All research or scholarship questions
Posts: 21
Joined: Tue Jun 14, 2011 9:41 am


Postby paula » Fri Apr 12, 2013 5:09 am

Among Native American Baha'is the word "savage" has been a controversial topic for years and years. None of us have been able to rectify the word from this particular quote:

"Attach great importance to the indigenous population of America. For these souls may be likened unto the ancient inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula, who, prior to the Mission of Muhammad, were like unto savages. When the light of Muhammad shone forth in their midst, however, they became so radiant as to illumine the world. Likewise, these Indians, should they be educated and guided, there can be no doubt that they will become so illumined as to enlighten the whole world." 'Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets of the Divine Plan, p.33

The popular explanation given to Natives is that it means "wild like flowers". This doesn't fit the original Persian/Arabic text where "wuhush" is used. The translation of "wuhush" is wild beasts or savages.

Can anyone explain further?

Also does anyone know if the Merriam-Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd ed. 1934 is available on-line?


Posts: 1368
Joined: Wed Dec 31, 2003 12:12 pm

Re: Savage

Postby brettz9 » Fri Apr 12, 2013 10:23 am

Hi Paula,

Here is another such quote:

"These Arab tribes were in the lowest depths of savagery and barbarism, and in comparison with them the savages of Africa and wild Indians of America were as advanced as a Plato. The savages of America do not bury their children alive as these Arabs did their daughters, glorying in it as being an honorable thing to do."

(Some Answered Questions, p. 19)

I think the balance the Writings see in recognizing good and negative qualities in both the white and "colored" races is shown well in this quote:

"Even if we got rid of racial and colour prejudice, this economic and cultured problem would remain. The Bahá'í method of solving the problem is to educate both the white and coloured races in the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh. The white races must cease to regard themselves as "superior" and as having, by virtue of that innate superiority a right to exploit, take unfair advantage of and even to exterminate coloured races, on the principle of the "survival of the fittest". They must cease to regard the colour of a man's skin as a legitimate index of his "superiority" or "inferiority" and must recognise that a good coloured man (of whom there are many) is better than a bad white man (of whom there are also many)...

"The "backward" races must be educated and their standard of living and culture be raised as much as possible, their latent talents being developed to the fullest possible extent. If this is done their objectionable characteristics will disappear.

"The so-called "advanced" races however, are by no means free from objectionable characteristics, such as commercial greed, love of domination, materialistic conceptions, want of spirituality. By true education and true religion these also must be got rid of."

(On behalf of Shoghi Effendi, Messages to the Antipodes, 19 April 1925, emphasis added)

Despite needing to ensure there is balance, I think it is nevertheless important to bear in mind that, despite the politically correct atmosphere of many Baha'i settings, negative features (as per the above also) are ascribed not only to the white race, but also to other races (and that this should not be whitewashed and ascribed solely due to mistranslations or supposedly clever political calculations by our Central Figures).

This is not only important to know for the sake of humility and balance, nor solely for the admittedly positive effect it can have in race relations, but also for the sake of self-correction and improving the moral conditions of our respective communities which are so desperately needed.

With many--particularly Baha'is no doubt--focusing on how "spiritual" native peoples are, this tends to falsely idealize every aspect of native life, whereas the House of Justice calls for each culture not only to preserve its neutral as well as good aspects (for the sake of diversity), but also to reject its negative aspects. And 'Abdu'l-Baha refers to a pre-condition in the quote cited of needing education in the Faith first. Of course, that doesn't mean that there are no positive characteristics present without the Faith, nor does it mean that things have not changed quite a bit since the times He was referencing (nor that He was painting all peoples in the exact same light), but as we can see from other quotes, while the positive respect for nature is embraced, we also see very clear rejection of some even important aspects of native peoples' beliefs, such as animism:

At the same time we see man worshiping a stone, a clod of earth or a tree. How vile he is, in that his object of worship should be the lowest existence--that is, a stone or clay, without spirit; a mountain, a forest or a tree. What shame is greater for man than to worship the lowest existences?

(Some Answered Questions, p. 236)

There is also the following which not only recognizes that not all cultures are on the same level as far as their attainments of learning but even indicates that at least in the intellectual realm, there are differences which should be overcome (as He was arguing His own nation of origin should do in their lagging behind the West):

"Consider carefully: all these highly varied phenomena, these concepts, this knowledge, these technical procedures and philosophical systems, these sciences, arts, industries and inventions--all are emanations of the human mind. Whatever people has ventured deeper into this shoreless sea, has come to excel the rest. The happiness and pride of a nation consist in this, that it should shine out like the sun in the high heaven of knowledge. "Shall they who have knowledge and they who have it not, be treated alike?"

(Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 2)

Again, this does not negate the positive qualities of living in balance with nature, a contemplative and humble disposition, and so on, nor as per the quote above, does it deny the negative aspects of so-called "advanced" races.

But I think there has been both a lack of courage and some intellectual self-dishonesty to the extent we fail to "own" these other frank and challenging teachings of our Faith, even if we must be tactful in broaching these subjects. The rest of society focuses on the partisan political solutions of pointing fingers at others while the Faith endorses moral development first and foremost of oneself, not only for the rich, white, and privileged, but also for the poor, colored and disadvantaged (e.g., the quote on the poor not being justified to steal).

"Too much emphasis is often laid on the social and economic aspects of the Teachings; but the moral aspect cannot be overemphasized."

(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, September 6, 1946: Bahá'í Youth, p. 8, in Lights of Guidance, no. 1701)

While there is no doubt a need to focus on rectifying unjust treatment in the past (and the Faith does this in its requirement of giving preference to minorities in case of TIE votes and to receive "special attention, love and consideration" so as "to compensate for what might be treated as an inferior status"), its overwhelming focus is on primarily fixing one's own defects first.

As with the individual's focus on their own self-esteem as a means as well as an end--embraced as a philosophy in the American society as a whole--an unwillingness to see one's own faults exacerbates ones problems rather than improving them. This is in no one's interest, particularly those communities facing intense moral challenges as a historical result of oppressive or neglectful forces around them.

We have a compilation of positive characteristics by race at ... y_and_race , but haven't started one on the negative features of each, though perhaps that might be in order.

I think the important thing to bear in mind is that, the context invariably refers to the role of education--never a belief in inherent superiority of one group of people over another. But the point I want to make is that the Faith is not extreme in relativism or shying away from frankly facing defects that have a tendency to predominate in one culture or another, nor to ignore historical conditions that some people have lived (or do live) in a relatively primitive state--a situation which education, both material and spiritual, is, as anticipated by 'Abdu'l-Baha, changing.

I will admit that one's culture having been labeled as (previously) "savage" still may sound stronger than just pointing out a few negative tendencies, but neither is it pleasant to the die-hard (white) American nationalist to hear of the regular criticism of materialism or racism in his culture by the Writings also (especially when he similarly can find some good family-friendly and noble qualities worth keeping among those around him and plenty of counter-examples) or for Persians to hear of the Faith appearing in their country because it was the most corrupt (when they find reason for pride in their own culture, etc.). I believe we have to see the forest for the trees.

Edited to add quote from SDC

Posts: 96
Joined: Tue Aug 19, 2008 9:33 pm

Re: Savage

Postby MontanaDon » Fri Apr 12, 2013 12:21 pm

Brett - you're making some excellent points.

I strongly recommend people read the wiki article on "noble savage" because this is the literary and philosophical context of Abdu'l-Baha's use of the term "savage". i have been told that the Persian was used the same way. That "wild" should be used as we use the word today in "wild flower" not "wild beast", even tho' at that time the connotations were the same. The dominance of cruelty and viciousness as part of the meaning of savage did not predominate until after WWII.

IMO, the fact that most Baha'is are unaware of such concepts is symptomatic of what I call "functional illiteracy". Contemporary people including Baha'is are incapable of understanding much of our Scriptures because they do not understand the context of the times in which they were written, they assume that the basic philosophical attitudes are essentially the same now as they were then. That is not true. Far more than even many scholars are willing to admit, the rhetoric of many or even most late 19th and early 20th century commentators was still heavily influenced by the attitudes of natural philosophy, not science, which in turn was heavily influenced by scholasticism.

Don C
Understood properly, all man's problems are essentially spiritual in nature.

Posts: 74
Joined: Fri Feb 01, 2013 2:52 pm

Re: Savage

Postby iranpour » Fri Apr 12, 2013 12:58 pm

Paula wrote:
The popular explanation given to Natives is that it means "wild like flowers". This doesn't fit the original Persian/Arabic text where "wuhush" is used. The translation of "wuhush" is wild beasts or savages.
Can anyone explain further?

Hello Paula,

That’s right, in the text it is “WUHUSH” which in the most popular Persian dictionary, Dr. M.Mo’in, is described as, “the animals of the field and mountain” and its singular, VAHSHI is described as the animals which are not familiar with man, like wild goat, wild sheep, deer etc.”

Here ‘Abdu’l-Baha talks about the Arabs before the revelation of Muhammad the Prophet, and compare the situation of American Indian with them. This doesn’t mean that the Indian American had the qualities of those Arabs to be as Wuhush.
Moreover, ‘Abdu’l-Baha coins a similitude to clarify the subject and as it is said in logic, “There is no dispute in similitude (dar mathal munaqishih nist).

Return to “Discussion”