Recognized scholar of his time by many contemporaries, and author of the great Risale-i Nur collection, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi lived in the last quarter of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, one of the most revolutionary periods in history when not only entire states were destroyed, but also ideologies and traditional values were uprooted.
A child of this time when minds were blown by scientific achievements and new philosophical trends, Said Nursi also struggled to find truth in his life - a struggle that he called “transitioning from the ‘Old Said’ to the ‘New Said.’” In order to reach this truth, he not only utilized traditional sources, but also turned to modern science for help. Unfortunately, not every piece of information or knowledgeable person proved helpful during his transition; the knowledge he acquired was inadequate with a short-sighted view of human nature. Nevertheless, he came to the realization that he was not alone in his quest for truth. The sequence of events in his life was a result of his destiny, which would prepare and ultimately lead him to fulfill the duties expected of him later on.
In many parts of his works, Bediuzzaman describes various details of this transition that involve both the heart and the mind; but it is in the 26th Gleam where he specifically talks about the years during his exile in Russia, as well as the years following, all of which correspond to his transition period. There, he elaborates on his mood and state of mind in the aftermath of the First World War. But, what is of utmost significance is that at one point, he says “Those who want to understand my personal identity and human nature as a believing man, which is like that of all believers, should look at the meaning of the ‘I.’” Clearly, this implied reference takes us to the 30th Word, in which he expounds on the subject of “I,” or ego. However, at this address, we cannot yet understand his personality; at least not at first glance.
After a more attentive look, we catch the only likely place relevant to Said Nursi’s personality – the First Purpose of the 30th Word – where he explains a story that he saw like a dream in the period of his transition from the “Old Said” to the “New Said.” This story includes three journeys made to the other side of the earth: through the earth, on the earth, and over the earth. He uses this story as a type of symbolism, from which certain truths can be revealed. Yet, he barely elaborates on them, leaving his readers eager to discover the truths on their own. In this article, we are going to focus on his journey through the earth, what it entailed, and what one can make from it.
The following is the first part of the aforementioned fictional story, in which he covers the journey through the earth:
I saw myself in a vast desert. A layer of murky, dispiriting, and suffocating cloud had covered the whole face of the earth. There was neither breeze, nor light, nor water, none of these was to be found. I imagined that everywhere was full of monsters, dangerous and dreadful creatures. It occurred to me that on the other side of this land there should be light, breeze, and water. It was necessary to get there. I realized that I was being driven on involuntarily. Under the earth I wormed my way into a tunnel-like cave and gradually travelled through the earth. I saw that many people had passed along this subterranean way before me on all sides; they were drowned. I saw their footprints, and once I heard some of their voices, then later they ceased.
Gradually I realized that I had been given two things to use. One was a torch; it would scatter the darkness of that subterranean nature. The other was a device, which, by smashing mighty boulders and huge rocks, would open a way for me. I was told: "This torch and device have been given to you from the treasury of the Qur'an." So, I carried on for a long time in this way. Then suddenly I realized that I had come out on the other side. I saw a world where everywhere there was rejoicing, bright sunshine in a most beautiful springtime and an invigorating breeze and delicious life-giving water. I said: "All praise be to God!"
In his brief explanation of this story, Bediuzzaman alludes to the two approaches to creation: one guided by naturalism and other guided by the Qur’an. For example, he says that the land corresponds to nature, and the two sides of it are of two different views; one based on materialistic science, the other based on Qur’anic interpretation. He also explains that the subterranean way is the way of the naturalists. The sounds and traces he saw along the subterranean way belonged to those who ventured the same journey with inapt guidance and power. The two devices are given to him through the Qur’an.
However, he gives no clue about the two devices. The meaning of the rocks and the dark that prevails in the subterranean way is also absent. And, for the entire story, a logical reasoning behind the connections between the symbolism and reality is not revealed. Most of all, his brief explanation is veiling an important but unanswered question: What does this story have to do with his personality and transitioning into the “New Said”? He was a firm believer both before and after this event, so we cannot say that this transition was from naturalism to the Qur’an. Therefore, in order to decipher the symbolism and build paradigms for further discoveries, we have to read between the lines and check out other places in his writing, bearing in mind our goal: to learn about his personality and transitioning.
In the 30th Word, Nursi tells us that the nature and the ego are analog. If we ponder on this, we see that nature is a work of art which is weaved into the earth; as a matter of fact, the earth is the biggest component of nature. Then it follows that earth in the story is the macro icon for the ego. So, it is fair to rename his “journey through the earth” the “journey through the ego”. But, is this a sound finding?
Well, this finding of ours is indeed confirmed by clues given in other places in the Risale-i Nur collection: human is a minor universe, and universe is a major human. We also know that the earth is the center of humanity in the universe. Based on these last three points, if we were to condense the universe to a human size, the earth would become the ego of that human being. Conversely, if we were to expand a human to the size of the universe, his ego would become the earth.
Along the same lines, the creation of mankind in the universe took place long after the creation of the universe itself. This is very much like the development of our self-consciousness, in other words our ego, years after our birth into the world. This similarity agrees with the analogy between the human and the universe; and so, it is another confirmation for the finding that the earth in the story corresponds to the ego.
Now, we are at a point where we can reconsider the question on the personality of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. The transitioning to the New Said, hence the journey through the earth, can be understood as an internal conversion that he experienced and which changed his vision of the world. Interestingly, not only is this confirmed in various places in the Risale-i Nur collection, but it is also in agreement with the findings of modern psychology. He experienced this transition in his late forties, which corresponds to a possible mid-life crisis, triggered by several traumatic events in his life, such as the First World War; his captivity in Russia, the destruction of the Ottoman State and subjugation of the Muslim world by the West; the onset of his old age and the loss of his most beloved nephew, Abdurrahman. , , … In other words, all of these convolutions in the outer world corresponded with Bediuzzaman’s inner world, which altogether called for a re-evaluation and a fundamental change.
This is a major clue that reveals most of the answers we are looking for. The side that he starts off is the one that bears all the convoluted figures and forms. Suddenly, he is inspired that there is hope on the other side and he wants desperately to get there. At this point, he is not aware of the fact that this journey is actually a journey that will bring about change. Yet, his desire for the journey to peace is employed through his fate, and he is motivated to surmount the difficulties on this path of transformation.
During the journey, he is driven to the entrance of an underground tunnel. Then, he is left on his own for a while, at which time he hears sounds and sees traces of the travelers who tried going down this path before, but who failed due to a lack of divine guidance. These travelers were the ones that he once considered to be sources of wisdom. After seeing their failure in that underground tunnel, he is psychologically prepared to fully embrace the devices that are going to be given to him from the Qur’an.
In the 23rd Word, Bediuzzaman tells another visionary story that very explicitly describes what the darkness and light are. The darkness is lack of knowledge, and the light is knowledge associated with some wisdom. In his case, the knowledge is gained by a believer’s perception, which is shaped by the wisdom of the Qur’an, hence the luminary device. Later, we will see that this same luminary device represents wisdom that not only reconciles, but also satisfies the mind and the heart under divine guidance.
As for the meaning of rocks and the device used for digging, we need to make an exhaustive search for clues. First, a travel through the earth would take us to the parts of the earth that had been formed during our planet’s past. Again, using the analogy of the human ego and the earth, we can conclude that the journey through the ego involves a journey through a period in which our personality is formed, meaning the past life. Yet, exploring one’s own past with investigative eyes is not as straightforward as it sounds. There are difficult boulders along the way, representing the ever increasing stiffness of the conditionings of the mind, especially at an older age. So the question we are facing now is “what were the mental conditionings of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi?”
This is not an easy question, and we are risking being disrespectful towards his personality by using this daring language. However, for the sake of learning a way to the truth through his life experiences, we will take shelter under his forgiveness.
Bediuzzaman’s mental conditionings can be understood when comparing his life before and after this transition. Before the transition, we see a person who openly challenges all scholars of his time. He is one who would sternly fight against the anti-Islamic ideologies, and who would fight in wars. During this period, Said Nursi not only represents a man of knowledge, but also a man of action. Having been involved in politics and leadership, he seeks salvation for his nation through reviving the education system and establishing the practice of religion in the government and all levels of society.
If we were to take an overall look at his activities and try to trace their mental and psychological roots, we could see the understanding of Islam at that time. This understanding was based mostly on the narration of centuries-old interpretations and jurisdictions. It was optimized according to a state-regulated religious practice that had been in existence since very soon after the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Under such conditions, it was nearly impossible for a person to formulate a religious perspective that does not involve the state or politics.
Among the religious circles, the scientific and philosophical innovations of the time that were being developed in western countries were considered potential enemies to the state and to Islam. Thus, any contact or interaction with the West was strongly discouraged by religious authorities. The only reason for establishing such contact would be for the purpose of trade or obtaining their technology to regain power over them . All of these reactionary ideas were of course based on sincere religious sensitivities, whose roots had been embedded throughout Islamic history. Said Nursi’s preconditioning by this atmosphere is no exception.
However, when we look at the actual events in the face of all these reactions based on religious sensitivities, we see that western philosophies were spreading among the educated classes, and an admiration for western countries was prevailing. Blind imitation of the social practices of Westerners was uprooting the moral values of the Ottoman society. Worst of all, the challenges raised by scientific philosophy against religion were not met with satisfactory answers from the religious authorities.
In time, conservative people became outnumbered, and eventually withdrew from the social life. Those who were involved in the innovations from the West lost their religious and cultural roots. There was a clear defeat on the side of the religious people, despite their conviction of having the truth at their side. This complex situation bewildered the defeated minds for a long time, because they could not justify their failure with having truth at the same time. They could not find the answers to what it was that the West had right and the East had wrong.. Recourse to blind faith did not do any good for the new generations, but only made things worse.
The above-mentioned paragraphs were aimed at bringing us back to the conditions of the time, in which the Old Said lived; hence the conditioning in his mind symbolized as the rocks in the story. Just like other scholars, Said Nursi’s mindset was not conducive to fully explain the situation or to bring forth a path of salvation. Nobody was really able to figure out what God meant through the language of the events, and what He wanted from Muslims.
After so many paragraphs, we are almost ready to discover what that rock-breaking device is and to understand the meaning of clearing the subterranean way. As a last clue, we are going to look at the method Bediuzzaman used in the period after the emergence of the New Said.
Having been given a unique understanding of the Qur’an, e.g. the illumination device, by which he can justify human scientific inquiry and religion and by which he can utilize the scientific knowledge in service to the Qur’an, Said Nursi begins authoring the Risale-i Nur Collection. This collection introduces the articles of faith to the human mind in a rational way. Belief in the unseen becomes no more a matter of blind faith, and millions of people run towards this source of light. Thus, the service of establishing firm belief in minds, instead of striving towards establishing a religious state, becomes his ultimate dedication in life.
In fulfilling his service, Bediuzzaman follows a path that is totally devoid of politics. He uses a language and style that is very polite and welcoming compared to his style in the Old Said period. He calls this “qawl al-layyin” (mild language, gentle words), which necessitates convincing people instead of preaching to them and which precludes the use of power. Qawl al-layyin becomes his second device, which breaks the rock-like conditionings in his own and in other people’s minds. This was revolutionary for its time, and something that the entire believing world, including himself, was in dire need of. The All-Compassionate and the All-Wise God facilitated his method, and guided him along the way.
Knowing his life story before and after the transition, we can see that the changes in his life were actually pointed out in a dream before the First World War. In his dream, Mount Ararat suddenly explodes, and huge pieces of the mountain fly all around the world. It so happens that he is watching this event with his mother. After the explosion, he says to her, “Mom, don’t be scared. This is God’s command. He is compassionate and wise.” Then, suddenly a man of high stature appears and tells him to explain the miraculousness of the Qur’an. Said Nursi, himself, interprets this dream as the coming of a severe attack on the Qur’an, and as a result the collapse of the protective walls around it. Then, he realizes that his service will be to protect the Qur’an by explaining its miraculousness.
We can take a second look at this dream having the subject matter of this article in our minds. The co-presence of the Old Said and his mom in the dream could very well be interpreted as the blending of wisdom and compassion, respectively, in the person of the New Said who is given the mission of explaining the miraculousness of the Qur’an. The rocks that make up the mountains in his dream are the same rocks in the journey we are investigating. We know that the scholars at all times strived for the true understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an. They tried to protect the religion from the attacks of disbelievers. However, over time, due to the imitative and narrative habits that developed among the Muslims, the body of knowledge accrued by these scholars, which was intended to be like the city walls around the Qur’an, became a veil preventing people from reaching the Qur’an itself, or the truth in it for that matter. Thus, the attacks of the disbelievers, which were aimed at destroying the religion, were employed by the Compassionate and Wise God to break down the veils surrounding the Qur’an, exposing people to the truth in it. Looking back from the present, we see that all the attacks on religion, especially on Islam in the present context, only resulted in people’s rediscovering the religion in its original purity. For this rediscovery, the writings of Bediuzzaman have provided a straight path for the mind to embrace the pillars of faith.
Finally, we can combine all of the findings so far. The first device he is given is the wisdom of the Qur’an, which unites the human mind and heart. The second device is compassion, reflected on a believer’s dealing with other people (qawl al-layyin). With these two devices, he is neither lost on the way nor out of power, and finally reaches the truth under the Divine guidance. Having used these devices extensively in his life, Said Nursi tells in The Letters that in the part of his life representing the New Said, he has especially observed the manifestations of two names of the Almighty: The Compassionate and The Wise.
Upon his exit to the other side in the story, Said Nursi finds the fresh air and sunshine that he has been starving for since the beginning. With the consequent expanse of heart, he now feels that he is in the place that he is meant to be. Thus, the start of a new life is the first implication of his journey through himself, or through his ego.
In his journey to this beauty, he encounters darkness and hardship. The extreme contrast witnessed before and after the journey sharpens his sensitivity and enables him to fully appreciate the beauties he comes to discover. The same sensitivity helps him realize the beauties that are hidden under the veil of familiarity. Then, an enhanced sensitivity towards the beauties, which are signs from God, is the second implication of his journey.
With his contemplations during and after his transition and with the aid of his enhanced sensitivity, the New Said writes the Risale-i Nur Collection, and it becomes the Noah’s Ark for many who were drowning in the tide of scientific materialism. Even today, his work that combines the mind and heart saves the faith of new generations. So the third implication of his journey is the change of events and people surrounding him .
The above-mentioned discussion is very much like deciphering a map that leads to a treasure. This underground journey, or the journey through the ego, tells us once again that the more we are aware of our selves, the closer we are to God. As a response of approval, God changes the things we are not capable of changing on our own; and this fortifies our reliance on and love for God. Although the subject-person here is Said Nursi, the journey through the ego and its implications can be useful to anyone who is on a journey towards God.
Seth Mette has a PhD in Aerospace Engineering and is currently working as a postdoctoral fellow at West Virginia University. He has a special interest in psychological fiction.
1. Nursi, Said. The Gleams, 26th Gleam, 14th Hope, NJ: The Light, Inc., 2008, p. 354.
2. Nursi. The Words, 30th Word, First Purpose, NJ: The Light, Inc., 2005.
3. Nursi. 20th Letter, Letters, Volume 2, pp 16, Truestar Publications.
4. Nursi. Epitomes of Light, 11th Treatise, Izmir: Kaynak Publications, 1999, p. 439.
5. Jung, C.G. The Basic Postulates of Analytical Psychology, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Translated by W.S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes, Harcourt, Inc., 1933.
6. Nursi, 2008, 5th Hope.
7. Nursi, 2008, 7th Hope.
8. Nursi, 2008, 12th Hope.
9. Nursi, 2005, 23rd Word, 1st Matter, 2nd Point.
10. Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, NY: Perennial, 2003, pp. 43.
11. Nursi, The Letters, 4th Letter, NJ: The Light, Inc., 2007.
12. “Surely God changes not the conditions of a people, unless He changes what is with their selves” (Qur’an 13:11).