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War and Peace in the Thought of Said Nursi


By Thomas Michel


A paper delivered at the seminar: “Peace and Islam, under the illumination of the Ideas of the Risale-e Nur”

Istanbul, 30 March 2003


Part I: The Risale-e Nur on war

We are gathered for this seminar at a particularly tragic moment of modern history. Even as we speak and study about peace, bombs are falling in the neighboring country of Iraq, innocent people are being killed and maimed, their homes destroyed, and their lives shattered. The international rule of law has been violated, and the United Nations, which after the last great World War was created as a structure for the promotion of universal peace and fellowship, has been ignored. The advance of civil society has been dealt a serious blow, and the human family has taken a great step backwards into barbarity. The law of the jungle in which might makes right is at the moment prevailing over the Divinely-revealed values of brotherhood, human dignity, morality, and peace.

For this reason, it is fitting that we come together to study the thoughts of a man who made a positive contribution to the understanding of the implications of war and the path to peace in the 20th Century. Said Nursi did not write about war and peace from an ivory tower. He experienced personally the horrors of two World Wars. The “Old Said” took an active part in the First World War, commanding militia forces in the Caucasus in defending his homeland against the Russian invasion, for which he was awarded a War Medal. He showed courage by remaining on horseback during the shelling and refusing to take refuge in the trenches. He proved his religious faith by dictating Qur’anic commentary to a scribe in the midst of battle.[1] He was taken prisoner and deported to distant regions of Russia.

Thirty years later, Said Nursi lived through the Second World War. In the meantime, the “New Said” had undergone a spiritual pilgrimage, and the worldly events clashing around him hardly penetrated his awareness. He devoted his days and months of confinement to the study of the Qur’an and, as he states, “In these last four years, I have known neither the stages of the war, nor its results, nor whether or not peace has been declared, and I have not asked, I have not knocked on the door of this sacred sura to learn how many allusions it contains to this century and its wars.”[2] Nursi’s transformation from social activist to contemplative student of the Qur’an has been studied by persons far more knowledgeable than I, but I think that no one will deny that his wartime experiences played a great role in that transformation.

It is clear from the Risale-e Nur that Said Nursi’s direct experience of war and the long periods of imprisonment, first as a prisoner-of-war in distant Russia and later confinement in his own homeland, were formative in the development of his character and religious vision. The numerous references in the Risale-e Nur to his life as prisoner-of-war and prisoner of conscience show that these periods were for him were what he called the “School of Joseph,” places of solitary confinement far superior to the mountain caves of ascetics and recluses, where his time would not be wasted in vain and selfish pursuits.[3]

In a beautiful passage from the Flashes, Nursi recounts one of the contemplative experiences that brought about his spiritual growth.

In the First World War, as a prisoner, I was in the distant province of Kosturma in north-eastern Russia. There was a small mosque there belonging to the Tatars beside the famous River Volga. I used to become wearied among my friends, the other officers. I craved solitude, yet I could not wander about outside without permission. Then they took me on bail to the Tatar quarter, to that small mosque on the banks of the Volga. I used to sleep in the mosque, alone. Spring was close. I used to be very wakeful during the long, long nights of that northern land; the sad plashing of the Volga and the mirthless patter of the rain and the melancholy sighing of the wind of those dark nights in that dark exile had temporarily roused me from a deep sleep of heedlessness. I did not yet consider myself old, but those who had experienced the Great War were old.[4]

Experiences of death and suffering in war also shaped Said Nursi’s understanding of the truths of religion. Writing about how the martyrs and others benefit from life in the Intermediate Realm, he recounts the death of his nephew Ubeyd. “I myself had a nephew and student called Ubeyd. He was killed at my side and in my place and became a martyr. Later, when I was being held as a prisoner-of-war, in a true dream I entered his grave, which was in the form of a dwelling-place under the earth, although I did not know where he was buried. I saw him living the level of life of martyrs. He evidently thought that I was dead, and said that he had wept much for me. He thought that he was alive, but having retreated from the Russian invasion, had made himself a good home under the ground.” He concludes that this dream, unimportant in itself, convinced him of the reality of life-after-death for true believers.[5]

Even though believers can learn important lessons from the brutal realities of war, a person who is devoted to God cannot blind himself to war’s evil causes and ugly effects. He perceives that people and governments did not accept the lessons to be learned from the First World War and this heedlessness led them into a second, more terrible war.[6] Nursi’s views would seem to confirm the old adage that “Those who refuse to learn from the errors of history are condemned to repeat them.” He describes World War II as “having plunged the world into chaos,[7] and bringing about “widespread hunger, destruction, and waste.”[8] Among those responsible for the widespread suffering caused by the war were, in Nursi’s view, were the politicians and the media representatives.

Commenting on the verse in Surat al-Falaq (Qur’an 113:4) on the mischief of those who blow on knots, Nursi relates the passage to the self-serving propaganda of and diplomatic machinations of war-mongering politicians and the news media they control. It was such politicians and media barons, he states, who were responsible for the First World War which set humankind backward and stopped human progress. “Through the political diplomats blowing their evils, material and immaterial and their sorcery and poison into everyone’s heads through the tongue of the radio and inculcating their secret plans into the heart of human destiny, they prepared the evils that would savagely destroy a thousand years of the progress of civilization. This corresponds exactly with the meaning of “the blowers on knots.”[9] Unfortunately, leaders did not learn the lessons of World War I, but responded with egotism, racism, pitiless cruelty, military dictatorships, tyranny, and fanatic nationalism,[10] all of which paved the way, for human treachery in the form of “envy, rivalry and clashes”[11] for the Second World War.

What is the way out of this cycle of the evils of one war producing the pretexts and causes for the next war, a recurrent pattern of destruction, fear, resentment and despair handed on one generation to the next? Said Nursi responds to this perennial question with a reflection which occurred to him on the occasion of Lailat al-Qadr, “the Night of Power.” It is only the Word of God, that cuts like a sharp sword through the chain of wrongdoing, anger and desire for revenge, that can enable humankind to move beyond destructive and self-destructive patterns of behavior to seek for the genuine, eternal life which is humankind’s true goal. As this is Said Nursi’s deepest answer to the human temptation to solve conflicts by means of violence and war, I will quote the passage at length:

Because of the extreme tyranny and despotism of this last World War and its merciless destruction, with hundreds of innocents being scattered and ruined on account of a single enemy, the awesome despair of the defeated, the fearsome alarm of the victors and their ghastly pangs of conscience arising from the supremacy they are unable to maintain and the destruction they are unable to repair, and the utter transitoriness and ephemeral nature of the life of this world and the deceptive, opiate nature of the fantasies of civilization becoming apparent to all, and the exalted abilities lodged in human nature...being wounded in a universal and awesome manner, and heedlessness, misguidance and deaf, lifeless nature being smashed by the diamond sword of the Qur’an, and the exceedingly ugly, exceedingly cruel true face of world politics becoming apparent...man’s true nature will search with all its strength for eternal life, which it truly loves and yearns for.[12]

Because of this conviction that in the depths of his heart, mankind really seeks and desires eternal life which comes from living according to God’s Word, Said Nursi has hope for the future. Wars show the true face of politics, the limitations of military power, and the transient nature of human life. All-powerful God is more powerful than the deceptions with which men surround themselves and is able to enlighten and change the hearts of leaders and rulers.

“Like the One Powerful Over All Things sweeps and cleans in a minute the atmosphere filled with clouds and shows the shining sun in clear skies, so He may also dispel these black and merciless clouds and show the truths of the Shari’a like the sun, and give them without expense or trouble. We await it from His mercy that He will not sell them to us expensively. May He give intelligence to the minds of those at the top, and belief to their hearts; that would be enough. Then matters would put themselves to rights.”[13]

Said Nursi is not discouraged by the apparent weakness of the people of faith, of those who seek to live according to God’s Word, to affect the changes in human society to overcome humankind’s self-deception. Although it appears that the forces of violence, power, and economic gain are winning out over those who live and promote humane and Divine values, they will not prevail in the long run, because they are acting in a manner contrary to the will of God who is All-Powerful. Said Nursi’s final word on the subject of war is thus an affirmation of the ultimate victory of those who stand for Divine values. He states: “Even if falsehood prevails in this world, it cannot win the war. “The future belongs to the God-conscious.”[14]


Part II: the Risale-i Nur on peace

In September 2002 in Istanbul, I gave a talk at the International Risale-i Nur Symposium on the theme of the ethics of pardon and peace. In that paper I tried to present the understanding of the nature and preconditions of peace as found in the Risale-i Nur and to show its correspondence with the views of Pope John Paul II. I will not repeat here everything that I said in that paper, but will try to reflect with you on several key points of the path to peace as envisioned by the Risale-i Nur in the light of the current world situation.

The first task of those who want to build peace is to have a clear idea of the kind of civilization they want to construct. What are our goals? What are we aiming at? Where do we want our efforts at building society to lead? For Said Nursi, the Divinely-guided civilization proposed by Islam is a society not ruled by the ethics of the jungle where the rich and powerful take what they can and defend what they have obtained by use of force, but rather a civilization based on truth, justice, and harmony.

Instead of the ethics of the jungle where the rich and powerful take what they can and use their superiority in technology and wealth to force others to obey them, or the principle of class struggle by which the poor and oppressed seek to obtain their rights by force, Said Nursi sees the Divinely-guided ethic proposed by Islam as one in which truth, justice and harmony are paramount.

“The civilization the shari‘a of Muhammad (PBUH) comprises and commands is this: its point of support is truth instead of force, the marks of which are justice and harmony. Its goal is virtue in place of [selfish] benefit, and its characteristic marks are love and attraction. Its means of unity are the ties of religion, country, and class, in place of racism and nationalism, and the mark of these are sincere brother­­hood, peace, and only defense against external aggression. Its life is the principle of mutual assistance instead of that of conflict, and its mark is accord and solidarity.”[15]

Muslims, following Said Nursi, rightly call such a civilization an “Islamic civilization.” However, I must tell you that when I as a Christian read Said Nursi’s description of a Divinely-guided civilization, I do not find the qualities expressed to be significantly different from the kind of civilization that I and my fellow Christians seek to build. You do not have to take my word for this. All the speeches and leaders of Pope John Paul II, the spiritual leader of Catholic Christians around the world, point toward just such a civilization as that described above in the Risale-i Nur.

There is no clash of civilizations between real Christians and real Muslims. There is nothing surprising in this, because both communities are believers in the one and only God and both seek to construct society on the principles and values taught by that God. If there is a clash, it is between, on the one hand, the civilization envisioned by “people of faith,” or in the words of Said Nursi, “the God-conscious” and, on the other, a civilization that tries to banish God from everyday life, from politics, economics, and social interaction, and to reduce religion to privately-held beliefs, to ineffective ritual, to colorful folklore.

Ethical systems based solely on human reason fail because they do not take into account God as the Maker, Teacher and Guide of human life. Philosophical reasoning presumes that people know what they want and will always work to achieve the desired goal, but the sad reality is that people often act against their best interests due to anger, fear, jealousy and the like, and for reasons of selfishness, ignorance, and laziness, they do not achieve what they desire. However, a religious orientation, such as we are taught in the Bible and the Qur’an, allows for the reality of human failure by urging believers to return to God in repentance, to seek forgiveness, and begin anew. Said Nursi considers “God-given ethics” to be an essential element in the message of the prophets. “Be distinguished by God-given morals,” he states, “and turn towards God Almighty with humility, recognizing your impotence, poverty, and defectiveness, and so be a slave in His presence.”[16]

Thus, the first step towards building a civilization characterized by peace and justice is to realize that we will not succeed if we rely on our own efforts or follow our own ideas. We need the strength and the guidance that only comes from God. True peace can only be achieved if people follow God’s commands and turn to God in humble repentance.

Said Nursi expresses the longing of millions of people around the world in his desire for universal peace. He saw with his own eyes the suffering, anguish, and destruction brought about by the two World Wars and wants to see a time of peace and prosperity for all.[17] Said Nursi saw this as the mission of Islam on earth, the task that Muslims are called to carry out. He said: “God willing, through the strength of Islam, in the future the virtues of civilization will prevail, the face of the earth cleaned of filth, and universal peace be secured.”[18] This is a noble task that he envisions for Muslims, one which, in my opinion, must be shared as well by Christians and all those who worship, love and obey the one God. Universal peace is not only a human desire, but a vocation given to all people of faith by God himself. Said Nursi’s conviction that Islam must play a role of peacemaker in today’s world is paralleled by the declaration of the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council that Christians and Muslims together have a common task of working together for the benefit of all to build “peace, liberty, social justice, and moral values.”[19]

One can object that this goal has often not been followed by Christian peoples and governments in the past. One remembers religious wars, the Crusades, colonialism, and even today, the actions of government and military leaders who bomb and invade and occupy other, weaker nations. However, we must all remember that Christianity must not be judged by the actions of every individual or group or government that identifies itself as “Christian,” any more than Islam should be just by the deeds of every individual or group or government that calls itself “Islamic.”

In fact, what people call themselves or what they are called by others is itself often a function of propaganda, an attempt to convince people of something contrary to the reality. Said Nursi states that he himself was often falsely accused of being a trouble-maker and disturber of the peace. He holds that such accusations are rooted in the fears of non-religious people towards those who take their faith seriously. He stated: “‘The worldly’ are excessively suspicious of me. Quite simply, they are frightened of me, imagining non-existent things in me, which even if they existed would not constitute a political crime...Imagining these things in me, they have been carried away by groundless fears.”[20]

This does not mean that Said Nursi ever allowed himself to act against his conscience or to obey commands with which he could not agree. He states: “I support neither intellectually nor on scholarly grounds the arbitrary commands, called laws, of a commander...and for myself I do not act in accordance with them. But although for twenty years I have been severely oppressed during my tortuous captivity, I have not become involved in politics, nor provoked the authorities, nor disturbed public order. And although I have hundreds of thousands of Risale-i Nur friends, not a single incident has been recorded involving the disturbance of the peace.”[21] At this moment in history, when thousands of my fellow Americans are carrying out forms of civil disobedience and passive and non-violent resistance to protest a war which they consider to be both illegal and unjust, the example of Said Nursi is highly relevant. As Said Nursi showed in his own life, peace cannot be achieved simply by obeying every command issued by authorities. Both as religious believers, whose first allegiance is to God’s will, and as thinking citizens, whose allegiance is to the rule of law and civil society, a critical approach to authorities, who are often correct but sometimes deeply in error, is essential is peace is to be achieved.

My final point is one that Said Nursi reiterated over and over. That is the necessity of true reconciliation for any lasting peace. When one has wronged another, when a nation has aggressed against another, the result is fear, anger, anxiety. On the part of the aggressor there is a feeling of guilt and a desire to justify one’s cause. High-minded motivations are brought forward to conceal and deny the real motivations, which are often those of greed, power, and revenge. The media in the form of television, newspapers, scholarly journals is employed to make a government’s policies and actions acceptable and to shape public opinion, but the reality remains that human greed and selfishness are usually at the heart of aggression and violence towards others. “There is only one solution for this,” says Said Nursi, “and that is reconciliation, which the Qur’an commands, and which truth, reality, benefit, humanity, and Islam require and encourage.”[22]

This requires honesty, an admission that the misdeeds of persons and nations are often motivated by unworthy factors. Noting that Islam commands that “one believer should not be vexed with another believer for more than three days,” Nursi teaches that so long as there is no reconciliation, both sides perpetually suffer the torments of fear and revenge. His conclusion is that “it is essential to make peace quickly.” Thus, in the thought of Said Nursi, there can be no real peace unless there is genuine reconciliation.

So long as no reconciliation takes place, the wounds to the human relations fester and grow and turn into resentment. Discord produces more discord, violence engenders even greater violence, and the state of conflict is perpetuated. The only way out of a spiraling succession of violent reactions and counter-reactions is for one party to take the initiative to reconcile. Reconciliation heals what force can never heal, the suspicion and resentment caused by wrongdoing one against another. As Said Nursi puts it, “A minor disaster becomes a large one, and continues. But if they make peace, and the murderer repents and prays continuously for the man he killed, then both sides will gain much and become like brothers. In place of one departed brother, he will gain several religious brothers.”

At this moment of great tension in human affairs, let us all who believe in God pray that the wise advice of the Risale-i Nur be heeded, especially by the leaders of nations, as the peoples of our world seek to find just and lasting peace for humankind.



[1] The Letters, “Bediuzzaman’s Life, Risale-i Nur, and Letters 1928-32,” p. 579; The Flashes, “A Look at Bediuzzaman’s Life and The Risale-i Nur,” p. 481.

[2] The Rays, “The Fruits of Belief - Eleventh Topic,” p. 287.

[3] Flashes, “The Twenty-Sixth Flash,” p. 336.

[4] The Flashes, “The Twenty-Sixth Flash,” pp. 299-300.

[5] The Letters, “The First Letter,” p. 23.

[6] The Words, “Gleams,” p. 742.

[7] The Rays, “The Fruits of Belief, Fourth Topic,” p. 223.

[8] The Flashes, “The Nineteenth Flash,” p. 199.

[9] The Rays, “The Fruits of Belief, Eleventh Topic,” p. 287.

[10] The Rays, “The Twelfth Ray,” p. 316.

[11] The Rays, “The Fruits of Belief, Eleventh Topic,” p. 287.

[12] The Words, “Thirteenth Word, Second Station,” p. 167.

[13] The Rays, “The Fourteenth Ray,” p. 436.

[14] The Words, “Gleams,” p. 760.

[15] The Damascus Sermon, Seeds of Reality, p. 106.

[16] The Words, Thirtieth Word, First Aim, p. 564.

[17] The Damascus Sermon, p. 43.

[18] The Damascus Sermon, p. 38.

[19] Second Vatican Council, “In Our Time,” paragraph 3, in A. Flannery, Vatican Council II, Dublin: Dominican Pubs., p. 572.

[20] Letters, Addendum to the Sixteenth Letter, p. 96.

[21] The Rays, Fourteenth Ray, p. 417.

[22] The Rays, Fourteenth Ray, p. 484.