Bediuzzaman Said Nursi and Self-Sacrifice?
Who Is Bediuzzaman Said Nursi?
Knowing more about Said Nursi’s life is a good way to see what kind of moral character a deep love for Allah can give.
Said Nursi was among the greatest Islamic scholars and men of ideas in recent history. He was born in 1873 in the village of Nurs (Bitlis province) and died in Sanliurfa, Turkey in 1960. He embraced religion at a young age and was accepted in scholarly circles due to his deep knowledge of the positive sciences. From his youth, he was noted for his keen mind, retentive memory, and superior abilities. As a result, he became known as Bediuzzaman, which means "the wonder of the age."
Said Nursi saw that the most pressing need in eastern Turkey was education. Desiring to do something about it, he went to Istanbul in 1907 to establish the Madrasat al-Zahra university, where courses in religion and other branches of learning would be taught. His deep learning gained him quick acceptance among Istanbul's scholarly circles, and he began to publish articles in newspapers and magazines and support the government in arguments about freedom and constitutional monarchy.
The government was not interested in his request regarding the university. Moreover, it was uneasy about the interest some scholars, students, university teachers, and politicians showed in him and managed to send him first to a mental hospital and then to prison. Shortly after he was released, on July 23, 1908, the second constitution was announced. In Istanbul, he gave speeches on how the concepts of freedom and constitutional monarchy did not contradict Islam, and also sent signed telegraphs to the tribal leaders in eastern Anatolia. But even though his speeches and articles had a calming effect, he was arrested in 1909 on false charges on 31 March incident, but was later released.
After this incident, he returned to eastern Anatolia region of Turkey. When World War I broke out, he and his students fought in a territorial militia that he had founded. He served as a volunteer regimental commander and was captured in Russia. After three years in a Siberian prison camp, he escaped and returned to Istanbul.
Many of Istanbul's high state officials and scholarly circles were interested in him, and eventually he was made a member of the Islamic Academy. He used his salary to publish and distribute his own books for free. During the occupation of Istanbul, Said Nursi, who defended and supported the national struggle, revealed these forces' true intentions in a brochure entitled Hutuwat-al Sitte (The Six Steps of Satan). As a result, the commander of the British occupying forces ordered that he be found and brought back dead or alive. However, his activities pleased the National Assembly founded in Anatolia, and he was invited to Ankara. Arriving there in 1922, he was given a formal state reception. However, he rejected its request that he become an official public preacher, a member of the Assembly, or the director of the Department of Religious Affairs.
In 1925, a man by the name of Sheikh Said rebelled against Ankara. Although Said Nursi had no involvement in the rebellion, he was removed from Van and taken to Burdur, and, later on, exiled to Barla (Isparta province). There, he wrote the greater part of his magnum opus: the Risale-i Nur.
In 1934, those who saw the Risales as their greatest obstacle wanted to bring Said Nursi to the center of Isparta, where they could keep him under closer control. He continued his work there. In 1935, the police searched his house and confiscated all of his books. In addition, he was arrested and questioned, but was released when no incriminating evidence could be found. He was arrested again a few days later and questioned about his Risales. After that, he and 120 of his students were sent in military vehicles to prison in Eskisehir. Said Nursi remained in prison during his trial for treason. The Eskisehir Criminal Court sentenced him to 11 months in prison and compulsory residence in Kastamonu; fifteen of his students were sentenced to six months each.
In 1943, while he was in Kastamonu under surveillance, he was again arrested on a warrant from the state prosecutor in Isparta. Although he was very ill, he was taken to Ankara and from there to Isparta by train. When the court cases regarding the Risales were combined with those in Denizli, Said Nursi was sent to Denizli. There, he was again isolated in a prison and lived under very difficult conditions. But during the trial, he continued to write the Risales. Later on in 1944, even after he had been acquitted, the government ordered Said Nursi to be put under house arrest in Emirdag (Afyon province).
There, he was placed in a room across the street from the government building and kept under observation. He was not even allowed to go to the mosque, and was constantly followed and watched. This exile was even worse than the one in Denizli. His opponents, who could not silence him legally, tried to poison him. Of the 23 attempts on his life, three occurred in Emirdag. But during these years, his students copied the Risales, both by hand and by machine, and so the message of the Qur'an was communicated to a wide audience.
The 11 months that Said Nursi spent in prison in Eskisehir were instrumental in bringing many people to belief and getting them to embrace the Qur’an’s moral teachings.
In 1944, when the decision by the Denizli Criminal Court was confirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeals, Said Nursi was released. Every day that passed saw the distribution of the Risales to the public, and this made the government very uneasy. In January 1948, Said Nursi and fifteen of his students were taken from their homes and workplaces and jailed in Afyon. Despite such difficult and trying conditions, Said Nursi continued to publish his works.
In December 1948, he was sentenced to 20 months in prison. On appeal, this sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeals. But despite this decree, the Criminal Court in Afyon extended the process for 20 months, all of which Said Nursi spent in prison. He was released in September 1949. But on an order from Ankara, he was held under house arrest in Afyon and was able to return to Emirdag only in December of the same year.
In 1951 in Emirdag and almost a year later in Istanbul, two more court cases were opened because of his Genclik Rehberi (A Guide for Youth). At the Istanbul hearing, the court brought the case to a conclusion in his favor. In January 1960, the police did not allow Said Nursi to go to Ankara. So, he went to Isparta. Now 83 and in very bad health, he and his students eventually went to Urfa. Although he was too ill to walk, the police nevertheless entered his hotel room on orders from the Minister of Internal Affairs to return him to Isparta. Under this oppression, Said Nursi died.
His Self-Sacrificial Character
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi dedicated his whole life and all of his possessions to winning Allah's approval, and always willingly undertook every act of self-sacrifice that was necessary. He endured circumstances that would have broken most people and was oppressed until the end of his life by those who feared his influence among the people. Brought before various courts several times, he spent about 30 years either in prison or in exile. And yet somehow during all of these trials he managed to complete the 6,000 page Risale-i Nur Collection.
Throughout his long life, he never once lost his faith or determination. His courage and patient trust in Allah, as well as his intelligence, perception, insight, mercy, compassion, and sincerity, make him an important example for all Muslims. He saw self-sacrifice as an absolutely necessary part of spreading the Qur'an's moral teachings and expected his students to be just as determined in fulfilling this responsibility: "Yes, my brothers! An infinite resistance, levelheadedness, and an infinite self-sacrifice need to be borne at this time of such terrifying trends and events that will rock the world…"55
His students practiced the high moral qualities that they learned from him and were determined to spread the teachings of the Qur'an and the Risales through their own self-sacrifical acts and sincerity. Said Nursi and his students remain examples for all Muslims. Working together in a spirit of sincerity and self-sacrifice, they showed, with Allah's permission, that they could overcome all difficulties.
Writing the Risale-i Nur
When we look at the lives of Said Nursi and his students, we see how every difficulty can be overcome through cooperation, unity, and self-sacrifice. One of the difficulties that faced Said Nursi was writing the Risale-i Nur Collection, a book that has become a guide for many Muslims traveling the true path, under almost impossible conditions. Said Nursi disregarded whatever obstacles his enemies placed in his path in order to finish the Risales: exile, prison, while fighting on the front during World War I, and during his three years of captivity in a Siberian prison camp. His firm resolve to spread the Qur'an's message among the masses enabled him to persevere and be steadfast in self-sacrifice. In the lecture section of his Buyuk Sozler (The Big Words), we read:
Hasan Akyol, one of his students imprisoned with him in Afyon, speaks of Said Nursi's determination to continue writing the Risales on whatever material he could find:
Tarihce-i Hayat (Bediuzzaman Said Nursi) tells of Said Nursi's self-sacrificial spirit:
And there is the type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah.And Allah is full of kindness to (His) devotees. (Surah al Baqara , 207)
One of his students relates Said Nursi's words about self-sacrifice: :
One day he said this while speaking about self-sacrifice: "My current students are more self-sacrificing than those who sacrificed themselves by casting themselves into the fire in the east when fighting the Russians with me. This is because it is not easy to sacrifice an entire lifetime. If someone casts himself into the fire, he/she is at once martyred and dies. Long-term devotion and self-sacrifice, on the other hand, are not easy. For this reason, my current students are more self-sacrificing than the students of the Old Said. Whenever this secret appears in the east, my fellow citizens will perform great services for religion."59
In Son Sahitler (The Last Witnesses), his students speak of their master's willing and determined self-sacrifice to communicate the Qur'an's moral teachings:
Whenever there arose an issue regarding the Qur'an and the Risales, the Master would assume the vigor of a youth of 25.60
Said Nursi Spread the Message under the Most Difficult Conditions
In spite of all these obstacles, Said Nursi never stopped spreading the teachings of the Qur'an through the Risales. To do this, he used the scant resources that he had at hand. No matter whether he was in exile, prison, or in a prison camp, and no matter where he went, he taught and wrote about Islam. New students continued to join him as the Risales reached more and more people.
While on the Caucasian front leading volunteer troops, he wrote his Arabic-language work Al-Isarat al I`jaz (The Signs of Miraculousness). During the three years he spent in the prison camp after the war, he was a source of spiritual knowledge for captured officers who spent their lives going from one front to another, and strengthened their belief and sincerity of heart. Later, the Russians allowed him to stay in a mosque in the Tatar section of Kosturma (a mosque in Siberia). For two years and a half, he served as the mosque's imam and continued his discussions about belief. The bookTarihce-i Hayat (Bediuzzaman Said Nursi), which details the life of Said Nursi and his students, tells of his determined spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion whether in prison, exile, or a prison camp:
Bediuzzaman is a blessed person possessed of a most marvellous grace. Therefore, dungeons were like rose gardens for him, from where he saw the bright horizons of eternity. The executioner's block was a pulpit for him to preach and guide. From there he gave lessons of patience and perseverance, courage and strength for a sublime cause. Prisons turned into a Madrasa-i Yusufiya [School of Yusuf] for him. He would enter them like a professor entering a university to teach, because the people there were students in need of his inspiration and spiritual enlightenment. His daily activity of protecting several people's belief and turning monsters into angelic human beings was, for him, a happiness not to be exchanged for worlds..64
We see from this that it was a sufficient reward for his troubles if only one person came to love belief. Through him, many people embraced the Qur'an's moral teachings:
He was thrown from one prison into another. Thanks to him, jails and prisons turned into a Madrasa-i Yusufiya [School of Yusuf]. Said Nursi illuminated jails, illuminated hearts. In the face of this monument to faith, many raging murderers and deviants were softened, as if they were re-created. All became gentle and good-tempered believers and good citizens … Which of your schools or education systems has done or could do such things? They exiled him from one place to another. Every place of exile became his homeland. Wherever he went, wherever he was exiled, he was surrounded by pure, clean believers. Thick prison walls could not separate him from his brothers/sisters in religion. These material obstacles between the great teacher and his students became beauteous things, thanks to his religion, love, and belief. These restrictions and limitations imposed by brute force and dead matter caused great waves in the oceans of the soul's world. These waves began from village rooms and enfolded all places, as far as the university gates. The children of the country, whose holy things had been trampled on for years, the ruined generations, those thirsting for belief, ran to his path and his light. The Master's treatises were passed from hand to hand, tongue to tongue, province to province. Everyone, young or old, ignorant or learned, from eight to eighty, got something out of them and was illuminated by their light.65
He Spread His Message while in Prison and Exile
Said Nursi was held in prison under very harsh conditions, sometimes being left in cold places, even when he was sick, and without anything to burn for warmth. While in prison and exile, 23 attempts were made to poison him. He was imprisoned with murderers and dangerous criminals, forbidden to speak with his students, and kept apart from all of his brothers in cause. But even under such difficult conditions, he always thought first of other people's happiness and well-being both in this world and the Hereafter. He constantly called other people to belief and tried to get them to embrace the Qur'an's moral teachings.
Exile in Burdur, Isparta, and Barla
In 1925, Said Nursi was confined to compulsory residence in Burdur. In this house and at the local Kasaboglu mosque, he taught people the truths of religion and the Qur'an's moral teachings. However, the government at that time was uneasy with the number of people coming to listen to him and what he was teaching them, and so ordered him to be sent to Isparta. In 1926, he was transferred to Isparta and immediately involved himself in the same activities and attracted ever-growing crowds. In response, the government transferred him to Barla, a remote village located near Egirdir Lake that could only be reached by boat.
Barla was one of the oldest villages in Isparta province, and its population was composed mainly of old people, many of whom were not literate. Moreover, the young people had moved to the big cities for economic reasons. Thus, the government thought that it would be a most suitable place for keeping him away from the masses. Said Nursi did not consider these periods of exile, which became continuous, as exile, but instead saw it as his duty, despite the lack of suitable means, to continue working. In the room assigned to him by the villagers, he wrote several new works and converted many people to belief.
If any do deeds of righteousness,- be they male or female - and have faith, they will enter Heaven, and not the least injustice will be done to them. (Surah an Nisa', 124)
In Eskisehir prison, Said Nursi endured solitary confinement and, apart from one or two exceptions, was not allowed to speak to anyone. But despite these harsh conditions, he wrote sections 27 through 30 of The Flashes (a part of the Risale-i Nur).
Several sources give some examples of how he was mistreated:
Said Nursi began his imprisonment in Denizli in seclusion, as in Eskisehir. But he continued to write the Risale-i Nur despite the difficult conditions and even during his trial. Moreover, through his students, some prisoners became acquainted with the Risales. As a result, they became totally different individuals and began to perform their religious obligations. In this way, each prison in which Said Nursi spent time became a place where one could acquire spiritual knowledge.
Exile in Kastamoni
For the first month of his compulsory residence in Kastamonu, Said Nursi had to live on the top floor of the police station. Later on, he was moved to a house a few meters away. He was not allowed to close the curtains on the windows facing the police station. Even though he was oppressed in ways that were totally against the law, he did not interrupt his compilation of the Risale-i Nur.
In Kastamonu, he was able to take on new students. However, those who came to see him were questioned by the police, prevented from visiting him, and mistreated. And yet people continued to read the Risale-i Nur and to write and tell others about the signs leading to belief.
Exile in Emirdag
After Kastamonu, Said Nursi was taken to Emirdag and installed in a room opposite the government building. He was not allowed to go the mosque and was always followed and watched. The conditions there were even worse than those he had faced in Denizli prison. He was not allowed to have visitors and was almost poisoned three times. When his opponents saw that he could not be silenced by legal means, they sought to kill him. But each time, he was saved from death by Allah's help. As a result of these attempts, he suffered serious difficulties.
At the beginning of 1948, Said Nursi and 15 of his students were taken from their homes and workplaces and removed to Afyon's provincial center. They were held there for a week before being questioned, and then were sent to Afyon prison for the duration of their trials. As had happened before, they were mistreated. At this time, even though he was 70 years old and ill, he was left by himself in a dormitory big enough for 60 people. In spite of the ice on the broken windows on cold winter nights, he was not moved to other quarters. To make matters even worse, he was poisoned several times. On the pretext of protecting him from contagious diseases, the prison doctor injected him with a very strong poison that caused him to develop a dangerous fever. Despite his condition, he was left alone in the dormitory and forbidden to speak to anyone. His students in prison were not even allowed to visit him. However, they were able to turn the prison into a madrasa (religious school) where they taught the other inmates about the Qur'an and the Risale-i Nur. Some of the prisoners embraced belief in this way. In spite of his terrible living conditions, Said Nursi wrote the 14th and 15th parts of The Rays, thus completing the Risale-i Nur's compilation.
The following excerpts tell of Said Nursi's days in prison and the deliberate oppression and unjust treatment that he was forced to endure:
Then they arrested me during the most intensely cold days of winter on some trite pretext and put me into solitary confinement in a large and extremely cold prison ward, leaving me for two days without a stove. Having been accustomed to light my stove several times a day in my small room, and always having live coals in the brazier, due to my illness and weakness I was only able to endure it with difficulty. While struggling in this situation with both a fever from the cold and a dreadful degree of distress and anger, through Divine grace a truth unfolded in my heart. It uttered the following warning to my spirit: "You called prison the Medrese-i Yusufiya—the School of Prophet Yusuf (Joseph). And while in Denizli, things like relief a thousand times greater than your distress, spiritual profit, and the other prisoners benefiting from the Risale-i Nur, and its conquests on a larger scale, all made you offer endless thanks instead of complaining. They made each hour of your imprisonment and hardship like ten hours' of worship, and made those passing hours eternal. Allah willing, those struck by calamity in this third 'School of Yusuf' are benefiting from the Risale-i Nur and finding consolation [in it] will heat this cold, severe distress of yours and transform it into joy."68
Then, as though I had committed some heinous crime, they nailed up my windows. The smoke from the stove was a great discomfort to me, and I insisted that they leave one window open. Now they have nailed that up too. Also, although according to prison practice, solitary confinement usually lasts around a fortnight I was in total isolation for three and a half months, and they did not allow any of my friends to have any contact with me. Also, three months ago a forty-page indictment was written against me. They showed it to me. But I do not know the new letters, and I was ill, and my own writing is very poor, so I pleaded with them to let two of my students come, who know my language and could read the indictment and write out my objections to it. But they did not permit it. They said: "The defence lawyer should come and read it." Then they did not permit him [to do so] either. Only, they told one of my brothers to write it out in the old letters and give it to me. But it would take six or seven days to write out those forty pages. To make the hour's work of reading me the indictment stretch over six or seven days, just so that no one should have contact with me, is appalling repression and deprives me of my right of defence entirely. A multiple murderer condemned to be hanged does not receive such treatment.69
But Said Nursi never regarded these difficulties as confining. He often expressed this attitude in his writings, some selections of which are presented here:
Since we have submitted to destiny, we know that these troubles are the most auspicious of matters and a spiritual blessing, the secret indicating the acquisition of merit. Generally, the end of transitory worldly troubles comes with well-being and goodness. Since we have such an elevated degree of belief and have dedicated our life to such a reality, it is brighter than the sun, as beautiful as Paradise, and as charming as eternal happiness. Of course we are engaged in a spiritual struggle, taking pride in and giving thanks for these woes, and so must not complain.70
Do they think I am so self-important and thinking of saving myself? I have sacrificed the world and the Hereafter for the sake of saving the congregation's belief. In my 80 or so years of life I have known nothing of worldly pleasure. My entire life has been spent on battlefields, in prison camps, or in the jails and court rooms of my country. There is no suffering or torment to which I have not been subjected. I have been treated like a monster by military courts, and exiled from place to place like a vagabond. I have been condemned to months of solitary confinement in the country's prisons. I have been poisoned many times, subjected to all forms of insult … My nature cannot bear humiliation and insult. Islamic courage and reason forbid me from being in this state. When faced with such an incident, I will not belittle myself no matter with whom I may be dealing, be it even the cruellest, most barbaric enemy commander. I will strike him in the face with his cruelty and barbarity. He may throw me in a dungeon or even lead me to the executioner's block. It is of no importance. Indeed, that is what happened. I have seen all of these things. If the heart, the conscience, of that barbaric commander had been able to resist such cruelty a few minutes more, Said would today have been hanged and joined the assembly of the innocent. All my life has passed with such trouble and difficulty, disaster and catastrophe. I have sacrificed my self, my world, on the path of belief, happiness, and soundness of the society. So let it be. I do not even curse them, because thanks to this, the Risale-i Nur has at least reached a few hundred thousand people, or a few million. I do not know the number, but that is what they say. The Afyon prosecutor said five hundred thousand. Maybe it has been a means of saving more people's belief. By dying I would have saved only myself, but by remaining alive and bearing difficulty and troubles I have helped to save so much belief. A thousand thanks to Allah.71
His students told about the difficulties he had experienced in those days and his resolve to be self-sacrificial while enduring them:
Winter. Everywhere was frozen. Afyon was cut off and the railway was closed. No food or fuel had reached the city for 15-20 days. No water flowed. The blessed Master's windows were broken, floorboards were spaced out, and it was impossible to get warm. That day I saw that the Master had curled up under a double blanket in front of a gas jar with some coal in it and a tea kettle."72
The Students Also Endured
Like Said Nursi, his students faced many difficulties and continued to sacrifice their interests to spread the Qur'an's moral teachings. We read in The Words that they memorized Said Nursi's words so that they could better spread his teachings. They were taken to prison along with Said Nursi and, while there, wrote down his words and then duplicated and distributed them.
If they had the secret means, they would again occupy themselves with the Risales. There were even some students who learned it by heart, saying: "I may be thrown into prison. They will not let me have the Risales, and I will be unable to study." One student of the Nur [Light], when removed from the prison, would draw closer to his Master and work and publish for the Nur even more than before, as if that prison with its whippings and beatings on the soles of the feet, full of torture of all kinds, had been a source of strength and energy, as if it had had a spurring effect in the service of the Nur with loyalty, care and cunning.78
As their belief, dedication, determination, and self-sacrifice grew, the students described how they saw things:
The heroic Nur disciples of Emirdag were very loyal to our Master. They would have died for their Master. They performed much greater heroism, as if all of this oppression, threats, cruelty, and wickedness had not intimidated them. There came such a time that they imprisoned three brothers, together with their sons. Their shops remained closed for days, months; they caused them bankruptcy, but it was still a means whereby the nature of the lessons was understood. They would give their lives for the Master and the Risale-i Nur, along with their goods and possessions. They lost their property and went bankrupt, but never gave these a moment's thought.79
The students adopted Said Nursi's moral understanding and faced their difficulties with patience and trust in Allah:
Such attacks on the Nur students who made progress and elevation in the levels of belief, and who attained a strong belief with the inquiring lessons in faith of the Risale-i Nur, are a test in one way and a means of measurement for distinguishing coal from diamonds. For the students of the Nur, prisons are all Madrasa-i Yusufiya due to their belief in Allah, obedience to the Prophet, and acting by the Qur'an. Cruelty and oppression are all whips and rivets [to urge us]. With these attacks, the Divine destiny reveals this to us: "Do not stop! Work!" For the Nur students, speaking in the courts in the service of the Qur'an and belief is like talking to a friend. Being taken to and from the police station is no different than going to and from the market … Being cruelly sentenced by a person to punishment is a proof that Allah will acquit him in truth. All such cruelty and torture are medals of honor for students of the Nur. How happy are those brothers of ours, the students of the Nur, who have enjoyed those blessings for thirty years.80
In one place, Said Nursi explains his students' devout and self-sacrificial moral character and urges them to accept whatever happens to them:
I have sacrificed all that I have, material and spiritual, and have borne all suffering and torture. Thanks to this, the truth of belief has spread everywhere. Thanks to this, the Risale-i Nur school has educated hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of students. They will now continue on this path of serving belief and will not depart from my profession of sacrificing everything, both material and spiritual. They will work solely to attain Allah's mercy inshaAllah [Allah willing]. Many of my students were exposed to various forms of suffering, torment, and torture along with me, and were sorely tested. Like me, I wish them to give up their rights in the face of all injustice and those who behaved unjustly, because this latter group, not being able to conceive of the secrets and manifestations of the Divine destiny, unknowingly served our cause and the spread of the truth of belief. Our duty consists solely of wishing them to be rightly guided..81
Nor could they spend anything (for the cause) - small or great- nor cut across a valley, but the deed is inscribed to their credit: that Allah may requite their deed with the best (possible reward). (Surad at-Tawba, 121)
64- Nursi, Tarihce-i Hayat (Bediuzzaman Said Nursi), 8.