Sacred Language

Before attempting to peer inside the spheres of meaning contained in the daily Baha'i obligatory prayers, it is only fair to acknowledge a limitation on this effort: except for a couple of Arabic words, this blog site is thus far focused on the prayers in their English translation, with illumination from sacred Writings that we have in English translation.

Photo © Baha’i International Community

Suheil Bushrui has written about the significance of Arabic, the language in which the obligatory prayers were revealed:

'That which we call "sublime" in religious literature can be conveyed only in a very special kind of language which may be characterized as "sacred language", and which is virtually indefinable in nature. It is distinguished, however, by the fact that, unlike any other kind of language, it encompasses all three modes of cognition: analysis, intuition, and revelation…

'Among all the languages of the world, Arabic is unique in being a sacred language, the repository of a great religious tradition, which has been preserved intact as a "living language" over many centuries up to the present day…

'Why, then, is Arabic so special? What gives it its particular genius? Arabic, like other Semitic languages, derives words from roots composed usually of three letters. However, to a greater degree than other Semitic languages, Arabic modifies these roots through the addition of further letters either before, after or within the roots. This feature of the language invests individual words with a highly derivative and associative character that adds to them whole layers of meaning and innuendo in a manner not normally found in other languages. In particular, it makes Arabic the perfect vehicle for the symbolic and the metaphorical.

'Perhaps no language has a greater capacity for variety and richness of expression than does Arabic. It contains, for example, a wealth of synonyms, and an extraordinary breadth of vocabulary expressive of multitudinous and subtle differentiations of sense in the realms of both feeling and action.

'…The Arabic language is synonymous with a devotion to the manner of expression, a delight in the rhythm and music of speech, and a sensuous reveling in the texture of words. The Arabs call its effect on those who hear it "lawful magic"… In fact, "enchantment" is closer to the real meaning of the Arabic word…

'…It is a remarkably musical tongue, and even its prose has qualities of poetry. It is highly onomatopoeic, many of its words suggesting their own meaning. Notwithstanding its great written body of literature, Arabic is primarily a language for the ear—and indeed, early Arabic poetry and the Qur’an itself were originally meant for listeners rather than readers. The possibilities for rhyming are infinite, and until very recently a feature of Arabic verse was that the rhyme…was expected to remain the same throughout even the longest poems.

'These are just some of the features that made Arabic the ideal vehicle for divine revelation…

'Having attained the distinction of being chosen as the language of Revelation in the Muhammadan Dispensation, the special position of the Arabic language has been further consolidated and enhanced in our time through its having been singled out for the place of honour in the Baha'i Revelation. The introduction to the Kitab-i-Aqdas elaborates this theme:

"Baha'u'llah enjoyed a superb mastery of Arabic, and preferred to use it in those Tablets and other Writings where its precision of meaning was particularly appropriate to the exposition of basic principle. Beyond the choice of language itself, however, the style employed is of an exalted and emotive character, immensely compelling, particularly to those familiar with the great literary tradition out of which it arose."

'In point of fact, no less than approximately sixty percent of Baha'u'llah’s Tablets and other Writings were revealed in "the perspicuous Arabic tongue" as He designates it, in contradistinction to the "luminous Persian tongue" in which the remainder of His Writings was revealed…'

(Suheil Bushrui, Style of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Aspects of the Sublime, extracted from pp. 26-32)

I once asked a dear Baha'i friend of mine, who was born and raised in Egypt with Arabic as his native tongue, and who is also highly literate and fluent in English, how he felt the Long Obligatory Prayer came through in its English translation. He replied that, "The meaning is there, but the music is gone."

While I can sense that this may well be largely true, I also feel that there are numerous sentences in these prayers, despite the restrictions imposed by the translation process into English, where their translator, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith, was able to give us both the meaning
and music. One has only to read aloud the following sentence from the Long Obligatory Prayer to hear rhythmic music:
"Too high art Thou for the praise of those who are nigh unto Thee to ascend unto the heaven of Thy nearness, or for the birds of the hearts of them who are devoted to Thee to attain to the door of Thy gate."

Ruhiyyih Khanum observed the following:
"Many wonderful prayers exist in all languages and all religions; but the prayers of Baha'u'llah possess a peculiar power and richness all their own. He calls upon God in terms of the greatest majesty, of the deepest feeling; sometimes with awe; sometimes with pathos; sometimes in a voice of such exultation that we can only wonder what transpired within His soul at such moments. He uses figures of speech that strike the imagination, stir up new concepts of the Divinity and expand infinitely our spiritual horizons. Much, no doubt, of their perfection is lost in translation as He often employed the possibilities and peculiarities of the Arabic and Persian languages to their fullest. Some of His prayers, following the style of the Surihs of the Qur'an, end every sentence in rhyme--though they are not poems--and the custom of alliterating words, thus imparting a flowing sense of rhythm to the sentences, is very often resorted to in all His writings, including His prayers. Nevertheless the original charm and beauty pervades the translations...

(Ruhiyyih Khanum, "The Prayers of Baha'u'llah," Baha'i World Volume IX, 1940-1944, pp. 795-96)

Next: "Devotional Laws Apply"

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