C H A P T E R S I X
Return to Istanbul
Soon after giving his Sermon, Bediuzzaman left Damascus for Beirut, and from there took the boat for Izmir and Istanbul. His intention in returning to Istanbul was to renew his efforts to found the Medresetü’z-Zehra or Eastern University. The last part of Münâzarat is devoted to this ideal of Bediuzzaman’s, and he many years later described it as “the spirit and foundation” of the work.1 Thus, after his long travels through the region he resolved to get official support and backing for the construction of the university, reaffirmed in his conviction that it was the most comprehensive and far-reaching solution for the region’s problems. And this time he was to have success, though the tide of events finally prevented the realization of his project.
The Rumelia Journey
On 5 June, 1911, Sultan Mehmed Reshad set out with a large retinue on his famous Rumelia Journey. It was to be the last time an Ottoman sultan visited the European provinces, for soon they were all to be lost to the Empire. The previous year had seen the first Albanian uprising. The purpose of the Sultan’s journey was to reawaken feelings of patriotism and solidarity among the various peoples of Macedonia and Albania in the face of the upsurge of nationalism, and to secure social calm. On the request of the Palace, Bediuzzaman joined those accompanying the Sultan as the representative of the Eastern Provinces.
Travelling by sea to Salonica, the Sultan and his party stayed there two days, and then continued their journey by train, arriving at Skopje on 11 June. In the same compartment as Bediuzzaman on the train were two school teachers who had studied modern science. A discussion of great relevance started between the three on their asking Bediuzzaman: “Which is more necessary and should be stronger, religious zeal or national zeal?” The gist of Bediuzzaman’s answer was that “With us Muslims religion and nationality are united, although there is a theoretical, apparent, and incidental difference between them... Religious zeal and Islamic nationhood have completely fused in Turk and Arab and may not now be separated...” And by means of a comparison in which Muslims were represented by a six-year-old child and Europeans or unbelievers by the heroes Hercules and Rustam, he demonstrated the unassailable strength of belief in Divine Unity.2 Related from some elderly inhabitants of Skopje who recalled the visit was the following description of Bediuzzaman:
“Bediuzzaman was wearing boots. His moustaches were short and his eyes brilliant. He was a handsome, imposing young man with a darkish complexion. He carried a Circassian, gold tula-work whip and at his waist was an ivory-handled dagger. Within a short time he was known in Skopje as ‘Bediuzzaman Molla Said Efendi.’ The Skopje ‘ulama came group by group to visit him and put their questions to him.
“Bediuzzaman was immediately next to Sultan Reshad while the Sultan was greeting the people from the balcony of the High School in Skopje, which was later destroyed by an earthquake. Thousands of Skopjans gave them the most enthusiastic reception.”3
On 16 June, the Sultan and his retinue arrived in Kosova from Pristina, and in the large open space where the tomb of Sultan Murad Hudavendigar is situated, they performed the Friday Prayers, a congregation of two hundred thousand. It was an unforgettable and nostalgic occasion.4
While in Kosova, there was much talk of a large university they were attempting to found there, doubtless for reasons similar to Bediuzzaman’s Medresetü’z-Zehra. It provided Bediuzzaman with just the opportunity he had been waiting for. He suggested to Sultan Reshad and the CUP leaders who were accompanying him that the East was in greater need of a university such as that, for it was like the centre of the Islamic world. They accepted his arguments and promised that a university would be opened in the Eastern Provinces. At the end of the following year, the Balkan War broke out and Kosova was lost to the Empire, whereupon Bediuzzaman applied for the nineteen thousand gold liras allotted to its proposed university. His application was accepted. He then returned to Van and on a site on the shores of Lake Van at Edremit, finally laid the foundations of the Medresetü’z-Zehra. But it was not to be. With the outbreak of the First World War shortly afterwards, the construction was halted and never resumed.5
Sultan Reshad and his accompanying party completed their visit to Rumelia on returning to Salonica. There they once again boarded the warship Barbaros and attendant vessels, and, being greeted by a cannon-salute at Çanakkale, retraced their path to Istanbul. There, on 26 June, they were met by large welcoming crowds. The trip had lasted three weeks.6
The tide that was flowing against the Ottomans was running too strongly by this time, however, to be stemmed by such gestures, despite the Sultan’s enthusiastic reception on the trip and the large demonstrations of loyalty. The nationalists and separatists continued to receive support from the foreign powers, but more than anything it was CUP misrule that exacerbated the already volatile situation and led finally to the end of Turkey in Europe with the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. Also in late 1911 there had been the Tripolitanian War: Italy had attacked Tripoli and Benghazi, modern-day Libya, and they too were lost to the Empire. The Italians went on to occupy the Dodacanese Islands and bombard the entrance to the Dardanelles. And with the outbreak of the Balkan War in November 1912, Greece seized the Aegean Islands, and Salonica was also lost. The deposed Sultan Abdulhamid was hurriedly removed from his place of exile and taken to Beylerbeyi Palace in Istanbul. The unexpected occupation of Tripoli added to the other events caused a political crisis in Istanbul and the CUP were ousted from power for a period of some six months, from July 1912 until the famous ‘Raid on the Sublime Porte’ in January 1913 led by Enver Pasha. After the liberation of Edirne in July 1913, Enver was made Minister of War, and it was he who set up the alliance with Germany the following year which brought Turkey into the First World War on the side of the Central Powers.
Return to Van – 1913
Sometime previously to this Bediuzzaman had returned to Van, for it was at that time that he laid the foundations for the Medresetü’z-Zehra. His old patron and friend Tahir Pasha,7 the Governor of Van, was present at the ceremony, and both he and Bediuzzaman gave speeches. The occasion was marked by further celebrations and a banquet.8
During his researches in the Archives of the Prime Minister’s Office in Istanbul, Necmeddin Sahiner has unearthed twenty or so documents concerning this matter, most of which bear the seal and signature of Tahsin Bey, the Governor of Van, and are addressed to the Palace and Sultan Reshad. N. Sahiner writes that Sultan Reshad was well-informed of the progress of the project. In the letter he quotes, dated 4 Haziran 1329 (17 June 1913), the Governor writes to the Grand Vizier’s Office that all the ‘ulama, notables, and tribal chiefs of the area were requesting the speedy payment of sufficient money “from the Imperial pocket” – only a small amount had been paid up to that time due to the financial straits of the Government – to begin the construction of an Islamic university for eighty students in Van, the plans and preliminaries of which had already been completed. It was hoped the running costs would be met by the Imperial Estates. He writes it would be an important point of support for the continued existence of Islam and the Ottomans [in the area] in the face of daily increasing Shi’i propaganda and the ignorance of the Kurdish people. It would strengthen feeling for Islam and remove every sort of misunderstanding, and would be most beneficial and effective.9
While in Van, Bediuzzaman spent much of his time teaching his students in his medrese, the Horhor, which took its onomatopoeic name from the spring that rose at its side. A young visitor to the medrese described it as follows: “There was a green-covered table in Bediuzzaman’s medrese in Horhor on which he had written out in thumb-tacks the Hadith: ‘Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.’ He himself taught the students when they had finished studying. His students were all selected. He taught about twenty-five of them. He was very fond of me and never called me by my name; he used to call me ‘nephew’. Before the War he used to stay in Nurshin and Hüsrev Pasha Mosques...”10
It was also during this visit to the East that what was known as the Bitlis Incident occurred, when, in July 1913, rebelling against the irreligious behaviour of some of the military commanders of the Government, Shaykh Selim of Hizan occupied the town for a week.11 The shaykh had first approached Bediuzzaman seeking his support. But as on numerous occasions including the much larger Shaykh Said revolt in 1925, Bediuzzaman declined, refusing to draw his sword against fellow Muslims. He told the shaykh:
“Those bad things and that irreligious behaviour is peculiar to commanders like those. The Army is not responsible for them. There are perhaps a hundred thousand saints in the Ottoman Army; I will not draw my sword against it. I will not join you.” He continued: “Those people left me, drew their swords, and the futile Bitlis Incident occurred. A short time, later, the First World War broke out, and the Army took part in it in the name of religion, it undertook the Holy War. A hundred thousand martyrs from the Army attained the rank of sainthood, and confirming what I had said, signed their diplomas of sainthood with their blood...”12
1. Kastamonu Lahikasi, 46.
2. Hutbe-i Samiye, 56-65.
3. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 141.
4. Kutay, Cemal, Avrupa Topraklarinda Son Padisah, in Tarih Sohbetleri, v, 226.
5. Tarihçe, 95.
6. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 142-5.
7. Tahir Pasha, who was ill, returned to Istanbul around the beginning of 1913, where he died in November of that year. See Son Sahitler, iii, 16-20. He was succeeded by Tahsin Bey, also a friend and supporter of Bediuzzaman’s.
8. Polatoglu, Nuh, in Son Sahitler, i, 90.
9. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi (8th edn.), 161-2.
10. Arvasi, Abdülbaki, in Son Sahitler, i, 99-100.
11. Mardin, Serif, Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey, The Case of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, New York 1989, 88.
12. Sualar, 302.