I have been teaching courses on Islam and world religions for almost a decade now. I have not only taught undergraduate and graduate courses at various institutions, but also engaged with local faith communities. Throughout this teaching experience, I have recognized the repetitive nature of the questions I received. Regardless of the topic I presented on, the questions that continue to be raised by my audience would center on more or less the similar themes. In this regard, in mainstream media and among the general public, three misleading assertions concerning Islam seem to be constantly at play.
First is the assertion that Islam is inherently a violent religion. Selected verses from the Qur’an and some of the traditional sayings of Prophet Muhammad are routinely cited as evidence, along with noting that the Prophet himself was involved in many battles and that wars were a major factor in the expansion and establishment of the Islamic empire. It is argued, therefore, that Islam was spread by the sword or jihad. Further, the proponents of this view point to violence committed in the name of Islam and conflict rampant in certain contemporary Muslim societies.
A second assertion is that Islam is a political ideology rather than a source of meaning, values, and spirituality for its adherents. This argument is based, in part, on the fact that during the twentieth century, many Muslims did believe that political Islam could solve the problems of Muslim societies. The idea was that an Islamic government would serve best in ruling a society based on Islamic values.
A third assertion is that Islam is unable to accommodate a secular environment that is tolerant to religion. That is, in order to live a life in accordance with God’s will, one must live in a society that is ruled according to Islamic law (sharia) – a notion many Muslims do, in fact, believe.
Jihad, Nursi, and Müsbet Hareket
The core thesis of An Islamic Jihad of Nonviolence: Said Nursi’s Model is that there exists an Islamic model that offers a direct challenge to these three assertions, a model provided by the distinguished Muslim theologian Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1877–1960). Nursi was a charismatic and deeply spiritual personality who witnessed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of modern Turkey. He was determined to offer new resources to bridge the gap caused by the establishment of a new secular state that terminated the institutions providing religious education and nurturing Islamic spirituality. This became his daily jihad, the price for which he would be exiled and imprisoned. This book relates the history and method of spiritual jihad– positive action (müsbet hareket) as its hallmark – as taught and demonstrated by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. It lays out the guidelines he provided to aid Muslims live a peaceful and spiritual life in a secular environment.
“The core thesis of An Islamic Jihad of Nonviolence: Said Nursi’s Model is that there exists an Islamic model that offers a direct challenge to these three assertions, a model provided by the distinguished Muslim theologian Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1877–1960).”
A brief explanation of Nursi’s historical context will give us a better understanding of the roots of Nursi’s positive action (müsbet hareket) and ethics of nonviolence.
The Historical Context
Referring to the century before Nursi was born, Marshal Hodgson, the renowned historian of Islam, describes the situation of the Muslim world in this way: “Though the eighteenth century was not without its interesting and creative figures, it was probably the least notable of all in achievement of high-cultural excellence; the relative barrenness was practically universal in Muslim lands.” The Muslim world was in physical and psychological decline in almost all aspects: militarily, culturally, economically, and socially. Although, in the eighteenth century, the size of Muslim lands occupied by the European powers was small, the dominant presence of the West was felt everywhere in the Muslim world. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the Western powers – along with the Russians – were overwhelmingly dominating most of the rest of the world, in particular the Muslim territories. Typically, Hodgson notes, even if there would be no direct colonization of a Muslim power, “in any case, no independent general Islamic leadership was to be tolerated.”
The situation of the Muslim world in the early twentieth century was even more dramatic. Almost the entire Muslim world was controlled by the European powers. While the British colonized Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, and India, the French controlled North Africa and Syria. The European hegemony even included Dutch control of Indonesia and Malaysia, with the British eventually taking control of the latter. As rightly put by Tamara Sonn, “from this vantage point, it began to look like the Crusades were on again.”
The Ottomans faced a bleak future in other parts of the Muslim world too – with military defeats and decline, the Empire was in a desperate position. As a response, the rulers attempted to initiate reforms starting with efforts to revitalize the military. The questions facing the empire were not only about economic decline, however. The Christian subject of the Empire living in the Balkans were inflamed with nationalistic feelings. They were seeking any available means to become independent entities, ideally nation-states.
Faced with these circumstances, like many other Ottoman intellectuals, Nursi sought solutions to save the Empire. He supported constitutionalism and wanted to reform the educational system. One of his dreams, for example, was to establish a madrasa (seminary) where both religious and modern sciences would be taught along each other. Nursi could not realize his dreams and to his disappointment the Ottoman Empire collapsed. From its ashes the new republic emerged. While Nursi regarded religion to be very crucial for the betterment of society, the new republic did not see much potential in religion – in this case Islam. Within a very short time, almost all institutions providing religious education and serving as spiritual resource for Muslims were dismantled.
The New Turkish Republic and Nursi’s Plight
Gradually, the new Turkish republic positioned itself as disconnected from Islam as much as it could. Within the new project for modern Turkey, there was no room for Islam and freedom of religion. In order to make the new state secular and national, western reforms were enforced top-down. In contrast to the story of secularism in the United States or Europe, secularism was imposed by “compulsion and without popular consultation.” In 1924, the caliphate was abolished. All the religious orders (tariqas) were dismantled and their properties were confiscated. Some of the locations of Sufi lodges (zawiya) were turned into museums, including some of the mosques. The madrasas, or Islamic seminaries, were shut down, and the religious endowments (waqf) were seized by the new state. Islamic law was replaced by European law codes.
“Within the new context, Nursi did not envision physical confrontation with the government as an option, but rather saw reading and producing spiritual resources as his jihad. An Islamic Jihad of Nonviolence sheds light on Nursi’s method in this new context.”
As a Muslim scholar, Nursi was naturally disappointed with the direction the new republic took. Within this new context, Nursi continued to offer spiritual resources for believers. This came, nevertheless, at the expense of thirty years of exile and imprisonment. He was still able to write his magnum opus, the Risale-i Nur. Within the new context, Nursi did not envision physical confrontation with the government as an option, but rather saw reading and producing spiritual resources as his jihad. An Islamic Jihad of Nonviolence sheds light on Nursi’s method in this new context. The most important aspects of his method are positive action (müsptet hareket) and nonviolence.
Positive Action (müsbet hareket) and Nonviolence in Nursi’s Writings
More than anything, the republic’s elimination of religious institutions created a spiritual vacuum exacerbated by state-sponsored scientific materialism, aggressive secularism, and positivism. Faced with these conditions, Nursi and his followers did not remain passive. Rather, they sprang into action to combat the new republic’s foundational ideologies by means of nonviolent resistance.
In seeking solutions for the Muslim community, some scholars and popular movements have invested in external aspects of religion such as politics and sharia (Islamic law). They believed that, with the right environment and government, it was possible to solve the problems of the Muslim community. Nursi, however, thought otherwise. In his Risale, Nursi remarks that there are three important stages for the Muslim community concerning Islam. The first one is faith (iman). The second one is the practice of faith by individuals as well as in public (hayat). Nursi posited that when the first stage is strong, faith (iman) would become embodied in the lives of people. The third stage is sharia (şeriat). Because of the strength of the first two stages, Islam and its principles would become organically more influential in politics and government. While many Muslims focus more on the second and third stages, for Nursi attaining and making the first stage, faith (iman), viable for Muslims was top priority and the only goal. As noted by Şerif Mardin, “in contrast to al-Ghazālī, Nursi did not dwell much on the areas of Islamic social relations and forms of worship, but studied the areas that would assist Muslims in understanding their own religion . . . Muslims need a ‘map’ to give them direction in their own daily lives. Nursi understood this.”
” In fact, Nursi’ ideas did not merely aim to tackle the problems in modern secular Turkey, Nursi had a bigger vision.”This three-pronged road-map sought to address new challenges facing the Muslim community in Turkey. In fact, Nursi’ ideas did not merely aim to tackle the problems in modern secular Turkey, Nursi had a bigger vision. As Mardin put it, Nursi’s vision was addressing “…the more encompassing problems of industrial civilization and its basis in rationalist philosophy. Nursi continuously dwells on meaning and presents Islam as a religion that must be understood. In his writings, one can see that Nursi understood the dilemma to be worldwide and not just a problem of Turkey.”For him, embodying belief (iman) in the lives of people and sharia form core manifestations of faith. Furthermore, a society cannot set matters of faith – in practice in the lives of the believers – and sharia on a correct coursesimultaneously. Therefore, Nursi’s concern was not to establish an Islamic state, but an Islamic state of mind and heart. He believed that many problems of the global Muslim community, the umma,stemmed from the weakness of faith.
Referring to the context of Western society, renowned philosopher Charles Taylor points out that “we have undergone a change in our condition, involving both an alteration of the structures we live within, and our way of imagining these structures.”Some of these structural changes manifested in new “scientific, social, and technological” forms. Such an approach, Taylor indicates, is “natural or this-worldly,” which may not necessarily require a reference to the “supernatural” or “transcendent.” As a result, Taylor concludes that a change in Western society “has destabilized and rendered virtually unsustainable earlier forms of religious life, but that new forms have sprung up.”
“In a sense, Nursi wanted to put forward a religious account of Islam that would be compatible with the spirit of the age in which unbelief was promoted through sciences. Nursi was convinced that if faith was under attack within a scientific framework, it would be best bolstered by employing methods calling attention to the benefits of science.”Like Taylor, Nursi believed that, within the new circumstances facing his time, a new narrative of faith needed to be offered in order to cope with the challenges of time. In a sense, Nursi wanted to put forward a religious account of Islam that would be compatible with the spirit of the age in which unbelief was promoted through sciences. Nursi was convinced that if faith was under attack within a scientific framework, it would be best bolstered by employing methods calling attention to the benefits of science.
While seeking creative ways for realizing his vision, Nursi made the notion of positive action (müsbet hareket) the most important aspect of his mission, and thus put forth practical guidelines for implementing it. According to him, the goal of positive action is always to build or mend what is destroyed or corrupted; destruction or corruption is never an option. Even under the severest of conditions, Nursi and his students preferred positive action which was the most important element of his nonviolent resistance. As a methodology, nonviolent resistance strives to avoid harming people. In bringing his vision to fruition, Nursi believed that political Islam was not the means by which necessary change would be brought; changing the regime and establishing a sharia-based government were not his concerns either. Rather, he focused on matters of faith and the transforming of individuals. In this endeavor, nonviolent positive action becomes Nursi’s form of jihad.
“The final chapter of An Islamic Jihad of Nonviolence puts Nursi in conversation with the leading figures of nonviolent struggle. In his approach to transformation of society, Nursi has much in common with Gandhi, King, and Mandela. “
The final chapter of An Islamic Jihad of Nonviolence puts Nursi in conversation with the leading figures of nonviolent struggle. In his approach to transformation of society, Nursi has much in common with Gandhi, King, and Mandela. Just as Gandhi fought for Indian independence, and Mandela and King fought for racial and economic justice, Nursi strove incessantly for the freedom to practice faith and for access to spiritual resources for all people. Thus, writing and reading would become for him and his followers the most potent means of creative, nonviolent civil disobedience; the production of literature focusing on spirituality would become a compelling agent of change. Where Gandhi’s legacy is emblemized by the Salt March, Mandela’s by his election to presidency, and King’s by his Letter from a Birmingham Jail and speeches like I Have a Dream, Nursi’s resides in his magnum opus, the Risale-i Nur, and the community that nurtured its formation, disseminated it, and continues to embody its teachings in the present. That community upholds jihad as he understood and taught it: striving on the Godward path via positive action (müsbet hareket).
Şerif Mardin. “Reflections on Said Nursi’s Life and Thought” in Islam at the Crossroads: On the Life and Thought of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, edited by Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi‛, (Albany: State University of New York, 2003), 49.