinary sources of information when discussing Luther's career, but does show that 'Abdu'l-Bahá uses such sources in His writings.

     Regarding Shoghi Effendi, we have two statements written by secretaries on his behalf in 1944 and 1956 respectively:

The infallibility of the Guardian is confined to matters which are related strictly to the Cause and interpretation of the Teachings; he is not an infallible authority on other subjects, such as economics, science, etc.

     The Guardian's infallibility covers interpretation of the revealed word, and its application. Likewise any instructions he may issue having to do with the protection of the Faith, or its well-being must be closely obeyed, as he is infallible in the protection of the Faith. He is assured the guidance of both Bahá'u'lláh and the Báb, as the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá clearly reveals. (Quoted in Universal House of Justice, letter to an individual believer, July 25, 1974)

The same letter by the Universal House of Justice states that "in the matter of accuracy of historical fact, Shoghi Effendi had to rely on available information." Thus there is no reason for a Bahá'í to assume that every fact in God Passes By or The Dawn-breakers must be completely and literally accurate. The House of Justice adds in the same letter, however, that "the Guardian was meticulous about the authenticity of historical fact," a statement amply demonstrated by any careful checking of the contents of God Passes By.

     The purpose of the above discussion is primarily to provide context for one's study of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Such context relates to the question of the relevance of nineteenth-century Bábí and Islamic legal context to the understanding and future application of the laws of the Aqdas. It is likely the Universal House of Justice is not in the position to rule that some laws of Bahá'u'lláh were only meant for the nineteenth century and thus will never be made binding on the friends; this might be tantamount to abrogation or change of the laws of the Aqdas, which the House notes in the Introduction to the Aqdas (p. 5) that it cannot do. But possibly some laws make the most sense in a nineteenth-century context and need to be avoided through legitimate means, such as some inheritance laws, which can be avoided if the believer writes a will.

     Possibly the above provides parallels when one turns to the question of how to evaluate and treat Shoghi Effendi's translation of about a third of the Aqdas. The Universal House of Justice has laid out a set of dilemmas about Shoghi Effendi's translation that remind one of the dilemmas over the historical accuracy of facts in the revelation. On 8 December 1964 the Universal House of Justice stated that

the beloved Guardian was not only a translator but the inspired Interpreter of the Holy Writings; thus, where a passage in Persian or Arabic could give rise to two different expressions in English he would know which to convey. Similarly he would be much better equipped than an average translator to know which metaphor to employ in English to express a Persian metaphor which might be meaningless in literal translation.

This passage makes it clear that Shoghi Effendi's translation was a part of his authority to interpret the Word; an authority that a previously quoted letter of the Universal House of Justice stated was "infallible." However, in a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a believer on 16 September 1992 it was noted that

while Shoghi Effendi's translations of the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh into English carry with them a large measure of interpretation of the intent and purpose of the Author of the text--an interpretation which he, as Interpreter of the Sacred Text, could alone authoritatively provide--one should not conclude that the English language into which the Writings were translated could, therefore, be considered as a language of Revelation.

This passage defines two limitations on Shoghi Effendi's translations; first, the translation does not constitute a re-revealing of the original text in English; and second, the translation carries with it "a large measure of interpretation" suggesting that processes other than authoritative interpretation (such as technical processes of translation) may have been at work. Both of these conclusions find echoes in this comment by Shoghi Effendi about his translation of the Kitáb-i-Íqán:

     This is one more attempt to introduce to the West, in language however inadequate, this book of unsurpassed pre-eminence among the writings of the Author of the Bahá'í Revelation. The hope is that it may assist others in their efforts to approach what must always be regarded as the unattainable goal--a befitting rendering of Bahá'u'lláh's matchless utterance. (Kitáb-i-Íqán, foreword)

Here the Guardian notes that no translation, including his own, can befittingly render Bahá'u'lláh into English; and that his translation is meant to serve as the model for others in their efforts to translate Bahá'u'lláh. From these various statements one can conclude that other translations of Bahá'u'lláh into English are possible, depending on the needs of various audiences and time periods. But none will ever replace Shoghi Effendi's translations, as the latter contain a large element of authorized interpretation that no ordinary translator will ever be empowered to provide.

     Translations authorized by the Universal House of Justice are in a wholly different theological category from Shoghi Effendi's because the power of interpretation does not extend to them. The Universal House of Justice does possess the power of elucidation, a power that to my knowledge it has never defined. At minimum it involves logical deduction or induction as to the meaning of a text, or making clear the meaning of a text through analogy. 'Abdu'l-Bahá's and Shoghi Effendi's power of interpretation, on the other hand, appears to have been a far more dynamic and creative process, whose results are less outwardly predictable: thus 'Abdu'l-Bahá was able to interpret that when Bahá'u'lláh said a man could have two wives He really meant a man could only have one, and that while in most cases statements about men in the Aqdas applied to women as well, this was not the case of the statement about the men of the House of Justice.

     The Universal House of Justice describes the translation it has authorized as "an acceptable rendering of the original" which will enable the reader "to obtain at least an inkling of the splendour of the Mother Book of the Bahá'í Dispensation" (Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Introduction, p. 10), hardly an indication that the translation is final. Rather, in this manner the House has made it clear that it sees itself in the position to modify its translation in the future. It also leaves the door open to scholarly translations and other efforts to capture other aspects of the Most Holy Book.

Notes:

[1]The Universal House of Justice notes that "there is a profound difference" between the Guardian's authority to interpret and the House's authority to elucidate in Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly, 9 March 1965, which was published in Wellspring of Guidance: Messages from the Universal House of Justice, 1963-1968 (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970), pp. 52-53.
[2]Thornton Chase to Carl Scheffler (copy), 9 March 1904, Chicago House of Spirituality Records. Chase's quote that 'Abdu'l-Bahá is "under the law" may come from Myron H. Phelps, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1903), p. 105.
[3]The style of the Aqdas has also been described as Qur'ánic; it, too, contains numerous seemingly unconnected bits of information. An interesting and unanswerable question is whether the style of the Aqdas resembles the Qur'án's because such a style underscores the claim that the Aqdas is the new book of laws, or whether the styles of the books resemble each other because each represents concatenated flashes of revelation. In this regard, the Guardian comments:" All Divine Revelation seems to have been thrown out in flashes. The Prophets never composed treatises. That is why in the Qur'an and our own Writings different subjects are so often included in one Tablet. It pulsates, so to speak. That is why it is "Revelation" (Unfolding Destiny, 454).
[4]This conclusion is reinforced by the following statement by Bahá'u'lláh: "We have not entered any school, nor read any of your dissertations. Inclined your ears to the words of this unlettered One, wherewith He summoneth you unto God, the Ever-Abiding" (Gleanings, XCVIII). Here clearly "unlettered One" does not mean Bahá'u'lláh is illiterate but that He does not have a formal education.
[5]Paul J. Achtemeier, ed., Harper's Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 208, 975; The New Encyclopedia Britannica: Micropedia (London: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979) vol. 3, p. 879, vol. 8, p. 326. Dates are given in B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) which are the same as B.C.
[6] One could add that this solution, while theologically valid because Shoghi Effendi has stated it, is logically difficult. There is the fact that Bahá'u'lláh appears to contrast the dating of Empedocles and David with the dating of Pythagoras and Solomon, a contrast that is impossible if modern historical dating is correct. Further, there is the question of how far one can stretch dates by stating they should not be taken too literally; if I were to state that Ponce de Leon and Sun Yat-sen were contemporaries, as were Columbus and Mao Zedong, and when someone disagreed I responded that I should not be understood literally, my response would be judged weak.
[7]'Abdu'l-Bahá's words to Saffa Kinney, as published in Stanwood Cobb, Memories of 'Abdu'l-Bahá (Washington, D.C.: Avalon Press, n.d.), p. 21. Note that this source is a form of pilgrim's notes and that 'Abdu'l-Bahá's words cannot be authenticated.

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