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The Baha’i Faith is definitely a multilingual religion, with its writings translated into many if not most of the world’s languages.
Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha originally revealed the Baha’i scriptures in Arabic and Persian—and, in the case of some of the writings of Abdu’l-Baha, in Azeri (Azerbaijani Turkish). Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, wrote primarily in English.
Many of the Baha’i writings are available in English through authorized translations. Beyond the authorized translations, a number of working translations (typically referred to as “provisional translations”) exist. Whoever has knowledge of the Arabic and Persian (the “source languages”) and a good command of the “target” language can produce a provisional translation.
Let me introduce you to a very good example: a young man named Adib Masumian, who was raised speaking Persian, but who went to Jordan in the summer of 2015 to immerse himself in Arabic. Recently, this young scholar produced a provisional translation of one of the most well-known “tablets” of Baha’u’llah. This tablet is about justice—both as an attribute of God and as a human virtue, and the meanings Baha’u’llah gives to the term “justice” may surprise you. The commonly accepted meaning of justice, narrowly defined, has to do with political leaders who rule fairly and equitably, and with those judicial systems that follow due process, etc.
But justice has broader meanings, too. Adib Masumian’s provisional translation of a tablet by Baha’u’llah offers a rare glimpse into some of these more subtle and individualized expressions of justice.
So I decided to ask Adib if he’d answer eight questions about translating Baha’i scriptures. What follows in this two-part article are Adib’s answers, which provide insights into the process of translating sacred scripture, as well as what the experience was like, and what insights into the meaning of the text he gained in the process.
[Chris] Adib, please tell us a little about this tablet from Baha’u’llah that you translated.
[Adib] The “Tablet of the Paradise of Justice” (Lawh-i-Ridvanuʼl-ʻAdl) is a lengthy Arabic Tablet revealed by Baha’u’llah in Edirne, probably sometime in 1867, addressed to a Baha’i by the name of Aqa Siyyid Muhammad-Rida Shahmirzadi.
This Tablet deals with a few subjects, perhaps chief among them that of justice, reflected in the very title of the Tablet. On page 74 of Shoghi Effendi’s The Promised Day is Come, he characterized this tablet as one “wherein the virtue of justice is exalted.”
[Chris] In your opinion, how important is this tablet, compared to Baha’u’llah’s other tablets?
[Adib] I think it is difficult to gauge the importance of any Tablet, mostly because “importance” is such a subjective word. For example, I think Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of the World (Lawh-i-Dunya) and Tablet of Maqsud (Lawh-i-Maqsud) stand out as especially important because they promote the significance of education, service to humanity, and other socially conscious themes that are relevant to all of us and, if applied properly, have major implications for society at large. Others, however, may find Baha’u’llah’s more mystical tablets more meaningful—and thus more important—to them.
Since you’ve asked for my opinion, though, I would say that this Tablet is pretty significant. Though a good part of the tablet is actually somewhat mystical—in that Baha’u’llah appears to be apostrophizing [speaking directly to] “justice” itself.
Some of the content is also quite practical. In addition to his praise of justice, Baha’u’llah also stresses the importance of obedience to the messenger of God for this age. One passage from the Tablet states:
Say: Should any one drink even a drop of water in accordance with My command, it verily would be preferable to the acts of worship and devotion offered by the entire creation, for God doth not accept an act from any one unless it be adorned with the ornament of My leave amidst all people.
I think this is a very important piece of information for us to have, and we can certainly strive to observe this kind of obedience in our daily lives.
[Chris] What was your experience reading the original Arabic in this tablet?
[Adib] It was just fascinating. I had spent the summer of 2015 studying Classical Arabic grammar in Jordan so that I could read the Baha’i writings revealed in that language. This was the first major tablet I read from start to finish once I returned home. I was so struck by its themes, and by the concision and straightforwardness of Baha’u’llah’s language, that I felt I just had to make an attempt to translate it. My translation, of course, is totally inadequate, and it decidedly pales in comparison to the sublimity of the original text. Beyond that, the tablet also afforded me a chance to practice my vocalization skills (adding short vowel markings to Arabic text), and expand my Arabic vocabulary. The Arabic lexicon is enormous!
[Chris] Let’s focus on justice as a “Name of God:” briefly, how does Baha’u’llah define justice?
[Adib] Most Baha’is are familiar with Baha’u’llah’s characterization of justice as “the best beloved of all things in His sight” in The Hidden Words. I think that his ascribing such a lofty status to this virtue means that it behooves us all to learn as much about it as we possibly can, especially if those expositions come from the prophets themselves.
When it comes to defining justice, Baha’u’llah has quite a bit to say in this tablet. In one place, he says:
O people of the earth! Know ye that justice consisteth of innumerable degrees and incalculable meanings, yet We have given you only a sprinkling from this Ocean, that it may cleanse you from the defilement of oppression and cause you to be numbered with the sincere ones.
The implication here: justice is so potent a virtue that even a small, limited measure of its full, multifaceted reality has enough power to rid us of oppression and transform us into sincere people.
You can read Adib Masumian’s full provisional translation of Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of the Paradise of Justice (Lawh-i-Ridvánuʼl-ʻAdl).