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Introduction by Alison Marshall

Historical background

Little is known about the background to Surah of the Almighty (also, All-Powerful, Omnipotent). Stephen Lambden suggests that the surah was probably written for a Babi with the title 'al-Qadir'.[1]

In volume 1 of "Revelation of Baha'u'llah",[2] Adib Taherzadeh treats the surah as a Baghdad text. However, both Juan Cole and Stephen Lambden say it was written in Edirne, somewhere around 1866. Juan Cole argues that the surah contains three characteristics that do not appear in Baghdad texts: it contains explicit claims for Baha'u'llah, it openly refers to Azal's rebellion [para 5] and it asks the recipient to share Baha'u'llah's message.[3] Juan Cole also comments that tablets of the Edirne period often focused on one of the divine names; for example, God (Allah), the Omnipotent, the Just, the Sorrowful and the Sacrifice.[4]

As regards the reference to Baha'u'llah's half-brother, Azal, Stephen Lambden says that the surah "contains what seems one of the earliest expressions of Baha'-Allah's dissatisfaction with the inadequate leadership role of his half-brother Mirza Yahya Nuri, Subh-i Azal".[5] Juan Cole also comments:

"There is also an interesting mention of Azal. Tens of thousands of Babis must have switched over to the Baha'i faith between early 1866 and a decade later, and it was letters such as this, translated orally into Persian, that persuaded them … Remember that when [Baha'u'llah] wrote it he was in exile in eastern Europe and under surveillance by the Ottomans, and most Babis probably still looked to Azal, so that there was still a question of whether Baha'u'llah's message would succeed. The Babis themselves had to remain underground and were hated by the Qajar government of Iran."[6]
Discussion on the text

The principal purpose of this tablet is to inform readers that God has brought about a change in Reality with regard to the name, the Almighty. God has caused its sun to shine brightly on all created things so that they might be illumined with its light. If believers open themselves up to this grace, they will manifest the power of God and be aided to overcome all manner of difficulties in their endeavours to promote Baha'u'llah's message.

After the introductory passages, Baha'u'llah starts (para 1) by outlining the astonishing spiritual capacity that God has created in all human beings. If they turn their attention away from this world and free themselves from its ensnaring dramas ("purify themselves from the dust of imaginings and selfish passions"), and look instead to the spiritual realms, they would reach "the farthest stations". The Arabic for this phrase is "maqa'id al-quwa", or the "Supernal Realm". When believers reach this place, they will speak the words that the Holy Spirit speaks from the location of the 'Tree beyond which there is no passing'. The Arabic for this phrase is "sidrat al-muntaha", also translated as "Lote-Tree of the Extremity". This phrase comes from Qur'an 53:14, a verse that forms part of the narrative about Muhammad's night journey into heaven. Verses 53:13-16 read:

"Indeed, he saw him [Gabriel] another time by the Lote-Tree of the Boundary nigh which is the Garden of the Refuge, when there covered the Lote-Tree that which covered..." trans Arberry (1956)

The Arabic word "muntaha" literally means end, limit or boundary. The narrative of Muhammad's night journey is notoriously obscure, but it is fair to conclude, at least, that the Lote-Tree of the Extremity marks a limit in creation, beyond which is the realm of the unknowable God.

In the Cole translation, the words that the Holy Spirit speaks at this boundary are: "There is no God but him and that the possessor of the two Words among these two Names is the everlasting Name of Names in the realm of immortality." The passage is obscure and has several possible interpretations. One suggested to me, which is less complex than others but conveys the general idea, draws on the phrasing of the Arabic original.[7] Here, the "two Words" are "huwa" (meaning, He; ie, God) and the phrase "la ilaha illa Allah" (meaning, 'there is no god but God'). This phrase is called the 'kalimat al-tawhid' or 'Word of the Divine Unity'. The "two Names" are Baha'u'llah's own names of Husayn and Ali. The "everlasting Name of Names" translates "al-qayyum al-asma", also meaning the Self-subsisting of the names of God. Putting all this together, then, Baha'u'llah is saying that the possessor (or, more literally, essence (dhat)) of the two Words - God, no god is there but God - is himself (Husayn Ali) and that he is the Self-subsisting One of all the names of God. At the same time, with a play on words, Baha'u'llah also indicating that he is the One promised in the Bab's key work, the Qayyumu'l-Asma.[8]

In the middle of the next paragraph (para 2), Baha'u'llah speaks directly to the Sun of the name of God, the Almighty, and says: "Rise from the East upon all beings with the wonders of the power of your Lord, so that all things may witness in themselves the Might of God, the Omnipotent, the All-Glorious." There are other examples in the writings where Baha'u'llah speaks to a name of God; for example, in Garden of Justice, he directs a long passage to the name of God, the Just.[9] This suggests that the names of God are existent things, or realities, that Baha'u'llah is able to command as he pleases. He seems to use the names of God to rearrange realities in the World of Command, anticipating that these changes will bear on affairs in this world.

What sort of 'thing' is a name of God that Baha'u'llah might instruct it as he pleases? The only scholarship I have found that provides a tangible answer to this question is Keven Brown's "Creation" essay.[10] In section 3, "The Act of Creation", Keven discusses the names and attributes of God and their role in the process of creation. He refers to the names and attributes as intelligible realities; that is, intangible energies, which cannot be apprehended by the senses, but nevertheless have an influence on things, like the power of love, or the powers of thought and imagination. He explains that the names and attributes are "creative energies", which produce life and all the possible variations in reality. He cites Abdu'l-Baha:

"Because they convey life, they are called Life-giving; because they provide, they are called Bountiful, the Provider; because they create, they are called Creator; because they educate and govern, the name Lord God is applied."[11]

How do these creative energies work? Keven quotes a passage from Baha'u'llah that sheds light on this by explaining the relationship between the names and the attributes:

"... the names are garments for the attributes, since an attribute is an act being manifested by an actor, such as giving something or causing one thing to prevail over another. Thus whatever is manifested by the actor appeareth through the stages of his will and his power. This act is made manifest as an effect of the action produced by the actor."[12]

Baha'u'llah says the names are "garments" for the attributes. I think, in a simple sense, he is saying the names are titles we give to attributes that appear in the actions of actors. For example, you make a donation to a charity. That action comes about through your will and power and is freely chosen by you, so it is a genuine expression of who you are. Through this action, you manifest the attribute of generosity. The name given to this attribute is the name of God, the Generous or the Giving. God's 'actions' can be understood along these lines. God acts, which produces particular effects on reality, and the attributes manifest in those actions come under the shelter of related names of God. Baha'u'llah says that, if actions are not clothed in the garment of names, they could not be known. Everything must be named; that is the structure of reality.

"When God purposed to make His action manifest in His realm, reveal it upon His earth, establish it in His land, and make it a perpetual word and a clear sign, He clothed it in the garment of names. This is the same as when ye say [of certain acts]: 'this is munificent,' 'this is discerning,' 'this is informed,' and so forth with similar names... If these actions were not named by these names, they would not become known and made manifest... Nothing in the heavens or on the earth can exist unless it is under the shadow of certain names among His names. For example, if thou seest the knowledge of a learned person, be assured that this knowledge hath appeared as a result of the effulgence of the name of God the Knowing. If thou observest the power of a powerful individual, know that this power oweth its existence to its reflection of the name the Powerful." [13]

And so, when Baha'u'llah commands the name of God, the Almighty, to shine on "all beings with the wonders of the power of your Lord", we are able to understand that Baha'u'llah is 'acting' through the intelligible reality of the name, the Almighty, in the realm of the World of Command. We can take from this that the effect of this acting is some kind of empowerment, for that would be the manifested attribute associated with that name. This action affects the realities in the World of Command, and spreads out to influence created things in all the worlds, including ours. To illustrate this process, Baha'u'llah uses the analogy of a spring feeding rivers: "The metaphor for this Name in this Tablet is a spring of water that feeds various rivers. In a like manner, from this Name flow the waters of Might into the streams of all being." (para 3)

After commanding the Sun of the Almighty to shine on all beings with God's power, Baha'u'llah addresses some uncompromising statements to those wanting to serve his Cause. He says that a person who does not take advantage of the grace that is shining upon them by the Almighty Sun will never be able to "establish the power" of God. It is not sufficient for a person to acknowledge in a confession of powerlessness to God that they are unable to establish God's power. Such a confession is insufficient because the person making it remains unaware of the reality of God's power that is available to them. Only a positive experience and expression of the power of God will result in gains in service to the Cause. Using the analogy of the mirror, as Baha'u'llah does at the beginning of paragraph 3, we must turn the mirrors of our hearts to the light of the Almighty Sun so that we can reflect its characteristics within ourselves and in what we do.

Paragraph 3 expresses the challenging idea that a person who reflects the light of the Almighty Sun will be empowered to do apparently supernatural things, like wield power over everything, tell things to turn upside down, and "conquer all beings" through an act of will. If taken literally, they suggest that a person could move through life like Superman, conquering all who get in the way and always prevailing. However, it is contrary to God's method to have believers be like Superman, for then everyone would believe. The surah has moderating phrases such as "All take therefrom according to their preordained portion" and "Thus may you ensure the victory of your Lord in every affair insofar as you are able". These suggest that a person is empowered to do only what is destined for them and only what can realistically be accomplished in a lifetime.

One way to look at what Baha'u'llah is suggesting here is to compare it to a similar idea expressed in the fourth valley of the Four Valleys. Towards the end of that valley, Baha'u'llah cites a tradition that he says illustrates the state of being of a person who has reached that valley. It says:

"O My Servant! Obey Me and I shall make thee like unto Myself. I say `Be,' and it is, and thou shalt say `Be,' and it shall be."[14]

I take from this that a person reflecting the power of the name the Almighty is permitted to ask for, and may anticipate receiving, whatever aid they need to achieve their goals. This process takes place secretly within the heart and life of the believer, who may obtain all manner of assistance without others knowing or noticing.

In paragraphs 4 and 5, Baha'u'llah changes his theme and focuses on the dangers a person faces when they find themselves empowered and exalted as described above. He speaks of the danger of becoming "beguiled" by something - in effect, by the exalted station the person finds themselves enjoying. This leads to the person becoming proud before God. Baha'u'llah warns against the impulse to stop mentioning God and forget God when one is riding high. A person is given the gift of empowerment for the whole of eternity so that they might forever remember God, thank God and be grateful. He calls on everyone who manifests the power of the Almighty Sun to listen attentively to God and ignore everything else, and prostrate before God and let nothing stop them obeying God.

Towards the end of paragraph 5, Baha'u'llah cites the example of his half-brother, Azal, as someone who was exalted by God but allowed that empowerment to go to his head. His given name was Mirza Yahya Nuri, but the Bab referred to him as "Azal" (Eternity) in the first verse of his Will and Testament, and gave him titles using that name (and others); for example, "Thamaratu'l-Azaliyya" (Fruit of Eternity) and "'Ismu'l-Azal" (Name of Eternity).[15] What went wrong in his case is alluded to by Baha'u'llah in a phrase that comes earlier in the paragraph: "beware lest mere names entice you away from the mention of your Creator". Effectively, the titles given to Azal overwhelmed his ego and lead him to believe that the realities behind the high station he had attained originated from within himself and not God. We have seen earlier on in this essay how the realities of the names of God originate with God in the World of Command and permeate from there to the physical world. They do not originate from within our own selves. But once that subtle shift in perception takes place within a person, they see no need to mention God any more. This leads to pride, arrogance and haughtiness.

The final three paragraphs of the surah contain general statements about the future of the Cause as Baha'u'llah expects it to unfold in time. He expresses the conviction that his message will prevail, even if the Babis do not support it, because God will render it victorious. It will invert the names and bring them down - for example, bring down powerful people, such as tyrants - and this process will bring great confusion to the world. Baha'u'llah tells his reader to confidently share the message with those who are open to it and leave alone those who are not interested.

[1] Stephen Lambden, Stephen Lambden, The surat al-qadir (The Surah of the Omnipotent)

[2] Adib Taherzadeh: Revelation of Baha'u'llah: Baghdad 1853-63 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1974) p. 119

[3] Juan Cole to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 25.8.96

[4] Juan Cole to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 24.8.96

[5] Stephen Lambden, The surat al-qadir (The Surah of the Omnipotent). Further background on the split between Baha'u'llah and Azal can be found in my Introduction to Garden of Justice.

[6] Juan Cole to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 24.8.96

[7] I am grateful to Stephen Lambden for suggesting this interpretation to me.

[8] Another interpretation draws on the fact of the manifestation appearing in this dispensation in two persons, the Bab and Baha'u'llah, hence the 'two names' Muhammad and Ali. Refer, for example, to the following passage from the Qayyumu'l-Asma:

"He [the Bāb] was indeed made manifest in the form of the two Primal Ones (al-awwalayn) [= Muhammad and `Ali?] and hath outstretched His Divine Mercy (raḥmat) such that it was diffused within the earthly dominion (al-mulk) even as the Mercy of the two [Imam] Ḥasans [No.2 son of `Ali and no. 11 al-Askari 2+11= 13]. It was such that its like is never seen [even] at the [very] Pivot of Heaven (qutb al-ama') such was the [expression of Divine] Justice (al-`adl), being tantamount to a Double [outpouring of] Justice (`al-`adlayn). And in [the outpouring of] Divine Bounty (fadl) he is even as the twin shining Lights (al-nayyirayn) conjoined in the two Names pertinent to the supremely elevated twin Depths [Bosoms] (al-jaybayn) as well as the Barzakh (Isthmus) of the two Causes (al-amrayn) pertinent to the secret of the two Gulfs (sirr al-tutunjayn)..." (trans Stephen Lambden)

[9] Garden of Justice, paragraphs 2-7

[10] Keven Brown, "Creation: The Nature of God and the Creation of the Universe in Bahá'í Cosmology"

[11] Abdu'l-Baha, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 219

[12] From the Tafsír-i-Hu, International Bahá’í Archives, unpublished manuscript, no. BC003/070/00084 C. Cited in Keven Brown, "Creation: The Nature of God and the Creation of the Universe in Bahá'í Cosmology".

[13] Ibid

[14] Baha'u'llah, Seven Valleys and Four Valleys, p. 63

[15] Wikipedia, Subh-i-Azal. The origins of the title "Subh-i Azal", usually attributed to Mirza Yahya Nuri, are unknown.

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