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The Ethics of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s Dialogue with the West in Light of His Concept of ‘Europe’


By www.MalaysiaNur.com



As a Muslim in Turkey, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi lived a rich life in constant relationship with the West, especially ideationally. Throughout his life, his involvement at different levels of Ottoman and Turkish political and educational institutions brought him in contact with ideas from and about the West as well as with people sharing different degrees of attraction and repulsion to European things and ideas. Nursi’s limited travels to different parts of Europe, mostly during the First World War, raise two complementary question: How much were his perceptions of Europe shaped by those experiences? And how much were these perceptions the result of pre-existing notions among Ottoman religious intellectuals? In addition, a number of ethical lessons ensue from Nursi’s dialogue and resistance to Western imperialism in an early age of globalization. Exploring these topics provides insights into inter-civilizational interactions that reveal both useful and unhelpful models of dialogue when facing today’s globalization challenges.

In this paper, I examine the ethics of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s dialogue with the West primarily through his use of the topos ‘Europe’ in the Risale-i Nur Collection. To achieve this end, I intertwine the critical methodogies of two academic disciplines: history and literature. First, I sketch the historical context of Nursi’s travels to Europe. This biographical reconstruction is indispensable for the second task: deconstructing the literary usage he makes of the concept ‘Europe’. The combination of such historical and literary approaches is necessary to achieve the aim of this paper: increase our understanding of Said Nursi’s ethics of dialogue with the West.


1. Nursi’s Travels to Europe

The contemporary usage of the word ‘Europe’ today refers both to a geographical entity and to a cultural construct or ‘topos’. The former, the subject of this first section, implies boundaries coextensive with the continent of Europe, which includes several areas of Southeast Europe (the Balkans, Rumelia, etc.) which were part of the Ottoman empire at some point during the earlier part of Said Nursi’s life. The latter, the subject of the next section, refers to a cultural construct shaped by the overlapping ideologies of nationalism, liberalism, constitutionalism, etc. associated to the Western European nation-states of France and England in particular, as well as fledgling others such as Germany and Italy and emerging others such as Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, etc. All of those constructs changed radically during the course of Nursi’s long life, making it difficult to be precise in such a brief overview. Nevertheless, such distinction is crucial to avoid confusion between these two different yet often ambiguously overlapping definitions of ‘Europe’.

Nursi’s travels to Europe can be divided into two parts: first, his travels within European areas of the Ottoman Empire; second, his travels beyond those fluctuating boundaries, especially towards the end of the First World War. The former travels included visits to Salonica in 1909 (Vahide, 53-56), Macedonia and Albania as part of the entourage of Sutan Mehmed Resad’s Rumelia journey in the summer of 1911(Vahide, 107) and, in June 1918, a brief stopover in Sofya on his way back from his two year captivity in Russia. These travels seem to reveal little contact with non-Muslim Ottoman subjects.

The latter ‘travels’ comprised of a forced captivity as a prisoner-of-war to the Russians in the Northern province of Kostroma on the Volga river between the early fall of 1916 and the spring of 1918 followed by an escape route that included Warsaw, Berlin, Austria, and Bulgaria, with a brief side trip to Switzerland from Berlin. Nursi’s official biography reveals very little of his escape following the Bolshevik revolution and his three-month journey back home to Istanbul in the spring and early summer of 1918. It is clear that he did not learn Russian during that his captivity nor could he easily communicate with Germans when he spent two months in Berlin, staying at the Adlon Hotel, and seemingly traveled to Switzerland for three days to study its successful integration of various linguistic and confessional identities. Through indirect sources, enough pieces of that period of traveling through central Europe have emerged to elucidate Nursi’s itinerary, but little to divulge how he spent his time and what kind of first-hand interaction he had with local Europeans (Vahide, 137-141).

This brief overview reveals the paucity of information we have to understand with any amount of certainty the impact of Nursi’s travels to continental Europe on his usage of the topos ‘Europe’. Only two points can be surmised: his time in Russia must have led him to discussing the radical changes in Russian politics and his two-month stay in Berlin must have shaped his understanding of the German nation-state building process and its various underpinning Enlightenment philosophies. The only useful second-hand information comes from our learning about Nursi’s aim in visiting briefly Switzerland (Vahide, 140). In brief, such conjecture remains weak, thus the need to turn to a literary analysis of Said Nursi’s use of the topos ‘Europe’.


2. The Topos of ‘Europe’

In literary theory, the Greek word ‘topos’ is defined not only in terms of a geographical ‘place’ (i.e. as in ‘topography’) but also in terms of a symbolic dimension attached to a place or concept. A ‘topos’ is more than a ‘topic’ by virtue of its symbolic dimension. Therefore, ‘Europe’ in the writings of Said Nursi refers to more than a geographical place; it conveys a powerful symbolic construction that greatly enhances and complicates the strictly geographical dimensions normally associated to the word ‘Europe’. As mentioned above, while there is definitely an overlap between the geographical and symbolic meanings of ‘Europe’, the use of ‘Europe’ as a topos reflects the fluidity of its meanings for people who self-identify with this concept as much as for people who reject it, as Said Nursi mostly did. The only way to make sense of that fluidity of meanings in Nursi’s use of ‘Europe’ is to take every single appearance of the word in the Risale-i Nur Collection and compare their meanings within their respective literary contexts.

The word ‘Europe’ appears forty-seven times in the Risale-i Nur Collection, not counting another eight occurrences of the noun or adjective ‘European(s)’ and the single appearance of the neologism ‘Europeanism’. All of these occurrences can be divided into three broad categories. First, there are the rare strictly geographical references found in a string containing various regions of the world. Second, there are the occasional references to a ‘positive’ Europe worth emulating. Third, there are the many instances of a ‘negative’ Europe to be avoided at all cost. I use the adjectives ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ to reinforce the dichotomous and often moralistic (i.e. ‘good’ or ‘bad’) meanings that implicitly characterize, in my opinion, Nursi’s usage of ‘Europe’. From the outset, I admit to using my own interpretative categorization onto Nursi’s writings, in part for heuristic purposes. I will consequently describe each category in turn before elaborating on the latter two whose contradictory usages throw light on a few ambiguous passages that reveal much about Said Nursi’s understanding of the topos ‘Europe’.

The first kind of usage of the word ‘Europe’ – attached to a string of geographical regions -appears once in The Words (616), once in the Letters (250), and once in The Flashes (97). The first two instances are identical: they contrast ‘Europe’ to “the English, Chinese, Japanese, and Americans”, making the place of ‘English’ in ‘Europe’ ambiguous, a problem still confronted today almost a century later! The third instance simply lists ‘Europe’ as one of the seven well-known continents together with “Africa, Oceania, the two Asias, and the two Americas;” The division of Asia into two parts may have been part of a then commonly shared understanding or else a way to make up the number seven in a passage that is carefully constructed around seven repetitions of the word ‘seven’. In addition, there are three unusual passages bereft of the moralistic overtones associated to the use of the word ‘Europe’ in most other occurrences: the expression ‘to go to Europe’ (Words, 573), which implies a strictly geographical context; “the lands of Europe which are powerfully cold” (Flashes, 64), which reduces continental Europe with its wide range of climates to Nursi’s own limited experience of Russia and to a lesser degree Germany; and “the momentous events of Europe well-known by all” (Words, 422), which refer to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rapid succession of political transformations in Europe, from medieval feudal to modern nation states as well as the rise of communist ideologies. In short, this first category does not reveal any useful insight into Nursi’s own understanding of ‘Europe’.

The second category, which is in direct opposition to the third, displays a valuable insight despite its rare occurrences. Nursi understood that part of ‘Europe’ was worth emulating because it was, in a nutshell, a ‘positive’ Europe. In fact, he even admitted that “The Old Said and certain thinkers in part accepted the principles of human and European philosophy, and contested them with their own weapons; they accepted them to a degree.” (Letters, 516) But by the time he is writing the Flashes, the New Said made it clear in the one instance quoted below that he was concerned only with what he called the ‘second’ Europe, or what I have called ‘negative’ Europe.

It should not be misunderstood; Europe is two. One follows the sciences which serve justice and right and the industries beneficial for the life of society through the inspiration it has received from true Christianity; this first Europe I am not addressing. I am rather addressing the second corrupt Europe which, through the darkness of the philosophy of Naturalism, supposing the evils of civilization to be its virtues, has driven mankind to vice and misguidance. As follows: On my journey of the spirit at that time I said to Europe’s collective personality, which apart from beneficial science and the virtues of civilization, holds in its hand meaningless, harmful philosophy and noxious, dissolute civilization. (Flashes, 160)

As a form of effective literary device, this passage continues over the next two pages with the rhythmic appearance of the following synonymous injunctions: “Know this, O second Europe”; “O you unhappy spirit”; “O evil-commanding soul of mankind”; “O Europe corrupted with vice and misguidance and drawn far from the religion of Jesus!”; and “O second corrupted Europe”. The only two other passages where a ‘positive’ meaning of ‘Europe’ is derived from their literary context occur in the same collection one after the other: “…it becomes necessary for there to be present in every bit of soil as many factories and printing-presses as there are in Europe so that each bit of soil can be the means for the growth and formation of innumerable flowers and fruits…” (Flashes, 239) and “…to the number of presses and factories in Europe…” (Flashes, 240). Finally, the one indirect use of the expression ‘one-eyed genius’ that can be linked to a ‘positive’ meaning of Europe reinforces in fact my dichotomous nomenclature because it is immediately followed by ‘proceeding from the sick philosophy of Europe’ (Flashes, 165), thereby bringing us to the third and most fruitful category.

‘Negative’ Europe is a category that regroups a wide variety of sub-categories through both the words ‘Europe’ and ‘Europeans’. They can be subdivided into five themes: (1) opposition between Europe and Islam, or Europe and Asia; (2) Europe as a source of sickness, manipulation, and untrustworthiness; (3) Europe as a source of imitation, misguidance and undeserved love; (4) Europe as religiously bigoted or irreligious; (5) Europe as ideologized politics; and (6) European women. Cutting across those themes are recurrent traditional Islamic ‘root-paradigms’ (Mardin, 3-8) that insert themselves into Nursi’s understanding of ‘Europe’. Therefore, there are numerous overlaps between these themes and various Islamic root-paradigms, such as the dichotomy between Abode of Peace and the Abode of War, . Because of the fluid nature of any concept or genre (Beebee), it is necessary to first distinguish between these various meanings and Islamic root-paradigms before describing how they overlap.

The first sub-category of ‘negative’ Europe relates to the opposition between Europe and Islam, or Europe and Asia. “Also you do not defend Islam against Europe in the manner of the philosophers and thinkers.” (Letters, 516) Despite one extreme passage, “Our country cannot be compared with Europe…” (Flashes, 259), this opposition takes on different comparative forms. It can be based on generalized differences in climate: “Also the people of Europe are cold and frigid, like the climate. Asia, that is, the lands of Islam, are relatively torrid countries.” (Flashes, 259) The equation between ‘Islam’ and ‘Asia’ recurs frequently, as in: “Exactly like this example, the World of Islam and Asia is a huge mosque, and the people of belief and truth within it are the respected congregation in the mosque.” (Letters, 484-485) By opposition, “Furthermore, the lands of Europe are the realm of Christendom.” (Letters, 506) But this equation between Europe and Christianity is not frequent and often ambiguous, as will be elaborated further below. In fact, more often, Europe is not linked to religion at all. “If Europe is a shop, a barracks, Asia is like an arable field and a mosque.” (Letters, 383) Similarly: “Moreover, the appearance of most of the prophets in Asia, and the emergence of the majority of philosophers in Europe is a sign…” (Letters, 383) Such opposition can also take on military imagery:

In just the same way, at this time of denial and the assault of the customs of Europe and the legion of innovations and the destruction of misguidance, to open up new doors in the citadel of Islam in the name of ijtihad, and make openings that will be the means of those bent on destruction scaling the walls and entering it, is a crime against Islam. (Words, 495)

This imagery feeds the old Islamic Abode of Peace versus Abode of War root-paradigm that dichotomizes the world into two:

In London, Europeans who have embraced Islam translate many things like the call to prayer and iqamainto their own languages in their own country. […] There is such a glaring difference here that no conscious being could make such an analogy and imitate them. For the European lands are called the Abode of War in the terminology of the Shari’a, and there are numerous things which are permissible in the Abode of War which are not lawful in the Abode of Islam. (Letters, 506)

The second sub-category of ‘negative’ Europe regroups passages where Europe is perceived as a source of sickness, manipulation, and untrustworthiness, as in the following three quotes: “For years, I have considered negative nationalism and racialism to be a fatal poison, since it is a variety of European disease. And Europe has infected Islam with that disease thinking it would cause division, and Islam would break up and be easily swallowed.” (Letters, 86) “It is mostly lies and there is the possibility of unknowingly being a tool in the hand of Europe.” (Letters, 84) “Now you must refrain from succumbing to the stratagems of Europe and the dissemblers who imitate them…” (Letters, 382)

The second part of the above quote overlaps with the next sub-category that focuses on Europe as a source of imitation, misguidance and undeserved love:

Utter abhorrence and a thousand regrets should be felt for those who take the way of misguidance due to the Europeans’ idols and sciences of Naturalism, and for those who follow them and imitate them blindly! O sons of this land! Do not try to imitate Europeans! How can you reasonably trust in and follow the vice and invalid, worthless thought of Europe after the boundless tyranny and enmity it has shown you? No! No! You who imitate them in dissoluteness, you are not following them, but unconsciously joining their ranks and putting to death both yourselves and your brothers. Know that the more you follow them in immorality the more you lie in claiming to be patriots! Because your following them in this way is to hold your nation in contempt, to hold the nation up to ridicule! God guides us, and you, to the Straight Path. (Flashes, 166; italics in the English translation of Risale-i Nur)

Other shorter examples include the following four passages: “Embracing the idea of nationalism, the peoples awakening in Asia are imitating Europe precisely in every respect, and on the way sacrificing many of their sacred matters.” (Letters, 382) “The recompense for illicit love, like love for Europe, is the cruel enmity of the beloved.” (Letters, 546) “The one I’m addressing isn’t Ziya Pasha, it’s those enamoured of Europe.” (Words, 223) “The dissolute loafers are those villains who follow Europe and have no nation or religion. While the European spectators are the journalists who spread the ideas of the Europeans.” (Letters, 484-485)

For Said Nursi, ‘negative’ Europe is both religiously bigoted and irreligious: “…because Europe is bigoted in religion.” (Letters, 511) “In fact, there are many like the former American President, Wilson, and the former British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, who were as religious as bigoted priests.” (Letters, 510-511) Similarly:

It is a grievous error to compare the religions of Islam and Christianity and to be different towards religion like Europe. Firstly, Europe has its religion. The fact that European leaders like foremost Wilson, Lloyd George, and Venizelos, are bigoted in their religion like priests, testifies that Europe has its religion, and is even bigoted in one respect. Thirdly: To compare Islam with Christianity is a false comparison and wrong. For when it has been bigoted in its religion, Europe has not been civilized, it has become civilized on giving up its bigotry. (Letters, 383)

The challenge continues in the following passage:

For through the strength of the All-Wise Qur’an, I challenge all Europe including your irreligious people. […] If all Europe was to gather, of which your irreligious people are a part, through God’s assistance, they could not make me recant a single matter of that way of mine. God willing, they could not defeat me… (Letters, 95)

In fact, Nursi not only lumps together philosophy with irreligiousness, but he also implies a close link between irreligious Europe and the Devil: “And as for this, O Devil, neither you nor the philosophers of Europe and hypocrites of Asia on whom you rely…” (Letters, 372) This language of the ‘devil’ (shaytan), ‘hypocrites’ (munafiqun), or ‘unbelief’(jahiliya), as in the passage “…from unbelief and from Europe” (Letters, 504), all point to how Nursi projects Islamic root-paradigms unto how he perceives Europe.

Nursi strongly rejects anything that will threaten any Islamic paradigms and he abhors the use of Islamic means to radically change a long time religious practice for a politics of imitation. In particular, he claims that there was always a seamless overlap between the Turkish ‘nation’ and Islam, so that no one should fall into the trap of imitating the European ideology of nationalism, ‘Europeanism’:

In accordance with which principle is it to propose through a corrupt and innovative fatwa, ‘performing the iqama in Turkish,’ in a way completely contrary to Turkish nationalism, which is sincerely religious and sincerely respectful towards religion and has since early times blended and united with Islam, in the name of Turkism, which has the meaning of Europeanism, to those like me who belong to another religion? Yes, although I have friendly and brotherly relations with true Turks, I have in no respect any relation with the Turkism of imitators of Europe like you. (Letters, 503-504)

This overlap between religion and politics emerges clearly from the following passage too:

What enabled this Islamic state, while only numbering twenty or thirty million, to preserve its life and existence in the face of all the large states of Europe was the following idea in its army, which arose from the light of the Qur’an: “If I die, I shall be a martyr; and if I kill, I shall be a ghazi.” They met death with complete eagerness and longing, laughing in its face. They always made Europe tremble. […] Whenever the dragons (large states) of Europe have dealt a blow at this Islamic state, […] (Letters, 384-385)

Of course, this paradigm of the ghazi is a central metaphor in Turkish Islam in particular. (Mardin, 3-5) It goes hand in hand with its maiden Islamic paradigm of waging battle against the infidel, as in “The rest is either stolen or seized by the European infidel tyrants or the dissemblers of Asia.” (Flashes, 169)

The same use of a strong Islamic religious language surfaces when Nursi defends Islam against European cultural practices, especially surrounding the theme of women.

Thinking “My son is going to be a Pasha,” she [mothers in general] gives him all her property, takes him from the Qur’an school and sends him to Europe. But it does not occur to her that her child’s eternal life has fallen into danger. She tries to save him from prison in this world, and does not take into consideration his being sentenced to the prison of Hell. (Flashes, 261)

In an apologetic stance reminiscent of what can still be heard today, Nursi argues that:

We even hear that in Europe, the place of open dress, many women are fed up at being the object of attention, and complain to the police, saying: “These brutes keep staring at us and disturbing us.” This means that present-day civilization’s unveiling women is contrary to their natures.” (Flashes, 256)

Rooted in the Europe/Islam dichotomy mentioned in the first sub-category of ‘negative’ Europe, Nursi uses a then popular argument to try to explain the differences in women dress codes:

Also the people of Europe are cold and frigid, like the climate. Asia, that is, the lands of Islam, are relatively torrid countries. It is well known that the environment has an effect on people’s morality. Perhaps in those cold countries immodest dress does not stimulate the animal appetites and carnal desires of those cold people, and be a means of abuse. But the immodest dress which continually excites the carnal lusts of the easily influenced and sensitive people of hot countries is certainly the cause of much abuse and waste and the weakening of the young generation and a loss of strength. (Flashes, 259)

The only problem with this explanation is that it directly reflects a kind of Orientalism that proves how inter-dependent images of ‘self’ and ‘other’ are in the construction of our understanding of one another.


3. Nursi’s Ethics of Dialogue

The ethics of Said Nursi is the result of his own unique composite of, on the one hand, his rural Kurdish identity and, on the other, his initially Ottoman and later nationalist Turkish Muslim identity. While he did engage with many ideas that had emerged in Europe, this ideational interaction seems to have been mostly conducted through books, journal and newspaper articles. It is not clear how many in-depth conversations he may have had with non-Muslims in general, and Europeans in particular according to both official and unofficial biographies. It should therefore not be surprising to find in Nursi’s writings many generalizations and stereotypes of Europeans and Europe that reflected a morally judgmental approach to ‘Europe’. In all fairness, his construction of the topos ‘Europe’ reflects no better or worse a projection from his own cultural/religious worldview than the reverse phenomena of Orientalism so prevalent at that time among Europeans. Therefore, in the context of the unequal power dynamic that played out during the course of Nursi’s lifetime, it is understandable that an apologetic ethics defending Islam became the corner stone of Nursi’s enterprise, thereby shaping his ethics of dialogue.

In fact, Nursi’s approach to dialogue is unusual: it was a one-way street where “Here all questions are answered, all problems solved, but no questions are asked”. (Vahide, 38) Nursi is said to have posted this famous sign on his hostel door during his second visit to Istanbul in 1907. According to one unofficial biography, this unique behavior was the result of a dream Nursi had in Nurs during the winter of 1890 or 1891, at the age of thirteen or fourteen: “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.” (Vahide,8) Said followed the Prophet’s suggestion to the letter from that time onwards. Whether or not this behavior came across as arrogant, the fact remains that such a one-way communication could not foster an ethics of equal sharing in dialogue.

This imbalance in communication made Nursi dependent on written material or on his encounter with people who on their own would provide information on a given topic. This serious limitation resulted in his writing many generalizations about Europe and Christianity that reflected his own projections, as mentioned earlier. In particular, his apologetic approach led him to generalize positively about Islam and negatively about Christianity, especially in the realm of history as demonstrated in the following two passages:

Islamic history is there for all to see. Apart from one or two incidents, no internal wars of religion have occurred. Whereas the Catholic Church caused four hundred years of internal revolutions. Furthermore, Islam has been the stronghold of the common people rather than of the upper class. […] Also history testifies that whenever the people of Islam have adhered to their religion, they have advanced in relation to the strength of their adherence. And whenever they have become less firm in their religion, they have declined. Whereas with Christianity, it is the opposite. This too arises from an essential difference. (Letters, 510-511)

Secondly, the people of innovation obtained the following inauspicious idea from the European reformists; being dissatisfied with the Catholic Church, foremost the revolutionaries, reformists, and philosophers, who were innovators according to the Catholic Church, favoured Protestantism, which was considered to [be] Mu’tazilite and taking advantage of the French Revolution they partially destroyed the Catholic Church, and proclaimed Protestantism. Then the pseudo-patriots here, who are accustomed to imitating blindly, say: “A revolution like that came about in the Christian religion. At first the revolutionaries were called apostates, then later they were again accepted as Christians. So why should there not be such a religious revolution in Islam? (Letters, 508)

Another characteristic of Said Nursi’s ethics of dialogue is his lifelong quest for truth and justice expressed through candid, not to say blunt, discursive language in both writing and speech, the boundaries between the two being sometimes fluid as in the following example: “Let the ears ring of the leaders of Europe, savage beneath their humanitarian masks.” (Letters, 502) Such honesty reveals both his passion for justice and his subjective quest for truth displayed through a strong critical awareness of Muslim behaviors in his days but a weaker and even at times blind acceptance of key Islamic root-paradigms, as in the following case:

Also, whenever the people of Islam have adhered in earnest to their religion, they have advanced proportionately, achieving great progress. Witness to this is the greatest master of Europe, the Islamic state of Andalusia. And whenever the Islamic community has been slack in religion, it has sunk into wretchedness, and declined. (Letters, 383)

This passage represents a classical example of how Qur’anic and hadith literature on the direct link between true religious practice and the outward success of the Islamic community constitutes another Islamic root-paradigm in Nursi’s Risale-i Nur collection. It also points to the serious limitation a one-way approach to dialogue can lead to in a serious quest for truth.

In conclusion, I would argue that Said Nursi’s ethics of dialogue and construction of the topos ‘Europe’ not only reflects his own worldview as a Kurdish/Ottoman/Turkish scholar of Islam, an obvious realization, but it also attests to a powerful ‘middle path’ between adopting an ideology of modern nationalism and preserving the sacred dimensions of Islam, both private and public.

Embracing the idea of nationalism, the peoples awakening in Asia are imitating Europe precisely in every respect, and on the way sacrificing many of their sacred matters. However, every nation requires a dress suitable to its particular stature. Even if the material is the same, the style has to be different. (Letters, 382)

The pursuit of the suitable ‘dress code’, of what this careful balance actually means in practice today, continues to be most relevant at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Dr. Patrice C. Brodeur, Connecticut University, USA