C H A P T E R T W O
ISTANBUL BEFORE FREEDOM
In November, 1907, Bediuzzaman set off a second time for Istanbul with the intention of obtaining official support and backing for his Islamic university, the Medresetü’z-Zehra. He was now around thirty years of age. From his humble beginnings in the village of Nurs, he had established his reputation among the ‘ulama of Kurdistan, and was a figure well-known not only for his unbeaten record in debate, extensive learning, and extraordinary abilities, but also for his pursuit of justice and defence of right, and his absolute fearlessness before anyone save his Maker. His ambitions matched his ability. This had marked him out from his earliest years. He had never been content with the status-quo, something within himself had perpetually pushed him to seek fresh, new, better paths. As his horizons expanded, this path became clear. As is described in the previous chapter, besides the continuing process of his study, two key events may be seen as being decisive in giving him direction. One was his realization of the extremely severe nature of the threats to the Qur'an by Islam’s perennial enemies, and that, through his learning, he should make the defence of it the aim of his life. And the second were the acquaintances he made in Mardin in 1892, and his learning through them of the struggle for freedom and constitutionalism, and of the movement for Islamic Unity and other issues concerning the Islamic world. Until the beginning of the First World War, it was with these issues that Bediuzzaman was chiefly concerned.
Tahir Pasha’s Letter
The Governor of Van and Bitlis, Tahir Pasha, who had provided Bediuzzaman with so much encouragement and support, now wrote him a letter of introduction to the Palace, pointing out Bediuzzaman’s fame and position among the ‘ulama of eastern Anatolia, and requesting the Sultan’s favour and assistance in securing medical treatment for Bediuzzaman. This medical treatment was for a form of mental exhaustion brought about by his extreme mental exertion over a long period of time. Bediuzzaman’s nephew, Abdurrahman, notes that it was the competitive solving of mathematical problems in particular that had exhausted his brain, and that for a period of some three years during his stay in Van, he virtually give up debating of this kind and would only speak when necessary.1 The following is a translation of Tahir Pasha’s letter:
“A request from His most humble servant.
“Since Molla Said, who is famous among the ‘ulama of Kurdistan for his brilliant intelligence, is in need of medical treatment, seeking refuge in the compassion and kindness of His Excellency the Shelter of the Caliphate, he has set out at this time for His Exalted Excellency.
“Although the above-mentioned is a person to whom everyone in these regions has recourse for solving problems concerning knowledge and learning, since he considers himself to be a student, he has not as yet consented to change his dress.
“Together with his being a faithful and sincere servant of His Excellency the Supreme Benefactor, the above-mentioned is by nature gentlemanly and satisfied with little, and in the opinion of this most humble servant, whether in regard to good moral qualities or loyalty and worshipfulness towards His Excellency the Shelter of the Caliphate, among the Kurdish ‘ulama who up to this time have had the good fortune to go to Dersaadet [Istanbul], is a person distinguished for his devoutness and is most worthy of benevolence. It is therefore boldly submitted that if he is made the object of special favour and facility in the matter of receiving treatment, it will be considered by all the students of Kurdistan to be an eternally unforgettable gracious kindness of the dynasty of His Excellency the Sultan.
“In this and in every matter the command belongs unto him to whom all commanding belongs.
“3 Teshrin-i Sani 1323 (16 November, 1907)
“The Governor of Bitlis, Tahir”2
The ‘Shekerji Han’
There is no record of this letter having evoked the desired response. In any event, Bediuzzaman’s first task when he arrived in Istanbul was to establish himself among the Istanbul ‘ulama, to attract attention towards the problems of the Eastern provinces, and publicize his ideas on educational reform. Indeed, by way of spurring him on, Tahir Pasha had said to Bediuzzaman: “You can defeat in argument all the ‘ulama of eastern Anatolia, but you could not go to Istanbul and challenge all the big fishes in that sea,” knowing that Bediuzzaman could not let such a challenge remain unanswered.3 Thus, on his arrival, Bediuzzaman established himself in the religious centre of Istanbul, Fatih, in large building known as the Shekerji (Sweetmakers’) Han, which served as a hostel for many of the leading intellectual figures of the time. The poet Mehmet Akif, and Fatin Hoja, the Director of the Observatory, were among its inhabitants. There are many contemporary descriptions of Bediuzzaman. The following, written by Ahmad Ramiz Efendi, owner of the Ijtihad Publishing House, describes his arrival:
“It was in 1323 (1907) that the news spread around that a person of flashing brilliance – a rarity of creation – called Said-i Kurdi,4 having risen like the sun over the rugged, precipitous mountains of the East, had appeared on the horizons of Istanbul....
“Said said: ‘I have come here in order to open schools in my native land, I have no other wish. I want this, nothing else.’ In other words, Bediuzzaman wanted two things, to open educational establishments in every part of the Eastern Provinces, and to receive nothing in return...”5
Bediuzzaman cut a striking figure in Istanbul. On the door of his room in the Shekerji Han he hung a sign which read:
“Here all questions are answered, all problems solved, but no questions are asked.”
The following are the impressions of some of his visitors to the Han and those who saw him at that time. The first, that of Hasan Fehmi Basoglu, later a member of the Consultative Committee of the Department of Religious Affairs.
“About the time the Second Constitution was proclaimed I was studying in the Fatih Medrese. I heard that a young man called Bediuzzaman had come to Istanbul and had settled in a han, and that he had even hung a notice on his door which said: “Here every problem is solved, all questions are answered, but no questions are asked.” I thought that someone who made such a claim could only be mad. But hearing nothing but praise and good opinions concerning Bediuzzaman, and learning of the astonishment of the many groups of ‘ulama and students who were visiting him, it awoke in me the desire to visit him myself. I decided that I would prepare some questions on the most difficult and abstruse matters to ask him. At that time I was considered to be one of the foremost members of the Medrese. Finally one night I selected a number of subjects from several of the most profound books on the theological sciences, and put them into question form. The following day I went to visit him, and I put my questions to him. The answers I received were quite astonishing and extraordinary. He answered my questions precisely, as though we had been together the previous evening and had looked at the books together. I was completely satisfied, and understood with certainty that his knowledge was not ‘acquired’ (kesbî ) like ours, it was ‘innate’ (vehbî ).
“Afterwards he got out a map, and explained the necessity of opening a university in the Eastern Provinces, pointing out its importance. At that time there were Hamidiye regiments in the Eastern Provinces, it was being administered in that way. He explained to us convincingly the deficiencies of this form of administration, and that the region had to be awakened from the point of view of education, industry and science. He explained that he had come to Istanbul to realize this aim, and he said: “The conscience is illuminated by the religious sciences, and the mind is illuminated by the sciences of civilization.”6
And another account, from Ali Himmet Berki, a former President of the Court of Appeal:
“During those years I was a student in the Medresetü’l-Kuzat [Law Faculty]. I was ahead of the other students. Bediuzzaman’s name and fame had spread throughout Istanbul; everyone was talking about him in all the scholarly circles. We heard reports that he was staying as a guest in a han in Fatih, and that he answered every sort of question that anyone put to him. I decided to go with some fellow students, and we went to visit this famous person.
“That day we heard he was in a teahouse answering questions. We went there immediately. There was quite a crowd, and he was wearing unusual clothes. He was wearing not the dress of a scholar, but the local dress of eastern Anatolia.
“When we got close to him, Bediuzzaman was answering the questions being asked him. He was surrounded by scholars who were listening to him in rapt silence and wonder. Everyone was satisfied and pleased with the answers they received. He was replying to the assertions and ideas of the Sophist philosophers. He demolished their views with rational proofs.
“That was the first time I saw and met him. What I gathered about him was this: he knew all the dictionaries. Whatever word you asked him from the Arabic dictionaries, he would answer immediately and give its meaning. Then in theology there was no one superior to him. In these two sciences his knowledge was endless. He knew Arabic literature, Persian literature, Eastern and Western literature. And there was another piece of information about him that was well-known: as a man of religion he did not accept gifts, money, etc., from anyone. He could have owned lots of things if he had wanted. He did not own a stick in the world.”7
And Abdullah Enver Efendi, known as the Walking Library, gave the following account in an interview with Necmeddin Sahiner:
“Harbizade Tavasli Hasan Efendi, a teacher in the Fatih Medrese, was a scholarly and respected figure. He lived into his nineties, teaching right up until his last days. He was someone who never missed a day at his duties; there was not one day throughout his whole teaching life that he did not go to teach. But that day Hasan Efendi said to his students: ‘I cannot come to teach today, because someone from eastern Anatolia called Bediuzzaman has arrived, and I am going to visit him.’ He left the Medrese and went to visit Bediuzzaman in the Shekerji Han. On his return, he expressed the astonishment and love he felt, saying to his students: ‘Such a person has not been seen before, he is a rarity of creation. The like of him has yet to appear.’”8
Forty years later Bediuzzaman himself recalled in a defence speech in court how the Istanbul ‘ulama had sought his assistance. He said: “Forty years ago and the year before the proclamation of the Constitution I went to Istanbul. At that time, the Japanese Commander-in-Chief [of the Army] had asked the Muslim ‘ulama a number of questions concerning religion. The Istanbul ‘ulama asked me about them. And they questioned me about many things in connection with them...”9
And finally, an anecdote from Haji Hafiz Efendi, who used also to be present in the discussions held in the Fatih Medrese at that time of lively and vital debate. It was recorded by Necmeddin Sahiner exactly as related by Haji Hafiz’s son, Visali Bey, from his father’s memoirs.
“One day, some ‘ulama were debating a subject in the courtyard of Fatih Mosque, but they could in no way convince one another and solve the question. The subject did not become clear and evident at all. The debate continued. At that point, Bediuzzaman appeared dressed in simple and humble clothes, with a shawl, and furcap on his head. I recognized him and knew of his knowledge on scholarly matters, so I observed the situation, and listened.
“Bediuzzaman said to the scholars: ‘What is this matter you are discussing? May I know? Would you please tell me?’
“Seeing his humble dress, the scholars replied: ‘See here, shepherd efendi! You would not understand these matters. Off with you, and attend to your own business!’
“Bediuzzaman was not the least offended at this. He learnt what the matter was, then explained and solved it so beautifully with verses from the Qur'an and Hadiths that everyone’s mouths dropped open in amazement. All those religious scholars were completely convinced of the subject. He explained the verses so masterfully that it was as though he had been at the Prophet (PBUH)’s side when they had been revealed. And the scholars declared: ‘Your years are few, but your knowledge is great. Allow us to kiss your hand.’
“Bediuzzaman replied: ‘There is need for that’, and took his leave in a most modest and unobtrusive manner.”10
Proposals For Educational Reform
Within a short time of arriving in Istanbul Bediuzzaman was successful in having a petition setting out his ideas for educational reform in the Eastern Provinces presented to Sultan Abdulhamid, following which the Sultan granted him an audience. The text was later printed in The East and Kurdistan Gazette, dated 19 November, 1908. However, as the paper’s introduction to the article points out, Bediuzzaman’s meeting with the Sultan was to have unhappy consequences. In the short time he had been in Istanbul, Bediuzzaman had attracted a lot of attention, both favourable, and as far as the authorities were concerned, adverse. As was inevitable during those repressive times, being such a controversial figure, he was kept under close surveillance.11 He had also attracted the enmity of others in the same profession, jealous at his learning and fame. Bediuzzaman, however, had one aim: to serve the cause of Islam and the Empire, and he knew no fear in doing this. Then, having been given an audience with the Sultan, he took the opportunity to put forward his ideas, and criticisms. Besides openly criticizing the apparatus of despotism, which as we shall see, Bediuzzaman considered to be one of the greatest obstacles to progress as well as being contrary to Islam, his main criticism of Abdulhamid seems to have been his failure to carry out the functions of Caliph satisfactorily: it was his prime duty as Caliph of the Muslims to have shown closer and more constructive concern for the question of education and the ‘ulama institution, since this was the basis of the revitalization of Islam and the Islamic world.12 Bediuzzaman’s upbraiding Abdulhamid for neglecting Abdürreshid Ibrahim’s calls for assistance, mentioned below, despite his Pan-Islamic policies, should be seen in this light. Unaccustomed as they were to such a forthright manner and outspoken remarks, however reasonable and good-intentioned, it is not surprising that the Sultan and Pashas should have reacted in the unfavourable manner that they did.
The text of Bediuzzaman’s petition was as follows. It is preceded by a few introductory words by the newspaper:
“We are proud to include the exact text of the proposal which Bediuzzaman Molla Said Efendi presented to the Palace, and as a result became the target of many misfortunes.”
“While, in order to be in harmony in progress like the other brothers in this world of civilization and age of progress and competition, the founding and construction of schools has been ordered as a Government service in the towns and villages of Kurdistan – and this has been witnessed with thanks – only children who know Turkish can benefit from them. Since Kurdish children who have not learnt Turkish consider the only mines of perfection to be the medreses [traditional religious schools], and the teachers in the mektebs [new secular schools] do not know the local language, these children continue to be deprived of education. Their resulting uncivilized behaviour and disorder invites the West to rejoice at our misfortune. Moreover, since the people remain in a primitive state, uncivilized and blindly imitating, they become prey to doubts and suspicions. And it as though these three points are preparing a ghastly blow for the Kurds in the future, and have caused suffering to those with insight.
“The remedy for this: three educational establishments should be set up in different areas of Kurdistan as examples to be followed, and as encouragement and stimulation. One in Beytüshebab, which is the centre of the Ertushi tribes; another in the middle of the Mutkan, Belkan and Sasun tribes; and one in Van itself, which is in the middle of the Haydar and Sipkan tribes. These should be known by the familiar name of medrese, and should teach both the religious and modern sciences. Each should have at least fifty students, and their means of subsistence should be provided by the illustrious Government. Also, the revitalization of a number of other medreses would be an important means of securing the future life – both material, and moral and spiritual – of Kurdistan. In this way, the basis of education would be established, and together with making over to the Government this huge force which is now being dissipated in internal conflict, it would cause it to be expended outwardly. And it would demonstrate that they are thoroughly deserving of justice, and capable of being civilized, as well as displaying their natural ability.13
Thus, Bediuzzaman was finally successful in presenting to the Sultan an outline of his proposals, the fruit of his own experience over many years. And, pointing out some of the damaging results of the system as it then was, he with foresight predicted problems of great magnitude in the future.
Bediuzzaman’s ideas on educational reform were far-reaching and innovative. They are in part described above and in Bediuzzaman’s ‘Conversation with the Doctor’ following this section. But due to their importance, before continuing with Bediuzzaman’s audience with the Sultan, we include a summary of them in their entirety.
The heart of Bediuzzaman’s proposals lay in reconciling “the three main branches” of the educational system, the medreses or traditional religious schools, the mektebs or new secular schools, and the tekkes or Sufi establishments, and the disciplines they represented. The embodiment of this rapprochement was the Medresetü’z-Zehra, which has been mentioned earlier. Bediuzzaman attached the greatest importance to establishing this university where the religious sciences and modern sciences would be taught side by side and “combined”, and pursued it till the end of his days.
The second main area of Bediuzzaman’s proposals lay in completely restructuring medrese education and were extremely ‘modern’ in their approach. These consisted of what might be described as the democratization of the medrese system, and its diversification so that “the rule of the division of labour” could be applied.
A third area concerned the preachers, who “guided the general public”.
While the role the Medresetü’z-Zehra was to play was seen by Bediuzzaman to be vital for securing the future of Kurdistan and unity of the Empire as well as acting as an important centre for the eastern Islamic world, the general principles it represented were applicable to all medreses. Several of the conditions Bediuzzaman considered to be essential were mentioned in the petition: the Medresetü’z-Zehra and its two sister establishments should be known by the familiar name of medrese and the instruction should be in a language known by potential students. In another work, Münâzarat, Bediuzzaman stated that they should be tri-lingual, with Arabic being “compulsory”, Kurdish “permissible”, and Turkish “necessary”.14 In the same work, he also stated that Kurdish scholars who were trusted by Turk and Kurd should be selected as teachers, as well as those who knew the local languages, and that it was necessary to take into account the capacity and cultural level of the community they were to serve. Also these ‘medreses’ should be on an equal footing with the official secular schools, and like them, their examinations should be recognized. The basis of the system Bediuzzaman was proposing, however, was the combined teaching of the religious and modern sciences.
In the course of time, the medrese syllabuses had become narrow and sterile, with modern developments in science being rejected altogether. So that at the beginning of the twentieth century, the medreses were producing ‘ulama who believed, together with the Europeans, that there was a clash and contradiction between certain ‘externals’ of Islam and certain matters of science – matters as basic as the Earth being round. This false idea had caused feelings of hopelessness and despair, and had shut the door of progress and civilization. “Whereas”, pointed out Bediuzzaman, “Islam is the master and guide of the sciences, and the chief and father of all true knowledge.”15
On a human level, Bediuzzaman saw religion as representing the heart and conscience, and science, the reason; both were necessary for true progress to be attained. He explained it as follows: “The religious sciences are the light of the conscience, and the modern sciences are the light of the reason. The truth becomes manifest through the combining of the two. The students’ endeavour will take flight on these two wings. When they are separated it gives rise to bigotry in the one, and wiles and scepticism in the other.”16
On a wider scale, the Medresetü’z-Zehra would unite the three traditions in the educational system by representing “the most superior mekteb by the reason, the very best medrese by the heart, and the most sacred zawiye by the conscience.”17 As a result of its unique value for the Islamic world, it would in time gain financial independence by reason of the donations and pious bequests it would receive.
The benefits of such a system would be manifold. Just as it would ensure the future of the ‘ulama in the eastern provinces, at the same time it would be step towards the unification and reform of general system. So would it deliver Islam from the bigotry, superstitions, and false beliefs which had encrusted parts of it over the centuries. And, importantly, would be a means of introducing modern learning into the medreses in a way which would allay the ‘ulama’s suspicions concerning modern science. Also, it would “open the door to spreading the beneficial aspects of constitutionalism.”18
Bediuzzaman wished for Islam to function like a consultative council, that is to say, through the mutual consultation (shura) of “the three divisions of the army of Islamic education”, those of the medreses, the mektebs, and the tekkes, so that “each would complete the deficiencies of the other”. His aim was for the Medresetü’z-Zehra to be an embodiment of this.19
According to Bediuzzaman, this transforming the medreses from being ‘single-faculty’ institutions into being ‘multi-faculty’ and putting into practice ‘the rule of division of labour’ was in accordance with wisdom and the laws of creation. The failure to practise it in previous centuries had led to despotism and the exploitation of learning in the medreses, and the teaching being undertaken by those not qualified to do so. It had headed the medreses towards their destruction.20
In many places, Bediuzzaman stresses the need for students to specialize in one subject for which they have an aptitude, and in addition only study subjects which complement it. Since it is described in some detail in his ‘Conversation with the Doctor’, together with the need for creative study, debate, and a return to the study of the essential religious sciences by the students, we shall leave the description to there. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that specialization in particular represented a radical break with traditional methods.
Finally, a further point which could be thought of as radical was Bediuzzaman’s view that “public opinion” should prevail among both the ‘ulama and the students. That is to say, he believed that it was “scholastic despotism”, an offspring of political despotism, “which has opened the way to blind imitation (taqlid), and barred the way to searching for the truth.” For the problems of the modern age to be grappled with and progress to be secured, “constitutionalism among the ‘ulama” should be established “in the ‘ulama state.” In the same way, among the students, “public opinion” or the prevalent ideas emerging from debate and the exchange of ideas between students of varying disciplines should be taken as master. Bediuzzaman predicted that this would provide a strong stimulation and incentive for progress. Thus, “Just as public opinion predominates in the state, so too should the prevailing opinions of the ‘ulama be müfti, and the prevailing opinions of the students be master and teacher.”21
Thus, during his audience, having given Sultan Abdulhamid first-hand information about the state of the Eastern Provinces and explained these ideas and the importance of his proposals, especially concerning the founding of the new schools, in his capacity as a man of religion, Bediuzzaman went on to remind the Sultan of the petition made to him by the famous traveller and scholar Abdürreshid Ibrahim.
Abdürreshid Ibrahim had sought asylum in Japan after having been exiled in 1904 from his native Uzbekistan by the Russians, and travelling both there and in China, had expended great efforts for the spread and revitalization of Islam. Seeing the ignorance and poverty of the many Muslims in China, he had sent requests to Sultan Abdulhamid for both material assistance and for religious scholars and instructors to be sent there. At the time, the Sultan was giving great importance to his Caliphate Policy, that is, Pan-Islamic policies, and had apparently responded favourably, instructing the Shaykhü’l-Islam, Jamaluddin Efendi, to do everything necessary for its implementation. A certain time must have elapsed, however, for with unheard-of boldness, Bediuzzaman addressed the Sultan, saying:
“The rank of the Caliphate is not restricted to the official ceremony of the Friday prayers. Just as the Caliph possesses moral power, so too will he have material power, and guarantee and be responsible for all the dealings of the Muslim community in every corner of the world. Abdürreshid Ibrahim Efendi is a great striver in the way of Islam. It is a grievous sin to let his request remain fruitless. Even if the office of Shaykhü’l-Islam has no power, praise be to God, there are many men of religion in this country ready to sacrifice themselves for this cause. Why has this request not been proclaimed and broadcast throughout the Ottoman lands?”22
Bediuzzaman then went on to criticize to the Sultan’s face the denunciations and networks of spies and agents for which his regime was so notorious. Bediuzzaman had been the subject of such a report in 1906.23 As someone who never hesitated to speak out in the cause of freedom in that time of repression, it was inevitable that he should have been. He said to Sultan Abdulhamid:
“Despotism has no place in Islam. To give a ruling on a person is the right only of courts acting openly and within the justice of the Shari’a. These rulings may not be given according to reports made by persons of unknown identity, which throw no light on their true faces and conceal their intrigues...”
The Shaykhü’l-Islam, Jamaluddin Efendi, who was present, later told his son, Muhtar Bey: “Until today, I have never encountered anyone who voiced his opinions in the Sovereign’s presence with such boldness.” This boldness, however, only led Bediuzzaman to be brought up before the Yildiz Palace Court Martial. And the unhappy consequences of Bediuzzaman’s audience with Sultan Abdulhamid were not restricted to the court martial, for he was to be sentenced by it to a term in Toptashi Mental Hospital in Üsküdar. The judges in the court were at a loss as to how to deal with this case, and the mental hospital was the solution they came up with.
When asked by Divisional General Shakir Pasha in the court martial to which Kurdish tribe he belonged, Bediuzzaman replied:
“To which Tatar tribe do you belong? I am an Ottoman. My being Kurdish is only on account of the name given to the people of the place where I was born and grew up.” And he went on to repeat what he had said to the Sultan. On hearing this, the Public Prosecutor, Süruri Efendi, asked him:
“How can you say such insulting words about His Imperial Majesty the Sultan?” Bediuzzaman replied:
“I said the same things to the Caliph himself. If you do not believe me, go and ask him?”
In the face of all this, the judges were worried that if Bediuzzaman was exiled to Fezzan, Tripoli, or Yemen, as was the usual sentence, he would continue to spread his ideas. So, in order to be rid of him, on the recommendation of Zülüflü Ismail Pasha, the Inspector of Military Schools, they got five doctors, two Jewish, one Greek, one Armenian, and one Turkish to draw up a report saying that Bediuzzaman was not in his right mind, and then sent him to Toptashi Mental Hospital.24
Years later, Bediuzzaman wrote: “Born in the village of Nurs in the province of Bitlis, as a student I entered into contests with all the scholars I encountered, and continuing through Divine Grace to defeat in scholarly debate all who challenged me, I continued the contests in this calamitous fame, and as a result of the incitements of my rivals, on orders from Sultan Hamid, was dragged as far as the mental hospital.”26
Toptashi and the ‘Conversation With The Doctor’
How long Bediuzzaman’s tribulations in the mental hospital were to continued is not known, but finally he was released on the strength of the doctor’s report, which stated: “If there is the tiniest trace of madness in Bediuzzaman, there is not a sane person in the world.”
Of the doubtless many examinations which Bediuzzaman had to undergo in the hospital, the following is the text of his conversation with the doctor which contributed directly to the favourable report. In it Bediuzzaman explains to the doctor with this usual clarity and logic his aims and intentions, and why he has aroused opposition in Istanbul.
First of all Bediuzzaman points out to the doctor four points he should take into account while making his diagnosis. Firstly, Bediuzzaman’s background, for “the prevalent virtues in Kurdistan are courage, self-respect, strength of religion, and the agreement of heart and tongue. Matters which are considered to be polite and refined in civilization are considered by them to be flattery.”
Secondly, the doctor should not make his judgement superficially according to current deviant norms, but should realize that Bediuzzaman takes Islam as the criterion for his actions through which he intends to serve the nation, state, and religion. Thirdly, Bediuzzaman points out that some of those in authority could not stomach him because he provided answers to a number of the hitherto insoluble problems of the time, and their only recourse was to declare him mad. And fourthly, he has for fifteen years been pursuing Islamic Freedom, that is, “the Freedom which is in accordance with the Shari’a”, and now that it is close to being realized he is prevented from seeing what is going on, how should he not be angry? And he adds: “And it is only one in a thousand who is not afflicted by this temporary madness.”
Bediuzzaman then goes onto expand these points and explain them in greater detail, stressing that he is not prepared to sacrifice any of his sacred aims and principles, which are for the common good, for his own personal benefit or so that he should be better accepted.
Firstly, Bediuzzaman’s aim was for the strengthening and progress of the Ottoman Empire through the development and progress – educational, material, and cultural – of its component parts. Through retaining the dress of his native region, and professing his love for it, he wanted to stress in the Empire’s capital the importance of provincial development, and create demand for local industries. And by declaring that he had offered allegiance to Sultan Selim, that is, Yavuz Selim, known in the West as Selim the Grim, 1512-1520, Bediuzzaman was stating that he was dedicated to the same aim as Selim, that is, unity. Reforms aimed at the development of the provinces would serve to strengthen the unity of the Empire, thereby strengthening Islamic Unity.
Secondly, Bediuzzaman had aroused opposition through his practice of debating with the ‘ulama. He now explains to the doctor that by doing so he wanted to offer a practical example for a solution to the stagnation in the medreses. He was recommending more active participation in the process of study on the part of the students. A second reason he gives for their backwardness is that the instrumental sciences [grammar, syntax, logic] had been emphasized in place of the sacred sciences [Qur'anic exegesis (tafsir), Hadith, theology (kalâm), and the like]. Thus, firstly, Bediuzzaman is stressing the need for lively debate and the role of competition in revitalizing the medreses, and secondly, the importance of the fundamental sacred sciences. He then goes on to emphasize the need for specialization. It was through taking one science as a basis and in addition only studying further subjects in so far as they would complement the main subject, that the students could study in sufficient depth and penetrate the subject as required.
In the Third Point, Bediuzzaman examines the reasons for the divergence and differences between the various branches of the educational system, which he states are a major cause of the backwardness of Islamic civilization, which constitutes true civilization, in relation to modern civilization. He says: “Those in the medreses accuse those in the mektebs of weakness in belief because of their literalist interpretation of certain matters, whereas those in the mektebs consider the former to be ignorant and unreliable because they have no knowledge of modern science. While those in the medreses look at those in the tekkes as though they were following innovations...” While recognizing the differences in their ways, he stresses that the barriers between them should be broken down and by way of a remedy modern science be taught in the medreses “in place of obsolete ancient philosophy”, religious sciences be taught “fully” in the secular schools, and scholars from the medreses, “some of the most learned ‘ulama”, be present in the Sufi tekkes. He then goes on to analyze the reasons for the ineffectiveness of the preachers, who played such a vital role in educating the mass of the people. He gives three “causes”, which we quote in full:
“The First Cause: by comparing the present to the past, they merely represented what they claimed in glittering terms. In former times ease of mind and blind imitation of the ‘ulama prevailed, and for these proof was not necessary. But now an urge to investigate the truth has emerged in everyone. In the face of this, embroidering a claim has no effect. In order for it to be effective, it is necessary to prove what is claimed, and to convince.
“The Second Cause: by deterring from one thing and encouraging another, they reduce the value of something else more important. For example, they say that to perform two rekats of prayers at night is like circumambulating the Ka'ba, or that if someone indulges in backbiting, it is as though he has committed fornication.
“The Third Cause: they do not speak conformably with the demands of the situation and necessities of the time, which is the requirement of eloquence. It is as if they draw people into the corners of former times, then speak to them. That is to say, I want preachers to be both searching scholars, so that they can prove what they claim, and subtle philosophers so that they do not spoil the balance of the Shari’a, and to be eloquent and convincing. It is essential that they are thus.”
Bediuzzaman completed addressing the doctor as follows:
“The Fourth Point: I said that my mind was confused. But my intention from all this is to point to the forgetfulness in my memory, the distress in my mind, and the foreignness in my nature. Since no one who is mad says they are mad, how can it be a proof of my madness? Also, I said that I had three months study after Izhar.26 This invites doubt in two respects. Either it is untrue...whereas most of Kurdistan knows that it is true. Or although it is true,... like you said, O Doctor, things like pride and self-praise would indicate to my madness...
“That is to say, it is our doctors’ understanding that is sick, and their reports which are mad, and the Minister of Public Security is mad, because he was angry. Hey, doctor! You are a good doctor, cure those unfortunates first, then me!”27
It became plain to the doctor, then, that Bediuzzaman was in no way deranged28 and he prepared his report accordingly; whatever the reasons were for his being sent to the mental hospital, they were not medical, and the doctor did not concern himself with them. Of course, it was for political reasons that Bediuzzaman had been incarcerated, and on his release he was still held in custody. The authorities then embarked on a new tactic in order to silence him; they tried to buy him off. But to no avail. Just as Bediuzzaman did not know the meaning of fear, and could not be cowed or scared into abandoning the path he knew to be right, so too he had no desire for wealth or position, throughout his life one of his most salient characteristics was his refusal to accept any personal benefits, material or otherwise; there was no way he could be bought. If the Islamic world was to progress and be revitalized, it would be through Freedom and constitutionalism; he could not be made to renounce the cause. The proposals were put to him by Shefik Pasha, the Minister of Public Security, and the exchange between him and Bediuzzaman went as follows:
The Minister: “The Sultan sends you greetings. He has assigned you a thousand kurush as a salary. He said that later, when you return to the East, he will make it twenty to thirty liras. And he sent you these gold liras as a royal gift.”
The Reply: “I am not a beggar after a salary; I could not accept it even if it was a thousand liras. I did not come to Istanbul for myself. I came for my nation. Also this bribe that you want to give me is hush-money.”
The Minister: “You are rejecting an imperial decree. An imperial decree cannot be rejected.
The Reply: “I am rejecting it, so that the Sultan will be annoyed and will summon me, and I can tell him the truth.”
The Minister: “The result will be disastrous.”
The Reply: “Even if the result is the sea, it will be a spacious grave. If I am executed, I shall rest in the heart of a nation. Also when I came to Istanbul, I brought my life as a bribe; do whatever you like. And I say seriously that I want to give a practical warning to my fellow-countrymen that forming a connection with the State is in order to serve it, it is not in order to grab a salary. And someone like me serves the nation and State through advising and admonishing. And that is through making a good impression. And that is through expecting nothing in return. And that is through being unprejudiced, which is through being without ulterior motives, which is through renouncing all personal benefits. As a consequence, I am excused from not accepting a salary.”
The Minister: “Your aim of spreading education in Kurdistan is being discussed by the Cabinet.”
The Reply: “According to what rule do you delay education and speed up salaries? Why do you prefer my personal benefits to the general benefit of the nation?”
The Minister became angry.
Bediuzzaman: “I have been free. I grew up in the mountains of Kurdistan, which is the place of absolute freedom. There is no point in getting angry; do not tire yourself for nothing. Send me into exile; be it Fizan or Yemen, I do not mind. I will be saved from falling from a height.”
The Minister: “What do you want to say?”
Bediuzzaman: “You have drawn a veil as thin as a cigarette paper over everyone in the face of all these ideas and emotions which are boiling over, and called it law and order. Underneath everyone is groaning at your oppression like moving corpses. I was inexperienced, I did not go in under the veil, I remained top of it. Then one time it was rent in the Palace. I was in an Armenian’s house in Shishli; it was rent there. I was in the Sweetmakers’ Han; it was rent there, too. I was in the mental hospital. And now I am in this place of custody.
“In short, you do so much patching up that I am annoyed, as well. I was well-acquainted with you while I was in Kurdistan. And now the above-mentioned events have taught me your secrets well. Especially the mental hospital, it explained these texts to me clearly. So I thank you for these events, because I used always to think favourably, instead of distrusting.”29
And finally, a newspaper article on the subject written later by the literary figure Eshref Edip, who was a close associate of Bediuzzaman’s, and played an active role in the constitutional movement with his writings and the magazine, Sirat-i Müstakim, later called Sebilürreshad:
“No one, and most of all the Sultan, could at any time agree that there was even the smallest amount of disloyalty in him. They appreciated his excellence, his zeal.
“He had come to Istanbul in order to open schools in the Eastern Provinces, to revivify education. He was a great cherisher of Freedom, he had great courage and civilization. Think of the conditions of the time. What was the attitude of the Palace towards the Namik Kemal’s, the Ziya Pasha’s, and other supporters of Freedom? Bediuzzaman was far ahead of them as regards courage and fearlessness, patriotism, and love of Freedom. The Palace displayed great tolerance towards this struggle of his for Freedom out of respect for his learning and virtue. But it was not possible to curtail his striving. His youth, his overflowing brilliant intelligence, his love of Freedom, his combative spirit could not save him from the consequences to which the other supporters of Freedom were subject.
“He displayed such a degree of courage and boldness in the struggle for Freedom at a time when everyone was frightened to open their mouths and only hinted and made allusions that it was incomprehensible to them. It was only natural that for someone to arrive from the Eastern Provinces and display so much boldness at a time when the Palace and Pashas were sovereign and held absolute power would be met with astonishment and surprise. The despotic Pashas, who considered the people to be their slaves, could see no other way of ridding themselves of him and regaining their comfort apart from saying: ‘To display this much courage is not conformable with sanity’, and putting him in the mental hospital. That was why he was sent there.
“What he said to the doctor in the mental hospital left the doctor in amazement, he was amazed at his intelligence and knowledge, courage and bravery. He understood why he had been sent there, and reminded Bediuzzaman of the refined manners of the age. He advised moderation, then begged his pardon.
“Yes, this is the man they said was mad, this mad lion!”30
1. Abdurrahman, Bediüzzaman’in Tarihçe-i Hayati, 33-4; Sahiner, N. Son Sahitler, iii, 20.
2. Sahiner, N. Son Sahitler, iii, 17-18. (Istanbul Basvekalet Arsivi)
3. Tarihçe, 48-9.
4. In this period, until following the First World War, Bediuzzaman was generally known by this name. Subsequent to that, he was called ‘Nursî’, after the village of his birth.
5. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 78; Divan-i Harb-i Örfi, 5-6.
6. Basoglu, H. Fehmi, ‘Bir Hatira,’ Uhuvvet Gazetesi, 11 December 1964, as quoted in Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 82-3.
7. Berki, Ali Himmet, in Son Sahitler, ii, 12.
8. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 84.
9. Sualar, 300.
10. Sahiner, N. Son Sahitler, iv, 356.
11. Sagman, Ali Riza, in Son Sahitler, iv, 294-5.
12. In a newspaper article published in March 1909, Bediuzzaman described to the Sultan in an imaginary conversation how he should act as Caliph in the new age of constitutionalism: “Since despotism has left no blood in Istanbul, the heart of the Muslim countries, show that your intention is good and make Yildiz Palace, which is now abhorred, beloved of hearts in the way you compassionately accepted constitutionalism with no bloodshed: raise Yildiz Palace to the Pleiades by filling it with leading ‘ulama like angels of mercy in place of the former demons of hell, and by making it like a university and reviving the Islamic sciences, and by promoting the offices of Shaykhü’l-Islam and the Caliphate to their rightful positions, and by curing with your wealth and power the weakness in religion which is the nation’s heart disease and the ignorance which is the disease of its head. Then the Ottoman dynasty may scatter the rays of justice in the constellation of the Caliphate....” ‘Bediüzzaman Kürdi’nin Fihriste-i Makasidi ve Efkârinin Programi ‘, Volkan Nos. 83-4, 11-12 Mart 1325/ 23-4 March 1909, as in Asar-i Bedi’iye, 375-6.
13. Asar-i Bedi’iye, 366-7; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 85-7.
14. Münâzarat, 71.
15. Muhâkemat, 8.
16. Münâzarat, 72.
17. ibid., 74.
18. ibid., 74-6.
19. ibid., 76.
20. Muhâkemat, 46-7.
21. Bediüzzaman Kürdi’nin Fihriste-i Makasadi ve Efkarinin Programi, Volkan Nos. 83-4, in Asar-i Bedi’iye, 374.
22. Kutay, Cemal, Tarih Sohbetleri, v, 203-5; Kutay, Cemal, Bediüzzaman, 234.
23. ibid., 186.
24. Kutay, Cemal, Tarih Sohbetleri, iv, 214-215; Kutay, Bediüzzaman, 263-4.
25. Sualar, 417
26. A book in the medrese syllabus.
27. Asar-i Bedi’iye, 324-9; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 89-95.
28. Two other accounts may be referred to, showing that other doctors reached similar conclusions. See, Sahiner, N. Türk ve Dünya Aydinlari Gözüyle Nurculuk Nedir, 142-3; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi (8th edn.), 106-7.
29. Asar-i Bedi’iye, 330-1; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 95-7.
30. Edip, Eshref, Islam Düsmanlarinin Tertiplerini Ortaya Çikarmak Vazifemizdir, Yeni Istiklal Gazetesi No. 241, 23 March 1966, as quoted in Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 97-8.