NURSI, DISCOURSE, AND NARRATIVE
There is no doubt that grief and suffering are a defining feature of Nursi’s life and thought. Risale-i-Nur [henceforward referred to as RN] is transfused with grief and suffering throughout, and it is impossible to apprehend all of that without coming to grips with the enormous loss of life in WWI and the impact of that on the Ottoman peoples, and the way Nursi understood and wrestled with this impact. His Rays Collection reflects this deep suffering and sadness in Nursi’s life. In one chapter, he says, “One time when I had been isolated from everything by the ‘worldly’, I was afflicted with five kinds of exile.” Or in another passage, he says, “One time when afflicted with old age, exile, loneliness, and isolation in addition to my innate and infinite impotence, ‘the worldly’ were attacking me with their spies and stratagems.”
I want to cite one major example of the loss of life, suffering and exile experienced by 60,000 Ottoman troops captured by the British army in Ottoman Palestine and shipped off to British Burma after the war, where all of them died away from home and their beloved ones. No one can now estimate the amount of suffering these soldiers went through; it was not the suffering of defeat in the war only, but also the suffering of imprisonment, capture, and forced migration and transportation to a far away country where they had no contact with the local population.
Nursi himself suffered greatly since he was captured by the Russian army and shipped off to Siberia which made him fully aware of the global nature of suffering and exile. It is therefore pertinent to analyze the sources of suffering in Nursi’s life since this suffering reflects, in a major way, the suffering of the Muslim ummah in the twentieth century and the radical transformations the umma has gone through since the loss of the Ottoman empire and the triumph of a new version of the West on the world of Islam. The concept ‘ummah’ had always been central in Nursi’s thought, in the Old Said phase as well as in the New Said one. In a fascinating statement, Nursi says the following:
I have always tolerated my own pain. However, the pain and suffering of the Muslim ummah have always bruised me so deeply. I feel as though the stabs directed at the Muslim world are directed at my heart, first. That is my heart is often wounded.
In a curious way, Nursi responds to a question raised by one of his students about the Prophet of Islam by saying that the Prophet is “spiritually linked to the suffering of the Muslim ummah as a whole.” What that means is that Nursi seems to assume that the present suffering of the ummah is a continuation of the suffering endured by the first generation of the Prophet and his companions and there is a lot to learn from that historical experience.
Therefore, when we seek the sources of sadness and suffering in RN, we must go back to that original and grandiose moment in Ottoman history, which was a critical phase not only in the life of Nursi per se but also in the lives of millions of Muslims who were influenced directly and indirectly by the defeat of the Ottoman troops in the war and the later on the dissolution of the Ottoman empire. Besides creating so much havoc, the dissolution created so much fear in the hearts of the Muslims because they began to realize that their fate was no longer in their hands.
Nursi suffered a lot not only on behalf of the Ottoman state, but also on behalf of the larger Muslim ummah. In his mind, he began to reconstruct a new set of relationships against the background of the enormous loss of WWI. It is very clear that throughout the RN, Nursi is haunted by loss, not in terms of family or money or property; he did not care about all of that. He is haunted by the loss of a decisive historical moment where the Muslim ummah is not able to capture this moment.
There is no doubt that the construction of his post-1918 theological project took place, to a large extent, against the background of defeat as well as the domination and rise of secular nationalism in Turkish society. Precisely, this context allowed him to escape the humanly-constructed language of domination in society and to construct a fresh language on the basis of the Quranic inspiration. This immense loss forced him to re-read the Quran in the light of defeat and loss and extract new meanings from it that had otherwise not been clear to him, at least in the same way, before WWI.
One can delineate the following salient features of Nursi’s post-WWI theological project:
1) The post-1918 text was primarily written by Nursi when he was in a state of exile, imprisonment or isolation from active social life;
2) The text is written in response to the rise of radical nationalism and secularism that was anti-religious in nature as well as in response to the eclipse of the Ottoman empire;
3) There is a focus on piety, sacredness, and faith and little mention of rational philosophy. That is to say that Nursi sought transcendence at this stage at the expense of rationalism;
4) The text presents a consistent and stubborn critique of the conditions in Turkey;
5) There is a major concern in the text about the conditions of the Muslim ummah and loss of center;
6) Nursi is wary of fitnah [infighting] or infighting in Turkey and he stresses the strong religious and historical bonds between Turks and non-Turks, especially Kurds in the new Turkish situation;
7) Nursi constructs a special form of his family; his students become his family who are charged with copying the text and ensuring a wide distribution of his writings;
8) Nursi delves deeply into the sources of Islamic religiosity, spirituality, the Qurán and history;
9) In spite of his difficult conditions, Nursi never lost hope in Islam and the Turkish people as the standard bearers of Islamic faith.
It is quite pertinent to compare Nursi with the Egyptian Islamist and exegete Sayyid Qutb [1906-1966] who was executed by the Nasserite regime in 1966 because of his radical ideas. Both Nursi and Qutb were concerned about the revival of the Muslim ummah in one way or another. Both suffered a lot and Qutb was executed because of his ideas.
One may talk about a lot of similarities between Qutb and Nursi. However, there are lots of differences as well. I think that the major difference lies in the fact that in spite of the loss experienced by Nursi in WWI and in spite of the fact that the Kemalist regime alienated Nursi and his followers and downgraded the role of Islamic in Turkish society, Nursi never accused society of Jahiliyyah, as did Qutb towards the end of his life. According to Qutb,
“Jahiliyyah... is one man's lordship over another, and in this respect it is against the system of the universe and brings the involuntary aspect of human life into conflict with its voluntary aspect. This was that Jahiliyyah which confronted every Prophet of Allah, including the last Prophet in their call toward submission to One God. This Jahiliyyah is not an abstract theory; in fact, under certain circumstances it has no theory at all. It always takes the form of a living movement in a society which has its own leadership, its own concepts and values, and its own traditions, habits and feelings. It is an organized society and there is a close cooperation and loyalty between its individuals, and it is always ready and alive to defend its existence consciously or unconsciously. It crushes all elements which seem to be dangerous to its personality.
Nursi never did that. Both Nursi and Qutb faced a virulent form of nationalism that they struggled against and tried to find a new formulation for the relationship between religion and society under nationalism. Nursi wrestled against the background of the failure of the last remaining caliphate in the Muslim world. As mentioned earlier, this situation defined his theological output in a major way. However, after the foundation of the Kemalist republic, Nursi focussed on brotherhood between Turk and non-Turk and even still considered Turkey to be the center of future Islamic revival. On the other hand, Sayyid Qutb developed the Ikhwan philosophy in the post-Banna phase, that is after 1949, the year of Banna's assassination at the hand of the Egyptian secret police. This phase was very tumoulteous in the history of modern Egypt since it witnessed the collapse of the Muhammad Ali Dynasty and rise of the Free Officers to power after the 1952 revolution against King Farouq. What is important to underline here is that there was a severe competition in the pre-1952 revolutionary phase among three broad classes of groups to capture political authority in the country: The Ikhwan, the army, and the leftist forces. Because of their sheer numbers and organization, both manifest and hidden, the Ikhwan was the likely candidate to assume power in the post-Farouq phase. A good number of the Free Officers who controlled power had been influenced by the Ikhwan already and it is assumed by a number of Egyptian observers that the Free Officers, especially the Nasser wing of the Free Officers, hijacked the Ikhwan philosophy of revolution and applied to their various programs in the country. Regardless if we agree with this assessment or not, it is very clear that the Free Officers were ambivalent about the Ikhwan after 1952 and they refused to share power with them. It is also important to underline the fact that a few people knew what shape the state would take.
Qutb's ideas in the 1950s and until his execution by the Nasser regime in 1966 reflected this deeply ambivalent relationship between the Ikhwan and Nasserism. As is well-known, Qutb did not join the Ikhwan until later on in his life, around 1951. That is to say, he joined after Banna's assassination. Qutb was a well-known secular author before he officially joined the Ikhwan. That was not the case with Said Nursi. So when we say that Qutb was the theoretician of jihad par excellence in the 1950s and until his execution, what does that mean?
Qutb developed his jihadist philosophy against the background of these three major factors: First, his development as an author who moved from secular to Islamic subject matters; second, the background of western colonialism in the area, as well as Zionism, adn third, the background of Nasserism and deep transformation of Egyptian society from the 1952 revolution until the 1967 defeat, one year after Qutb's execution. Qutb developed his jihadist ideas in a number of books, most notably in his magnum opus Fi Zilal al-Qur'an and Milestones, both of which were written while Qutb was in prison.
What are the broad characteristics of Qutb's thought in the 1950s and 60s? A major theme preoccupying Qutb in this period was the loss of Islamic doctrine or 'aqidah. He elaborates on this concept in Fi Zilal al-Qur'an and one wonders why Qutb discusses such a seemingly abstract concept when he delved into a number of economic and social challenges facing Egyptian society in the 1940s and 50s, especially in his major book, The Battle Between Islam and Capitalism, which, as far as I know, has never been translated into a foreign language. Before delving into the complicated question of 'aqidah and its impact on Qutb's jihadist philosophy. Nursi was also interested in the question of preserving Islamic 'aqidah in the context of aggressive secularism in modern Turkey, especially after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One, its abolition in 1923 and the foundation of the modern secular Turkish Republic by Kemal Ataturk and his comrades.
A brief comparison between Nursi's intellectual evolution from a Pan-Islamist theologian and thinker to a Qur'anic exegete and Qutb's evolution from a secular man of letters to a Pan-Islamist and afterwards a martyr is in order. In his Ottoman phase, roughly before World War One, Nursi defended 'aqidah in the context of promoting the bonds between the Turkish nation, the Ottoman Empire, and Islam or the Muslim ummah in the larger sense. He thought that it was possible to accept the tremendous institutional and social changes that began within the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century while reviving the great bond between ummah, empire, and modernization. Nursi argued that religion, i.e., Islam, must be organically linked to empire in order to preserve its identity in the modern era.
However, Nursi went through a radical transformation after World War One. Generally speaking, Nursi was disappointed with the failure of the Empire to preserve Islam and began to look into new ways to promote Islam and its spirituality in a radically new phase of modern Turkey. Right after World War One, Nursi became well aware of the fact that it was a matter of time before the Empire would be dismantled; that there were powerful forces, both internal and external, that were no longer interested in preserving the political integrity of the Ottoman Empire.
While at some point Nursi was ready to let go of the Empire, he was not ready to give up on Islam and the Muslim ummah. These two concepts began to acquire strong spiritual meaning for him. He still thought of the Muslim world in a universal sense and was anxious to preserve the great bond between the Turkish nation and Islam. He still thought of the Turkish nation not in nationalist terms, but in ummatic terms. And clearly, this went against the grain of the leading political authorities in the post-Ottoman phase of Turkey. The most dominant political current, epitomized by Kemal Ataturk and his comrades, defended the notion of severing ties between the Turkish nation and the Muslim world and attempted to relegate religion to a secondary status in the lives of the Turkish people.
As mentioned before, Empire, nation, and ummah played significant roles in Nursi’s intellectual life, especially before WWI. With the progress of years, a new constellation of forces came to the fore in Nursi’s life and that of his community in a secularized Turkey. This new constellation of forces can be called text-individual-community.
The text is, of course, Nursi’s magnum opus, Risaleh Nur, which begins to take shape from the 1920s on. And the Risaleh Nur must be seen as Nursi’s deep reflection on the Qur’ān in light of the modern and rapidly changing conditions in Turkey. However, there is a central dimension of the text that many scholars have overlooked. The text was not a simple exegesis of the Qur’ān; it was a product of Nursi’s crisis, imprisonment, exile, and alienation. I believe his experiences give Risaleh Nur a unique edge. The text is similar in this sense to the works of Antonio Gramsci and Dietrich Bonhoffer in Germany under Nazi authorities. It is a text forged from tremendous pain and suffering in the extreme. This is the main reason why the text is so charismatic.
Despite his spiritual, psychological and emotional struggles, Nursi had an objective goal, which was to preserve the integrity of Islam in the high age of radical secularism. He immersed himself in the infinite treasures of the Islamic sacred to express his new position and achieve his goal. In so doing, he was also expressing the feelings of numerous people who were not affected by the new secular formula of nation, Turkification, and Westernization.
The deep theological transformations in Nursi's life reflected the actual political and social transformations in Ottoman and later Turkish society on the ground. In the case of Qutb, his ideas on the state before his conversion to the cause of the Ikhwan were not clear; but it was clear that in the late 1940s, he began to develop Islamic ideas with strong historical and theological background. He was concerned about the revival of Islam as both a political and theological system. Unlike Nursi, Qutb did not have an actual model (i.e. the Ottoman Empire) to compare his ideas to. Therefore, he offered 'aqidah as a great theological and spiritual vehicle to reconstitute Islam in the modern era.
Qutb defines Islam as a "great emancipatory revolution" (thawrah tahririyyah kubra) that must inspire the vanguard of the Islamic revolution to reconstitute the Islamic ummah via rebuilding the Islamic state. In this, Qutb is highly influenced by Mawdudi, who says, "In reality, Islam is a revolutionary ideology and program which seeks to alter the social order of the whole world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideasl. 'Muslim' is the title of that International Revolutionary Party organized by Islam to carry into effect its revolutionary program. And 'jihad' refers to that revolutionary struggle and utmost exertion which the Islamic Party brings into play to achieve this objective." The vanguard must possess a three-dimensional consciousness that is aware, first, of Islamic theology and history, second, of the current conditions of imperialism, Zionism, and nationalism and, third, ways to rebuild the Islamic ummah. In Ma'rakat al-Islam wa'l Ra'smaliyyah, Qutb argues that the capitalist system is dominant in the Muslim world and it has top allies who support its continuation. These allies give full support to their American masters in order to control the world of Islam and fight communism under the guise of belief and religiosity. That is why Qutb argues that,
The Americans and their allies in the Middle East reject an Islam that resists imperialism and oppression, and opt for an Islam that resists only communism. They neither desire nor tolerate the rule of Islam. This is the case because, when Islam begins to rule, it will mold the people anew, and instruct them that it is a legal obligation to prepare for both expelling the imperialists and capturing the reign of political authority.
In Qutb's view, the most dangerous of "Americanized Muslims" happen to be certain famous Egyptian authors, journalists, and professional men of religion who become aware of the significance which imperialism attaches to their position, and thus subscribe to ideas inimical to Islam. There is a multifaceted alliance of what Qutb calls al-kutlah al-isti'mariyyah or the imperialist block in the Muslim world, which defines itself as the free world. The underlying objective of this so-called free world is not to spread democracy and human rights in the Muslim world but to penetrate the contemporary Muslim minds and to control the natural resources of the Muslim world. To Qutb's mind, "The Free World does not fight us with tanks and guns except for a limited period of time; instead it wages its battles against us with tongues and pens."
In his revolutionary quest to change the status quo, there is no doubt that Qutb was a utopian thinker par excellence. According to English philosopher John Gray argues that "Qutb's conception of a revolutionary vanguard dedicated to the overthrow of corrupt Islamic regimes and the establishment of a society without formal power structures owes nothing to Islamic theology and a great deal to Lenin."
Therefore, Qutb discusses a multifaceted alliance among different oppressive forces in the Muslim world: An alliance between international and indigenous capitalists and politicians, between orientalism and a leading number of indigenous authors, and between Zionism and local politicians. He says that there is, "A huge army of collaborators in the image of teachers, philosophers, doctors, and researchers follow in the footsteps of these powers-[the orientalists] and sometimes writers, poets, artists and journalists who carry Muslim names ... And some of them are even ulama'." He goes on to say that there is an army of collaborators is instructed to shake the foundations of 'aqidah in souls by all means necessary. [This shaking] has taken the form of research, science, literature, art, and journalism. [In addition to] weakening its foundation, the intent is to belittle the importance of 'aqidah and Shari'iih alike, and to interpret it in an unsuitable manner, and to emphasize its "reactionary character," and to call for leaving it aside."
In the case of Nursi, the concept of jihad became a spiritual one par excellence. It lost its military angle. On the other hand, Qutb uses the term jihad to denote several interdependent meanings, including doctrinal, spiritual, military, political, and social jihad. However, his definition of jihad stems from his understanding of Islam as a revolutionary 'aqidah or ideology that seeks to dismantle the status quo and rebuild anew on the bases of the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man from the servitude of other men. Jihad is, then, a reflection of this desire, and the Qutbian doctrine of jihad assumes, in the final analysis, a sharply differentiated universal aim. "This religion is really a universal declaration of the freedom of man from [the servitude to other men and [the 1 servitude to his own desires." Qutb is quite alarmed by the decline of Islam, the plight of its people, and the apologetic and defeatist mentality of its scholars and intelligentsia. Nationalism, secularization, and orientalism have all compounded the problem by blurring, in different ways, the fine distinction that Islam establishes between physical war and jihad. The supreme aim of jihad is to preserve the 'aqidah and to defend it in case danger befalls it. There is nothing defensive about the expansion of Islam. It was a logical consequence of the spread of the Islamic message.
To both Qutb and Nursi, At the heart of Islam is the concept of 'aqidah. Qutb defines it in the following ways: 1) It is the spiritual dynamo of Islam, which leads it to become 'a colossal emancipatory power' or quwwah tahririyyah hai'lah; 2) 'Aqidah means superiority (isti'la'); pride (i'itizaz), and grandeur [kibriya']; and 3) 'Aqidah is based on the premise of the total unity of the Muslim world.
In his important memoir, al-Ikhwan wa Abdul Nasser , Ahmad Abdul Majid, who was a close disciple to Qutb, says that after Qutb was released from prison in 1964, he asked to read the books of Banna, Mawdudi, Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, a student of Ibn Taymiyyah's and that his starting point was to focus on 'aqidah, since 'aqidah is the nucleous of any movement.
In Milestones, perhaps the most influential of Qutb's books, Qutb proposes a global battlefield between the Islamic forces and forces of jahiliyyah. Here Qutb goes beyond the confines of Egyptian society to the larger arena of the conflict between the vanguard of the Islamic forces and global jahiliyyah. If we look at the sources and foundations of modern ways of living, it becomes clear that the whole world is steeped in Jahiliyyahh, and all the marvellous material comforts and high-level inventions do not diminish this ignorance. This Jahiliyyahh is based on rebellion against Allah's sovereignty on earth. Ittransfers to man one of the greatest attributes of Allah, namely sovereignty, and makes some men lords over others. It is now not in that-simple and primitive form of the ancient Jahiliyyahh, but takes the form of claiming that the right to create values, to legislate rules of collective behaviour, and to choose any way of life rests with men, without regard to what Allah Almighty has prescribed. The result of this rebellion against the authority of Allah is the oppression of His creatures. Thus the humiliation of the common man under the communist systems and the exploitation of individuals and nations due to greed for wealth and imperialism under the capitalist, systems are but a corollary of rebellion against Allah's authority and the denial of the dignity of man given to him by Allah Almighty.
QUTB’S VANGUARD AND NURSI’S STUDENTS
To achieve his goals, Qutb was determined to establish a group of vanguard in order to reach political authority. According to him,
It is necessary that there should be a vanguard which sets out with this
determination and then keeps walking on the path, marching through the vast
ocean of Jahiliyyahh which has encompassed the entire world. During its course,
it should keep itself somewhat aloof from this all-encompassing Jahiliyyahh and
should also keep some ties with it. It is necessary that this vanguard should know the landmarks and the milestones of the road toward this goal so that they may recognize the starting place, the nature, the responsibilities and the ultimate purpose of this long journey. Not only this, but they ought to be aware of their position vis-à-vis this Jahiliyyahh, which has struck its stakes throughout the earth: when to cooperate with others and when to separate from them: what characteristics and qualities they should cultivate, and with what characteristics and qualities the Jahiliyyah immediately surrounding them is armed; how to address the people of Jahiliyyah in the language of Islam, and what topics and problems ought to be discussed; and where and how to obtain guidance in all these matters.
Jahiliyyah is not just a state of mind, a doctrine and a philosophy of life, it is a historical phase that was supposedly abolished by Islam. It is the lordship of a set of humans over other humans. However, it was reactivated in the modern era by all sorts of forces. The vanguard should cut themselves off Jahiliyyah and return to the Qur'an in order to build their faith anew. Qutb is keen at developing a revolutionary cadre that will topple the status quo. When writers with defeatist and apologetic mentalities write about "Jihad in Islam," trying to remove this 'blot' from Islam, then they are mixing up two things: first, that this religion forbids the imposition of its belief by force, as is clear from the verse, 'There is no compulsion in religion,' while on the other hand it tries to annihilate all those political and material powers which stand between people and Islam, which compel a people to bow before another and prevent them from accepting the sovereignty of Allah. These two principles have no relation to one another nor is there room to mix them. In spite of this, these defeatist-type people try to mix the two aspects and want to confine Jihad to what today is called 'defensive war'. The Islamic Jihad has no relationship to modern warfare, either in its causes or in the way in which it is conducted. The causes of Islamic Jihad should be sought in the very nature of Islam and its role in the world, in its high principles, which have been given to it by Allah Almighty and for the implementation of which Allah Almighty appointed the Prophet as His Messenger and declared him to be the last of all Prophets and Messengers.
Again, Qutb says this about jihad:
Those who say that Islamic Jihad was merely for the defence of the 'homeland of
Islam' diminish the greatness of the Islamic way of life and consider it less
important than their 'homeland'. This is not the Islamic point of view, and their
view is a creation of the modern age and is completely alien to Islamic
consciousness. What is acceptable to Islamic consciousness is its belief, the way
of life which this belief prescribes, and the society which lives according to this
way of life. The soil of the homeland has in itself no value or weight. From the
Islamic point of view, the only value which the soil can achieve is because on
that soil Allah's authority is established and Allah's guidance is followed; and
thus it becomes a fortress for the belief, a place for its way of life to be entitled
the 'homeland of Islam', a centre for the movement for the total freedom of man. [Milestone, 82]
Qutb's ultimate goal was to form an international jihadist movement in order to battle global Jahiliyyah. His reinvocation of a global Islamic resistance was important. It is a sunnah for the ummah to be tried in life and for the ulama to suffer imprisonment and torture. Qutb had a blind faith in the omnipotence of the 'aqidah as a revolutionary theological philosophy that would ultimately inspire the faithful to wage jihad. It is the type of jihad that unleash the hidden energies of a stagnant nation and even ummah. Qutb's undertaking of this revolutionary project was done, we must not forget, against the background of the secular mass movement of Nasserism.
There is no doubt that Qutb was a highly charismatic figure who preferred martyrdom to compromise and intellectual longevity to physical life. His charisma was symbolic of a young generation of Ikhwan that wanted to establish state. Yet, Qutb's charisma collided with that of Nasser who was a rising star not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world. Whereas Qutb was speaking about forming an international Islamic movement to fight against global and local Jahiliyyah, Nasser was already heading a mass movement across the Arab world, especially before 1967. Both Qutb and Nasser felt they were in possession of some irresistible power. Nationalism and Arab unity appealed to Nasser, whereas Islam and Islamic unity appealed to Qutb. Ultimately, both visions and forces were destined to clash because one country could not contain these two conflicting visions. Nasserism was able to galvanize the masses in the name of nationalism while having the support of the upper echelon of the Islamic ulama and particularly the Azhar University.
Ultimately, what betrayed Nasserism as an Arab mass movement was not the corruption of its high officials or event the brutality of its army in Yemen but its defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967. The defeat certainly exposed the huge gulf between the promises of this Arab mass movement and its military and economic reality. And with such a grandiose defeat, religion would certainly occupy a prominent place as a refuge for the disaffected and ostracized. Qutb's execution a year before the defeat gave him the credibility of the martyr, not only in the eyes of the leaders of his movement, but also in the eyes of the disaffected, especially the educated. That gave the movement and Qutb's ideas the rationale to survive even in the darkest of hours.
As we can see from the above, Nursi was working hard to find new and creative ways for Islamic renaissance in the twentieth century without resorting to violence. However, at this stage, his vision of Islamic renaissance was somewhat different from that of the proponents of Islamic revivalism in the twentieth century, such as Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Allama Mawdudi, and others.
In order to achieve renaissance in the Kemalist phase, Nursi focussed on cultivating a new generation of students who were to become the vanguard of the Nur movement but not in the military sense as in the case of Sayyid Qutb. The function of these students is not just o copy the banned RN or to perform the prescribed religious duties of Islam but to stand as a united community against the age of infidelity and atheism. Nursi repeats quite often in his epistles to this students that this age is that of the jama’ah or community. In another publication, he argues that the basis and foundation of human society, especially the Muslim ummah, is “the sincere bonds between relatives, and the concerned attachment between tribes and groups.” The main goal of the students should be not only to resist this atheist age, but the pave the way for a total spiritual revolution in the lives and hearts of a generation that has forgotten divine blessings and has undermined divine nature by focussing on the material and transient while forgetting the permanent and divine.
Strangely, as a prominent Ottoman ‘alim when he was a young man, Nursi does not talk about cultivating the ulama in the Kemalist phase. No one knows his exact attitude towards the Turkish ulama after 1924 since he does not discuss the subject in any serious way. It is hard to know his attitude towards the new official religious configuration of modern Turkey and the creation of the Diyanet as the official body representing the new Turkish republic, which was placed in charge of all the religious endowments in the country. It is clear that Nursi did not want anything to do with the official religious intelligentsia, which he shows that he lost hope in the ability of this intelligentsia to revive Islam under Kemalism. In addition, I have not seen any writings discussing the position of the official religious intelligentsia on the Nur movement and RN. However, as a governmental body, one may assume that this intelligentsia was officially barred from dealing with the Nur movement. What that means that the Nur movement developed in modern Turkey in isolation from other religious forces in Turkish society, especially the official ones.
Essentially what the above means is that the Nur movement in its long development [from the 1924 until now] has lacked the intellectual and financial sponsorship of the state, which has enabled it to relatively keep its independence from the state, and other religious forces in society, especially the ones that are referred to as ‘Political Islamic movements’. In other words, the Nur movement has always been a religious movement of the masses, the poor and marginalized in society and it has never aspired to assume a political or influential role in society. It is true that some individuals associated with the movement are individually wealthy or they run major business; however, this has never been the true aspiration of the movement. Its focus has been to read the RN and the Quran without any philosophical or theological sophistication. And perhaps because of the above factors, the Nur movement has not been to develop a new cadre of religious intelligentsia or ulama in the manner of the Azhar or other prominent Islamic institutions in the contemporary world.
Because of the absence of any state patronage of the movement, the students cultivated by Nursi were primarily from the countryside, which corresponded to his humble social and economic background. In the words of Serif Mardin, Nursi was a ‘brilliant little mountain boy” who did not care about this world’s materialism. Nursi’s students had nothing to do with politics or even the affairs of this world. They are totally dedicated to the Qurán through RN. He comments on this by saying that, “Just how far from justice it is to call the Risale-i-Nur students, who are innocent and have no connection with politics, a political society, which is completely baseless and never even occurred to us, and to accuse the unfortunates who embraced the Risale-i-Nur and have no aim other than belief in the hereafter, of publishing works for that society, or being active officers or members of it, or of reading the Risale-i-Nur or teaching it to others, or of writing it out, thus deeming them guilty of some crime, and to send them to court—a proof of how far this is from justice.”
Nursi understood that ultimately the message of Islam will be protected only by God and not by students or even the general body of the Muslims. However, that did not absolve him from cultivating a new generation of Muslim students to spread the message of Islam in the high age of secularism. His students became his anchor, solace, and hope. When Nursi passed away in 1960, he was certainly that the message of Islam did not die in the new Turkey or the contemporary world. He did not die a bitter man, like Qutb; he still retained a high measure of hope for the Muslim ummah, even in the darkest of its hours.
It is clear that Nursi was totally shaken by the events of WWI. To him, violence was at the heart of the end of the Ottoman empire as well as the birth of the new nation-state of Turkey. The birth of the nation state in the modern world has solicited violence, but it has also given a sense of order, focus, and security to its citizens, including the insane. Nursi was not against the state per se, but against the radical westernized vision of this state. However, he must have supported the state in its reconstruction of the Turkish nation; he was against the bases of this reconstruction but not against the idea per se. He was with the state in liberating Turkish land from foreign domination and he stood for the idea of creating discipline and order in society. Above all he was with the jama’ah or community since God stands only with a united community. This was ultimately his fulfilled hope. When he died, he was sure that this hope would not be lost and one day Islam will be revived in the hearts of the believers worldwide.