Thursday, 5 October 2017

The theme of 'place' in Aqdas 1

I have done my own translation of paragraph one of the Kitab-i Aqdas and am now ready to share it and say something about it. The ideas about 'place' that I discuss below form a part of a book I am working on about the mystical path.

Here is the Arabic of Aqdas 1:

ان اوّل ما كتب الله على العباد عرفان مشرق وحيه ومطلع امره الّذي كان مقام نفسه في عالم الامر والخلق من فاز به قد فاز بكلّ الخير والّذي منع انّه من اهل الضّلال ولو يأتي بكلّ الاعمال

اذا فزتم بهذا المقام الاسنى والافق الاعلى ينبغي لكلّ نفس ان يتّبع ما امر به من لدى المقصود لانّهما معاً لا يقبل احدهما دون الاخر هذا ما حكم به مطلع الالهام

Here is my translation:

"The first of what God prescribed for the servants is acknowledgment of the place from which God’s revelation rises and his command emerges. This place constitutes the self of God in the worlds of command and creation. The person who achieves acknowledgment of this place has gained all good. The person who refuses is among the people of error, even if that person performs all good deeds. Should anyone reach this most elevated position and imposing outlook, it is incumbent on that one to follow what is commanded of them in the presence of the Ultimate Purpose. For the two go together; one is not received without the other. This is what the source of inspiration has determined."

The most striking thing for me about Aqdas 1, which I discovered when I worked on the translation, is the theme of 'place' that runs through it. What I mean by this is that, in the paragraph, Baha'u'llah describes an event that is happening in a 'place'. That place is the heavenly realm and the event that Baha'u'llah describes happening there is an encounter between the divine and the soul of the person reading the text of the paragraph. The idea is that, when a person reads the paragraph, that person's soul actually participates in the event that is being described. This active involvement in the drama of the text by the soul enables the true meaning of the words to be communicated to the soul. The meaning is not a collection of concepts conveyed to the intellect through words; it is the transforming influence the soul sustains when it experiences its encounter with its Lord. 

The theme of place begins strongly in the first sentence: "The first of what God prescribed for the servants is acknowledgment of the place from which God’s revelation rises and his command emerges." This sentence sets up the stage and location for the drama. The reader is invited to come to a very special place. Baha'u'llah does not say where that place is; instead, he gives information about the nature of the place he is inviting the reader to come to. He describes it as: "the place from which God’s revelation rises and his command emerges." Clearly, this is a very great spiritual place, for it is where divine activity seems to originate. In the next sentence, Baha'u'llah underscores just how sacred this place is: it is the place that stands for, or constitutes, the self of God in the worlds of command and creation. So, effectively, for everything in those two worlds, this place is God.

How is someone to find this place? Baha'u'llah simply asks the reader to "acknowledge" it (see below for my use of "acknowledgment" here). This challenges the reader to find, and then inhabit, a place within their own self where they acknowledge openly and with solemnity something that is the Source of inspiration and authority. I think that this is an allusion to the scene in pre-existence where all human beings stand before God and acknowledge the eternal covenant.

Baha'u'llah continues his depiction of the mystical event a couple of sentences further on. Whenever a reader finds and acknowledges this place - this placeless place of the Source of revelation and authority - suddenly the reader's soul is thrown into the drama of the text and finds itself a principal character in the climax of the story:

"Should anyone reach this most elevated position and imposing outlook...."

Now Baha'u'llah addresses the one who has entered this mysterious place, and he describes the position this person finds themselves standing in: it is the most elevated position and one with the most imposing outlook. These attributes suggest that the person is standing in a very formidable place indeed, for it is a place that is higher than anywhere else and has the most mind-blowing view. This ultimate grandeur forms the backdrop for the climactic scene of encounter that is about to take place.

Imagine it: you are standing at the topmost height of creation and you are looking down at the panorama that is all created things. Absolutely everything you have known up to this moment drops away before you. Now, in this place, you are told:

"... it is incumbent on that one to follow what is commanded of them..."

What is happening? Someone is speaking to you. Who else is in the scene? Baha'u'llah goes on:

"... in the presence of the Ultimate Purpose."

You are standing in the presence of God, of course. Baha'u'llah has already explained that this place constitutes the self of God. And the name of God that you are standing before is the name of God, the "Ultimate Purpose"[1]. In the climax of this most fantastic of all scenes, the soul stands before the Ultimate Purpose and is informed of what it was created to do. This is its purpose and destiny.

Then the reader comes to the enigmatic statement:

"For the two go together; one is not received without the other."

Again, there is an allusion to place here. A person does not enter another person's home unless the owner receives them. The same applies here. The reader stands in the most exalted spot in the presence of God only with God's leave. One does not just turn up. We are invited to come by finding the requisite humility, honesty and vision within ourselves. If we accomplish this, then we are permitted to enter. We are received. And at that point (because the two go together), something else is received also: the deeds we are asked to carry out in view of that celestial meeting. It is the encounter that gives our deeds meaning and makes them right. And this is an ongoing process. If, at any time, we stop acknowledging and fall out of the presence of God due to our negligence, our deeds (even the same ones) stop being acceptable also.

To sum up: if a person fails to humble themselves and acknowledge the Source of revelation and authority, they will never be received into the presence of the Ultimate Purpose and will never know their purpose and have their deeds accepted. Whatever that person does will be a product of self. For this reason: "The person who achieves acknowledgment of this place has gained all good." And "The person who refuses is among the people of error, even if that person performs all good deeds."

[1] "Ultimate Purpose" translates al-maqṣūd, which has the range of meanings (from Hans Wehr): "aimed at, intended, intentional, designed". The root carries the meaning 'to go or proceed straightaway to someone or something'. As a name of God, it is also translated as 'the Desired One', 'the Intended One'. I chose "Ultimate Purpose" because it refers to the place where God's command emerges and the soul is given its instructions. Another possible translation is 'Ultimate  Goal'. 

Translation of the word `irfān

"The first of what God prescribed for the servants is acknowledgment (`irfānof the place from which God’s revelation rises and his command emerges."

I have chosen to translate the verbal noun `irfān as "acknowledgment", in the place where the Guardian used "recognition". While I was researching this word, I discovered some interesting things about it, which lead me to prefer the translation "acknowledgement".

The 19th-century dictionary, Steingass, gives the primary meanings of the related root verb `arafa as "to acknowledge, avow, confess". The Hans Wehr dictionary of modern Arabic gives meanings more along the lines of what the Guardian chose: "to know", "to recognise, perceive". But it also gives "to recognise, acknowledge", "to concede, acknowledge", so Hans Wehr does allow for 'acknowledgment' as a possible translation for `irfān.

But in the end, what pushed me fully in favour of "acknowledgment" was the fascinating information I found in Lane's dictionary of classical Arabic (p2012). It says that the contrary of `irfān is 'inkār, which means 'denial', 'disapproval', 'rejection'. These struck me as the opposites of "acknowledge, avow, confess"; in other words, the opposite of a person acknowledging or confessing to something is their denial and rejection of it. The idea that 'inkār is the contrary of `irfān also works with the text of the paragraph, where Baha'u'llah effectively gives his own contrary in his use of the word mana`a ( الّذي منع "the one who has refused"), which Steingass gives as "to refuse; hinder, prevent" etc.

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).