The Censorship of Salmani's Memoirs by the Baha'i Authorities:
Historical Documents from 1982
From materials in the private collections of Juan R. I. Cole
THE UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE
BAHA'I WORLD CENTRE
20 September 1982
10889 Wilshire Boulevard,
Suite 270 Los Angeles,
Dear Baha’i Friends,
On 31 August 1982 the Universal House of Justice received a letter from Mr. Juan Cole expressing concern aver a number of points connected with its decision that certain passages, of the Salmani memoirs should not be published at this time. Shortly afterwards it was informed that Mr. . . . was also writing on this subject, and it decided to await the arrival of his letter before replying. However, Mr. Roger White has now shared with the House of Justice extracts from a personal letter he has received from Mr. . . . , and it has instructed us to send you the following clarification and comments without further delay.
As you will recall from the letter we wrote to you on behalf of the Universal House of Justice on 19 August 1980, the special committee that the National Spiritual Assembly of' the United States had been asked to appoint to review Persian manuscripts was also given the responsibility of advising on the timeliness and wisdom of publishing such texts. The House of Justice then presumed that the Salmani memoirs were going through this process. In June 1982, however, one of the friends wrote to the House of Justice expressing his great concern at learning that the entire text of the Salmani memoirs was being copied out with the intent of publishing them. On receipt of this letter an enquiry was immediately made by telephone to Mr. Darakhshani, the secretary of the recently appointed reviewing committee for Persian publications, and he was asked to draw to your attention the unwisdom of publishing the book in full at this time. This was confirmed in a letter to Mr. Darakhshani on 30 June 1982.
Your two cables of 1 and 15 July then arrived informing the House of Justice that, not only had the book been passed by review of both the Persian original and the English translation, but that it was actually
Kalimat Press 20 September 1982
Los Angeles, California Page two
at the printers. Realizing the urgency of the matter and aware that, apparently, the earlier committee appointed by the National Spiritual Assembly had not appreciated the problems of timeliness presented by this publication, the House of Justice instructed an ad hoc committee to immediately identify those few passages which were objectionable and to send them post‑haste to Mr. Darakhshani so that the proofs could be corrected and the printing go forward.
The House of Justice greatly regrets that it had to intervene at the last minute in this way, and since it is clear that Kalimat Press had faithfully followed all the requirements for review, the House of Justice will pay the additional costs incurred as a result of the last‑minute changes.
In addition to the general question, Mr. Cole in his letter has queried the reason for the excision of a number of passages. At the moment the House of Justice has before it only the original Persian manuscript, therefore it would appreciate your sending at your earliest convenience a copy of the typescript or proofs of the book, showing both the Persian and the English and whatever notes and footnotes you have added, so that it can consider the passages in detail and reply to the points that Mr. Cole has raised.
With loving Baha'i greetings,
For Department of the Secretariat
cc: The National Spiritual of the United States ,
Mr. Juan Cole
THE UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE
BAHA'I WORLD CENTRE
2 December 1982
Mr. Juan Ricardo Cole
Department of Medieval and
Dear Baha'i Friend,
The Universal House of Justice has now been able to compare the published edition of the Salmani memoirs with the Persian manuscript: and to consider the passages which the ad hoc committee had marked for deletion. It is clear that Kalimat Press scrupulously followed all the provisions for review of this book before publication, but, unfortunately the process has been dogged by a series of' misunderstandings and confusions. The House of Justice has instructed us to send you the following comments on the points raised in your letter of 13 August 1982.
When the early correspondence took place between the World Centre and Kalimat Press concerning this publication, the House of Justice was relying on the discretion of the appropriate committee in the United States to check not only the normal review aspects, but also the timeliness and wisdom of such a publication. It did not itself check the manuscript. If it had done so it now concludes that it would not have given permission for its publication or translation at this time, for reasons which will be explained below.
In June 1982, concern was expressed to the Universal House of Justice about the possible publication in full, in Persian, of these memoirs, and action was taken in July, in great haste, to eliminate the most harmful passages so that the publication of the book, which was already at the press, could proceed. Unfortunately at that time the ad hoc committee was unaware of the earlier correspondence and of the fact that certain passages had already been quoted in translation in books by Mr. Hasan Balyuzi and Mr. Adib Taherzadeh.
Kalimat Press, in its turn, knowing of the prior publication of these passages, and not understanding the reasons for the proposed deletions, has, in fact, retained the larger part of the objectionable passages. The publication is a fait accompli and the House of Justice has therefore decided to permit it to stand, but not to) permit the publication of the Persian text which, in fact, would be more damaging than the English version.
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To the points of substance which you have raised concerning the publication of historical texts, the House of Justice instructs us to explain the following
In order to preserve basic information and historical materials for the use of future historians, the beloved Guardian instructed the communities throughout Iran to record the history of the Faith in their localities, and also gave instructions for the memoirs of a number of early believers to be written down and preserved. This was not a new advice and many friends, eyewitnesses of certain events, in the lives of Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l‑Baha, had already committed their reminiscences to writing. The memoirs of Ustad Muhammad‑`Aliy‑i‑Salmani are among, these and were written down from his spoken recollections in his old age. There is no question whatsoever of suppressing such records ‑ on the contrary, the whole purpose of having them made was to preserve them, and they have been made available to Baha'i historians, such as Mr. Balyuzi and Mr. Taherzadeh for use in their work. When excerpts are translated and published in such works, they are placed in context, related to other records and, where necessary, annotated and commented on. You will readily agree that such a use is not the same as publication in full, even if supplementary footnotes are added, and
does not carry the same implications. .
In time entire collections of early documents of the Faith will be published in scholarly editions for general use. An initial step in suclbrl a process is Dr. Moojan Momen's admirable book "The Babi and Baha’i Religions, 1.844‑1944 ‑ Some Contemporary Western Accounts". Additional considerations, however, have to be weighed in publishing texts by Baha'i writers.
At the present time the general public, even if it has heard of the Faith, is largely uninformed or misinformed. An increasing amount of misinformation is continually being disseminated by opponents of the Faith, both in the east and in the west. The principal task of the Baha’is at the present time ‑ and especially of Baha’i scholars ‑ is to present a true picture of the Faith to the general public and to relate the Baha’i teachings to the concerns and problems of mankind. When a Baha'i publishing house issues a translation of a document such as Salmani's memoirs, the implication to an average reader is that the Baha’is consider this particular account worthy of publication, and, in the absence of adequate footnotes or commentary to the contrary, the reader will assume that Salmani's actions and statements are approved by Baha’is and are accurate portrayals of the Faith. After all, Salmani was a close companion of Baha’u’llah, comparable in the eyes of a Christian reader with one of the early disciples of Christ.
Viewed in this light, certain of Salmani's accounts are misleading or
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unworthy and, apart from distorting the Faith for the average reader can provide material for the enemies of the Faith who at the present time are seizing every opportunity to attack the Cause and blacken its reputation.
To take a few examples from the passages queried by the ad hoc committee:
3. pp. 31‑34. There are three unpleasant stories recounted by Salmani to illustrate Azal's gluttony. Shoghi Effendi was always very careful in his accounts of Azal to confine his strictures to his truly infamous conduct. He never stooped to making personal criticisms of such a nature, which are unworthy , Publication of such stories in the context of an annotated edition of a historical document for scholarly study is one thing; publication in a book for the general reader is quite another. Again, unfortunately, Kalimat Press did not appreciate the reason for the committee's objection and published the whole passage apart from a couple of brief deletions which were of no significance.
3. p. 34. There is the account. of a disagreement between Baha'u’llah and Azal over the shaving of Azal’s son's head‑another unworthy story, the point of which is obscure.
There are others of a similar character.
The passages which have already been published in translation, such as Azal's attempt to persuade Salmani to murder Baha'u'llah, provide striking examples of the profound difference between publication in the context of a properly balanced historical exposition, and publication as unadorned parts of a narrative.
In sum, to a knowledgeable Baha’i reader, Salmani’s memoirs are a graphic illustration of the overwhelming problems with which Baha'u'llah had to deal both from His enemies and because of the actions of some of His own
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faithful followers; but to an uninformed reader they give a misleading and distorted picture of the Faith and of Baha'u'llah Himself.
With loving Baha’i greetings,
For Department of the Secretariat
cc: The International Teaching Centre
National Assembly of the United States
Excerpts from contemporaneous responses to the UHJ letter to J. Cole from other Baha’i intellectuals who saw it:
1) Firuz Kazemzadeh, member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the U.S. and Yale historian, was extremely upset about the tampering with a primary source and offered to write a letter of support for Kalimat Press in the affair.
2) Professor Amin Banani of UCLA, who had written the introduction to the Salmani memoir, insisted that his name be removed from the introduction because he declined to be associated with a censored document.
3) Another intellectual observed the following:
It is simply untrue to suppose that the average reader is incapable of distinguishing between the statements and actions of an individual believer and the official positions of the institutions of the Faith. This is an elementary distinction of the kind which is made every day by persons in all walks of life. This must be particularly true of a manuscript of personal memoirs which is over seventy years old. Using the House's example of the early disciples of Christ, many of their failings and misunderstandings are clearly recorded in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles. Christians (or others) do not automatically assume that these shortcomings are approved by modern Churches or are accurate portrayals of Christian standards. What sane reader of the Gospels would propose that since Peter denied Christ three times or because he used his sword to sever the ear of a Roman soldier in the garden of Gethsemane, these must be Christian teachings or approved examples of Christian conduct?
If anything, the current policies of review which the House is applying will serve to blur what would otherwise be a perfectly obvious distinction. Since the House now insists that any published personal memoirs, or other statements of personal opinion on the Faith by Baha'is, must actually reflect official policy and contain no statements or reminiscences that run counter to present practice the argument that any individual opinion constitutes official policy (which would otherwise appear absurd) gains some force. Of course, it is just the opposite impression. which the House wants to make.
For instance, the only reason that anyone might suppose that Salmani's particular account of Baha'u'llah's exiles might be considered by Baha'is_to be of some special significance is that it is the only one that has been allowed in print. If there were several personal accounts of this kind available, from different points of view, the notion that Salmani's memoir is somehow special would be held by no one. . .
The letter to Juan Cole states that Salmani's account was published without footnotes or commentary. Both were provided in [Kalimat’s] edition . . .
The intention of the House to protect the reputation of the Faith is certainly to be appreciated, but it seems clear that this reputation is more likely to be blackened by present policies of strict censorship than by anything in the Salmani memoirs—not only for non‑Baha'is, but also for loyal believers who find such policies difficult to understand Moreover, such policies play right into the hands of critics of the Faith (such as Denis MacEoin in England) who are hard at work to portray the Faith as an anti‑democratic, totalitarian, rigidly authoritarian religion, which has falsified and distorted its own history.
To addresss the specific objections of the ad hoc committee:
2. It is clear that Baha'u'llah never claimed to be the Godhead, and this can be conclusively demonstrated by reference to His own Writings. On the other hand, it is also clear that there were many Baha'is who believed that He was. (And there certainly still are!) Numerous references in the published works of E. G. Browne indicate this clearly. This could easily be proven, by any scholar who bothered to try. So, the offending sentence in Salmani's memoirs adds nothing to what is not already known.
Furthermore, Baha'is know that in a certain sense we believe that Baha'u'llah is God, as is explained in the Iqan.
Especially since the incident is not without humor, was intended as an amusing story, and involves an ignorant villager (and in the context: of the introduction of the book), it seems unlikely that it would fuel our enemies or make us seem ridiculous.
2. The comments which Salmani makes about Mirza Aqa Jan's head are admittedly curious. However, I would query the statement that they are of nc historical importance. If we could understand what the comments meant they may be of great interest. Salmani was, after all, a barber, and he may have recorded something about Mirza Aqa Jan's head that others have failed to mention.
3 & 4. The truly extraordinary standard for forbidding the publication of passages‑‑that they are "unpleasant" or "unworthy" ‑‑appears to establish a new standard for the review of materials which was not used by the Guardian, or previously used by the House of Justice. Such a new standard raises many questions:
Salmani can hardly have been expected to conform to standards of style and choice of material found in the Guardian's writings, since he was writing before the Guardian began his ministry. Beyond this, there.mu8t be room in Baha'i literature for different kinds of books. Not all can be similar to the works of Shoghi Effendi. In this case, we were publishing the personal memories and pilgrim's notes of an illiterate barber. It is certainly unfair to compare them to the writings of the Guardian.
The objection that a particular passage is "unpleasant" or if unworthy" is extremely vague. It is difficult to see how a reviewing committee could be expected to apply such a standard. It could provide license to forbid the publication of almost anything.
The other question, of course, is “impleasant" to whom? I do not find anything in the memoirs unpleasant or unworthy of publication. Neither did the translator, or the author of the introduction to the book. Nor did two Separate reviewing committee of the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, one Persian and one American, find anything of this kind in the manuscript.
Concerning Azal's plot to murder Baha'u'llah‑‑the descriptions of which the ad‑hoc committee felt should not be included in the translation of Salmani's memoirs, since these descriptions had already been published in translation in two separate books published by George Ronald, it would have been truly remarkable to omit them from a translation of the memoirs as a whole. It was impossible for me to understand how such a request could be justified.
The letter of the House of Justice states that there is no question of suppressing records such as Salmani's memoirs. The dictionary defines the word suppress as: "2: to keep from public knowledge: as a: to keep secret b: to stop or prohibit the publication or revelation of." There can be little argument that the House of Justice intends to suppress certain parts of Salmani's memoirs. That it does not intend to do so forever is encouraging, but it does not change the current condition under which Baha'i publishers must operate. Nor will the intention to release such information in the future protect us much from the attacks of scholars or other critics who wish to criticize us on this point.
4) Juan Cole wrote the UHJ on 9 January 1983 in New Delhi:
I remain convinced that the policy outlined by the Universal House of Justice is an unfortunate one and that time will prove it incorrect. At that point, I am sure that the Supreme Institution will, on the basis of further information and considerations, abandon its current stance.
I firmly believe that it is essentially dishonest to delete passages from manuscripts when they are published, whether in the original or in translation, and no matter how temporarily. I feel that it is also morally wrong for a public institution to withhold documents, particularly ones over thirty years old, from scrutiny by the public. Because I believe that such acts are wrong in principle, no particular justifications for them can strike me as wholly convincing. I further fear that such a policy of secretiveness and bowdlerization will inevitably besmirch the fair name of the Faith of Baha'u'llah.
I am convinced that the Baha'i Faith has nothing to fear from the historical records that have survived the nineteenth century. It, is too sublime, too true to ever be sullied by anything mere human beings have written or done, We Baha’is should face the historical record, not with fear, dissimulation and blue pencils, but with unshakeable certitude of the purity of our Cause.
Final note: The example given by the UHJ of historical accounts being allowed to be published was Moojan Momen’s The Babi and Baha’i Religions: Some Contemporary Western Accounts (Oxford: George Ronald, 1980). In fact, this book was also censored and important material in the British Archives that the editor had planned to include was taken out at the UHJ’s insistence.