In His Will, Baha’u’llah instructed all to turn to His eldest Son, Abdu’l-Baha, not only as the authorized interpreter of the Baha’i Writings but also as the perfect exemplar of the Baha’i Faith’s spirit and teachings. Every year Baha’is celebrate Abdu’l-Baha as the Centre of Baha’u’llah Covenant.
I think it goes without saying that Abdu’l-Baha communicated the principles of the Baha’i Faith through His actions: generosity, for example, was articulated when coins were placed in the hands of destitute men at the Bowery Mission in New York City and social justice was demonstrated when Louis Gregory, who had been excluded from a luncheon owing to his race, was personally invited to the table by Abdu’l-Baha and given the seat of honor.
This year, as we commemorate the centenary of His Passing, I have been thinking about the Westerners who were in His presence and I often wonder about the logistics of language for those who did not speak Persian, Arabic or Turkish as He did.
I have read accounts of His travels to Europe and North America that describe how there were interpreters in His entourage and that for the most part His communications were translated to those around Him. Stanwood Cobb describes the unique experience of what it was like to hear Abdu’l-Baha speak via a translator:
Abdu’l-Baha did not, as a lecturer, stand still. His movements were very dynamic. He paced back and forth on the platform as He gave forth His spiritual utterances. I felt that the general atmosphere and the effect of His words were enhanced rather than diminished by the presence of a translator. For the techniques of translation gave Abdu’l-Baha a certain spiritual dignity, such as could not have been attained by a straight address in the language of His hearers.
The situation was as follows: Abdu’l-Baha would make a statement of a length within the power of the translator to render; then He would stand and smile as the translation was given, or He would nod His head to affirm important points. In other words, Abdu’l-Baha did not stand passive during the period of translation. He constantly illumined this translation with the dynamic power of His own spiritual personality.
And when He spoke, the Persian words – so beautiful and strong – boomed forth almost as musically as in operatic recitatives. While He spoke He was in constant and majestic motion. To hear Him was an experience unequaled in any other kind of platform delivery. It was a work of art, as well as a spiritual service. First would come this spiritual flow of thought musically expressed in a foreign tongue. Then, as the translator set forth its meaning to us, we had the added pleasure of watching Abdu’l-Baha’s response to the art of the translator. It was, all in all, a highly colorful and dramatic procedure.1
There are also stories recounted by people whose experiences differed greatly from Stanwood’s. I cherish this anecdote where Abdu’l-Baha spoke straight to the heart:
Howard Colby Ives wrote about an illiterate miner who walked a great distance to meet Abdu’l-Baha while He was in San Francisco:
‘This man, though uneducated, had great spiritual capacity. He attended a meeting at which Abdu’l-Baha spoke. He seemed enthralled as the measured, bell-like tones fell from the Master’s lips. When the interpreter took up the passage in English this miner started as if awakening. ‘Why does that man interrupt?’ he whispered. Then again Abdu’l-Baha spoke, and again the visitor was lost in attention. Again the interpreter translated as the speaker paused. At this the miners indignation was aroused. ‘Why did they let that man interrupt? He should be put out’.
‘He is the official interpreter’, one sitting beside him explained. ‘He translates the Persian into English.’
‘Was He speaking in Persian?’ Was the naïve answer, ‘Why anyone could understand that.’2
Similarly, this tender anecdote relates to how Abdu’l-Baha communicated with children:
Abdu’l-Baha’s first morning in Washington was filled with many interviews, but He spent a half-hour with Agnes Parsons’ young son, Jeffrey. They looked at Jeffrey’s toys, books and pictures, then went to the roof to see the view. Mrs. Parsons noted that Abdu’l-Baha never required an interpreter when with a child.3
There are also several accounts of Abdu’l-Baha speaking English. In 1909 on her pilgrimage to Akka, Juliet Thompson describes the Master stating in English, “Speak! Speak to Me!” and she confides that, “His words in English sink into your very soul. What I lose by not understanding Persian!”4 I also love the story about an London reporter who was astonished when Abdu’l-Baha spoke to him in English. The baffled reporter complimented the Master’s pronunciation whereon Abdu’l-Baha paced the floor and replied with a list of multisyllabic words such as “hippopotamus”, laughed, and said, “Many difficult English words I speak!”5
Regardless of the language used, I think there is something to be learned not only from how Abdu’l-Baha spoke, but also how He listened. Howard Colby Ives recounted the following:
Another characteristic always apparent was His silence. In the world of social and intellectual intercourse to which I was accustomed silence was almost unforgivable. From the collegiate with his, or her, “line,” to the lawyer, doctor, minister, statesman-a ready answer, a witty bon mot, a wise remark, a knowing smile was stock-in-trade. They all had their “line,” and it was upon their readiness or unreadiness to meet every occasion verbally that their reputation largely rested. How differently Abdu’l-Baha met the questioner, the conversationalist, the occasion. To the questioner He responded first with silence-an outward silence. His encouragement always was that the other should speak and He listen. There was never that eager tenseness, that restlessness so often met showing most plainly that the listener has the pat answer ready the moment he should have a chance to utter it. I have heard certain people described as “good listeners,” but never had I imagined such a “listener” as Abdu’l-Baha. It was more than a sympathetic absorption of what the ear received. It was as though the two individualities became one; as if He so closely identified Himself with the one speaking that a merging of spirits occurred which made a verbal response almost unnecessary, superfluous. As I write, the words of Baha’u’llah recur to me: “When the sincere servant calls to Me in prayer I become the very ear with which He heareth My reply” That was just it! Abdu’l-Baha seemed to listen with my ears.6
These stories are by no means a profound examination of how Abdu’l-Baha spoke or what we can learn by how He communicated. If you’re looking for more online resources about Abdu’l-Baha, I heartily recommend checking out the section dedicated to Abdu’l-Baha here on Bahai.org or the special collection dedicated to Him on the Baha’i World.
Footnotes & Citations
In His Presence: Visits to Abdu’l-Baha, p. 42 – 45[↩]
Earl Redman, Abdu’l-Baha in Their Midst, p. 232[↩]
In her innermost heart, Sonjel is a stay-at-home parent and a bookworm with a maxed out library card but professionally she is a museologist with a background in English Literature. She currently lives on Prince Edward Island, an isle in the shape of a smile on the eastern Canadian coast. Sonjel is a writer who loves to listen to jazz when she's driving at night.