• Said Nursi

    All about Bediuzzaman
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THE LETTERS REPRESENTS THE CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN SAID Nursi (1876-1960) and his disciples and Turkish Muslims in general who were passing through a harsh time with respect to religious life and activities. Faced with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey upon the ruins of the Ottoman State, as well as the replacement of centuries of Islamic traditions with European imports in the legal, official, education, and personal spheres, Said Nursi exerted all of his intellectual and literary talents to ensure that the Turkish people and society would not slip out of the sphere of Islam altogether.

An active participant in the social arena, Said Nursi gradually eschewed such activism on the grounds that politics divides Muslims against each other and weakens them in an already hostile environment. Marking this choice by referring to himself as the “New Said” in his writings, he spent the rest of his life explaining Islam’s truths in modern and scientific terminology to counteract the newly emerging anti-religious and secular trends.


Why Said Nursi wrote The Letters


As always, his first and foremost concern is to prove God’s Existence and Unity, bodily Resurrection, the Day of Judgment, and the validity of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s Prophethood. He does this by basing himself upon what the West considers “rational” thought, meaning science, observation, and logic. However, he does not neglect to address the heart and spirit also. Said Nursi chose this path after realizing the futility of using the traditional religious proofs to approach new generations being educated according to the Western paradigm that considers religion irrational and hostile to real knowledge, progress, and development. Thus, unlike many religious leaders, he learned how to debate with such people within the scientific context that formed their worldview.

His next concern is to show that religious and scientific knowledge are not contradictory and mutually exclusive. In all of his writings we notice the same approach: direct observation of events in nature and what can be inferred or stated from such study, beginning with a hypothesis and seeking to support it by using scientific logic and reasoning to counter the arguments of those opposed to it, and testing the hypothesis in the real world to see if it is accurate or needs to be refined. Is this not the exact approach used by scientists seeking to understand the multifaceted aspects of creation?


A synopsis of the main ideas


The First Letter contains the answers given by Said Nursi to various questions asked by his students on the degrees of life, death, Hell, and love. While answering the first question, he elaborates upon his concept of the five levels of human existence. In ascending order, these are the lives of ordinary people (lived in this realm of trial and testing), of Khadr and Elijah (lived in a realm that is unbounded by such human concepts as time and location in relation with this corporeal realm, and such human needs as eating and drinking), of Jesus and Enoch (lived in a realm with their somewhat etherial bodies so refined that they are not bound by human life’s necessities and live an angelic type of life), of martyrs (who think they continue their worldly lives in a happy realm free from all pain and trouble), and the spiritual life of the deceased.

Said Nursi also analyzes the difference between figurative love and true love, which is a prominent theme throughout his writings. After defining figurative love as love for the opposite sex and for the things of this world, he explains how it can be transformed into true love (love for the Creator), by realizing that the human heart is created to function as a mirror to God and therefore cannot be satisfied with the love for anything or anyone else except Him, the Eternal One.

During our lives, he tells us, each person creates a private world containing all that we love: family and relatives, possessions, jobs, habits, and so on. But why should we give our true love to such temporary things, for even if they do not leave us one day “without saying good-bye,” we will leave them through death or another means. As such love brings only pain, suffering, and loss, how can we not feel such emotions when what we love vanishes? Is it not more logical to give our true love to the One Who created what we love and caused us to meet it? Should we not express our true love of the One Who is the All-Loving, Who has made love the basis of the universe and presents us with a love that is eternal and far beyond our ability to comprehend, by striving to learn what earns His good pleasure? Why, Said Nursi asks repeatedly, should we be content with a temporary and transient love when we can have one that is eternal and all-encompassing?

As he writes in The Words: “The essence of the universe is love. All creatures move with the motive of love. All laws of attraction, rapture, and gravity originate in love” (p. 506). Our figurative love is but a very faint shadow of Divine Love, a shadow so slight and flickering that it can be extinguished forever in a moment of anger of disappointment.

In the Thirteenth and Sixteenth letters, Said Nursi reveals why he embraces a life of exile that deprives him of normal human contact. The living embodiment of his teachings, he attributes his misfortunes to God’s Will that he should do everything for His good pleasure alone. As he might have viewed his exile as a time for retreat and seclusion, God arranged for him to live a life of total dependence upon Him and in the service of the Qur’an. Forbidden from preaching and limited to a very few visitors, he thanks Divine Mercy for allowing him to devote himself to serving the Qur’an, spreading its teachings via his writings, and drawing closer to God through prayer. Accepting his destiny, he silences the siren songs of material comfort, respect, fame, wealth, and so on that attract so many of his contemporaries.

As for why he abandoned politics, Said Nursi explains:


[B]elievers cannot serve their cause through politics in such stormy circumstances. Whatever service is rendered for Islam through politics eventually benefits the dominant anti-Islamic system, because foreign powers control the reins of political life. Engaging in politics also divides Muslims into opposing political factions that have a negative impact upon individual hearts and collective life—some people are so obstinate that even Muslims may label angelic brothers or sisters as satans, or a satanic party member as an angel, depending upon whether or not they support a certain political party. When I saw a learned man severely reproach a good, virtuous man who did not share his political views and then praise a corrupt member of his political faction, I became dismayed by the evils of politics and completely withdrew, saying: “I take refuge in God from Satan and politics.” (p. 45)


Said Nursi consents to his isolation, but instead of railing against the injustice that causes it, he uses his love for God to transform it into the vehicle for serving the Qur’an so effectively that parts of his more than 4,000 page Risale-i Nur were copied by hand, smuggled out of whatever prison or place of exile in which he happened to be, and found their way into the hands of people starved for spiritual enlightenment, guidance, and understanding. To this day, more than 40 years after his death, he is remembered by many people with great affection and respect, and his writings continue to circulate.

The Nineteenth Letter, a discussion of the Prophet’s miracles and how they assert the truth of his Prophethood and Message, form the centerpiece of this volume. Miracles are especially hard for the West to deal with, for they seem to occur outside the realm of the ordinary, of what science can predict and accept with certainty. Said Nursi relates these events, as well as the names of the eyewitnesses who related them so that they could be passed down to posterity.

Another major concern in this letter is to show the relevance—indeed the centrality—of Islam to modern life and how it is far superior to the path of materialism. Constantly reminding his audience that Islam is not dependent upon science or blind belief, he invokes it to make his points. He points to the overarching order seen in nature, asking how could it exist without a being behind it, if rocks could have created the dome of Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) mosque themselves and without any being to direct them.

He brings up other thought-provoking points that modern science can answer only by saying: “Chance, accident, coincidence, meaningless.” Among them are: “Alright, you have described that particular phenomenon or animal, but how did it manage to come into existence for the first time?” and “How is it that everything in the universe has developed in such a way that it meets all of our needs and those of animals and plants? Could this really be just coincidence?” Is it more logical to answer such question by asserting God’s Existence and Unity, or by asserting that everything is the result of blind chance?

The miracles granted to all Prophets and Messengers function as signs demonstrating that those who perform them have been raised by God. In addition, they are God’s hints of the furthest extent of human knowledge and an encouragement for us to pursue them, through scientific experimentation and observation, until they become the common property of humanity. For example, since Muhammad was able to summon forth water from stones and apparently dry land, talk with inanimate objects and make them fulfill his requests, heal people and have his prayers answered, we should exert all of our efforts to find ways to bring about the same results.

In the Twentieth Letter, Said Nursi discusses various aspects of Divine Unity revealed by the phrases there is no god but God, (He is) One, He has no partner, His is the Kingdom, To Him belongs all the praise, He alone gives life, and makes to die, He is living and dies not, In His hand is all good, He is powerful over everything, and unto Him is the homecoming.

At first glance, the meaning of each phrase appears rather straightforward: God is One, owns everything, has the power to give life and take it away, is eternal and dispenses good, and is our final destination. But Said Nursi, not content with such superficial understandings, peels away layers of meanings to expose ever-deeper ones, just as the full glory of a flower is revealed by its layers of petals falling back to disclose its core.

For example, he writes that there is no god but God induces within us the understanding that we are not to depend upon anybody or anything other than God, for only God can send good or evil our way. It also proves His Unity in the Sphere of Creation despite the vast abundance and diversity of His creation, for all things are only reflections of His Names and Attributes and thereby point to Him as their creator and allow us to acquire a slight degree of knowledge concerning Him.

(He is) One frees us from all forms of polytheism and from ascribing real power to any person or thing other than God, causes us to notice the perfect order and sensitive balance pervading the universe and ensuring its functioning in a such a way that we become so used to it that we take it for granted. Such awareness, in turn, reveals His Names the All-Powerful and All-Knowing One, among others, which increase our knowledge of Him.

The other phrases also contain deeper levels of meaning. The use of so few words to convey such exalted truths is just one aspect of the Qur’an’s miraculous style that, according to Said Nursi, often reveals just the tip and then calls upon us to use our powers of observation and reflection to dive into the ocean of Divine Wisdom of which each verse—even each word— is only a wave on the surface.

At the end of The Twenty-ninth Letter, Said Nursi discusses a topic that remains controversial in the Islamic world, although it has been a fundamental part of Islam for centuries (from the very beginning according to others): Sufism (tariqa). Despite its proven success as a potent vehicle that attracts people to Islam and then keeps them within its fold, some Muslims and others inspired by the deluge of materialism, secularism, and indifference to or outright disrespect for religion in any form blame it for the Muslim world’s backwardness, underdevelopment, poverty, illiteracy—in short, for all material shortcomings that make it inferior to the West.

Said Nursi counters with rational arguments: How can you condemn a whole system for the mistakes of only a very few of its adherents? (If this was acceptable, what would be the position of the West’s much vaunted concepts of democracy or human rights?) How can you strike at the root of Muslim unity and identity at a time when the Muslim world is under external and internal attack? (Is it logical to pursue a course of self-destruction in the face of imminent danger?) How can you seek to deprive those who want to acquire more knowledge of God in order to draw closer to Him and be successful in the afterlife from doing so, when all you can offer them is this temporary existence that has no permanent value or satisfaction? As humanity was created to serve God by reflecting the Divine Names and Attributes through conforming to the Sharia (Divine Law) and the Prophet’s Sunna (in his capacity as the “living Qur’an”), who are you to defy God and the Prophet by saying that Sufism, a “discipline or technique that allows people to practice the Sharia in a better way,” must be abandoned so that the interests of this temporary world and nation-state may be pursued without hindrance?

His view is starkly at odds with that presented by such people. Throughout his writings, he reminds people that the leading scientists of the Muslim world quite often were practicing Sufis and that there is no reason why such a joining of religious and scientific knowledge cannot succeed today and lead the Muslim world to regain its rightful place among the world’s great civilizations.

He admits that there are dangers to following this path, such as neglecting the Sharia and Sunna in favor of Sufism’s spiritual delights and pleasures or being reduced to lower levels due to one’s pride in his or her spiritual achievements, but says that all real and potential dangers are far outweighed by the benefits that Sufism brings to people and society as a whole. Moreover, which path is completely free of danger? Did not “democratic” Europe bring forth Nazism, fascism, communism, and other scourges of the last century? And yet the fundamental truth of democracy is never called into question or blamed for such hideous results. Why should any spiritual way be treated any differently?

The other letters consist of straight answers given by Said Nursi to the great issues raised by Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars and theologians, not to mention ordinary believers, for centuries:


  • GOD’S EXISTENCE AND UNITY: Thus if each being’s or particle’s existence is attributed to nature, causes, or itself, each one must have the all-encompassing knowledge and absolute power or countless operative devices needed to perform its wonderful duties. But if existence is attributed to a Single One of Unity, each particle becomes His officer through the resulting connection. This enables it to manifest Him somehow and, along with being an object of His manifestation, depend on His Infinite Knowledge and Power. This relationship with the Creator’s Power allows it to perform functions and duties far beyond its own power.
  • THE MEANING OF LIFE: Thus this world is the field, and this life the term, in which people are tested so that elevated diamond-like spirits may be distinguished from base coal-like ones. This is why devils were created and Prophets were sent with Divine commandments. Without such testing, good and evil could not be distinguished and would be treated equally: The spirit of Abu Bakr, who rose to the highest level, would remain at the same level as that of Abu Jahl, who fell to the lowest level. Thus the creation of devils and evil is wholly good, for they cause good and universal results to be achieved. Those who suffer because of them do so because of their own weakness, misuse of their free will, or some external circumstances that they caused to appear. As a result, all evil and misfortune that happen to people lie in themselves, not in God’s creation of them.
  • THE MEANING OF DEATH: Good news! Death is not annihilation or going to non-existence, not an eternal separation or a chance event without an author. Rather the All-Wise and All-Compassionate Author is discharging you from service, changing your abode, and sending you to the ever-lasting happiness that is your true home. Death is the door to union with the Intermediate World, where you will meet with 99 percent of your friends.
  • THE ROLE OF PROPHETS AND MESSENGERS: As the One who creates knows, the One who knows will speak. Since He will speak, He will speak to those having consciousness, thought, and speech. Since He will speak to such people, He will speak to humanity, whose nature and awareness are the most comprehensive of all conscious beings. Since He will speak to humanity, He will speak to those most perfect and worthy of address.
  • THE REASON FOR PRAYER: Prayer is a kind of worship through which servants proclaim their helplessness and poverty before God. The prayer’s apparent purposes are causes for praying, and its rewards are given mainly in the Hereafter. If your prayer appears to be unanswered, do not say: “My prayer has not been accepted”; rather, say: “The time for prayer is not yet over.”


As the vast majority of his audience was Muslim, there are topics of specific interest to them, although he does not neglect to address the atheists and agnostics also. Said Nursi analyzes the miracle of the Qur’an, the Prophet’s Ascension, Ramadan, Sufism, and issues related to Islamic belief. In these, he goes to great length to make his answers clear and understandable to all people. There is no hiding behind a veil of religious platitudes and demands for blind faith.

On a more personal level, he explains how believers should conduct themselves, why he avoids politics and obligations to other people, the value of brotherhood and sisterhood among believers and strong relations with family members and relatives, loneliness, involuntary (evil) thoughts, and other issues that were of interest to his students. All of these are based on a firm Qur’anic foundation and are eminently reasonable and rational, showing once again how the Qur’an is relevant to every sphere of human life, regardless of the era or location in which its audience lives.

Said Nursi ends this correspondence with his students and the Muslim world at large by summarizing all that he has tried to convey in easily remembered phrases. For example:


  • (In today’s world) injustice wears the hat of justice, treason wears the cloak of patriotic zeal, jihad is called aggression and a violation of human rights, and enslavement is presented as emancipation. In short, opposites have exchanged forms.
  • All revolutions, social corruption, and moral failings are caused by: “I don’t care if others die of hunger so long as my own stomach is full,” and: “You must bear the costs of my ease by working so that I can eat.” The first attitude is cured through zakat; the second by prohibiting interest. Qur’anic justice stands at the door and turns away interest, proclaiming: “You have no right to enter!” Yet humanity ignored this prohibition and received a great blow. It must heed it now to avoid receiving a greater one.
  • The Qur’an is a mercy for humanity, and so urges a civilization that secures the greatest happiness for the most people.

Western civilization, in its present phase, is founded upon five negative principles: It is based upon power, and power inclines toward oppression; it seeks to realize individual self-interest, even though this causes people to rush madly upon things to possess them; it considers life as struggle, which causes internal and external conflict; it unifies through national and/or racial separatism, and “feeds” by swallowing the resources and territories of “others,” both of which engender terrible conflict; and it strives to satisfy novel caprices or aroused desires (whether the satisfaction is real or not), and so brutalizes people. Islamic civilization rests upon right (not power), which requires justice and balance; encourages virtue, which spurs mutual affection and love; considers life as mutual help, which leads to unity and solidarity; unifies people through a common religion in a common state, which leads to internal peace, brotherhood [sisterhood], and a willing self-defense against external enemies; and guides people to the truth. Therefore it encourages scientific progress and elevates people, through moral perfection, to higher ranks of humanity. Never break with Islam, for it guarantees our survival. Stick to it, heart and soul, or we shall perish utterly.

  • Not affirming something’s existence is often confused with affirming that it does not exist. The absence of a sign or evidence that a thing exists may justify people’s not affirming its existence if they are not inclined to accept its existence. But affirming something’s non-existence requires clear evidence proving its non-existence, for not-affirming its existence is doubt, while affirming its non-existence is denial.
  • Every misfortune contains degrees of Divine Favor. Be mindful of the greater misfortune, thereby being thankful for the favor of the lesser misfortune. Concentrating on and exaggerating the latter increases it, and this exaggerated reflection in the heart or imagination makes it real and troublesome.
  • Entrusting the accomplishment of an affair to God before taking all necessary precautions and making all necessary arrangements is laziness. Leaving the desired outcome’s realization to God, after doing all that can be done, is to trust Him. Contentment with the result after exerting one’s efforts is a laudable virtue that encourages further effort and reinvigorates one’s energy and industry. Contentment with what one already has destroys endeavor.
  • If people follow Islam’s injunctions strictly, and with firm belief and complete sincerity, their desire and effort to find Islamic solutions to new problems lead them toward perfection. Such a desire or effort by those indifferent to Islamic injunctions, and therefore outside Islam, lead them toward ruin. The right course of action during these troubled times is not to use farfetched efforts to derive “new” laws from the Qur’an and Sunna. Rather, it is to close the doors and even shutter the windows against innovation. Those indifferent to religious duties, free and easy about whether they do them or not, must not be rewarded with special dispensations to release them from those duties. Rather, others should warn them to reform themselves.