C H A P T E R O N E
CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH
Birth and Early Childhood
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi was born early one spring morning in the village of Nurs, a small hamlet in the province of Bitlis in eastern Turkey. The year was 1293 according to the Rumi calendar then in use in the Ottoman Empire, that is, 1877.1 The circumstances into which he was born were humble; the house, of sun-dried brick, one of twenty or so built against the south-facing slope of a valley in the towering Taurus Mountains to the south of Lake Van.
Even at his birth the child displayed signs of being exceptional. It is said that on coming into the world he peered around attentively, his look fairly frightening those present. It was as if he was going to speak. He did not cry, just clenched his fists. Then they chanted the call to prayer in his ears, and named him SAID.2
Said’s mother was called Nuriye, and his father, a villager with a small- holding of land, was Mirza. They were a Kurdish family. Said was the fourth of seven children. The two eldest were girls, Dürriye and Hanim, then came his elder brother, Abdullah. Said was followed by two more boys, Mehmed and Abdülmecid, and last was a girl, Mercan.
Mirza’s forbears had come originally from Jizre on the Tigris.3 Also known as ‘Sufi’ Mirza, he died in the 1920’s and was buried in the graveyard at Nurs. At the head of his grave stands a rough uncut stone with simply the name ‘Mirza’ etched on it. Nuriye, Said’s mother was from the village of Bilkan, three hours distant from Nurs.4 Like her husband, she was devout and virtuous. She died during the First World War and was also buried in Nurs. In later years, Said was to say: “From my mother I learnt compassion, and from my father, orderliness and regularity.”5
Said passed his early years with his family in Nurs. Long winters in the village, short summers in the higher pastures or in the gardens and fields along the river banks in the valley bottom. A short growing season, but sufficient to meet the villagers’ needs. A life close to the natural world, in harmony with its rhythms and cycles, full of wonders for an aware and responsive child like Said. He was unusually intelligent, always investigating things, questioning and seeking answers. Years later when explaining how scholarly metaphors may degenerate into superstition “when they fall into the hands of the ignorant”, he himself described an occasion which illustrates this.
One night, on hearing tin cans being clashed together and a rifle being fired, the family rushed out of the house to find it was an eclipse of the moon. Said asked his mother: “Why has the moon gone like that?” She replied:
“A snake has swallowed it.” So Said asked:
“Then why can it still be seen?”
“The snakes in the sky are like glass; they show what they have inside them.”6
Said was only to learn the true answer when studying astronomy a few years later.
Whenever the opportunity arose, and especially in the long winter evenings, Said would go and listen to any discussions being held by students and teachers of the medreses, that is, the religious schools, or by religious figures. These discussions, often about the famous scholars, saints, and spiritual leaders of the past, usually took the form of contest and debate. If any of the students or scholars displayed more intelligence than the others, or was victorious in debate, he was made much of by the others, and was held in great esteem.7 This appealed to the young Said, too.
In addition, more than being merely independent-minded, it was as though from his very earliest years, Said was reaching for or was being driven to discover a way other than that which those around him followed, as the following, written by some of his students, shows:
“Our Master himself said: ‘When I was eight or nine years old, contrary to my family and everyone else in the vicinity, who were attached to the Naqshi tarikat and used to seek assistance from a famous figure called Gawth-i Hizan, I used to say: ‘O Gawth-i Geylani!’ Since I was a child, if some insignificant thing like a walnut got lost, [I would say] ‘O Shaykh! I’ll say a Fatiha for you and you find this thing for me!’ It is strange and yet I swear that a thousand times the venerable shaykh came to my assistance through his prayers and saintly influence. Therefore, however many Fatihas and supplications I have uttered in general in my life, after the Person of the Prophet (PBUH), they have been offered for Shaykh-i Geylani. While I am a Naqshi in three or four respects, the Qadiri way and love of it prevail in me involuntarily. But preoccupation [with study of the religious sciences] prevented my becoming involved with the tarikat.’”8 Although, as is stated here, Said never joined a tarikat or followed the Sufi path – he was later to describe Sufism as being inappropriate for the needs of the modern age, his close relationship with Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir Geylani continued throughout his life; on many occasions throughout his life Said received guidance and assistance through his saintly influence.
Said Begins His Studies
Said started his studies at the age of nine. He appears now as a pugnacious child, prone to quarrelling with both his peers and his elders. But this sprang not from any innate fault, but from the frustration at bearing within him a great and brilliant spirit which as yet could find no way to express itself, and at the incomprehension which he often met with, from both his teachers and his fellows.
It was his elder brother, Molla Abdullah’s, example that first prompted the young Said to start studying. He had noticed how he had benefited from his studies. Abdullah had gradually improved and progressed so that when Said saw him together with his friends from the village who had not studied, his self-evident superiority awoke in Said a strong urge to study himself. With this intention, he set off with him for Molla Mehmed Emin Efendi’s medrese in the village of Tag, near Isparit. However, he fought with another student called Mehmed, and did not stay there long.
For the young Said also held himself in great esteem. He could not endure even the smallest word spoken to him in a commanding tone, or to be dominated in any way. So he returned to his own village, where he told his father that he would not attend any more medreses until he was older, because the other students were all bigger than him. Due to its small size, Nurs had no medrese, so Said’s lessons were then restricted to the one day a week that his elder brother, Abdullah, returned.9
Let us see how in later years Bediuzzaman described himself at this age.
“When I was ten years old, I had great pride in myself, which sometimes even took the form of boasting and self-praise; although I myself did not want to, I used to assume the air of one undertaking some great work and mighty act of heroism. I used to say to myself: ‘You are not worth tuppence, what is the reason for this excessive showing-off and boasting, especially when it comes to courage?’ I did not know, and used to wonder at it. Then, a month or two ago  the question was answered: the Risale-i Nur was making itself felt before it was written: ‘Although you were a seed like a common chip of wood, you had a presentiment of those fruits of Paradise as though they were actually your own property, and used to boast and praise yourself.’”10
About a year passed in this way, then, once again, Said set off to continue his studies full-time. But his needs were not be to answered by any of the teachers or medreses he visited. He went first to the village of Pirmis, and then to the summer pastures of the Hizan Shaykh, the Naqshbandi Seyyid Nur Muhammad. There, his independent spirit and the fact that he could not endure being dominated in any way made him fall out with four other students in particular. They would join forces and harass him constantly. So, one day Said went to Seyyid Nur Muhammad and said: “Shaykh Efendi! Please tell them that when they fight me to come two at a time and not all four at once.” This courage on the part of the ten-year-old Said pleased the shaykh greatly, who smiled and said: “You are my student, no one shall bother you!” And from then on Said was known as ‘the Shaykh’s student’.11
Visit to Nurs
Shaykh Nur Muhammad was intrigued by Said’s ability and courage, and one day set out together with him and some others of his students on the six or seven hour journey to Nurs in order to meet his parents. A short time after arriving, Mirza appeared, driving before him two cows and two oxen with their mouths bound. After the introductions, Said’s teacher asked him the reason for this. Mirza replied in a modest manner:
“Sir, our fields are a fair way off. On the way, I pass through the fields and gardens of many other people. If these animals’ mouths were not tied, it is possible they would eat their produce. I tie them up so that there is nothing unlawful in our food.”
Having seen how upright Said’s father was, Shaykh Nur Muhammad asked how she had brought up Said. Nuriye Hanim replied;
“When I was pregnant with Said, I never set a foot on the ground without being purified with ablutions. And when he came into the world, there was not a day when I did not suckle him without being purified by ablutions.”
Said’s teacher had now discovered what he had come to learn. Of course such parents should expect to have such a son. They spent that night in Nurs and returned the following morning to Hizan.12
“One of the Nurs students will revivify the religion of Islam”
After remaining a while longer with Seyyid Nur Muhammad, Said went together with his elder brother, Abdullah, to the village of Nurshin. Since it was summer, they then left the village together with the villagers and other students for the high pastures of shaykhan. Once there, Said quarrelled with his elder brother, and they fell out. The teacher of the Tag medrese, Mehmed Emin Efendi was angry with Said and asked him why he opposed his elder brother. But Said did not recognize the teacher’s authority either, and told him that since the medrese where they were at the time belonged to the famous Shaykh Abdurrahman Tagi, he was a student like himself, and did not have the right to act as a teacher. Then he left the medrese immediately for Nurshin, passing through a dense forest that was difficult to penetrate even by day.13
It was later related from Bediuzzaman himself that the owner of the Tag Medrese, Shaykh Abdurrahman Tagi, used to show a close interest in the students from Nurs, rising at night during the winter to make sure they were all covered and would not catch cold. Moreover, he used to say to the older students:
“Look after these students from Nurs well, one of them will revivify the religion of Islam, but which of them it will be I do not know at present.”14
Young Said’s Independence
At that time in eastern Anatolia any scholar who had completed the course of study in a medrese and could demonstrate his mastery of the subjects obtained his diploma (ijazet), and could then open a medrese in a village of his choice. If he was able, he would himself meet the needs of the students, such as food, heating and clothing, and if he was not able, they were met by the villagers either through zekat or some other way. The teacher asked for no payment for his teaching.
Young Said would in no way accept zekat or alms. To accept assistance meant becoming obliged to others, and he felt that to be an unbearable burden on his spirit.
One day, his fellow students went to the neighbouring villages to collect zekat, but Said did not accompany them. The villagers, being impressed by this and appreciative of his independence, themselves collected a sum of money and tried to give it to him. But Said thanked them and refused it. Whereupon they gave it to Molla Abdullah in the hope that he would persuade him to accept it. The following exchange then ensued:
Said said: “Buy me a rifle with the money!”
Molla Abdullah: “No, that is not possible.”
“Well, in that case, get me a revolver.”
“No, that is not possible, either.”
So, smiling, Said said: “Well, get me a dagger, then.”
At which his elder brother laughed and said: “No, neither is that possible. I’ll only buy you some grapes; then we will make sure the matter remains sweet!”15
Said Dreams of the Prophet (PBUH)
That winter Said spent in Nurs. In the course of it, he had a powerful dream which impelled him to return to his studies. It was like this: it was the Last Day and the Resurrection was taking place. Said felt a desire to visit the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). While wondering how he could achieve this, it occurred to him to go and sit by the Bridge of Sirat, because everyone has to pass over it. While the Prophet is passing, he thought, I shall meet him and kiss his hand. So he went and sat by the Bridge and there met with all the prophets and kissed their hands. Finally, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) came. Said kissed his hands and asked for knowledge from him. The Prophet said: “Knowledge of the Qur'an will be given you on condition you ask no questions of any of my community.” Upon which Said awoke in a state of great excitement.16 And indeed, he thereafter made it a personal rule never to ask questions of other scholars. Even when he went to Istanbul, he adhered to it; he only ever answered questions put to him.
So following the dream, Bediuzzaman left Nurs going first to the village of Arvas and from there to Shaykh Emin Efendi’s medrese in Bitlis.17 Because of Said’s tender years, the shaykh did not teach Said himself, saying he would appoint one of his students to do so. This wounded Said’s self-esteem. One day while Shaykh Emin was teaching in the mosque, Said rose to his feet objecting to what he was saying with the words: “Sir! You are wrong, it is not like that!” The shaykh and his students looked at the young Said in amazement. Then, Said remembered that the shaykh did not even condescend to teach him.
Shortly after this Said set off for the Mir Hasan Veli Medrese at Müküs [Bahçeseray], whose principal was Molla Abdülkerim. When he saw that the new, lower grade students were given no importance, he ignored the first seven books, which should have been studied in sequence and announced he would study the eighth. He remained there only a few days then went to Vastan [Gevash] near Van. After a month in Gevash, he set off with a companion called Molla Mehmed for [Dogu] Bayezit, a small town in the province of Erzurum and it was here that his real studies commenced. Until this time, he had only studied the principles of Arabic grammar and syntax.18
Said’s period of study in the Bayezit Medrese under Shaykh Mehmed Jalali lasted only three months, but it was to provide him with the foundations of or key to the religious sciences on which his later thought and works would be based. Also, it was once again to show what he had instinctively displayed from the very beginning of his studies, namely, his dissatisfaction with the existing education system and his awareness of the urgent need for its reform. Moreover, the astonishing number of works that Said read, memorized and digested in this short period of time was to demonstrate his remarkable power of memory, and exceptional intelligence and understanding, both of which were developed to a degree far exceeding the average for boys of his age. He was fourteen years old.
During his time in Bayezid, Said completed the entire course of study then current in medreses. The works studied were heavily annotated, with commentaries, commentaries on commentaries, and even commentaries on those commentaries and further expositions, so that to complete the course under normal conditions took the average student fifteen to twenty years. The method was to completely master one book and one subject before passing onto the next.
Said began from ‘Molla Jami’,19 and completed all the works in the course in turn. This he did by ignoring all the commentaries and expositions, and by concentrating on only a certain number of sections in each work. On being asked by a displeased Shaykh Mehmed Jalali why he was studying in this way, Said answered thus:
“I am not able to read and understand this many books. But these books are caskets of jewels, treasure chests, and the key is with you. I only implore you to show me what is in them so I can understand what these books are discussing, and then I shall study those that are suitable for me.”
Said’s aim in replying thus was to point out the need for reform in medrese education and to prevent time being wasted through the inclusion of so many commentaries, annotations and expositions. And in answer to his master’s question: “Which subject, which of the sciences studied is suitable for you?”, Said replied:
”I cannot distinguish these sciences one from the other. I either know all of them or none of them.”
Whichever of the books Said studied, he would understand it without seeking the assistance of anyone else. He was able to study and master the most difficult works of two hundred pages or more, like Jam’ü’l-Jawami’, Sharhu’l-Mawaqif, and Ibnü’l-Hajar in twenty-four hours. He gave himself over to studying to such a degree that all his ties with the outside world were cut. On whichever subject he was questioned, he would give the answer correctly and without hesitation.20
While in Beyazid, Said passed much of his time, and even the nights, in the mausoleum of the Kurdish saint and literary figure Ahmad Hani, so that the people said he was specially privileged with Ahmad Hani’s spiritual radiance. One night Said’s friends from the medrese missed him and started searching for him. Finally they looked in the mausoleum and found him there studying by the light of a candle. But he rebuked them saying: “Why are you disturbing me in this way?”21 On the one hand Said thus plunged himself into studying, while on the other he started to follow the way of the Illuminist (Ishraqiyyun) philosophers and to practise extreme self-discipline and asceticism. The Illuminists had accustomed their bodies to such practices gradually, but Said ignored the necessary period of adjustment and suddenly undertook the most rigorous ascetic exercises. His body could not support it and he grew progressively weaker. He would make one piece of bread last three days, trying to emulate the Illuminists in their practice of the theory ‘asceticism serves to expand the mind’.
Not being content with this, he followed Imam Gazzali’s Sufistic interpretation of the Hadith, ‘Give up what you are doubtful about for that about which you have no doubts’ from Ihya ‘Ulumi’d-Din, and for a time gave up eating bread, even, and existed on grasses and plants. Furthermore, he rarely spoke.22
At the end of three months, Said obtained his diploma from Shaykh Mehmed Jalali, the Principal of the Beyazid Medrese, and was then known as Molla Said. Having received it, he donned the simple garb of a Dervishh and set out for Baghdad, intending to visit its famous religious scholars and the tomb of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir Geylani. Avoiding roads, travelling at night over mountain and through forest, he came after some time to Bitlis. There, for two days he attended the lectures of Shaykh Mehmed Emin Efendi. The shaykh proposed that he wear the dress of a scholar. In eastern Anatolia at that time the turban and scholar’s robe were not worn by students, but only presented when the diploma (ijazet) was obtained. The scholar’s dress was the right only of teachers (mudarris). But Molla Said did not accept the shaykh’s proposal, answering that since he was not yet mature, he did not think it was fitting for him to wear the dress of a respected teacher. How could he be a teacher while still a child? And he put the gown and turban away in a corner of the mosque.23
Molla Said then travelled on to Shirvan to his elder brother, Molla Abdullah. The following exchange took place at their first meeting:
Molla Abdullah: “I have finished Sharh-i Shamsi since you were here. What have you read?”
Molla Said: “I have read eighty books.”
“What do you mean?”
“Yes, I have finished eighty books. And I have read a lot of books not included in the syllabus.”
Molla Abdullah found it hard to believe that his brother had read so many books in such a short time and wanted to test him. Molla Said agreed so Abdullah tested him and was left in admiration and astonishment. Then hiding it from his own students, he accepted his younger brother as his master who only eight months before had been his student, and started to take lessons from him. But peering through the keyhole, Abdullah’s students finally discovered him being taught by Molla Said. However, in order not to let them learn the truth, Said told them that he was doing so in order to avert the evil eye.24
Molla Said remained with his brother a while longer and then made his way to Siirt. It was here that Said was challenged by the local ‘ulama for the first time and was successful in debating with them and answering all their questions. His reputation now became firmly established. On his arrival in Siirt, he went to the medrese of the famous Molla Fethullah Efendi, who was to experience the same astonishment as Molla Abdullah at the number of books Said had read and learnt. He also examined Molla Said, who again gave perfect answers. So he then decided to test Said’s memory and handed him a work called the Maqamat-i Haririya.25 Molla Said read one page once, memorized it, then repeated it by heart. Molla Fethullah expressed his amazement by saying: “For this degree of memory and intelligence to be combined in one person is indeed rare.”
While there, Molla Said memorized the whole of a work on the principles of jurisprudence of the four schools of Islam by the Shafi’i scholar Ibnu’l-Subki, the Jam’ü’l-Jawami’, by reading it for one or two hours every day for a week. Whereupon Molla Fethullah wrote in the book, in Arabic, “He memorized the whole of the Jam’ü’l-Jawami’ in a week”.
From a letter written by Bediuzzaman in 1946 while in exile in Emirdag, it is learnt that it was at this time as a result of these feats of learning that he was first given the name of Bediuzzaman –Wonder of the Age– and by Molla Fethullah Efendi. He wrote to one of his important students:
“My Curious Brother, Re'fet Bey, You want information about Bediuzzaman-i Hamadani’s duty and written works in the 3rd century [Hicri]. I only know about him that he had an extraordinary intelligence and power of memory.
“Fifty-five years ago one of my first masters, the late Molla Fethullah of Siirt, likened the Old Said to him and gave him his name....”26
News of these events spread around Siirt and on hearing it, the ‘ulama of the area gathered together and invited Said to a debate and to answer their questions. Said accepted, and both defeated them in debate and was successful in answering all their questions. Those present were full of praise and admiration for him and when the people of Siirt came to hear of it, they regarded Molla Said as something of a ‘veli’, or saint. However, all this aroused the jealousy of the lesser scholars and students in the area, who, since they were unable to defeat him in argument or in learning, tried to do so by force. They set upon him one day, but the people intervened and prevented any harm coming to Said, who told the gendarmes who arrived on the scene, having been sent by the Governor:
“We are students; we fight and make it up again. It is better if no one outside our profession interferes. The fault was mine.”
Said answered in this way out of his extreme respect for the learned profession, which he felt would be slighted by the interference of the ignorant and uneducated, although it was to assist him.
After this incident, Said always carried a short dagger with him in order to deter those tempted to fight him. He was strong and agile and now came to be known as Said-i Mashhur, Said the Famous. He challenged all the ‘ulama and students in Siirt to debates, letting it be known that he never asked questions, but answered anyone who chose to put questions to him.27 He also competed in sports and physical feats, and demonstrated his superiority in these too. One day in Siirt, he challenged a friend, Molla Jalal, to jump a water canal. He himself cleared the broad canal successfully, then stood back to watch his friend. Molla Jalal took a running jump, but alas, not being as athletic as Said, landed in the mud at the edge of it.28
Molla Said remained some while in Siirt, then, rather than continuing his journey to Baghdad returned to Bitlis and the medrese of Shaykh Emin. There, as before, the shaykh dismissed Said as too young to understand anything. Unable to endure being treated in this way, Molla Said requested once again that he be given the opportunity to prove himself.
So Shaykh Emin asked him sixteen questions on various most difficult subjects, all of which Molla Said answered correctly and without hesitation. The shaykh then set him a literary riddle in the form of three letters from the Arabic alphabet written without diacritical points thus: [ … ] Said had to compose a twelve-word sentence using only letters of those shapes and adding the points. They contain a total of ten possibilities with regard to the points distinguishing the different letters, and twelve with regard to the vowels, making a total in all of one hundred and twenty. Molla Said found all those possibilities within three days and composed the sentence accordingly, proving once again his intelligence.29 He then went to the Kureysh mosque and began to preach to the people.
Said became very popular, drawing a large number of the people of Bitlis to listen to him. But it resulted in two factions forming in the town, those who supported him and those who supported Shaykh Emin. To forestall any trouble arising from this situation, the Governor expelled Molla Said from Bitlis, and he made his way from there to Shirvan.30
As Said’s fame grew so did his difficulties. Some teachers and lesser scholars whom he had previously defeated in debate constantly sought opportunities to reduce his prestige in the eyes of the people. They had him watched and followed, and one day when he missed the time for the morning prayer and performed it late, they started a rumour among the people saying: “Molla Said has given up performing the obligatory prayers.” When asked the meaning of this, Said said:
“Something that has no basis does not spread among the people so quickly. The fault was mine, and I suffered two punishments: one was God’s reprimand, the other insinuations against me by the people. The true reason for this was as follows: I gave up the prayers I was in the habit of reciting at night. If the world’s spirit perceived this fact, it made them describe it wrongly, because they did not grasp the matter entirely.”
While in Shirvan, someone came to him from the Siirt area saying that a fifteen year old youth had silenced in argument all the ‘ulama of the region and that he had come in order to invite Molla Said to come and challenge this youth to a debate. Molla Said responded favourably to this request, made some preparations for the journey, and they set out together. After some two hours on the road, Said asked the description of this youth, his dress, behaviour, and such matters. The man from Siirt said:
“I do not know his name, but when he first arrived he was wearing the dress of a Dervishh with a sheepskin over his shoulders. Then later he put on student’s dress and silenced in argument all the learned men of Siirt.”
On listening to this, Said realized that the man was talking about himself and that news of the events of the previous year had now spread round all the surrounding villages. He turned back the way they had come and did not accept the invitation.31
After some time, Molla Said went to the town of Tillo, in the district of Siirt. Outside the town on a hill stands a small domed building of stone. Said confined himself in this Kubbe-i Hasiye as it was known, and there memorized an Arabic lexicon, the Qamusu’l-Okyanus, as far as the fourteenth letter of the alphabet, Sin.32
While here, his younger brother, Mehmed, used to bring Said’s food each day. And Said, dipping his bread in the soup would eat it and give the crumbs to the ants around the building. When asked the reason for this, he would say:
“I have observed that they have a social life, and work together diligently and conscientiously, and I want to help them as a reward for their republicanism.”33
Although it was not until subsequently to this, in Mardin as we shall see, that Said stated that he was first “awakened politically”, it is clear from this story of the ants that he had already at this stage acquired the beliefs in this regard that he would adhere to throughout his life. Since these are described below and in detail in a later chapter, suffice it to say here that the basis of his political ideas, based on Islamic practice as is clear the footnote below, was a system based on the principles of freedom, justice, consultation, and the rule of law.
It was also while he was in Tillo that Molla Said had the dream in response to which he first started to work among the tribes as a conciliator and man of religion generally. He dreamt that Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir Geylani appeared to him and ordered him to go to Mustafa Pasha, the head of the Miran tribe,34 “and summon him to the way of guidance.” He was to desist from oppression, perform the obligatory prayers, and enjoin what was lawful. Otherwise Said was to kill him.35
This was a challenging task for Molla Said, who can still have been little more than sixteen years old. For the Miran tribe was powerful and numerous, and despite being a commander in one of the Hamidiye regiments,36 its chief, Mustafa Pasha –entitled Pasha because of this appointment– engaged in brigandage and oppression generally. Nevertheless, Said immediately gathered together his belongings and made his way south to the area of Jizre on the Tigris. Said’s relations with the tyrannical chief there illustrate one of his most striking and enduring characteristics, namely his courage and absolute lack of fear, especially in the face of tyrants and the powerful. Rather, it was a disdain for fear of anything other than his Maker.
Molla Said and Mustafa Pasha
On approaching Mustafa Pasha’s tent, Said learnt that he was elsewhere and took the opportunity to rest. A while later Mustafa Pasha returned to the encampment and entered his tent, whereupon all those present rose to their feet, except Molla Said, who did not so much as stir. This attracted Mustafa Pasha’s attention, and he enquired who it was from Fettah Bey, a major in the militia. He informed him that it was the ‘Famous Molla Said’. Now, Mustafa Pasha did not care at all for the ‘ulama, but he thought it wise to suppress his anger, and asked why he had come there. Molla Said replied as ordered in his dream:
“I have come to guide you to the right path. Either you give up your tyranny and start performing the obligatory prayers, or else I shall kill you!”
Mustafa Pasha was doubtless taken by surprise with this reply and left the tent to consider the situation. He returned after a while and again asked why he had come. Said repeated what he had said. After further exchanges, Mustafa Pasha thought of a solution; he would set up a contest between Molla Said and “his” religious scholars in Jizre. If Molla Said was victorious, he would do as he said, otherwise he would throw him in the river. Said was quite unperturbed. He told Mustafa Pasha:
“Just as it is beyond my power to silence all the ‘ulama, so also is it beyond your power to throw me into the river. But on my answering them, I want one thing from you, and that is a Mauser rifle. And if you do not stick to your word, I shall kill you with it!”
After this exchange had taken place, they mounted their horses and rode down to Jizre from the high grazing grounds. Mustafa Pasha would in no way speak to Molla Said on the way. When they came to the place known as Bani Han on the banks of the Tigris, Said slept, entirely confident about his forthcoming trial. When he awoke, he saw that the scholars of the area had foregathered and were waiting books in hand. After introductions, tea was served. These ‘ulama had heard of the Famous Molla Said, and as they prepared their questions in a state of some trepidation, Said drank not only his own tea, but some of their’s as well. Mustafa Pasha noticed this and informed the scholars he was of the opinion that they would be defeated.
Molla Said told the Jizre scholars that he had taken a vow and asked no questions of anyone, but that he was ready for theirs. Whereupon they presented him with about forty questions, all of which Said answered satisfactorily. Except for one, which they did not realize was incorrect, and accepted. As the gathering was dispersing, Molla Said recalled this, and hurried back to inform them and give the correct answer. Upon which they admitted that they were well and truly defeated, and a number of them started to study under Molla Said. Mustafa Pasha also presented him with the promised rifle, and began to perform the obligatory prayers.37
Molla Said was physically fit and strong, just as he was intellectually. He particularly enjoyed wrestling, and used to wrestle with all the students in the medreses. And neither were they able to better him at it.
One day, he and Mustafa Pasha went out to race each other on horseback. Mustafa Pasha had ordered that an unbroken, uncontrollable horse be prepared, which he gave to Molla Said to ride. Molla Said wanted to gallop the rebellious horse after walking it round for a bit. Given some rein, the horse galloped off, away from the direction it had been pointed. Said tried to stop it with all his strength; he could not. Finally the horse careered towards a group of children. The son of one of the Jizre tribal leaders was standing right in its path. The horse reared up and struck the child between the shoulders with its forelegs. The child fell to the ground under the horse’s hooves and began to struggle desperately. After some minutes, those watching reached them. When they saw the child, by then motionless as though dead, they wanted to kill Molla Said. On the tribal leader’s servants pulling out their daggers, Molla Said immediately drew his revolver, and said to them:
“If you look at the reality of the matter, Allah killed the child. If you look at the cause, Kel Mustafa killed him, because it was he who gave me this horse. Wait, let me come and look at the child. If he is dead, we can fight it out later.” And dismounting, he picked up the child. When he saw no signs of life in him, he plunged him into cold water and immediately pulled him out. The child opened his eyes and smiled. All the people who had poured onto the spot to watch were dumbfounded.
Molla Said stayed a short time longer in Jizre after this strange incident, then set off with one of his students for some desert country and its nomadic Arab tribes. He had not been there long when he heard that Mustafa Pasha had reverted to his former evil ways, and he returned to advise him to give them up. But it was more than Mustafa Pasha could bear to be dictated to in this way, and it was only on his son’s intervention that he refrained from assaulting Molla Said, who then left at the son’s request and returned to the Biro desert, this time alone.
Said was attacked twice by bandit nomads in the desert. The second time he would have met his end, but they recognized him and regretting their attack, offered him their protection on the dangerous parts of the road. Molla Said rejected their offers of assistance, and continued on his way alone until several days later he reached Mardin.38
Besides his continuing success in scholarly debate, and in all his contests with the Mardin ‘ulama, Molla Said’s stay in Mardin was significant in several other respects. But firstly an anecdote which illustrates Said’s characteristic daring and courage.
While in Mardin, Molla Said stayed as a guest in the house of Shaykh Ayyub Ansari, a descendant of the Prophet Ayyub [Job], and began to teach in the Shehide Mosque, answering the questions of all those who came to visit him. One of the notables of the town, Hüseyin Çelebi Pasha, was so impressed by Said’s knowledge and skill at debating that he offered him numerous gifts. But in keeping with his usual practice, Said refused them all, except for a good quality rifle, called a Shishhane.
One day, Molla Said went out with a friend named Kasim, and suggested they climb the minaret of the Ulu Mosque to see the view. They went and climbed it. Then Molla Said suddenly jumped up onto the parapet of the gallery of the minaret, which was only about four centimetres in width. There he spread his arms wide and started to walk round the minaret. Kasim shut his eyes out of fear. Appearing from round the other side of the minaret, Said shouted out: “Kasim! Kasim! Come on, let’s walk round together!” But shaking at the knees, Kasim descended the minaret and joined the people who had gathered to watch from below, wondering at the boldness of this intrepid young molla.39
It was at his time, however, that Molla Said was, in his own words, “awakened” politically, and became aware of the wider issues facing the Islamic world. In a work entitled, Münâzarat, The Debates, first published in 1913, Bediuzzaman wrote: “Sixteen years before the [Constitutional] Revolution [of 1908], I encountered in the region of Mardin a person who guided me to the truth; he showed me the just and equitable way in politics. Also at that time, I was awakened by the Famous Kemal’s Dream.”40
The ‘Famous Kemal’ mentioned here is Namik Kemal, one of the leading figures of the 19th century Young Ottoman Movement, the main aims of which are reflected in this work of Kemal’s which Molla Said came across at that time, The Dream. It is written in the form of an address to the nation by a heavenly representative of ‘Freedom’. This beautiful, fairy-like symbol of Freedom, which has slipped through the clouds, urges liberation from despotism, struggle in the way of the nation, progress, and the prosperity of the fatherland (vatan). Following this, it outlines the picture of a society and country of the future, which is free, based on the sovereignty of the people, whose citizens are educated, and in which the rights of all and justice in the full meaning of the word are established.41
And in another place in the same work, Bediuzzaman described himself as “Someone who for twenty years has followed it [Freedom] in his dreams even, and has abandoned everything because of that passion.”42
Thus, it was at this time in Mardin that Molla Said first became aware of the struggle for Freedom and constitutional government which the Young Ottomans had been pursuing since the 1860’s. As we shall see in the following chapter, this Freedom was not only enjoined by Islam, but was also the key to progress, and the answer to the question: “How can this State be saved?” Despotism and absolutist government were among the major causes of the dire condition, internal and external, of the Ottoman Empire and Islamic world. Molla Said was to be a champion of Freedom, constitutional government, and the rule of law throughout his life.
Also while in Mardin, Molla Said met two students who were instrumental in broadening his ideas. One was a follower of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, (1255/1839-1315/1897), who in the summer of 1892 was brought to Istanbul by Sultan Abdulhamid in order to use him in furthering his Pan-Islamic policies. And the second was a member of the Sanusi tarikat, which played such an important role against the colonial expansion in North Africa, and which, by a strange twist of fate, Said would visit in 1915.
Molla Said was also to be a great defender and advocate of Ittihad-i Islam, that is, Islamic Unity or Pan-Islam, and he later wrote: “My predecessors in this matter are Shaykh Jamal al-Din Afgani, the great scholar and Müfti of Egypt Muhammad Abduh, the extremist scholar Ali Suavi, Hoja Tahsin, and Namik Kemal, who took Islamic Unity as his aim....”43
It is recorded that it was during this stay in Mardin that Molla Said first engaged in politics. Although it is not clear precisely what is meant by this, the above probably provide the clue, especially when considered in the light of Bediuzzaman’s later activities in Istanbul. In any event, the Governor, Mutasarrif Nadir Bey, saw fit to intervene, and expelled him from the town, sending him to Bitlis under armed guard.44
The task was to prove an unusual one for the two gendarmes, Savurlu Mehmed Fatih and his friend Ibrahim, assigned to deliver Molla Said to the Governor of Bitlis. The story of it became well-known in the region. They set out on the journey, Said riding with both his hands and feet bound with iron fetters. While they were in the vicinity of a village called Ahmadî, the time for the obligatory prayers came round. Said asked the gendarmes to unfasten his bonds so that he could pray, but they refused, frightened he would try to escape. Whereupon, Said the Famous undid the fetters, dismounted from his horse, took his ablutions from a stream, and performed the prayers under the astonished gazes of the two gendarmes. Recognizing his unusual powers, they said to him when he had finished: “Up to now we were your guards, but from now on we shall be your servants.” But Molla Said merely requested them to do their duty.
When asked at a later date how this had occurred, he replied: “I myself do not know, but at the most it was a miracle of the prayers.”45
And on another occasion Bediuzzaman replied: “...I am not a sorcerer, I am not a conjurer. I was someone who had taken the Holy Qur'an as his guide, and had turned toward God. In truth such an event happened to me. I faced the Qibla, uttered a prayer, and then looked: the manacles had opened. When I handed them to the gendarme, he was frightened.”46
Molla Said was indeed famous, and news of his exploits spread throughout the region, reaching also the village of Nurs. In later years he described his parents’ reactions to what they heard:
“In the old days, my father and mother used to be told of my strange doings in that eventful and rough and ready life. When they heard news like, your son is dead, or, he has been wounded, or, he is in prison, my father used to laugh and enjoy it immensely. He would say: “Masha’llah! My son is doing something of importance again, he is demonstrating his courage and daring; that is why everyone is talking about him.’ While my mother would weep unhappily in the face of his pleasure. But then time would very often prove my father to be right.”47
Molla Said was to stay two years in Bitlis on the insistence of the Governor, Ömer Pasha, in whose residence he stayed. It was his characteristic fearless defence of right that earned him the Governor’s respect and the invitation to stay there.
For Molla Said had heard one day that the Governor and some officials were having a drinking session. Finding it unacceptable that representatives of the Government should behave in such a way, he went and interrupted them. And reading out a Hadith about the drinking of alcohol, he rebuked them in strong terms. The Governor evidently suppressed the anger he had felt on being addressed in this way, and did nothing. When leaving, the Governor’s aide-de-camp asked Molla Said why had had acted in such a way, which would normally have led to being executed. But Said merely replied:
“Being executed did not occur to me, I was thinking of prison or exile. Anyway, if I die repulsing a denier of God’s law, what harm is there in it?”
And when, a couple of hours later, two policemen sent by the Governor brought him back, the Governor rose to his feet when Said entered his office and treated him with great respect, saying: “Everyone has a spiritual guide; you shall be mine and you shall stay with me.”48
During the next two years, Molla Said was able to greatly extend his knowledge of the Islamic sciences. We are told that until about this time all Said’s knowledge had been of the sort called sünuhat. That is to say, he had understood the subjects he had studied without much thought; understanding had come to him as a sort of inspiration without his exercising his reasoning faculty unduly. Because of this, he had not found it necessary to study the subjects at great length. But whether due to his increasing maturity or because he had become involved in politics, this former ability now slowly began to disappear. And so, in order both to preserve his position among the ‘ulama, and especially to refute the works of Western orientalists on Islam and answer the doubts they had raised, Molla Said embarked on a comprehensive study of all the Islamic sciences. These included those that can be thought of as ‘instrumental’, such as logic and Arabic grammar and syntax, as well as the main sciences of Qur'anic exegesis (tafsir), traditions of the Prophet (Hadith), and jurisprudence (fiqh). He committed to memory around forty books in two years, including works on theology (kalâm), like the Matali’ and Mawaqif, and the work of Hanefi fikih, Mirqat. It used to take him three months to go through them all, reciting a part of each from memory each day.
Molla Said was subject to two conflicting states of mind. The first was one of expansion when there was nothing he could not understand. The second was when his mind contracted; then it was not only studying, he preferred not to speak even. When he was young, the former state was prevalent. But once he passed the age of twenty, the hours when his mind contracted increased, and the times of its expansion started to decrease until they were about half and half.
During his time in Bitlis, Molla Said began to memorize the Qur'an, by reading one or two juz’49 each day. He learnt the greater part in this way, but did not complete it. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, he wanted to avoid being disrespectful to the Qur'an, and it had occurred to him that to read the Qur'an at great speed was lacking in respect. And secondly, it occurred to him that the more urgent need was to learn the truths that the Qur'an was teaching. In the following two years therefore, he learned by heart the forty or so works noted above on the Islamic sciences and philosophy which would be the key to the Qur'anic truths, and which would preserve those truths by answering the doubts that had been raised concerning them.50 The Governor’s residence in Bitlis provided a favourable environment to pursue this programme.
Ömer Pasha’s wife was dead, and he had six daughters. One day, one of these girls wanted to go into Molla Said’s room to clean it, or for some such innocent reason. However, Molla Said scolded her, and brusquely shut the door in her face. The girl was taken aback and upset at this.
The same day while in his office, someone who was trying to make trouble for Said, no doubt jealous of him, whispered in the Governor’s ear: “How can you leave Molla Said in the house all day? Your daughters are not married and you have no wife, and he is a vigorous young man. How can you do such a thing?” Thus sowing seeds of doubt in his mind about Said.
That evening when he returned to his family, Ömer Pasha was met by his disconsolate daughter, who immediately complained to her father: “That Said you have given the room to is mad. He just tells us off and doesn’t let us enter.” Feeling remorse for his suspicions, Ömer Pasha went straight to Molla Said’s room and treated him with great courtesy and kindness.
In a later work, Bediuzzaman explained his attitude as follows:
“When I was twenty or so, I stayed for two years in the residence of the Governor of Bitlis, Ömer Pasha, on his insistence and because of his extreme respect for learning. He had six daughters. Three of them were small, and three of them were older. Although I stayed in the same house as them for two years, I could not tell the three older ones apart. I paid them so little attention, how could I have done? Another scholar came and stayed together with me as a guest, and within two days he knew them and could tell them one from the other. They were all perplexed at my attitude, and asked me: ‘Why do you not look at them?’ I replied: ‘Preserving the dignity of learning does not allow me to look at them.’”51
The last time Molla Said received a lesson and was taught by anyone was while he was in Bitlis, from one of its leading shaykhs, Shaykh Mehmed Kufrawi. Then one night following this, he dreamt of the shaykh, who said to him in his dream : “Molla Said, come and visit me. I am leaving.” So Said immediately went to him, and when he saw that the shaykh had already gone, he awoke. He looked at his watch, it was one o’clock in the morning. He went back to sleep again. When in the morning he heard the sound of mourning and weeping coming from the direction of the shaykh’s house, he hurried there to find that the shaykh had died at one o’clock the night before. Uttering a prayer for him, Said returned home sadly.
Molla Said had tremendous love for the great shaykhs of eastern Anatolia, such as Seyyid Nur Muhammad, Shaykh Abdurrahman Tagi, Shaykh Fehim and Shaykh Mehmed Kufrawi, from each of whom he had received lessons and instruction in different aspects of the spiritual life. And so also did he greatly love the leading ‘ulama such as Shaykh Emin Efendi, Molla Fethullah, and Shaykh Fethullah Efendi, who had taught him.52
While Bitlis was a religious centre with many ‘ulama, there were no well-known ‘ulama in Van at that time. Thus, when Molla Said received an invitation from the Governor, Hasan Pasha, he left Bitlis for Van. With the exception of his visit to Istanbul, he was to stay there off and on studying and teaching, and travelling among the tribes as a conciliator and man of religion until he left for Istanbul at the end of 1907. He was around nineteen or twenty years of age when he moved there.
While in Van, Molla Said stayed first with Hasan Pasha, and then, after Ishkodrali Tahir Pasha was appointed Governor, for a long period in the Governor’s residence. Tahir Pasha was a distinguished official much respected by Sultan Abdulhamid II. He served as Governor in both Mosul and Bitlis, in addition to the many years he was in Van, and among other things led the delegation which presented Abdulhamid’s gifts to the Russian Czar Nicholas in 1902, in Lidvadya.53 Tahir Pasha was a patron of learning, and also followed developments in modern science and owned an extensive library. He was the first state official to perceive Bediuzzaman’s great talent and potential, and continued to encourage and support him till his death in 1913.
Staying in the Governor’s residence, Bediuzzaman had the opportunity to mix with the government officials and took up reading the newspapers and journals provided for the Governor’s office. As he gained more knowledge of the broader issues and problems facing Ottoman society and the Islamic world generally, he realized that the traditional form of Islamic theology was inadequate for answering the doubts that had been raised concerning Islam and that study of modern science was also necessary. Therefore, taking advantage of the facilities, he himself took up the study of the modern sciences, including history, geography, mathematics, geology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and philosophy.
Said did not have a teacher for these subjects; studying books, he taught himself. For example, on one occasion he got into a discussion on geography with a teacher of that subject. The discussion became prolonged and they decided to continue the following day. Within twenty-four hours, therefore, Molla Said memorized a geography book he was able to obtain, and when they again met, silenced the geography teacher in his own subject. And on a second occasion, Molla Said silenced a chemistry teacher, having mastered the principles of inorganic chemistry in five days.54
Molla Said’s quickness and brilliant intelligence demonstrated itself particularly in mathematics. He could solve the most difficult problems mentally and almost instantaneously. He wrote a treatise on algebraic equations, which unfortunately was subsequently destroyed by fire in Van. On occasion, different calculations would become the subject of discussion in Tahir Pasha’s presence. Whatever the calculations, Molla Said would find the solution before any of the others were able to do so, even the most skilful scribes. They would often hold competitions, and Molla Said always came first, beating everyone else.55
Molla Said continued to memorize those works he considered essential, approximately ninety during the years he was in Van, endeavouring to go through the entire list reciting each book by heart once every three months. On one occasion while passing the door of Said’s room, Tahir Pasha heard what he thought was the sound of prayers and invocations being recited softly; it was Molla Said repeating his books by heart. Years later, he told Mustafa Sungur, one of his closest students:
“I used to repeat by heart the eighty to ninety books I had memorized. They were the steps by which to ascend to the truths of the Qur'an. Some time later, I ascended to those truths, and I saw that each verse of the Qur'an encompasses the universe. No need then remained for anything else, the Qur'an alone was sufficient for me.”56
It was at this time that as a result of these feats of learning and the prodigious amounts of knowledge he was acquiring, Molla Said now became widely known as Bediuzzaman or ‘The Wonder of the Age’.57
Although Molla Said, or Bediuzzaman as we shall now call him, also used this title himself, it was not out of vanity. In an article entitled, To Dispel Any Fears (Reddü’l-Evham), which appeared in the newspaper Volkan dated 31 March 1909, Bediuzzaman replied as follows to the question: “You sometimes sign yourself Bediuzzaman. Does such a name not point to self-praise?”
“It is not for self-praise. I present my faults, excuses and apologies with the title, because Bedi' means strange. Like my style, my manner of expression and dress are strange, they are different. Through the tongue of this title, I am requesting that the opinions and customs generally held and practiced are not made the criteria for judging mine.”58
While in a later work he stated that he used the name “in order to make known a divine bounty.” He wrote:
“I now realize that the name Bediuzzaman, which was given to me many years ago although I was not worthy of it, was not mine anyway. It was rather a name of the Risale-i Nur. It had been attached to the Risale-i Nur’s apparent translator temporarily and as a trust.”59
Bediuzzaman had his own medrese in Van, at the foot of the citadel, called the Horhor Medrese, with sometimes as many as sixty students,60 and it was during his stay in Van that Bediuzzaman developed his ideas on educational reform and created his own particular method of teaching. He developed this through examining the principles of all he had studied together with his experience of teaching religious and scientific subjects, then considering them in relation to the needs of the times. The basis of this method was to ‘combine’ the religious sciences and modern sciences, with the result that the positive sciences would corroborate and strengthen the truths of religion. Bediuzzaman now followed this method when teaching his students.61
Bediuzzaman’s greatest aim at this time was to establish a university in eastern Anatolia where this method would be practiced; that is, where modern science would be taught side by side with the religious sciences and his other ideas put into practice. This university he called the Medresetü’z-Zehra after the al-Azhar University in Cairo, as it was to be its sister university in the centre of the eastern Islamic world. Having travelled throughout eastern Anatolia, Bediuzzaman had seen that such an educational establishment was essential not only for combatting the widespread ignorance and backwardness of the region, but also as a solution for its other social and political problems. Bediuzzaman’s ideas concerning education are discussed in greater detail in a subsequent chapter.
As a patron of learning, Tahir Pasha’s residence was a place where learned discussions in all fields were held. On one such occasion, Tahir Pasha said with the intention of slighting the Maliki school of law, “Dogs (kelb) are considered unclean the same as pigs, are they not?” Molla Said replied:
“According to the Maliki school, dogs are clean (kelb tahir-dir). But Tahir is not a dog (Tahir kelb degildir).” Thus with a witty pun, he was able to both gently rebuke Tahir Pasha and conciliate him. As for Tahir Pasha, he was delighted with both the explanation and the ‘fatwa’.62
Tahir Pasha used to study scholarly books from Europe and prepare questions to ask Bediuzzaman. Despite the fact that it was only now that Bediuzzaman was learning Turkish, he would give the answers unhesitatingly. If he saw some books on a table or somewhere, he understood that Tahir Pasha was compiling some questions, and would quickly read the books and learn their contents.63
Bediuzzaman used to spend the summer months in the high pastures of Bashid, Ferashin, and Beytüsh’shebab. On a previous occasion he had told Tahir Pasha that there was snow on these mountains even in July. Tahir Pasha had objected, declaring that there was definitely no snow there in July. Recalling this exchange while up in the mountains, Bediuzzaman wrote his first letter in Turkish to Tahir Pasha:
“Pasha! There is snow on the mountain tops at Bashid. You should not deny what you have not seen! Everything is not restricted to what you know! Vesselam!”
During these summer months in the mountains, besides acting as a conciliator in tribal disputes, Bediuzzaman would roam the mountains and forests, reading ‘the book of the universe’, and pondering over its meaning and messages as directed by the Qur'an. In respect of this Bediuzzaman greatly loved and respected the natural world –and particularly his mountainous and wild native land– and had a close affinity with its creatures. They also felt an affinity with him. Of the stories illustrating this is one for which we also have the date: 1321, that is, 1905. On this occasion Bediuzzaman was high up on Mount Bashid, alone, and was sitting on a rock in contemplation having performed the evening prayers when a great wolf appeared. But this “lion of the mountain” merely came to him “like a friend”, then passed on its way doing nothing.64
When news of any dispute between the tribes reached Bediuzzaman, he would intervene, and pointing out the just way, would reconcile the two parties. He was even successful where the Government had failed in making peace between Sheker Aga and Mustafa Pasha, the chief of the Miran tribe, mentioned earlier. Where personal courage was the most highly prized quality, Bediuzzaman was held in awe by all the tribes of the area. Mustafa Pasha was still persisting in his lawlessness and oppression, and this time tried to placate Bediuzzaman by giving him money and a horse as gifts. But according to his usual practice, Bediuzzaman refused them, and pointing out that above all he could never accept money from a wrong-doer like himself, told him that if indeed he had gone back on his word to give up all oppression and wrong-doing, he would not reach Jizre, for which he was headed. And indeed, they heard later that Mustafa Pasha had died on the road, and had never reached Jizre.65
One day while in the Governor’s residence in Van, they came to Bediuzzaman and said there was a simply-dressed villager waiting to see him at the door. He immediately went down to find his father, Sofi Mirza, who had ridden over to Van from Nurs. Bediuzzaman kissed his hand and brought him into the house. Feeling abashed, Mirza implored his son not to say that he was his father. Bediuzzaman took him to the room where the Governor and other notables were gathered, and Sofi Mirza sat himself down as inconspicuously as possible in a place near the door. However, Bediuzzaman introduced him to all present, saying: “This is my father, Sofi Mirza Efendi!”, and seated him at the top of the room next to Tahir Pasha.66
Bediuzzaman’s dress was distinctive. With a large dagger and pistol at his waist and a bandolier slung across his chest, baggy trousers, and on his head a shawl wound round a conical hat, it resembled the dress of a tribal chief rather than that of a scholar.
One of his friends, Malazgirtli Ajem Aga, said to him one day:
“Seyda! Why do you not dress in accordance with the great learning you possess, in a manner becoming it?” Bediuzzaman replied:
“What are you saying, Ajem Aga? Ömer Pasha wanted to give me a villa, a thousand gold liras, and one of his daughters so that I would change my dress, and I still would not change it for all that.”67
As we shall learn later, of the reasons Bediuzzaman did not consent to forsake the local dress of eastern Anatolia, was his desire to draw attention to the region and its problems, to stress the importance of provincial development in maintaining the unity of the Empire, and, by publicizing local industry, to create a demand for it.68 That is to say, Bediuzzaman wore this striking dress not for self-advertisement, but to serve the cause of the Empire and its unity and progress.
One day, Bediuzzaman fell out with Tahir Pasha during a discussion, and he left the Governor’s residence and barricaded himself in his medrese, the Horhor Medrese, together with a few of his students. When they came to get him, Bediuzzaman put two conditions to them. Firstly, they were not to arrest him in his medrese, as it would slight its honour and reputation, but could do so in the market place. And secondly, that if he was to be exiled, they should allow him his firearms. The Governor accepted these conditions and exiled him to Bitlis. From there he moved to Hizan, then Bulanik, followed by Erjish, continuing to debate with the ‘ulama in each place. He finally decided to go to Iran, but Tahir Pasha heard of this and invited him back to Van.69
According to one source, Bediuzzaman made his first journey to Istanbul at the age of twenty-three during the years he was in Van, staying there about a year and a half. His intention in going there was to gain support for the Medresetü’z-Zehra, the university he wanted to found in Kurdistan.
At the time in question, the Mutasarrif of Zor, Yahya Nüzhet Pasha, was on a tour of inspection of the Eastern Provinces. His visit to the headquarters of the Fourth Army in Erzincan coincided with a visit of Bediuzzaman’s to the town. A close adviser of Sultan Abdulhamid’s, he may well have thought that Bediuzzaman could be employed in the Sultan’s plans for Islamic Unity which were then being carried out,70 for on meeting with Bediuzzaman, he gave him a letter of introduction to Sultan Abdulhamid’s Head Falconer, Mustafa Bey.71
On reaching Istanbul, Bediuzzaman presented his letter to Mustafa Bey, and for the following year and a half stayed in his residence in the street adjacent to Yildiz Palace, he then returned to Van. Bediuzzaman was not successful on this occasion in presenting any petition concerning the Medresetü’z-Zehra to the Sultan, but it was at this time that his friendship began with Mustafa Bey’s son, Esref Sencer Kusçubasi, who was then a student.72
Molla Hüseyin Efendi, a student of the mufti, teacher, and Erzincan Deputy in the First Ankara Assembly, Osman Fevzi Efendi recalled a conversation with Bediuzzaman while he was about to set out for Istanbul from Erzincan. “One day a young man aged about twenty-two came to our medrese. He had a darkish complexion and was wearing boots, a shawl wound round his head, and a dagger at his waist. Saying ‘As-salamu alaykum’, he entered. He was holding a letter in his hand. ‘Who is Osman Fevzi Efendi?’, he asked. Our teacher immediately rose to his feet. ‘Come, let us have a look, Molla Said Efendi’, he said, showing him a place to sit. He treated this person called Said Efendi with great respect. After a short while it was time to pray, and Molla Said went out to take ablutions. I went as well, in order to pour the water over his hands. After he had taken the ablutions, I said to him:
“‘Where are you going?’
“‘I am going to Istanbul’, he replied. Then when I asked:
“‘Why do you want to go to Istanbul?’, he said:
“‘Your tongue is very busy. But since you ask, I shall tell you. I have travelled all over eastern Anatolia observing the state of the country from close to. Now I am going to Istanbul, and shall meet the Sultan.’
“So Molla Hüseyin asked: ‘Why do you want to do that?’
“‘I intend to meet the Sultan and propose to him that religious subjects are taught in the new secular schools (mekteb) and that the positive sciences are taught in the religious schools (medrese).’
“‘And what will be gained from that?’
“‘If the students are taught in this way, those in the secular schools will be saved from being without religion, while those in the religious schools will be saved from bigotry’, replied Molla Said.”73
Return to Van
A further incident is recorded which occurred in the years following Bediuzzaman’s return to Van. Bediuzzaman wrote:
“My old students who are still living know that...[we were in] the citadel of Van which is simply a great monolith the size of a mountain and the height of two minarets, we were going to a secret door which was like a chamber dating from ancient times. The shoes slid from my feet and my two feet slipped suddenly. The danger [of falling] was one hundred per cent. Although there was nothing on which to support myself, I was hurled in a three metre arc to the door of the cave as though I had been standing on something broad. Both myself and my friends who were there with me considered that it was only due to Divine protection and some miraculous unseen assistance that my time had not come.”74
Bediuzzaman read the newspapers regularly while in Van, particularly the articles concerning Islam and the Islamic world. One day, Tahir Pasha pointed out an item that evoked an over-powering response in him. It was the report of a speech made in the British House of Commons by Gladstone, the Secretary for the Colonies. Bediuzzaman described it as follows:
“Round about the year 1316,75 the author of the Risale-i Nur underwent a radical change in regard to his ideas. It was as follows:
“Up to that time, he had only been interested in, and had studied and taught, the various sciences; it was only through theoretical knowledge that he had sought enlightenment. Then at that date, he suddenly learnt through the late Governor, Tahir Pasha, of Europe’s dire and evil intentions towards the Qur'an. He heard that a British Secretary for the Colonies had even said in a newspaper:
“‘So long as the Muslims have the Qur'an, we shall be unable to dominate them. We must either take it from them, or make them lose their love of it.’
“He was filled with zeal. Heeding the decree of, So turn away from them,76 the numerical value of which is 1316, it overturned his ideas and changed the direction of his interest. He understood that he should make all the various sciences he had learnt steps by which to understand the Qur'an and prove its truths, and that the Qur'an alone should be his aim, the purpose of his learning, and the object of his life. Thus, the Qur'an’s miraculousness became his guide, teacher, and master. But unfortunately, due to many deceiving obstacles in that period of youth, he did not in fact take up the duty. It was a while later that he awoke with the clash and clamour of war. Then that constant idea sprang to life; it began to emerge and be realized.”77
Thus, as this passage states, the explicit threats of the British Colonial Secretary to the Qur'an and Islamic world caused a revolution in Bediuzzaman’s ideas, clarifying them and setting him in the direction he would now follow. The threats caused him to declare: “I shall prove and demonstrate to the world that the Qur'an is an undying, inextinguishable Sun!”78 Using the knowledge he had acquired to prove its truths, he would defend the Qur'an against the deliberate efforts to discredit it and corrupt the Muslim community. In a letter he wrote in 1955, Bediuzzaman stated that he found two means of doing this, one was the Medresetü’z-Zehra, his eastern university which took him to Istanbul and even to an audience with Sultan Abdulhamid, and the second was the Risale-i Nur.79 But this second means only became realized with the emergence of the New Said subsequent to the First World War. Until that time, Bediuzzaman was both actively involved with the compelling events of the times and for the most part served the cause of Islam through active participation in social and political matters, and also, as shall be described in a later chapter, he was preoccupied with ‘human’ science and philosophy, and hoped to follow his aim through them.
1. While a variety of dates for Bediuzzaman’s birth are given in available sources, the majority give it as 1293 Rumi.
2. Edip, Esref, Said Nursi, Hayati, Eserleri, Meslegi, 17.
3. Sahiner, N. Nurs Yolu, 68.
4. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 45.
5. Sahiner, N. Nurs Yolu, 69.
6. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 46; Lem’alar, 87; Muhâkemat, 22-3.
7. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 47; Emirdag Lahikasi, i, 53.
8. Sikke-i Tasdik-i Gaybi, 116.
9. Tarihçe, 31; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 47-8.
10. Emirdag Lahikasi, i, 52.
11. Tarihçe, 31-2.
12. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 49-50.
13. Ibid., 50; Tarihçe, 49-50.
14. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 51.
15. Ibid., 51-2.
16. Ibid., 52; Tarihçe, 32.
17. shaykh Emin Efendi was a famous scholar whose medrese was in the Kizilmescit quarter of Bitlis. He was the teacher of many notable people, including Reshid Akif Pasha, at one time Governor of Sivas. He went to Istanbul 1900 where he was greeted with a formal ceremony and had private conversation with Sultan Abdulhamid II. The Sultan offered him the post of Shaykhü’l-Islam, which he did not accept. He returned to Bitlis in 1903, and died there in 1908 at the age of seventy. See, Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 53.
18. Ibid., 52-3; Tarihçe, 33.
19. That is, the famous poet and scholar Nuruddin Abdurrahman Jami, who lived in Herat 817/1414-898/1492. Of his numerous works, the one known as ‘Molla Jami’ was a commentary on a work on Arabic syntax called Kafiya by Ibn Hajib, and formed part of the medrese syllabus until recent times.
20. Tarihçe, 33-4; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 53-5.
21. Ibid., 55.
22. Tarihçe, 34-5.
23. Ibid., 35.
24. Ibid., 35-6; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 55-6.
25. Written by the famous poet and literary figure, Ali Harirî, d. 665H.
26. Emirdag Lahikasi (Ott. edn.), 383.
27. Tarihçe, 36-7; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 56-8.
28. Ibid. (8th edn.), 52-3; Shaykh Jalal Efendi, in Son Sahitler, ii, 259.
29. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 58.
30. Tarihçe, 38.
31. Ibid., 38.
32. The Qamusu’l-Okyanus was written by Abû Tahir Firuzâbadî, born in Kazerun in Firuzâbad in 729/1328-9. He died in 817/1414-15 at an advanced age. The Chapter Sin. starts on page 204 of the second volume. The first volume is of 410 pages. Said therefore memorized 614 pages. The volumes are of large dimensions with twenty-four lines on each page.
33. While being tried for hostility towards the Republic in Eskishehir Criminal Court in 1935, Bediuzzaman was asked his opinion of republicanism. He replied: “As my biography which you have in your hands proves, I was a religious republican before any of you, with the exception of the President of the Court, were born”, and related the above story of the ants. He went on to say that each of the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs had been both Caliph (that is, successor to the Prophet) and President of the Republic, and that this had not been some meaningless title, they had been presidents of a religious republic in which true justice and freedom prevailed. See, Tarihçe, 39.
34. See, Son Sahitler, iv, 198-201.
35. Tarihçe, 39.
36. The Hamidiye militia, or cavalry, had been set up by Sultan Abdulhamid II in 1891 as a force against Russian encroachments, as a means of controlling the Kurdish and Turcoman tribes of which it was composed, and also to combat Armenian terrorism in eastern Anatolia. It was commanded by both tribal chiefs and regular officers. See, Shaw and Shaw, History, ii, 246.
37. Tarihçe, 39-41.
38. Ibid., 41-2.
39. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 63-4.
40. Münâzarat (Ott. edn.), in Asar-i Bedi’iye, 462.
41. Kocatürk, Vasfi Mahir, Büyük Türk Edebiyati Tarihi, Ankara 1970, 662.
42. Münâzarat, 15.
43. Divan-i Harb-i Örfî, 19.
44. Tarihçe, 42.
45. Ibid., 42; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 64-5.
46. Sevilen, Mustafa, in Son Sahitler, ii, 42. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 65, also gives the event as related by Bediuzzaman’s brother, Abdülmecid Nursi, in his memoirs, which is the first-hand account of the gendarme Ibrahim.
47. Ibid., 65-6; Emirdag Lahikasi, i, 135.
48. Tarihçe, 42-3.
49. A jüz’ is one thirtieth of the Qur'an.
50. Tarihçe, 43-4.
51. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 52-3; Emirdag Lahikasi, i, 257.
52. Tarihçe, 44.
53. Kutay, Cemal, Bediüzzaman, 136-7; Sahiner, N. Son Sahitler, iii, 16-20.
54. Tarihçe, 44-5. In fact, many years later while describing his years of study in Van to one of his students, Muhsin Alev, Bediuzzaman said that he had studied and mastered all the sciences with the exception of organic chemistry; that was the only one he had not been able to master completely. See, Son Sahitler, i, 227.
55. Tarihçe, 46.
56. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 70; Sungur, Mustafa, in Sahiner, N. Aydinlar Konusuyor, 395.
57. Tarihçe, 45.
58. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 68-9; Hutbe-i Samiye, 90.
59. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 69; Sualar, 629.
60. Emirdag Lahikasi, ii, 187.
61. Tarihçe, 45.
62. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 69-70.
63. Tarihçe, 46.
64. Lem’alar (Ott. edn.), 648.
65. Tarihçe, 46.
66. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 71.
67. Ibid., 71.
68. Ibid., 91.
69. Ibid., 72.
70. Mardin, Serif, Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey, 78.
71. The historical positions in the Royal Household such as Head Falconer, Keeper of the Wardrobe, and Chief Coffee Maker were not empty titles, but awarded to notables of worth and standing who acted as gentlemen-in-waiting to the Sultan and advisers. The position of Head Falconer had been one of importance in the Court of Sultan Abdülaziz (1861-76), and on the accession of Abdülhamid II after the brief reign of Murad V, its holder, Mustafa Bey, was one of the few of Abdülaziz’s attendants that he retained. Mustafa Bey was from the Caucasus, a member of the Sultan Sencer family. See, Kutay, Cemal, Bediüzzaman, 152, fn. 22.
72. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi (5th edn.), 62-3.
73. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 75-7.
74. Sikke-i Tasdik-i Gaybî, 126.
75. That is, about the turn of the century.
76. Qur'an, 6:68, etc.
77. Sikke-i Tasdik-i Gaybî, 76.
78. Tarihçe, 47.
79. Emirdag Lahikasi, ii, 195.