Material civilization is like a globe of glass. Divine civilization is the light itself, and the glass without the light is dark – Abdul-Baha

November 27, 2013

Translation by Sen McGlinn, 2013.  Design by Sonja van Kerkhoff

Translation by Sen McGlinn, 2013. Design by Sonja van Kerkhoff

Recently I saw a poster of a globe projecting light with the text in the title above.

There was some discussion about what “divine civilisation” could mean. Some thought it referred to a future civilization as an entity, others discussed what characteristics a “divine civilisation” might have.

So let’s look at what Abdul-Baha wrote and the context for this quotation.

The English text above comes from the book, Foundations of World Unity (pages 28-33) which doesn’t give any indication of a source, however there is a corresponding text in the 1919 Tablet to the Hague in Persian.

And the English translation of this is closer to the Persian text:

“Material civilization is like a lamp-glass. Divine civilization is the lamp itself and the glass without the light is dark”
This text is also in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, published in 1978.

But now we miss the visual metaphor of a globe. The word globe isn’t in the Persian text. In consultation with Sen who reads Perisian here’s an attempt at both a translation that doesn’t introduce new elements and yet hopefully flows as nicely as the first text:

“Material civilization is like the lantern glass. Divine civilization is like the flame and the glass without the flame is dark.”

Some could argue that all three texts say the same thing and I’d agree the differences are minimal. All three texts refer to the divine (spiritual or spiritualized) as being what gives purpose (or illumination) to the material and all three texts refer to material and divine in the present continuous (not something yet to happen), however personally if quoting an author, I prefer to use text that reflects visual metaphors intended by the author.

Literally in the Persian the text (here at line 9) is: Material civilization is like the glass (In Persian when an article is not indicated it means ‘the’)”. The next phrase (there’s no punctuation in the Persian) “divine civilisation is like the lamp (saraaj)” makes it clear that “glass” is a lantern or glass of a lamp. In turn the first phrase tells us that “lamp” in the second phrase refers to what illuminates and not the physical structure so ‘flame’ is as accurate as the word lamp here.

In the two other translations “a” is used and the translators were most likely thinking of ‘any’ or ‘all’ various lanterns, whereas it seems that Abdul-Baha chose to indicate ‘the’ glass (in Persian it is a choice) and in doing this there’s a reference to the Platonic idea of the universal glass (lantern). I realise this is a slight difference of meaning in English but I found it interesting, and here using ‘a lantern’ or ‘the lantern’ doesn’t affect the flow of the words in English either way.

In Persian there’s a word for light (nur) which Abdul-Baha could have used and didn’t and so that’s the argument for using the word flame here.

Also a flame can be blown out and in a lantern it needs the glass to function, whereas light is more abstract (and hence independent). So there’s a reference to the interrelation between the material and the divine and this could be a reason why Abdul-Baha did not choose the word for light. For me this was a nuance I would have missed in the first translation – the complimentary natures of the material and the spiritual or divine, even though in this metaphor, it is the spirit that is the source of light.

So what is divine civilisation?
The text that immediately follows in the 1919 Tablet to the Hague, answers this in my view: “Divine civilization is like the spirit, and the body gets its life from the spirit, otherwise it becomes a corpse” (Abdul-Baha, http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/ab/SAB/sab-228.html)

I’d say divine civilisation refers to the spiritual or spirited – so a society or societies which are characterized by values such as justice, equality, etc.

The Persian word used for civilization is “madaniyyat” which has the meaning as in the phrase, Roman Civilization, meaning aspects of a way of life and the achievements of a people in a period.

Some Historical
Background to the Tablet to the Hague

In 1915 representatives from 9 European countries and the United States, formed the Central Organization for a Durable Peace in the Netherlands at The Hague. Their constitution was published in newspapers around the world. In Tehran, Iran, it was published in the Iran News and Mr Ahmad Yazdani in consultation with Mr Ibn-i-Asdaq, prepared a paper outlining the Baha’i principles and sent this to the Organization with the suggestion that they seek guidance from Abdu’l-Baha in their goal of establishing permanent global peace. The Organization responded by sending a letter written in 1916 to Abdu’l-Baha via Mr. Yazdani.
“The Tablet to The Hague” is the letter which `Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to the Central Organisation for Durable Peace, dated 17 December 1919 in response to receiving a letter dated in February 11th, 1916. Sima Quddusi in his 2005 abstract mentions that it was delivered to the organization in person by Mr. Yazdani and Mr. Abn-Asdaq in June 1920, however the organisation was dissolved after the June 1919 Peace Treaty of Versailles. Sima Quddusi also refers to later correspondence between the Central Organization for a Durable Peace and Abdul-Baha see: http://irfancolloquia.org/60/quddusi_hague

In the tablet, `Abdu’l-Bahá gives an overview of the Bahá’í principles: a declaration of universal peace, independent investigation of reality; the oneness of humanity; religion must be the cause of fellowship and love; religion must be in conformity with science and reason; the abandonment of religious, racial, political, economic and patriotic prejudices, a universal auxilliary language, equality of women and men, a voluntary sharing of one’s wealth (property), that each individual must be free (emanicipated), that religion is important for teaching morality; material civilization must work with divine civilization; education for all children; justice and rights.

Here are a few excerpts:
“And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is that religious, racial, political, economic and patriotic prejudices destroy the edifice of humanity. As long as these prejudices prevail, the world of humanity will not have rest.”
“If this prejudice and enmity are on account of religion consider that religion should be the cause of fellowship, otherwise it is fruitless.”

“Regarding the economic prejudice, it is apparent that whenever the ties between nations become strengthened and the exchange of commodities accelerated, and any economic principle is established in one country, it will ultimately affect the other countries and universal benefits will result. Then why this prejudice?

As to the political prejudice, the policy of God must be followed and it is indisputable that the policy of God is greater than human policy. We must follow the Divine policy and that applies alike to all individuals. He treats all individuals alike: no distinction is made, and that is the foundation of the Divine Religions.”

“And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is that although material civilization is one of the means for the progress of the world of mankind, yet until it becomes combined with Divine civilization, the desired result, which is the felicity of mankind, will not be attained. Consider! These battleships that reduce a city to ruins within the space of an hour are the result of material civilization; likewise the Krupp guns, the Mauser rifles, dynamite, submarines, torpedo boats, armed aircraft and bombers–all these weapons of war are the malignant fruits of material civilization. Had material civilization been combined with Divine civilization, these fiery weapons would never have been invented. Nay, rather, human energy would have been wholly devoted to useful inventions and would have been concentrated on praiseworthy discoveries. Material civilization is like a lamp-glass. Divine civilization is the lamp itself and the glass without the light is dark. Material civilization is like the body. No matter how infinitely graceful, elegant and beautiful it may be, it is dead. Divine civilization is like the spirit, and the body gets its life from the spirit, otherwise it becomes a corpse. It has thus been made evident that the world of mankind is in need of the breaths of the Holy Spirit. Without the spirit the world of mankind is lifeless, and without this light the world of mankind is in utter darkness. For the world of nature is an animal world.”

The whole tablet is here: http://bahai-library.com/provisionals/lawh.hague.html



  1. S wrote: But a “lantern-glass” is a “globe”:

    • I wasn’t saying that the translation “globe of glass” is wrong, but a problem with it was in the way the poster was made, showing a globe emitting light and so the point in the Persian of the combination of material and spiritual (divine) was lost. The designer responded to the text “globe of glass” and so the metaphor of a lamp or lantern that appears to be intended by Abdul-Baha is also lost.
      You have done the same here: taking the English “lantern-glass” and surmised that a hurricane lamp is what Abdul-Baha was referring to. In the Persian the text is “saraj” and it could be a range of lanterns with a wick or flame, but clearly not an electric one. In the Persian the reference is more general, any type of lantern which was why I went for the flame metaphor. I’d agree with you here if there was anything in the Persian to suggest that the image intended was a hurricane lamp, but there isn’t. There’s nothing even to suggest that the glass must be round. Thanks for your comment.

  2. S wrote: My understanding is that a hurricane lamp is a kerosene lamp. The image is of a double mantle propane lantern.

    I didn’t put up that image because I assumed that’s what ‘Abdu’l-Baha was referring to, or that a “lantern-glass is a lamp. I put it up because it conveniently labels the parts of a lantern, including the globe – the glass surrounding the mantle. The globe is also known as a “lantern-glass”

    • Sorry, I misunderstood you. I thought by your text: But a “lantern-glass” is a “globe” – and the picture of the hurricane lantern, that you meant that you thought Abdul-Baha was referring to this.

      Now I understand why the original translator might have used the word “globe”, thanks. I hadn’t realized that globe was the term for the glass around the mantle. However, I still think that the term “globe of glass” is too specific if one is thinking of sticking to the same metaphors as indicated in the Persian text. Also times have changed and now the text “globe of glass” in this earlier translation, doesn’t normally inform the reader that this refers to a lamp or lantern. We went with the text “lantern glass” as two words because in the Persian it could be a lamp with a candle or a lantern with a mantel. But I guess for you, seeing this text, it means only any type of hurricane lantern because other types of lanterns don’t have a globe. Correct me if I’m wrong here. If so, then I guess it just shows that whenever we use a translation there’s always something lost or added. And in that case then using “lamp glass” might be a better solution.

  3. S wrote: For me, a hurricane lantern uses kerosene and usually a wick. Other types of lanterns can use other fuels and flame containment/augmentation methods. But all have a globe or lantern glass, as I understand it. The globe helps create a draught for complete combustion of the fuel, as well as protecting the flame from horizontal air-movements. I suppose there are very primitive lamps that don’t use a lantern-glass/globe.

    lamp-glass / lantern-glass — i don’t think there’s much difference. I skimmed the Wiki entries for “kerosene lamp” and “lantern” and ended up confused about what the differences might be.

    I agree that “globe of glass” is not an ideal translation. Particularly since the translator doesn’t mention elsewhere in the passage that the metaphor is about a lamp. That fact has to be inferred!

  4. yes, I agree: “Particularly since the translator doesn’t mention elsewhere in the passage that the metaphor is about a lamp.”
    – ‘globe of glass’ is a beautiful phrase but in discussing this with Sen, making it ‘lantern glass’ in the first sentence and ‘flame’ in the second we thought this kept the English closer to the Persian. Square lamps were commonly used with candles in the times so the design I made implying a rounded glass is an interpretation. That was why I mixed the image – using a candle flame not an actual wick.

  5. M wrote: here’s another sort of lantern, presumably with a centre surrounded by an decorated iron cover:

    “the splendor of that light is in the hearts, yet it is hidden under the veilings of sense and the conditions of this earth, even as a candle within a lantern of iron, and only when the lantern is removed doth the light of the candle shine out.”
    (Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 23)

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