THE PROBLEM OF EVIL IN THE RISALE-I NUR
What is evil? Is there evil in the true meaning? If there is, what is its source, or who is its source? If there is a relationship between evil and God, what is the nature of this relationship? The famous English philosopher David Hume extended the last question as follows:
Does God want to prevent evil but He does not have the power? In which case, He is powerless.
Or He has the power, but does not want to prevent evil? In which case He is not good (or Compassionate).
If He is both powerful and good, how is that so much evil exists in the world?1
In the history of philosophy and theology numerous answers have been put forward for this difficult question . Some have posited that evil does not exist in reality, others have tied it to matter, others have put forward the idea of a limited godhead, while others have accepted the existence of more than one god and have tried to solve the question in that way.
The question has also been discussed in depth in the history of Islamic thought. Followers of Farabi's school did not consider matter to be the source of evil on the one hand, and on the other, stated that since matter is restricted and limited as regards its potential, it lacks the power and capacity to fully reflect the order of the "World's Planner" (God), in which there is no "injustice," and that therefore ontologically a certain amount of evil is unavoidable.2 That is, according to them, definitely "there is no incompatibility between Divine justice and the state of the world." (In the history of philosophy, this was discussed under the concept of 'theodicy.')
The great majority of the followers of sufism said "Whatever God does, it is good," and sometimes also denying the ontological status of evil by means of their forced interpretations, they tried to find a more direct solution.
With respect to the question of theodicy in Islam, the most famous name that springs to mind is Ghazzali. It is therefore no coincidence that almost everywhere in the Risale-i Nur where the question is dealt with, Ghazzali's name is mentioned. The saying Ghazzali has engraved on the history of our thought is: "laysa fi'l-imkan abda' min-ma kana." That is, "there is nothing in the realm of contingency better than what is." [Nothing better is possible than what is.] It was the famous philosopher Leibniz who introduced the saying into the centre of Western philosophy of religion. He stated that despite all the sorts of evil, Divine justice is manifested in the world, and this anyway is what theodicy means.3
Nevertheless, we should recall that the idea represented by Ghazzali and Leibniz was the target of severe criticisms, both in the Islamic world and in the West. For example, Abu A'la al-Ma'arri and Ibn al-Ravandi stated that the world was full of evils and to say that justice was manifested here was to close one eyes to the truth, and they painted a pretty pessimistic picture. While, although they did not take the matter to such a point, thinkers like al-Bika'i and Ibn al-Munayr stated that the idea of 'nothing better is possible than that which exists' gave rise to serious problems for the science of kal?m, and could be taken as far as limiting Divine power.4
When considered from the point of view of the Risale-i Nur, the question of theodicy confronts us in much broader dimensions. In his own words,5 the author of the Risale-i Nur Collection was someone who was compelled to remain in a tortuous exile, in a wretched condition, elderly and ill, left alone with no one, even being prevented from mixing and corresponding with others. He was the sort of person that, again in his own words, he felt the need to weep with a hundred, and even a thousand, eyes. Not for himself, but for the suffering Muslim Umma, and for humanity. "For," says Bediuzzaman, "since by nature I feel excessive pity for my fellow beings, because of that compassion, I have experienced the ssufferings of thousands of my brothers in addition to my own pains and therefore feel as though I have lived for hundreds of years... I am rather bound through Islamic zeal with this country and even the Islamic world..."6 Said Nursi was someone who felt "pain and sympathy... even [for] innocent animals..."7
It might occur to one to ask here why Bediuzzaman is describing all this. Indeed, what is the meaning of all this complaint? It is again from himself that we may learn the answer: "Also, my purpose in showing my worst wound in an extremely grievous and unpleasant way which may upset you unduly and put you off, is to demonstrate what a wondrous remedy and brilliant light is the sacred antidote of the All-Wise Qur'an."8
Another matter which would frequently occur to someone in Said Nursi's position and upset him, is others suffering because of their connection and relations with him. There are some who endure this suffering, but there are also others who for that reason or for many other reasons display disloyalty and unfaithfulness,9 which is a sort of 'moral evil.'
According to the Qur'an, "Corruption appears in the land and the sea because of what people have done."10 Besides this 'moral evil,' whose source is in man and is as old as man, there are disasters, calamities, tribulations, illness and death, which are known as 'natural evils.' As a realistic thinker, Said Nursi considers all these, but still, with great enthusiasm says: "this world... is an ever-renewed notebook of the Pre-Eternal Inscriber which is constantly written and erased, and every spring is a gilded letter, and every summer a well-composed ode; ... it is formed of mirrors reflecting and renewing the manifestations of the All-Glorious Maker's Names; and is a seed-bed of the hereafter..."11
The fine 'aesthetic picture' described in the above quote is repeatedly to be encountered in various forms in the Risale-i Nur. As far as I have been able to see, no work in the history of Islamic thought has been as closely concerned as the Risale-i Nur with the 'aesthetic dimension' of the world and thus with the proof that philosophy of religion calls the 'aesthetic proof.' The origins of this idea go back to classical sufi literature and thus to Ghazzali's Ihya 'Ulum al-Din, and the idea takes its strength from the Qur'an. On the human level, the aesthetic proof has its source in the perception of beauty and is basically another dimension of the famous proof of 'purpose and order' (ghaya wa nizam), and has been an inevitable result of Islamic theism.12
However, the matter does not end here. The coin has another face, and exists simultaneously with and in similar circumstances to this face. We may listen to the Twenty-Ninth Word:
"If the universe is studied carefully, it will be seen that within it are two elements that have spread everywhere and become rooted; with their traces and fruits like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, benefit and harm, perfection and defect, light and darkness, guidance and misguidance, light and fire, belief and unbelief, obedience and rebellion, and fear and love, opposites clash with one another in the universe. They are constantly manifested through change and transformation. Their wheels turn like the workshop of the crops of some other world. For sure, the branches and results, which are opposites, of those two elements will continue into eternity; they will become concentrated and separate from one another. Then they will be manifested in the form of Paradise and Hell."13
As is mentioned below, this view, which has been frequently repeated in the history of thought, has to the same measure brought with it a widespread epistemological understanding. Bediuzzaman states that things are known by their opposites, if there was no sickness there would be no well-being, if there was no illness, there would be no pleasure in good health.14
We read in various of the Qur'an's verses how changeable is man's attitude in the face of and within these opposites. Man may be optimistic at one moment and pessimistic a little later. Said Nursi is not outside this general situation. On the one hand, he sees "the solicitous nurturing, the purposeful and beneficial planning, the living kindness necessitated by the Names of All-Compassionate, All-Wise, and Loving,"15 and on the other, non-existence, death, losses, and destruction,16 and sometimes, as we shall see a little later, adopts a wise attitude, and sometimes, together with ordinary people, responds in their language. On seeing that small living beings (that is, beautiful creatures full of art) disappeared after only a moment, he cannot keep himself from saying: "My heart wanted to weep and complain and cry out at fate. It asked awesome questions..." and "I started to utter fearful objections to Divine Determining..."17
Bediuzzaman, however, was someone who believed he had undertaken a mission of great importance; his main work therefore was not questioning and objecting, but suppying answers. And this is what he does, and in his own words, tries to find a solution based on "the mystery of unity." What is the solution he found for the problem of evil and what sort of theodicy did he offer? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to take a quick look at Bediuzzaman's views on being, existence and non-existence, etc. I should state immediately that the source closest to him in these matters is classic sufi literature in all its richness.
According to Said Nursi, "existence is pure good and light, whereas non-existence is pure evil and darkness. All the chiefs of the people of reason and people of [who seek enlightenment through] the heart have agreed that in the last analysis all instances of good, beauty, and pleasure arise from existence, and all evils, bad, calamities, and even sins, are attributable to non-existence."18
It is not easy to think about and speak on the matter of existence and non-existence, and many people therefore make serious mistakes. For example, some suppose all sorts of destruction and decline to be death and non-existence, which is not right.19 The same is true for death. Death is not non-existence, "for the people of belief it is a discharge from duties. The appointed hour is the discharge papers. It is a change of abode, the introduction to an everlasting life, and the door leading to it."20 That is to say, death is neither evil nor non-existence. Bediuzzaman extends the field of existence even further: "Things do not go to non-existence; they rather pass from the sphere of power to the sphere of knowledge; they go from the Manifest World to the World of the Unseen; they turn from the world of change and transience to the worlds of light and eternity."21
Since existence is perfection and light, its degree which is impossible for us to conceive of pertains to Almighty God. In other words, the only existent in the true meaning is Almighty God, Who is the Necessarily Existent, Absolutely Powerful, Absolutely Knowing, the All-Glorious Maker.22 Next come the Divine Names: "From the point of view of reality, the beauty and perfection in things pertain to the Divine Names and are their impresses and manifestations. Since the Names are eternal and their manifestations, perpetual, certainly their impresses will be renewed, refreshed, and made beautiful. They do not pass and depart for non-existence, only their relative determinations change..."23
Bediuzzaman does not see these determinations as "a shadowy state of existence" (epiphenomenon). It is true they are transitory, and to see "the transitoriness of all ephemeral things"24 is to be wise like Abraham (Upon whom be peace), but with the same wisdom we understand that through the Divine light, "the motion and movement of the universe, and its variations, changes and transformations, cease being meaningless, futile, and the playthings of chance and rise to the level of being dominical missives, pages inscribed with the signs of creation, and mirrors to the Divine Names, and the world itself, a book of the Eternally Besought One's wisdom."25 The cause of the "constancy" of this level which they gain despite being created -rather, which is given to them- that is, this level of existence, is Pre-Eternal Divine Power. In this way, the meaning is affirmed of the saying "the reality of things is constant."26 The idea of "the realities" of things being "shadows of a sort," is because of the effulgence of the Divine Names, which is in accordance with the levels of those beings.27
Here, Bediuzzaman departs from the basic thesis of the Unity of Existence. He says that since "things have an existence and their existence is constant to a degree... it obtains through the Pre-Eternal All-Powerful One's creation, will and power."28 In which case, it is not right to say "Everything is Him;" what is right is "Everything is from Him." It is because of this that "All the exquisiteness, all the virtues, all the perfections, all the attraction, all the yearning, all the compassion known and seen in the universe are meanings, significations, immaterial words. They necessarily and self-evidently show to the heart and thrust in the mind's eye the manifestations of the All-Glorious Maker's favour and kindness, benevolence and munificence."29
So how can we explain the (moral and natural) existence of evil in such a world, and its great extent even? How can it be compatible with Divine knowledge, power, will, mercy, compassion, and grace? Before answering this question, Bediuzzaman touches briefly on the problem's "licitness," and here generally finds sufficient the answers of Ash'ari, and in particular instances, Ghazzali. "He is the Lord of all Dominion," "the Lord of All Dominion has free disposal over His realms as He wishes."30 But Bediuzzaman knew very well that a general answer such as that did not remove the possibility of asking questions. The true answer to this question lies concealed in the mystery of Divine unity (tawhid), but to understand it is difficult and explain it, even more difficult. The reason Bediuzzaman discusses the subject in almost all his major works is this difficulty. The positions of those asking the question are different, so the answers have to be thought of at different levels. It is of benefit to bring the answers that are given together under two headings: evils that we call 'natural,' that is, in the author's words, disasters, misfortunes, destruction, loss of life, etc. The second are evils that man is the cause of and may be called 'moral.' We may first consider the former.
1. Knowing the things we call 'evil,' and that not all of them are evil, is important from the point of view of preventing certain questions occuring to one unnecessarily. Firstly, things and events have not one, but more than one aspect. Therefore, something which appears to be 'evil' from one point of view, may be very good from another. This was true for Said Nursi. He said that "there are certain events which are apparently ugly and confused, but beneath that apparent veil, there are shining instances of beauty and order."31 This is very clearly indicated in the Qur'an.32 So why is man afflicted with mental confusion on this subject? According to Bediuzzaman, it is a question here of an important epistemological error whereby people are "deceived by appearances." "But because man is both enamoured of the apparent and is self-centred, he considers only the externals and pronounces them ugly."33 This preoccupation with externals sometimes "limits the view to what is immediately apparent," and is the cause of serious errors. Some things are bound by their nature to be "neither altogether unknown, nor self-evident."34
2. A small amount of evil should not be exaggerated for this great abundance of good. Bediuzzaman says that "universal instances of good, universal benefits, universal bounties, and universal instances of beauty become apparent through there being minor instances of evil, harm, calamities and ugliness. This means that the creation of ugliness is not ugly, it is beautiful, because the majority of its results are beautiful."35 In other words, "Evils and calamities on the other hand are occasional results out of the many results of the general, universal laws which are called 'adat Allah and represent His universal will. Since they are minor and required by those laws, He creates them in order to preserve and maintain the laws, which are the means to universal benefits."36
It may be said that this solution is the one most frequently put forward in the history of thought, but Bediuzzaman adds an important point at the end of it. According to him, God Almighty protects man from the minor evils which result from the enforcement of the universal laws with "special manifestations." He comes specially to the assistance of those afflicted as the result of the laws and sends them His mercy, directly, or by means of supplication and worship.37
Sometimes in order to illustrate the relationship of universal mercy and particular evil, and sometimes in order to demonstrate the licitness of the question "why is there so much evil?", Bediuzzaman gives the example of the relationship between an artist and the person he has chosen as a model. The artist makes the model do various things in order to experiment with different sorts of beauty. In return he gives him a number of things and pays him a good wage. Is it then permissible for the model to shut his eyes to all the bounties and turn to the artist and ask him why he is disturbing and oppressing him in that way? So is it permissible, looking at certain particular evils, to turn to the Pre-Eternal Inscriber, the Creator of the uncountable inscriptions which give existence to the world, and ask Him why He is giving us so much trouble in this way?38
The occasional destruction and loss, illness and defect, and even the reason for Satan's creation should be considered in this way. We should always ask ourselves: "Are they contrary to general mercy, comprehensive beauty, and all-embracing good?" Bediuzzaman says that "they aren't," "the creation of Satan, even, since he is the cause of striving and competition, the springs of man's spiritual progress, is also good, as is the creation of his species; their creation is beautiful in that respect."39 Natural occurrences like illness and old age, too, are the means of many people turning to good. They "refine life," Bediuzzaman says, and continues: "Life led monotonously on the couch of ease and comfort resembles not so much the pure good that is being, as the pure evil that non-being; it tends in fact in that direction."40
There is always a price for performing great good and undertaking important duties. If it was not thus, would it have been firstly the prophets and then the saints who were afflicted with the severest tribulations?41
3. Another answer Bediuzzaman gives to the question of "Why does evil exist?" is that evil is sometimes a "Divine warning and admonishment of the Most Merciful," and some evils are "atonement for sin."42 In other words, misfortune may be a way taking one to Divine mercy. What is important is to take lessons from them, which is what the Qur'an enjoins.
Bediuzzaman recalls a psychological fact here: if you see misfortunes as small, they diminish, while complaint compounds the misfortune.43
4. To come to 'moral evil,' here, the true source is man. Bediuzzaman describes man's position and true duty like this: a) "to affirm submissively the sovereignty of dominicality apparent in the universe and to observe its perfections and virtues in wonder;" b) "to weigh on the scales of perception the jewels of the dominical Names, which are each like a hidden treasure; it is to appreciatively affirm their value with the discerning heart;" c) "to study and ponder over in wonder the pages of beings and leaves of the earth and sky, which are like missives of the pen of power;" d) "to behold admiringly the adornment and subtle arts in beings."44
It is to be seen from this that Bediuzzaman summarizes very succinctly the "wholeness of man" (unity on the human level) which Qur'an teaches us. Here, man is a being who thinks, affirms, gazes on things, and has values, that is, who has ideas, knowledge, morals, art, and good deeds. Because he is such a being, again in Bediuzzaman's words, he is "the fruit of the tree of the universe, its furthest part... the heart and centre of the whole universe."45 Thought ties him to both the past and the future. He is a comprehensive being tied to time. His being an anxious being is because of this.46
Nevertheless, unfortunately, this elevated being may grow away from his thus inborn nature of being "the microcosm," and be the cause of evils. "Valuable programmes have been deposited in him by Divine Determining." However, "in regard to destruction and evil, his evil-commanding soul may commit infinite crimes, but concerning creativity and good, its power is extremely little and partial. Yes, he may destroy a house in one day, but he cannot build it in a hundred."47
The most difficult but most direct way of preventing this important, and very dangerous, creature from giving rise to evil, is purifying the ego. Bediuzzaman says: "..egotism, however, is a form of non-existence which has acquired the colour of existence due to a wrongful claim to ownership, not knowing man's being to be mirror-like, and assuming the imaginary to be actual."48 In other words, the egotism of the evil-commanding soul expects is not a state of pure existence, but a false state of existence. Ontologically, the problem of belonging arose (because he is essentially a mirror of the Divine Names), and epistemologically a false state of awareness arose (because he supposes the imaginary to be knowledge). This situation, which is apparently existence, is an insult to man's being, because the essential human attributes, which were enumerated above and afford him importance, are non-existent in this state of being. And when they cease to be, the existence of the ego is the source of numerous calamities. Very few of the human choices are then in their proper places. He has to avoid "voluntary bad deeds and the abandoning of habit" in order not to be the source of evil.49
Bediuzzaman believes that the worst of human evils are those in the field of religion. "True disaster is that which affects religion,"50 he says, and continues, because "unbelief is an evil, a destruction, an absence of affirmation. But that single evil comprises insulting the whole universe, belittling all the Divine Names, and abusing all humanity." For unbelief, "drags down the manifestations to meaninglessness."51
It may be seen from this that Bediuzzaman deals with the question of unbelief in much more comprehensive manner than it has hitherto been dealt with, on a cosmological scale, and considers it to be a grievous sin, whose source is man, and is the source too of many other evils. According to Bediuzzaman, the cure for it, both on the psychological level and on the cosmological level lies in belief. The believer is one who, on the cosmological level puts everything in its right place, including the ontological status of his own ego, and says "there can be nothing better in the sphere of contingency than what is." He may say: "Since we have an infinitely precious bounty like belief, both old age is agreeable, and illness, and death. If there are things that are disagreeable, they are sin, vice, innovations, and misguidance."52 The way to be saved from all these evils is to advance in the light of Divine unity with belief and love. Bediuzzaman says: "Love, man's sweetest, most pleasurable, and most precious emotion: if the mystery of Divine unity assists it, it gives miniscule man the expanse and breadth of the universe, and makes him a petted monarch of the animals."53 And so, O monarch! "Rend the egotism in your soul, and show Him!"54
*Prof. Dr. MEHMET AYDIN
Prof. Mehmet Aydin was born in Elazig in 1943. He graduated from the Theology Faculty of Ankara University in 1966, and in 1967 was sent to England to do his doctorate by the National Education Ministry. He received this from Edinburgh University in 1972, returned to Turkey, and was appointed philosophy assistant in the Faculty of Islamic Sciences in Ataturk University. In 1978 he was appointed 'Doçent' in systematic Philosophy and Logic. In addition at this time he taught the Philosophy Depts. of the Middle East Technical University and Ankara University. In 1984 he was appointed Professor in the Theology Faculty of Dokuz Eyl?l University, Izmir, where he is today Dean of the Faculty.
Prof. Aydin has published works in the fields of religion and philosophy in Turkish, English, Arabic, and Dutch. He is the member of various academic and learned institutions in Turkey and abroad, and is also a consultant to a number of journals.
1. For more detailed information and relevant sources, see, Mehmed Aydin, Din Felsefesi, Izmir, Dokuz Eyl?l ?niversitesi Yayinlari 1990, 120 ff.
2. Alfarabi's Philosophiche Abhad Lungen, Leiden, F. Dietrici 1880, 9.
3. Aydin, Mehmet, Din Felsefesi, 122.
5. Nursî, Bedi?zzaman Said, Lem'alar, Istanbul, S?zler Yayinevi 1995, 255, 259, 260 / The Flashes Collection [Eng. trans: S?kran Vahide], S?zler Publications 1995, 311, 315, 316-7.
6. Lem'alar, 264 / The Flashes Collection, 320.
8. Lem'alar, 258 / The Flashes Collection, 314.
9. Lem'alar, 250 / The Flashes Collection, 305.
10. Qur'an, 30:41.
11. Lem'alar, 244-5 / The Flashes Collection, 299.
12. Aydin, Mehmet, Din Felsefesi, 48 ff. See also, Aydin, Mehmed, Isl?min Estetik G?r?s?, Kubbealti Akademi Mecmuasi 1986, 4.
13. Nursî, Bedi?zzaman Said, S?zler, S?zler Yayinevi 1993, 516-7 / The Words [Eng. trans: S?kran Vahide], S?zler Publications 1992, 552.
14. Lem'alar, / The Flashes Collection, .
15. Nursî, Bedi?zzaman Said, Mektûbat, S?zler Yayinevi 1994, 271 / Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Letters 1928-1932 [Eng. trans: S?kran Vahide], 336.
16. Mektûbat, 271 / Letters, 336; Lem'alar, 15-16 / The Flashes Collection, 29-30.
17. Nursî, Bedi?zzaman Said, Sualar, S?zler Yayinevi 1992, 13.
18. Sualar, 70.
19. Mektûbat, 274 / Letters, 339-40.
20. Sualar, 15-6.
21. Mektûbat, 274 / Letters, 340.
22. S?zler, 641-2 / The Words, 693-4.
23. Mektûbat, 274 / Letters, 340.
24. Lem'alar, 250 / The Flashes Collection, 305.
25. S?zler, 231 / The Words, 245.
26. Lem'alar (Ott. ed.), S?zler Yayinevi 1995, 103 / The Flashes Collection, 60.
27. Sualar, 66.
28. Lem'alar (Ott. ed.), 103 / The Flashes Collection, 60.
29. S?zler, 507 / The Words, 541.
30. Mektûbat, 272 / Letters, 337; Lem'alar, 10 / The Flashes Collection, 23.
31. S?zler, 225 / The Words, 240.
32. See, Qur'an, 2:216.
33. S?zler, 225 / The Words, 241.
34. S?zler, 333, 570 / The Words, 350, 615.
35. Sualar, 27.
36. Sualar, 27-8.
38. Mektûbat, 272 / Letters, 337.
39. Sualar, 27.
40. Lem'alar, 10 / The Flashes Collection, 23.
41. Lem'alar, 223 / The Flashes Collection, 276.
42. Lem'alar, 12 / The Flashes Collection, 26.
43. Lem'alar, 13 / The Flashes Collection, 27.
44. S?zler, 321 / The Words, 338-9.
45. S?zler, 169 / The Words, 192-3.
46. S?zler, 137 / The Words, 158.
47. S?zler, 312-3 / The Words, 329-30.
48. Sualar, 70.
49. Lem'alar, 64 / The Flashes Collection, 95.
50. Lem'alar, 12 / The Flashes Collection, 26.
51. S?zler, 312, 451 / The Words, 329, 479; Sualar, 70.
52. Lem'alar, 250 / The Flashes Collection, 304.
53. Sualar, 15.
54. S?zler, 350 / The Words, 369.