In my previous blog post, I put up my translation of Arabic hidden word 45: “Awakened child, articulate your truth about me as you see it, satisfied with me and thankful for what I have done, that you may rely on me and rest easy in the retreats of greatness behind the canopy of might.” This resulted in a lot of discussion – one reason being that my clause “articulate your truth about me as you see it” is different to Shoghi Effendi’s translation “Seek a martyr’s death in My path”. Readers were understandably confused about how two translations could be so seemingly different.
Without getting too technical, let’s look at how Arabic creates meaning. It does this in a different way to English. With English, you have an enormous collection of words. People chose the words they want and then string them together to make a sentence. Arabic works differently. The language is not based on a collection of words, each with its own meaning; it is based on 3-consonant-letter groupings called ‘roots’, with each little grouping carrying a basic conceptual meaning. If you open an Arabic dictionary, you are not given a series of words in alphabetical order, you are given a series of roots in alphabetical order.
Here’s a typical entry for a root, taken from the modern Arabic Hans Wehr dictionary. The root is kh-l-f and the dictionary gives the following range of conceptual meaning for it: to be the successor, to succeed, to follow, to come after, to take the place of someone, to substitute for, to replace, to lag behind, to stay behind, to be detained, to be held back, to be kept away, to stay away. You can see from the list a line of conceptual thought running through the definitions given. That range of concept is the foundational meaning of the root.
From there, particular words appropriate to particular situations are created. For example, is it a man or a woman doing the succeeding? Are they doing it now or did they do it in the past? Are they doing it with someone else or on their own? Are they making someone else to do it? Is someone else doing it to them? Are they asking someone else to do it? All of these possibilities are represented in the Arabic using vowelling and by adding prefixes and suffixes to the root. In other words, the root consonants are filled in with vowels, so that the root becomes a word you can say; for example, khalafa, which means “he succeeded”, “he followed” etc.
Consequently, creating meaning in Arabic is very different to English. An Arabic word is based on a root with a foundational conceptual meaning, which is then particularised using different forms of the root created using vowelling and add-ons. With respect to verbs, there are 10 common forms, each indicating a particular way that the action is being done; for example, form I is the foundational concept; form IV signifies someone causing the action to happen; and form X can signify that a person is causing the action to be done through themselves, or that they seek to do the action.
The word in question from the hidden word is the verb is “istashhid”. It is the 10th form of the root sh-h-d, which has the foundational meaning “He told, or gave information of, what he had witnessed, or seen or beheld with his eye:” (Lanes Lexicon p1609) Applying form X meanings to the basic concept, you could have something like: to cause a testimony to happen within oneself. In addition, if you consult the dictionaries for the definitions for form X, they’ll tell you that in the passive, the word means to die as a martyr. From that, you can get the definition ‘to seek to be a martyr’. One argument against that translation is that the word Baha’u’llah uses is not in the passive; it is in the imperative – meaning that it is an instruction to do something, so there is no passive form.
This overview gives an idea of what it means to extract meaning from an Arabic word. You have a foundational concept, whose meaning is then massaged according to the form the word has been given, which then leaves a range of possibilities that might be appropriate, given context and so on. Multiple translations of Baha’u’llah’s writings show English readers the range of meaning contained in the original Arabic words. Feedback on my translation of the hidden word showed that readers were delighted that Baha’u’llah was not necessarily asking them to die. In the West, where believers have freedom of religion, the idea of being killed for one’s faith is not much of an issue. Therefore, drawing on other possible meanings for the verb is a way to make it relevant to a modern English-speaking audience.
Baha’u’llah’s writings do contain various understandings of how a person can die; for example, there is the fundamental concept of dying to self and living in God. When a person courageously comes out and speaks their truth about Baha’u’llah, despite the consequences to their reputation, that is an act of dying to self. It is a spiritual martyrdom that Westerners can seek to make as their own testimony. Another fundamental concept in the writings is that Baha’u’llah’s revelation is spread by the pen and not the sword. The sword has been replaced by the pen as the means for promoting and protecting the Faith. Therefore, the hidden word is asking us to participate in this process, by testifying to the truth of the revelation that we see within ourselves.