By Waris Mazhari
In recent years, there has been much talk about the pressing need for dialogue between Islam and the West—which actually means dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslim Westerners (henceforth ‘the West’ for short). The need for such dialogue is urgently felt in many Muslim circles.
Some ideologues argue that the differences between the East and the West, or, more specifically, Muslims and the West, are so immense and irreconcilable that it is inevitable that the two must violently confront each other. Misunderstandings continue to abound between Muslims and the West that have stoked deadly conflicts in various parts of the world. By unleashing wars against some Muslim countries, Western powers have further exacerbated ongoing conflicts between Muslims and the West. Frankly, things have simply gone too far, and if nothing is done to remedy the situation and to counter the vicious circle of hate, it will have devastating consequences for the future of humankind.
Advocates of dialogue between Islam (or, more appropriately, Muslims) and the West represent different perspectives, views and ideologies. Some Muslim groups completely denounce any talk of such dialogue. In contrast, some other Muslim groups talk about dialogue in such a way as only unthinking advocates of the West would. In between these two extremes are groups and individuals who advocate a balanced, moderate, middle-path, who call for dialogue between Muslims and the West, albeit with some conditions, recognizing it as an urgent need of the hour.
The great Turkish Islamic scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1878-1960) lived at a crucial time in history, when traditional religion-based social systems in many Muslim countries were crumbling and Western cultural domination was making deep inroads among Muslims. The Ottoman Sultanate was collapsing, thanks to Western machinations and the Sultanate’s own weaknesses. At this juncture, Shaikh Nursi made a critical analysis of contemporary Western civilization, examining its strengths and weaknesses and trying to arrive at a balanced understanding of the issue.
In his numerous writings, Shaikh Nursi expressed his views on, among other issues, relations between Muslims and others. Dialogue, brotherhood and mutual love, he stressed, were a natural need of human beings, part of the very essence of this world. He was of the view that ignoring these factors would lead to intellectual chaos and was tantamount to deviation from nature. In his Maktubat, he wrote that the Quran invites us to adopt an inclusivist civilisational model. He stressed that the Quran does not advocate an exclusivist approach. It does not call for Muslims to cut off from others. Rather, it considers making efforts for the welfare of the whole of humankind an expression of one’s love for Islam.
Western Civilization in Shaikh Nursi’s Eyes
Shaikh Nursi was a strident critic of the West. He saw contemporary Western civilization as propagating infidelity and anarchy. Addressing the proponents of contemporary Western civilization, he declared in his book al-Lama‘at:
O the self that urges evil (Nafs-e Ammara) of mankind! […] Try to understand where you are dragging humankind to. Can man gain real happiness simply by acquiring material wealth while his soul and intuition are not healthy?
The Shaikh argued that contemporary Western civilization was based on wrong and corrupt foundations. This civilization claims that whatever it has achieved has been as a result of its own efforts—it has no room for God in all of this. Shaikh Nursi opined that sensual desire and envy are among the basic pillars of contemporary Western civilization. He termed this civilization as vicious or wicked (Madaniyyat-e- Khabeesa), predicting that it was close to committing suicide at its own hands. He compared it to a tree whose roots have been gnawed up by insects and which is close to being uprooted. He was convinced that if the West did not mend its ways, it would prove to be a deadly poison for humankind.
Dialogue with the West
Despite this criticism of the West, Shaikh Nursi did not hesitate to acknowledge its contributions to knowledge and scholarship and its other forms of service to humankind. He recognized that contemporary Western civilization had both positive and negative aspects, and that it could not be totally rebutted and denounced, just as it could not be completely accepted and embraced. He was of the view that a major dimension of Western civilization was based on revolt against God. It was grounded in sheer materialism. It projected its defects as virtues, evil as goodness. In this way, it was deceiving humankind.
But, at the same time, contemporary Western civilization had a positive dimension, Shaikh Nursi commented—this was the dimension on which authentic Christianity was based, and which, through its contributions to knowledge and industry, had rendered great service to humankind. Shaikh Nursi was full of praise for this facet of Western civilization, calling its great positive contributions as blessings, for which people should be grateful and which they should use for the benefit of mankind in general.
An important aspect of Shaikh Nursi’s balanced understanding of the West is his point that religion had been a basis of Western civilization, and that it was this that had led Westerners to develop a curiosity about the cosmos and investigate nature. According to Shaikh Nursi, irreligiousness, atheism materialism and revolt against God, which have assumed the form of a new religion in themselves, are not integral to the original culture of the West because, he believed, great European thinkers such as Leibniz, Pascal and Newton were not advocates of permissibility and licentiousness. Rather, they advocated reform in and revival of religious thought. Many European philosophers believed in religion.
This argument is of great importance with regard to dialogue between Muslims and the West. Generally speaking, parties that focus on the political and revolutionary aspects of Islam castigate Western culture as allegedly wholly Satanic because it is based on irreligiousness and revolt against God. Hence, they claim, to benefit from this culture is not possible without deviating from basic Islamic principles or compromising with irreligiousness. Shaikh Nursi’s understanding appears to be completely contrary to this. His positive approach enabled him to see light amidst the darkness and to appreciate the value of the good things of the West.
Shaikh Nursi supported the Quranic idea that no civilization can continue to exist for long if it abandons the foundations of religion, because this is against nature. This explains why and how, starting from the mid-20th century onwards, there has been a huge revival of religion across the globe, a trend that gathers increasing momentum with every passing day.
Shaikh Nursi’s approach was based on inclusiveness, broad-mindedness and impartiality. In a scenario where denouncing the West and its cultural domination is regarded as the greatest symbol of one’s piety in some Muslim circles, his approach reflects the Quranic conception of justice. As the Quran (5:8) says:
O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah , witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is acquainted with what you do.
Shaikh Nursi was of the view that what is conventionally called ‘Western civilization’ is not the handiwork of Westerners alone. Rather, it is the result of the efforts of the whole of humankind and no community has a monopoly over it. It is the common heritage of all humanity. One should view it in this way, and there should be no hesitation in benefitting from the good things that it has to offer. Thus, he wrote in his al-Lama‘at:
We should not deny the fact that contemporary Western civilization has many good things. It is the result of the efforts of modern times, and that is why everyone has a right on it, because it has come into being on the basis of mutual give-and-take between different ideologies. This civilization has been engendered by different heavenly Shariahs […], especially the Islamic Shariah, and natural human needs. It is […] a product of the revolution that Islam gave birth to. That is why no single community can claim to control or monopolize it.
Need for and Significance of Dialogue with the West
Shaikh Nursi’s balanced approach to inter-civilisational relations drove him to stress need for dialogue with the West. This, he believed, was in the general interest of people who believed in religious and ethical values and who were searching for God-realization. He was of the view that given the enormous moral crisis of our times, when goodness is being so brutally trampled upon, Muslims must seek to dialogue with Western Christians who still believed in the authentic message of Christ. He stressed that working for promoting goodness was a common responsibility of all people.
Shaikh Nursi stressed that one should not view one’s enemies with hatred. Rather, they, too, should be treated as one’s friends. He drew this view from the Quran, which advises us to see foes as potential friends:
The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with one which is better, then lo! he, between whom and thee there was enmity (will become) as though he was a bosom friend. (41:34)
Shaikh Nursi gave practical expression to his advocacy of dialogue. In order to promote better relations between Christians and Muslims and to address misunderstandings between the two communities, in 1953 he met with Athenagoras, Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul. Prior to that, in 1951, he sent some of his books to an official in the Vatican in the hope that this might help promote better relations between the Catholic Church and Muslims.
Dialogue, for Shaikh Nursi, was to be engaged in not just for the sake of resolving conflicts between contending parties. Rather, for him it was also important so that the different communities that inhabit the planet would get to know each other and relate to each other as fellow humans—or what he referred to as ‘brotherhood’. Dialogue between believers in different faiths was also necessary to combat the greatest challenge of our times—atheism and materialism. To Shaikh Nursi, these were the common enemies of all communities who believe in God. Absolute denial of God, he wrote, was now at its peak. A major aim of dialogue was to counter this assault of atheism. This seems to suggest that Shaikh Nursi regarded political problems that underlie some conflicts between Muslims and the West to be secondary to this issue of countering the atheist assault.
Shaikh Nursi stressed that in order for Muslims to engage in a meaningful dialogue with Christians, they must abstain from raking up conflicts with them. In his al-Lama‘at he wrote that not only must Muslims try to promote unity among themselves but that they also must try to build good relations with followers of authentic Christianity. In order for these two to counter a common enemy—atheism and irreligiousness—he stressed, Muslims must abstain from anything that might promote conflict with such Christians. It was an urgent need of the hour, he opined, that Muslims should not enter into conflict with deviant Muslim groups and with those Christians who believe in God and the Day of Judgment, for such conflict would lead Muslims to deviate from their real goal.
Shaikh Nursi was convinced that if Christians truly realized Jesus’ authentic teachings and acted on them, it would pave the way for unity and dialogue between Islam and Christianity, which would be a blessing for humankind. Despite the degeneration that he perceived in the West, he was an ardent advocate of dialogue with it. He regarded pride as the greatest hurdle to promoting such dialogue, and appealed to the West to rise above this psyche of pride. At the same time, he also appealed to Muslims to try to end to all their conflicts with the West.
Waris Mazhari is a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband, and a Ph.D in Islamic Studies from the Jamia Millia Islamia. He presently teaches Islamic Studies at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. He has written extensively on madrasas and madrasa reforms.