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Renewal in Belief: A Model for Modern Times
Jan 1, 2011

If the definitive history of twentieth century Islamic movements is ever written, one wonders whether its author would be both perspicacious and brave enough to argue a point which, while held in private by many Muslim thinkers and writers, is rarely if ever mooted openly, namely that the ‘Islamic resurgence’ which is said to have occurred over the past forty or fifty years, should be seen primarily in terms of a resurgent identity that has little to do with any surge 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 expressions of submission, although clearly this may have happened in various individual cases. What does appear to have occurred 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, cultural or a mix of the two – 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 and ideological agendas.

The numerous movements of the past 150 years, characterized almost without exception as ‘Islamic movements’, have had little if anything to do with the resurgence of religious faith as such. Most of these have actually been political movements, with leaders whose underlying goal has been to solve a specific problem: the problem of the perceived backwardness of the Muslim peoples and their subservience, politically and culturally, to the West.

While none of the groups that operate within the definitional matrix of ‘Islamic movements’ can claim to be identifiable primarily as a faith 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. The Turkish Muslim scholar Bediüzzaman Said Nursi (1877/8–1960) is one such individual.

Progenitor of the ‘service of belief and the Qur’an’ movement, Nursi is arguably the most influential, if woefully under-researched, Muslim thinker of the twentieth century. While the ‘service of belief and the Qur’an’ movement, a faith-based movement consisting of millions of followers worldwide, does not – strictly speaking – fulfill the definitional criteria of a New Religious Movement, it stands out from other contemporary Muslim religious and ideological groupings not only for its uncompromising focus on the renewal of individual rather than collective faith, but also for its eschewal of any kind of religiously-legitimized violence or militancy for the sake of politico-ideological ends.

Although often stereotyped as the pioneer of reform of an Islam declining under the 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 scholars’. While his magnum opus, the Risale-i Nur, is for all intents and purposes a commentary on the Qur’an, it is not a work of exegesis in the technical sense of the word, although he was clearly an accomplished exegete. And while Nursi was well-versed in the principles of scholastic theology (kalām), devoting the lion’s share of the Risale to what he claims are rational proofs for the unity (tawhīd) of God, it is not a work of traditional theology either.

In fact, on one level, the Risale is as resistant to compartmentalization as the Qur’an itself, which it claims to mirror and to elucidate. And if, as Nursi often asserts, the aim of the Qur’an is to guide man to belief, then the teachings of the Risale should be seen as consonant with that aim.

The three supreme matters in the worlds of humanity and Islam are belief, the Shari’a, 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 Qur’anic 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 (īmān) which must be renewed and protected, and that all other endeavors must be approached with the primacy of belief in mind: the fact that, unlike many of the popular Muslim thinkers of his own epoch, he repudiated the dubious art of politics – and, more importantly, the dubious art of politicking that is 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 man that Islam, with its emphasis on the dependence of man on God, cannot countenance. Man is 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 man’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 century and a half in general, and the last twenty-five years in particular, ‘Islam is a complete way of life’ has been the mantra of choice for the vast majority of Muslim movements. As a corollary, 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 shari‘a – 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 Medina during 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 over-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 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 jihād. As emphasized above, 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 jihād may be found.

There are many for whom it is clear that humanity is in a precarious position. We are told on a daily basis that we live under the threat of pollution, global warming, terrorism, famine and a thousand and one different ills. Our time is, we are told, a time of global crisis. Yet few are able to fathom the real cause of this crisis. It is not that we do not understand the problems around us. Our crisis – the crisis of modernity – is that we do not understand ourselves. Indeed, postmodern thought – if such a thing exists and is not really just another name for the confused ideas of late modernity – nurtures a scepticism in which the very possibility of understanding anything is called into question.

Most people, Nursi claims, have been reduced to hardship and misery by the demands and dictates of modern times. Man’s innate nobility has also been marred, he says, as the gradual divorce from religious values has opened the floodgates of ‘dissipation’, encouraging dissolute living and the ‘appetites of the flesh.’

Socio-economic inequalities are also the hallmark of this modern civilization, Nursi adds, with the Western attitude being “So long as I am full, what is it to me that others die of hunger?” and “You work so that I can live in ease and comfort’. By allowing the rift between the classes to widen, the West has engendered so much strife and sedition that it is on the brink of bringing humanity to its knees, giving rise to the struggle between capital and labor – itself the precursor of two World Wars and bloodshed and disorder on a hitherto unknown scale.

One could go on, but surely the point has been made: it was impossible for Said Nursi to approve of a civilization in which the negative aspects outweighed the positive so decisively. For Nursi, the only way forward for man is to embrace a civilizational form which brings true happiness and prosperity – and if not for all, then at least for the majority.

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 the ‘true civilization’ may be found.

For Said Nursi, for man to be truly human, he must establish for himself not an Islamic state, but an Islamic state of mind. If, in secular shorthand, ‘civilization’ is the highest thing towards which man as a social being can aspire, let us see how Said Nursi redefines the term to make it truly meaningful for limited, impotent man, giving it the ability to ‘confront the awesome silence of the grave’ in a way that no other civilization is able. Comparing Western civilization with the ideational entity known as Islamic civilization, he locates the source of the former in human artfulness (daha) and that of the latter in Divine guidance (huda). These sources, he holds, impact in very different ways on society in general and the individual in particular.

Artfulness, writes Nursi, functions in the mind and confuses the heart. It looks to the material and to the corporeal, considering the body and the evil-commanding soul, which it seeks to nurture. It develops the potentialities of the nafs while making of the ruh a servant or slave. In its love of this world, which is the only world it recognizes, it turns man into a satan, worshipping deaf nature and, in its blindness, drawing a veil of ingratitude over the face of the earth. It sees the bounties before it as ownerless booty, which it usurps like a common thief.

Guidance, on the other hand, works in the heart and lights up the spirit. It develops man’s potentialities and spiritual capacities and, in so doing, illuminates nature. It makes of the soul and the body and in so doing produces happiness in this world and the next. It sees Divine art everywhere, and the wisdom and power of God in all things. It worships Allah, the possessor of art and power. It is both seeing and hearing, and as it benefits from Divine bounties, it scatters the light of thankfulness all around it.

In Nursian terms, then, to be truly civilized, man must be truly human, and to be truly human, his goal is not the kind of khilafa that engenders power but the kind of khilafa which engenders worship – namely the nurturing of each individual soul into its true state as khalifat Allah fi al-ard, vicegerent on Earth. This, for Nursi, marks the true civilization to which man should aspire.

Dr. Colin Turner from Durham University, UK, is the co-author of Said Nursi, 2009, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and IB Tauris, London, New York.