The Life and Thought of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi


 Perspective Desk

Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1873-1960) was a prominent Islamic teacher and scholar who, in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire, joined in the desperate debates over how to save the Empire and restore its power. He put forward many original solutions, most of which were in the field of education. He was a firm believer in science and modernization, but in the light of the Qur’an. For Nursi, it was the Qur’an and Islam that could provide the principles for true human progress rather than philosophies of human origin. He divided his life into two main periods, the first of which coincided with the final decades of the Ottoman Empire. This he called the period of the Old Said. The New Said emerged following the Ottoman defeat in the First World War, and continued through the first four decades of the TurkishRepublic(founded 1923). Nursi considered more significant the second period of his life, during which he wrote the Risale-i Nur, which he described as the fruit of his lifelong study and research.
This paper will outline briefly the main events of Nursi’s life, describe the writing of the Risale-i Nur and offer a brief analysis of its distinctive features. This will be in the context of faith or belief, the revitalization of which was his primary aim, and will be followed by examples of his approach to moral renewal. After a short discussion about reconciliation, an aim implicit in many of Nursi’s ideas and projects, the paper will conclude with a few words about the Nur movement.

Early Life
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi was bornin the villageof Nursin BitlisProvincein eastern Anatoliain 1877. From his earliest years he was exceptional. This showed itself by firstly,his displaying an instinctive dissatisfaction with the existing educational system, and secondly, after spending only brief periods in local medreses (religious schools), at the age of only fourteen or fifteen his being awarded the diploma for completing the established course of study. This was in Dogubayezid, having attended the medrese there for only three months. That is to say, the young Said had both a phenomenal power of memory and an extraordinary ability to absorb knowledge.
It was because of his extraordinary feats of learning that sometime after this he was given the name Bediuzzaman, which means “Wonder of the Age.”

Educational Reform
Said remained in his native eastern Anatoliatill the end of 1907 when he set out for Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Until that time, he continued his study of the traditional Islamic sciences, and in distinction to the ulema of the region, acquired wide knowledge of modern science. He was concerned too with updating the Islamic sciences, particularly kelâm(theology), as the main means of answering doubts and criticisms raised about Islam, and tefsir (Qur’anic exegesis), the main means of expounding its beliefs. He published works in this field.
His large-scale project for educational reform, which included the combined teaching of the Islamic and physical sciences, specialization, the democratization of the educational system, and many other forward-looking measures, was his main concern in this early period. The heart of his project was the founding of a school or university in eastern Anatoliacalled the Medresetü’z-Zehra. At that time of rising European dominance and the steady encroachment of Western civilization, and loss of Ottoman power, Nursi believed education to be the most effective way of maintaining the unity of the Empire and securing its progress.

1911 – DamascusSermon
In the spring of 1911, on the invitation of the Damascusulema Said Nursi gave a sermon in the famous Umayyad Mosque. His main message for the thousands who attended was one of hope. He predicted that contrary to present expectations Islamic civilization and the Qur’an would dominate the future, and he offered a number of remedies from “the pharmacy of the Qur’an” which would assist in realizing this. These remedies were primarily concerned with ethics and morality. That is to say, in his view moral renewal was another essential dimension of the struggle to achieve the progress and unity of the Islamic world.

1914-1918 – The First World War
Nursi and the militia force he raised and trained played a valiant part in the jihad against the Russian invasion of eastern Anatolia in 1914, but such was the importance he attached to his educational projects that even on the front he continued to teach his students and write his celebrated Qur’anic commentary Isharat al-I?jaz. He was captured after the fall of Bitlis in March 1916 and sent to Kosturma on the Volga. He escaped in early 1918 and returned to Istanbul.

1918-1922 – Istanbuland the Emergence of the New Said
Nursi was severely shaken by the rigours of the War and the Ottoman defeat that followed it. But despite his inner turmoil he combated the occupying forces with his pen and until 1920 was actively engaged in public life. On his return he was appointed to the Darü’l-Hikmeti’l-Islamiye, a learned establishment attached to the Seyhü’l-Islam’s Office that had been set up to tackle the problems now facing Muslims. He published a number of works on various subjects, mostly topical. Following this he withdrew into solitude and undergoing a profound mental and spiritual transformation emerged as the New Said.
The New Said was characterized by his withdrawal from public life and his devotion to the Qur’an alone. He now gave primacy to divine revelation over reason. He centred his life and thought on the Qur’an and in the course of time developed a method of explaining and proving its teachings related to the fundamental questions of belief. His aim was to find an effective way of strengthening the faith of the Muslims of Turkey in the face of changing conditions and the new regime that was established after the founding of the Republic in 1923.
In 1923, Nursi was offered various posts in the first republican government, which he refused since his views on the best course to be followed were at odds with those of the new leaders. It had been his intention to assist in remaking Turkeya centre of Islamic civilization. Two years later he was sent into internal exile in western Anatolia, where he was held for the next twenty-five years. He was eventually sent to Barla, a isolated village in IspartaProvince.

1926-1950 – Years of Exile and Imprisonment
The Ankaraauthorities thought that having disappeared from the public view, Said Nursi would just fade away and be forgotten about. But they were mistaken: in the eight years he spent in Barla, he wrote the greater part of the collection of works called the Risale-i Nur and attracted many students and helpers, despite the hardships and surveillance under which he was held.

A Short Digression about the Risale-i Nur
The Risale-i Nur is a multi-volume collection of writings the purpose of which is to offer conclusive proofs of the main teachings of the Qur’an related to faith and worship while at the same time refuting the basic assumptions and concepts of materialistic philosophy. Bediuzzaman developed a method that, at a time of rapid secularization when the Ottoman educational institutions had all been swept away and the people had been left with no means of religious instruction, brought together traditional Islamic sciences and modern sciences and aimed to perform their essential functions in proving and explicating the basic truths of faith. He endeavoured also to inculcate a view of existence derived from the Qur’an.
The basis of his method is reasoning reflective thought on the natural world: viewing the world as a book the letters and words of which are the beings we see around us, Nursi teaches us how to read them so as to gain knowledge of their Inscriber and Maker. In doing this, he is actually expounding the many verses of the Qur’an that describe the divine acts in the universe and call on men to ponder over them. He points out the mutually interpretative relationship between the Qur’an and the created world: the revealed Qur’an interprets the book of the universe and instructs man how to read the words of beings “inscribed by the Pen of Power” on its pages, while by expressing the same meanings in physical form, the universe becomes a sort of embodied Qur’an. The reading and comprehension of the embodied Qur’an words lead to a deeper understanding of the written Qur’an’s verses.
Observing the beings of the universe in this way, Nursi discloses numerous truths about the universe and man, and their purposes and functions, and from these deduces very many proofs of and arguments for what what he calls “the truths of faith.” These truths, God’s existence and unity, and attributes and names, the resurrection of the dead, prophethood, and so on, are thus seen to be the logical conclusion of the Qur’anic view of the universe. The main tenets of faith are not therefore abstract facts divorced from life and reality that a believer has to assimilate from outside; they are living truths that spring naturally out of existence itself, of which man himself is a part.
With this method, which time does not allow us to discuss in further detail, Nursi hoped to gain for people the unshakeable faith he called “iman-i tahkikî,” which may be translated as affirmative faith or faith by investigation. He felt that it was only such faith that could withstand the assaults of modernity and scepticism of materialistic science. Scattered through the Risale-i Nur are many discussions of belief and of man and his comprehensive nature. Just as Nursi seeks to show that man’s true happiness and progress are to be found through the teachings of the Qur’an, so he is at pains to demonstrate that as divine revelation it provides a valid explanation of existence and human life, whereas the basic postulates of what he calls human philosophy are invalid and untenable.
Besides educating in the broadest sense and raising religious consciousness with the Risale-i Nur, Nursi hoped to effect moral renewal and the strengthening of society from the bottom up. For he predicted that the imposition of the alien cultural norms of modernity would lead eventually to the dissolution of society and even to anarchy.

Nursi’s Approach to Ethics and Moral Renewal
Having seen a small part of Nursi’s method relating to the renewal and strengthening of faith, we shall now take a brief look at his approach to moral renewal, its corollary. Essentially his approach is to present moral precepts and values as a part of the whole (holistic) Qur’anic order or system. The precepts of “justice, frugality, and cleanliness” may be taken as an example:
To show how basic these three qualities are to human life, Nursi points out how they are manifested in the cosmos as universal laws and govern in all beings. Briefly, the wisdom (hikmet – purpose) apparent throughout the universe “turns on economy and lack of waste,” commanding man to be frugal. And the justice and balance in all things enjoin justice on him. While the constant cleansing “cleans and beautifies all the beings in the universe. So long as man … does not interfere,” he says, “there is no true uncleanliness or ugliness in anything.” In this way Nursi points out how closely connected these Qur’anic injunctions and Islamic principles are with the universe, and that it would be as impossible to uproot them as it would be to change the universe’s form. That is to say, he convincingly shows that if one acts contrarily to them, one does so in defiance of the whole universe.
Thanks and gratitude to Almighty God are another example. In a short piece entitled On Thanks, Nursi cites some of the many Qur’anic verses enjoining thanks, and demonstrates how both the written Qur’an and the Qur’an of the universe “show thanks to be the most important result of creation.”
Another universal principle or law that Nursi explains, this time to berate the idle and urge the lazy to work, is that of the pleasure to be found in exertion and work. He illustrates his point persuasively with a series of delightful examples from the animal, vegetable, and mineral realms.
Nursi’s vision of the cosmos also connects man to all beings, revealing the existential brotherhood and love between him and all things.
Many of the moral qualities that Nursi wishes to impress on his readers, he explains within the framework of his comparisons between the ways of revelation and philosophy, contrasting them with their opposites. At the base of these is the concept of ubûdiyet, which may be translated as worshipful servitude or service of Almighty God, and is the worshipful attitude that a believer adopts when he internalizes the Qur’anic (harfî) viewpoint. Ethics are of course an inseparable part of religion, or even the same thing, and proceed directly from belief. Thus, in other contexts Nursi links desirable qualities with a particular tenet of belief. For example, he enjoins “contentment and resignation” on himself when suffering his unjust imprisonment since it was divinely determined (kader), and to meet it with “endless thanks and patience” since it was also necessitated by divine wisdom and mercy, and even to magnanimously forgive the officials responsible.

The Nur Community
The Nur movement or community slowly formed around Nursi’s writings as his students, who consisted of the local people in his places of exile, devoted themselves to writing them out and disseminating them. Nursi avoided a confrontational stance and adopted one of disengagement and withdrawal. During this period, he evinced no interest in social and political matters, and strongly advised the Nur students to do likewise and to concentrate all their energies on their service of the Qur’an. The importance he attached to restoring the Qur’an with its God-centred world-view to the centre of everyday life in the way described, led Nursi to resolutely eschew political struggle and to instil in the Nur students the principle of positive action. This entailed pursuing their activities peaceably and avoiding any actions that might lead to social conflict or friction.

Despite this, it was not till the single party era came to an end and the Democrat Party came to power in 1950 that the restrictions on Nursi were lifted and he was theoretically free to move around as he wished. The freer conditions also saw a considerable expansion in the Risale-i Nur movement, especially after 1956 when for the first time the Risale-i Nur was printed on modern presses in the Latin alphabet. Previously to this only the Arabic/Ottoman script had been used.
A large number of dershanes, that is, houses where people met to read the Risale-i Nur, were opened all over the country.
Very many young people now started to read it, and it became very popular with teachers and students in the universities and schools.
Despite his increasing years and poor health, Said Nursi continued to devote himself to publication of the Risale-i Nur, and also received the large numbers of people who came to visit him, mostly from within Turkeyand some from the Islamic world.
The Risale-i Nur now began to spread among Muslims of other countries, and it was Nursi’s hope that it would be a means both of strengthening unity between Muslims, and also of general peace and reconciliation between believers of different religious traditions. Particularly following the Second World War and the rise of aggressive atheism, he believed that all peoples and countries which upheld the principles and beliefs of revealed religion should be reconciled and make joint efforts to combat what he called “the spiritual and moral depradations” of atheism and materialism. In the 1950’s, in so far as conditions allowed, he himself took practical steps to realize such a reconciliation. These mostly took the form of his having copies of the Risale-i Nur sent all over the world. For instance, copies were sent not only to the Imam of the Berlin Mosque and the Pakistani ambassador, but also to the Pope in Rome, from whom he received a note of thanks, dated 22nd February, 1951. It is also recorded that copies sent to Germanywere advertised in the newspapers, and were read with interest by Christians. Then in the spring of 1953 Bediuzzaman paid a courtesy visit to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Istanbul, Patriarch Athenagoras. These and other actions show the importance he attached to establishing relations at this time. One other aspect of this matter may be mentioned briefly here. It concerns the Risale-i Nur and the nature of the knowledge it contains.
As was mentioned at the beginning of this paper, the combined teaching of the traditional Islamic sciences and modern physical sciences had been one of Bediuzzaman’s aims since his youth. The rapid course of events in that early period of his life prevented his realizing his projects for educational reform, but when he started to write the Risale-i Nur in the 1920s and 30s many of his ideas found expression in the work and his projects were realized in different form. Among these were the incorporation of scientific facts in his proofs of the tenets of faith. The point I want to make here is that in 1955 towards the end of his life, in a letter explaining the importance for general reconciliation of his proposals for educational reform, he voiced his hopes that just as these proposals would lead to the reconciliation of science and religion on an academic level, so they would be a means whereby “European civilization would be completely reconciled with the truths of Islam.” If we understand from this important statement, which appears nowhere else in his works, that he is equating modern science with Western civilization and the religious sciences with Islam, it gives us a clue as to why he hoped that the Risale-i Nur, which embodies these ideas and incorporates them in its numerous decisive proofs of the fundamentals of religion, would be found useful by followers of other religious traditions, thus being a means of unity and reconciliation.
In fact, such was the importance he gave to co-operation in combating the harms of aggressive atheism that in his writings of the time Nursi calls upon “those who work for the good of mankind” generally to unite in addition to religiously-minded people. For he considered disbelief of that kind to be “a human disaster” that gains its greatest power from destroying the human spiritual faculties and eliminating moral and religious values, thus causing social decay and paving the way to anarchy. As though in anticipation of this, with the Risale-i Nur he had developed a new comprehensive method of religious instruction that addressed ordinary people and aimed to raise believers who both possessed a firm faith supported by knowledge grounded in the conceptions of divine revelation, and were aware of the essential invalidity of materialist philosophy and able to meet its challenges.

Bediuzzaman always deflected attention away from himself towards the Risale-i Nur and wanted his students and followers to look to his writings for guidance rather than to himself. This proved to be very far-sighted, for in consequence the community that grew up around the Risale-i Nur was a text-based movement. Being text-based rather than traditionally leader or shaykh-oriented, also gave the Nur movement a modern character and allowed individual engagement with the text and access to religious knowledge which had previously been the domain of an elite of religious scholars. It thus democratized such knowledge. This characteristic also allowed the Risale-i Nur to remain popular among successive generations despite the ongoing social and cultural transformation. As a text, it was also amenable to profiting from advances in printing and communications technology, facilitating its publication and dissemination as political conditions eased. In this way Bediuzzaman ensured the continued popularity of his works and the progressive realization of his hopes for reconciliation.

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