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Secret of Divine Civilization (Risaliy-i-Madiniyyih)

by Sen McGlinn

published in Encyclopaedia Iranica
New York: Columbia University, 2009
RESĀLA-YE MADANIYA, a treatise of some 130 pages by Abd-al-Baha, internally dated in 1292/1875 (Abd-al-Baha, 1984, p. 72; 1957, p. 62), which calls on the Iranian people to ‘awake’ and take the steps necessary to modernize the country. The treatise is written in a highly literary style, making extensive use of alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, parallelism, and literary figures, yet it reads quite easily. A mirror for princes’ story of the moral education of King Noʿmān III (r. ca. 580-602; Hitti, p. 84), through the virtue of a Christian, divides the text into two parts (Abd-al-Baha, 1984, pp. 55-61; 1957, pp 46-51).

The text was lithographed by a Bahai press in Bombay in 1299/1882 (described in Rosen) and bound in one volume with Bahāʾ-Allāh’s Lawḥ-e Mānekča-ṣāḥeb (composed in 1878). The latter is written in ‘pure’ Persian without the use of Arabic loan words. Viktor Rosen reproduces the frontispiece of this edition and attributes the authorship of the whole text to Bahāʾ-Allāh (Rosen et al., p. 253), who ordered its publication. This edition has not been consulted. A second printing in 1310/1892 has a different frontispiece and is bound without the Lawḥ-e Mānekča-ṣāḥeb. The copy of this, to which Browne refers (p. 944), is now in the Cambridge University Library (Moh. 436.d.6) and has been consulted. The widely used Baha’i-Verlag edition of 1984 is a reproduction of the typeset Cairo 1911 edition, with some diacritics added. Since the original Cairo edition is rare, and the copy consulted was missing several pages, the references in this article are to the 1984 edition, followed by the corresponding page number in Gail’s translation. The 1911 Cairo edition and the 1984 edition include a short appendix (p. 139) by Abd-al-Baha on the Mamluk Sultan Ašraf Salāḥ-al-Din Ḵalil b. Qalawun (r. 1290-1293) who is mentioned in the text as “Saladin, the victorious Ayyubi King [who] completely expelled the kings and armies of Europe from the lands and coastal plain of Egypt and Syria” (1984, p. 108; mistranslated by Gail and Dawud). Initially the book was distributed without the author’s name. The Bombay editions bear the Arabic title Asrār al-ḡaybiya le asbāb al-madaniya, hence the title of the most widely used English translation, The Secret of Divine Civilization, by Marzieh Gail, published in 1957.

The first English translation of 1910 by Johanna Dawud is entitled The Mysterious Forces of Civilization. This translation is poor, with some of Dawud’s own enlargements about conditions in Persia being incorporated into the text (e.g., pp. 35, 38-9). The typesetting appears not to have been corrected. For example, it reads ‘heads’ and ‘applications’ where the translator must surely have written ‘hands’ and ‘supplications’ (pp. 6-7). The 1918 edition of this translation corrects incidental mistakes, but apparently without reference to the original. Sections were translated by Shoghi Effendi (1928, pp. 49-50; revised in 1938, pp. 37-38; 1928, pp. 52-53), who first used the title “The Secret of Divine Civilization.” Gail has adopted the first section translated by Shoghi Effendi, but not the second. She has also relied on Dawud’s translation, since she sometimes repeats his mistakes with Arabic and Islamic vocabulary. For example, bāliya dar qabur (1984, p. 29) is translated as “the decayed bones in the sepulcher” by Dawud (1910, p. 51) and “the mouldering bones in the graveyard” by Gail (1957, p. 53), but it should read ‘the torments of the grave.’ Gail appears not to have been familiar with the reforms of Ḥosayn Khan Sepahsālār (later Mošir-al-Dowla; 1827-81), discussed below, with the result that references to these forms are lost. For example, majāles-e mamālek-e maḥrusa (1984, p. 10) is translated by Gail as “consultative assemblies in foreign states” (1957, p. 24), whereas the reference is to the provincial councils that then existed in Iran. In general, Gail universalizes Abd-al-Baha’s thought and casts it as hopes for the future rather than as specific commentary on the Persia of 1875. A new translation is forthcoming in the Iranian Studies Series (Rozenburg Publishers, Amsterdam).

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