Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Short obligatory prayer - translation and commentary

I have done my own translation of the short obligatory prayer and decided to put it up here and explain what I have done and why. This brief analysis will shed light on the infinite meanings of the words Baha'u'llah has chosen and the English words that the Guardian chose to represent the Arabic. It is a fascinating close-up examination of the translation process, which I am learning.

Here is the Arabic:

أشهد يا إلهي بأنّك خلقتني لعرفانك وعبادتك. أشهد في هذا الحين بعجزي وقوّتك وضعفي واقتدارك وفقري وغنآئك. لا إله إلاّ أنت المهيمن القيّوم.

My translation:
"I testify, O my God, that you created me to know you and worship you. I testify, here and now, to my incapacity and your capability, my weakness and your inherent power, and my neediness and your affluence. There is no god except you, the Watchful, the Ever-living."

The Guardian's translation:
"I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth. There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting."


The first sentence of my translation is almost the same as the Guardian's. It is a literal translation and I don't know of any difficulties or complexities with the Arabic words here.

The second sentence is where the complexities lie. The first element is straightforward: the Guardian has "I testify, at this moment", and I have run with "I testify, here and now", which I thought would give a bit of variety. The Arabic literally says "at this time".

The rest of the second sentence contains a series of three phrases in which Baha'u'llah contrasts the attributes of human beings with those of God. One of the key differences between my translation and that of the Guardian's, here, is that my translation has three such comparisons and the Guardian's has only two. There are in fact three in the original Arabic. The Guardian has chosen to collapse two contrasts down to one contrast, which makes two in total in his translation. When you look closely at the relevant Arabic words, it is easy to see why the Guardian did this, for the shades of meaning involved are barely distinguishable. But Baha'u'llah did make three comparisons in all, so I figure he must have meant something by them. I have spent quite a bit of time trying to unravel what he might have intended. I have come up with my best theory, based on my limited knowledge of Arabic. I expect the issue will be one that Arabic experts will discuss for ages. The only other thing I would say on the matter is that Baha'u'llah does say that when he utters a word, he gives it a new meaning, beyond what it meant before. "For if God speaks a word today that comes to be on the lips of all the people, before and after, that word will be new, if you only think about it." (Tablet of the Son, para 9) So we can assume that Baha'u'llah had his reasons for choosing the words he did and we cannot rely entirely on previous definitions. Also, the word of God has infinite meanings, and so the words in question no doubt mean numerous things.

Contrast 1: the first contrast is between `ajz and quwwat. It begins with our `ajz (Form I, verbal noun). What does this concept mean? The modern Hans Wehr dictionary gives the basic concept of the root as "to be weak, lack strength, be incapable, be unable" and gives definitions for the verbal noun as "weakness, incapacity, disability, failure, impotence". The 19th century Steingass dictionary gives "weakness; impotence; incapacity; poverty". According to Lane's Lexicon, a dictionary that gives meanings from classical Arabic, the fundamental idea of this word is (p1959-1960)
The being, or becoming, behind, or behindhand, or backward, with respect to a thing; or holding back, hanging back, or abstaining, from it: and its happening at the latter, or last, part, or at the end, of an affair.
The concept of `ajz is then contrasted with the concept of quwwat (Form I, verbal noun), which Hans Wehr and Lane's give as strength, vigour, power, potency, might, or force. The base concept includes the idea of having the strength or power to prevail in some way; for example, "to have influence, to be sufficiently strong, to be able to cope" (Hans Wehr). Steingass also gives "to surpass in strength or power".

The view I have formed from this is that we are weak in the sense that we lack ability, come behind in things and at the end of things, whereas God is powerful in the sense of surpassing all in ability and, therefore, is the one that prevails in the end. And so I have chosen the two contrasting words as our "incapacity" and God's "capability".

Contrast 2: the second contrast is between ḍu`f and iqtidār. It begins with our u`f  (Form 1, verbal noun), for which Hans Wehr gives "weakness, feebleness, frailty"; Steingass gives "weakness, fault, defect". Lane's includes "faint, frail, infirm, or unsound" and also says it is the opposite of quwwat and a synonym of `ajz. However, Baha'u'llah contrasts it with God's iqtidār (Form VIII: verbal noun), which has the root meaning of "to possess strength, power or ability; to have power over, be master of, be equal to ... be able to do, be capable" (Hans Wehr); "be powerful, have great influence, become rich and powerful" (Steingass). Iqtidār is a verbal noun of a reflexive medio-passive verb. A reflexive verb is a verb that refers to an action that is done by the subject on the subject. Medio-passive is the middle passive, where a subject sustains an action but the agent is not referred to; for example, 'the glass filled'. The glass sustains the filling but the agency behind the filling is not referred to. And so, the word Baha'u'llah has chosen here to describe God is a reflexive (subject acting on itself) noun such as 'self-empowering', and a medio-passive (the subject sustains the action without reference to agency) noun such as 'powerful'. I take this to mean that God is powerful within God's essence and is so independently of all else.

The contrast between the two terms seems to be that we are weak in the sense of weak in body, mind and character etc, hence the ideas of frailty, being infirm, having faults and defects, and God is strong and possesses inherent power. I have chosen the two contrasting words as our "weakness" and God's "inherent power".

Contrast 3: the third contrast is between faqr and ghanā'. This contrast is more straightforward. We are faqr, which means "poverty, need, lack, want" (Hans Wehr); as well as "ascetic life; care, sorrow" (Steingass). The contrasting word Baha'u'llah has chosen for God is ghanā'. This word means "wealth, affluence, riches; sufficiency, adequacy" (Hans Wehr). The root idea is "to be free from want, be rich, wealthy" (Hans Wehr). I think the basic idea here is that we need things from God, whereas God is independent of need; that is, God is self-sufficient. I have chosen the two contrasting words as our "neediness" and God's "affluence". With "affluence", I wanted to capture the idea that not only is God rich, but that God's wealth is overflowing and limitless.

The last sentence of the prayer gives us two divine attributes. The first is muhaimin (active participle) meaning "supervising, superintending, controlling; guardian; protector; master" (Hans Wehr). The root concept includes the ideas of "to say 'amen'; to guard, watch over", "keep an eye on; control" (Hans Wehr). So it is easy to see why the Guardian opted for the phrase "Help in Peril", which I think he must have coined himself, for I have not seen it anywhere outside his translations. Interestingly, the root word here has the four letters h-y-m-n, which spells the word "hymn" in English and I think this must be related, given that one sense of the word is to say 'amen'. Steingass also gives the meaning "to cover the young ones with the wings", which has this beautiful angelic image about it (and reminds me of my white hens when they stretch their wings right up above their bodies.) So I think Baha'u'llah's meaning is guarding and protecting in the sense of keeping watch over. I have opted for "Watchful".

The second attribute Baha'u'llah gives is qayyūm. This is an interesting one because the same word is used in the title of the Bab's important book Qayyūm al-asmā'. Todd Lawson has written a book about the Qayyūm al-asmā', called "Gnostic Apocalypse and Islam", and he discusses the meaning of the word qayyūm. He says on page 32 that the word is used three times in the Qur'an (Qur'an 2:255; 3:2; 20:111.), always accompanied by the words "al-ḥayy"; that is, the Qur'an text is always "al-ayy al-qayyūm", meaning "the living, the self-subsisting". Todd says that: "The Bab says also that the word qayyūm refers to 'the Qā'im of the House of Muhammad and he who is ayy-i qayyūm (everlastingly living).'" Based on this, I have decided to run with "Ever-living". Its meaning is immediate and it nicely captures the Bab's idea of "everlastingly living" and its Qur'anic roots. Many Qur'an translators translate qayyūm as "self-subsisting", as the Guardian has done. The word is also translated as "Everlasting" and "Eternal" (Hans Wehr).