Nursi: “I seek refuge in Allah from Satan and politics…”
Mar 17, 2014
I will start as I mean to go on: with a digression. But a digression which, I hope, will serve to set the scene for the rest of the paper.
One of the modules I teach in Durham is called ‘Islam, State and Government’ – a title which was to a certain extent imposed on the course by our Teaching and Learning Committee, an eminent group of largely political science and international relations experts whose ability to choose the right name for the right course is as poor as their knowledge of what I actually teach. If it had been down to me, I would have called the module “The art of ‘muddling through’: what happened after the death of the Prophet when Muslims realized that there was no overtly political ethos in the Koran and how they spent the next fourteen hundred years trying to fill the vacuum.”
Clearly, my choice would not have gone down well with my esteemed colleagues. Politics, they claimed, is what Islam today is all about, and since we are a Schoolof Governmentand International Affairs, it makes sense for our modules to reflect this. After all, they asked me rhetorically, isn’t ‘Islam and politics’ what you teach?
Well it is and it isn’t. The course is a history of Muslim political theory from the time of the Prophet to the present – although as far as political theory is concerned, nothing of much import appears before the advent of al-Mawardi in the 11th century, some 400 years after the death of the Prophet. And even al-Mawardi’s status as a political theorist in the usual sense of the term is questionable, given that his main efforts were descriptive and justificatory rather than prescriptive and theoretical, and were aimed for the most part at justifying the power of political usurpers – the sultans – in order to rescue the ailing Abbasid dynasty.
But I digress from my digression. As I tell my students in the very first lecture, the whole module is based on the premise that there is no overtly political ethos – or logos – in the Koran. To substantiate my premise, I tell them that out of the six thousand or so verses in the Koran, I have been able to find no more than three which can be construed as being ‘political’ in the sense of the word as we understand it today. Two of them concern the principle of shura or consultation and the third – and arguably the most significant – is the famous ‘authority verse’, in which believers are told to “obey God, obey the apostle, and obey those with authority among you”.
The significance of this third verse is, of course, that the Koran never discloses what it means by ‘those with authority’. Authority, in the political sense, is different from political power in that it implies legitimacy and acceptance, and that the person or state exercising power has a perceived right to do so. But the Koran says nothing about political legitimacy or acceptance either. Nor does it talk in any politically meaningful sense about power, sovereignty, leadership or succession. There is, I stress to my bemused students, nothing political in the Koran, and any attempt to locate the origins of political Islam today among the verses of the Koran is bound to fail.
While I sincerely believe that so-called ‘political Islam’ or ‘Islamism’ has little or nothing to do with the tenets of the Koran, my claim that there is nothing political in the Koran is, of course, a wholly disingenuous one, and made solely to make my students think. I still believe that what I said earlier is true: the Koran does not include a blueprint for governance and the exercise of power. In that sense, it is not a political document. In another very real sense, of course, every verse in the Koran is of political import – a point which I spring on my students at the end of the first lecture, usually leaving them more dazed and confused than before.
The issue, of course, is one of definition. What do we mean by politics? Looking at politics today, the cynic might say that what politics actually boils down to is ‘who gets what, when, why and how.’ A less jaundiced eye might prefer the dictionary definition of politics, which consists, we are told, of social relations involving authority, and refers to the regulation of a political unit, and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply policy. That being the case, again we see that the Koran has nothing of the political document about it. On the other hand, if we tinker a little with these definitional criteria and talk instead about the relationship between man and God – the supreme Authority – and about the regulation of the self, and the methods and tactics taught by God and his Messenger to facilitate man’s knowledge, love and worship of the Creator, then every chapter, verse and word of the Koran is imbued with the ‘political’ – even if it is according to our redefinition of that term.
Where are we going with this discussion, you may ask. Well, we are here to talk about Bediuzzaman Said Nursi and his approach to politics, both as manifested in his own life and as reflected in hismagnum opus, the Risale-i Nur. To this end, our discussion of the Koranic approach to politics is not without relevance, because, as I have usually found, where the Koran leads, Said Nursi follows. The Risale is, in it’s author’s own words, a mirror held up to reflect the light of the Koran and thus it comes as no surprise that, like the Koran, it has little to say on issues such as legitimacy, acceptance, sovereignty, leadership or succession. It contains no blueprint for an Islamic state; it does not concern itself with the re-establishment of the Caliphate or the imposition of the shari‘a; and it most certainly does not reduce Islam to the question of governance. In that sense, there is nothing overtly political in the Risale-i Nur.
However, if we use our earlier, sacralised redefinition of the word politics, we see that the Risale is every bit as imbued with the political as the Koran. Who should rule society and how are not his concern; what concerns him is how man should rule his own soul, and why. The key, I believe, is that, like the Koran, Nursi is concerned that man should aspire not to an Islamic state, but to an Islamic state of mind. And it is aspect of his work – this uncompromising focus on man’s psycho-spiritual life – that sets Nursi apart from his peers.
Another aspect that makes Nursi stand out from his contemporaries is, of course, the very utterance that forms part of the title of this paper: “I take refuge in God from Satan and politics.” As with his emphasis on the renewal of belief and the reform of the soul, his eschewal of politics makes him resistant to what Clifford Geertz calls the ‘pigeonhole disease’: Said Nursi is simply very hard to pin down. Although often stereotyped as the pioneer of reform of an Islam declining under the severe pressures inflicted on it by the Kemalist secularization policy of the Turkish state, almost half a century after his death, Nursi continues to defy any attempts to locate him precisely within the generally accepted milieu of Muslim thinkers and ideologues who have contributed to what is commonly known as the ‘Islamic resurgence’ – a phenomenon which has its roots in post-colonialist neo-revivalism and which has yielded, amongst other things, dubious fruits such as ‘political Islam’, ‘Islamism’ and ‘fundamentalism’. While Nursi’s early career might, at first glance, suggest that he is just another in the long line of early modern reformers that began with Jamal al-Din Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, the fact that his political involvement was tempered with a healthy disdain for politics suggests otherwise.
As far as the so-called ‘Islamic resurgence’ is concerned, I am not the only person to voice the opinion that the numerous movements of the past 150 years, characterized almost without exception as ‘Islamic movements’, have had little to do with the resurgence of religious faith as such. The ‘Islamic resurgence’ should, I believe, be seen primarily in terms of a resurgent socio-political identity that has little to do with any fundamental upsurge of interest in, or affiliation to, the faith beneath Islam per se. One presumes that Muslims have not suddenly become better believers, or more proficient in their outward expression of submission, although clearly this may have happened in individual cases. What does appear to have happened in the Muslim world, however, is a sustained attempt on the part of certain groups to reassert their collective identity in the face of external threats. Some have accentuated their inextricable ties – be they religious or cultural – to Islam, while others have taken advantage of the centrality of Islam to the socio-political and cultural dynamics of the Muslim world in order to advance their own political agendas.
While none of the groups that operate within the definitional matrix of “Islamic movements” can claim to be identifiable primarily as a religious movement, various individuals have appeared sporadically with the avowed aim of fostering renewal of belief – often to the extent of dedicating their whole life’s work to that aim – and around some of these individuals, movements of considerable size and import have accreted. Said Nursi is one such individual. In fact, he is the only modern Muslim scholar I can think of who has been able to reach such a large audience by focusing on self-reform and the renewal of belief alone, rather than by selling a particular political message.
Said Nursi’s enigmatic utterance “I take refuge in God from Satan and from politics” is often seen by his modern-day followers as proof of his uncompromising distance from politics – with distance from politics itself deemed one of the defining characteristics of the movement which grew up around the Risale-i Nur. Yet Nursi himself was no stranger to political involvement; indeed, the way Nursi himself divided his life into three ideational and developmental stages – namely the ‘Old Said’, the ‘New Said’ and the ‘Third Said’ was to a certain extent informed by the differing degrees at which he was engaged politically throughout his life.
During his Old Said period, which covered roughly the first 45 years of his life, Nursi’s involvement in the political life of the waning Ottoman empirewas considerable, particularly in the run-up to, and the aftermath of, the Young Turk Revolution. During his trip to Istanbulin 1907, made specifically in order to garner support for his Medresetuzehra university project in Eastern Anatolia, Nursi was caught up in the current of constitutionalism then sweeping the country. Nursi openly professed his support for ‘freedom and constitutionalism’, both of which he deemed consonant with Islamic principles, and he made a case for both of these ideals in numerous speeches and newspaper articles. As Sukran Vahide has shown, Nursi felt that constitutionalism could provide a basis for the ‘progress and unity of the Muslim world’ – a message he took to the people of the Eastern provinces when he toured there in the summer of 1910.
At the end of World War I, Nursi continued to be politically active, supporting in his writings the national independence effort in Anatoliaand, significantly, opposing the Kurdish-Armenian agreement regarding the creation of an autonomous Kurdistan– a stance that says much about his approach, given the fact that he himself was a Kurd.
The birth of the TurkishRepublicin the early Twenties also saw the birth of the ‘New Said’ and the emergence of a thinker whose primary objective is now to throw light on the truths of Islam by holding up a scholarly mirror to the Koran. To this end, Nursi at this juncture in his life effectively withdraws from public and political life. Invited to Ankarain the autumn of 1922, Nursi was horrified to see the extent to which secularism and aggressive Westernization had become key to the political agenda. Despite being welcomed by the National Assembly and being offered various positions by Mustafa Kemal, Nursi would have nothing to do with the new regime, responding to Ataturk’s approaches by saying: “The New Said wants to work for the next world and cannot work with you. But he won’t interfere with you either.”
And work for the next world he did, preferring seclusion and the power of the pen over political involvement and the power of pernicious ideologies which he saw as a threat to the spiritual well-being of Muslim umma. Nursi would not step foot into the political arena for another thirty years, during which he dedicated his life to expounding the truths of the Koran and attempting to strengthen the religious feelings and Muslim identity of the people.
True to the response he had given to Ataturk, he worked for the next world and did not interfere with the movers and shakers of political life. In fact, the only involvement he had with politics in the next thirty years came as a result of the regime’s insistence on interfering with him : Nursi lived much of his life under government surveillance, spending protracted periods under house arrest or in prison, always on trumped-up charges that culminated inevitably in acquittal.
With the advent of the multi-party system in the late Forties, we see yet another transition as the ‘New Said’ becomes the ‘Third Said’. While the underpinning of these transitions is overwhelmingly a psycho-spiritual one, it is impossible to overlook the fact that they also tend to coincide with periods of great political change. With the defeat of the Republican People’s Party in 1950 and the rise of the Democrat Party, Nursi’s self-imposed exile from the political world comes to an end. Discerning a certain amount of positive feeling towards Islam on the part of the Democrats, Nursi champions the Party’s cause, even lauding the party leader, Adnan Menderes, as a ‘hero of Islam’ and, in 1957, encouraging his followers to vote for the Party in the national elections.
This brief overview of the three phases of Nursi’s life, characterised as they are by very different approaches on his part to politics and political life, comes of course with a caveat. For it is important to bear in mind that political engagement in the Nursian sense of the term differs from political engagement as we might understand it today. Firstly, it was dynamic and completely in accordance with both context and the dictates of what he perceived to be the Koranic ideal; secondly, Nursi was never interested in status or position, be it political or otherwise, and had no aspirations of carving out for himself any kind of political career. If he engaged with politics, it was solely in the capacity of ‘warner’ or ‘admonisher’ – in very much the same way that the Prophet was sent to warn, guide and give good counsel. Nursi’s engagement with politics was in sense informed by his compassionate desire to save the politicians from themselves, and the overriding imperative he felt to the protect the truths and ideals of Islam from the depredations of the politicians. Sukran Vahide alludes to this in her description of Nursi’s involvement with the Democrat Party. Nursi’s support for them, she writes, was “limited to offering them advice and guidance, and urging them to take measures which would strengthen religion and to renew relations with the Islamic world.” She also cites a passage from one of Nursi’s books in which he actually refers to the Democrats as ‘the lesser of two evils’, signifying the importance which Nursi placed on the preservation of Islamic ideals rather than the promotion of a political party. For him, those ideals are threefold. As he himself writes:
The three supreme matters in the worlds of humanity and Islam are belief, the sharia, and life. Since the truths of belief are the greatest of these, the Risale-i Nur’s select and loyal students avoid politics with abhorrence so that they should not be made the tool to other currents and subject to other forces, and those diamond-like Quranic truths not reduced to fragments of glass in the view of those who sell or exploit religion for the world, and so that they can carry out to the letter the duty of saving belief, the greatest duty.
Part of Nursi’s appeal lay in his uncompromising belief that it is belief (iman) which must be renewed and protected, and that all other endeavors must be approached with the primacy of belief, self-awareness and God-consciousness in mind: the fact that, unlike many of the popular Muslim thinkers of his own epoch, he repudiated the dubious art of politics – particularly when buttressed by religion – earned him respect and conferred on him a sense of authenticity that would perhaps be found wanting in so many other Muslim thinkers. Another part of his appeal lay in his shrewd interpretation of the forces ranged against him. For Nursi, unlike many of the Muslim scholars, leaders and ideologues who came later, realized that if there is a conflict between Islam – or belief – and modernity, it is not a conflict fought over issues of government or technology, over science or democracy. As Nursi’s own evaluation of the problems facing the Muslim world shows, the conflict is ultimately over transcendence, with the post-Enlightenment experiment claiming a centrality in the universe’s affairs for humanity that Islam, with its emphasis on the dependence of humankind on God, cannot countenance. Human beings are faced with a choice: belief in the sovereignty of God or belief in the sovereignty of man, with all that such a choice entails. For Nursi, the way to salvation consists solely in choosing the Other over the self, and it is in the dynamics of this choice that the key to an understanding of Nursi’s take on spirituality and the human being’s place in the cosmos may be found.
Renewal and reform, then, do play a central role in the Nursian Weltanschauung, but, unlike so many of his coevals, it is the renewal of belief and the reform of the individual that constitute his primary and overriding concern. In this respect, he is one of few Muslim thinkers in the twentieth century who has little if anything to say about the socio-economic or political externalia of Muslim life. Over the past twenty-five years, ‘Islam is a complete way of life’ has been the mantra of choice for the vast majority of Muslim movements. Consequently, emphasis has been largely on the implementation of Islam at the socio-political level, with debate and discussion focusing mainly on issues such as Islamic law, Islamic education and the concept of the Islamic state. As such, the lion’s share of Muslim movements can be said to adopt an “externalist” approach to the Islamic revelation, seeing in the strict adherence of Muslims to the sharia – and, where necessary, the imposition of such adherence through legislative means – the key to the formation of the ideal Muslim society. For the “externalists”, reform has come to mean chiefly the reform of society, the underlying aspiration of which must be to return to the “golden age” of Islam typified – for the externalists at least – by the community-state of Medinaduring the lifetime of the Prophet. These “dreams of Medina”, and the concomitant desire to share – or, even, impose – those dreams on others, are responsible in part for the current Western perception of Islam as more political ideology than divinely-revealed religion. The relative merits and demerits of “Islamism” or “political Islam” as terms by which to describe this politicized approach to Islam need not occupy us here. Suffice to say that in the last analysis, this approach rests on the fulcrum that is the return of “Islamic rule”, the transformation of the Muslim world into an umma (community) analogous to the community-state of Medina and, wittingly or otherwise, the reduction of the Islamic revelation to the single issue of governance. While Islam made political and transformed into ideology is a relatively recent phenomenon, the “externalist” approach to Islam which informs it is almost as old as Islam itself. However, whereas for the likes of “non-externalists” such as Ghazali in the twelfth century and Mulla Sadra in the seventeenth it was the nomocentrism of the externalist scholars and the over-emphasis on fiqh (jurisprudence) which constituted the greatest obstacles to the health of the Muslim community, for the Ghazalis and Sadras of today – of whom Nursi is undoubtedly one – it is the over-politicization of religion which is the danger.
Arguably the most important common denominator among Islamic/Islamist groups and leaders of the past fifty to one hundred years has been the tendency to favour the use of force to change “religiously suspect” regimes in the Muslim world and bring about Islamic revolutions. And it is precisely on this point where one sees a fundamental difference between Nursi and his contemporaries. For not only is Nursi distinguished by his staunch opposition to any kind of uprising or revolution in the name of Islam, but also he stands on account of his aversion to politics in general, and the politicization of Islam in particular. Nowhere is Nursi’s ideological departure from the majority of his contemporaries delineated more sharply than on the highly contentious issue of jihad.
Nursi identifies two modalities of jihad: the internal and the external. Internal jihad concerns, among the other things , the sacrifice of the individual “I” for the sake of the collective “we” – a sacrifice necessitated by the conditions obtaining in the modern world, which lives in the age of the ego. Nursi believed that the present age demands from each individual a form of struggle with the soul known asjihad al-akbar (the greater jihad), for, he asserted, it is only through the creation of a collective Islamic personality growing out of such struggles that the forces of misguidance and unbelief can be challenged successfully.
With regard to external or physical jihad, Nursi’s approach is something quite peculiar to him alone. While he accepts that, historically, the spread, establishment and progress of Islam occurred partly through the use of the sword, Nursi sees no
place in the future of the Muslim community for military jihad. The use of weapons might have been justified in the past, Nursi admits, but as far as the future is concerned, it is the metaphorical swords of true civilization, material progress, truth and justice which will defeat and scatter the enemies of Islam. In the Middle Ages, Nursi argues, Islam was compelled to respond to the hostility of its European enemies by resorting to warfare, yet in general managed to do so without forsaking its principles of justice and moderation: jihad was waged according to strict regulations, and Islam never instituted inquisitions or perpetrated genocide. In this regard, Nursi is of the view that force may be resorted to only to combat the barbarity of savages.
In today’s world, however, Europeans are civilized and powerful; as a result, Nursi opines, the kind of harmful hostility which existed in the medieval era no longer exists. As far as religion is concerned, Nursi says, the civilized can be conquered not through force but through peaceful persuasion: to this end, all that Muslims have to do is demonstrate the elevated nature of Islam with the “tongue of mute eloquence” – namely by adhering to the precepts of Islam in their own lives and thus acting as ambassadors of Islam in the presence of others. What remains problematic for modern readers of Nursi, however, is that he never defines exactly what he means by the “civilized”: throughout the Risale, the definitional boundaries of “civilization” are never spelled out explicitly. For example, on several occasions he describes the Europeans as civilized yet never gives any detail as to what the nature or foundations of that civilization are. Defining Europeans as civilized without any elucidation of its meaning is arguably a result of the impact made on Nursi by the scientific and technological advances obtaining in the Western world during his lifetime. Despite this rather nebulous approach to the issue of civilization, Nursi’s views on the means that Muslims are to employ in communicating their belief to others are unambiguous, as his own words show:
Our way is concerned only with morality and religion…. The way of our society is to love the love which Muslims feel for one another, and to loathe any enmity that may exist among them; its path is to be moulded by the moral qualities of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)and to revive his practices (sunna); its guide is the illustrious sharia; its sword is decisive logical proofs; and its aim is to uphold the word of God…. [Our] society’s …. way is to wage the greater jihad (jihad-i akbar) with one’s own [evil-commanding] soul, and to guide others. Ninety-nine percent of [its]aspiration is directed not to politics, but to licit aims that are the opposite of politics, such as the nurturing of fine morals, right conduct, and so on….
I could indeed go on, but time is against us and I will have to stop here. The best source for material on Said Nursi’s approach to politics is, of course, Sukran Vahide’s biography, so I urge all of those who are interested to read that.
Prof. Dr. Colin Turner (Durham University – England)