The Pathways to Tolerance: Faith and Forgiveness in the Thought of Said Nursi
The path to peace is tolerance, and the pathways to tolerance are faith and forgiveness. This paper will deal with tolerance in the thought of Said Nursi, who considers it the aim of the Risale-i Nur. There are two aspects to this tolerance. How can we develop a mature faith that will face up to the diversity of opinion that makes up a multi-madhdhab society; a society divided by various theological schools of thought. Another aspect is how we can cultivate the spirit of forgiveness towards fellow believers.
The world today is governed by power. The question we should ask is whether it really works. Force begets force and hatred. The war in Iraq has led to more hatred for America, and more violence towards it. If America can lead by moral, not military, power, she would bring about a new era of brotherhood in the world. People would not want to dethrone her because of her goodwill towards others.
It is only good that will triumph over evil. Good men have resisted the forces of evil, and they have become great, not because of their power, but because of their character.
We seem to be living again in an age of despair and cynicism, when the petty egos of the age prevail. Faith sounds hollow and idealism seems to bow its head in shame, and seems strangely out of place. The moral strength to lift oneself to a higher plane has become flabby and weakened by shallow cynicism. And so, it appears, in spite of all the technological progress, we are once more living in the dark ages. We can be rescued from this darkness by a spiritual softening of tone. By purging men's hard attitude. Said Nursi espoused this softer way of social living through his message tolerance.
Peace is not a mathematical formula, and cannot be worked out by mathematical equations. An eye for an eye, and taking back from what has been taken, are all Aristotelian forms of justice, upon which modern forms of human rights are based. This legal justice brings about order, but not peace. What brings about peace is forgiveness.
Our nature could be lofty or lowly. We need justice to correct material inequalities, but we also need love to extend our humanity beyond human rights. Without love we cannot be altruistic, we cannot be forgiving. Each person would be fighting for his rights, but not thinking of his obligations. The fight for rights without the sense of obligation will lead to impatience, intolerance and violence.
Nursi lived in a Muslim society that was divided by conflicting theological schools of thought. He preached the value of tolerance, of listening to the other person's point of view, and respecting him for it, no matter how much one might differ with him. This was for him the key to unity in a multi-madhhab society. As long as the members of the society have faith, they have enough in common to sustain their brotherhood, and remain united against the forces of secularism. There is a need for internal reform, both at the level of the intellect and at the level of humanity. A faith tempered by reason and justice tempered by forgiveness are the keys to building a peaceful society of believers.
1. The Pathway of Faith
The history of Islam is marked by two major trends, the intellectual and the political. The philosophers and Sufis belonged to the intellectual trend and proposed a profound reflection of the nature of humanity and the divine. The Kharijites belonged to the political trend and they believed that by rebelling against the Imam they would bring about change in the society.
By faith we do not mean a mere vague spirituality, but a clear belief as determined by Islam, which incorporates the belief in God, the Prophets, the angels, the revealed books and the Last Day. These are the fundamentals of Islamic belief, and when we speak of faith we mean all of these things. This faith is not blinded by emotion, but it is governed by reason. Without reason it is reduced to mere sentimentalism and an uncontrollable zeal. With reason we are able to explain the faith, justify it and defend it from all kinds of rational criticisms. If the faith itself is irrational and defies reason, then rational attempts to explain it will fail.
In classical times big debates arouse over the extent to which human action influences faith. Some scholars held that major sins annul the faith, and others that it cannot affect it because it is fixed in the heart. Sinful actions can diminish, but not demolish the faith within the heart. The kharijites held that major sins annul faith. This view, which is still prevalent today, is the source of much intolerance and conflict. The Asharites, however, hold the view that major sins do not annul faith, but they can diminish it. Nursi identified with this view.
In none of Said Nursi's works does he openly condemn a particular Islamic group. There is no trace of being judgmental; only humble. He allowed for diversity of opinion and considered it a blessing according to a Prophetic Tradition. However, the Tradition did not refer to major differences of the faith; such as whether God exists or not. It may refer to differences in the interpretations of God and His attributes, such as whether he is more transcendent than immanent, or more immanent then transcendent.
Faith, for Nursi, is the basis of brotherhood. Secondary matters of the religion need not be the basis for disunity. If we have an understanding of the diversity of religious opinions that emerged in the history of Islam, we would learn to understand the relativistic nature of these particular differences, and not absolutize them to the point of becoming intolerant of other viewpoints. What matters is the common faith that we share, and that unites us; not the minor differences that would divide us if we allow them to. We should be tolerant of the minor differences. We have all the right to debate about them, but we have no right to enforce our opinion on others. We should debate in the spirit of good will, and by so doing we will use gentle arguments and not violent confrontation to convince the next person of our view.
There are different ways to faith and to finding God. Ghazzali examined the legal, theological, philosophical and Sufi approaches. He was convinced that the best way to know God was the Sufi way; through meditation and the purification of the soul. He did not negate the other approaches but they did not satisfy him fully. He believed that they were not appropriate for the purification of the soul, and cannot help us attain the intuitive knowledge of God. He was himself a theologian and a jurist, and he was particularly critical of the philosophers. We gather from his autobiography that he was convinced ultimately of the Sufi way.
Nursi did not write an autobiography, but he studied all the schools of thought of his time, and came to a different conclusion. Nursi had a great respect for Sufism, but he was not convinced that it was the solution to the problems of the ummah. He felt a strong need to defend the faith, and confront the challenges of Turkish secularism and scientific materialism. Sufism did not address this challenge. In Sufism the disciple had to submit to the dictates of the Shaykh, not to reason. He compared Sufism to fruit, which is good, but not an urgent priority for the Muslim masses. He compared faith to bread, which is essential for our sustenance, and the urgent priority for all people. We need the bread of faith, but we also need to understand this source of spiritual nourishment. We must defend it with reason, not violence; we must defend it with the pen, not the sword. Our defense should be marked by reason and persuasion.
Nursi was not a Sufi, but lived like one. He was simple, temperate and devout. He did not want to be a Sufi Shaykh, but an ustadh, to teach people the beauty of their faith. His teaching did not die with his death, but lived on with his books. He asked his followers not to follow him blindly, but to question him critically. He asked them not to pray at his grave, or make him an intermediary. He wanted them to reform themselves by themselves.
Yes, Sufism is like fruit, but the Sufis overindulgent in it. When the fruit became over ripe, it led to ideas which were not quite in keeping with the Qur'anic teaching. Nursi criticized Ibn Arabi's doctrine of wahdat al-wujud, which posits that only God is a reality, and all existents in the creation are mere metaphors, and reflections of the divine reality. He favoured a sober Sufism, not one that undervalues reason.
Al-Jilani, the spiritual mentor of Nursi, represented a sober Sufism. He was known for his tolerance towards the 'People of the Book', and emphasized tolerance and charity towards other religious communities. Nursi, and his disciple, Fethullah G?len, adopted similar positions. Nursi was initiated into various Sufi orders, and was not antagonist to Sufism as his Salafi contemporaries. He was also not overtly enthusiastic about it as a method for the multitude, who need of a firm, mature, faith, to withstand the challenges of secularism. Sufism stresses obedience to the spiritual mentor. Nursi was open to criticism from his followers. Faith cannot be taken for granted, it must be understood so that it can face up to the challenges of secular modernity. The Sufis did not address this challenge. It was, nevertheless, still a legitimate path.
He respectfully disagrees with Ibn Arabi's metaphysical doctrine, but it in no way means that he is opposed to Sufism as such. His approach to spirituality is neither Sufi nor Salafi, but it is the mean between these two ways. For Nursi, there is no need for the Sufi-Salafi polemic to dominate the debates for all time. There is a middle way; one that lies between the Sufi and the Salafi. Nursi stands somewhere on this continuum. As such, he represents a balanced approach; not one that fosters polarization, but offers an intermediary position between two conflicting poles. This position neutralizes the tension between them. This tension cannot be obliterated, only attenuated by respect and forgiveness. Tolerance for diversity of opinion presupposes respect for others, no matter what their beliefs. It also presupposes disagreement; otherwise, we cannot speak of tolerance. Nursi's critique of Ibn Arabi exemplifies tolerance.
As mentioned, Nursi's defense of the faith is primary, but this defense is not merely intellectual or theological. It has a practical purpose, which is to preserve faith and practice it. Furthermore, it is to reform society. The Risale-i Nur is directed at these goals.
Al-Jilani, the spiritual mentor of Nursi, was known for his tolerance towards the People of the Book, emphasized tolerance and charity towards other religious communities. It is no wonder that Nursi, and his disciple, Fethullah G?len, adopted similar positions in relation to other religious communities.1
Nursi was initiated into various Sufi orders, so could not have been antagonistic to Sufism as was his Salafi contemporaries. However, he was not also overtly enthusiastic about it as a method for the multitude, who are in need of firm faith to withstand the challenges of secularism. Sufism lends itself to subservience to the spiritual mentor, but Nursi expected his followers to question him critically. Faith cannot be taken for granted, it has to be confirmed and defended by reason. The Sufis were less concerned about the scepticism that challenged the faith, and therefore did not address the challenges of the scientific age as Nursi did. Nevertheless, Sufism was still for Nursi a legitimate path.
Nursi attitude to Sufism is an example of tolerance. His reference to it as fruits suggests a positive attitude, not a pejorative one. He probably views it as suitable for a spiritual elite, rather than for the masses of Muslims who are in need of basic faith. At the philosophical level, he strongly disagrees with Ibn Arabi's doctrine of wahdat al-wujud. The Sufi metaphysics of Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani or of Ghazzali, at least of his more popular works, would be more acceptable to him.
Ibn Arabi holds the view that God is the only reality, and that all existents in the phenomenal world are mere metaphors or shadows reflecting the divine reality. These worldly existents do not have independent realities by themselves.
Nursi was pious; but his piety was not located within the institution of Sufism. Nor was his piety located within the Salafi strand of Islam. The Salafis were not strict on madhhab; they wanted to return to the Qur'an and sunnah. Their approach to the understanding of scripture, however, was more literal than intellectual. Nursi also returned to the Qur'an, but his approach to it was not purely literal; he allowed for intellectual discussion concerning it, and used it as a weapon for addressing the challenges of secular modernity. The Salafis were obsessed with condemning innovations, but Nursi did not indulge in such obsessions. He had a peaceful approach towards the diverse religious practices of the society. A negative attitude to the customs and traditions of the time would have alienated many people, and it would have militated against his goal of tolerance.
The history of Islam, especially after Ibn Taymiyyah, has been marked by the tension and polarization that exists between the Sufis and the Salafis. The blind followers of madhhab (muqallidun) took a different position, and they represent a third strand in the Muslim world. However, they shared characteristics to both the Salafis and the Sufis. The Deobandis and Berelvis, for example, followed the hanafi madhhab, but the former shared with the Salafis their opposition to innovation (bid'ah), and the latter shared with the Sufis the veneration of saints and tolerance to innovation.
Said Nursi cannot be classified among any of these three strands of theological thought. They do represent the three mainstream approaches in Sunni Islam. Nursi stands on the continuum between the two conflicting poles of the Salafi and the Sufi. His style of discourse is akin to classical Asharite kalam, but we cannot regard this approach as mainstream. This has not gripped the Muslim masses, but Nursi's dialectical discourse also has a practical dimension, which gives it the potential to rise above the discourse of intellectual elites, and become more pervasive in society. And indeed, we have witnessed the impact it has had on all strata of Turkish society.
Nursi's approach, because it is not located within any of these three mainstream strands, does not promote polarization, but reconciliation between them. The tension between the Salafis and the Sufis is not obliterated, but it is considerably reduced through Nursi message of tolerance and brotherhood. Members of all three strands could participate within the Qur'anic reading circles, and yet not feel alienated, or the pressure to give up their particular orientation.2
Tolerance for diversity of opinion presupposes respect for others, no matter what their beliefs. It also presupposes disagreement. We have shown above how Nursi disagreed with Ibn Arabi, but the whole tone of his writing is one of deep respect for a great scholar who has the right to express his views. By contrast, the strict orthodox Salafi or Sufi scholars have been vehement in their criticism of Ibn Arabi.3
We noted that Nursi wanted to defend the faith by means of dialectical discourse. But Nursi's dialectics was not an end in itself; it was aimed at the reform of society. A rational approach to faith is not a guarantee of tolerance. The Mu'tazilite Abbasid rulers persecuted those who did not conform to their views regarding the 'creation of the Qur'an'. Faith without reason also leads to fanaticism and intolerance. Nursi sought to combine faith with reason, always using the Qur'an as his point of departure.
We cannot be tolerant about established scientific facts, but we can be tolerant about different perspectives of science. There are different views on the origin of creation. And so we can be tolerant about these different views. Two different explanations come to mind. The early philosophers held that creation is a product of divine emanation. In contrast to this emanationist view, the orthodox Muslim scholars held the view that the creation was brought into being out of nothing. We can be tolerant about these different perspectives, precisely because they represent two contrasting positions. And even if we believe that the one view conflicts with the Qur'an, we still have no right to persecute the proponents of those views.
Muslims agree that the Qur'an is the word of God, but they may disagree with particular interpretations of verses. Some commentators have a literal understanding of the Qur'an, and others are open to a metaphorical interpretation of verses.
Tolerance arises in matters of opinion, usually in the domain of politics, religion and morality. Opinions are expressions of the mind; the more open-minded a person, the more open he is to diverse opinions. Opinions are not meant to be absolute; they are relative to a particular point of view. It requires open-mindedness, and also humility, to tolerate a different point of view.
You can inform people of your viewpoint, but you cannot enforce it. Said Nursi expressed his convictions forcefully, but did not force his followers to follow him. In fact, he asked them to question him critically. Tolerance must not be confused with indifference. We cannot be tolerant of the sexual abuse and rape of children. This is indifference. We should respond with anger, and we have all the right to punish the culprit. Forgiveness for such gross crimes is for the saintly few. It is the prerogative of the law to bring the person to justice. You may pity the perpetrator, but you cannot condone his wrong.
Tolerance should not mar one's sense of right and wrong. For Nursi, the doctrine of secularism was the real enemy. He states; 'The enemy of human happiness and ethical uprightness is unbelief, irreligion'.4 Nursi sought a divinely-guided way of life in the modern age, and found natural allies in Christians and religious people in the battle against secular modernity. The Qur'an was for him a standard of morality. It was the basis for his critique of the godlessness of the West, and their immoral ways. His critique did not take on a violent form; it was based on gentle persuasion and logical arguments. In a liberal society, people do not only tolerate sexual immorality, but they even condone it. Nursi called for tolerance, but he would never condone something like adultery which conflicts with the moral teachings of the Qur'an. Nursi cared for the moral fiber of the society.
Tolerance and fanaticism are incompatible. However, Nursi did not agree with the European critics who regard religious fanaticism as backward, and secularism as progressive. Nursi did not support religious fanaticism because it is grounded in blind faith, not in reason. He did, however, support a deep faith of a religion which is moderate.
Fanaticism, being a violent and unreasoning devotion, is incompatible with Islam. However deep it is, a Muslim's devotion depends on knowledge and reasoning. Even if it is not, it cannot be described as fanaticism. For the deeper and firmer the Muslim's belief is, and devotion to Islam, whether based on knowledge or reasoning, the further from fanaticism a Muslim is by virtue of Islam being a 'middle way' based on peace, balance, justice and moderation.5
Fanaticism is irrational; a mature faith is based on reason. Islam is not equivalent to rationalism. Reason serves revelation. The Qur'an is the framework of Muslim thought. Fanatical Muslims who do not temper their faith with reason will be intolerant. Nursi, however, makes a case for the deeply devote who does not have an inclination for philosophical discourse. These devotees are not fanatical. Nursi is not a rationalist. He is not a philosopher like Ibn Sina, nor a Mutakallim like al-Baqilani, nor a Muslim apologist for reason like Sayyid Amir Ali. He is an orthodox, traditional Muslim scholar.
His Treatise of Light deals with matters of faith, not secondary matters of the law. Yet, he accepts the verdicts of the four Sunni Imams in secondary matters, and even regards them as more saintly than the most famous of Saints such as Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jaylani. The Friends of God (Awliya') are not necessarily members of a Sufi order. Nursi' experienced mystical states of ecstasy, but these were never publicised because for Nursi they are a private matter between the devotee and God.
There is no debate concerning the law. Believers should be exhorted to follow its fundamentals. Those who temper with the fundamentals are in danger of apostasy. 'The fundamentals of the religion and its incontrovertible principles are never subject to dispute or alteration. Whosoever attempts to dispute or alter them becomes an apostate..'6 Nursi is firm on the fundamentals; flexible with the details. The latter developed with ijtihad, which varied from jurist to jurist. Diverse verdicts should be respected. They are a blessing as suggested in the above Tradition.
We can debate about different verdicts and opinions, but should not use them as a basis for judging whether a person is a Muslim or not. It is a sunnah to wear a beard, but if Nursi did not wear one, it does not mean that he is disrespectful of the sunnah, or that he cannot be a true Muslim. There is a Tradition that warns that one should not wear a garment over the ankle out of pride, for then one would be of the inhabitants of the fire. Now taken literally, someone might say that those who do not wear their pants over their ankles will be assigned to hell. Yet, the moral import of the Tradition was more a warning of pride then anything else. Long robes were the fashion of the affluent, and it was a mark of prestige and status. People today do not wear it for this reason. These are the secondary aspects of the law, which should not have a bearing on our faith. Nursi's main concern was the understanding of the faith, and he devoted the Risale-i Nur just to that.
Discourse about Islamic belief preoccupied the kalam scholars, and no matter how they differed with regards to the divine attributes; whether they are separate from God's essence or not, they made the Qur'an their point of departure. Nursi's bias towards the Ash'ari kalam is clear. But he did not reveal any antagonism for the Mu'tazila view, not matter how much he disagreed with them. He did not so much indulge in the polemical debates of the kalam scholars; his aim was to make traditional applicable for modern times. He was ultimately concerned, not with intellectual gymnastics, but with the revival of the faith and the reform of the society. The differences in kalam, whether on divine destiny and human freedom, or the role of reason and revelation, were less important than the sincerity of believers. These differences provide us with concrete materials for being tolerant. They do bring about tension and debate, but this is where the challenge lies. How to tolerate those who differ from our views? We can rise to the challenge by overcoming blind faith and the inability to distinguish the fundamentals from the details.
Unity is undermined by partisan politics. The inward expression of the common faith was for Nursi far more important than the power of any political party. Nursi opted for the fellowship of believers, not the fellowship of political partisanship. The fellowship of believers is marked by respect for different views and forgiveness of the other person. The fellowship of political partisanship is marked by disrespect, enmity and revenge.
The real enemy is unbelief; we fight it with belief. We should not waste our energies fighting our fellow brothers who share with us the belief in One God and the Last Day. Diversity of religious opinion is a test of our tolerance, not a cause for enmity and division. It should be respected as a blessing as suggested by the Tradition: 'Differences among my community is a mercy'. The mercy pertains to matters of diversity in details, not fundamentals. There is no absolute truth in details, and so no believer can claim to have a monopoly of truth regarding the details. Different interpretations should be respected and tolerated. Self-righteousness, which breeds fanaticism, should be discarded. It cannot survive in a cosmopolitan society.
A narrow faith comes from fear. It manifests itself in violence and confrontation. Such a believer will never tolerate a different point of view. He will always think he is right and all else is wrong. A mature, understanding, faith, respects the diversity in our unity. This needs an open mind. Forgiveness, another key to tolerance, needs an open heart.
2. The Pathway of Forgiveness
Nursi believed in jihad against the enemy, but unity was for him more urgent. And this unity can only be achieved through the internal jihad of transforming the self. No change can occur in society, the Qur'an tells, without the change to the self. The power of unity is far greater than any military power. The starting point for unity and brotherhood is the change of the self, both mind and heart. An open mind leads to tolerance. We now deal with another pathway to tolerance, the open heart that is inclined to forgiveness. Forgiveness is the anti-dote to anger and indignation.
We feel a sense of indignation when a wrong is done to us. To forgive the wrongdoer does not mean a suppression of the wrong; it means the understanding of it. Reason still has a role to play, even in matters of the heart.
Forgiveness has the power to heal our hearts of hatred, and to stop our limbs of violence. We look at others with a sense of good will, and we forgive them for their mistakes. And we realize that we too can make these mistakes.
Deliberate wrongs such as rape and murder may not be forgiven. The law should implement justice, and the person should be brought to trial and punished for his crime. In seeking justice the victim should not lose control over his emotions, and commit a greater injustice. The punishment should always fit the crime. If someone slaps you, you have no right to stab him. To forgive gross crimes such as rape and murder is very difficult. Man naturally seeks justice. But it is possible to forgive the perpetrator. It would however be wrong to condone his wrong. Condemn the sin, but not the sinner.
We have a faith based on a system of values. So in applying reason we judge certain actions as good and others as bad. We may resent the wrong but not the wrongdoer. We judge an action to be wrong, but we do not hate the wrongdoer. With enmity in the heart, we cannot forgive genuinely.
Nursi discusses the concept of forgiveness in the context of a brotherhood of believers who are guilty of minor wrongs to each other. These minor wrongs are not to be underestimated. They can cause the breakdown of human relations.
Forgiveness should not be confused with compassion. We pity those who suffer, and forgive those who cause us suffering. We naturally sympathize with those who suffer on account of loss of wealth, health, or a dear one. We identify with such suffering because we too could suffer similar misfortunes.
Nothing is stable; all things change. The vicissitudes of human life are part of divine destiny. We tend to accept suffering because we see it as part of divine destiny. So instead of wallowing on account of changing misfortunes, we are liberated from those sorrows. We are contented in our suffering, and in our contentment, we become purified. Nursi states: 'Creatures go through many states and experience situations in which they suffer misfortunes and hardships, so purifying their lives'.7 The misfortunes are a test from God; to see if man bears with them patiently, without blaming God, and view them as 'flashes of divine wisdom' and as part of divine mercy.8
People are greatly offended because of their pride and self-importance. They respond to the offender with feelings of revenge and violence that do not match the minor offence. Revenge poisons the soul, and saps the healthy flow of kindness. Such a person will suffer psychologically and spiritually. He suffers the loss of love; he suffers of a wounded pride, and he suffers of a troubled mind. If he overcomes his pride and vanity, he would not react with resentment for little slights; instead, he will be gentle, charitable and forgiving. He will tolerate the little hurts. To forgive is not to erase the wrong from memory; it is to stop hatred for the wrongdoer. It is not to expunge the wrong, but it is to still the grudge towards the offender. It is a virtue that triumphs over rancour and resentment.
Forgiveness is more difficult than compassion. We find it natural to pity the one who suffers, but we find it almost unnatural to forgive the one who causes us suffering. Forgiveness is more difficult; it requires serious reflection. Nursi shows us how reflection can help us turn to forgiveness. Instead of turning to enmity for slight wrongs done to us, we should rather respond with pity and brotherly affection.
The human heart has two tendencies, the tendency for brotherly affection (ukhuwat)9 and the tendency for enmity (adawat). True affection should be shared between brothers who have a common faith. It does not pay to lose a brother because of some small argument or insult. By cultivating brotherly affection, our enmity will change into pity.
The Divine Attributes, al-Rahman and al-Rahim, may be translated as the Beneficent and the Merciful respectively. The former includes believers and non-believers and it signifies the conferring of God's favours upon his creation. The latter word suggests compassion, more specifically to the believers, and may not necessarily include beneficence.10 Compassion is a divine quality which humans can emulate. The Qur'an states, ruhama baynahum ('compassionate among them'). This means that the believers are compassionate among thems Brotherly affection lends itself to such compassion. In the eighth letter, Nursi explains the superiority of these Divine attributes to that of al-wadud (The Loving), which only appears in the Qur'an a few times. Mercy is a predominant divine quality, and it is meant to be the predominant quality in human relations.11 Believers, whose relationship is characterised by mercy, will live with tolerance towards each other. Forgiveness, also a divine quality, is also an expression of brotherly affection. So both mercy and forgiveness are important for sound human relations among brothers.12
Forgiveness is the antithesis of revenge. To overcome revenge one has to reflect. The cause of the wrong could be because of misunderstanding, misguidance, passion or fanaticism. We should overcome our hatred if we cannot make him overcome his. To achieve self-mastery is to be victorious over the evil, the enmity within the carnal soul.
Sometimes the guilty is unrepentant, and should be punished. Punishment does not have to exclude love; you care so much for that person that you want him to learn a lesson through punishment. Forgiveness does not exclude punishment, but it does exclude hatred. It may not remove the wrong, but it will remove the resentment. Forgiveness is uplifting, especially when we are clear that it does not mean condoning. It does not justify the wrong, but it eases the heart of pain and frees it from hatred. Forgiveness does not exclude judgement, but it does exclude being judgemental.
Forgiveness conflicts with reason. Why should we forgive the person who has hurt us? Justice is rational, and demands that the person be punished. Forgiveness is nobler than justice. God loves those who practice self-restraint and forgiveness: 'Those who curb their anger and those who forgive their fellow-men. Verily God loves the doers of good.' (Q. 3:135)
As mentioned, it is natural to resent a person who has done us a grave wrong, but it is better to forgive the person who is governed by human weakness which we all share. Revenge could lead to more harm. It harms both the wrongdoer and the wronged.
The dynamic of the human heart is rooted in its capacity for both hatred and affection.13 If hatred predominates, a person will respond with enmity and violence; if affection predominates, hatred turns into compassion. The question is whether one does actually transform hatred into compassion and forgiveness? Nursi answers this question by commenting on the above verse. His style is not like that of a classical commentator, but like a pastoral psychologist. If a fellow brother does wrong to you, then how should you respond?
The first response is to think of divine destiny. The wrong done is part of this destiny, but the wrongdoer is responsible for his own actions. The consciousness of divine power is enough to temper the anger, and restrain one from reacting recklessly.
We have discussed the concept of divine destiny in a separate study.14 Suffice it to mention, that for Nursi, it is vital to man's happiness. He will bear with his misfortunes, and be satisfied with what God has placed before him.15 Furthermore, it will curb his pride, which causes him to become revengeful.16 He should also know that he is responsible for his actions, as God states; 'Does man think he will be left to roam at will, that he will be left uncontrolled' (Q. 75: 36).17
Misfortunes are a part of divine destiny, but how can they be reconciled with a Merciful God? Nursi explains that the changing nature of this world makes survival possible into the next world. Change causes sorrow, yet it is the key to joy. Thus, the believer's faith will not permit him to fret over his misfortunes; he will be grateful for both his fortunes and misfortunes.
The second point is that the wrongdoer is a victim of his lower self (nafs), and so we should pity him because we are also subject to the same weaknesses.18 Instead of being self-righteous, we should be tolerant and forgiving. Anger is a natural emotion, but it should not control us, we should control it. We can avoid inappropriate anger by self-restraint and forgiveness.19
Islam is a religion of human nature, and so permits the expression of anger, especially against gross forms of injustices. But it is the courts of law that should implement justice. Although rare, the victims can forgive. Forgiveness is noble, but not to permit injustice. Although permitting injustice on oneself is less evil than inflicting injustice, it is still morally reprehensible.
The third point is to be conscious of your own weakness, and that God has punished you because of the defect in your own soul, which you may not be aware of, or wish not to be aware of. The wrongdoer is God's instrument for the victim to realize his own defect, and to turn to repentance, not to violence.
Often, the weakness we resent in another person is a shadow of our own weakness. We should come to terms with our own unpleasant past, and be humbled by it. This will remove the self-righteous attitude, and make us feel responsible for our own wrongs. By repressing the wrongs of the past, we become self-righteous and judgmental of other peoples wrongs. We tend to become more intolerant. If we can learn to tolerate the wrongs in ourselves, we will learn to tolerate the wrongs in others.
We have discussed two pathways to tolerance, faith and forgiveness. Both require reason to temper religious fanaticism and aggression. They are essential for tolerance in a multi-cultural, multi-madhhab, and multi-religious society. Nursi exhorts us to reflect before we react, before we become violent. We should approach matters of faith with an open mind. Revenge and enmity breakdown family relations and friendship, faith and forgiveness unite them.
*Prof. Dr. Yasien Mohamed is Senior Lecturer in Arabic and Islamic philosophy in the Dept. of Foreign Languages at the University of the Western Cape. He received his Ph.D. in Islamic ethics from Wolfgang University and has published 32 academic articles and several books, including Fitrah: The Islamic Concept of Human Nature, London 1996.
1. Fred A Reed, Anatolia Junction (Burnaby, B.C.: Talon Books, 1999), pp. 83-84.
2. I took part in a few Nursi reading sessions in Saudi Arabia, and a member of the Tabligh Jama'at was a regular participant.
3. Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (representing a Sufi strand) and Ibn Tamiyyah (the Salafi strand) are known for their vehement criticism of Ibn Tamiyyah.
4. Thomas Michel, 'Muslim-Christian Dialogue and Co-Operation in the thought of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi', A Contemporary Approach to Understanding the Qur'an: The Example of the Risale-i Nur, International Symposium 4 (Istanbul: S?zler Publications, 2000), 553-554.
5. S. Nursi, The Letters, 2, Truestar, p. 263.
6. Ibid, p. 260
7. Words, p. 144.
8. Nursi, Letters, 2, Truestar, London, 1995, 88-97.
9. It is interesting to note that Nursi does not use the word 'love' ('ishq) as a contrast to enmity. He uses the word 'brotherly love' (ukhuwat) instead. The translator of the S?zler edition uses the English word 'love', which is not quite an accurate equivalent of the Turkish word ukhuwat.
10. Edward, W, Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon, 1-2, (Cambridge: 1984); cf. D. Gimaret, 'rahma', Encyclopaedia of Islam, New edition, vol. VIII, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995).
11. I thank my Turkish friend Mecit Yaman for bringing this point to my attention.
12. For Nursi, mercy and forgiveness for fellowmen are of primary concern. For the Sufis, these human emotions are not an end in themselves, but a means to a higher end, which is the love for God.
13. We will not use the word 'love' here. The S?zler edition uses this term, but it should be avoided because of the mystical connotation of the love for God. The word 'affection' captures more directly the human emotion that is directed at another person.
14. Yasien Mohamed, 'Predestination and Free Will in the Thought of Said Nursi and Muhammad Iqbal', in Islam at the Crossroads: On the Life and Thought of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, ed. Ibrahim Abu Rabi, (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003).
15. Nursi, The Words, 2, p. 142f; S?zler edition, p. 486
16. Ibid., p. 131f.; Nursi, The Words 1; S?zler edition, p. 477f.
17. Nursi, The Words, 2, p. 135.
18. Nursi does not make a distinction here between minor moral wrongs and major moral wrongs. The easy manner in which he is suggesting forgiveness makes us conclude that his reference is to minor moral wrongs such as little slights and insults. For major wrongs such as rape, people would seek justice rather than forgiveness.
19. Classical philosophers like Isfahani and Ghazzali have recommended that we temper anger with reason. They give the analogy of the rider and the horse. The rider is the metaphor for reason and the horse is the metaphor for desire. If the rider is skilful with the horse it will be successful in reaching his goal. But his success will depend on how he tames the dog, which represents anger. Anger should be disciplined, not repressed; otherwise it will lead to frustration and neurosis. See Yasien Mohamed, 'Islamic psychotherapy: Isfahani's Treatment of Anger, Fear and Sorrow', AFKAR, 4, 2003, pp. 87-102.