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Islam at the Crossroads
Oct 1, 2003

On the Life and Thought of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi

(Ibrahim Abu-Rabi)

During the nineteenth century, Turkey underwent an unprecedented process of modernisation and secularisation at an accelerated rate. This was not witnessed in any other part of the Muslim world. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Ottoman capital, Istanbul, had become a bustling laboratory for the 'westernisation experiment'. How Islam kept on pulsating under the external pressures and encroachment of the Western powers, and among the colossal debris left by the crumbling Empire is an issue that many have grappled with. Cantwell Smith, Bernard Lewis, Niyazi Berkes, and Fazlur Rahman, to name a few examples, have all revisited Turkey in an attempt to throw light on this issue, but none actually investigated the 'Nur Movement', or glanced at its founder, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1875- 1960) in their accounts. An oversight perhaps, but a very a significant one indeed: to try to explain the position of Islam in today's Turkey and to speculate about its prospects tomorrow without taking account of Nursi's oeuvre and actions necessitates that the task will be incomplete and difficult. No doubt, Serif Mardin's "Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey" is the first work in a direction that seriously takes notice of Said Nursi and adds him to the equation. Mardin's work, as its title suggests, "approached Nursi's work from the point of view of the sociology of religion". Its purpose is to elucidate, "How Nursi's ideas formed against the backdrop of the economic, social, and political conditions of his times." In "Islam at the Crossroads", no less than nineteen scholars from Islamic, as well as from western academia, have gathered to discuss the thought, life and times of Bediuzzaman (the non-pareil of his times). In this enterprise, the variety of the contributions produces a multi-faceted approach, which can only be welcomed considering the enigmatic, ambiguous, and nuanced character of Nursi and his times. Indeed, "Islam at the Crossroads" may be seen to be the most significant complement to Mardin's groundbreaking work. "Glory be to Him who is hidden due to his sheer apparence."

The study of the life and testaments of Said Nursi leads to diverse questions and paradoxes. In what way did the historical context influence his thoughts? How did his views radically shift following the war to end all wars? What is the relationship between his dictated writings, the enlightenment philosophies of Europe, and the various streams of Muslim thought? What drives the popularity of his collected works? How did external imprisonments, exile and loneliness become for him a home, a freedom?

A significant figure who stands at the crossroads of 20th century history and the geography of empires, at the modern crisis of philosophy and faith, Said Nursi cannot help but provoke a variety of reactions. So it is that this book brings together a range of perspectives - from the historians and biographers, to the philosophers and activists, to the followers and translators.

The editor, Ibrahim M Abu-Rabi`, provides a context for reading the Risale-i Nur. He draws in the threads of Nursi's self-perception, the deep-rooted nationalist movement in Turkey, and the Sufi traditions that informed Nursi's early education. He notes the theme of exile, prompting an association with the exodus movement to Madina that began the first Muslim community, and reminds us that Nursi's exile was forced on him. And he surveys the ideas that Nursi draws from saints, such as Ghazali and Sirhindi. The scholarly authors of these articles, as already mentioned, come from both Muslim and Western perspectives, which creates some striking contrasts.

Taha 'Abdel Rahman's article aims at clarification, with a distinction between philosophy and wisdom. Nursi views the former as processing the strange, the 'extra- ordinary' and as being anomalous until there are no answers left of consequence. 'Abdel Rahman argues that instead, Nursi's thinking is characterized by wonder and a sense of the miraculous in the midst of the 'customary'. This is not so much a suspension-of-disbelief, but an attitude which seeks purpose in its questions. So it is that 'Abdel Rahman connects Said Nursi to Immanuel Kant, both of them upsetting the assumptions about the relationship between philosophy and wisdom. But where Kant reaches the Enlightenment conclusion that "the pure concepts of the understanding never admit of a transcendental, but only of an empirical use", Nursi finds that wisdom has no purpose unless it leads one to the transcendent. Philosophical reason becomes the servant of wisdom, and the 'will to meaning' takes over the 'will to power' of a turbulent Europe, in which wisdom had been trodden beneath the feet of a selfish, calculating and controlling reason. For Nursi, then, everything becomes a 'proof', not as a gratuitous and philosophical argument, but as a sign of the Creator - whether it be the person of the prophets, the rightness of the cosmos, the witness of the book, or the consciousness of human nature. It is not that this multi-faceted universe is an analogy to the Qur'anic text; but in a deep sense, it actually is the recitation of God's words.