A hundred and twenty years ago, if you wanted to read the writings of the Baha’i Faith you had to know either Arabic or Farsi.
Obviously this wasn’t the ideal way to learn about the Baha’i teachings. After all, how would you know that a secondhand re-telling gave you the full picture, that the person understood what they read in the first place, or whether they mixed in a bunch of their personal opinions?
… in every age, the reading of the scriptures and holy books is for no other purpose except to enable the reader to apprehend their meaning and unravel their innermost mysteries. Otherwise reading, without understanding, is of no abiding profit unto man. –Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 172.
Over time, though, translation of the Baha’i writings got underway, and increased dramatically with the authoritative English translations by Shoghi Effendi, the great grandson of Baha’u’llah and the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith. Those masterful translations were then used as models for rendering the Baha’i writings into the vast array of languages spoken by the world’s peoples. Ultimately, the Baha’i teachings say, the world will choose or construct a universal secondary language that will allow all humanity to communicate:
… among the teachings of Baha’u’llah is the origination of one language that may be spread universally among the people. This teaching was revealed from the pen of Baha’u’llah in order that this universal language may eliminate misunderstandings from among mankind. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 301.
Today, more people than ever can read for themselves the seminal texts of the Baha’i teachings in a language they are already familiar with—the Baha’i writings have been translated into more than 800 different languages. So anyone who can read doesn’t need someone else to tell them what’s there. This carries forward the Baha’i vision of justice that all people:
Even with translations easily available, many people are still curious to know what it’s like to read the Baha’i writings in the original language. It’s common to hear second- or third-hand how beautiful it all sounds in Arabic or Persian, or how there are layers of meaning that are impossible to capture in a different language.
When I was a new Baha’i I wanted strongly to learn Arabic and experience it for myself. There were lots of people around me who thought learning Arabic was a good idea. This was 2007 at the height of the United States’ occupation of Iraq. Becoming proficient in Arabic was touted as a good career move for me. (It turns out it wasn’t—but that’s beside the point.) But once I had the basics of grammar and vocabulary, I learned that I could study Baha’u’llah’s original writings myself. Once I acquired a prayer book in Arabic, my experience of the writings in that language rose to a whole new level.
Here’s what I learned: the rhymes are delightful. The rhythm is intoxicating. The repetition of certain phrases and images casts a wide framework of references across the whole body of Baha’u’llah’s writings. The shortness and terseness of many of his expressions don’t come across as blunt or simplistic—instead, those characteristics invest a profound richness into the words he used. Those are my impressions. Others with a greater command of the original languages might have broader perspectives on Baha’u’llah’s Arabic than I do. Overall, I was struck by the beauty of the Baha’i writings when read and recited in their native form.
I had been told there were layers of meaning to the Baha’i writings that were difficult to perceive in translation. In this area, my studies were less fruitful. That might have been different had I studied at the side of someone who was very knowledgeable and well read, in both Arabic and Farsi, in the sacred, spiritual, and philosophical literature of Islam. But I mostly studied alone, so I could have been missing a lot. Nonetheless, about 99% of the time, I might look at a passage in Arabic and get the basic gist of the meaning. Then, if I looked over at the English translation, I’d see that the meaning was more or less the same thing. The shades of meaning that separated them typically seemed trivial.
After awhile it started to seem to me that if I really wanted to elevate my understanding of the Baha’i teachings, knowing Arabic was going to be a very minor factor in that effort. The critical components would have to be two complementary developments—one is inwardly focused and occurs through study, meditation, prayer, and contemplation; and the other is directed outward, as I would learn to put ideas into action, reflect upon outcomes, and arrive through practical experience at higher levels of understanding of those ideas.
Insofar as both of these involve deep study of the Baha’i writings, the preferred language for me would be the one with a suitable translation that I can read the easiest. For me, that’s English. For someone in China, it might be Mandarin. For someone in Tanzania it might be Swahili. Once, when someone asked Baha’u’llah about the choice of language part of his reply was simply, “That which is desired of a language is that it convey the intent of the speaker.” – Baha’u’llah, Tabernacle of Unity, p. 37.
In the Baha’i Faith, spiritual truth isn’t simply a relationship between the exact original words God has revealed to humanity. Truth is something in our souls, and in the world those words help us to find. We live in a blessed age, not only because God has spoken once again to humanity, but also because that divine guidance has been translated into words that are at home in our ears and in our hearts.