Bediüzzaman and The Reasonings
The end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries constitute a crucial era from the viewpoint of world history, particularly as far as the Islamic world is concerned. The thinkers—or the apparently thinking minds—of this period in the Islamic world, whose prominence in terms of material power through almost eleven centuries had long been failing, began searching for the causes of, and remedies for, this calamity. They proposed several approaches to pinpoint and treat the problem, yielding attitudes that paved the way for the birth of many currents of thought.
Of these emerging currents, the overall picture presented by what we can call blind Westernization was one of trying to coerce the East, in the words of Cemil Meriç,1 to wear the “straitjacket” of the West without considering the historical and sociological conditions of the East. This trend or current advocated abandonment of the spirit of Islam’s thirteen-century long history. Some Muslims, presuming to speak as scholars, did not hesitate to insist that new currents of thought should be supported and Islam be reformed according to them. On the other hand, other Muslim intellectuals, located somewhere in the middle (or on the periphery) of the two factions just mentioned and who were seemingly more reflective of indigenous viewpoints and positions, yet manifestly under the influence of the “winds” blowing around, attempted to present, imprudently and somewhat apologetically, some so-called “antidotes” though it was, in reality, highly questionable whether they were antidotes. Some among them tried to identify Islam with new currents of thought and ideologies, while others reduced it to a political ideology. Thus, they fell into a mistaken interpretation of religion and history, and there even appeared from among them some who called for abandoning the Sunna.
The years we speak of were also years that witnessed heated discussions within Islam regarding numerous issues, the influence of which is felt even today. Just as the development of rational and experimental sciences in the post-Renaissance sparked off discussions regarding the many truths of Christianity and the Old and New Testaments, this era similarly opened the door to a variety of approaches and multi-faceted discussions concerning Islam, the Qur’an, Islamic history, and Islamic sciences. Certainly, the focal point of these discussions was the issue of “how to present the Qur’an or Islam for the understanding of the period.” While some who spoke from within this perspective were under the spell of modern science and technology and thus advocated the reinterpretation of the principles of Islam and the Qur’an according to this criterion despite the obvious risk of subjecting those principles to alteration and distortion, others were overly fervent in proposing projects of socio-political reform, and in the name of the Qur’an and the Sunna, turned their back on the Sunna, and on the expanse of Islamic history. This was the atmosphere in which Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, a scholar of great importance, found himself when he arrived in Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman state in 1907. He studied the traditional Islamic sciences, having profoundly immersed his heart and mind in the Qur’an and the Sunna, while at the same time he adopted a unique, individual manner of not asking any questions from living traditional circles, in addition to studying natural sciences and following new developments in sciences and technology.
In the face of the “avant-garde-ists,” who evidently perceived Islam as a hindrance to development and associated the West’s scientific and military advances with its “negative” outlook on religion, Bediüzzaman Said Nursi declared, “I shall prove to the world that the Qur’an is a spiritual sun that cannot be extinguished.” It was in such an atmosphere that Said Nursi worked toward the construction of an indestructible fortress around the Qur’an, undeterred by the blasts detonated internally or externally, and thus opted to be a tireless servant in the implementation of the Divine declaration, “Indeed it is We, We Who send down the Reminder (i.e. the Qur’an), and it is indeed We Who are its Guardian” (al-Hijr, 15:9). As a scholar who had studied almost all the positive or natural sciences of his day, he reflected, to a certain extent, the influence of modern scientific data and philosophy used to corroborate the realities of the Qur’an in his early works, where he addresses others using their own brand of logic. Later on, he asserts, “Only what has been sanctified by the Qur’an may act as corroboration for the Qur’an. Substantiating the Qur’an with whatever is not in accord with it means demoting it to a degree.” However, he never despised or ignored any truth wherever it is found, in accordance with the Prophetic Tradition: “Wisdom is like the lost property of believers. Wherever they find it, they have a greater right to take it.”2 He was the embodiment of a distinguished spiritual master and a noble character full of respect for his history and predecessors, attached to tradition but open to new developments, endowed with love of truth, uncompromising in the face of imitation, sober and vigorous in evaluating ideas and situations, and dignified by the highest degree of faith. He carried only the purest of intentions—to earn the good pleasure of God and serve humanity.
According to Nursi, the core of Islam had been, to a certain extent, abandoned during the last few centuries, resulting in an emphasis on the surface of things. The result was that the Qur’an, which contains both verses that are decisive and explicit in meaning and content and allegorical statements, and therefore sometimes uses a symbolic language and literary arts—such as similes, allegories, and metaphors—as it addresses all times and levels of understanding, could not be comprehended sufficiently both by its friend and foe. Thus, some of the finer requirements of Islam were neither understood nor realized owing to misunderstandings and disrespect, as the critical language of symbolism was taken strictly at face value. This was one of the basic reasons that prevented the actualization of Islam which, in turn, culminated in the punishment of the Muslims in this world with both abasement and privation.
Simply put, what can save Muslims is Islam’s compassion. Therefore, Muslims must apologize and pay homage to their own religion. Subsequently, the true path that exists within Islam must be delineated; the confusion imposed by those who do not sufficiently understand matters must be dispelled; the arguments of those opposed to the religion must be voided and demonstrated to be unworkable; and those aspiring toward this cause must be assisted. In brief, Islam or Islamic perception and practice, although temporarily covered in dust, can and must be restored to its original luster. And Nursi’s Muhakemat (“The Reasonings”) was written specifically with this intention and effort in mind.
So, from which perspective should one approach Islam and the Qur’an? What are the purposes and the objectives set out by the Qur’an, and what method must one utilize to realize these objectives? In addition, what relevance do the methods of the experimental sciences in particular have in this context? Why has science flown from the hands of Muslims? Is the Qur’an itself responsible in any way for this bereavement? What are the reasons behind different opinions concerning certain Qur’anic verses? What are the elements of rhetoric, and what is the rhetorical style of the Qur’an? How should we construe the meaning of an utterance? Where has the door to superstition been left ajar? And what are the principal characteristics of true meaning? What must our approach and principles be in handling the issues? Where are good and evil to be found? What is the wisdom and rationality behind them? Where is Hell? And so on. In his unique style, in addition to giving convincing answers to such and many other questions, Nursi also examines the difference between contingency and the absolute; the formation of discourse as well as its prosodic features, strength, vastness, profundity, and effects; the imperative of rhetoric; the proofs of the existence of God; the substantiation of Prophethood; and the debate revolving around bodily resurrection. Particularly in understanding the Qur’an, The Reasonings is indeed a book of “wisdom” and “measures.” It is also a wonderful introduction to Nursi’s other work, Isharat al-I’jaz (“Signs of the Qur’an’s Miraculousness”), which is a splendid key to the exegesis of the Qur’an. The Reasonings is an indispensable guide for aspirers to knowledge who wish to obtain robust understanding amid the web of decades of dispute, and to unshackle themselves from excess and apathy. Let us take a brief look at some excerpts from The Reasonings:
- The Qur’an throughout all of its verses aims mainly to establish and confirm four basic, universal truths: the existence and Oneness of the Maker of the universe; Prophethood; bodily Resurrection; and worship and justice.
- Something theoretical in the past may become evident and established in the present or in the future. It is a self-evident fact that creation has an innate tendency towards perfection, and it is through this that creation is bound to the law of development or gradual perfection.
- One who is much occupied in a subject is usually more insensitive to other subjects and cannot understand these so well.
- Those who search for every truth in corporeality have their intellects in their corporeal senses, when corporeal senses are blind to spiritual things.
- What reliably interprets the Qur’an is primarily the Qur’an itself and the reliably narrated Hadith.
- Not everything mentioned in the exposition of the Qur’an must necessarily be “exposition.”
- Common opinion demands a new interpretation of the Qur’an. Each age has characteristics peculiar to itself and therefore has its own needs and demands. Time adds its own interpretation, and new events and developments cause many new meanings to be discovered.
- Fame exaggerates, presenting one as owning what one does not own.
- Attributing to anything or anyone more good than God has attributed to them is not a positive move, nor does it mean that you have done them any good. A single grain of truth is preferable to a bumper harvest of false imaginings. We must be content with defining something or someone with the good God has accorded them in creation and the virtues they have.
- When passing from the hands of knowledge to the hands of ignorance, a metaphorical expression may change into a literal description and open a door to superstition.
- One who cannot discover the kernel becomes occupied with and restricted to the shell. One who does not know the truth deviates to whims and fancies. One who cannot detect or find the straight path goes to extremes. One who does not have a true balance not only deceives others, but is greatly deceived.
Unfortunately, we cannot claim that the “The Reasonings” has been read to the extent it should be nor received the attention it undoubtedly deserves in the country where it was written and published mostly because of the alleged impenetrability of its language and content. Consequently, hoping that there will be many who can understand it in other regions of the world, in due appreciation of it, we have dared to translate it. In the process, if we have fallen into error or have been presumptuous in relation to this masterpiece and its author, we seek the forgiveness of God the Almighty, of the work, and of its writer.
1 Cemil Meriç (19161987) was one of the well-known thinkers and prolific writers of twentieth-century Turkey. He became known particularly for his analyses of modern Western civilization. Among his books Umrandan Uygarlığa (“From ‘Umran’ to Civilization”), Bu Ülke (“This Country”), Kültürden İrfana (“From Culture to Spiritual Knowledge”), Işık Doğudan Gelir (“Light Comes from the East”), and Yeni Bir Dünyanın Eşiğinde (“On the Threshold of a New World”) are the most famous.
2 al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, “‘Ilm” 19; Ibn Maja, Sunan, “Zuhd” 17.