Translations of Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Texts, vol. 2, no. 3 (May, 1998)

Tablet of Baha'u'llah to Ibn-i Asdaq decrying Absolutism

trans. Juan R. I. Cole

Baha’u’llah/Ibn-i Asdaq, n.d.

O Pen, mention when we dispatched our Tablet entitled "the Cry" to the leader of the people. He sent it to those renowned for their knowledge, and once they had read it they were bewildered and spoke forth according to their selfish passions. In truth, your Lord is All-Knowing, All-Encompassing.

One among them said, "He desires absolute power!"

Say: Woe be to you, who are heedless and remote from God! We have commanded [even] the monarchs to toss it behind them, and to advance toward God, the Glorious, the Beauteous. We affirm the appearance of Reason [al-`aql] among all human beings. Therefore, you will see absolutism (as-sultah al-mutlaqah) discarded upon the dust, nor will any approach it. Thus was the matter decreed in a manifest tablet. Say: It [despotism] is the most degraded of stations in my view, though you might see it as the most exalted station. Open your eyes, so that you might recognize the one whose Pen rules over all who are in the heavens and the earth.

Original Arabic Text

Source: Muhammad `Ali Faydi, Khitabat-i Qalam-i A`la dar Sha’n-i nuzul-i Alvah-i Muluk va Salatin, (N.p., 113 B.E.), pp. 69-70.

Note added 8 November 1999

In fall, 1999, in the Persian Baha'i magazine Payam-i Baha'i, Dr. Nader Saiedi published an article entitled "Bulugh-i `Alam" (The Maturation of the World), pp. 8-16, in which he contended that the above translation is flawed. However, he based his own interpretation on a slightly different published text, from Ishraq-Khavari, ed., Ma'idih-'i Asmani, vol. 8, p. 41, which contains some variants from the Fayzi text printed above. The Ishraq-Khavari text is as follows:

There are some minor variants: this text gives "bayn al-milali" (among the nations) for "bayn al-kull" (among all) in line four from the bottom; it seems to give nara (we see or shall see) for tara (you see or shall see) on the same line, as well as as-saltanah (sovereignty) instead of as-sultah (power).

Dr. Saiedi wishes to translate the text something like this: "We shall affirm that wisdom has appeared among the nations when we shall see that absolute sovereignty is cast out upon the dust and no one will approach it."

This seems to me also a plausible translation, though it is strange that Baha'u'llah would not use the future marker, sawfa, before nusaddiq if he desired to make it clear he was speaking of the future. The rendering is also more plausible if the text really is nara rather than tara, since it would be strange to have the main clause conditional on when a second party sees something. (Note that Baha'u'llah uses the second person singular a lot in this piece, directing it at Ibn-i Asdaq, and that I find "tara" the more likely reading) He supports this translation by pointing to the parallel with the Tablet of Salman where Baha'u'llah says that `aql (reason or intellect, which Saiedi insists should be translated as "wisdom") will appear when none will accept to become an absolute monarch. However, I would maintain that we could read "we affirm" in the present rather than the future tense, because this passage was likely written to Ibn-i Asdaq after the 1876 Constitutional Revolution in Istanbul, when Baha'u'llah actually saw the operation of parliamentary reason among the people. The major collection of letters to Ibn-i Asdaq begins only around 1878.

Saiedi is also concerned to deny that "al-`aql" here means political reason of the Enlightenment sort. He insists that all Baha'i words have special technical meanings and do not refer to what they appear to refer to on a common-sense reading. Thus, when Baha'u'llah speaks of democracy, Saiedi maintains, he doesn't really mean Western-style democracy.

These assertions seem to me so fantastic and unscholarly as to need no refutation. Baha'u'llah clearly favors popular sovereignty in the Tablet to Queen Victoria and in the Kitab-i Aqdas apostrophe to Tehran, and he clearly favors the embodiment of popular sovereignty in British-style parliamentary governance, as he openly says in the Tablet of the World. Since mainstream Baha'i culture is nowadays antiliberal and entertains only contempt for parliamentary institutions and politics, Baha'u'llah's commitment to political liberalism has increasingly become an embarrassment, which is surmounted by insisting that Baha'u'llah did not actually say what he plainly did say.

That Baha'u'llah might not have meant by al-`aql Reason or intellect, but rather a mystical wisdom, and that al-`aql completely lacks for Baha'i scriptures any overtones of Enlightenment political and scientific tradition brought into question if we look at other contemporary Baha'i authors writing around the same time as Baha'u'llah was. We have, for instance, `Abdu'l-Baha's own gloss on political and scientific 'Reason' (al-`aql) in Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 2 of the English, where he speaks of the role of reason in the arts of civilization:

"These works (a:tha:r), thoughts (afka:r) forms of knowledge (ma`a:rif), arts (funu:n), pieces of wisdom (h.ikam), sciences (`ulu:m), technologies (s.ana:'i`) and multifarious wonders are all among the emanations of the intellect (az fuyu:d.a:t-i `aql) and knowledge (da:nish)." (p. 2 of the English).

Finally, let us consider a key passage in the Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 35, in which `Abdu'l-Baha explains exactly what he means by 'learning and cultural attainments of the mind:"

The first attribute of perfection is learning (`ilm) and the cultural attainments of the mind (va fadl), and this eminent station is achieved when the individual combines in himself a thorough knowledge of those complex and transcendental realities pertaining to God, of the fundamental truths of Qur'ánic political and religious law, of the contents of the sacred Scriptures of other faiths, and of those regulations and procedures which would contribute to the progress and civilization of this distinguished country. He should in addition be informed as to the laws and principles, the customs, conditions and manners, and the material and moral virtues characterizing the statecraft of other nations, and should be well versed in all the useful branches of learning of the day, and study the historical records of bygone governments and peoples. For if a learned individual has no knowledge of the sacred Scriptures and the entire field of divine and natural science, of religious jurisprudence and the arts of government and the varied learning of the time and the great events of history, he might prove unequal to an emergency, and this is inconsistent with the necessary qualification of comprehensive knowledge."

And this, I firmly believe, is what Baha'u'llah means when he says that Reason or Intellect will appear among the people and absolutism will be on the trash heap of history.


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