Turkish religious leader Said Nursî (1876-1960) was an Islamic philosopher who authored the Risale–i Nur Collection, a huge Quranic commentary of more than five thousand pages. A man of enormous influence in Middle Eastern politics and religion, he is credited with helping to inspire resurgence in the Islam faith through his writings and teachings.
In his rich, full life, Said Nursî witnessed and experienced much. As both an observer and participant during his eighty–four years, he lived through the decline of the Ottoman Empire, World War I and the emergence of the modern Turkish Republic. An influential Islamic teacher and philosopher, he also endured religious oppression and suffered through prolonged periods of exile and imprisonment. He was resilient, however, and emerged as an important teacher and philosopher who inspired generations of students who embraced his writings.
Said Nursî, later known as Bediüzzaman Said Nursî, was born in 1876 in Nurs, a small village in the province of Bitlis in eastern Turkey. The middle child in a family of seven children, he was raised in a sun–dried brick house. His parents were Kurdish farmers who were devout and humble.
In the agricultural setting, Nursî lived in close harmony with nature, aware and curious about his natural surroundings. Considered an exceptionally child bright, he memorized the manuals of the classical Islamic fields of knowledge in a short time. His remarkable academic accomplishments earned him the title “Bediüzzaman,” which means “the wonder of the time.”
Nursî received his basic, formal education from the best–known scholars in his region. He became a popular student with his teachers, due to his high intelligence and large capacity for learning. When he reached adolescence, he remained an enthusiastic student and continued exhibiting his characteristic sharp memory. By the time he was fourteen, he completed the traditional Turkish madrasah education. At sixteen, he could hold his own in debates with distinguished scholars.
Following his madrasah education, Nursî studied the physical sciences, mathematics and philosophy. As his learning progressed, he came to the conclusion that the traditional Turkish madrasah education was inadequate. Essentially, he believed that the world was entering a new age that would place high value on science and logic, and he felt that the classical theological curriculum was ill– equipped to remove the doubts an individual might experience regarding the Quran and Islam. Possessing extensive scientific knowledge, Nursî would always strive to integrate science with theology throughout his life, via his writings and teachings. According to his worldview, modern physical sciences and the Quran were not irreconcilable. Indeed, he felt that science made it easier for people to better understand the truths revealed in the Quran.
Based upon his own copious learning, Nursî developed an Islamic educational curriculum that combined both theological teachings and modern sciences, both of which he felt should be provided at religious and modern schools alike, as this would simultaneously eliminate disbelief on one hand, and fanaticism on the other. He even developed a plan to establish a university, called Medrestu'z Zehra (the Resplendent Madrasah), where both of these disciplines would be taught. In 1917, he went to Istanbul to promote the plan to Sultan Abdul Hamid. Subsequently, he received funding for the construction of the university. However, it only got as far as the building's foundation. Further construction was halted with the outbreak of World War I.
Commanded a Volunteer Regiment
During the war, Nursî served as the commander of a volunteer regiment assigned to the Caucasian front in eastern Anatolia, where he demonstrated heroism in battle. To maintain his regiment's morale, he entered the trenches that were besieged by constant shelling. Later, he received a medal.
While serving in the military, Nursî began composing what would become a celebrated commentary on the Quran. Written in the Arabic language, the work combined religious and natural sciences. Reportedly, Nursî wrote it while traveling on horseback and in the trenches on the front line. These efforts proved to be the beginnings of his major work, the Risale–i Nur (Epistle of Light), which eventually was endorsed by eminent scholars.
Work was interrupted, however, when Nursî became a prisoner of war. While fighting in a battle against invading Russian forces, he was captured along with ninety other officers and sent to a camp in Kostroma, in the northwestern region of Russia. At one point during his two–year internment, he was sentenced to death by firing squad after insulting a Russian General, Nicola Nicolaevich, the commander of the Caucasian front who was Czar Nicholas II's uncle. But the death sentence was rescinded at the very last moment, just as Nursî was reciting his prayers before the firing squad.
In early 1918, when Russia succumbed to chaos during the communist revolution, Nursî escaped from the prison camp and, after a long and arduous journey, made his way back to Istanbul. Upon his return to his homeland, he received a war medallion and was offered a government position, which he turned down. Instead, he accepted an appointment at Dar al–Hikmat al–Islamiya, a religious academy.
After World War I, British forces swept into Turkey, and Nursî again faced threats on his life, this time for denouncing the invaders in daily newspapers. His invectives were bitter and vehement, and, as quoted by the Islamic Information Service Web site, included, “You dogs, who are more basely and utterly dog–like than any dog!!” and “Spit at the shameless face of the damned British!” and made him a target of the occupiers.
But he survived and entered into what he considered the second phase of his life. In his mind, the historic period that included the end of the World War, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the occupation of Turkey marked his existence with a deep demarcation. He referred to the period leading up to and including these turbulent times as the “Old Said,” as he experienced a profound personal change and became deeply dissatisfied with the world. The next phase of his life would include isolation and spiritual solitude, not entirely self imposed.
Arrested and Exiled
During the Turkish War of Independence, which took place between 1919 and 1922 and displaced British rule, Nursî supported Turkish General Mustafa Kemal. In 1922, General Kemal, who now was part of the new Turkish military elite that came to power following the British occupation, invited Nursî to Ankara, so that he could take part in the reconstruction of the so–called New Turkey. But Nursî, realizing that the military sought to establish a secular republic that shunned Islam, declined the offer. Instead, to find peace through prayerful solitude, he relocated to Van.
His peace was shattered in 1925 when he was accused of participating in a rebellion in eastern Turkey. He was arrested and sent to Barla, a remote village located in the mountains of the Isparta province. Actually, Nursî played no part in the rebellion. The rebels had sought his help because of the strong influence he had over people, but he turned down their requests. “The Sword is to be used against the outside enemy; it is not to be used inside,” he told them, as reported on the Islamic Information Service Web site. “Give up your attempt, for it is doomed to failure and may end up in the annihilation of thousands of innocent men and women because of a few criminals.”
Despite his innocence, Nursî, along with hundreds of fellow Turkish citizens, was sent into exile. This would begin a twenty–five year period in his life in which he endured oppression and imprisonment.
Resumed work on Risale–i Nur
During his exile, Nursî resumed work on the Risale–i Nur, which would eventually form the basis for a religious– intellectual movement called Nurculuk. In his monumental work, Nursî attempted to establish links between Quranic verses and the natural world as well as to demonstrate that no contradictions existed between religion and science. Also, Nursî advanced the radical idea of God as the divine artisan of a mechanistic universe.
Risale–i Nur was actually a collection of dictated thoughts and sermons. In the eight and a half years that he spent in Barla, Nursî wrote approximately three–quarters of the Risale–i Nur collection. His followers made handwritten copies that they secretly circulated, as Turkey's new secular regime banned all religious writings. The collection was distributed in this fashion until 1946, when Nursî's students gained access to duplicating machines. It is estimated that previous to the automation, 600,000 handwritten copies were created and disseminated.
In this way, Nursî became the founder of the Nurcu movement. Even though he was exiled in a remote region and without money or property, Nursî still managed to have substantial impact on millions of Turkish men and women, due to the powerful effect of his writings. The movement quietly grew until 1950, and efforts to crush it proved fruitless. Afterward, it spread more openly. Nursî's influence would later extend beyond Turkey.
During his exile, which Nursî referred to as the second part of his life (the “New Said”), he also wrote an essay about God and resurrection as well as thirty–three other pieces that were eventually collected as Sozler (The Words). He also compiled letters written to students in a collection called Maktubat (Letters). In addition, he wrote two more works: Lem'alar (The Flashes) and Sualar (The Rays).
In 1943, his essay on God got him into political trouble. He was arrested again and sent to prison. While awaiting his trial, he continued his work from prison, writing new essays and helping criminals to reform. Eventually, he was acquitted, but he was not granted his freedom. Instead, he was sent to Emirdag, another remote village, where he was arrested yet again. This time, he was sent to Afyon prison, a brutal place where Nursî endured great suffering. By this time, he was in his seventies and afflicted with several illnesses. He was placed in an isolation cell with broken windows, where he spent two harsh winters. Reportedly, he was also poisoned, but he survived this attempt on his life and his conviction was eventually overturned.
He received a reprieve of sorts in the new Turkish era that ensued. In 1950, the first free elections were held in Turkey, and a multi–party political system was established. The newly formed Democratic Party, which Nursî supported, deposed the secular Republican People's Party and its hostile attitudes toward religion. In this new era of religious freedom, the first session of the new parliament revoked the ban over Adhan (the call to prayer). This new period in the Turkish Republic marked the beginning of a new, personal period in Nursî's life, which he called the “Third Said.” During this period, his major works were published in Latin script, and the number of Nursî's students increased both within and outside of Turkey.
Died in Turkey
After a brief illness, Nursî died on March 23, 1960 in Urfa, in southeastern Turkey. Later that year his grave was moved to an unknown location in Isparta, where he had been exiled for so long during his life. Following his death, he continued to be an honored figure in Turkey and other Muslim nations. It has been commented that his Risale–i Nur helped keep the Muslim faith alive in Turkey during the period of religious oppression, and it played a part in the subsequent resurgence of Islam in that region of the world. Once a forbidden text, the Risale–i Nur is now available in many languages.
“The Author of the Risale–i Nur: Bediuzzaman Said Nursî,” risale-inur.com, http://www.risale-inur.com.tr/rnk/eng/tarihce/bsn.htm (November 10, 2007).
“Badiuzzeman Said Nursî (1877–1960),” Center for Islam and Science, http://www.cis-ca.org/voices/n/Nursî.htm (November 10, 2007).
“A Brief Biography of Said Nursî,” Islamic Information Service, http://www.islamicinformationservice.com/Biography%20text.htm (November 10, 2007).
“A Brief Look at the Life of Bediuzzaman Said Nursî,” Ummah.com, http://www.ummah.net/Al_adaab/biography/Nursî.html (November 10, 2007).