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Nursi on Materialism
Apr 1, 2006

Materialism is an ideological movement that destroys spiritual values and distances people from religion. Today, sadly, a vast majority of the societies globally, consciously or not, remain under the influence of the materialist and consumerist mind-set.

As it has been remarked, there are many questions confronting us daily:

• How did the endless universe we live in come into being?

• How did the equilibrium, harmony, and order of this universe develop?

• How is it that this Earth is such a fit and sheltering place for us to live in?

Questions such as these have attracted attention since the dawn of the human race. The conclusion reached by scientists and philosophers searching for answers with their intellects and common sense is that the design and order of this universe are evidence of the existence of a supreme Creator ruling over the whole universe.

At this point, it is beneficial to reflect on these questions from an Islamic perspective. As it has been observed, In His holy book, the Qur’an, God states that He has created the universe when it was not, for a particular purpose, and with all its systems and balances specifically designed for human life.

In the Qur’an God invites people to consider this truth in the following verse:

Are you stronger in structure or is heaven? He built it. He raised its vault high and made it level. He darkened its night and brought forth its morning light. After that He smoothed out the earth… (Naziat 79:27-30)

Elsewhere it is declared in the Qur’an that a person should see and consider all the systems and balances in the universe that have been created for him by God and derive a lesson from his observations:

He has made night and day subservient to you, and the sun and moon and stars, all subject to His command. There is certainly Signs in that for people who pay heed. (Nahl 16:12)

In yet another verse of the Qur’an, it is pointed out:

He makes night merge into day and day merge into night, and He has made the sun and moon subservient, each one running until a specified time. That is God, your Lord. The Kingdom is His. Those you call on besides Him have no power over even the smallest speck. (Fatir 35: 13)

The Fallacy of Materialism

Nursi has made extensive reference in his writings to the defects of materialism. He notes that the materialists, whose use of reason is limited to what is immediately apparent to them, have, in their nonsensical philosophies, based on futile foundations, taken the transformation of particles, a thing they regard to be the result of coincidence, to be the fundamental basis of all their principles and have shown that divine works and creatures result from those transformations. Anyone with a grain of intelligence would know how unreasonable it is to attribute the creation adorned with infinite examples of wisdom to something based on a purposeless, meaningless coincidence, which is quite without order.

Furthermore, as has been remarked, even if we leave out the human values, lofty truths, ideals, and spiritual happiness, which have all been sacrificed for the sake of material development, modern civilization based on scientific materialism has caused mankind much harm.

The products of science are usually exploited in favor of the great world powers to consolidate their dominion over the world. In addition, developments in genetics, biology, physics, and chemistry threaten the very life of humanity on the earth. Modern civilization, as pointed by Said Nursi is founded upon five negative principles:

*It is founded and rests upon power; power tends to oppression.

*It aims at the realization of individual self-interests; pursuit of their self-interests causes people to rush madly upon things in order to possess them and gives rise to pitiless rivalry and competition.

* Its understanding or philosophy of the nature of life is struggle; struggle causes internal and external conflicts.

* It seeks to unify its people on the basis of racial separatism, fed by swallowing up the resources and territories of “others”; and racism leads to terrible collisions between peoples.

* The service it offers to people is satisfaction of the novel caprices or desires it arouses in them (whether the satisfaction is real or not); this service brutalizes people.

Modern materialistic civilization stimulates consumption and therefore gives rise to new, artificial needs and increases them daily. Through the power of propaganda and advertisements to exploit some disprovable human tendencies, such as “keeping up with the Jones’,” materialism imposes its demands upon people. As a result of this way of life it necessarily leads to producing to consume and consuming to produce, upsetting people’s balance and causing extraordinary increases in mental and spiritual illnesses. In such a way of life there is left room for neither spiritual profundity nor true intellectual activity. For intellect is put under the command of pragmatism and always earning more.

Another disaster that materialistic science has brought upon mankind is the destruction of nature and environmental pollution. “What a pity it is that nature, this magnificent book, this charming exhibition, which God, the infinitely Merciful One, has created and presented to us to observe and study and to be exhilarated by, is no longer given any more care than is given to a heap of junk or rubbish. Worse than that, it is more and more becoming a wasteland and like a dunghill. Today, air, that magnificent conductor of Divine commands, is a suffocating smoke and a perilous ‘whirlpool.’ Water, that source of life and other Divine bounties, is either a hazardous flood or is altogether absent to form desolate expanses of desert. And the earth, that treasure of Divine Grace and Munificence, is a wilderness that is no longer safely productive and whose ecological balance has been ruined.”

The five essentials of Islamic civilization

* It should rest upon right, not upon power; right requires justice and balance.

* It should aim to encourage people to virtue, which is a spur to mutual affection and love.

* Its understanding or philosophy of the nature of life is not struggle but mutual help, which leads to unity and solidarity.

* It should unify people on the basis of a common belief, shared values and norms, which can lead to internal peace and brotherhood.

* It should guide people to the truth. Therefore, in addition to encouraging them towards scientific progress, it should elevate them, through moral perfection, to higher ranks of humanity.

This civilization is that which the Qur’an proposes to mankind and urges them to establish.

The following passage by Nursi, written at the beginning of the 1930s, is most illuminating:

Reality and the wisdom [purposiveness] in the existence of the universe require that the heavens should have conscious inhabitants of their own as does the earth. These inhabitants of many different kinds are called angels and spirit beings in the language of religion.

It is true that reality requires the existence of angels and other spirit beings because the earth, although insignificant in size compared with the heavens, is continually being filled with and emptied of conscious beings. This clearly indicates that the heavens. . . are filled with living beings who are the perfect class of living creatures. These beings are conscious and have perception, and they are the light of existence; they are the angels, who, like the jinn and mankind, are the observers of the universal palace of creation and students of this book of the universe and heralds for their Lord’s kingdom.

The perfection of existence is through life. Moreover, life is the real basis and the light of existence, and consciousness, in turn, is the light of life. Since life and consciousness are so important, and a perfect harmony evidently prevails over the whole of creation, and again since the universe displays a firm cohesion, and as this small ever-rotating sphere of ours is full of countless living and intelligent beings, so it is equally certain that those heavenly [realms] should have conscious, living beings particular to themselves. Just as the fish live in water, so those spirit beings may exist in the heat of the sun. Fire does not consume light, rather, light becomes brighter because of fire. We observe that the Eternal Power creates countless living beings from inert, solid substances and transforms the densest matter into subtle living compounds by life. Thus it radiates the light of life everywhere in great abundance and furnishes most things with the light of consciousness. From this we can conclude that the All-Powerful, All-Wise One would certainly not leave without life and consciousness more refined, subtle forms of matter like light and ether, which are close to and fitting for the spirit; indeed He creates animate and conscious beings in great number from light, darkness, ether, air and even from meanings and words. As He creates numerous species of animals, He also creates from such subtle and higher forms of matter numerous different spirit creatures. One kind. . . are the angels, others are the varieties of spirit beings and jinn.

Nursi on Decadent Civilization and Virtuous Civilization

As it has been observed, for the last three centuries Islamic scholars have debated what the attitude of the Muslim world should be towards Western/Christian civilization. Nursi found himself in the middle of this debate at the critical moment in the 20th century, when the westernization/modernization currents were rapidly gaining strengths. Today, once again, given the global situations, it seems, the Muslim world is asking pertinent questions with regard to its cultural/economic relationship with the west. Given the significance of these questions and their serious potential consequences on world affairs, globalization and inter-cultural/religious understanding and dialogue, I will attempt to shed some light on what can be offered on this, and at times troubled, relationship: Islam and the west; Islam and modernity/westernization. In contrast to those rejecting western civilization all together, Nursi distinguished between two Europe, representing two civilizations. The first Europe 'follows the sciences which serve justice and right and the industries beneficial for the life of society through the inspiration it has received from true Christianity'. He called this 'virtuous civilization.' The second Europe, whose source is philosophy rather than religion, which claims that mankind can find happiness only in vice, Nursi called the 'decadent civilization'. It is because this second Europe is characterized by its encouragement of vice that Nursi rejects capitalist culture and decadent civilization. Nursi observes that 'absolute vice' is being called civilization. He is very critical of this 'decadent civilization'.

In a letter Nursi calls it 'low' civilization and elsewhere he says that it cast humanity down to the level of animals: …its alluring service is to excite lust and the appetites of the soul and facilitate the gratification of whims, and their result is vice. The mark of lust and passion is always this: they transform man into a beast, changing his character; they deform him, perverting his humanity. If most of these civilized people were turned inside out, you would see their characters in form of apes and foxes, snakes, bears, and swine. Nursi moreover states that the goal of decadent civilization is 'mean self-interest instead of virtue', while virtue is the basis of Qur'anic virtuous civilization. Virtuous civilization takes all man's subtle faculties into account, causes him to progress spiritually, and to rise higher than angels. In Nursi's words: Its aim is virtue instead of self-interest… Its service takes the form of guidance and direction instead of lust and passion. And the mark of guidance is progress and prosperity in way benefiting humanity; the spirit is illuminated and perfected in the way it requires. In my view, Nursi's thoughts on decadent and virtuous civilizations are extremely significant and timely. They establish the bankruptcy of those who promote the clash amongst civilizations, in particular between Christianity and Islam. The clash is not between civilizations, but between decadent and virtuous civilizations. True Christianity and Islam form the front in virtuous civilization, while secularism, laicism, and capitalism are the three allies on the front of decadent civilization. Therefore, Nursi's writings and reflections on these matters could serve to promote Muslim-Christian dialogue at these troubled global times. In all, Nursi sees the following contrast between the 'second' European and Qur'anic civilization. In Seeds of Reality Nursi clearly summarizes some elements of difference between the two visions. Nursi observes that, the Qur'an, which is a mercy for mankind, only accepts a civilization that comprises the happiness of all, or at least of the majority.

He then remarks that, modern civilization has been founded on five negative principles:

1. Its point of support is force, the mark of which is aggression.

2. Its aim and goal is benefit, the mark of which is jostling and tussling.

3. Its principle in life is conflict, the mark of which is strife.

4. The bond between the masses is racialism and negative nationalism, which is nourished through devouring others; its mark is collision.

5. Its enticing service is inciting lust and passion and gratifying the desires.

But lust transforms man into a beast. However, the civilization Islam comprises and commands is this: its point of support is truth instead of force, the mark of which is justice and harmony. Its goal is virtue in place of benefit, the mark of which is love and attraction. Its means of unity are the ties of religion, country, and class, in place of racialism and nationalism, and the mark of these is sincere brotherhood, peace, and only defense against external aggression. In life is the principle of mutual assistance instead of the principle of conflict, the mark of which is accord and solidarity. And it offers guidance instead of lust, the mark of which is human progress and spiritual advancement.

According to Thomas Michel S.J. the contrast is clear; the Qur'an proposes very different principles. In the civilization envisioned by the Qur'an (and the teachings of the earlier prophets):

1. It is truth, not might, which makes right.

2. Virtue, non self-interest, is the proper motivation for human acts.

3. Unity rather than conflict should be the basis for social relations, and

4. Mutual assistance instead of cutthroat competition.

5. It upholds divine guidance rather than human whims as the norm for ethical behavior.

A society built on such principles Michel S.J. remarks, will be characterized by values like justice, harmony, love, peace, brotherhood and solidarity. It will attract others by virtue of its own good qualities, rather than by imposing its views or by dominating and looking down on others. When a civilization accepts the principle of 'might makes right,' the result is injustice. This, as well as the 'cherished' principles of conflict, competition, and enmity, valued in 'second' Europe, will inevitably result in war and destruction. Even a casual look at the state of our world today, will clearly show how correct Nursi has been in his observations.

This article has been extracted from Dr Kamran Mofid's paper 'To Heal Our Broken World: Bringing Economics, Religions and Spirituality together for the Common Good' presented at the International Conference on Spiritual Dimensions of Said Nursi's Risale-i-Nur, in Istanbul, August 2005.