What is the Risale-i Nur?
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The Risale-i Nur is a Qur’anic commentary that makes substantial contributions to the Islamic tradition especially in the fields of dialectical theology (kalam) and Sufism (taṣawwuf) but also offers important insights about the methodologies (uṣūl) of the sciences of Qur’anic exegesis (tafsīr) and prophetic traditions (ḥadīth).
This Qur’anic commentary was written by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, a great scholar of the fourteenth century of the Islamic calendar. Nursi was born in 1878 in the Kurdish regions of the Ottoman Empire. He received his initial training there, in the local Islamic seminaries (madrasahs) before going on to become one of the most learned, insightful, and respected scholars of the Ottoman Empire. When the Turkish Republic replaced the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, however, the ruling elite of the new republic turned against religion, exiled Nursi to a remote village in western Turkey, and condemned him to a life of persecution until his death in 1960. Yet, Nursi managed to write his magnum opus, the Risale-i Nur Külliyatı, or the Compendium of the Epistles of Light, in this period. He would often dictate his teachings in the form of small treatises to the members of a small circle of devoted students who braved persecution with him. His students would then hand-copy the treatises of the Risale-i Nur secretly and spread them throughout Turkey. Only in the 1950s, the Turkish state relaxed its grip on religion to some extent and allowed Nursi to publish his works openly in print. Since then, however, the Risale-i Nur has been translated into dozens of languages and has inspired millions of Muslims in both Turkey and throughout the world.
Nursi compiled his treatises into four major books: (1) Sözler (the Words), (2) Mektubat (the Letters), (3) Lem’alar (the Flashes), and (4) Şualar (the Rays). These four books constitute the main body of the Risale-i Nur along with Nursi’s correspondence with his students, statements of defense in various court trials, his authorized biography, two of his earlier works, and a collection of inferred references to the Risale-i Nur from the Qur’an as well as the poems of ʿAli (may God be pleased with him, d. 661) and ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Gīlānī (d. 1166). Altogether, these books amount to about six thousand pages of print in Turkish. Yet, Nursi’s overall work also comprises other earlier treatises, including two on logic and one on algebra, as well as several rearrangements of the letters and treatises of the Risale-i Nur.
In the earlier part of his life during the Ottoman era, Nursi wrote his most important works in Arabic. In the republican era, however, he wrote mostly in Turkish, addressing the predominantly uninitiated peasants and small townspeople around him and trying to preserve their faith and piety in an environment where government powers mobilized to undermine religion. Therefore, these later writings that are included in the Risale-i Nur follow a pedagogical order and style, rendering even the most complicated matters of theology more or less understandable for Nursi’s uninitiated audience. However, the Risale-i Nur is also packed with profound insights and clarifications on all disciplines of Muslim thought and spirituality. As such, it is deeply integrated into a long and blessed tradition of Islamic scholarship and has its ranks among the likes of Imam al-Ghazālī’s (d. 1111) Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn (The Revival of Religious Sciences), Mawlānā Jalāl ad-Dīn al-Rūmī’s (d. 1273) Mathnawī, Ibn ʿAṭāʾillah al-Iskandarī’s (d. 1310) Ḥikam (Wisdoms), and Imam Rabbānī Aḥmad Sirhindī’s (d. 1624) Maktūbāt (Letters).
Thus, the Risale-i Nur is not just an ordinary commentary on the Qur’an. It is a masterpiece that is grounded firmly in the Qur’an, that affirms and provides evidence for the agreed-upon aspects of the Islamic tradition while offering reasonable solutions to matters of disputation, and that connects the Qur’an and prophetic teachings to a sound observation of the cosmos—i.e. observed reality. It does not offer a verse-by-verse commentary from the first chapter of the Qur’an to the last. Instead, it focuses on key concepts and messages of the Qur’an that are most relevant to the problems, concerns, and questions of the contemporary world. It is not the product of an effort to demonstrate the author’s intellectual capacity to master and synthesize earlier scholarly works without a corresponding realization of Truth with a capital “T.” Rather, it is the product of a true realization of the Reality as Reality is under the guidance of the Qur’an, which the author attains through a sincere intellectual and spiritual struggle, first with his own compulsive soul (nafs) and then with the suspicions and misguidance of a positivist and self-indulgent age.
The tremendousness of that Reality as illuminated by the Qur’an reflects on the Risale-i Nur. Nursi does not waste a single word. He has a lot to impart to his students. Therefore, he writes in a concise and tightly-packed narrative that enables multiple layers of understanding in accordance with the reader’s intellectual as well as spiritual preparedness. Yet, the more a person reads the Risale-i Nur, the more their preparedness increases, enabling them to come back to the Risale-i Nur and discover new meanings and pathways to realization in it. Therefore, sincere readers of the Risale-i Nur maximize the benefits of engaging this blessed commentary by reading it not just once but continually and repeatedly.
Nursi’s students and readers refer to him as “Üstad” in Turkish or “أُستاذ / Ustadh” in Arabic, meaning “a teaching master.”
Among Ustad Nursi’s teaching methods is “temsîl,” or “تمثيل / tamthīl” in Arabic, i.e. the use of representations, comparisons, or parables to explain complex ideas and facts. Ustad Nursi takes his example in utilizing this method from the Qur’an as well as from the great teaching masters of earlier times such as Mawlānā Rūmī and Saʿādī Shirāzī (d. 1291). Thus, most treatises of the Risale-i Nur first bring the subject closer to the reader’s understanding by setting a pattern of thought or line of argumentation through temsîl, or representation. Then, they use this pattern to describe or elucidate a sublime truth that could have otherwise remained too complicated or abstract for the reader to comprehend.
Ustad Nursi was a master of logic and logical argumentation. He used them competently in his earlier works and scholarly interactions. His sharp grasp on logical argumentation undergirds his later teachings in the Risale-i Nur as well. However, he found representation to be a more powerful method in teaching, clarifying, and in some cases even proving intricate matters. Therefore, he used it throughout his later works. The representations of the Risale-i Nur appear to be simple and easy. But that simplicity actually reflects how well Ustad Nursi had digested and realized the vast body of Islamic knowledge that he was imparting in the Risale-i Nur.
The Risale-i Nur does not demand blind following because of the scholarly authority or spiritual rank of the book’s author. Rather, it presents the intellect with convincing arguments that prove the verity of the teachings of the Qur’an and its blessed conveyor, Muhammad the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him). In doing this, the Risale-i Nur goes beyond synthesizing and reiterating the accomplishments of a long tradition of Islamic scholarship; it calibrates the teachings and arguments of that tradition to the challenges of the world since the scientific revolution and resolves those challenges with sound evidence and persuasion. Even in matters of the unseen that dialectical theologians have traditionally considered to be beyond the domain of rational argumentation, such as bodily resurrection in the hereafter or the existence of angels, the Risale-i Nur offers rational proofs.
Nevertheless, the Risale-i Nur also recognizes that what holds people off from having certainty in matters of faith is often not a lack of rational proofs but the weaknesses of the heart and the compulsive soul (nafs). Therefore, the Risale-i Nur addresses the intellect, the heart, and the compulsive soul simultaneously, with a careful pedagogical approach. First, it activates the imagination with the method of representation both to guide the heart gently to a sound position and to demonstrate to the compulsive soul that true happiness and satisfaction in this world and in the hereafter lie in having certainty in faith and living accordingly.
Second, the Risale-i Nur empowers its readers with certainty in the truths of faith and religion without exposing them to false alternatives to which one’s compulsive soul may incline. It does so by focusing on the Truth as opposed to various formulations of falsehood. While scholarly works of theology often begin with the refutations of falsehood and then proceed to the description and proofs of the Truth, treatises of the Risale-i Nur rarely employ the method of refutation. Instead, they explain and establish the truths of faith and religion directly with a rich array of representations.
Importantly, the concepts and arguments that the Risale-i Nur introduces with these representations issue from and expand on a well-digested and internalized understanding of the Qur’an. As such, they stand out as timeless expositions of the Reality as described in the Qur’an by the all-knowing Creator of all Reality and therefore Reality as such. Thus, an uninitiated reader who studies the Risale-i Nur does not acquire encyclopedic knowledge of the philosophical or theological positions that remain antithetical to the teachings of the Qur’an. But they learn the rational as well as empirical proofs for the Qur’anic position on those issues; that is, by reading the Risale-i Nur, they attain a comprehensive realization of Reality. Consequently, if and when they are exposed to misleading arguments, they find themselves to be fully equipped to recognize them as false and to refute them on rational grounds.
Finally, the Risale-i Nur carries the blessings of the divine inspiration that its author received from the Qur’an in writing this masterful commentary. As a result, decades of experience shows that those who read the Risale-i Nur with a sincere intention and who persevere to understand it are moved to action. As a sign of the knowledge that fills their hearts from their exposure to the Qur’anic light that refracts through the Risale-i Nur, they feel an urge to share and spread that knowledge. Here, the Risale-i Nur guides its readers to what Ustad Nursi has called “positive action,” which might be summarized as:
- to act with confidence in and devotion to one’s own cause and not be reactive in a world of fleeting conflicts,
- to move deliberately and peacefully with consideration for the wellbeing of all and with mercy for all,
- and to focus only on presenting the Truth and representing it in good character, for while it is onto man to make an effort, success and guidance are from God alone.