HOME :  Mission :  History :  Chancellors :  Projects :  Essays :  Photos :  Site Directory :  Contact

The Universal House of Justice

Bahá’í World Centre

Haifa, Israel

June 22, 2002


Dear Respected Friends,


I am writing to you with questions that I have been researching for some months and for which I have not yet found conclusive answers. In the meantime, my proposal for a paper on the subjects outlined below was accepted by the Association for Bahá’í Studies conference at the end of August.  My plans are to present it in Toronto at that time.  I would be very grateful for your response to my inquiry.


My questions center on the image of God as “Father,” masculine pronouns used in reference to the Divinity, and the use of “man” to represent humanity as well as individuals – usage that is standard in the authorized English translations of the Bahá’í scriptures as well as the English writings of the Guardian and, most often, the Universal House of Justice. My understanding from the Teachings is that this usage is a product of convention and the images are generic and intended to be inclusive.  While I don’t doubt that intention, these practices nevertheless raise certain questions because of the importance of language in the formation of worldview.


To my knowledge, Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb abided by the conventions of Arabic and Persian regarding these matters, as did ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Shoghi Effendi translated their Writings into an English that was also faithful to conventions of the time.  All of these languages utilize the masculine when referring to God. It appears that Shoghi Effendi often chose to translate words that referred to the generality of humankind as “man” per the standard. None of them chose to create new forms by which to render either “God” or “humanity” differently or opted to use alternatives, and so masculine is the norm when referring to God in Bahá’í literature.


Of course, any language is inadequate to express the Divine, and both the Revealed Word and the translations are of singular quality, but the Word of God was revealed in language from the nineteenth-century Middle East, and the translations by the Guardian, the Expounder, were into a form of English characteristic of a time that preceded even his own.  Language, however, changes to reflect the realities of the age; for example, it would seem unlikely that, were the Guardian writing and translating today, he would use “colored” or “Negro,’ which were legitimate during his life, but in the short time since have come to be regarded as archaic, even offensive.


According to my understanding, two important spiritual features of this age will be the deanthropomorhization of God in the minds of human beings and the equality of the sexes.  The language of the Bahá’í scriptures, however, can be seen to repeat and reinforce the sense that the Divine is somehow male. This concept characterized previous religions with many cumulative, undesirable consequences, which our Faith addresses. Similarly, the consistent use of “man” and masculine pronouns in the Writings to represent humanity and individuals contributes to an image that the human archetype is male, particularly when even in private personal prayer, the gender of pronouns -- overwhelmingly masculine – is not to be changed, no matter who is praying or for whom, with the exception of the prayer for the dead.


 My specific questions to you are:


§        Since the selection of words were divinely-inspired in the case of the Central Figures and consciously made choices by the Guardian, does that mean that in order to preserve faithfulness to their intent, Bahá’í English with regard to gender was crystallized at the point of the Guardian’s translations?

§        Will his specific use of gender in the language serve as the model for translations henceforth?

§        Will all references to God and human beings throughout this dispensation be masculine? 

§        Is this the image translators should endeavor to replicate, even in languages whose constructs regarding gender and the Divine may pose no such dilemmas or different ones?

§        Will the universal auxiliary language need to retain masculine imagery in order to be true to the message or will it be able to establish new forms?

§        Are there spiritual implications to sex-specific imagery -- which the Faith’s own teachings seem to indicate is not correct -- being fixed in holy Scriptures for all time or at least until the end of this dispensation?


I deeply appreciate your attention to my questions. I request your guidance regarding my sharing the response with the audience at the Association for Bahá’í Studies Conference, should it come in time to be incorporated as part of my presentation, and later with interested Bahá’ís and the general public.


With deepest respect and love,


Nancy Branham Songer

Columbia, SC

HOME :  Mission :  History :  Chancellors :  Projects :  Essays :  Photos :  Site Directory :  Contact