The Life and Thought of
BEDIUZZAMAN SAID NURSI
by Prof. Dr. Yunus Çengel
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1876-1960), the author of the Risale-i Nur Collection, is a contemporary scholar and thinker who recognized the realities and challenges of time and the new paradigm following the scientific and industrial revolutions. He was born in the village of Nurs in Eastern Turkey and spent his early adolescent years studying the classical Islamic and modern sciences in the traditional madrasas. Nursi excelled in his studies and received his certificate of completion in 1892 at the age of 14. He then undertook an exhaustive study of natural sciences in the province of Van and served as a member of the High Council of Islamic Affairs in Istanbul for a brief period.
Nursi became a brilliant commentator on religious and modern sciences by making them relevant to the demands and problems of the modern age. His theological and intellectual reflections from that early stage still inspire the thinkers of our time. Despite the fact that he was imprisoned and sent to exile for many years during Turkey’s early republican years, his magnum opus the Risale-i Nur collection, which exemplifies the scope of his intellectual and religious dynamism, continues to be one of the most read and highly influential intellectual master piece of our time.
Nursi was at peace with modern values and a passionate advocate of personal rights and freedoms, as exemplified by his saying “I can live without bread, but not without freedom.” He objected any association of Islam with oppression and tyranny, stating that Islam came to this world to end injustice and despotism, and defined despotism as “It is the basis of tyranny. It annihilates humanity. It is despotism which reduces man to the most abject valleys of abasement, has caused the Islamic world to sink into abjection and degradation, which arouses animosity and malice, has poisoned Islam… and has caused endless conflict within Islam.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries who associated Islam with politics, Nursi obtained from mixing religion with politics and remained distant to the notion ‘political Islam.’ Instead, he advocated personal dimension of belief and religion, and stated that saving the faith of one person is more important than gaining the supremacy of the whole world. Despite all the injustices and harassments he was subjected to, he always practiced positive action and never advocated violence. He repeatedly expressed that wars in this age of enlightenment and civilization are fought with the pen, and not the sword. Indeed, whoever conquers the minds and the hearts of people in modern times will conquer the world.
He viewed aggressive atheism as the greatest threat to humanity, and expressed that Muslims and pious Christians must join forces to overcome this threat which endangers the eternal life of all. In Nursi’s view, the three greatest common enemies are ignorance, poverty, and conflict. The greatest achievement for any person in this world is the acquisition and preservation of a strong faith.
Nursi does not presuppose belief in God or submission to the divine in his writings. In a rather democratic way, he merely provides guidance to anyone who sincerely wishes to find answers to the mind-boggling age-old questions like ‘Who am I? Where am I coming from? Where I am I going to? What is the meaning of existence?’ by walking the reader through the creation and engaging reason and senses. He points out the glitters of will and power, knowledge and wisdom, order and harmony, beauty and precision, justice and mercy, life and consciousness that reflect on creation, and using the analogy of glittering sunlight and the sun in the sky, infers the ‘Invisible Source’ of those attributes after piercing through the ‘causes’ which are themselves created, impotent, ignorant, transient and purposeless.
Nursi opened a new pass way for the rays of truths of belief to reach the minds and the hearts by discarding the multiplexed scholastic interpretations and bringing down the walls of bigotry. He has shattered the hardened shell that formed around religion in time and brought out its luminous kernel. He stayed away from extremism, and founded a short, secure, and resilient path to the core of faith and religion. And he did this on the platform of personal rights and freedoms, intellectual scrutiny, and the realities of the time.
BELIEF IN GOD AND THE HEREAFTER
The hallmark of Nursi’s writings is its emphasis on belief – especially belief in God and belief in the hereafter, which are common aspects of all Abrahamic religions. After the formation of the new Turkish Republic in 1920s and imposition of aggressive secular policies, Nursi devoted himself to saving and strengthening belief in God and the other tenets of belief that came under attack. In 10th Word, Nursi presented very convincing arguments with powerful mental scenarios about the existence of life after death. He views death as a new beginning rather than an end, and offers a striking perspective: “Death is not execution, or nothingness, or annihilation; it is not cessation, or extinction; it is not eternal separation, or non-existence, or a random event, or an authorless obliteration. Rather, it is a discharge by the One Who is All-Wise and All-Compassionate; it is a change of locations. It is a dispatch to eternal bliss, to your true home.” To Nursi, gaining a strong belief is like gaining an eternal world, and thus it is more important than gaining supremacy of this temporary world.
FAITH AND TRUE HAPPINESS
Nursi points out that people have desires and hopes that stretch to eternity, thoughts and imaginings that embrace the universe, the earnest desire for everlasting happiness and Paradise, and an innate capacity and abilities on which no limit is placed and which are free. People are exposed to the attacks of innumerable enemies and the blows of innumerable calamities despite their innumerable needs and their weakness and impotence. Under the constant threat of death, they live out their brief and turbulent lives in wretched circumstances. Looking to the grave, which for the misguided is the door to everlasting darkness, they suffer the continuous blows of death and separation. He then concludes that: “In belief there is a sort of paradise in this world, too, and in misguidance, a sort of hell.” Nursi argues that a man who fails to discover his Creator leads a life in vain, and is at a great loss even if he appears to be surrounded by earthly pleasures. Nursi likens believers to holders of ‘belief coupon’ worth eternal treasures waiting for the call with profound pleasure and real spiritual delight to come and collect the ticket.
LEARNING AND SCIENCES
Nursi states that this is the time for learning and sciences, and directs people to learning and sciences in the name of religion: “In the future mankind will turn to sciences and learning. It will obtain all its power from sciences. Power and rule will then pass to the hands of sciences and knowledge. … When civilization becomes prevalent, the world will be ruled by knowledge and sciences.” Nursi expresses that the main mission of people is “to progress by acquiring knowledge”; that is, ‘to aim reaching perfection via knowledge’. He also states that the ultimate goal of a human being is to reach the most comprehensive service to God via knowledge and perfection. He adds that the superiority of human beings over angels is by the acquisition of knowledge.
QUESTIONING AND REASONING
Unlike the traditional religious scholars, Nursi does not invite people to embrace faith by dropping reason and unconditionally surrendering to the commandments in the undisputable Holy Scriptures. Instead, he challenges the minds to examine the matter most critically using the most stringent criteria. He does not restrain from opening religious matters to all sorts of questioning since he contends that there can be no contradiction between the sound mind and true messages of religion. Logical consistency, compliance with reason, and conformity to observed phenomena are important tools for testing claims. With often used expressions like ‘Is It at all possible …’, Nursi invites people repeatedly to weigh differing ideas on the scale of logic. Rather than closing the door to the mind and reason to avoid suspicion and confusion in order to maintain purity of the hearth, he used the mind as a most effective vehicle in reaching the truths of the belief by widening the path of reasoning and questioning.
Nursi viewed what looked to most as the peak of enlightenment and awakening for humanity and the apex of civilization as abatement and animalism. He saw this captivating wave of scientism and materialism that was sidestepping the divine and promising a joyous worldly life as a serious threat to true happiness in this world and the hereafter. Being a realist, Nursi knew that faith in the divine was weak, and thus basing his case on the verses of Holy Scriptures would not be effective. Therefore, there was only one thing to do, and it was to counter reason-based disbelief with reason-based belief. Nursi proved the matters of belief quite convincingly by refuting all alternatives on the basis of observation, reason, and logical consistency, and instituted the notion of confirmative belief in place of imitative belief.
SCIENCES AND THE SCIENTIFIC APPROACH
The 19th and 20th centuries has witnessed unprecedented attacks on the foundations of faith by materialists in the name of sciences and advancement. Nursi responded to these attacks by devoting his efforts to save and strengthen belief, which he viewed as the most important matter for humanity. And he did this by appealing to modern man’s mentality using a modern methodology. In Risale-i Nur, Nursi demonstrates through clearly reasoned arguments that all tenets of belief, such as God’s existence and bodily resurrection, can be proven rationally. He even goes further and shows that the truths of belief are the only rational explanation of existence. Using easily understood mental scenarios, analogies, and reasoned arguments, he has shown that the truths of religion are quite compatible with the findings of observation-based modern sciences. In fact, those findings reinforce the truths of belief. Nursi has shown that the problem lies not in scientific discoveries, but in the interpretation of those discoveries by the materialist point of view.
Nursi approached religion like a scientist by challenging the mind with deep-probing provocative questions. He builds his case on the basis of objective observations and universally accepted facts, and subjects his case to all sorts of scrutiny by heavily engaging reason. He appeals his case to the mind for acceptance as true knowledge only after showing by convincing arguments that it passes all the tests for reasonableness, compliance with observations, and conformity with known facts. Therefore, Risale-i Nur proves its cases to satisfy the mind. He then appeals to conscience for validation.
OBSERVATION AND REFLECTIVE THOUGHT
By carefully analyzing what is observed and making logical inferals, Nursi goes further than the natural scientists in unearthing the phenomena governing ordinary events behind the scenes, and describing those invisible phenomena fully with logical consistency. Nursi views sciences as concise descriptors and witnesses of the precise works of the Creator, and mentions that all sciences continuously speak of God and make known of the Creator with their particular tongues. He maintains that careful observations and objective thinking that form the platform of positive sciences necessitate belief rather than disbelief: “A balance so perfect and measure so regular and unfailing govern in all living creatures and sorts of creatures from minute particles to the planets of the solar system that they prove conclusively an all-encompassing knowledge and testify to it with complete clarity. This means that all the evidences for knowledge are evidences also for the existence of the All-Knowing One. Since it is impossible and precluded that there should be an attribute without the one it qualifies, all the proofs of knowledge form a powerful and completely certain supreme proof of the Pre-Eternal All-Knowing One’s necessary existence.”
NATURE AND THE GRAND BOOK OF UNIVERSE
Nursi, like Newton and Einstein, views the universe as a meaningful grand book that awaits to be read and understood rather than a pile of ink-tainted papers, and the creatures as the lines or pages of that book. The discussions in Risale-i Nur are based to a large extent on observations and reasoned arguments, and thus they are fully compatible with scientific approach. Nursi draws attention to the artist when examining an art, the author when examining a book, and the maker when examining a being. This way, he made the practice of reading the universe and noticing the reflections of the names, attributes, and the essence of the Creator in all existence an effective vehicle in ascending to the heights of belief in God, knowledge of God, and love of God. Nursi provides the glasses that shows the meaning and significance of existence and connects them to their origin. Therefore, Risale-i Nur guides in mastering the art of reading the book of universe, and viewing existence as ‘other-indicative’ and not as ‘self-indicative’. Nursi argues that the secret of true enlightenment and the everlasting joy lies in the correct reading and study of the book of universe, and the resulting deepened understanding that indulges the reader.
While the materialistic thinkers present the familiar physical universe as the whole of existence, Nursi views this material universe as the ‘corpse of creation’ which he terms the ‘manifest universe’. He describes ‘nature’ as the collection of laws and principles of creation that regulates the motions of the elements of this material body. He labels ‘nature’ as a divine printing machine that prints and disseminates the works of the Creator in the form of books.
VALUES OF MODERN AGE
Nursi calls the time period we live in ‘the era of dominion and freedom’ and attracts attention to the new set of values in modern times: “Every period of time has a rule and a ruler. In simple terms, there needs to be a chief to run the time machine. The ruler of the old times was strength; the one with the sharp sword and a stony heart would rise. But the motor, the soul, the strength, the ruler, and the boss of the times of freedom are righteousness, mind, knowledge, law, and public opinion. Only those with a sharp mind and a bright heart will rise to the top. … Those who stand on reason, utilize love instead of force, and keep their mind over their emotions, will not fall; they may even rise further.”
DEMOCRACY AND FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE
Nursi states that all forms of leadership, including presidency of a nation, are indeed servanthood, and he bases this notion on a Hadith: “Whereas a Hadith which is a constitution of Islam states ‘The chief of a nation is the one who serves its citizens;’ that is, public officials and administrators are not chiefs, but servants to people. Democracy and freedom of conscience can be based on this fundamental law of Islam.” While many Muslim thinkers have had a difficult time trying to reconcile Islam and democracy, Nursi based freedom of conscious, which forms the foundation of secular governments along with democracy, on this fundamental law of Islam, and presented democracy and freedom of conscious among basic human rights and freedoms. Nursi defines regards constitutionalism (later republicanism) as ‘sovereignty of people’ in the sense of democracy, and defines it as follows: “Constitutionalism is sovereignty of people. That is, the elected representatives that are the embodied form of public opinion rule, and the government is a service provider and thus a servant.”
THEODICY AND CALAMITIES
Abrahamic religions are unanimous in their appraisal that God is All-Merciful, All-Loving and Most Compassionate. Yet we all witness evil acts, calamities, and atrocities all around us which are difficult to reconcile with the love and compassion of the All-Powerful One. Nursi resolves this dilemma by pointing out that this world is a ground of testing by exhibiting contention and patience and performing good deeds, and not the place of reward or punishment. He uses the presence of such injustices as proofs for the existence of an eternal life where justice will prevail, and points out that without life after death the face of the earth would seem like the exhibition hall of extreme disgrace rather than grace. He even views the creation of evil as good since it is the evil that challenges people to become better by overcoming it, and without such challenge, there could be no progress in humans.
Nursi had intense compassion towards the suffering innocent people, and felt their sufferings in his heart. During World War II, he was deeply touched by the affliction, poverty, and hunger inflicted on mankind. He held that those innocent people who died in such circumstances were martyrs of a sort, whatever religion they belonged to, and that their reward could only be eternal bliss. On the ground of boundless Mercy of the All-Merciful Nursi goes further and states that “Even if those innocent people were unbelievers, in return for the tribulations they suffered due to that worldly disaster, they have such a reward from the treasury of Divine mercy that if the veil of the Unseen were to open, a great manifestation of mercy would be apparent in relation to them and they would declare, ‘O Lord, thanks be to You! All praise belongs to God.’”
COMPASSION AND LOVE
Nursi views ‘Mercy and Compassion’ as the prominent attributes of God, and attracts attention to the common reflections of them in creation, particularly in human and animal mothers and even the plants. As most exalted divine reflection in humans, he attracts attention to the purest and most indulging joy in giving and receiving compassion, and he labels the path that he follows as the path of compassion and wisdom. Being the creations of the same creator, he views all creatures as relatives, and sees treating them with compassion out of respect of their Creator as an obligation. It is out of this compassion that he struggled all his life to help humanity achieve eternal happiness.
Nursi advises people not to let negative emotions like animosity and hatred enter their hearts, and points to their grieve consequences: “What I am certain of from my experience of social life and have learnt from my life-time of study is the following: The thing most worthy of love is love, and that most deserving of enmity is enmity. That is, love and loving, which render man’s social life secure and lead to happiness are most worthy of love and being loved. Enmity and hostility are ugly and damaging, have overturned man’s social life, and more than anything deserve loathing and enmity and to be shunned.” Nursi stresses that the time for hostilities has passed, and now is the time for love: “The time for enmity and hostility has finished. Two world wars have shown how evil, destructive, and what an awesome wrong is enmity.”
TERROR AND WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION
Said Nursi underscores the following two verses of the Qur’an repeatedly in Risale-i Nur: “No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another” (6:164) and “One who kills a person who has not killed anyone or has not caused public unrest in the world is like one who has killed all people” (5:32). He points out that in the light of these intimidation verses, a Muslim with a sound mind cannot attempt suicide attacks to civilian targets or use weapons of mass destruction that may cause the annihilation of countless innocent men, women, children, animals, and plants. To demonstrate the degree of atrocity, Nursi gives an example of ship with one innocent person and nine criminals, and points out the great injustice committed if that ship were to be sunk.
Nursi postpones the settling of accounts with the evil-doers, other than aggression, to the hereafter: “On condition they are not aggressive, do not let the evils of our enemies attract your enmity. Hell and Divine punishment are enough for them.” He reaffirms his commitment to positive action: “If I had 100 souls, I would sacrifice them all for peace.”
Said Nursi, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, made positive action the cornerstone of his teachings. Despite all provocations and abuse, he never yielded to temptation to deviate from positive action. Nursi viewed abstaining from physical struggle and practicing only positive action as strength – with the power of an atomic bomb – rather than weakness. Nursi labeled the Risale-i Nur as ‘a repairer of the strength of an atomic bomb’ against destructive forces. Nursi and his students acted to protect public order, maintain security, and prevent subversion and sedition. He states: “We are the devotees of love; we have no time for enmity.” In his last letter, Nursi reemphasized the importance of abstaining from any sort of negative action and serving as moral models: “Our duty is positive action; not negative action.” Nursi sees a strong belief as the best guarantee against disturbing peace and order in a society and inflicting harm on the innocent.
HAPPINESS AND WORLDLY PLEASURES
Nursi’s ultimate goal is to lead people into happiness in this world and to eternal happiness in the hereafter. Nursi was well-aware that people of this age are highly inclined towards worldly comfort and pleasures, and asking people to give up the certain of the present for the probable of the future would fall in deaf ears. He demonstrated that the purest, highest, and the longest lasting pleasures even in this world are in belief in God and in leading a virtuous life.
In this age of freedom when the lure of earthly life has increased, the peer and government pressure has decreased, and living in comfort and luxury is in high demand, Risale-i Nur is a guide that leads the modern man to rid himself or herself from the lures of earthly desires and to strive for the future eternal happiness rather than the present temporary pleasures by subscribing into a path of faith and obedience with his free will. A unique feature that distinguishes Nursi’s approach from others is that rather than disregarding the realities of time and imposing the old practice on individuals using state power via politics, he accepted the universal values like personal rights and freedoms that are the hallmarks of modern age as realities of time, and based his teachings on persuading individuals by appealing to their senses.