In the many dimensions of his lifetime of achievement, as well as in his personality and character, Bediuzzaman was and, through his continuing influence, still is an important figure in the twentieth-century Muslim world. He represented in a most effective and profound way the intellectual, moral and spiritual strengths of Islam, evident in different degrees throughout its fourteen- century history. He lived for eighty-five years. He spent almost all of those years, overflowing with love and ardour for the cause of Islam, in a wise and measured activism based on sound reasoning and in the shade of the Qur’an and the Prophetic example.
Much has been said and written on the lofty ideal which Bediuzzaman pursued and his deep familiarity with the world and the age in which he lived, as well as the simplicity and austerity of his life, his human tenderness, loyalty to his friends, chastity, modesty and contentedness. Yet it is worth writing volumes on each of those dimensions of his legendary character and life.
Though strikingly simple in outward appearence, he was wholly original in many of his ideas and in his way of activity. He embraced all humanity, was deeply averse to unbelief, injustice and deviations, and never stopped struggling against despotism even at the cost of his life. He was as profound in belief and feelings as he was wise and rational in his ideas and approach to problems. In a manner that may seem to some paradoxical, to the same extent that he was an example of love, ardour and feeling, he was extraordinarily balanced in his thoughts and acts and in his treatment of matters. Also, he was very far-sighted in assessment and judgement of the conditions surrounding him, and in finding solutions to the problems he encountered.
Among his contemporaries, those who knew him acknowledged, tacitly or explicitly, Bediuzzaman as the most serious and important thinker and writer of the twentieth-century Turkey or even of the Muslim world. Despite this and his indisputable leadership of a new Islamic revival in the intellectual, social and political conditions of time, he was never proud of himself and remained a humble servant of God Almighty and a most modest friend among human beings. ‘Desire for fame is the same as show and ostentation and it is a ‘poisonous honey’ extinguishing the spiritual liveliness of the heart’, is one of his golden sayings concerning humility.
Born in a small mountain village in an eastern province of Turkey, Bediuzzaman voiced the sighs and laments of the whole Muslim world, as well as its belief, hopes and aspirations. He said:
I can bear my own sorrows, but the sorrows arising from the calamities visiting Islam and Muslims have crushed me. I feel each blow delivered at the Muslim world to be delivered first at my own heart. That is why I have been so shaken.’ He also said: ‘During my whole life-time of over eighty years, I have tasted nothing of the worldly pleasures. My life has passed on either battlefields or in prisons or other places of suffering. They have treated me as if I were a criminal; they have banished me from one town to another, and kept me under continual surveillance. There has been no persecution which I have not tasted and no oppression which I have not suffered. I care for neither Paradise nor fear Hell. If I see the faith of my nation secured, I will not care even burning in the flames of Hell. For while my body is burning, my heart will be as if in a rose garden.
BEDIUZZAMAN LIVED IN AN AGE when materialism was at its peak and many crazed after communism, and the world was in great crisis. Shocked by the scientific and military victories of the West and under the influence of modern trends of thought, people all over the Muslim world were urged to break with their historical roots and many lost their faith. In that critical period when most Muslim intellectuals deviated from the Straight Path and lent their intellects to whatever would come from the West in the name of ideas, Bediuzzaman pointed people to the source of belief and inculcated in them a strong hope for an overall revival. He wrote to display the truth of the tenets of the Islamic faith and heroically resisted movements of deviation. In utmost reliance on God Almighty and unshakeable conviction in the truth of Islam, and with an infinite hope for a bright future awaiting the Muslim world, Bediuzzaman exerted a superhuman effort to defend Islam and bring up a new generation which would realize his hopes.
At a time when science and philosophy were used to mislead young generations into atheism, and nihilistic attitudes had a wide appeal, at a time when all this was done in the name of civilization, modernization and contemporary thinking and those who tried to resist them were subjected to the cruelest of persecutions, Bediuzzaman strove for the overall revival of a whole people, breathing into their minds and spirits whatever is taught in the institutions of both modern and traditional education and of spiritual training.
In the manner of an expert physician, Bediuzzaman diagnosed all the ‘diseases’ of Muslim communities, the diseases they had been suffering for centuries in all aspects of life, and offered the most effective remedies for them. Based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah and the centuries-old Islamic tradition which originated therein, and travelling in mind through natural phenomena, which are each a sign of Divine Existence and Unity, to fill his ‘comb of the knowledge of God’ with the ‘nectar’ he collected from them, Bediuzzaman concentrated first on proving the pillars of Islamic belief and then on the necessity of belief and worship, morality and good conduct, and finally on the social and economic issues which Muslims faced in this age.
Bediuzzaman lived in both the dying years of the Ottoman State and the formative years of the Turkish Republic. He travelled from city to city, as far as the remotest corners of the country, and witnessed the ignorance, poverty and destitution and internal conflicts and seditions prevalent there and throughout the Muslim world. In 1911, he delivered a sermon in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Approximately ten thousand people including one hundred high-ranking scholars packed the Mosque to listen to him. In this famous, historical sermon of his, he enumerated the disases which arrested Muslims in ‘the Middle Ages’, as follows:
The growth of despair among people, the loss of truthfulness in the social and political lives of Muslims; love of belligerency, ignorance of the bonds proper among believers; despotism in all fields of life, and egocentricity.
To cure these diseases, he offered hope, truthfulness, mutual love, consultation, solidarity, and freedom in accordance with Islam, and emphasized the three points, which are as follows:
History shows that Muslims increased in civilization and progressed in relation to the strength of their adherence to the truths of Islam; that is, to the degree that they acted in accordance with Islam, they drew force from its truths. History also shows that they fell into decline, disaster and defeat to the degree of their weakness in adherence to the truths of Islam. As for other, religions, it is quite the reverse. That is to say, history shows that as they increased in civilization and progressed in relation to their weakness in adhering to their religions and bigotry, so were they also subject to decline and convulsions to the degree of their strength in adering to them.
This is so because we Muslims, who are students of the Qur’an, follow proof; we do not abandon proof in favour of blind obedience and imitation of the clergy like some adherents of other religions. Therefore, in the future, when reason, sicence and knowledge prevail, the Qur’an will gain ascendancy, which relies on proof and calls reason to confirm its pronouncements.
If we are to display through our actions the perfections of the moral qualities of Islam and the truths of belief, without doubt, the followers of other religions will enter Islam in whole communities. Some entire regions and states, even, on the earth will take refuge in Islam.
DURING THE YEARS when Bediuzzaman lived, as today, ignorance of God Almighty and the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, heedlessness of the religious commandments, indifference to the Islamic dynamics of prosperity in both worlds, and ignorance in modern sciences, were among the primary factors behind the wretched state of Muslims. He maintained that unless people were enlightened in both sciences and religious knowledge and knew how to think systematically, unless they were protected against misleading trends of thought and equipped with true knowledge to resist them, it was impossible for Muslims to recover from the maladies they suffered.
Ignorance was also one of the reasons for the poverty of Muslims. For as they lived unaware of the truth of their religion, they had also fallen far behind the West in science and technology. It was because of this that the vast plains remained uncultivated and the natural wealth of Muslim lands went into the treasuries of others.
Again, it was ignorance which was largely responsible for the inner conflicts and seditions in the Muslim world. Although the Qur’an strictly commands unity of Muslims, Muslim peoples were quarelling with each other, even while their lands were under foreign invasion and they were being subjected to all kinds of humiliation.
At the same time, the Muslim intellectuals, whom the masses expected to diagnose the problem honestly and offer remedies, were attracted by the violent storm of ‘denial’ blowing from the West. This storm had arisen in the previous century, blown up by human rooted in scienticism, rationalism and positivism. As a result of contradictions between the findings of sciences and corrupted Christianity and the attitude of the Church towards sciences and scientists, Europe had almost lost its belief and, consequently, Revelation was forced to yield to human reason. This storm of denial, unparallelled in history, shook to its roots the ‘building’ of Islam, which was old and had already decayed in many hearts and minds, in the individual as well as collective life of the Muslim community. What had to be done was, according to Bediuzzaman, while preserving this ‘building’ from further destructive influences from the storm of denial, to present the essentials of Islamic belief with all their branches, to all the faculties of modern man, including his power of reasoning. If Muslim community, which had plainly run aground on the oceans of the modern world, was ever to sail freely again, then, according to Bediuzzaman, the Muslims’ present situation required an overall renewal in all the fields of Islam.
In explaining the reasons for the Ottoman collapse in the First World War and Western domination over the whole Muslim world, Bediuzzaman said:
The reasons why Destiny has allowed this calamity are our neglect in performing the commandments of Islam. The Almighty Creator wanted us to assign to daily prescribed prayers one out of the twenty-four hours of a day but we showed neglect. In return, by subjecting us to four years of training, troubles and continuous mobilization, He has forced us to a kind of prayer. He wanted us to force our carnal selves to fast one month a year but we pitied them. In return, He has made us fast for four years. He also wanted us to allocate one fortieth of the wealth He bestowed on us to the needy and poor but we refrained in stinginess. In return, He has taken from us the accumulated zakat of many years. Again, God Almighty wanted us to go on pilgrimage once in our whole lives in order that, besides other benefits of pilgrimage, we could come together as Muslims arriving from all parts of the world and exchange views on our common problems, but we did not do that. In return, He caused us to hasten from front to front for four years.
As for the reasons why unbelievers are triumphant over believers, we should consider the following four points:
The first point is that although every means of truth must be right, it cannot always be so in actual life, whereas it is not necessary for every means of falsehood to be false. Since falsehood may sometimes follow a true, right way, it can be triumphant over truth, which fails in following that way.
The second is that although a Muslim must be Muslim in all his attributes and actions, he cannot always be so in practical life. Likewise, it is not always the case with a transgressor or unbeliever that every attribute and action of his should originate in his unbelief or transgression. Therefore, by virtue of having Muslim attributes and acting in conformity with Islamic principles more than a Muslim who fails in practising Islam, an unbeliever may be victorious over a Muslim.
The third is that God has two kinds of laws: one is the Shari’a, known by everybody, which is the group comprising God’s laws issuing from His attribute of Speech and governing man’s ‘religious’ life. The reward or punishment in following it or not usually pertains to the afterlife. The other group of Divine laws comprise those governing creation and life as a whole, which issue from His attribute of Will and are generally (but wrongly) called the ‘laws of nature’. The reward or punishment for them mostly pertains to this world. The Qur’an insistently draws attentions to ‘natural’ phenomena, which are the subject-matter of sciences, and urges their study. In the first five centuries of Islam, Muslims succeeded in uniting sciences with religion, the intellect with the heart, the material with the spiritual. However, in later centuries, the West took the initiative in sciences. This meant their obedience-although unconscious-to Divine laws of ‘nature’, which has resulted in their dominance over the Muslim world, which has failed to practice both the religious and scientific aspects of Islam. Power and force have some right in life, they have been created for some wise purpose. Equipped with force through sciences and technology, the West has got the upper hand over the Muslims.
The fourth point concerning the Muslims’ defeat is that truth has been left without force or it has been diluted or lost its purity and authenticity in the hands of Muslims. Like causing the hawk to attack the sparrow and thereby urging the sparrow to develop its power of defence, God has allowed unbelief to triumphantly attack Islam so that Islam should be restored to its original purity and re-gain its force.
ENDOWED WITH an extraordinary intelligence and learning capacity, Bediuzzaman had completed the normal course of madrasa (traditional religious school) education by the age of fourteen. Another striking characteristic he displayed from his early years was dissatisfaction with the existing education system. He had formulated his dissatisfaction with it into comprehensive proposals for its reform. At the heart of those proposals was the wedding of the traditional religious sciences with the modern ones and the founding of a university in important cities of Turkey, where his proposals could be put into practise. Although he had twice received funds for the construction of his university, and its foundations had been laid in 1913, it was never completed due to the consequences of the First World War and the vicissitudes of the time.
Contrary to the centuries old practice of religious scholars, Bediuzzaman studied intently in the natural and social sciences, as well as in mathematics and philosophy. During the First World War he was held prisoner-of- war by the Russians for two years. After his escape and return to Istanbul, he dedicated himself to expounding the pillars of the Islamic belief. The new, irreversible developments in Turkey which culminated in the establishment of a secular regime, and the rise of anti-Islamic trends and attitudes among intellectuals and the young as a result of deliberately positivist, even materialist, system of education, forced Bediuzzaman to concentrate primarily on the essentials of belief and worship and the main purposes pursued in the Qur’an, which he described as explaining and proving the Divine Existence and Unity, Prophethood, and the Resurrection and the necessity of worship and justice. He explains:
Be certain of this, that the highest aim of creation and its most sublime result is belief in God. The most exalted rank of humanity is the knowledge of God. The most radiant happiness and sweetest bounty for jinn and mankind is the love of God contained within the knowledge of God; the purest joy for the human spirit and the purest delight for man’s heart is the spiritual ecstasy contained within the love of God. Indeed, all true happiness, pure joy, sweet bounties and unclouded pleasure are undoubtedly contained within the knowledge and love of God.
Belief is not restricted to a brief affirmation based on imitation. It has degrees and stages of expansion or development as from, say, the seed of a tree to the fully grown, fruit-bearing state of that tree, from the image of the sun in the mirror in your hand or in a drop of water to its images on the whole surface of the sea and to the sun itself. Belief contains so many truths pertaining to the one thousand and one Names of God and the realities contained in the universe, that the most perfect of all human sciences and knowledge and virtues is belief, and knowledge of God originating in belief based on argument and investigation. While belief based on imitation can easily be refuted in the face of doubts and questions raised by the modern way of thinking, belief based on argument and investigation has many degrees and grades of manifestation to the number of Divine Names. Those who have been able to attain the degree of certainty of belief coming from direct observation of the truths on which belief is based, can study the universe as a kind of Qur’an.
In fact, The Qur’an, the universe and man are three kinds of manifestation of one truth. The Qur’an, having issued from the Divine attribute of Speech, may be regarded as the universe written or composed, while the universe, having originated in the Divine attributes of Power and Will, may be considered as the Qur’an created. So, from this point of view, the universe being the counterpart of the Qur’an and, in one respect, the collection of Divine laws of creation, the sciences which study the universe, can in no way be incompatible with Islam. Therefore, in the present time when sciences prevail, and in the future as well, which will be the age of knowledge, true belief should be based on argument and investigation, and on continual reflection on the ‘signs’ of God in the universe, on ‘natural’, social, historical and psychological phenomena. Belief is not something based on blind imitation. It should appeal to both the intellect or reason and the heart. It combines the acceptance and affirmation of the reason and the experience and submission of the heart.
There is another degree of belief, namely certainty coming from direct experience of its truths. This depends on regular worship and reflection. The one who has acquired this degree of belief can challenge the whole of the world. So, our first and foremost and most important duty should be to acquire this degree of belief and try in utmost sincerity and purely for the sake of God Almighty’s good pleasure to communicate it to others. For, as is stated in a hadith, it is better for you than having all the world together with everything in it that one accepts belief by means of you. In short, belief consists in the acquisition of the whole of Islam.
WHEN A REVOLT broke out in south-eastern Turkey in 1925, along with many others, Bediuzzaman was sent into internal exile and lived the remainder of his life until his death in 1960 under either strict surveillance or in prisons or under persecutions.
Bediuzzaman was first forced to live in Barla, a mountainous village in south-western Turkey. There he lived a wretched life isolated from almost everyone. However, he was able to find consolation, true consolation, in the Omnipresence of God Almighty and in utmost submission to Him.
The basic works of the Risale-i Nur, the Words and Letters, were written in Barla under harsh conditions. Copies were made by hand and began to circulate throughout Turkey. This method of serving Islam caused reaction and hostility in the government. Accused of forming a secret society and working against the regime, a charge carrying the death penalty was laid against Bediuzzaman and one hundred and twenty of his students and, in 1935, tried in Eskisehir Criminal Court. Although during his whole life he had opposed revolt and all actions which would breach public peace and order, and had stressed that the rights of a single person could not be violated even for the sake of the whole society, he was accused of forming secret organizations to destroy the public order. When he was asked during the trial his opinion of the Republic, he replied: ‘My biography which you have in your hands proves that I was a religious republican before any of you came into the world.’ He was held for eleven months in prison before acquittal.
Following his release, he was compelled to reside in Kastamonu. He stayed first on the top floor of the police station, then he was settled in a house immediately opposite it. His residence in Kastamonu continued for seven years, and a significant part of the Risale-i Nur was written there.
During this period, both he and his students [from Kastamonu and elsewhere] were under constant pressure from the authorities. This increased as time passed, culminating in widespread arrests and the Denizli trials and imprisonment in 1943-44. He was accused of forming a Sufi tariqa, and organizing a political society. Although the case would result in acquittal, Bediuzzaman was kept for nine months in solitary confinement under the most appalling conditions in a minute, dark, damp cell.
After release, Bediuzzaman was sent to reside in the town of Emirdag in the province of Afyon. In 1948 a new case was opened in Afyon Criminal Court, and although the Court sentenced him arbitrarily, the decision was quashed by the Appeal Court, and Bediuzzaman was acquitted together with his students. Following this, he stayed for brief periods in Emirdag, Isparta, Afyon, and Istanbul among other places. In 1952 he was tried once more, this time for his publication A Guide for Youth, and again acquitted. On his death in Urfa on 23rd March 1960, which may well have been the Night of Power in Ramadan, the coroner fixed his estate as a turban, a gown, and twenty lira. The real, invaluable estate which remained of this hero of Islam and humanity, who weighed only 40 kilos at his death, was the six-thousand-page Risale-i Nur Collection, which has been tried in different courts one thousand five hundred times to this day, and his noble cause which was of dimensions that could not be contained in the coroner’s records.