Re: On the authenticity of your documents

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Posted by Jonah on March 20, 2000 at 00:45:52:

In Reply to: On the authenticity of your documents posted by anonymous on March 19, 2000 at 23:48:02:

Hi, thanks for your note. Your frank questions deserve a frank answer. And it's a good question, so I'll answer in depth.

As you no doubt understand, but were circumspect in stating, there is no way to truly verify the authenticity of any of these documents. I have tried to state the source of every document online, whether by declaring who typed and submitted it, and/or who proofread it, and/or whether it was originally distributed by etext or was scanned from a hardcopy original, and/or where it was published, and/or the source of the original. But this still does not guarantee authenticity. The person who submitted it could have been a forger, the original publication could have been in error, or even -- and this has happened, as for example with the supposed Marriage Tablet of Abdu'l-Baha -- even a Sacred Writing thought to have been recorded by the Pen of one of the Central Figures and subsequently published by a Baha'i publishing committee could prove to have been mis-attributed or even wholly errant. Ultimately, as with all things, we accord trust to a source only through a gradual process of consistent reliability. That is why, for example, we know to trust the Sacred Writings as translated by the Guardian and published by a Baha'i Publishing Trust, but we no longer use translations published by the Baha'i Publishing Committee of the early 1910s and 1920s, even though that committee was at the time relatively authoritative.

The same applies to the internet. If you find a website to consistently post material that is well-cited or thoroughly attributed, and you have not known that website to have been intentionally misleading or frequently in error, you will likely consider it more reliable than a website created by people who seem to have an agenda or who are careless with attributions and sources. I, for example, would hope that people would consider the Baha'i Academics Resource Library more reliable than a fly-by-night free Geocities homepage created by people one does not know, yet at the same time less reliable than a website such as or . (Hence my prominent caveat lectora scattered around the website.)

I can flesh out my answer by reference to the specific documents you inquire about. In the case of, we would need to know 1) who was Ann Boylan? 2) who is John Cornell? And, of course, 3) who is Jonah Winters? Let's look at these one-by-one.

First, I personally know little about Ann Boylan, so can not speak about her. One would need to know many details of her personally biography to determine whether or not she was a reliable source. This is actually the root of the extensive science behind hadith bibliography in early Islam. Hadith are the reported sayings and doings of Muhammad and his immediate followers, which were passed down over the generations. Each hadith has an isnad, a chain of reportage: e.g., "Hasan told Ibn Rashid who told Mulla Khadim who told Husayni that Muhammad told him that..." Within a few decades after Muhammad's death, people started realizing that the best way to determine the authenticity of hadith was to make biographies of the individuals in the isnad. Was Hasan reputed to be a heavy drinker who might have mis-heard Muhammad? Did Mulla Khadim die a month before Husayni moved to his town, such that Husayni can be shown to be a liar? Was Ibn Rashid famous for his honesty, such that we can trust any hadith which came through him? And so forth. It's a pretty inexact science, but it works. But, as you can see, it requires an extent of knowledge about Ann Boylan which I personally don't have.

Second, we have to know who John Cornell is, because he's listed in these documents as having received the answer to a couple letters and who also shared them with the Baha'i Library. In this particular case, I think we can consider these documents reliable for the following reasons. 1) John Cornell possesses these documents in the original, signed by the Guardian and Ruhiyyih Khanum; 2) John is an early American believer who met the Guardian; 3) in my many dealings with him I have found him to be trustworthy and reliable; 4) I can give you his email address and you can contact him yourself; and 5) excerpts of some of these letters have been published in reviewed publications, such as _Lights of Guidance_. None of these five criteria, though, really assure authenticity. I could post facsimiles of the original documents alongside each and every primary source, but this would be but one minor step toward proving authenticity, not proof itself. (Letters and signatures can be forged.) Ultimately, as Baha'u'llah Himself said (in reference to the appearance of Manifestations), only eye-witnessing can truly convince, and yet even it can be mistaken.

Third, who's Jonah Winters, the executive editor of the Library? Is he trying to convince me of his own view of the Baha'i Faith, or of Baha'i philosophy, whether by selective editing or by selective posting of materials, or even perhaps by actual falsification of documents? It's been known to be done, and there are websites that do some or even all of these things, some blantantly and some subtly. But as far as who I am and whether or not I have agendas that could distort my presentation of Baha'i documents, that's something that only your extended dealings with me, with my website, or with people who know me could tell you, and even there I think a judgment would be based more on intuition than on facts.

I actually address this a related question at , where I'm basically no more help there than I am here! ;-) Because, ultimately, I don't think that one can prove authenticity. That to me is actually one mark of true scholarship, and one reason I feel justified in calling my Library "academic" -- I don't demand trust, and were anyone to regard the materials here with too much trust I would remind them that they can only trust me to the extent that I've not failed them in the past, and no further. I, too, make mistakes. Not only do some of the documents online here contain misspellings, some could be falsely attributed and many, no doubt, contain errors of fact. Further, over the years I probably have posted things which I should not have, and have possibly refrained from posting things I could have. For example, one set of pilgrims' notes, by Roth Moffett, have circulated widely in the Baha'i community for decades and have been well regarded by a couple generations of Baha'is. But in close and careful proofreading, one volunteer discovered what she believed to be a high degree of plagiarism in Moffett's notes and came to doubt their authenticity and so, even though prior Baha'is have regarded these notes as reliable, we removed them. Conversely, any website or document that insists you believe it (as covenant-breaker spam mail often does) is automatically suspect, because one intuits that the writer is attempting to convince by persuasion, rather than convince by facts and deduction. This makes one suspect that persuasion might be the author's only content, and that the document might actually be devoid of fact.

I also am careful to include the source for each and every document online: either the original source of publication, or the source from which I received the document. This doesn't prove anything, but it does offer the reader more information by which to determine the reliability of the "isnad." This, ultimately, is I think the bedrock methodology of the social sciences -- one cites individuals who have come to be regarded as reliable authorities, but this reputation is earned by a slow process of scrupulous reliability and attention to detail coupled with a sincere desire to find and present, but not distort, the historical record; it is not based on any pronouncement of fact. In other words, unlike the hard sciences, in which one can offer ways to validate theories by actual testing, in the humanities we basically just learn when and when not to take someone's word for what they say and the sources they claim to use!

I think this is actually a very good question. Any comments?

Jonah Winters

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