A close reading of "The Most Holy Book"
The Style of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas: Aspects of the Sublime
By Suheil Bushrui
University Press of Maryland
"There are three basic characteristics which distinguish every Divine Revelation. Firstly, it explains truths such as the nature of God, the human condition and the world around us; secondly, it directs us towards right conduct and warns us to eschew evil; and thirdly, to those who have faith and accept its guidance, it imparts the good news of forgiveness, purification and salvation, and provides a fresh impetus to the march of human progress and civilization."
Such is one example of the kind of clear-eyed explanations and incisive observations that Dr. Suheil Bushrui offers in The Style of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas: Aspects of the Sublime, one of the first scholarly books to appear on the Kitáb-i-Aqdas since it was released in an official English translation in 1993.
As Dr. Bushrui notes, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas holds a singular position in Bahá'í literature. Revealed by Bahá'u'lláh sometime around 1873, its title translates into English as "The Most Holy Book." Although ostensibly a book of religious laws, Bahá'ís believe that it spells out nothing less than the charter for a new civilization and offers to humanity "the highest means for the maintenance of order in the world and the security of its peoples," as Bahá'u'lláh himself says.
In undertaking, then, to analyze the style of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, and, at the same time, to help Western readers understand the underlying power and depth of its original Arabic, Dr. Bushrui has embarked on a rather daunting task.
Yet Dr. Bushrui, who holds the Bahá'í Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland at College Park, has written a meticulous and eloquent work. His book makes accessible to the English-language reader the majestic qualities of the original Arabic of this most sacred of Bahá'í texts. Its publication marks a seminal event in the understanding of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas and in Bahá'í studies.
The Bahá'í community has long honored learning. However, it has only begun to cultivate the habit of objective scholarship about itself and its texts that is the modern counterpart of higher criticism. Partly this is the result of reasons internal to its own development, partly of circumstances that it shares with other faiths whose historical origins lie in the nineteenth century. Dr. Bushrui correctly points out that "no other religion has had its scriptural treasures translated into a universal language, as has the Bahá'í Faith, within so very short a period of time since the inception of the Dispensation." Translation, of course, relies heavily on what used to be called the lower criticism, an activity that is more commonly referred to now as textual criticism. It seeks to establish the original form or definitive form of a given text from the available variants. Dr. Bushrui provides a sure-footed introduction to these matters, which are basic to any understanding of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. He discusses the location of the work in the ministry of Bahá'u'lláh and sketches in its textual history since its revelation. The Bahá'í Faith is unique in that the authenticity of its textual traditions cannot be questioned. As Dr. Bushrui remarks, "among the unique features of the Bahá'í Faith is that reliable transcriptions of its sacred texts were produced under the supervision of their Author, rendering their authenticity beyond doubt. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas is no exception, having been transcribed on several occasions during the lifetime of Bahá'u'lláh Himself."
Thus, for the Bahá'í Faith constructing its sacred canon is not nearly so daunting a task as translating it correctly. The depth of Dr. Bushrui's linguistic knowledge and his extensive practice as a translator are immensely helpful in guiding the English-language reader through these aspects of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. He is able to convey the special qualities that the Arabic language confers on the original and illuminate both the presence and significance of those elements in the English translation.
The Arabic language presents special difficulties for any translator. Dr. Bushrui rightly contends that "the complexities of the Arabic language and the immense problems involved in translating the revealed Word have made it practically impossible for Western scholars to 'encompass the Qur'án with their reason.' And although the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is in many ways more readily approachable then the Qur'án, no Western scholar can hope to achieve a profound appreciation of it only through the acquisition of academic skills."
It is in resolving precisely this issue of how to approach the Kitáb-i-Aqdas with a "profound appreciation" that Dr. Bushrui's analysis soars. Though fully grounded in critical methodology, it is not oppressed by a scholarly apparatus that makes the book inaccessible to the lay reader. Dr. Bushrui writes with a lightness and deftness of touch that will make his book invaluable for anyone who simply wants better to understand the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Of course, his discussion will be most useful to members of the Bahá'í community, for he writes from within that spiritual tradition. However, his is not a narrow or sectarian analysis, and non-members of the Faith will be able to profit from it as well, even if they are otherwise unsympathetic to the Bahá'í Faith. Dr. Bushrui's argument is particularly compelling when he discusses the literary devices present in the style of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. They adhere to no specific literary form in Arabic, and Dr. Bushrui convincingly demonstrates how they have an effect that transcends the limitations of poetry or prose. From them proceeds a music "tempered by the discipline of precise and unequivocal expression."
The reader who follows Dr. Bushrui through the details of this analysis will comprehend the meaning and effects of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas with a new profundity. Dr. Bushrui's language will echo in the reader's own understanding in ways that permit him to recover the grandeur and power of the original text. The source of its spirituality will still keep its ultimate secrets, but the English-language reader will reach the last page of Dr. Bushrui's book with a transformed appreciation of the sublime style in which its spirituality is encased. He will thereby approach more closely the spiritual heart of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas itself.
-- By Miles L. Bradbury (Dr. Bradbury specializes in the history of religion in America and teaches in the History Department of the University of Maryland at College Park.)