Understanding Stereotypical and Dated Language in the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Its Historical Context

The issue of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s use of what have come to called stereotypes and such dated terms as “savage” often come up when we study the Bahá’í writings. All religions face the challenge of understanding the language, expressions, and style of their scripture. Since language is constantly changing, scripture is never in exactly the same language spoken by its contemporary believers. This is an especially serious problem for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, whose scriptures took shape many centuries ago in cultural environments radically different from those of their modern communities of believers. Consequently, followers of those traditions must reconcile themselves to bloody massacres and massive violations of human rights carried out in the name of religion and described in their scriptures during a time when violence was pervasive and concepts of human rights as we understand them were utterly absent.

For Bahá’ís, scriptural language provides a challenge because humanity’s languages and cultures have not yet developed neutral ways to describe and discuss the rich diversity of peoples living in the world. The principle of unity in diversity eventually will produce a world where persons will both retain their ethnic and linguistic identities and find a fair and equal place among the citizens of humanity. But such a world cannot yet even be adequately imagined: “All we can reasonably venture to attempt is to strive to obtain a glimpse of the first streaks of the promised Dawn,” Shoghi Effendi writes in The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh 35, referring to that new world order that is still centuries away.

Because of the limitations of vision, the common words for persons who were not of white European background have undergone constant change during the twentieth century. For part of the twentieth century some Americans of African descent preferred to refer to themselves as “Moors.” Other persons now referred to as African American preferred the term “colored” until around World War II (the 1940s), “Negro” from after that conflict until about 1965, and “Afro-American” and then “black” until the 1980s. Now both “black” and “African American” are in use. The peoples who were native to this continent before the arrival of Columbus in 1492 call themselves “First Nation” peoples in Canada and “indigenous” peoples in Latin America. In the United States some favor “Native American” while others much prefer “American Indian.”

As for non-urban cultures and peoples in general, the Latin term was “pagus” from which the word “pagan” derives and which originally meant someone living in the countryside. In Old English (up to 1150) and all Germanic dialects it was translated as “heathen,” which originally meant someone living in the heath (the pastures or areas covered by heather). In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries these terms came to refer negatively to non-Christians. Hence they were replaced as a general term for non-urban peoples by the adjective “savage.” This word originally referred to something “of the forest” but came to mean anything in a “natural” state. The term is still common in French in this sense (thus, fleurs sauvage, “wild flowers”). As the negative connotations of the word, which were always present, came to weigh more and more heavily in its usage, anthropologists switched to the term “primitive” (which derives from the Latin word meaning “first”) to describe tribal or non-urban cultures and peoples. In the last two decades that term has been replaced by the more neutral “primal.” If “primal” acquires negative connotations, no doubt it will have to be replaced in due time. The term “ethnic” (from the Greek word meaning clan or tribe) was first used extensively in the mid-twentieth century to refer to groups with unique geographic or linguistic heritages. Before that, “race” was used (hence references to the English race or the Jewish race in the writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi).

The point of this brief excursion into linguistic history is to demonstrate that the English language has not yet achieved an understanding of unity in diversity in the terms it uses for peoples who are not part of the dominant group (indeed, in the future there should be no “dominant group” at all). Terms that start out as an attempt to be “neutral” inevitably pick up the assumptions and biases of the day and thus have to be replaced by other “more-neutral” terms at a later date. No doubt this process will continue for some time into the future.

The changes of terminology are reflected in the translations of the writings and talks of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited the United States in 1912, He often spoke of the importance of love and unity between the síyáh and the sifíd, the black and the white. His translators, however, faced a dilemma in rendering síyáh into English, for the word black was not at that time a standard term for those who are today referred to as African Americans. Hence the translators used the common term of the day—“colored.” As a result, in the first edition of The Promulgation of Universal Peace one finds frequent mention of colored people and white people.

Fortunately for those of us who live in the early twenty-first century, when a new edition of The Promulgation of Universal Peace was published in 1982, the Universal House of Justice asked Dr. Amin Banani to retranslate ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talk given at Howard University on April 23, 1912; the translator used “black” for the Persian word “síyáh.” But consider the challenge that could arise if, a century from now, the term “black” has gone out of fashion and has been replaced by something else. One can easily imagine people, in the early twenty-second century, becoming upset with the use of “black” on the grounds that no one’s skin is really “white” or “black” and that these colors are a poor choice or an exaggerated one. But one has to recognize that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had to use some term when speaking and that it would not be reasonable to expect Him to know and use in 1912 the term preferred in the twenty-second century.

The use of “savage” in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talks reflects the same sort of shift. In His day, it was as neutral a term as English could offer. It appears that “savage” is often a translation of the Persian vahshí, which, like the French sauvage, refers to anything existing in a state of nature (gul-i-vahshí, “wild flowers”). Had ‘Abdu’l-Bahá invented a new term, either it would have been incomprehensible to His audience or, if it had caught on, it might have gone through the same process of acquiring negative connotations that we have seen with other terms.

Questions have also been raised when ‘Abdu;l-Bahá refers to the “savagery” of non-European peoples and customs. This term also is found in references to Europeans and their behavior:

Today throughout the five continents of the globe it is Europe and most sections of America that are renowned for law and order, government and commerce, art and industry, science, philosophy and education. Yet in ancient times these were the most savage of the world’s peoples, the most ignorant and brutish. They were even stigmatized as barbarians—that is, utterly rude and uncivilized. Further, from the fifth century after Christ until the fifteenth, that period defined as the Middle Ages, such terrible struggles and fierce upheavals, such ruthless encounters and horrifying acts, were the rule among the peoples of Europe, that the Europeans rightly describe those ten centuries as the Dark Ages. The basis of Europe’s progress and civilization was actually laid in the fifteenth century of the Christian era, and from that time on, all her present evident culture has been, under the stimulus of great minds and as a result of the expansion of the frontiers of knowledge and the exertion of energetic and ambitious efforts, in the process of development. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization 10)

Or consider this comment on the barbarism of modern Europe:

At the time of the Franco-Prussian War, in the year 1870 of the Christian era, it was reported that 600,000 men died, broken and beaten, on the field of battle. How many a home was torn out by the roots; how many a city, flourishing the night before, was toppled down by sunrise. How many a child was orphaned and abandoned, how many an old father and mother had to see their sons, the young fruit of their lives, twisting and dying in dust and blood. How many women were widowed, left without a helper or protector.

 And then there were the libraries and magnificent buildings of France that went up in flames, and the military hospital, packed with sick and wounded men, that was set on fire and burned to the ground. And there followed the terrible events of the Commune, the savage acts, the ruin and horror when opposing factions fought and killed one another in the streets of Paris. There were the hatreds and hostilities between Catholic religious leaders and the German government. There was the civil strife and uproar, the bloodshed and havoc brought on between the partisans of the Republic and the Carlists in Spain.

Only too many such instances are available to demonstrate the fact that Europe is morally uncivilized. . . . (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization 62–63)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá also uses what have become dated stereotypes and analogies. One needs to read ‘Abdu’l-Bahá very carefully because, when He uses a now dated stereotype or analogy, invariably His words are a vehicle to teach a spiritual principle. Thus, if He refers to a group of people as “savages” who can or have become advanced, His point is not that they are, in some way, defective as peoples, but that they can achieve or have achieved a high spiritual condition. The above passages about Europeans are an excellent example.

Today we use different words and analogies in our conversations and scholarship because many of the older ones have been proved incorrect or biased by new research and scholarship. Who can say when the words and analogies we use today will be seen as stereotypes and will be replaced yet different words? It is important that, as styles change, we change as well, using the most neutral words of our time in order to communicate effectively with our contemporaries. It is equally important to learn to read texts and translations of an earlier historical period with an understanding of their historical context.

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