QUR'ANIC ETHICS IN SAID NURSI'S RISALE-I NUR
University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556, USA
Patience (sabr) is a predominant virtue in the Qur'an. The word sabr itself is repeated many times in the Qur'an in different chapters and it is a virtue whose cultivation is strongly recommended for the believers. Sabr, from the Qur'anic viewpoint, is an essential component of Iman or faith itself. In Surat al-Baqara, verses 156 - 157, God declares to the believers: We shall test you with a bit of fear and hunger, plus a shortage of wealth and souls and produce. Announce to patient people who say, whenever some misfortune strikes them: "We belong to God, and are returning to Him;" that they will have their prayers accepted by their Lord, and granted mercy. These are the guided ones." An earlier verse from the same chapter counsels Muslims, "O those who believe, seek help through patience and prayer; for God is with those who are patient" (2:153). The patient are moreover assured of God's love and support; Surat Al 'Imran, verse 146 says, "God loves the patient;" while Surat al-Anfal, verse 46 assures the believers that "God is with the patient." God promises the patient boundless reward; Surat al-Zumar, verse 10 states, " Indeed the patient are given their recompense without measure." Patience, furthermore, is beautiful, according to the Qur'an (Surat Yusuf, 18, 73), and the faithful urge one another to be patient (Surat al-'Asr, 3). Without this constant enjoining of one another, the Qur 'an warns, humans tend to be impatient (in Arabic, "halu'an;" Surat al-Ma'arij, 19), a trait that is disagreeable in a Muslim.
The hadith literature is also full of references to patience and its many beneficial consequences. Once again, patience is described as a basic hallmark of the true believer. One well-known hadith quotes the Prophet as saying, "Strange is the affair of the believer (al-mu'min); indeed all his affairs are good for him. If something pleasing befalls him he thanks God and it becomes better for him. And if something harmful befalls him he is patient (saabir) and it becomes better for him. And this is only for the true believers (al-mu'minin)." A hadith related by Sa'id al-Khudri states that the Prophet said, "Whoever is patient, God will grant him patience. No one has been given anything better nor more bountiful (awsa') than patience."1
In another hadith, the Prophet says, "When God brings together the people [sc. on the last day], a heralder will call out, "Where are the people of patience?" These people will rise up and they are few in number, and they will speed off to heaven. The angels will meet them and say, "Indeed we see you rushing off to heaven; so who are you?" They reply, "We are the people of patience." And they ask, " And what did your patience consist of?" They say, "We were patient in obedience to God and we were patient in averting ourselves from disobedience to God." Then it was said to them, "Enter heaven! Great is the reward of those who do [good]."2
The Views of Some Muslim Thinkers on Patience
Many scholars and other luminaries of Islam have extolled the virtues of patience. For example, 'Ali b. Abi Talib, is quoted as saying, "Does not patience in relation to faith have the position of the head to the body, so that if the head is severed, the body perishes?" The he raised his voice and proclaimed, "Is it not so that whoever does not have patience, does not have faith?"3 The famous Basran tabi'i al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 728), "Patience is a treasure-trove among the treasure-troves of goodness; He does not grant it to any except a worshipper to whom He is generous." 'Umar b. 'Abd al-'Aziz is said to have declared during a sermon, "Whenever God confers on a worshiper a blessing, then withdraws it from him, and substitutes patience for what He withdrew, then that which He substituted is far better than what was withdrawn." Then 'Umar recited, "Indeed God grants the patient their recompense without measure."4
Said Nursi"s Views
In his inspirational work, Risale-i Nur, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi rebukes the human carnal soul (nafs or more completely nafs ammara) for its inclination toward impatience, among other negative traits. Without refining and restraining the carnal soul, humans are inevitably led down the path of physical indulgence and spiritual ruination. In a striking passage, Said Nursi addresses the erring soul:
And so, my impatient soul! You are charged with being patient in three respects.
One is patience in worship. Another is patience in refraining from sin. And a
third is patience in the face of disaster. If you are intelligent, take as your guide
the truth apparent in the comparison in this Third Warning. Say in manly
fashion: "O Most Patient One!" and shoulder the three sorts of patience. If you
do not squander on the wrong way the forces of patience Almighty God has
given you, they should be enough for every difficulty and disaster. So hold
out with those forces! 5
Bediuzzaman's moving address to his soul incorporates many of the major themes of Qur'anic and hadith discourse on the desirability of cultivating patience for the believer. The three major aspects of patience delineated by our author : 1) patience in worship; 2) patience in refraining from sin; and 3) patience in the face of disaster, are particularly reminiscent of a well-known hadith related by 'Ali b. Abi Talib. In this report, 'Ali says, "The Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, said, 'Patience is of three kinds: patience during tribulations; patience in obedience to God, and patience in avoiding sin. Whoever has patience during a tribulation until he averts it by the seemliness of his forbearance, God will ordain for him three hundred levels [of recompense]; the distance between each level would equal that between the sky and the earth. And whoever has patience in obedience to God, God writes down for him six hundred levels; the distance between each level would equal that between the boundaries of the earth till the edge of the divine throne. And whoever has patience in avoiding sin, God prescribes for him nine hundred levels; the distance between each level is twice the distance between the boundaries of the earth up to the edge of the divine throne."6
As is implicit in Said Nursi's supplication and made clear in this hadith narrated by 'Ali, these three types of patience stand the believer in good stead and cover the full gamut of life's experiences that requires patience. In this typology of patience, avoidance of sin and God's displeasure earns the highest merit for the believer, for that is clearly the most difficult goal to strive for.
Closely related to patience is humility, another cardinal Islamic virtue. Among the frequent adjectives the Qur'an uses to describe those believers who approach their Lord with humble penitence are: khashi'un, munibun, and muttaqun. These adjectives point to composite characteristics of those possessed of true humility. In general, "khashi'un" refers to the God-fearing, who abase themselves in awe before God's majesty and are constantly mindful that they are accountable to Him for their actions. For example, the Qur'an (23:2) refers to the believers as "those who are humble (khashi'una) in their prayers," and also advises the believers (Qur'an 2:45) to "seek help in patience and prayer, for indeed it is hard except for the humble-minded (al-khashi'in)." Furthermore, "... men who are humble (al-khashi'in) and women who are humble (al-khashi'at)" are promised God's forgiveness and a generous recompense (Qur'an 23:35).
The munibun are those who constantly turn toward God, seeking His forgiveness for and repenting of their voluntary and involuntary misdeeds. God promises them His reward, which is reserved "for every penitent and heedful one, who fears the Beneficent in secret and comes with a contrite heart (qalb munib)" (Qur'an 50:33). The great patriarch of monotheism, Abraham, is described in the Qur'an (11:75) as "gracious, tender-hearted, and penitent (munib)." The believers are commanded to "turn to Him (munibin ilayhi) and to be mindful of Him, perform the prayer and be not of those who ascribe partners [to Him]" (Qur'an 30:33).
The muttaqun, "the pious and righteous believers," are so termed because they possess taqwa, which Fazlur Rahman has glossed as an "inner torch"7 possessed by those who are always conscious of God. They are the truly humble because the term muttaqun subsumes the complementary and overlapping characteristics of the khashi'un and the munibun, and they earn this term because their mind-set and their conduct testify to the centrality of God's presence in their lives and their dynamic relationship with him. It is the muttaqun who are promised success in the Qur'an; as one verse (3:200) counsels: "Believers, be patient and forebear. Stand firm in your faith, and fear and obey God (ittaqu), in order that you may succeed (tuflihuna)." Another such verse (Qur'an 24:52) promises that "he who obeys God and His messenger, and fears God (wa-yakhsha Allah) and is mindful of his duty to Him (wa-yattaqih): such indeed are the victorious (al-fa'izun)." Patience and God-consciousness are a particularly meritorious combination in the Qur'anic constellation of virtues; verse 90 of the 12th chapter Yusuf , "[As for] one who is mindful of God and patient (man yattaqi wa-yasbir), indeed God will not forfeit the recompense due to those who do good."
The opposite of the humble believer is the individual who is disdainful (yastaknif) and haughty (yastakbir), refusing to acknowledge his or her servitude to God; the Qur'an warns of the severe retribution that awaits such a one.
The Messiah will never disdain to be a servant of God, nor will the favored angels. Whoever disdains to worship Him and is proud, all of them He will assemble unto Him. Then as for those who believed and did good works, He will give them their wages in full, adding more to them of His bounty. And as for those who were scornful and proud, He will punish them with a severe punishment. And they will not find for themselves against God any protector or helper. (Qur'an 4:172-73).
Several other verses in the Qur'an point to the terrible consequences of human pride and ingratitude towards God.
In Islamic ethics, humility thus leads to true success (al-falaah), which is largely defined as earning God's approval and avoiding His displeasure. In a well-known hadith, the Prophet Muhammad said, "Whoever is humble, God raises him up, and whoever is arrogant, God will bring him down low." 8 In another hadith, the angel Gabriel is said to have addressed the Prophet thus, "O Messenger of God, God greets you and asks, 'Do you wish to be a prophet-king or a prophet-servant?' Gabriel counseled, "O Muhammad, be humble towards your Lord!" And the Prophet answered that he wished to be a prophet-servant. For a Muslim following the sunna of the Prophet, service to God must, therefore, be the ultimate objective of his or her life. To this end, in addition to patience, the believer must also cultivate humility, on which characteristic we will now dwell in further detail.
Humility in Said Nursi's Thought
In his Risale-i Nur, Said Nursi emphasizes that without God's help and magnanimity, humans are incapable of achieving anything. Whatever they have received -- whether that is intelligence, beauty, knowledge, or strength - all emanates from the same divine source. Thus humans should not boast of their individual qualities as if only they were responsible for them without mention of their Creator who has bestowed these qualities on them and mandated their proper use. Said Nursi points to the Qur'anic example of Qarun, who had been given much riches by God; but who, instead of expressing his gratitude to his divine benefactor, boasted "I have been given it on account of the knowledge I have." (Qur'an 28:78). The divine retribution that was consequently visited on him was on account of his unseemly arrogance and ingratitude. Said Nursi therefore warns humankind, "O man! Since the reality of the matter is thus, give up egotism and arrogance. With the tongue of seeking help proclaim your impotence and weakness at the Divine Court, and with the tongue of entreaty and supplication, your poverty and need. Show that you are His slave. Say: 'God is enough for us, for He is the Best Disposer of Affairs, [Qur'an 13:173] and rise in degree."9
Indeed, one of the best and commonest epithets of the Muslim which he wears proudly is 'abd Allah, "the servant or slave of God;" for a woman, we have the term amat Allah, "the handmaid of God." Willing and grateful servitude to one's Creator fundamentally defines the true believer in Islam, who humbly acknowledges the debt he or she owes to the Divine Being. Said Nursi articulates this joyous servitude to God on the part of the believer in an arresting supplication:
O God! You are our Sustainer, for we are mere slaves; we are powerless to sustain
and raise ourselves. That is to say, the One Who sustains us is You! And it is You Who is the Creator, for we are creatures, we are being made! And it is You Who is the Provider, for we are in need of provision, we have no power! That is to say, the One Who creates us and bestows on us our provisions is You! And it is You Who is the Owner, because we are totally owned property; someone other than us has power of disposal over us. That is to say, it is You Who is our Owner! And You, You are Mighty! You possess grandeur and sublimity! As for us we look to our baseness and see that there are manisfestations of a mightiness on us. That is to say, we are mirrors to Your mightiness! And it is You Who is the Possessor of Absolute Riches, because we are utterly wanting, and riches are bestowed on us that our indigent hands could not obtain. That is to say, it is You Who is rich, the One Who gives is You! And You, You are the Ever-living, Ever-Enduring One, because we, we are dying, and in our dying and in our being resurrected we see the manifestation of a perpetual giver of life! And You, You are Ever-Enduring, because we see Your continuation and perpetualness in our demise and transience! And the One Who responds to us and answers us, the Granter of Gifts is You. For all of us beings, we are ever crying out and requesting, entreating, imploring by tongue and by state. And our desires are brought about, our aims are achieved. In other words, the One Who answers us is You! 10
This supplication is an eloquent testimony to the majesty and transcendence of God and the total dependence of human beings on Him. Constant remembrance of God and His bounties toward mankind fosters this kind of exemplary humility and awe in the worshipper. As is well-known, the individual who denies the fundamental gratitude and obedience that he or she owes to the Creator is called a kafir; which means an ingrate or an ungrateful person. Kufr al-ni'ma, "the denial of God's bounties" is the ultimate act of baseness for a human, for such a denial makes a him or her an unbeliever in the existence of God Himself. The reverse shukr al-ni'ma, "gratitude for God's bounties" is the ultimate affirmation of the basic compact that exists between the Supreme Being and His creation.
If we look at this supplication closely, we can distinguish several elements in it that are worthy of further commentary. According to Said Nursi, humans need to be particularly humble before God because, first, He is their Sustainer or Guardian while they are His mere servants or slaves. Second, He is the Supreme Creator who gives and takes life while humans are only created beings who can neither give nor take life. Third, it is God alone Who provides for His creation; humans, like all other created beings, are dependent on Him for their nourishment and livelihood. Fourth, God is the complete owner or master of humankind; humans are beholden to their Lord and Master for everything they own and do on material earth and ultimately accountable to Him on the last judgement. Fifth, He is the possessor of unequalled majesty and splendor; none can rival Him in His sublimeness. Before Him, humans are aware of their lowly state and, yet, at the same time, as Said Nursi points out, they are able to discover in themselves some reflection of that divine might and glory. And the implication is, that by cultivating this paltry human reflection of that awesome, divine majesty, humans can attain to a loftier state of being and thinking denied to those who do not make this effort. Sixth, God's attribute as the supreme and sole Bestower of benefits and bounties on humankind is emphasized. He is the possessor of limitless riches and abundance while we are destitute and wanting, in dire need of His generosity and grace. Seventh, God is the only Eternal Being, the one who endures through time while humans are mortal and finite beings. Mindfulness of our own perishability before the infiniteness of God again points to our extremely humble status before Him. And finally, Said Nursi points out in this supplication, it is only the Almighty Who listens and responds to our entreaties and can grant our wishes; without His will, we can accomplish and attain to nothing. Enumeration of these divine traits rehearses in the worshipper's mind a fraction of the reasons why he or she must be completely aware of one's abject humility and lowliness before God.
It is clear from the preceding discussion that Bediuzzaman is referring to many of the 99 attributes or the most beautiful names (al-asma' al-husna) of God in this supplication. The Sustainer or Guardian (al-Waali) , the Creator (al-Khaliq/al-Bari'), the Provider (al-Razzaq), the Owner (Maalik al-mulk), the Mighty (al-'Aziz/al-Jabbar), the Possessor of Absolute Riches (al-Ghani), the Ever-Living (al-Qayyum, al-Samad, al-Baqi), the Granter of Gifts (al-Wahhab), and the One Who Answers (al-Mujib) are nine of the essential attributes of God. In a very insightful manner, he has offered us through his selection and explanation of these apposite divine names a clear sense of the fundamental and intimate nature of the relationship that exists between humans and their Creator. One may say that humility on the part of the Muslim is already implied in the name "Muslim" and is the sine qua non of his or her identity: one who submits to the Creator must a priori admit one's abnegation before Him. This brief exposition by Said Nursi reminds us of the brilliant treatise by al-Ghazali (d. 1111) on the divine attributes known as al-Maqsad al-asna. Said Nursi, therefore, continues this honored tradition of praising the Almighty's myriad exquisite names and extrapolating from them the deep-seated meanings that illuminate our relationship with the Almighty.
Relevance of these two virtues in the age of globalization
At first blush, it may appear that patience and humility are not terribly relevant in our rapidly globalizing, materialistic world in which speed, self-assurance, and self-reliance are in greater demand. Patience may indeed appear to some as lack of energy and resolve; humility might imply an embarrassing lack of confidence in oneself. And yet globalization which has brought economic well-being for some have come under criticism from other quarters for showing a disregard for universal ethical and moral values. The phenomenon of economic globalization is attributed by its detractors to motives of greed and commercial profiteering which has fueled a callous disregard for general ethical concerns and a disdain for specific cultural values of traditional societies in less economically privileged parts of the world. Many of these critics often say that economic profit in itself has not brought happiness or emotional well-being to the industrialized nations either; if anything they are more than ever afflicted by alienation, emotional instability, and spiritual malaise. Therefore, the time has come to vigorously push for the adoption or re-adoption of ethical principles such as patience and humility, not only in our interpersonal relationships but also in transnational contacts among individuals, governments, and by multinational corporations in the competitive world of business.
Recent religious resurgent movements throughout the world speak to a desire on the part of increasingly vocal groups clamoring to infuse the world of politics and business corporations with religiously inspired ethical values. Some sociologists, like Jose Casanova, have observed that this may increasingly lead to a deprivatization of religion in industrialized countries or, at least, increasing demands for such an action. He sees this as a healthy development regardless of whether revitalized religion can regain its role, at least in the West, "of systemic normative integration" of all sectors of society. The reason for this is, as he suggests, is that
by crossing boundaries, by raising questions publicly about the autonomous
pretensions of the differentiated spheres to function without regard to moral
norms or human considerations, they may help to mobilize people against such pretensions, they may contribute to a redrawing of the boundaries, or, at the very
least, they may force or contribute to a public debate about such issues. Irrespective of the outcome or the historical impact of such a debate, religions will have played an important public role."11
Casanova's opinion flies in the face of much received wisdom concerning the modern Western civil society which, in general, tends to relegate, if not altogether banish as in some European contexts, religion to the private and largely domestic sphere. Religiously-inspired ethical values are suspect in the public sphere and generally regarded by government policy-makers and corporate board officials as largely irrelevant and sometimes even subversive. And yet the rebellion of considerable segments of the citizenry of various polities today have brought this tension between the "amoral public" and "moral private" spheres, characteristic of secular modernity, to the fore. There appears to be a burgeoning desire to resacralize public life and to find a congruence between the values one subscribes to in one's personal and family life and in one's professional life, at least on the part of more reflective and religiously committed people. For example, in a recent publication issued by the Templeton Foundation Press, the author John Templeton, formerly a financial moghul on Wall Street, emphasizes the key role humility has to play in a re-spiritualized world order.12
It is commonplace to assert that Islam recognizes no such dichotomy between the public and private spheres13 but posits instead the holistic unity of the two, both sacred and equally moral. The Qur'an and the sunna together provide extensive moral directives for the individual's domestic and non-domestic lives. The traditional division between 'ibadat (worship) and mu'amalat (deeds), while recognizing a bifurcation of functions - the first intensely personal and the second mainly social - recognizes no parting of the ways with regard to the applicability of religio-ethical norms. One is reminded of the elaborate medieval manuals with its clear, Qur'anically derived prescriptions for principled and moral conduct in the marketplace, among other places of work. Furthermore, the principle of hisba which requires able Muslims "to command right and forbid wrong" recognizes no spatial boundaries in which this principle would not be incumbent. The conscientious Muslim would thus be morally bound to register disapproval of ecologically unsound practices and demonstrably exploitative practices, for example, of a company in which he or she was employed.
This general Islamic attitude is reflected in Bediuzzaman's Risale-i Nur. Righteous action, committed with true intent and spirit, is a continuation of faith and enables both the individual and the society to grow. This is the true meaning of progress, which is gauged not in terms of material prosperity but in terms of the moral elevation of the human soul and temperament and the spread of commonweal among mankind. Said Nursi compares the human being to a seed in which there is much potential; whether this seed grows into a thriving, fruit-bearing tree from which much benefit may be derived depends on how this seed is nurtured. He points out that should man waste his potential in satisfying the desires of his carnal soul and in the pursuit of worldly pleasures, "he will decay and decompose in the midst of difficulties in a brief life in a constricted place like the rotted seed ... .14 Bediuzzaman continues, "If, however, he nurtures the seed of his abilities with the water of Islam and light of belief under the soil of worship and servitude to God, conforms to the commands of the Qur'an, and turns his faculties towards their true aims, they will produce branches and buds in the World of Similitudes and the intermediate realm; he will be a seed of great value and shining machine containing the members of an everlasting tree and permanent truth which will be the means to innumerable perfections and bounties in Paradise. And he will be a blessed and luminous fruit of the tree of the universe." 15 Such growth and true progress of course do not occur overnight; it is through patient cultivation of one's soul and by acknowledging one's gratitude to God that one is able to realize one's true potential, and it is through individual growth that one ultimately also effect true social progress. Thus we see a genuine reflection of classical Islamic ethics in Said Nursi's Risale-i Nur. His work offers an insightful explication of the bedrock moral values and principles that the Muslim individual and the community have tried to subscribe to in the past and to which they must still subscribe, if they are to realize the objective of establishing a just and ethical social and world order. We have further indicated that a significant cross-section of people maintain that these values and principles are of continuing relevance in a globalizing world. Works like the Risale-i Nur ensure that these crucial ethical values remain a part of the transnational discourse on globalization and its impact.
1. Found in Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-zakat, bab al-isti'faf 'an al-mas'ala, vol. 2, p.129.
2. See Ibn Abi Dunya, Al-Sabr wa-'l-thawab 'alayhi (Beirut, 1418/1997), p. 23.
3. Ibn Abi al-Dunya, Sabr, p. 24.
4. Ibn Abi 'l-Dunya, Sabr, p. 30.
5. The Words: On the Nature and Purposes of Man, Life, and All Things, translated by Sukran Vahide (Istanbul, 1992), vol. 1, p. 278.
6. Ibn Abi 'l-Dunya, Sabr, p. 31.
7. See his Major Themes of the Qur'an (Minneapolis, 1994), p. 9.
8. Hindi, Kanz al-'ummal, vol. 3, p.113; Haythami, vol. 10, p. 325.
9. The Words, Vol. 1, p. 337.
10. The Words, Vol. 1, p. 682.
11. See Jose Casanova, "Private and Public Religions," in Social Research , 1992, vol. 59, Issue 1.
12. See his Possibilities for Over One Hundredfold More Spiritual Information (Philadelphia, 2000).
13. This Hegelian notion of a strict division between the public and private spheres has been criticized as largely artificial in many quarters.
14. The Words, Vol. 1, p. 331.
15. The Words, Vol. 1, 331.