By Dr. Mohd. Akram Nawaz, New Age Islam
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi was born in 1877 in eastern Turkey and died in 1960 in Urfa in Turkey. His long and exemplary life spanned the last decades of the Ottoman Empire, its collapse after the First World War, the establishment of the Secular Republic, Republican Peoples' Party rule which is known for the anti-religious measures, followed by the ten years of Democrat rule, when conditions eased a little for Bediuzzaman.[i]
Nursi studied and mastered almost all the physical and mathematical sciences, and later studied philosophy, as it was his firm conviction that only in this way Islamic theology (ilm-ul-kalâm) could be renewed and successfully answer the attacks targeting the Qur'an and Islam. As he gained more knowledge of the problems faced by the Ottoman society in particular and the Muslim world in general, he realized that the traditional form of Islamic theology was inadequate for answering the doubts that had been raised regarding Islam and study of modern sciences was also necessary.
Nursi displayed an extraordinary intelligence and ability to learn from an early age, completing the normal course of madrasa (religious school) education at the early age of fourteen. He became famous for both his extraordinary memory and his unbeaten record in debating with other religious scholars.[ii] Bediuzzaman was dissatisfied with the existing education system and formulated comprehensive proposals for its reform. He advocated teaching religious sciences in secular schools and modern sciences in religious schools. Said Nursi proposed the complete overhauling and restructuring of the madrasa education system.
Nursi’s proposals were extremely modern, liberal, and progressive in their approach and consisted of what might be described as the democratization of madrasa system, and its diversification.[iii] He also aimed to establish a university in the Eastern Provinces of the Empire, the Medresetü'z-Zehra (the University of Zehra). For this purpose he went to Istanbul in 1907 to get support from Sultan Abdul Hamid. Although, he collected funds two times for the construction of the university, and its foundations were laid in 1913, it was never completed due to the vicissitudes of the times.[iv]
Said Nursi's study of science and involvement with philosophy should be seen in the context of increasing Western influence on the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the attacks which were being made on the Qur'an and Islam in the name of science, materialism and Positivist philosophy.
The educational system in Turkey like other parts of the Islamic World of the time had not incorporated modern sciences. Allama Shibli Nomani (1857-1914), an activist for curricular change in madrasa education in India, paid a visit to Constantinople’s educational institutions with a view to studying the educational system and academic progress there. He went to the office of the sir rishtae taliim (Ministry of Education) and received valuable information from the academic officials. Allama Shibli visited many big schools and colleges and met its teachers and professors. Shibli himself, a product of traditional education, then attached with Aligarh Muslim University, based on a modern understanding of educational needs, was well aware of merits and demerits of both the systems. Unfortunately, Shibli did not find the convergence of traditional and modern education in Turkey either. He saw the same gap between the old and modern sciences as he saw in his own country.
In a letter to Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University, analyzing the educational system of Turkey, Shibli wrote: “Unfortunately, the scope of Arabic education is extremely limited here. The traditional mode of teaching is totally bereft of the European way of instruction, whereas modern education has been widely arranged on Western pattern. Nevertheless, the dimensions of both the educations are entirely different. The real progress in the field of education will not be made until the two systems are coordinated with each other. Our education system is facing exactly the same problem”.[v]
The final decades of the Ottoman Empire were, in the words of Bediuzzaman, the period of the 'Old Said'. In addition to his endeavours in the field of learning, he served the cause of the Empire and Islam through active involvement in social life and the public domain. In the War, he commanded the militia on the Caucasian Front against the invading Russians. He was later awarded a War Medal for his military services. To maintain the morale of his men he himself decided to enter the trenches in spite of constant shelling, and it was while withstanding the overwhelming assaults of the enemy that he wrote his celebrated Qur'anic commentary, Signs of Miraculousness, dictating to a scribe while on horseback.[vi]
The defeat of the Ottomans saw the end of the Empire and its dismemberment, and the occupation of Istanbul and parts of Turkey by foreign forces. These bitter years also saw the transformation of the Old Said into the New Said. Despite the acclaim he received for the services he performed as a member of the Darü'l-Hikmeti'l-Islamiye, a learned body attached to the Shaykhu'l-Islam's Office, and combating the British, Bediuzzaman underwent a profound intellectual and spiritual change. Realizing the inadequacy of the 'human' science and philosophy he had studied as a means of reaching the truth, he took the revealed Qur'an as his 'sole guide.' In recognition of his services to the independence struggle, Bediuzzaman was invited to Ankara by Mustafa Kamal, but on arrival there, he found that atheistic ideas were being propagated among the government officials. He published various works to counter this. He remained in Ankara for eight months. In that time, Bediuzzaman understood the policies that Mustafa Kamal and the new leaders were going to adopt. He was offered various posts and benefits by Mustafa Kamal. He declined them and left Ankara for Van, where he sank into a life of worship and contemplation. He was seeking the best way to proceed.
Within a short span of time, Nursi's fears about the new regime began to be realized: the first steps were taken towards secularization and reducing the power of Islam within the state, and even its eradication from Turkish life. In early 1925 there was a rebellion in the east in which Bediuzzaman played no part, but as a consequence of which he was sent into exile in western Anatolia along with many hundreds of others. This was the beginning of the unjust twenty-five years of exile, imprisonment, and unlawful oppression for Bediuzzaman. He was sent to Barla, a tiny village in the mountains of Isparta Province. However, the attempt to entirely isolate and silence him had the reverse effect. For Bediuzzaman was both prepared and uniquely qualified to face the new challenge. These years saw the writing of the Risale-i Nur, which proved an effective tool to combat the attempts to uproot Islam from Turkey.[vii]
Nursi believed in unity among Muslims from different schools of thought. He said that the existing difference of views among Muslims was the result of the anti-Islamic policies of the enemies of Islam and colonialists. He believed in a freedom based on religion.[viii] He had always been an advocate of true democracy and cared much about giving the people the right to vote.[ix] Said Nursi had to face arrest and imprisonment, surveillance, and harassment, but he never gave up his Islamic beliefs and thoughts.
His mastery in both the sciences made him popular among the Arab scholars to such an extent that he was invited by the Arab scholars to deliver a speech on Islam in 1911. Allama Nursi delivered an outstanding speech in the grand Umayyad Mosque at Damascus on “The Causes of Decline of Muslims and its Solutions”. Later, it was published and translated into several languages given its relevance.
This sermon, together with its diagnosis of some of the fundamental ills afflicting the Islamic world and the remedies from the Holy Qur’an that it points out, continues to be of the greatest relevance for Muslims of the present day. Through this paper I want to cast some light on the causes of decline of Muslims in the light of the speech he delivered in the grand historic Umayyad Mosque.
In this sermon, Nursi gave certain news that in the future Islam and the truth of the Qur’an would prevail. Not only did he demonstrate how the Islamic world could heal itself through taking the medicines of the Qur’an, but also pointed out a number of developments in the West, among them the stirrings of a genuine search for the truth, that pointed to a forthcoming acceptance of Islam.
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi argued that Islam relies on reason. The causes for the decline of the Islamic world and its material backwardness in comparison to the West should be sought in the failure of Muslims to adhere to the teachings and truths of the Holy Qur’an and Islam. Just as Islam provides for the material progress of man, and, so does it provide for man’s true progress and development in moral and spiritual matters. This combination forms the basis of true civilization.
Since, Western civilization is not based on truth and justice, but on the principles of force, conflict, and aggression, the evils of civilization predominate over its virtues. Said, further acclaimed, if man is to survive he will embrace Islam[x], for he understands now his need for true civilization, founded on the positive truths of revelation, the Holy Qur’an and the Shari‘a of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), in which the virtues of progress predominate, and the benefits of civilization may be profited from.
In the form of “Six Words,” Nursi describes a number of those positive truths of Islam, which form the cure for the grievous sicknesses besetting the Muslim community. Hope, courage, honesty, love and brotherhood, self-sacrifice, awareness and mutual consultation are the luminous bonds uniting the believers. These are not qualities that may be dispensed with in the face of the difficulties or threats. On the contrary, they form the very foundation of Muslim society. The civilization of the future is true civilization; the civilization of Islam. It will be achieved through Muslims heeding these lessons, and rebuilding their society on the foundations of belief, and on the morality of Islam.
Nursi wrote in this sermon that not only Muslims, but all mankind, will find happiness and salvation only through applying the principles of the Qur’an in their social and political lives. Bediuzzaman saw the achievement of this progressive civilization through the spread of the healing light of the Qur’anic teachings on the truths of belief - exemplified in the Risale-i Nur - and their acceptance, rather than as a result of political activity.
Nursi pointed out six sicknesses that have kept Muslims tied up in the Middle Ages with respect to material development.
First: The rising of despair and hopelessness.
Second: The death of truthfulness in social and political life.
Third: Love of enmity.
Fourth: Not knowing the luminous bonds that bind the believers to one another.
Fifth: Despotism, becoming widespread as though it was an infectious disease.
Sixth: Restricting endeavour to what is personally beneficial.
Then he proposed six solutions by means of six “Words” which he has derived from the Holy Qur’an. The lesson delivered by him constitutes the medicine to cure our social life of those six dire sicknesses.
The first antidote to those sicknesses is “hope”. In his speech he suggested the Muslims not to lose their hope. He expressed his firm conviction that the future shall be Islam’s and Islam’s alone. And its ruler shall be the truths of the Qur'an and belief.
According to Nursi despair is a most grievous sickness and it has entered the heart of the world of Islam. It is despair that has killed our high morals, and restricted our sight to vested interest. When they had little power and less numbers through full conviction, moral strength and organization the Muslims were victorious from east to west. Today Muslims constitute the second religious community after Christians in the world, but they are made captive by virtue of their moral weakness.
The worst problem of our society is the death of truthfulness.
Nursi has cast light on this evil in detail and suggested to the community to bring to life truthfulness and honesty. Love and affection leads to happiness, while enmity and hostility are ugly and damaging. In a nutshell, love, brotherhood, and affection are basic to Islam, and are its bond. In his sermon he urged the Muslim community to create a brotherhood of Muslims.
Mutual consultation is a fundamental principle of the Islamic society. In his view, one of the major reasons for the backwardness of Asia, the largest continent in the globe, is the failure to practice true consultation. Therefore, he said that three men between whom there is true solidarity may benefit the nation as much as a hundred solitary men.[xi]
[i] Nursi Beduzzaman Said, From the Risale-I Nur Collection The Flashes Collection, Istanbul, Turkey, 2004, p. 480
[ii] Sukran Wahide, The Author of the Risale-i Nur Collection Bediuzzaman Nursi Said, Istanbul, Turkey, 2004, p. 56
[iii] Sukran Wahide, The Author of the Risale-i Nur Collection Bediuzzaman Nursi Said, Istanbul, Turkey, 2004, p. 56-57
[iv] Nursi Beduzzaman Said, From the Risale-I Nur Collection The Flashes Collection, Istanbul, Turkey, 2004, p. 480-481; Sukran Vahide,The Author of The Risale-I Nur Collection Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Istanbul, Turkey, 2004, p. 120-121
[v] Sulaiman Nadwi Sayyed, Hayate Shibli, Darul Musannifin, Shibli Academy, Azamgarh, U.P, India, October, 2008, Page 178-179
[vi] Nursi Beduzzaman Said, From the Risale-I Nur Collection The Flashes Collection, Istanbul, Turkey, 2004, p. 481
[vii] Nursi Beduzzaman Said, From the Risale-I Nur Collection The Flashes Collection, Istanbul, Turkey, 2004, p. 482
[ix] Nursi Beduzzaman Said, From the Risale-I Nur Collection The Flashes Collection, Istanbul, Turkey, 2004, p. 480-481; Sukran Vahide,The Author of The Risale-I Nur Collection Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Istanbul, Turkey, 2004, p. 120-121
[x] Personally I do not agree with him in this matter, as this is not in accordance with the principle of peaceful co-existence and the Multicultural and Multi-religious world…
[xi] Nursi Bediuzzaman Said, The Damascus Sermon, From the Risale-I Nur Collection, Istanbul, Turkey, 2004; Nursi Bediuzzaman Said, Saiqalul Islam, Istanbul, Turkey, 1995.