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The Disconnection between Philosophy and Qur'anic Wisdom

Taha Abdel Rahman

2007-07-01 00:00:00

Abstract, rational inquiry does not permit a combination between philosophy and religious wisdom1 and rules that such is impossible. Actual reality does not support such a combination either. Said Nursi (d. 1960) lived through a socio-political upheaval that shook history and undermined society with a shocking effect on people. This social and political upheaval was the result of the intellectual revolution of modern philosophy over religious wisdom and its impact on Western societies.

The rational attempt to combine philosophy and wisdom and the refutation of this possibility by human experience must have been matters that preoccupied Nursi’s thought for a long time. This must have prompted him to review his philosophical position and, consequently, reconsider the established view among Islamic philosophers that philosophy and wisdom are connected in an inclusive way, like siblings or in an associative way, like friends.

It is at this point in his life that the “New Said”2 appeared. He shed his old philosophical guise and put on a new one, the robe of wisdom. Here we see the demise of Said the philosopher and the birth of the New Said. This radical transformation in the life of Said Nursi has two aspects; one critical and the other constructive. In this article, we will discuss the critical aspect. Said Nursi’s revolution and the criticism of the connection between philosophy and wisdom.

The critical aspect of this transformation can be seen in Nursi’s preoccupation with the criticism of the combination between philosophy and wisdom in its inclusive and associative forms. This was a triple criticism: logical, moral, and figural. This is not to be wondered at, because basically the sage does not stop at the logical criticism of views as does the philosopher. He goes beyond to the moral criticism of views, since he does not regard these views as abstract, but as linked to praxis and would thus re-evaluate them in accordance with their practical effects. He then goes a step further and examines the views from the point of view of their aesthetic value, thus producing a figural criticism.

We can start by showing how Nursi exercised such a triple criticism on the first connection between philosophy and wisdom (i.e., an inclusive connection). In the writings of Nursi, this inclusive connection is built on two basic principles: 1) The Principle of Founding Tradition on Reason: this stipulates that tradition (i.e., transferred religious knowledge) should be interpreted on the basis of reason when it appears that it (i.e., tradition) contradicts reason. 2) The Principle of Using Reason in Tradition: this stipulates that rational concepts are means to the explanation of the facts of the tradition.

1. The criticism of the inclusive connection between philosophy and wisdom

a) Logical criticism: Said Nursi holds the view that the founding of tradition on reason, on which the inclusive connection is based, is a baseless option because reason is no less in need of foundation than tradition. Such a foundation cannot come by way of reason itself as long as this reason consists one of “that which is circulating among the people”3 and is not a new kind of reason of which philosophy has no knowledge.4 Moreover, this principle leads to the interpretation of tradition in a manner that becomes distorted as the reason known among people does not have the scope, objectivity, or freedom that are required for the understanding of tradition.5

Nursi also believes that the principle of using the concepts of reason to explain the meanings of tradition, on which the first kind of connection between philosophy and wisdom is based, does not exalt tradition but, rather, denigrates it by creating the impression that the rational bases are deeper and more stable than the bases of tradition. Moreover, reason is useless in defeating opponents, because it remains confined to warding off objections in an abstract rational way acceptable by the opponents. Reason does not, however, rise to presenting the facts of tradition in a manner that combines the heart and the mind and which could characterize these truths.6 It may, indeed, lead to the full distortion of these truths.7

b) Moral criticism: Nursi stresses that the adoption by the philosopher of the foundation of tradition on reason makes the heart ache with ills that are surmounted by arrogance as the philosopher creates a criterion for measuring the Revelation with his defective and limited mind, that is, speech with boundless perfection.8 He also stresses that the use of philosophical concepts in Qur’anic studies-particularly natural and metaphysical ones-leads those who do so to the deification of nature and the abandonment of the deification of the Creator.

c) Figural criticism: For Nursi, the philosopher who advocates an inclusive connection between philosophy and wisdom is like one who is walking through a tunnel or one who is seeking shelter in a cave,9 thus becoming a ghost who is invisible though his identity is known and his traces can be seen. He ends by suffocating in this tunnel before completing the journey. The standing of such a person, as defined in the Qur’an – the essence of wisdom - is that of the misguided.10

Hence, Nursi thinks that the two philosophers whom he frequently mentions, Al Farabi and Ibn Sina, are among those who are misguided,11 because they advocated an inclusive link between philosophy and wisdom; a view similar to the sophistry of the Christians. Ibn Sina went further than Al Farabi12 in enacting that view. Since Nursi was deceived by their cunning and believed that their view was true, he himself was on the verge of becoming misguided like them, but for the shining of God’s name Al-Hakim (the All-Wise) to guide him and correct his thoughts and deeds.

Acting on the principle of the inclusive connection between philosophy and wisdom leads a person to become weak in faith and argument, to cling to appearances, to become conceited and misguided.

We turn now to the second mode of connection between philosophy and wisdom, the associative one, to see how Nursi exercised his triple criticism. This mode, as we said, is based on three principles: astonishment, questioning, and proof-finding.

The criticism of the associative connection between philosophy and wisdom.

a) Logical criticism: Regarding the principle of philosophical astonishment,13 what actually happens is that philosophy does not act upon a sense of the wondrous and miraculous, but rather on that of the strange and anomalous.14 There is a wide gap between the two feelings. The first stems from the perfection of creation in things, while the second emanates from the imperfection in those things. Most of philosophical knowledge is built on what is familiar and ordinary. However, when it speculates on what is miraculous or supernatural, philosophy still takes the familiar (maruf) as its basis.

As for the principle of philosophical questioning,13 it is uncontrolled in its objectives concerning beings, thus falling into confusion and dissipation in every direction. Such an approach does not attain the required answers, leading the questioner to excessive perplexity or even great torment.15

Concerning the principle of philosophical proof-finding,13 the proof is a series of propositions under perpetual threat of invalidation. If we wish to ward off that threat, we have to supply proof for each of these propositions through another series of propositions that are, in turn, open to invalidation and so on. We have barely warded off invalidation from one series of propositions when we have to bring many others to it, and this process continues incessantly.16

b) Moral criticism: Since philosophical astonishment fundamentally is a sense of the strange and is never a sense of wonder, it leads the philosopher to two pitfalls: One is “blocking off the extrapolation of lessons”; if philosophy does not wonder at the ordinary and familiar, then it does not enable the philosopher to extrapolate lessons and wisdom from what is ordinary and familiar. The other pitfall is “opening the path to the denial of God”; if philosophy throws a veil of familiarity on things, it prevents the realization of divine power and the acceptance of its infinite graces.

Since philosophical questioning is an uncontrolled process, it leads to two things, both of which are fatal deprivations. One is “that it loses the mystery of the oneness of God.” Raising too many questions without guiding objectives or satisfactory answers betrays the fact that the question is deprived from the mystery of the oneness of God. Were the philosopher aware of that mystery, his questions would revolve on set goals and he would attain the answers to them within the framework of those goals that are derived from the oneness of God.17 The second is “the loss of the feeling of happiness”, because the philosopher, failing to find answers to his various questions or to achieve responses for his various demands, will find himself in great misery.18

Since philosophical proof-finding is a chain of propositions that is open to invalidation, it leads to two things, both of which are great evils. One is “clinging to the created causes rather than Creator.” Philosophy confines its evidence-seeking to created beings rather than the Almighty Creator or, as Nursi puts it, philosophy examines at these beings as names and not as particles.19 Inevitably, such an approach leads the philosopher to the worship of natural causes.20 Second, is “clinging to the self alone.” Just as the philosophizing person examines beings in their natural causes, he also looks at himself in the same way; i.e. as an object,21 thus falling into self-worship.22

c) Figural Criticism: For Nursi, the philosopher who advocates an association between philosophy and wisdom is like one who walks in a vast desert, subjected to terrors on every side, such as the fury of the sea, the danger of storms, or the darkness of the sky. These will scatter his dismembered body along the road and his condition will be like that assigned in the Qur’an to those on whom God’s anger descends.23

If we compare this figural criticism of the associative mode with the previous figural criticism of the inclusive mode, we will find that those who advocate figural criticism are worse off than those who propound the latter. The fact that the former walks on the face of the earth or under the sky – the symbol of Revelation – and the sun – the symbol of light – indicates that his challenge of the divinity of the All- Wise is far greater than the arrogance of the other philosopher who only seeks a path under the ground, where there is no sun and no sky. Also, the fact that the associative advocate"s dismembered body is thrown by the sea onto the side of the road indicates that his deed is like that of a Pharaoh and he, therefore, deserves the same fate in dying and becoming a lesson to others.24 The other philosopher, the advocate of the inclusive mode, is only seen as a ghost. Hence, his body will not be left behind for people as a lesson, but only his traces will serve that function. Consequently, the great peripatetic philosopher, who is only sparingly mentioned by Nursi, Ibn Rushd, is counted by him among those who are an object of God"s wrath,25 because he advocated an associative mode between philosophy and wisdom and acted accordingly. In this, Ibn Rushd became a renegade, like the rebelling Jews.26 Nursi was also deceived by Ibn Rushd's cunning and held his opinion to be true. Thus, he also was in danger of being exposed to God"s wrath but for the name of God the Merciful (Al Rahim) shining on him to guide him to the Straight Path. Acting on the principle of association between philosophy and wisdom leads to a person"s losing insight and awareness and failing to admit God"s graces. Such a person will neither be happy, nor saved.

* This is an abridged version of Prof Abdel Rahman's article which was published in Hira (issues 3 and 4, 2006), a quarterly magazine in Arabic (


  1. . This study institutes a basic move in terminology: the word 'philosophy' is used to designate the knowledge posited by man, thus speaking of 'human philosophy,' but not employing the term 'Qur'anic philosophy.' On the other hand the term 'wisdom' is used here to designate knowledge revealed by God.
  2. . Nursi was actively involved in the social and political life before World War I. After the war he perceived that a religious revival was possible only through an intellectual enlightenment using sciences and spiritual illumination through faith, worship, and good morality. He later called this change of perception as the transition from the Old Said to New Said.
  3. . We find this description in the following passage: 'I saw God"s laws as mountains hanging from the sky. Anyone who clings even to a part thereof will ascend and be happy. I say that anyone who goes against those laws, relying on the mind circulating among men in an attempt to reach the paths of heavens through earthly means, is a fool like the Pharaoh who wanted his minister Haman to build him a tower (of clay to reach the sky).', The Arab Nuri Mathnawi, p. 165.
  4. . He says: 'It is an established principle that if reason and tradition contradict one another, reason would be deemed the basis and the tradition would be interpreted accordingly. But for this to proceed, the reason should be a genuine one.' The Polishing Stone of Islam, p. 29.
  5. . He says: 'Know you philosophizing person who upholds reason over tradition and who accordingly interprets the tradition that you distort the tradition as your mind, made rotten by vanity and the immersion in philosophical matters, was not capacious enough for the tradition... Your mind is your shackle and by tradition you are transported.' The Arab Nuri Mathnawi, p. 190.
  6. . He says: 'In this way, they do not manage to give the true image of Islam conforming to that form of action. They graft the tree of Islam with the twigs of wisdom, which they think deep-rooted, as if they are thus strengthening Islam. But triumphing over the enemies through this mode of action is not of much weight. Also this mode implies some denigration of Islam. Therefore, I abandoned this method and actually demonstrated that Islam"s foundations are so profound and well-established that the deepest bases of philosophy cannot reach them, but must always remain superficial in comparison to them.' Writings, pp. 569-570.
  7. . The Polishing Stone of Islam, p. 35-36.
  8. . He says: 'How ignorant is he who grew vain with the philosophical arts rendering them the criterion for the sacred studies of the Qur'an.' The Arab Nuri Mathnawi, p. 77. Elsewhere, he says: 'I have witnessed the growth of the philosophical science in the growth of sickness and seen the growth of sickness in the increase of rational science. For the moral illnesses are conducive to rational sciences just as the latter breed illnesses of the heart.' Ibid., p. 158.
  9. . The symbol of the 'cave' in Said Nursi The Sage has the converse significance of the 'cave' in Plato and the 'vault' in Descartes. For Plato, those who descend into the cave are the ignorant who know only the shadow of things, compared to the philosopher who knows the essences of things themselves (The Republic. Book Seven) For Descartes, they are the blind people who live in utter darkness, compared to the philosopher who lives in bright light (An Essay in Method. Part Six). For Nursi, on the other hand, the one who seeks shelter in a cave is the philosopher himself, whom Plato deems as the truly knowledgeable person, and whom Descartes holds to be the truly insightful person.
  10. . He says: 'Thus, the first path is that of the misguided, described in the Qur'an as the 'stray'. This is the path of those who fell to the idea of Nature and adopted the ideas of naturalists...' Words, p. 650.
  11. . He says: 'This earth is "nature" and "natural philosophy". The tunnel is the path taken by the people of philosophy with their ideas in a bid to reach the truth. The footprints I saw were those of famous philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. The voices I heard were those of cunning ones like Ibn Sina and Al Farabi... Yes, I found sayings and tenets by Ibn Sina in several places, but these voices totally ceased; in a sense he could not make progress. He suffocated.' Words, p. 648.
  12. . Signs of Miraculousness, p. 36.
  13. . The ground for the view of associative connection between philosophy and wisdom is the belief that philosophy acts on three principles that are not found in wisdom: One, the Principle of Astonishment: the philosophical act has its origin in the feeling of astonishment vis A vis the effects left on the psyche or the things on the horizon. Two, the Principle of Questioning: the philosopher poses one series of questions after another series, looking for answers to them. Three, the Principle of Proof-finding: in proving its tenets, philosophy relies on intellectual evidence that may attain the highest degree of certainty.
  14. . He says: 'The philosophy reached by man veils the miracles of divine might and the marvels of the Almighty"s mercy by the curtain of uniformities, causing a failure to see the signs of (God"s) oneness under these regularities and these great blessings. It does not show them nor indicate them. However, if philosophy perceives some special peculiarities that depart from custom, it directs its attention and concern to them.' Annexes, p. 358
  15. . He says: 'If that mind becomes confounded in the mire of misguidance and the denial of God, it becomes an instrument of torture and a cause for disturbance in its combination of the sad pains of the past and the terrible fears of the future.', Illuminations, p. 19.
  16. . He says: 'The difference between my path in the distilling of benefit from the Qur'an and the method of thinkers and philosophers is that I dig wherever I am and water comes out. They, on the other hand, insist on laying pipes and ducts to bring the water from afar. They build long chains and ladders to the Throne above to bring down the water of life. As they rely on these causes, they have to place millions of proof-keepers all along these lengthy roads to preserve them from the destructiveness of the devils of illusions.' The Arab Nuri Mathnawi, p. 170.
  17. . He says: 'With the secret of the oneness of God, the sealed secret of the perplexing questions is uncovered. From whence comes the flood of existing beings and the train of creatures? Whither is fate? Why did they come and what are they doing...', Illuminations, p. 14.
  18. . He says: 'But for the oneness of God, man would have been the most wretched of creatures, the lowest of beings, the weakest of animals, and the saddest and most tortured and pained of sentiments. Illuminations, p. 18.
  19. . He says: 'The Qur'anic view of beings makes them like particles; i.e. they express a meaning that resides elsewhere. They express the epiphany of the Best Names and the Supreme Attributes of the Great Creator that are manifested in beings. On the other hand, the dead look of – materialistic – philosophy mostly views the beings as names [whose meaning resides in them] and its foot thereby slips into the slough of nature.' Annexes, p. 90.
  20. . He says: 'As for philosophy, it looks at existing beings from the point of view of their aspects that regard their entities and their causes.' The Arab Nuri Mathnawi, p. 77.
  21. . Words, p. 646.
  22. . He says: 'The misguided people of this age ride on the "ego" that roams with them in the valleys of loss. The righteous people cannot serve the Truth except by abandoning the ego. Even if they are right and correct in their use of the ego, they have to leave it behind so that they will not look like the others, because then they would be, like them, suspected of self-worship.' Writings, p. 549.
  23. . He says: 'The second path alluded to – 'those who are the objects of God"s anger' – is that of those who worship causes and consider that creation and creating are the acts of intermediaries, which alone, in their view, are effective. They want to reach the Truth of truths and God, the Exalted, through mind and thought alone like the peripatetic sages.' Words, p. 650.
  24. . This an illusion to the Qur'anic verse: 'Today we save your body alone to make you a sign for those who come after us. Many are heedless of our signs.' The Sura Yunus, verse 29.
  25. . Nursi avoids mentioning Ibn Rushd by name – contrary to what he did with Al Arabi and Ibn Sina – but he refers to him by referring to the quality he was famous for; i.e. as 'the Cynic', since he is the greatest exegete of Aristotle. We do not wish to go into the reasons that led him to such circumspection here. It is enough to say that he may have done so in kindness to Ibn Rushd and as a gesture of politeness to his contemporary followers.
  26. . The Signs of Miraculousness, p. 36.
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