A Brief Look at Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s Life, The Risale-i Nur, and ‘Letters-1928-1932’

The present work forms the second volume of the Risale-i Nur Collection and consists of the most important letters, and those of most general interest, written by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi to his students between 1928 and 1932,* while in exile in Barla, an isolated village in the province of Isparta in South-Western Anatolia. Its original title is Mektûbat. Other letters belonging to this period are included in one of the collections of additional letters, also volumes of the Risale-i Nur, called Barla Lahikasi (Barla Letters). The letters in the present volume cover many subjects and were set in order and numberered, not chronologically, by the author. They were largely written in reply to questions put by his students, and also in reply to criticisms of and attacks on various questions of belief and Islam made in that time of oppression by those inimical to religion and Islam. In order to enable readers unfamiliar with Bediuzzaman and his life and works to see the Letters in clearer perspective, included here is a brief outline of his life, the background to the writing of the Risale-i Nur and the Letters, and a description of their main characteristics.

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*1932 is the conjectural date; it is not known certainly when the last letters were written.

Bediuzzaman’s Life

Bediuzzaman Said Nursi was born in 1877 in eastern Turkey and died in 1960 in Urfa, also in eastern Turkey. Readers may refer to his biography for details of his long and exemplary life, which spanned the last decades of the Ottoman Empire, its collapse after the First World War and the setting up of the Republic, then the twenty-five years of Republican Peoples’ Party rule, well-known for the measures taken against Islam, followed by the ten years of Democrat rule, when conditions eased a little for Bediuzzaman.

From an early age Bediuzzaman displayed an extraordinary intelligence and ability to learn, completing the normal course of medrese (religious school) education at the early age of fourteen, when he obtained his diploma. He became famous for both his prodigious memory and his unbeaten record in debating with other religious scholars. Another characteristic Bediuzzaman displayed from an early age was an instinctive dissatisfaction with the existing education system, which when older he formulated into comprehensive proposals for its reform. The heart of these proposals was the bringing together and joint teaching of the traditional religious sciences and the modern sciences, together with the founding of a university in the Eastern Provinces of the Empire, the Medresetü’z-Zehra, where this and his other proposals would be put into practice. In 1907 his endeavours in this field took him to Istanbul and an audience with Sultan Abdulhamid. Although subsequently he twice received funds for the construction of his university, and its foundations were laid in 1913, it was never completed due to war and the vicissitudes of the times.

Contrary to the practice of religious scholars at that time, Bediuzzaman himself studied and mastered almost all the physical and mathematical sciences, and later studied philosophy, for he believed that it was only in this way that Islamic theology (kalâm) could be renewed and successfully answer the attacks to which the Qur’an and Islam were then subject.

Bediuzzaman himself described an event in his youth which was decisive in giving him direction. It was learning of the explicit threats to the Qur’an made by Gladstone, the British Secretary for the Colonies. Gladstone’s stated intention to descredit the Qur’an, since it was the only way the British could truly dominate the Muslim peoples and achieve their inauspicious ambitions aroused an overpowering reaction in Bediuzzaman. He vowed: “I shall prove and demonstrate to the world that the Qur’an is an undying, inextinguishable Sun!” From that time he strove to employ his superior knowledge of both the traditional religious and the modern sciences in the service of the Qur’an; to prove its miraculousness, defend it against the attacks which were largely in the name of science and progress, and relate its truths in the light of modern advances in knowledge. He sought to prove that contrary to the claims of its enemies, the Qur’an was the source of true progress and civilization, and in addition, since this was the case, Islam would dominate the future, despite its relative decline and regression at that time.

The years up to the end of the First World War were the final decades of the Ottoman Empire and 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 Empire and Islam through active involvement in social life and the public domain. In the War, he commanded the militia forces on the Caucasian Front against the invading Russians, for which he was later awarded a War Medal. To maintain the morale of his men he himself disdained to enter the trenches inspite of the 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. Stating that the Qur’an encompasses the sciences which make known the physical world, the commentary is an original and important work which Bediuzzaman hoped would serve as a model for future commentaries, as he was unable to complete it at that time. He was taken prisoner in March 1916 and held in Russia for two years before escaping in early 1918, and returning to Istanbul via Warsaw, Berlin, and Vienna.

The defeat of the Ottomans saw the end of the Empire and its dismemberment, and the occupation of Istanbul and parts of Turkey by imperialist forces. These bitter years saw also the transformation of the Old Said into the New Said, the second main period of Bediuzzaman’s life. Despite the acclaim he received and services he performed as a member of the Darü’l-Hikmeti’l-Islâmiye, a learned council attached to the Shaykh al-Islam’s Office, and combatting the British, Bediuzzaman underwent a profound mental and spiritual change in the process of which he turned his back on the world. 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;” that is, he recognized revelation over reason. In recognition of his services to the Independence Struggle, Bediuzzaman was invited to Ankara by Mustafa Kemal, but on arrival there, found that at the very time of the victory of the Turks and Islam, atheistic ideas were being propagated among the Deputies and officials, and many were lax in performing their religious duties. He published various works which were partially successful in countering this.

Remaining some eight months in Ankara, Bediuzzaman understood the way Mustafa Kemal and the new leaders were going to take, and on the one hand that he could not work alongside them, and on the other that they were not to be combatted in the realm of politics. When offered various posts and benefits by Mustafa Kemal, he therefore declined them and left Ankara for Van, where he withdrew into a life of worship and contemplation; he was seeking the best way to proceed.

Within a short time, Bediuzzaman’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 was sent into exile in western Anatolia along with many hundreds of others. Thus unjustly began 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 silently spread and took root, combatting in the most constructive way the attempt to uproot Islam, and the unbelief and materialist philosophy it was hoped to instill in the Muslim people of Turkey.

The Risale-i Nur

As the New Said, Bediuzzaman had immersed himself in the Qur’an, searching for a way to relate its truths to modern man. In Barla in his isolation he began to write treatises explaining and proving these truths, for now the Qur’an itself and its truths were under direct attack. The first of these was on the resurrection of the dead, which in a unique style, proves bodily resurrection rationally, where even the greatest scholars previously had confessed their impotence. He described the method employed in this as consisting of three stages: first Allah’s existence is proved, and His Names and attributes, then the resurrection of the dead is “constructed” on these and proved. Bediuzzaman did not ascribe these writings to himself, but said they proceeded from the Qur’an itself, and were “rays shining out of from [its] truths.”

Thus, rather than being a Qur’anic commentary which expounds all its verses giving the immediate reasons for their revelation and the apparent meanings of the words and sentences, the Risale-i Nur is what is known as a mânevî tefsir, or commentary which expounds the truths the Qur’an teaches. For there are various sorts of commentaries. The verses mostly expounded in the Risale-i Nur are those concerned with the truths of belief, such as the Divine Names and attributes and the Divine activity in the universe, the Divine existence and Unity, resurrection, prophethood, Divine Determining or destiny, and man’s duties of worship. Bediuzzaman explains how the Qur’an addresses all men in every age in accordance with the degree of their understanding and development; it has a face that looks to each age. The Risale-i Nur, then, explains that face of the Qur’an which looks to this age. We shall now look at further aspects of the Risale-i Nur related to this point.

In numerous of its verses, the Holy Qur’an invites man to observe the universe and reflect on the Divine activity within it; following just this method, Bediuzzaman provides proofs and explanations for the truths of belief. He likens the universe to a book, and looking at it in the way shown by the Qur’an, that is, ‘reading’ it for its meaning, learns of the Divine Names and attributes and other truths of belief. The book’s purpose is to describe its Author and Maker; beings become evidences and signs to their Creator. Thus, an important element in the way of the Risale-i Nur is reflection or contemplation (tefekkür), ‘reading’ the Book of the Universe in order to increase in knowledge of Allah and to obtain ‘certain’ belief in all the truths of belief.

Bediuzzaman demonstrates that the irrefutable truths, such as Divine Unity, arrived at in this way are the only rational and logical explanation of the universe, and making comparisons with Naturalist and Materialist philosophy, which have used science’s findings about the universe to deny those truths, show the concepts on which they are based, such as causality and Nature, to be irrational and logically absurd.

Indeed, far from contradicting them, in uncovering the order and working of the universe, science broadens and deepens knowledge of the truths of belief. In the Risale-i Nur many descriptions of the Divine activity in the universe are looked at through the eyes of science, and reflect Bediuzzaman’s knowledge of it. The Risale-i Nur shows that there is no contradiction or conflict between religion and science.

In addition, all these matters discussed in the Risale-i Nur are set out as reasoned arguments and proved according to logic. All the most important of the truths of belief are proved so clearly that even unbelievers can see their necessity. So too, inspired by the Qur’an, even the most profound and inaccessible truths are made accessible by means of comparisons, which bring them close to the understanding like telescopes, so that they are readily understandable by ordinary people and those with no previous knowledge of these questions.

Another aspect of the Risale-i Nur related to the face of the Qur’an which looks to this age, is that it explains everything from the point of view of wisdom; that is, it explains the aims and purposes of everything. It considers things from the point of view of the Divine Name of All-Wise.

Also, following this method, in the Risale-i Nur Bediuzzaman solved many mysteries of religion, such as bodily resurrection and Divine Determining and man’s will, and the riddle of the constant activity in the universe and the motion of particles, before which man relying on his own intellect and philosophy had been impotent.

While in Barla, Bediuzzaman put the treatise on Resurrection and the pieces that followed it together in the form of a collection and gave it the name of Sözler (The Words). The Words was followed by Mektûbat, Letters, the present collection of thirty-three letters of varying lengths from Bediuzzaman to his students. And this was followed by Lem’alar, The Flashes Collection, and Sualar, The Rays, which was completed in 1949. Included in these last two are Bediuzzaman’s defence speeches from the trials at Eskishehir in 1935 and Afyon in 1948-9. Together with these are the three collections of Additional Letters, for each of Bediuzzaman’s main places of exile, Barla Lahikasi, Kastamonu Lahikasi, and Emirdag Lahikasi.

Bediuzzaman’s Letters

Thus, during that period of despotism when, under the name of secularization, those in power were seeking the virtual eradication of Islam and Islamic-Turkish culture and their substitution by irreligion and materialist philosophy of Western origin, Bediuzzaman himself with his unequalled learning, extraordinary clear vision and foresight, and courage, and his writings, became a point of hope and strength for the people. Despite the adverse conditions and efforts to isolate him in Barla, he began to attract ‘students’-so-called since he described himself as a teacher. Drawn by those “lights of belief” in that dark time, they willingly suffered the persecution of the authorities and assisted Bediuzzaman by writing out and spreading the Words. The writing and dissemination was another unique feature of the Risale-i Nur; Bediuzzaman would dictate at speed to his students who acted as scribes. He had no books for reference and the writing of religious works was of course forbidden. They were all written therefore in the mountains and out in the countryside. Handwritten copies of the treatises or the letters were then made of the originals and these were conveyed to the Risale-i Nur students and secretly copied out in their houses. These copies were passed from village to village, and then from town to town, with more and more copies being made on the way till eventually they spread throughout Turkey.

Travel was not easy, and Bediuzzaman communicated by letter with those of his students who lived in towns and villages other than Barla. Largely in reply to their questions, the letters offer important guidance on numerous points of belief and Islam, explained in the light of the Risale-i Nur and its way, and in the face of the misguidance of the times. Indeed, they form an important source and authority on many subjects for all Muslims today.

Since some of his students had previously been attached to Sufi orders, he sometimes explains the way of the Risale-i Nur to them through comparisons with the Sufi way. The primary aim of the Risale-i Nur is the saving and strengthening of belief. Employing both the intellect and the heart, Bediuzzaman described it as Reality (haqiqat) and Shari’a, rather than tariqat, that is Sufism. It is the highway of the Qur’an, which teaches the true affirmation of Divine Unity; true and certain belief, attained in a short time through investigation and the exercise of the reason. The direct way to Reality and knowledge of Allah, which is the way of the Companions of Prophet (PBUH) through “the legacy of Prophethood.”

Some of the Letters offer guidance and encouragement to the students through answering criticisms and misrepresentations put forward by atheists and the enemies of religion, concerning both points of Islam, and Bediuzzaman himself. Others expose the plans to corrupt Islam through the introduction of innovations. They show how on the one hand Bediuzzaman was absolutely uncompromising in the face of enemies to religion, and on the other his complete fairness and moderateness in adjudicating points of conflict and controversy within Islam. All these illustrate his profound knowledge of many subjects, as well as the clarity and power of his style, which is based on logic.

Bediuzzaman did not ascribe the Risale-i Nur to himself; he saw it as a Divine favour bestowed because of need, with himself as the means. In some of his letters he writes that he feels justified in describing these “Divine favours which pertain to the service of the Qur’an” to his students, in order to encourage them in the exceedingly difficult conditions of the time, since they were a mark of the acceptability of both his writings and their service. A number of them were mentioned above. Bediuzzaman pointed out that the fact the Risale-i Nur proves the most important of the truths of belief and the Qur’an was a clear mark of Divine favour. For it had proved and demonstrated, for example, such questions as bodily resurrection before which even geniuses like Ibn Sina had confessed their impotence, and many mysteries concerning Almighty Allah, which are of such breadth and profundity that they cannot be comprehended by the human mind. Yet, Bediuzzaman stated, these truths were explained by means of comparison by someone in “the wretched situation” he was in so that they could be understood by even the most ordinary and uneducated of people. Furthermore, no one, from religious scholars to philosophers, had been able to put forward any criticisms of the treatises or to challange them. The writing too had been with extraordinary speed at the most distressing times, often when he had been afflicted with illness. For example, a profound treatise like the Thirtieth Word had been written in six hours in an orchard, while the lengthy Nineteenth Letter, recounting the Miracles of Muhammad, had been written in a total of twelve hours partly in the rain on the mountains, referring to no book at all. There was also the question of the ‘coincidences,’ or mutual correspondence of words in the hand-written copies of the Risale-i Nur, and of the Qur’an, for which readers may refer to the present work.

In relating these Divine favours to his students, Bediuzzaman was impressing on them the importance of the Qur’anic way of the Risale-i Nur and its function of saving and strengthening belief at that time when the very foundations of Islam were being threatened. In a way outside their own will and knowledge, they were being employed, they were being made to work. Indeed, within the twenty-five years of Bediuzzaman’s exile, the handful of students grew into many thousands, the Risale-i Nur movement and its service to belief and the Qur’an spread throughout Turkey, despite all efforts to stop it.

After 1950, the period of what Bediuzzaman called ‘the Third Said,’ there was a great increase in the number of students, particularly among the young and those who had been through the secular education system of the Republic. At the same time the number of students outside Turkey increased. It is no exaggeration to say that with its conveying the Qur’anic message in a way that addresses and answers modern man’s needs, the Risale-i Nur played a major role in keeping alive the Islamic faith in Turkey in those dark days, and in the resurgence of Islam that has occurred subsequently. Bediuzzaman indeed continues to “prove and demonstrate to the world that the Qur’an is an undying, inextinguishable Sun.”

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