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A question answered: Chapter 1 of Some Answered Questions

Posted by Sen on July 14, 2012

One of the participants on the Facebook group Bahais United in Diversity wrote:

I’m afraid I have to point out that Abdu’l-Baha contradicts himself [in the proof of the existence of God, in the first chapter of Some Answered Questions]… First he suggests that “Nature has neither intelligence nor perception.” So God must exist. Then he says that “man is the branch; nature is the root,” and asks “can the will and the intelligence, and the perfections which exist in the branch, be absent in the root?”
So the will and the intelligence and the perception are in nature after all… and God becomes unnecessary to explain order in nature and the emergence of human life.

It’s a sharp observation, but the problem lies in the translation rather than in Abdu’l-Baha’s reasoning. I would also note that the title of the chapter, which is part of the original Persian text, is not “a proof of the existence of God” but “nature is governed by universal law.” In my translation, Abdu’l-Baha’s argument goes as follows:

Now, when you behold in existence such organization, orderliness and laws, can you say that these are the effect of Nature, though it has neither intelligence nor consciousness? Then it is evident that this Nature, which has neither consciousness nor intelligence, is in the grasp of Almighty God, Who is the Ruler of the world of Nature. He causes Nature to manifest whatever type [of being] he wishes.

One of the things which has appeared in the world of existence, and which some people say is one of the inevitable effects of Nature, is human life. Considered from this point of view, man is the branch; nature is the root.

Can the will, intelligence, and perfections exist in the branch, and not in the root? It is evident that Nature in its essence is in the grasp of the power of God, and that it is the ever-living One who holds Nature to an ideal organisation and laws, and rules over it.
(End of the chapter)

However Dreyfus and Barney, who made the original translation, rendered it, in the 1908 English edition (page 4)

… One of the things which has appeared in the world of existence, and which is one of the requirements of Nature, is human life. Considered from this point of view man is the branch, nature is the root; then can the will and the intelligence, and the perfections which exist in the branch, be absent in the root? …

Dreyfus has failed to translate the word guyand, ‘they say,’ with the result that it is not clear that “human life is a necessary effect of nature” is a proposition which Abdu’l-Baha is refuting.

The same mistake is found in the French edition(s) currently available here and here. Neither of these sites gives information as to the edition they have used, but since the mistake is in the 1908 English edition, and in currently available French editions, I assume it was in the 1908 French edition as well. The mistake has been carried forward in the later editions I have checked. However the English 1990 edition (the pocket-size edition), available at the Bahai Reference Library changes the punctuation at some points, and adds another inaccuracy in the last paragraph, which now reads:

It is said that Nature in its own essence is in the grasp of the power of God, Who is the Eternal Almighty One: He holds Nature within accurate regulations and laws, and rules over it.

That is, the words “they say” which Dreyfus had omitted, have been inserted in the form “it is said”, but they are in the wrong sentence! And the words “it is clear that” – which are in the Persian – have been removed.

Post script:

It remains possible that the word guyand / “they say” was not in the Persian text that Dreyfus was using. I am basing my translation on the electronic text from the Bahai Reference Library, which states that it derives from the 1908 Leiden edition from Brill Publishers. The word guyand is also there in the 1920 Egyptian edition.

It could be that Dreyfus has not made a mistake, but was working from a manuscript that was defective. It is in any case virtually certain that the 1920 Egyptian edition has been corrected by Abdu’l-Baha, since the various editions of The Secret of Divine Civilization that were published in his lifetime show clearly that they have been both carefully prepared, and checked line by line. One copy of an early edition in fact has a table of corrections inserted behind the title page, apparently being Abdu’l-Baha’s corrections. Some of the changes made – none of which change the meaning much – are hardly explicable as accidents or editorial amendments, but quite explicable as the adjustments of an author seeking the greatest possible clarity for the reader. Until I find evidence to the contrary, therefore, I will assume that an edition of Abdu’l-Baha’s works in Persian published under his control has been checked in detail by him.

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8 Responses to “A question answered: Chapter 1 of Some Answered Questions”

  1. Gordon said

    Good stuff Sen, I am sure your observations and are worth noting. My approach to this particular text has always been with a pinch of table salt, the Persian to french to English translations of hand written table talks are always gong to reveal inconsistencies methinks, now matter how careful the scholarship and revisions.

  2. Sen said

    The Persian text is not some handwritten notes: it was checked by Abdu’l-Baha and published in his lifetime, and from his practice with his other writings published in his lifetime, it’s probable that he checked and corrected the proofs, if not of the Brill edition then certainly of the 1920 Egyptian edition. However, Dreyfus must have had a manuscript copy, and it’s possible that what looks like a translation error was actually a word missing in his manuscript. In either case, the translation should be corrected in line with the Egyptian 1920 edition. In fact the whole book should be retranslated from that edition: that’s more certain and easier than looking for errors in the current English edition and trying to track down where they crept in. Back to the sources!

  3. Thomas Linard said

    For the manuscripts’ history:

  4. Sen said

    Brilliant, thanks very much.

  5. Alison Marshall said

    Hi Sen,

    I’ve just been through my pocket edition (1990) to pencil in the changes based on your correction. I’m puzzled, though, by your comments about the title of the chapter. The title in my edition is “Nature is governed by one universal law”. It is chapter 2 that is about “Proofs and evidences of the existence of God”. Alison

  6. Sen said

    Hi Alison,
    The person to whom I responded, in “Bahais united in Diversity,” had read the argument as a proof of the existence of God, and critiqued it. I’ve responded to that, but also pointed out that the chapter heading (part of the Persian text, not an editorial addition) concerns the universal law. The point he is making is not that a God exists, but rather that humanity is not simply the spontaneous and necessary product of nature.

  7. hasanelias said

    There are a lot of problems with translation, have you considered to make an edition of Some Answered Questions with comments?

  8. Sen said

    I understand that the Bahai World Centre has a team working on a new translation. The problems with SAQ have long been recognized.

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