Religious Freedom: Ideas From The Risale-i Nur for Living Together In A Multicultural World
Standing for a dialogical Science of Religion connected to the world's oldest Protestant faculty, my questions are:
a) Which interpretation of the basic documents of a community is accepted within that community?
b) Which of these interpretations promotes external communication by offering possibilities for the convergency of opinions? By that I mean, that they, in spite of remaining differences in the fundamental thoughts, encourage understanding in a non-violent way.
a) I begin with the first question. By Turkish citizens the Qur'an interpretation of Said Nursi (= SN) was made known in Germany. I personally got into contact with it 25 years ago through one of his direct disciples, Abdul-Muhsin Alkonavi in Berlin. To him I offer by this article my heartfelt gratitude for the inspirations which he imparted to me again and again during all this time. Nursi's activities before and in the Republic of Turkey are specially imbued with the nonviolent support of religious freedom on an Islamic basis. He earns our respect for having spent decades of his life in external bondage. His work Risale-i Nur was meant by him to be a truthful commentary to the meanings in the Qur'an, based on the "significative sense" of the "Great Book of the Universe". Therefore the interpetation of the revealed scriptures is held to be variable according to time and space, and thus the meaning of the Qur'an, too, is believed to be changeable and open to deeper understanding due to scientific discoveries. In these ideas, Nursi's adherents find the instruction to spread the truths of belief in a djihad of words (cihad-i manevi) and to maintain public order in constructive service.
b) I come to the second question concerning the promotion of external communication. In Nursi's approach a secular republic is affirmed in which the religious people should be treated just as the non-religious, in which the freedom of conscience constitutes a fundamental law and the religious truths are not at all subject to worldly interests.
Such a secular state is, ideally, based on coexistence as a tolerant living together of citizens with different traditions. Moreover, the monotheistic religions, being aware of their divine mission, would ideally insist upon living together in terms of confronting each other with the truth of tradition while interpreting tradition towards convergency as a means to the end of common survival.
All forms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam find the characteristics of their respective approach to the rights of freedom, equality and solidarity which humans should grant one another in God who is the transcendent vis-à-vis to the sum of all immanent conditions, taken as a basis in the monotheistic idea: Being created by the same God and appointed to grateful care for each other and for the world around, all who are humans are granted such inalienable dignity and rights. In the secular tradition of the West, the corresponding term is the unconditional dignity of the person, standing for the transcendent aspect of the immanent human being; it is unviolable because it transcends all worldly conditions.
After these introducing considerations, I intend to apply both of my questions to Nursi's arguments regarding two subjects: firstly to the general field of religious freedom and secondly to a special area of it: the quarrel about the head-scarf.
1) Religious Freedom
1a) Among Muslims, there is a broad consensus concerning human duties in the first and of human rights in the second place. Nursi's Fifth Word mentions two duties: "The first creation, and maintenance of life are responsibilities of the Creator alone. The second is our responsibility - begging from the Creator and Sustainer, relying on Him totally…to avoid being a trouble or burden on others…". Thus, from the inner duty to practise religion there results an inner freedom granted by religion.
However, Nursi's Eighth Word is explaining the path of Islam which promises such security and freedom on the one hand puts people under the obligation to observe the Islamic laws and prescriptions and on the other hand as such should be chosen freely and consciously. With Nursi's Sixteenth Word , daily the five obligatory prayers of Islam can be seen "as a kind of ascension to heaven" and, its words being the words of God Himself ,"as an example of pure grace." For with Nursi's Second Station of the Twentieth Word, religion itself is "an incentive to competition": "Had the Qur'an spoken explicitly, the mystery of God's proposition would have been destroyed. … Then everybody would have been forced to consent, whether willing or not." Therefore the believer, according to the Twenty-Second Word, cannot but suggest the disbeliever to acknowledge the unity of the world as evidence for the one and only Creator and Lord: "But every thing indicates him, points to him, bears witness to him. How can you deny the evidence of all these things?"
Nursi's Twenty-Third Word states that " whoever attains true beliefe…can, in proportion to the strength of his belief, be relieved of the pressures of events." Nursi concludes from this freedom by face, " that men has come to this life to seek perfection through knowledge and prayer". For, as he emphasizes, "belief enables man to attain true humanity, and to acquire a position above all other creatures. Thus, belief and worship are the most fundamental and important duties of man. Unbelief, by contrast, reduces him to the state of a brutal but extremely impotent beast." This results in that Word's invitations like: "Ascend to the highest rank of humanity, and as the most favoured and the most superior of all creation, include in yours the prayer of the whole universe!" and: "Show that you are His true servant. Then say 'God is sufficient for us. Most sublime is He in Whom we trust' (Qur'an 1:173), and, in saying so, ascend to the higher ranks".
Nursi gained his influence through his non-violent resistance that was substantiated in that manner, directed against - as he called it in his objections to Afyon Court in the Fourteenth Ray - "the arbitrary commands of a commander, called laws." For they were issued by a secular state which in his opinion was not understood correctly as long as it granted less freedom to loyal religiously engaged citizens than to others. His ideas concerning religious freedom grew to be important although - or even just because - he could time and again, as stressed in that Ray, emphazise that he had "not become involved in politics, nor provoked the authorities, nor disturbed public order."
1b) Regarding external communication, Nursi gained from his meditation on the signs of God in nature the important insight formulated in his Fifth Word that "getting the needed food is not a matter of exercising strength or free will, on the contrary it is a matter of being in need and suffering shortcomings or shortages". And in his meditation of Qur'an 3,19 "The religion before God is Islam (submission to His will)" in his Eighth Word, he stresses that it is a matter of free will to choose that submission which, trusting in God's rules and prescriptions, grants security.
With both of these interpretations of God's signs in nature and in Qur'an, I see possibilities of dialogue concerning the concept of the unconditioned dignity of person that is fundamental to all human rights of Western tradition. For Nursi's Fifth Word declares the strength of everything in creation to consist in its orientation to the only mightful Creator, the strength of humans with their free will consisting in their fight against their own ego. And Nursi's Eighth Word is addressed to this ego to follow freely God's rules and prescriptions to have security in orientation within the ambiguities of earthly life.
In Western tradition, Jews and Christians, too, while emphasizing that the rights of man are not to be bound to any preceeding duties but to be granted without any precondition, nevertheless continue by describing the connection between human rights and human duties as a task. In a way exemplary for the situation of many Asian and African countries, the connection of human rights and duties has been made clear in the Declaration of Human Rights of the National Council of the Churches in Korea of 1983. This declaration included a self commitment to the "participation in God's new creation" by the engagement for "democratic reforms … in order to rescue the people from great need and to reconstitute the injured national pride."
This Christian expression of self commitment to the participation in God's new creation seems to point to the same direction and possibly - converging - to the same thing as Nursi's idea described above. For him, the summary of the worship of God and at the same time of the duties in human life is to confess one's neediness in the presence of God and observe the obligatory prayers. By fulfilling these, humans according to Nursi's Eleventh Word can rise "to a rank higher than that of any other creature. They will become God's trustworthy governors on earth by favour of faith." In Nursi's Twenty-Third Word, we read: "If, therefore, man perceives his weakness and becomes a humble servant to God through his prayer, verbal and active, if he recognizes his impotence and seeks God's help, he will then have fulfilled the obligation of gratitude for the subjugation of nature to him. Besides, God will enable him to reach his goal".
To the external communication also belongs the expectation that it might not be that difficult for the owners of holy scriptures, especially Jews and Christians, to embrace Islam deliberately perfecting their belief on the basis of their own religions. Moreover, the Risale-i Nur in footnote 8 to the Second Cause to the Twentieth Flash envisions a Christian-Islamic alliance: "It is even recorded in authentic traditions of the Prophet that at the end of time the truly pious among the Christians will unite with the People of Qur'an and fight their common enemy, irreligion … - aggressive atheism."
As early as 1933/34, Nursi in the Fifth Note of the Seventeenth Flash made clear: "Europe is two. One follows the sciences which serve justice and right and the industries beneficial for the life of society through the inspiration it has received from true Christianity." But "the second corrupt Europe … through the darkness of the philolosophy of Naturalism, supposing the evils of civilization to be its virtues, has driven mankind to vice and misguidance". According to Nursi, the anti-religious trend of Naturalism implies the danger of estranging Muslims and Christians from their roots as well as from each other.
As a consequence of his appreciation of Christians, Nursi in his Debates advocated the freedom of the Greeks and Armenians in Eastern Anatolia during the violent ethnic confrontations in World War I around 1915: In his opinion, their freedom implied to leave them alone and not to suppress them, because this was the commandment of the shari´a. For him this was definitely God's will, the more so as the real enemy was not to be seen in a Christian community. The enemies who are destroying Eastern Anatolia were firstly ignorance, secondly the resulting poverty and thirdly the hostility derived from that. After all, "the freedom of the non-Muslims" was for him "a branch of our own freedom".
In view of the deaths of so many guiltless humans in World War II, Nursi, in his Kastamonu Lahikas? went even one step further. Although those who had suffered violence were disbelievers, in his opinion, they were going to be rewarded from the treasury of divine grace in the other world. For in each case, God's mercy for the suppressed would appear visible. He himself expressed in his Fourteenth Ray again and again that he personally forgave those who as government officials did him injustice, because he understood that only by forgiveness the relation of hostility resulting from injustice could be overcome and dissolved.
With all these ideas, Nursi earns attention in the Christian and secular West as a thinker who in a country with an Islamic majority advocates religious freedom - no doubt primarily for Muslims, but for Christian minorities as well - and who within and outside of this country gained influential adherents. Nursi's Qur'an exegesis roots firmly in the Islamic consensus concerning the bases of human rights: Islam as "devotion (to God)" and the Qur'an as "recitation (of God's word)" start from the belief that God dignified man by enabling him to perceive his word and to deliberately follow him. For this reason, Qur'an 9,6 prescribes that even an ignorant disbeliever is to be granted protection for listening to the word of God and the freedom to withdraw. For according to the Qur'an all humans are dignified by God (17,70) and obliged to him (7,172) as his governors (khalifa; 2,30).
Wherever in Qur'an exegesis there is more room for interpretation, Nursi's ideas conjoin with ideas of reformers outside of Muslim dominated countries in favour of human rights. According to Qur'an 49,13, only the upright without regard to anything else can favour with God; Qur'an 5,51 and 3,28.118 insist that only active enemies should become excluded from the complete community. Based on the sentence of Qur'an 2,185 "God desires for you ease, and desires not for you privation", there is a long Islamic tradition of pragmatic humanity. From that an Islamic kind of democracy determined by the principle of the faithful's consultation with one another (shura) can be derived (Qur'an 42,38). For besides the "path to life" (shari´a) founded by the revelation of the Qur'an to Muhammad, Islam also acknowledges such a path to life of Moses for the Jews and of Jesus for the Christians, and even of Noah as prophet and ambassador for all humans after the Flood according to Qur'an 11,48, making possible arrangements with all humans (Qur'an 9,7), self-responsibility (74,38), freedom from pressure in matters of faith (2,256) and respect for all sincere seekers after God (6,52).
2) The Head-Scarf as an Example
2a) There is a common feeling in Muslim countries to belong to "the best of peoples evolved for mankind" (Qur'an 3,110). In 1931, Nursi therefore emphasized in an article on "Nationalism in the View of Islam", now the Third Topic of the Twenty-Sixth Letter, that "positive nationalism must serve Islam", quoting Qur'an 5,57: "Soon will God produce a people whom He will love as they will love Him, - lowly with the believers, mighty against the rejecters, fighting in the way of God." Although he was a Turkish citizen of Kurdish origin, Nursi felt urged to utter a warning, because he perceived the danger of foreign infiltration by the West and by Christianity or rather by blind imitation: "O my Turkish brothers! You watch out in particular! Your nationhood has fused with Islam and may not be separated from it. If you do separate them, you will be finished! All your glorious deeds of the past are recorded in the book of Islam's deeds."
Nevertheless, the secular Turkish jurisdiction objected to two pages of Nursi's book, concerning the exegesis of Qur'an verses about the hereditary law and the veiling of women, because they were not in agreement with Turkish civil law. This being so, Nursi insisted upon the release of his 400 pages' volume without both of these pages and pointed in his Fourteenth Ray to the importance of religion for each nation: "If, God forbid, a Muslim apostasizes, he falls into absolute disbelief; he cannot remain in a state of 'doubting unbelief'…". This in the first moment sounds like an argumentation with regard to the Shari´a tradition in terms of which apostasy from Islam can only be answered by the execution of death penalty or at least by social death within all Muslim contexts. The continuation of Nursi's argumentation, however, leads in the direction of considering new, true belief possible till the end of life and of propagating this with his Qur'an exegesis. For he says in the Fourteenth Ray, regarding the good predispositions of man that they stay his innate friends and " were not annihilated" even by apostasy : "If belief enters his heart and he comes to belief, those innumerable friends are suddenly raised to life". Nursi therefore holds it to be impossible to refrain from this service to the faith and give up the Risale-i Nur with its explanation of the Qur'an.
Nursi declares in the Fourteenth Ray he would only acknowledge his sentence at court which he received for his explanation of the Qur'an "if it is possible to deny numerous of its explicit verses, which do not bear interpretation, about the veiling of women, inheritance, polygamy …, and if you can … abolish … freedom of conscience and freedom of thought, and intellectual and scholarly opposition…". In his Twenty-Fourth Flash "On Islamic Dress for Women", Nursi relates to Qur'an 33,59: "O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons [when abroad] …". Contrary to modern criticism, which "does not consider the veiling of women to be natural and says it is a slavery of a sort", he contends, that "this injunction of the Qur'an .. is entirely natural… To veil themselves is natural for women…. For … they are in need of a man's protection and help for themselves and for their children whom they love more than their own lives … and want by nature to cover themselves so as not to suffer assault, nor to be accused of unfaithfulness in the eyes of their husbands …. Being weak, their creation demands that through veiling themselves they do not excite the appetites of men outside the stipulated degrees of kinship, nor allow any opportunity for assault."
2b) Part of external communication is the reflexion on Shari´a sentences. The starting point of Nursi's Twenty-Second Word on independent law sentences (idjtihad) is Qur'an 4,83: "If they had only referred it to the Apostle, or to those charged with authority among them, the proper investigators would have tested it from them (direct)." For that he argues that the gateway of idjtihad was open, but in the present time, there were six hindrances. At first, he compares the Turkey of that time with a house in the midst of heavy storms when even small holes in a wall had to be stopped up and it was not at all reasonable to open new gateways. Like that, during the time of denial of belief, it would be a crime against Islam to open new gateways in the citadel of Islam in favour of idjtihad.
This argument by Nursi for having closed positions of Islamic jurisdiction in a time of defence could vice versa be an argument in favour of opening them up for a new discussion of fiqh in a time of safeguarded freedom of religion.
Secondly, he calls it a heresy and treason to Islam to give up basic doctrines although they represent the pure and honest interpretations of the first generation of Islam as well as are tailored to the needs of all times. Thirdly, he argues that nowadays the reason and heart of man are being the object of distraction while in the primeval community, heart and nature of the one who was gifted with extraordinary abilities were unconsciously receiving instructions for the realization of God. If, fourthly, the inclination to the idjtihad comes from those who prefer this world's life to the other world, Islam will be destroyed.
According to his own argumentation, again, these latter obstacles might be abolished if the discussions of scholars remain indepted to the interpretations of the primeval community, being attentive to God's signs in nature and in the holy scriptures and clearly putting aside personal and political inclinations behind God's will endeavouring for its realization in all these signs.
Fifthly, as Nursi argues, there are many things which have reached the stage of necessity but, having their origins in bad decisions, must not become the basis of prescriptions allowing them, allowing the unallowed. A sixth obstacle he sees in lies being preferred to truth because of political propaganda and diplomacy.
These obstacles to independent law decisions also might be withdrawable if this decision for a secular state proves to be good by facilitating within its secular frame free discussion and religious practice.
For on the other hand, as argues Nursi in the treatise mentioned above, with a Shari´a being dynamic, the prescriptions of holy laws are liable to change according to time and to the abilities of the nations. Nursi contends that in the prescriptions of the Shari´a the facts of secondary importance are concerning human circumstances, conforming to that circumstances like medicine. His basic argumentation is that because not all humans are dwelling on the same stage of knowledge and under the same social conditions, there arose several schools of Islamic jurisdiction. Starting from a hypothesis reminding me of the famous German sociologist Max Weber, he reflects: At first, there will be a change in nature as a result of the Shari´a representing a barrier against its assaults. Secondly, there will be a change in the secondary prescriptions of the Shari´a as a result of the townspeople's moving in a socially high and very cultivated and civilized context, provided that they are really honourable.
Nursi's reflexions about Islamic jurisdiction as it is to be used for the consideration of the head-scarf in a multicultural world, are restricted to the different informations given by the acknowledged Sunnite schools of the Hanafites and Schafiites. However, his appreciation of them as different kinds of medicine in different social and cultural situations within Turkey aims at a direction offering interesting opportunities for dialogue. For we may go on considering human nature and culture along these lines of thought. The creative change of humankind effected by culture which constitutes the difference between humans and animals is in Nursi's reflections a result of the Shari´a which initiates changes in men by forming a barrier against nature's attacks. And vice versa he states that in a culture more sublime, more liberal Islamic jurisdictions were advisable for townspeople, provided that they are really respectable.
The honour of a family in Muslim tradition is bound tightly to the respectability of the woman. In the Qur'an, however, respectability is first mentioned concerning males and in the following verse 24,31 regarding women: "Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them. … And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear therof; that the should draw their veils over their bosoms." The common conditions for covering the human body according to God's will is mentioned in Qur'an 7,26: "O ye Children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover your shame, as well as to be an adornment to you. But the raiment of righteousness, - that is the best. Such are among the signs of God, that they may receive admonition!" Every society accepted this comandment to cover the human body according to their own culture. Who acknowledges the observance of this commandment as an Islamic duty without practically observing it, is regarded according to mainstream in Islamic theology not as a disbeliever, but as a sinner.
In Islam the rights of the individuals are defined according to their position and duties in the community, their contribution to the protection and maintenance of the community is the basis for their rights. Insofar as men and women have different responsibilities in the family, they have different legal rights, too. But as the differences in the responsibilities of men and women in the family are decreasing in modern society, there is today also an Islamic argument for their equal rights as the best thing for the community in changed circumstances. For connected with God's will for his creation are God's eternal rights over humanity, as in Qur'an 2,229: all that is for the benefit of the community, which is living according to God's revealed will. Likewise, in so far as Muslims and Christians have different responsibilities in an Islamic state, they have different legal rights, too. But as differences in their responsibilities in the state are decreasing in a modern society there is a similar Islamic argument for their equal rights.
Such cultural changes were already taken into consideration by Nursi while discussing religious freedom because of the common fight for freedom against common external enemies and in expectation of the common conquest of aggressive hostility against religion. A similar appreciation of cultural change also seems to appear in the extension of his treatise "On Islamic Dress for Women", even if a common fight of Muslims and Christians for respectability in society was not a theme at that time. Nursi's treatise ends with reflexions on different environmental conditions with effect on the question what is regarded as preservation of respectability. He acknowledges that women partially have to do their work unveiled if this is necessary for their living, and that they do not arouse sexual desire because of their hard work. However, he only did not want that to become a common rule.
When this treatise was included in the Risale-i Nur, the aged Nursi added a discussion with some women who had wanted to be instructed by him. He praises the special natural disposition towards compassion and self-sacrificing courage to protect their children and the important positive influence of the women because of this especially valuable and central Islamic principle: "Now the most valuable and most essential principle in Islamic training and deeds pertaining to the hereafter, is sincerety. Such true sincerity is to be found in the heroism of this kind of compassion. … Happy the man who in in order not to lose his companion of eternity, copies his righteous wife and so becomes righteous himself. And happy the woman who, seeing her husband to be pious, adheres to religion herself so as not to lose her everlasting friend and companion." Then Nursi explains regarding the danger of losing Islamic values in Turkey during his lifetime: "At this time, the only means … causing the elevated qualities of women to unfold, is Islamic conduct within the bounds of the Shari´a."
Proceeding from Nursi's argumentation, in a world acknowledged as multicultural and a pluralistic society it should grow to be of secondary importance whether a person belongs to one of the mainstream Islamic schools. Instead, it might be of primary importance to be acknowledged as honourable in the way of Islam by relying on the one God and his prophet Muhammad. The community of the Alevites, for example, represents a special Muslim tradition with many adherents in Turkey and nowadays also in Germany. They emphasize that the commandment "Keep control over your hands, your tongue and your loins!" is valid for both sexes in the same way. Because women are not onesidedly considered to provoke sexual desire, the Alevite women are in no need to cover themselves and wear a head-scarf. Contrary to traditional Islam, the Alevites do not know a society separated in men and women.
It should become even acceptable that persons lead their respectable lifes in a secular society on the basis of Islamic law, of Islamic mind, of Christian mind or, for example, of a secular critical theory. A short time after the terror attacks of the 9th september 2001, the famous German philosopher J?rgen Habermas pleaded to the secularly minded people in a widely regarded speech. He called it necessary to meet the believers' wishes halfway if they on their part make an effort to translate their convictions into other ways of expression than the traditional ones, for religious communities are surviving in a society growing more and more secular. No more than a uniform culture do we need a uniform religion. The only necessary thing is to come in terms on the basic rules for all possible new situations in social life. Legitimate is not only the truthfulness to one's own culture and religion, but also applicating converging interpretations of tradition in order to improve the quality of living together.
And regarding laws in a secular state like Nursi's expectations also the Christian expectation of Lacordaire for jurisdiction after the French Revolution may be helpful: "Between strong and weak people freedom means suppression, and law means freedom."
"The European Union has been founded as a community of shared values. … Churches' concerns also include a respect for history, reconciliation and the overcoming of wounds caused by the historical relationship between Turkey and its neighbours. … The arguments of the churches follow their vision, which is life in its fullness. … Are the values represented by Turkish society the same as the values on which the European Union is built? If not, are the different sets of values compatible? … The standard of the Union is to respect traditions of all churches and faith communities." These questions were raised by the Church and Society Commission of the Conference of European Churches in its discussion paper "The Relation of the European Union and Turkey from the Viewpoint of the Christian Churches", issued in February 2004 in Brussels.
In my opinion, dialogue is as necessary as it is possible, and the Risale-i Nur is able to provide us with good ideas.
Prof. Dr. Christoph Elsas is Professor of the History of Religion at Phillips University, Marburg, and is a specialist in Protestant theology, philosophy, and Islamic studies. Since 1979, he has been Lutheran referent and member of Islamic-Christian-Dialogue in Germany.