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Introduction: the ‘this-worldly’ and the ‘otherworldly’
One of the many dangers of stereotypification as far as religion is concerned is the classification of the various faiths into the boxes marked “this-worldly” and “otherworldly”. It is part of what the renowned anthropologist Clifford Geertz termed the ‘pigeonhole disease’ – a highly debilitating illness that touches most, if not all, of us at times, but which in some becomes chronic and eventually leads to blindness and paralysis: blindness of perception, that is, and paralysis of the intellect. Serious, explicit attempts to fit religions into tight boxes with the words “this-worldly” or “otherworldly” are few and far between: in researching the subject I found only one article that broached the issue in these terms, and then – not surprisingly – in a wholly superficial, intellectually indolent and unsatisfying manner.[i] To his credit, however, the author does point out that the distinction between ‘thisworldly’ and ‘otherwordly’, notwithstanding their lexical polarity, is lacking in philosophical clarity, a point upon which can at least agree.
The reason for such stereotyping is not hard to fathom. To classify a religion as ‘otherworldly’ effectively desensitises us to the importance of religion for the here-and-now: by focusing on something which is deemed to be wholly ‘other’, one of the many effects that it has is that it serves to justify the false dichotomy of the religious and the secular – the notion that certain acts are, for want of a better term, ‘religious acts’ and pertain ultimately to a realm that is wholly other than this; while other acts are connected with this world, and are therefore somehow ‘neutral’ and do not impinge on religious consciousness. The ramifications of this can indeed be pernicious. This is the sort of mindset that produces concepts such as the rendering to God of what is God’s and the rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s. And if we think that this mindset is the monopoly of our Christian friends, we should think again. There are many of Muslims – the majority, perhaps – who make this false distinction between what is religious and what is, if not ‘worldly’ as such, at least possibly neutral and not really a religious act at all.
So much for the classification of religion as otherworldly. To classify a religion as ‘this-worldly’ desensitises us to the transcendent and anchors us in the ‘here and now’. It has the added effect of historicising religion, of reducing it to a mere function or structure among other functions and structures, and, ultimately, transforms it into a tool for the use of ideologues and utilitarians, religious or otherwise. The notion that Islam is a ‘this-worldly’ religion is a deeply-rooted one, favoured as much by postmodern critics of Islam as by their Orientalist forefathers of the 19th century and earlier. While these esteemed critics have helped spread the notion that Islam is a wholly worldly religion, the fact that it is seen to be such is almost wholly the fault of Muslims themselves. The gradual decline in classical Islamic learning and the rise, in its place, of nomocentric externalism and a faux-learned elite obsessed with correct action rather than correct belief, resulted in the emergence of a form of Islam in which law and legal theory appear to be the raison d’etre of all scholarly undertaking.
But it does not stop there. This form of religion – which we call in Persian Islam-i fiqahati – has given way in recent years to a new reading of Islam – one which came about partly as a reaction to what was seen as the stranglehold of the legalist ulama on religion. This new reading, advocated by a seemingly endless stream of excited and excitable thinkers from the mid-20th century onwards, rejected what they believed was the ossification of Muslim thought at the hands of the legalist ulama and ushered in instead the age of Islam-i siyasi, or political Islam – an ideologised form of Islam that talks of reform, of restoration of the caliphate, of radicalisation and of revolution. Islam-e fiqhi gave way to Islam-i siyasi; in other words, today, politics is the new fiqh – and with a fiqh all of its own, it should be said. The predominance of Islamic legalism and political Islam over all other readings of religion have, quite understandably, led many to think of Islam as a ‘this-worldly’ religion rather than one that is preoccupied with the world to come.
Nor is this black-and-white stereotypfication confined to appraisals of Islam alone: it is also applied to the teachings of Muslim scholars and thinkers, including Said Nursi. And again, we must reiterate that this wholly unhelpful obsession with classification is not something which is solely the domain of those who write about Islam and Muslims ‘from the outside’ so to speak. So while a Western writer such as Malise Ruthven describes Islam as “the least ‘other-worldly’ of the great religious systems, the one which, above all others, seeks to realize its aims in this world”, the presumably Muslim writer Yasin Aktay describes Said Nursi as a “very apolitical, other-worldly and loyal character.”[ii] On the other hand, Hakan Yavuz reduces Nursi’s contribution to Muslim learning to a handful of socio-political goals – an assertion that is extremely hard to square with reality, finding as it does little or no resonance in the main body of Nursi’s key text, the Risale-i Nur.
On the other hand are text books which tell us that a quarter of the Qur’an, or even as much as a third, concerns itself with the hereafter – with eschatological matters such as bodily resurrection after death, Divine judgement and the requital of man’s deeds in realms known as heaven and hell. Said Nursi himself tells us that the Qur’an contains what he claims are ‘thousands of certain rational proofs’ (barahin-i ‘aqliyya-i qat‘iyya) [iii] of the resurrection; furthermore he claims that belief in the hereafter is ‘the most important thing the Qur’an teaches us’.[iv] Surely this would seem to tip the scales in favour of the hereafter having primacy over the here-and-now?
So how are we to understand this-worldly/other-worldly dichotomy? More importantly, is it a dichotomy at all? Said Nursi, in line with Qur’anic teaching, says that the earth – and, by extension the world, or dunya – is like a ‘narrow and temporary arable field and seed-bed producing at speed the seeds for everlasting gardens’[v] – a simile that tends to be at odds with the idea that there is any kind of substantial disjunction between this world and what follows. To my mind, the key lies in the wonderfully evocative English word for akhira : the ‘hereafter’. It is in one sense ‘after’, yet it is still ‘here’.
In other words, this world and the next are qualitatively different parts of the same creational continuum. While they appear to be diametrically opposed, they are in fact part and parcel of the same overall manifestation of the Divine, albeit in different ‘modalities’; i.e. one is time-bound, the other timeless, although of course the hereafter is not timeless in the absolute sense that God is timeless. It admits of temporality but a qualitatively different temporality to that which obtains in the realm known as dunya.
The notion of continuum is borne out by the fact that God says He will change this world into something else – a new creation or khalq jadid – but a creation, nevertheless, which is a transformation of what is here now. This is also confirmed by masters of theosophy such as Mulla Sadra Shirazi, who believe in the flowing (sayalan) nature of being, and the fact that what exists now will be transformed into the akhira. It is not that dunya and akhira are two totally different, unconnected creations: they are part of one seamless whole, but different modalities of the same creational reality.
All of this is from the ontological perspective. What about the dichotomy of this world and the next as it affects man from the socio-political, cultural and ‘everyday’ perspective? How does it colour his approach to existence and shape his development as a creature of the world who has to work out his basic existential dilemma? Does it lead him to place more emphasis on progress in this world – in ameliorating dunya, sometimes to the detriment of akhira, or does it lead him to be aloof from what he believes to be ‘worldly’ things and concentrate solely on akhira? Misunderstanding the nature of the apparently dichotomous ‘this world’ and ‘the next world’ has led men to take up almost diametrically opposite positions: those who appear to work almost solely for this world, and channel their energies into making this world ‘heaven on earth’ (both among the religious and the secular, i.e. both are utopian in their visions); and those who forsake the things of this world, seeing them as mundane, ‘worldly’ and not worthy of attention, and take up a life of seclusion and world-denying asceticism.
I would argue that Nursi strikes a balance between the two, but not in the way that most people may understand. This world is, in one sense, more important than the next because the next world is based on what happens in this. But that does not mean that this world is the one which has to be transformed into a ‘heaven’ on earth. It is the daire-ye emtehan – the sphere of Divine trial where man prepares himself for the hereafter. He should not see it as something which needs to be turned into a utopia, as the Qur’an shows us, and as the failure of the Islamists to turn the world into Medina has also showed us. There will never be a utopia on earth, even though it is intellectually feasible and theoretically possible: there will always be setbacks and trials and tribulations. In another sense, of course, the next world is more important, whether it be by dint of the fact that it is our true home and our eternal destination. Ultimately, of course, the inextricability of dunya from akhira means that one cannot be seen as more important than the other – a claim which may be corroborated by the fact that both are mentioned the same number of times in the Koran: dunya is mentioned 115 times, as is akhira, and while this may for some simply be a fortuitous piece of synchronicity, I believe it is not without reason.
Nursi on man’s innate desire for immortality
However one views the relationship of dunya with akhira, it is clear that they are both modes of existence, and it is his love of existence – of being rather than not-being – that fuels man’s passions and motivates his actions. And since akhira represents being without end, it is clear that man’s love of akhira will be as keen as, if not more keen than, his love of dunya. For Nursi, man’s innate love of, and need for, immortality is axiomatic:
Included in human nature is an intense love. Even, because of the power of imagination, man fancies a sort of immortality in everything he loves. Whenever he thinks of or sees their passing, he cries out from the depths of his being. All the lamentations at separation are interpretations of the weeping resulting from love of immortality. If there was no imagined immortality, there would be no love. It might even be said that a reason for the existence of the eternal realm and everlasting Paradise is the intense desire for immortality arising from that passionate love of immortality, and from the innate and general prayer for immortality.[vi]
Since the cosmos is, from the Nursian perspective, a gallery in which all of the Divine names are made manifest, the name “The Everlasting” (Al-Baqi) is the one through which man’s desire for eternity is mediated. The transience and ephemerality of all created beings, together with the finitude and mortality of man, stand in stark contrast to the pre-eternity and post-eternity which are part and parcel of the Divine; indeed, they are the imaginary dark line which is drawn across the white canvas of eternity in order to make it manifest. Also, the infinite potentialities and capacities in man, few of which can be fulfilled in this fleeting caravanserai, point inexorably to a realm in which they can come to fruition. The danger, Nursi warns, is if man conflates the mirror of this world, in which glimpses of eternity are made manifest, with eternity itself:
O man! Your heart, identity, and nature are a mirror. The intense love of immortality in your nature and heart should be not for the mirror, nor for your heart and nature, but for the manifestation of the Enduring One of Glory, Whose manifestation is reflected in the mirror according to the mirror’s capacity. However, due to stupidity that love of yours is directed to other places. Since it is thus, say: “O Enduring One! You are the Enduring One!” That is, “Since You exist and You are enduring, whatever transience and non-existence want to do to us, let them do it, it is of no importance!”[vii]
For Nursi, then, man’s love of eternity and longing for immortality are woven into the very tapestry of his being: since he is created by the Eternal, he cannot help but love the notion of eternity, since he is, among all created beings, the most comprehensive mirror in which the Divine names are reflected.
Nursi is, of course, speaking here as a theologian-gnostic who draws on revelation as well as intellection for his insights. But awareness of the human obsession with immortality is not the monopoly of theologians or gnostics alone, as we shall now see.
Ernest Becker and the theory of ‘immortality striving’
To throw more light on this, we move away from the mystical-theological tradition of Said Nursi to the social scientific tradition of the cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker, who died in 1974. In an article published in the Journal of Qur’anic Studies, I applied the key theory of Ernest Becker on man’s drive for immortality to certain Qur’anic narratives concerning the rejection of prophethood by communities to whom messengers had been sent. This theory, known as the ‘dominant immortality ideology’ theory, is one which I would like to explore a little, not least because it fits squarely with Nursi’s own teachings on the subject. However, unlike the scientistically-minded Muslim scholars who, in finding what they believe to be support for the claims of science in the Qur’an, unwittingly use religion to justify the findings of modern science, or who use science to try to vindicate the claims of the Qur’an, my aim is neither justificatory nor apologetic.My objective is not to promote Becker by linking him with Nursi; nor do I wish to justify the teachings of Nursi by showing how they are substantiated by the research of a modern social scientist like Becker. My aim – or at least one of my aims - is to show how two thinkers from two very different backgrounds and with two very different frames of reference can concur on the causes of, and solution to, the most pressing existential dilemma that man faces, namely his own mortality.
As a cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker (1924-74) was searching for explanations of why human society develops in the way that it does; his particular focus of interest was why human society is so aggressive, and why different social groups are so intolerant of each other.Drawing on his background in psychology, and inspired by a wide range of thinkers such as Otto Rank, Norman O. Brown and Soren Kierkegaard, Becker concluded towards the end of his life that he had discovered a simple yet exceedingly important explanatory principle for comprehending the psycho-dynamics which underpin all human culture. His main ideas, summarised with extreme brevity, are as follows.[viii]
According to Becker, all men want to endure and prosper, and in some sense achieve permanence. However, the existential dilemma that we face is that we are mortal. Awareness of our mortality brings with it an overwhelming anxiety that must be masked if we are to function in the world. To suppress this awareness, we participate in projects of immortality, which, Becker assures us, we pursue all the time. All societies and cultures, he asserts, are based on dominant immortality ideologies – those shared by the largest number of people in the group. Within these ideologies there are sub-dominant ideologies as well, which means that at any point in history, a culture may be analysed as a complex system of countless different immortality games and strategies, sanctioned by the dominant ideology and presented to the people within that culture so that they may maintain the illusion of individual and collective immortality.
The strategies employed in order to overcome mortality anxiety are numerous, but tend to fall into two main categories. The first is the desire for individuation and the concomitant endeavour to acquire personal immortality, even at the expense of others. This strategy engenders the illusion that one is transcending human creatureliness by standing out above the rest. The second strategy is to find one’s symbolic immortality in yielding to the overarching strategy of the group or community in which one is embedded. Examples of immortality strategies from history will inevitably be amalgams of these two types. What all strategies have in common is the creation of ‘immortality symbols’ with which people identify themselves and through which society as a whole, and individuals in particular, are able to achieve symbolic immortality. The concatenation of immortality symbols and the strategies used to maintain them form what Becker refers to as the causa-sui project, or the means by which individuals and societies create the ‘vital lie’ necessary for their own self-deception.[ix]
The creation of the ‘vital lie’ in pre-modern society, which is where our interest lies, is described in Becker’s final work, Escape From Evil. There, Becker paints a broad-brush picture of the evolution of immortality ideologies from prehistory to modernity. Beginning with primitive man, he shows how the immortality motive gave rise to ritual and sacrifice, both of which were seen as techniques to promote and maintain the flow of life-power through the group. Ritual and sacrifice might not have guaranteed the perpetuation of the individual in the physical realm, but they were means by which the continuation of existence in the realm of the spirits might be assured. The centrality of ritual to the primitive Weltanschauung cannot be overestimated, for it was through ritual that man was able to both give and control life-power itself. Ritual is a means of organising life and, as such, has to be carried out according to a particular ‘theory of prosperity’ – a way of encouraging or inducing nature to give more life to the tribe.[x] With archaic man, the theory of prosperity was for the most part elemental and organic, with man looking to nature to see where the power came from. Principles of fecundity and generation were abstracted and then embodied through impersonation, with man taking on the role of the elements. The cosmos was divided conceptually into the heavens and the earth, with all prosperity deemed to emanate from the orderly interaction between the two. The interplay of the heavens and the earth, like the interplay between the sexes, was one of a number of interdependent polarities which characterised the worldview of archaic man. These opposing yet complementary principles – right and left; light and dark; power and weakness – enabled primitive man to see reality ‘in the round’ in order to control it. Death was part of this, and had to be embodied by primitive man in order to be controlled.[xi]
Key to primitive ritual was the act of sacrifice, which was designed not only to renew creation but also to anchor its practitioners in the invisible dimension of reality, creating a mystical, essential self that had superhuman powers. Man’s social representation of nature took place through the twin processes of ‘macrocosmization’ and ‘microcosmization’.[xii] In the former, man inflated his own importance to cosmic proportions by seeing every part of his own self as having a correspondence in the macrocosm. In the latter, man humanised the cosmos by projecting earthly phenomena onto the heaven: with the transference of animals to heaven through the creation of the zodiac, for example, mundane human affairs were given a timeless and superhuman validity. The stars came to preside over destiny and man became the centre of all things. In this way, man humanised the heavens and sacralised the earth, thus fusing the two into a unity. By opposing culture to nature in this way, man arrogated to himself a special spiritual destiny which allowed him to transcend his animality and gain a special status in the cosmic scheme of things. No longer was he just a biped that hunts, eats and dies, but a being of importance and consequence who was able to give eternal life to himself by means of shared socio-religious rituals based on the principle of cosmic regeneration. Everything depended on the prescribed ritual, which was deemed to put one in possession of eternity through unity with the sacrifice. Primitive life was not just a matter of the quest for more life-power in this realm; it was also a quest for immortality.
The sacrificial ritual, then, was concerned with the attraction of power. Becker describes how the original sacrifice was almost always food, since food is what men needed from the gods as the basis of life.[xiii] Moreover, if food contains power, it always signifies something more than itself: it possesses a mysterious inner essence or spirit. When archaic man gave food as gifts, he was giving a piece of life itself: the gifts given by primitive men to each other possessed mana power, or the essence of supernatural life itself. Through mutual gift-giving, the cycle of power between giver and receiver was perpetuated. Through offering gifts to each other, and to the gods, the stream of life itself was kept running: the more one gave, the more one received.
Taking his cue from Hocart, Becker sees in primitive man’s sacrificial offerings thee origins of trade.[xiv] For gifts were given not only to one’s own gods, but also to the gods of one’s kinsmen. This led to the exchange of goods between different groups and, by extension, the direct motive of the creation of surplus for the sake of exchange. This exchange began quite simply as a contest, determining who could give most to the gods of their kinsmen. The more one gave, the more life force was released, thus adding to one’s cosmic heroism and self-esteem. One becomes a hero in the eyes of the gods as well as the eyes of men: one acquires mana power. In gift-giving and sacrifice, therefore, one sees what Roheim refers to as ‘narcissistic capitalism’ – the equation of wealth with magical power.[xv] The surplus created, and often offered to the gods in great piles of food and other goods, has its function in terms of the power it signifies. As Becker points out, man’s existential insecurity propels him to accumulate things beyond his needs precisely because he realises how insecure he actually is. Man’s need to accumulate a surplus, then, was driven by his fundamental need to overcome the limitations of the human condition and achieve victory over impotence, finitude and, by extension, death itself.[xvi]
With the creation of surplus came the emergence of inequality, and Becker shows how those individuals who came to embody the invisible world – the shamans, the guardians of the altar, the possessors of the ritual techniques – were able gradually to command the same authority over other men as was accorded to the spirits and the gods themselves. The power of the invisible world as embodied in certain figures allowed them to hold other men in their thrall. Instead of seeking his heroes among the dead, man was now able to find him among the living, in the person of the power figure. The power figure was traditionally the individual who excelled in some way over his fellows, and who consequently appeared to possess an extra ‘charge of power’ or mana from the invisible realm.[xvii] The power figure was both respected and feared, for he was nothing less than an isthmus which linked the visible to the invisible world. Furthermore, he was almost invariably the figure responsible for the redistribution of surplus wealth in society, thus combining spiritual stature with economic power.
All power, then, is sacred power because it derives from the desire for immortality. And it culminates in the willing subjection of men to people and objects which embody that immortality power. Sacredness is thus seen to inhere in individuals, who are able to hold others in their thrall by a form of enchantment.Men bow down to such figures, Becker argues, because they treat them as objects of transference. They take their hopes and needs, their desires and their fears, and the project them onto certain objects or individuals to which they can then yield, and in which they can find justification for their own ‘immortality project’. Wealth, as I have written elsewhere, is one such object, while the possessor of wealth is another.[xviii]
All personal ‘immortality projects’ are, from a Beckerian perspective, embedded in larger ‘immortality projects’ to which each individual project looks for both its sanction and, ultimately, its lifeblood. There are numerous such ‘meta-projects’, from political parties and ideologies to socio-cultural trends and global movements of all natures, types and persuasions. For Becker, human history consists of series after series of ‘immortality ideologies’ locked in competition for dominance. However, the project at its most pernicious, it would seem, is the project as it stands today, in a post-Enlightenment world where, he says, since there is no secular way to resolve the primal mystery of life and death, all secular societies are, by default, nothing more than lies. Each society, he says, is a hero system which promises a victory over evil and death[xix] – a promise which, he says, it is impossible for man, as a mere mortal, to keep.
We see in modern civilisation many signs of unregenerate man’s vain attempts to secure some kind of victory over death and evil. Victory over death, as Becker has already shown us, is aimed at through our attempts to secure ourselves some kind of symbolic immortality here on earth, be it through our wealth, our children, the books we write, the monuments we build to ourselves, the institutions which bear our names, the memories which leave for others to glorify. As far as the victory over evil is concerned, this is aimed at through man’s attempts to make this earth the kind of heaven whose existence in the Hereafter he is all too quick to deny.
‘Civilisation’ as immortality project: the Nursian perspective
Nursi’s critique of the negative face of Europe and the ills of Western civilisation, dotted around various parts of the Risale, is, like Becker’s appraisal of post-Enlightenment society, as penetrating as it is bleak. It becomes particularly so from the 1920s onwards as the juggernaut of Western materialism began to accelerate with renewed energy after the horrors of the First World War. Western civilisation was buttressed at this point by what must have seemed to Nursi to have been two of the Enlightenment’s most obdurate and recalcitrant offspring: materialist – and, particularly, Freudian – psychoanalysis, which places man at the centre of his universe, in obvious contradistinction to the Nursian view of ana; and scientism, which bestows absolute epistemological primacy upon science, advocating the application of scientific theory and methods in all fields of enquiry about the world, including areas which are, its detractors claim, outside its remit, such as morality, art, ethics and religion. Both Freudianism and secular materialistic scientism qualify as the kind of immortality ideologies described by Becker, designed as they are to act as hero-systems which, in ushering in a ‘brave new world’ where man is supposed to achieve victory over his own impotence and banish forever the twin evils of death and evil, promise mankind a heaven on earth.
It is against this background that Nursi’s denunciation of the negative side of Western materialism should be seen. Western civilisation, he says, is a threat to moral and social life because, despite its claims to the contrary, it actually justifies the twin evils of force and self-interest.Furthermore, it depends on racism and ‘negative nationalism’ as instruments of social cohesion, and on conflict as the guiding principle of life. As a result, he avers, it has destroyed mankind’s happiness.
It has done so, he explains, because the mark of force is aggression, while the mark of self-interest is the struggle to obtain benefits at the expense of others. The mark of racism is hostility towards others, while the mark of conflict is war. A society or civilisation based on such destructive principles is devoted to ‘gratifying men’s passions and increasing men’s desires and needs’. Most people, Nursi, claims, have been reduced to hardship and misery by the demands and dictates of Western civilisation. Man’s innate nobility has also been marred, he says, as the gradual divorce from religious values has opened the floodgates of ‘dissipation’, encouraging dissolute living and the ‘appetites of the flesh.’
Socio-economic inequalities are also the hallmark of this modern civilisation, Nursi adds, with the Western attitude being “So long as I am full, what is it to me that others die of hunger?” and “You work so that I can live in ease and comfort’. By allowing the rift between the classes to widen, the West has engendered so much strife and sedition that it is on the brink of bringing humanity to its knees, giving rise to the struggle between capital and labour – itself the precursor of two World Wars and bloodshed and disorder on a hitherto unknown scale.
One of the clearest allusions made by Nursi to the fact that modern civilisation acts as a surrogate hereafter for unregenerate man comes in the 32nd Word[xx] , where he states unequivocally that the progress of civilisation as one of the reasons why man is lured away from thoughts of the hereafter. Taking my cue from Becker, I would venture to suggest that we qualify Nursi’s statement and say that while the apparently glittering progress of civilisation is one of the reasons why man is distracted from thoughts of the hereafter, it actually man’s inability or unwillingness to deal with death and the hereafter that push him to achieve civilisational ‘success’ in the first place. For if there is no hereafter in which to ‘succeed’, one must of necessity ‘succeed’ in the here-and-now. Nursi is, in effect, saying here what Becker would say half a century later, albeit for slightly different ontological and epistemological reasons.
One could continue, but surely the point has been made: it was impossible for Said Nursi to approve of a civilisation in which the negative aspects outweighed the positive so decisively. For Nursi, the only way forward for man is to embrace a civilisational form which brings true happiness and prosperity – and if not for all, then at least for the majority.
Having engaged with Said Nursi’s approach to Western civilisation, a question naturally occurs. If his attitude towards the civilisation lauded by the West is characterised at best by ambivalence and at worst by downright excoriation, of what kind of civilisation is he in favour? Can we find, in the Nursian Weltanschauung, the notion of a ‘true’ or ‘ideal’ civilisation? We believe that this question can be answered both affirmatively and negatively, depending on how we understand civilisation and, more importantly, how we understand the Nursian perspective on it.
Of course, it would be tempting to obviate a lengthy final analysis by second-guessing his answer. After all, for a Muslim thinker, how could anything but Islamic civilisation be the ‘true’ civilisational pattern for man to follow? Indeed, Nursi does talk about ‘Islamic civilisation’, but in an historical rather than a prescriptive sense. In other words, his glance is one of respect for the past rather than aspiration for the future, for in the context of what he wants for man in general, and the Muslim world in particular, the revival of ‘Islamic civilisation’ – at least as it was in any of its perceived ‘golden ages’ - is not on the Nursian agenda. Indeed, it may be argued that for Said Nursi, ‘Islamic civilisation’ is an ideational entity rather than a concrete one.
Of key importance is the complete absence of any blueprint for the perfect society, no outline for anything analogous to Farabi’smadinat al-fadila, no elaborate plan for the kind of hierocratically-mediated utopia envisaged by the Islamist ideologues of the late 20th century. Nursi is a realist, and while he encourages men and women to strive in order to put their own houses in order, nowhere does he envision the creation of an Islamic state, a rejuvenated Caliphate or the coercive imposition of the shari’a.
The Qur’an and the causa-sui project
We now turn to the Qur’an – Nursi’s main source of inspiration – and look at its verses through the theoretical prism that Ernest Becker has provided.
The consequences that ‘wealth-pride’ may have for man in both this world and the next are delineated clearly in a number of verses. Significant in this regard are a number of parabolic passages in which unregenerate man’s cultivation of the earthly garden can be seen in a very Beckerian sense to serve as a physical representation of the causa-sui project that is always doomed to failure.
The most striking of these appears in al-Kahf. It concerns two men, one of whom has been blessed with gardens and orchards that produce abundant fruits and grains. The owner of the gardens surveys his bountiful harvest and, in the course of a ‘mutual argument’, boasts to his companion that he is superior to him in terms of the wealth (māl) he enjoys and the honour (‘izza) accorded to him by other men. Later, he enters his garden ‘in a state (of mind) unjust to his soul’ and declares his belief that his possessions will never perish. Even if there is a day of judgement, he asserts, and he is brought back to his Lord, he is sure that he will surely find there ‘something better in exchange’.[xxi]
At this point, his companion questions the garden owner’s behaviour and cautions him against placing trust in things other than God:
“Dost thou deny Him Who created thee out of the dust, then out of a sperm drop, then fashioned thee into a man? But (I think) for my part that He is Allah,My Lord, and none shall I associate with my Lord. Why didst thou not, as thou goeth into thy garden, say: ‘Allah’s Will (be done)! If thou dost see me less than thee in wealth and sons (mālan wa waladan), it may be that my Lord will give me something better than thy garden, and that He will send on thy garden thunderbolts (by way of reckoning) from heaven, making it (but) slippery sand!”[xxii]
Two verses later and the companion’s predictions are realised: the garden is destroyed and its owner is left distraught, ‘twisting and turning his hands over what he had spent on his property’ and wishing that he had never ascribed partners to God.[xxiii]
The parable is evocative of the Beckerian thesis in a number of ways. Firstly, there is what appears to be a direct link made between the possession of wealth and the ability to command self-esteem:
“More wealth (māl ) have I than you, and more honour and power in (my following of) men.”[xxiv]
For the garden owner, the existence of an abundant garden is not important for what it is in itself, but for its symbolic significance, for its ability to both project his own power and attract the power of others. And power, the key to durability, is what lies at the heart of all immortality striving. As Becker points out:
Each person nourishes his immortality in the ideology of self-perpetuation to which he gives his allegiance; this gives his life the only abiding significance it can have.[xxv]
The ‘ideology of self-perpetuation’ to which one gives one’s allegiance – the project of ‘self-creation’ or causa-sui – changes according to epoch and cultural context. In order to deny that he is powerless and cannot stand alone, man projects his hopes and fears onto a project – any project – which embodies the power that he lacks but so obviously needs. This act of transference can involve almost anything:
It need not be overtly a god or openly a stronger person, but it can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to a game, a way of life, that like a comfortable web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself, of the fact that he does not rest on his own center. All of us are driven to be supported in a self-forgetful way, ignorant of what energies we really draw on, of the kind of lie we have fashioned in order to live securely and serenely. Augustine was a master analyst of this, as were Kierkegaard, Scheler, and Tillich in our day. They saw that man could strut and boast all he wanted, but that he really drew his “courage to be” from a god, a string of sexual conquests, a Big Brother, a flag, the proletariat, and the fetish of money and the size of a bank balance.[xxvi]
Secondly, that the subject of wealth-pride is an individual and the object of his hubris a garden resonates with the larger picture painted by Becker of the move from Radin’s ‘equalitarian society’ to Hocart’s ‘rank society’. As the advent of agriculture began the break-up of the primitive world, the rise of the early states and the focus of organised society on the twin institutions of kingship and the patriarchal family meant that the dynamics which underpin the larger socio-cultural causa-sui project begin to change. In primitive society, the whole group had created mana power by means of jointly celebrated ritual. In the new ‘rank society’, it is the king who represents the new locus of spiritual power from which the subject take succour. Previously, each person had helped to exercise control over the cosmos through shared ritual; now, all the individual can do is imitate the king in order to re-enact the divine plan in his own domain, in much the same way that primitive ritualism, through the setting up of the altar and the act of sacrifice, was able to re-enact in miniature the drama of the whole cosmos. In this way, the individual in Hocart’s ‘rank society’ is able to receive a reflection of the king’s powers and achieve the respect and esteem he feels he deserves.[xxvii]
Thirdly, the garden parable illustrates the tension which exists between the twin ontological motives which, for Becker and, indeed, for Nursi, inform all human actions. On the one hand, man is attracted toward the ‘rightness’ of beauty, goodness and perfection and pushes himself to expand in order to attain these, impelled as he is “by a powerful desire to identify with the cosmic process, to merge himself with the rest of nature.” The urge to immortality that is projected onto the object of transference is not a simple reaction to the underlying death-anxiety but also “a reaching out by one’s whole being toward life.” The cultivation of the garden, which represents nurture, expansion, vibrancy and beauty, is also the cultivation of the agape side of man’s nature.[xxviii]
On the other hand, man strives to be unique, to stand out as something different and express his individuality. If agape allows man to self-expand into unity with creation, eros encourages him to self-expand in a way that highlights his individuation and enables him to stand apart – and aloof – from others. Seen from the perspective of this second ontological motive, the garden is not merely a reflection of all that is good; by dint of the fact that it is seen as one man’s possession, it becomes the means through which he achieves self-esteem and, by extension, his own share of immortality.
The garden trope is of course key to our understanding of the Qur’anic view of paradise, with the heavenly janna comprising the locus in the hereafter of everlasting peace, happiness and salvation. Yet it is in the Qur’anic treatment of the worldly garden – the janna cultivated by man here on earth, as in the preceding parable – that the significance of the heavenly garden is thrown into sharp, Beckerian focus. On at least half a dozen occasions, the earthly garden is depicted by the Qur’an as the object of transference upon which unregenerate man projects his desires for self-expansion, the accumulation of mana power and, by extension, a share in the everlasting. On each of these occasions, man’s faith in his own causa-sui project is shown to be futile as his garden – his heaven on earth – either perishes or is destroyed.[xxix] For the Qur’an and, by extension, for Said Nursi, man’s cultivation of the earthly garden must be sacralised as an act performed for the sake of God and in appreciation of the fact that nothing can take place without divine sanction.[xxx] Earthly contentment is possible, in the eyes of the Qur’an, if man’s cultivation of his ‘garden’ is mediated by belief and trust in God. Man can have a garden on earth as long as he retains full awareness that he is not the power behind its cultivation, and that it may be taken from him at any minute. He must also realise that the garden which he cultivates in this world will, one day, be transformed into an everlasting garden – one which will reflect his endeavours in this realm, be they for good or for ill. In other words, he must, in order to live safely, be aware of the danger: he must confront the possibility of death and destruction and yield to it. If he does not, and he creates his garden as a hubristic causa-sui project, nemesis is bound to follow:
So his fruits (and enjoyment) were encompassed with ruin, and he remained twisting and turning his hands over what he had spent on his property, which had (now) tumbled to pieces to its very foundations. And he could only say, “Woe is me! Would I had never ascribed partners to my Lord and Cherisher!”[xxxi]
The ever-present possibility that the earthly garden may be taken from man at any moment illustrates what Becker describes as the ambivalence of the transference object, which in turn is the source of man’s perpetual disquietude. For, as he points out, man inevitably
…experiences “transference terror”; the terror of losing the object…of not being able to live without it. The terror of his own finitude and impotence still haunts him, but now in the precise form of the transference object. How implacably ironic is human life. The transference object always looms larger than life size because it represents all of life and hence all of one’s fate. The transference object becomes the focus of the problem of one’s freedom because one is compulsively dependent on it; it sums up all other natural dependencies and emotions.[xxxii]
For Said Nursi, the desire for immortality in human beings is taken as given, and is as much a natural need as man’s need for food and water. To put it with the utmost simplicity, just as if water did not exist, there would be no need for thirst, if there were no immortal realm, man would not desire it. And, as he shows in many of his compelling arguments for the existence of the hereafter, the very fact that man is a finite being with infinite capacities – capacities that cannot possibly be fulfilled in this limited realm of earthly, human existence – there must needs be another realm, an akhira, in which those capacities can be fulfilled. Denial of immortality is in fact denial of responsibility, and the wish to escape the results of one’s actions while in this life. For with immortality comes accountability, and few wish to be accountable to anyone or anything but their own selves, however much they may yearn for everlasting life. And the fact that everyone does yearn for everlasting life means that they will seek it, if not in a next world, then in this. Hence, as Nursi points out, the tendency to distract oneself from thoughts of death and what may lie beyond by focusing one’s attention on this world, and creating a kind of permanence and realm of perfection here instead. For Nursi, one of the key distractions was what he referred to on a number of occasions as ‘rotten civilisation’ – which I believe is just another name for the Qur’anic concept of hayat al-dunya.
What Ernest Becker and other scholars from the disciplines of psychiatry, psychology and cultural anthropology have brought to the debate and shown – and to my mind convincingly so – is that the desire for immortality is universal, ubiquitous and hard-wired into the human psyche; that all human beings take part in both their own ‘immortality project’ and in the ‘immortality project’ designed by the society, community, movement or religion to which they owe allegiance; that if the next world and everlasting life – as understood in Divine revelation – is denied, then this need for immortality has to be fulfilled not in the hereafter, but in the here-and-now; and that all human endeavour, be it political, cultural, economic, social, religious, is borne out of the attempt to solve the dilemma that this need for immortality poses. If there is no heaven after death, one must attempt to reap the rewards of heaven here on earth, in this limited time and space: one must live as though eternal and infinite, but in an ephemeral and finite existential situation. If belief in the hereafter of the monotheistic religions is denied, then some kind of hereafter has to be secured in this world. However, the heaven on earth of the unregenerate man is a perverted or ilhadi heaven that comes from an equally perverted view of eternity: it is a heaven one which does not fit, cannot fit, and cannot work. Unregenerate man, enamoured of eternity that he cannot have, tries to create eternity in some form or fashion here on earth, but ends up creating hell.
And so, in the words of the great novelist and theologian C. S. Lewis:
All that we call human history--money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery--[is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.
[i]Arvind Sharma, ‘This-worldy and other-worldly religions’ in Sophia, Vol. 20, Number 2 (1981), pp. 36-38.
[ii]Yasin Aktay, Body, Text, Identity: The Islamist Discourse Of Authenticity In Modern Turkey, PhD Thesis, 1997, The Graduate School of Social Sciences of the Middle East Technical University, Ankara.
[iii] See: Sukran Vahide, ‘Proof of the Resurrection of the Dead: Said Nursi’s Approach’ in Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi’ (Ed.), Theodicy and Justice in Modern Islamic Thought (Ashgate Publishing: Farnham, 2010), p. 44.
[viii] The main biographical source for Ernest Becker is R. Leifer, art. ‘Ernest Becker’ in The Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (New York, Macmillan/Free Press, 1976), Vol. 18. Sadly, Becker never enjoyed mainstream acceptance in the social sciences. Nevertheless, his most famous work, the Pulitzer Prize winning Denial of Death, remains in print over thirty years after its initial publication and Becker’s death from cancer at the age of forty-nine. One possible reason for his relative obscurity in academic circles was his lack of a single disciplinary home: his training, his academic posts and his scholarly output spanned anthropology, psychiatry, pedagogy and sociology, and inevitably in some quarters he was considered a Jack-of-all-trades. Another reason is that much of his career was spent in the backwaters of academe, victim of the purge of radicals from American universities in the late Sixties and early Seventies.
[ix] For Becker’s exposition of the conceptual ambivalence of the causa-sui project, see: Becker, The Denial of Death (New York, Free Press, 1997), pp. 119-23. The ‘vital lie’ refers to the deliberate obfuscation of reality which man effects in order to shield himself from the anxiety of death and annihilation. See: Becker, The Denial of Death, pp. 47-66.
[xviii] Becker’s treatment of the rise of economic inequality, the emergence of money as the ‘new universal immortality ideology’ and the role of wealth-pride in the dynamics of ‘social evil’ is key to his theory of immortality striving, particularly in the socio-cultural context of medieval and modern society. The scope of this paper does not allow us to discuss it here, however, and readers are referred to chapters IV to VIII of Escape from Evil.
[xxix] See, for example, Qur’an 34:15-16. Other ‘earthly garden’ verses include 2:266; 17:91; 25:8; 26:58 and 68:17-34. The last example in this list is particularly germane, since it deals with the tribulations of the ‘People of the Garden’ (aṣḥāb al-janna), whose refusal to acknowledge God as the true provider led to the destruction of their land by divine wrath and their concomitant loss of livelihood.
[xxx] In both and 68:28 it is suggested that it is the hubris of the owners in their refusal to acknowledge God’s will which brings destruction upon their gardens.