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Said Nursi’s Commentary on surah al-fātiha: its Role in Dialogue and Mutual Understanding between Christians and Muslims
Dr. W. Valkenberg, Loyola University Maryland
The opening prayer of the Qur’ān (surah al-fatiha) is of central importance in the religious life of Muslims. In the tradition of interpretation of the Qur’ān, this short first chapter has received many honorary titles, for instance “mother of the Qur’ān” and “opening of the Book”, which indicates that it forms the beginning and the summary of the Qur’ān, but also the beginning and the summary of prayer. Most Muslims pray this surah in each rak‘ah of their prayer, although there are some traditions that state otherwise.
Participants in dialogues between Muslims and Christians sometimes like to think of this text as a possible common prayer, and scholars of comparative theology like to compare its form and function to the Lord’s Prayer (the “Our Father”) in Christianity. Since most Muslims and Christians will agree that the relationship between human beings and God as expressed in ritual prayer is among the most important dimensions of their religions, the interpretation of surah al-fātiha may be of central importance for the future of Christian-Muslim collaboration in the twenty-first century.
Said Nursi (1877-1960) was one of the most important Muslim interpreters of the Qur’ān who envisaged a future collaboration between Muslims and Christians. While he did not generally have a favorable view of Europe and of most Western forms of philosophy, he esteemed Christians as fellow-believers who would be prepared to follow the truth as natural allies of Muslims. Therefore, it may be important to read his interpretation of surah al-fātiha with a view on the collaboration between Muslims and Christians in the 21st century.
Signs of Miraculousness
In the years before and during the First World War, Said Nursi began writing a commentary on the Qur’ān in Arabic, entitled Ishārāt al-I‘jāz fi Mazann al-Ijāz. The central idea of this commentary was to give an elucidation of the inimitability of the Qur’ān by considering the particular eloquence of its style and the conciseness of its word-order. The Qur’ān itself suggests at several places that its style cannot be imitated, thus giving rise to a distinct literary genre in Islamic apologetics. Said Nursi discusses some aspects of this Qur’anic argument in the twenty-fifth word of his Risale-i Nur collection, a treatise on the miraculousness of the Qur’ān. At the beginning of this treatise, he quotes surah al-isrā’ as follows: “Say: ‘If the whole of humankind and Jinns were to gather together to produce the like of this Qur’ān, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they backed up each other with help and support.” Said Nursi explains that, although the majority of the people of the Arabian Peninsula at that time were illiterate, poetry and eloquence were highly appreciated, and that an inimitable form of eloquence was considered to be the highest miracle. The Qur’ān’s eloquence, therefore, proves its divine origin, and the text itself asserts this by posing challenges to the poets and orators: “And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sūrah like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (if there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true.” The public character of this challenge and the lack of response again prove that no one could produce something similar to the Qur’ān. Other places in the Qur’ān suggest that this challenge is not only the best response to allegations that Muhammad would have forged the text, but also that it proves the Oneness of God (tawhīd) as the central message of the Qur’ān: “Or do they say ‘He forged it’? Say: ‘Bring then a Sūrah like unto it, and call (to your aid) anyone you can, besides Allah, if it be ye speak the truth!’” While Christian theology has often argued that Jesus Christ as Word of God is unique and incomparable to other founders of religion or savior figures, Said Nursi argues that the uniqueness of the Qur’ān’s poetry – specifically its conciseness and its word-order – point to the Unity of God as its source.
When one compares the interpretation of surat al-fātiha in the Ishārāt al-I‘jāz with the later commentaries that Said Nursi wrote on this chapter, it becomes immediately clear that Nursi’s approach in this early work is much more ‘technical’ in the sense that it concentrates on the forms and the order of the Arabic words, and uses these grammatical and syntactical analyses in order to arrive at an interpretation of the contents of these verses. In the later commentaries from the Risale-i Nur, the analysis is less technical and it follows the order of ideas rather than the order or words. Such a contrast, however, may seem to imply that Said Nursi only looks at small textual units without considering large-scale ideas, which is one of the characteristics of traditional tafsīr (qur’anic exegesis) criticized by Fazlur Rahman and Abdullah Saeed. This would be a wrong impression, since one of the major characteristics of Said Nursi, both in his earlier and in his later works, is that he is able to connect the specific wording of particular verses with his overall theological view on the contents of the Qur’ān. On the very first page of his interpretation of surah al-fātiha, he mentions four fundamental aims and essential elements in the Qur’ān: divine unity; prophethood; resurrection of the dead, and justice. These four fundamental themes may not only be found at the macro-level of the Book in its entirety, but they recur at the levels of each chapter and each verse as well. Consequently, Nursi tries to explain how these four aspects can be understood to be present in the very first sentence, the so-called “basmala” (“In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate”) of the fātiha chapter. Prophethood is implied in the implicit command “say!” (qul) that urges the prophet to speak. The word bismillāh indicates divine unity since the genitive construction of “in the name of God” restricts the meaning to One God only. The word “merciful” refers to the order in the universe, which is a sign of justice, while the word “compassionate” refers to the resurrection of the dead.
In order to understand this very succinct explanation, we need to know that the tafsīr tradition used to distinguish between the meaning of the two cognate words al-Rahmān (“the Merciful”) and al-Rahīm (“the Compassionate”) by connecting the first Name of God to creation in general, and the second Name to humankind in particular. One of the earliest interpreters, Abū Ja’far Muhammad b. Jarīr al-Tabari (d. 310/923), says: “God, as al-rahmān, encompasses all His creatures in a general Mercy, whereas, as al-rahīm, He directs His specific Mercy towards some of His creatures, either in this world or in the next or in both of them.” Some of the modern interpretations in English mention this distinction as well, for instance Ali Ünal, who uses Said Nursi and Fethullah Gülen quite often in his explanatory notes.
The same Ali Ünal introduces surah al-fātiha with words that clearly show the inspiration of Said Nursi: “The majority of scholars hold that the first sūrah to be revealed in its entirety is Sūrat al-Fātihah. In one respect, the Basmalah is the “seed” of Sūrat al-Fātihah, which, in turn, is the “seed” of the whole Qur’ān. With its marvelously terse and comprehensive words, it balances praise and petition perfectly, and it establishes four main themes or purposes of the Qur’ānic guidance – (1) establishing the Existence and Unity of God, (2) Prophethood, (3) the Resurrection and afterlife, and (4) worship and justice.” He uses the same imagery of al-fātiha as the seed or the essence of the whole Qur’ān once again when he comments on surat al-hijr 87: “And, indeed We have granted you the Seven Doubly-Repeated (Verses) and, (built on it), the Grand Qur’ān.” This verse forms the origin of another tradition (going back to Abu Huraira) that speaks about the first surah of the Qur’ān not only as “mother of the Qur’ān” and “opening of the Book”, but also as the “seven doubled” (al-sab’ al-mathānī) because this chapter has seven verses and it is repeated everyday in prayer. In his interpretation of this verse, Ünal mentions both the Turkish version of Signs of Miraculousness and the twenty-fifth Word by Said Nursi, which shows how Nursi’s interpretation has a formative role in this modern English interpretation of the Qur’an.
The first word in al-fātiha after the basmala points to the liturgical function of this text as well: al-hamdu lillāh, “praise be to God”. Said Nursi explains that this first word indicates the ultimate purpose of the Qur’ān in its entirety: to praise God. He notes that this praise is in fact the purpose of the whole of creation, for, as the Qur’ān says, “I have not created the jinn and humankind but to (know and) worship Me (exclusively).” It is interesting to notice that Said Nursi refers to one of the famous mystical interpretations of Muhyi al-Dīn Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240) in the conclusion of his interpretation of this verse: God wanted to create in order for creation to be a mirror in which God could see His beauty. We can observe here how Said Nursi is not afraid to go from a more “technical” and rational exegesis of the Qur’ān to the mystical tradition of Islam. He is aware that Ibn ‘Arabi is often frowned upon by orthodox Muslims, but he defends the right intentions of this God-seeker.
Both the basmala and the al-hamdu lillāh phrases point to the liturgical context of this prayer, so that once again surah al-fātiha shows a characteristic of the Qur’ān in its entirety: the text of God’s revelation functions first and foremost in a liturgical context, in recitation and prayer. The same holds true for the Christian Scriptures as well: many interpretations in the tradition of Christianity can only be understood if one realizes that the first context of reading Scripture was the worship of God, either in the monastery or in the parish church. This context of liturgical prayer also enables Muslims and Christians to appreciate some analogies between surah al-fātiha and Christian prayer. For instance, the language of the verse that Said Nursi just explained for us, “Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds”, evokes the parallel with a Christian liturgical prayer, the first words of which go back to a hymn of the angels at the birth of Christ: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Gospel of Luke 2:14). The basmala itself has a parallel in the Catholic sign of the cross; not so much in its contents – it would be very misleading to associate the Trinity with the three names of God mentioned in the basmala – but in the intention to sanctify everything that we do by invoking the Name of God before doing it. Muslims begin their religious teachings by saying the basmala, and in a similar way, Catholic teachers start their classes with the sign of the cross.
Even before the recitation of the first word of this prayer, there is a parallel in the intention to choose to concentrate on God instead of the allurements of the devil. Muslims pray a’ūdhu billahi min al-shaytān al-rajīm which rhymes wonderfully with and at the same time contrasts strongly to bismillahi al-rahmān al-rahīm. Following the lead of the Qur’ān itself, they take refuge in God from Satan eternally rejected. This custom, called isti’ādha (seeking refuge) is recommended in prayer because it forms a barrier against the whisperings of Satan. In a similar way, Christians reject Satan and his works before they pronounce their confession of faith. When someone wants to be baptized and enter the Catholic Church, this person (or his/her parents in case of an infant) profess his or her faith in the Triune God by answering three questions concerning Father, Son and Spirit; but before that, the candidate for baptism explicitly renounces Satan by answering three questions as well: Do you renounce Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises? After a threefold “I do”, the candidate is ready to confirm his or her faith in God and to live accordingly.
The prayer that forms the most important Christian parallel with surah al-fātiha for Muslims, however, is the Lord’s Prayer or the “Our Father”. This is for Christians the most important prayer because Jesus has given it to them, as the Gospels according to Matthew (6: 9-13) and Luke (11: 2-4) testify. Just like the “Opener” in the Qur’ān, the Lord’s Prayer begins by praising God: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven”, and it ends with a supplication: “Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and do not subject us to the final test, but deliver us from the evil one.” The final petition of the Lord’s Prayer as it is prayed in the liturgy (“do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil”) has a clear similarity to the final petition in the fātiha prayer: “guide us to the straight path, the path of those whom You have favored, not of those who have incurred wrath, nor of those who are astray”. Because of this similarity, many Christians and Muslims might be inclined to think that they could pray these words together, and that this prayer to be preserved from temptation and error may be one of the “common words” between Muslims and Christians. However, the history of interpretation of the final words of the fātiha prayer makes it difficult to come to a common word since the “straight path” of Islam has often been contrasted to the Jews as those who incurred God’s wrath and the Christians as those who went astray. So, in order to see if Said Nursi can help us here, it is important to see how he interprets this final petition.
In his Signs of Miraculousness, Nursi explains the petition to “guide us to the straight path” by referring to some principles of Islamic ethics and anthropology. The “straight path” is justice which is a mixture of three virtues: wisdom, chastity, and courage. It is the middle way in which the animal appetites, the passions, and the intellect are limited through the Shari’a, prohibiting excess and deficiency, and steering the course of the middle way (wasat). If the “straight path” is associated with the Muslim community guided by the shari‘a as a “community justly balanced” (umma wasata; Qur’an 2:143), this may lead to the thought that the people who have incurred God’s wrath have sinned by deficiency, while those who have gone astray, have sinned by excess. At two places in the Qur’an, Christians are associated with such an excess, since they say “three” instead of “one” when talking about God. On the other hand. Asma Afsaruddin has argued that righteous Jews and Christians are named a “balanced community” and an “upright community” in the Qur’ān as well. Nursi, however, does not make a distinction between good religions and bad religions, but between good human beings who keep to moderation and balance, and evil human beings who commit injustice by abandoning the rules and seeking pleasure and pride. Those who are misguided are the human beings that do not know their origin and their destiny: they do not believe in their Creator, nor in the Last Judgment. Again, Nursi connects some of the essential purposes of the Qur’an with this petition in surah al-fātiha: the existence of God, belief in the Hereafter, and justice.
The most important thing that Muslims and Christians in dialogue with one another could learn from Said Nursi in his interpretation of the first surah of the Qur’ān is probably his vision of three interrelated levels of community. Muslims are unique in the form and the origin of their worship of God, but they have many things in common with Christians and other believers in the Oneness of God, and they ultimately form a part of the basic community of humankind. Nursi expresses this vision in his explanation of the first person plural of na‘budu (“we worship”) and nasta‘īn (“we seek help”). In Signs of Miraculousness he indicates that the first person plural here indicates three aspects: the aspect of the entire human person; the aspect of all monotheists; and the aspect of all beings. In the explanation of these words that he later gave to his students when he was in Afyon Prison (1948-49), he refers to a vision that he had earlier when praying in the Bayezid Mosque in Istanbul. In the twenty-ninth letter, written some fifteen years earlier, Nursi describes this vision as follows:
At one time I was pondering over the use of the first person plural in the verse, You alone do we worship and from You alone do we seek help, and my heart was seeking the reason why the first person singular had been transposed into the first person plural of “we worship” (na‘budu). Suddenly from that “Nūn” the mystery and virtues of performing the prayers in congregation was unfolded to me. I saw that my participating in the congregation in Bayezid Mosque, where I was performing the prayer, made each member of the congregation a sort of intercessor for me, who testified to and affirmed each of the statements I pronounced in reciting the prayers. In the midst of the great, multiple worship of the congregation, I received the courage to offer my deficient worship to the Divine Court. Then a further veil was lifted. That is, all the mosques of Istanbul were added. The city became like Beyazid Mosque. Suddenly I felt as though I was receiving their prayers and affirmation. Then within that, I saw myself in the mosque of the face of the earth, in the circular rows around the Ka‘ba. I declared: “All praise be to God, the Sustainer of All the Worlds!” I have intercessors to this great number; they say exactly the same words as I say in the prayers, confirming me. Since this veil was raised by the imagination, the Noble Ka‘ba became like the mihrab.
While this triple vision clearly refers to the unity of all Muslims in prayer, from the local to the national to the universal fellowship of Muslims gathered in prayer around the Meccan Ka‘ba, Nursi continues to describe how a further vision was opened to him, in which he saw the worshiping congregation as part of an even greater congregation in three circles. The first circle included “the vast congregation of believers and those who affirm Divine Unity on the face of the earth.” The second circle consisted of all beings “occupied with the benedictions and glorification particular to its group and species”, while the third circle comprised all the particles, powers and senses of his body, declaring that God alone should be worshiped and from Him alone help should be sought.
Because Said Nursi, in his description of the three circles, no longer writes about Muslims but about believers and affirmers of divine Unity, I am inclined to think that he allows for the possibility that Muslims could worship together with other believers who truly follow the tradition of Abraham being “true in faith” (hanīf, Qur’an 3:67), and who share the intention of Tawhīd (worshiping the One True God). On the other hand I may be overstating my case here since Said Nursi does not explicitly indicate his intention to describe an “Abrahamic community” here. He does so, however, at several other places where he speaks about the possibility for Muslims to work together with Christians in order to save humanity from atheism. It has to be noticed, however, that Said Nursi does not endorse a facile ecumenism in which both faith traditions would be required to give up their specific appeal to God’s revelation. Quite the contrary, he seems to refer to the famous verse in the Qur’ān that talks about Christians as “nearest in faith” to Muslims because they are devoted to learning, because they renounce the world and are not arrogant by saying: “A zealous and self-sacrificing community known as a Christian community but worthy of being called “Muslim Christians,” will work to unite the true religion of Jesus (Upon whom be peace) with the reality of Islam, and will kill and rout that society of the Dajjal, thus saving humanity from atheism.” One may call this an Islamic inclusivism according to which Said Nursi is willing to accept those Christians who take worshiping the One True God seriously as Jesus did: they are worthy to be called “Muslim Christians” in the same vein as Christian inclusivists, following Karl Rahner, could see Muslims as “anonymous Christians”. But, more importantly, as Thomas Michel indicates, Said Nursi did not only write these words but he in fact tried to build bridges between Christianity and Islam by reaching out to Pope Pius XII in 1950 and by visiting the Athenagoras, the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul in 1953. It is of course possible to see this vision of future collaboration between Muslims and Christians as a political project, but for Said Nursi such a project should be rooted in the worship of the One True God to Whom we turn for help.