A Different Kind of Power

different kind of power

Lust for power, or an addiction to it, once acquired, or the endless contest for power, is at the heart of much human suffering.

Baha’u’llah was a Persian nobleman. His birth gave him power over others, had he desired it. He rejected that kind of power although offered to him by the vizier of the Shah when he was a young man. In the the Sultan’s Puppet Show, we saw that even as a child, Baha’u’llah saw such power as meaningless. The following, addressed to Napoleon III (when Baha’u’llah was himself a prisoner and exile) couldn’t be clearer:

Exultest thou over the treasures thou dost possess, knowing they shall perish? Rejoicest thou in that thou rulest a span of earth, when the whole world, in the estimation of the people of Bahá, is worth as much as the black in the eye of a dead ant? Abandon it unto such as have set their affections upon it, and turn thou unto Him Who is the Desire of the world.[1]

As explicitly, in Baha’u’llah’s Most Holy Book:

By the righteousness of God! It is not Our wish to lay hands on your kingdoms. Our mission is to seize and possess the hearts of men.[2]

A major theme of the Book of Certitude is concerned with the sovereignty of the Manifestations or messengers of God. It is not earthly sovereignty. Rather Manifestations such as Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha exercise spiritual sovereignty.

In the article on Mona Mahmudnizhad’s life, the words Jesus spoke to Pontius Pilate were mentioned.

Thereupon Jesus lifted up His head and said: “Beholdest thou not the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and might?” These were His words, and yet consider how to outward seeming He was devoid of all power …[2]

As Baha’u’llah comments in respect of Muhammad (comments equally applicable to Jesus):

Consider, how great is the change today! Behold, how many are the Sovereigns who bow the knee before His name! How numerous the nations and kingdoms who have sought the shelter of His shadow, who bear allegiance to His Faith, and pride themselves therein! …[3]

Baha’u’llah never had or sought power over others. As he says, he was all the days of his life “under a sword hanging on a thread“. Yet undeniably his “power” transforms millions of lives today. It is a different kind of power. It is a kind of power which empowers rather than controls. It is in a sense organic. The kind of power that a tree possesses in its growth. In a discussion of the sacrifice made by the Prophets and Manifestations, Abdu’l Baha explained:

If you plant a seed in the ground, a tree will become manifest from that seed. The seed sacrifices itself to the tree that will come from it. The seed is outwardly lost, destroyed; but the same seed which is sacrificed will be absorbed and embodied in the tree, its blossoms, fruit and branches. If the identity of that seed had not been sacrificed to the tree which became manifest from it, no branches, blossoms or fruits would have been forthcoming. Christ outwardly disappeared. His personal identity became hidden from the eyes, even as the identity of the seed disappeared; but the bounties, divine qualities and perfections of Christ became manifest in the Christian community which Christ founded through sacrificing Himself. When you look at the tree, you will realize that the perfections, blessings, properties and beauty of the seed have become manifest in the branches, twigs, blossoms and fruit; consequently, the seed has sacrificed itself to the tree. Had it not done so, the tree would not have come into existence. Christ, like unto the seed, sacrificed Himself for the tree of Christianity. Therefore, His perfections, bounties, favors, lights and graces became manifest in the Christian community, for the coming of which He sacrificed Himself.[4]

In another sense, power can be thought of, in a broader sense, as human capacity to do things or achieve outcomes. Michael Karlberg analyses power in this broader sense. It is an analysis which illuminates that “power over” others is a subset of ways that “human capacity”/power can be used. Power may be used to empower – and need not be used coercively. Even where power is more or less equal between human beings – there is a choice as to how to use it – one choice leads to conflict the other to cooperation. Below is a TED talk where Michael Karlberg explores these concepts in the context of a broader discussion of alternatives to a culture of contest”.

Before we turn to that discussion however, some reflection is warranted on what is meant by a phrase such as “spiritual power”. This is not a reference to some sort of “magical” power. Rather it is a reference to the capacity some human beings possess which transcends apparent physical constraints.

We may think of Mona’s story: the efforts of her persecutors to force her to deny Baha’u’llah. Despite their apparent total power over her – they failed. And Mona’s voice still speaks out today – as it will for many generations. How different the reality she saw – as represented iny her dreams – as compared to the reality within which her persecutors were confined – as represented by the kind of judgement they rendered against her.


(This article is the 72nd in a series of what I hope will be 200 articles in 200 days for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh. The anniversary is being celebrated around the world on 21 and 22 October 2017, The articles are simply my personal reflections on Bahá’u’lláh’s life and work. Any errors or inadequacies in these articles are solely my responsibility.)

Image Credits: By specchio.nero (Sequoias) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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