Who is Bediuzzaman Said Nursi?

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Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1878-1960 C.E., 1295-1379 Hijri) or Ustad Nursi, as his followers refer to him, was a great scholar, gnostic, and saint of the fourteenth century of the Islamic calendar. He struggled his entire life to understand, implement, teach, and uphold the message of the Qur’an and the Prophetic example. His unshakable certainty in the truths of faith provided a bastion of refuge and hope for Muslims in the late Ottoman Empire and republican Turkey at times of calamitous defeats and moral collapse that sealed the end of the Ottoman Caliphate. Today, the treasure of knowledge he left behind, the Risale-i Nur, continues to teach and inspire believers all around the world.

Ustad Nursi was born to a peasant family in the village of Nurs in the Bitlis province of the Kurdish regions of the Ottoman Empire. While he was ethnically Kurdish, his father Sofi Mirza (d. 1920) descended from the grandson of the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) Ḥasan (may God be pleased with him, d. 669) through ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Gīlānī (d. 1166). His mother Nure Hanım (d. during WWI) descended from the other grandson of the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) Ḥusayn (may God be pleased with him, d. 680). Therefore, Ustad Nursi connected to the prophetic lineage both as a sharīf,  i.e. a descendent of Ḥasan, and a sayyid, i.e. a descendent of Ḥusayn (may God be pleased with both of them). His mother and father were illiterate and poor, but they were known for their piety and fear of God, and they ensured that all of their children would study.

Ustad Nursi left his home at the age of nine to study in the local madrasahs of what was then known as Kurdistan. Receiving proper education proved to be challenging for him at the beginning though. It was difficult to find a teacher who could satisfy the quick mind, photographic memory, and piercing intellect of this evidently extraordinary child. He eventually reached that fertile ground at the madrasah of Muhammed Celalî Hazret (1851-1914) in Doğu Beyazıt. Here, he fast-tracked through the entire madrasah curriculum over a winter in 1892-93, memorized many of the books that his peers studied, and received his first ijāzah, or certificate of knowledge and teaching, approximately at the age of 15 from Muhammed Celalî Hazret. Later, he would receive a second ijāzah from Shaykh Fethullah el-Siirdî (d. 1899). In both of these ijāzahs, Ustad Nursi’s chain of knowledge extends to ʿAli (may God be pleased with him, d. 661), the fourth caliph, the son-in-law of the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him), and the father of Ḥasan and Ḥusayn (may God be pleased with both of them) through Imam al-Ghazālī (d. 1111).

During his early years of study and travel among the madrasahs of Kurdistan, young Nursi also attracted the attention of prominent Sufi masters, and reportedly, he received special blessings and spiritual insight from some of them, such as the famous Naqshbandi Shaykh ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Taghī (d. 1903). However, as it should become clear upon studying Ustad Nursi’s lifelong career and the Risale-i Nur, his mission and teachings encompassed the essence of all major Sufi orders (ṭarīqahs) and were not limited to one.

Although Ustad Nursi never stopped learning, already by the time he received his ijāzahs, his knowledge as well as his ability to apply that knowledge to difficult scholarly questions or practical matters were unmatched. This extraordinary aptitude earned him the alias “Bediuzzaman,” meaning the “marvel of the age” among the scholarly circles of the Ottoman Empire's eastern lands. Later, when he traveled to Istanbul, this qualification would be acknowledged by world-renowned scholars of the time too. To give an indication of Ustad Nursi’s scholarly accomplishment, he had memorized over 90 major books that were taught in the Ottoman madrasahs along with the Qur’an, thousands of prophetic traditions, and a major and voluminous Arabic dictionary up to the letter sīn. He was never asked a question in scholarly examinations but he gave a sound and convincing answer. His knowledge was both kasbī, i.e. a reward for his determined effort to learn, and wahbī, i.e. bestowed to him as a special gift from God. The inspired aspect of the nature of his knowledge was evident in his ability to evaluate and resolve difficult questions, and it was also confirmed in reliable dreams. In one of those dreams, which he had had in1891, shortly before going to Muhammed Celalî Hazret’s madrasah in Doğu Beyazıt, the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) had told Nursi that he would be given knowledge on condition that he would abstain from asking questions to members of the Prophet’s (peace and blessings be upon him) community of followers (ummah) in way of testing their knowledge. In the second dream, which Ustad Nursi had had at the beginning of World War One, he was instructed by what he calls "an important person" to proclaim the miraculousness of the Qur’an.

After teaching and preaching in various Kurdish provinces for a few years, in 1897, Ustad Nursi accepted an invitation from the governor of the city of Van and moved there. He stayed in this less provincial city for ten years and taught his own students. Meanwhile, he also explored modern scientific and political literature in the governor's evidently large library. Because this library perished in a fire, we do not know exactly what Ustad Nursi had studied there. However, it appears that he had mastered advanced works in several disciplines of knowledge from physiology and geography to philosophy and algebra to the extent that he would be tested by the experts of those disciplines at the governor’s manor and consistently come out undefeated.

In 1907, Ustad Nursi traveled to Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, primarily to seek financial and political support to open a madrasah that would teach religious and positive sciences together simultaneously in Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic in the empire’s eastern lands. This was a tumultuous period for the Ottoman Empire though. A few months after his arrival in Istanbul, Ustad Nursi found himself in the thick of revolutionary developments that transformed the sultanate into a constitutional monarchy. He put his knowledge and oratory skills in the service of expanding freedoms in the empire in this period, though importantly, he would insist that those freedoms should be exercised within the bounds of the Shariah. Yet the initial euphoria of the revolution soon left its place to a chaotic struggle for power. Ustad Nursi returned to Van in 1912 and started the construction of his madrasah. But the advent of World War One prevented the completion of this project. Ustad Nursi moved on to command a regiment of voluntary soldiers against invading Russian armies.

Meanwhile, he also began writing a Qur’anic commentary. This commentary, which he would dictate to one of his students as he simultaneously commanded his soldiers on horseback, comprises the first chapter of the Qur’an al-Fātiḥa and the first 33 verses of the second chapter al-Baqara. It also constitutes one of the books of Ustad Nursi’s magnum opus Risale-i Nur Külliyatı, or the Compendium of the Epistles of Light. Unfortunately, this blessed effort to write a commentary on the Qur’an had to come to an abrupt end when Ustad Nursi was wounded in a battle, captured, and taken as a prisoner of war to the city of Kostroma in northern Russia.

Approximately two lonely years of introspection in this northern city marked the beginning of a spiritual crisis that would last more than a decade for Ustad Nursi. He escaped from imprisonment during Russia's chaotic state in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution at the end of 1917. He traveled to Istanbul through Europe. Upon his arrival, he was welcomed as a war hero, and in recognition of his scholarly aptitude, he was appointed as a member of the empire’s highest council of Islamic scholarship: Dârü’l-Hikmeti’l-İslâmiye. Yet the realization of the ephemeral nature of this fame and the worldly blessings that accompanied it actually deepened Ustad Nursi’s inner crisis. He ultimately came out of it with the spiritual assistance of ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Gīlānī and Imam Rabbānī Aḥmad Sirhindī (d. 1624), as he read their Futūḥ al-Ghayb (or possibly Fatḥ al-Rabbānī) and Maktūbāt respectively. This spiritual assistance guided Ustad Nursi away from the weakness of his commanding soul (nafs) for fame and its subtle tendency to seek solutions to worldly problems through worldly arrangements. With advice from Imam Rabbānī, he resolved to concentrate all of his intellectual and spiritual effort on understanding the Qur’an and proclaiming its message.

Nonetheless, the world would not leave Ustad Nursi alone yet. Shortly after his arrival in Istanbul, the Ottoman Empire accepted defeat in World War One and collapsed. Then, Allied forces occupied Istanbul. A resistance movement emerged in Anatolia around what came to be known as the Grand National Assembly, which convened in the city of Ankara in 1920. Upon the invitation of this Assembly, Nursi traveled to Ankara with the intention to support the resistance. However, he soon noticed that leaders of the resistance movement actually wanted to do away with religion in the new political situation that they were fighting to establish. Ustad Nursi perceived in this development some of the signs of the end of times, and with guidance from some prophetic traditions that shed light on such periods in history, he withdrew to a cave in the city of Van. Here, as he emerged from his long spiritual crisis with a deeper state of realization (taḥqīq), he wanted to avoid all social interaction, the fame that accompanied it, and power politics as a source of much injustice. Yet, a Kurdish rebellion in Southeast Turkey in 1925, two years after the foundation of the republic, disrupted Ustad Nursi's plans. He had not supported this rebellion. He had even prevented some clans in Van from joining it. But the state authorities feared his reputation and charismatic influence as a scholar of Islam among the region’s Kurdish population. Thus, they exiled him first to Isparta, a city in southwest Anatolia, and then to a nearby mountain village called Barla.

The authorities’ choice of Barla as Nursi’s place of exile was due to its inaccessibility. At the time, one had to climb a mountain by car through serpentine roads, cross a lake by boat, and then climb further before reaching Barla. Yet this remote place of exile served as the incubator where God put Ustad Nursi in the service of the Qur'an and religion in his new state of realization. Ustad Nursi refers to himself before this realization as the “Old Said” and after it as the “New Said.” While Old Said was a scholar and activist with a sharp intellect and daring character, New Said was a compassionate spiritual teacher who relied on his intimate understanding of the Qur’an to establish a broad path to God that comprised the essence of all established paths and from which all believers from uninitiated peasants to advanced scholars could benefit.

The villagers of Barla recognized the gift of knowledge and light that Ustad Nursi brought to their doorsteps. Slowly, they began to gather around him. The Risale-i Nur initially emerged from Ustad Nursi’s teachings to these villagers in the form of brief treatises. However, we should note that it comprised much more than lessons for an uninitiated audience. A careful comparison of Ustad Nursi’s previous works, especially from the early 1920s, and the Risale-i Nur reveals that following years of deep reflection upon the Qur’an and the observed universe as two forms of revelation, Ustad Nursi had already reached the level of realization and illumination that characterizes the Risale-i Nur. He had recorded the inspired wisdoms emerging from this reflection in the form of brief notes for himself and published some of them especially in the early 1920s. Therefore, his teachings to Barla’s villagers and later to a larger circle of students were not mere inspirations of the moment. They contained inspired knowledge which he received due to his decades of intellectual and spiritual preparation. In the persons of his immediate readers, this knowledge addressed the questions and needs of an entire age characterized by the ailments of positivism, consumerist materialism, and even militant anti-religious indoctrination.

It was not easy for an exiled scholar of Islam to publish his works in early republican Turkey. The villagers of Barla hand-copied his treatises and secretly passed them on to other readers in a gradually growing network of readers and copiers.  This went on for almost nine years. The number of people who secretly but devotedly read and copied Ustad Nursi’s treatises in Barla and in other nearby villages reached thousands. In 1935, however, the government clamped down on this network. They arrested Nursi along with several of his closer students and sent them to Eskişehir in central Anatolia to be tried. The court failed to produce a sentence, but Ustad Nursi was once again exiled, this time to Kastamonu, again, in north central Anatolia. The developments of Barla repeated in Kastamonu. Students gathered around Ustad Nursi secretly. They read, hand-copied, and spread his works. Ustad Nursi kept in touch with his former students with secretly sent and often hand-delivered letters. Then he was arrested, tried, and exiled again, this time to Emirdağ, a small town in western Anatolia. Students gathered around him there too, and he kept on writing and teaching despite a number of other court trials, detentions, and even being poisoned several times.

While the treatises of the Risale-i Nur offer a treasure of knowledge and spiritual light, Ustad Nursi and his students’ patient struggle and unwavering perseverance before injustices, slanders, deprivations, imprisonment, psychological pressure, and physical torture in this period provide the foundations of a model of principled action. This model should be considered a central component of Ustad Nursi’s overall teaching too. One learns about it from his correspondence with his students, which are compiled into four volumes in the compendium of the Risale-i Nur, as well as from the example of the students who personally learned from Ustad Nursi.

Some of those students even had the fortune to live with Ustad Nursi in the same house during the last seven to eight years of his blessed life. In 1950, when Ustad Nursi was 72 years old, Turkey’s ruling party changed in the country’s first democratic election. The new regime relaxed its grip on religion relatively. Close government surveillance on Ustad Nursi continued in this period too, but he was allowed to rent a house in Isparta, settle there with a few of his students, and publish his books in print. He stopped writing new treatises for the most part and focused on training his students and spreading the Risale-i Nur. His readership grew to hundreds of thousands within a few years. At the end of 1959, he asked his students to take him on a journey through various cities where he met some of his other students. Then, in March 1960, when he was seriously ill in the month of Ramadan, he asked to be taken to the city of Urfa in southeast Anatolia. This was a blessed city that hosts the tombs and spiritual stations of several prophets. There, he passed away shortly after his arrival at the age of 82 on the Night of Power, or the 27th night of the month of Ramadan in the Islamic calendar.

Ustad Nursi was initially buried in Urfa, in the Dergah Mosque which is believed to have been constructed on the site where Prophet Ibrāhīm (peace be upon him) was born. However, a coup d’etat took place in Turkey shortly after Ustad Nursi's death. Fearing that his tomb would serve as a place of gathering for his large following, the secularist military junta unearthed his body in July 1960 and buried it in an undisclosed location, possibly in the mountains of Isparta. Interestingly, it was Ustad Nursi’s will that his tomb would remain hidden and people would pray for his soul without visiting his tomb. The junta had unknowingly fulfilled his will.

Ustad Nursi's will for his tomb to remain hidden reflects his state of spiritual realization in which he perceived and acknowledged all the good that appeared in his hands to be from God alone. As a result, he would either not accept praise at all or, if he feared breaking the heart of the person who praised him, he would accept it in the name of the Risale-i Nur in relation to its inspired derivation from the Qur’an. He said that he did not like himself or those who liked him for his self. He feared affectation and detested shows of respect to his person. As a result, the larger his following grew, the more humble he became and chose a life of seclusion. He would rarely accept visitors and often turn away even those who traveled from distant locations to see him. He would reject anyone who came to him expecting a blessing through him. He would tell them that they should read the Risale-i Nur instead. But he would accept those who came to him to share his burden in serving the Qur’an and the religion by spreading the Risale-i Nur.

He was extremely modest, but in proclaiming the truth and preserving the dignity of the knowledge he carried, he was daring and fearless. When asked to stand up before the tsar’s uncle during his imprisonment in Russia, he refused on the grounds that this would not become the dignity of his scholarship. Instead, he accepted to be put in front of the execution squad. The tsar’s uncle pardoned him in the last minute upon recognizing the sincerity in Ustad Nursi's unhesitant preparedness to die in the way of preserving the dignity of his knowledge.

All his life, Ustad Nursi aspired to be for God and God alone. He abstained from all that that could attract or tie him to the world, hurt the sincerity of his intentions, or diminish the purity of his exertion in the service of the Qur’an. He was the recipient of many divine gifts and special blessings that broke the norm and confirmed the truth of his cause, but he neither asked for nor expected them, hoping to receive his reward in the Hereafter alone. He lived in poverty, wore old and patched clothing, and ate little to survive, but he would not accept even gifts let alone charity. He slept little too and spent most of his nights in a state of worship and supplication.

He was extremely compassionate, crying upon the sight of falling leaves, forbidding his students from killing mosquitoes, or sharing his meager prison provision with mice. It was this compassion that underlined his determination to preserve believers’ faith at a time when state policies and changing ways of life pushed them away from religion and into hellfire. He proclaimed that one who attains true faith can defy the entire creation, and he defied the dictatorial powers of a state that adamantly pursued the eradication of religion. He remained principled in his defiance though. He believed that ends did not justify the means since God creates both the means and the ends and what behooves His slaves is to serve Him within the bounds He permits. Thus, he relied on God with absolute certainty, remained steadfast on his cause, expected and asked for success from God alone, and God blessed us with the Risale-i Nur through him.

May God have mercy on his soul.