Prof. Dr. Thomas Michel - Is A God-Centered Life An Antidote To A Culture of Violence? Some Reflections from the Risale-i Nur from Barla Platformu on Vimeo.
Some Reflections from the Risale-i Nur
1. The God-centered life
What, according to the Risale-i Nur, is the goal of human life? Or, to put the question another way, what kind of life is Said Nursi trying to encourage his disciples to pursue? Can we find in the Risale-i Nur a text that brings together in summary fashion the fundamental ideas that Said Nursi was trying to convey?
I have been studying the Risale-i Nur in search of an interpretative key that would help me understand the kind of person that Said Nursi was himself striving to be and the kind of believer that he hoped would result from his efforts to form disciples according to the Risale-i Nur. One such a passage might be found in the Tenth Word of Sözler. There Nursi is arguing for the reality of the Resurrection and holds that it is inconceivable that God would betray the hopes of those who have lived faithfully in accord with God’s word. He says: “Is it at all possible that He should not prepare a realm of reward and eternal bliss for those believers who respond to the Merciful and Compassionate One’s making Himself known by recognizing Him in faith; to His making Himself beloved by loving Him in worship; and to His mercy by offering thanks and veneration?”
Here we find in summary fashion the kind of person that Nursi is trying to form, one whose hopes will surely be fulfilled by God. This is the believer who responds to the initiatives of grace that God makes to him: 1) God makes Himself known by teaching His word of truth, and the believer responds by recognizing God in faith; 2) God reveals Himself as loveable and the faithful servant responds by loving and worshiping Him; 3) God shows Himself as merciful and the grateful penitent responds with praise and thanksgiving. In other words, God manifests Himself to those who believe in terms of truth, love, and mercy and they respond to God with faith, worship, and thanksgiving.
I believe that here we find a succinct statement of Nursi’s understanding of human existence. As humans, we exist in order to learn the truth of this world and the next from the Word of God, to worship the loving God who is himself eminently worthy of our love, and to thank and praise God continually for the great mercy that God has always shown to us. This goal, which marks Nursi’s personal spiritual path to God as well as the aspiration he hoped to share with his disciples, we might call “a God-centered life.”
A God-centered life is a faith commitment that goes beyond simply adhering to a dogmatic list of beliefs or performing ritual actions of whose purpose the worshiper is ignorant. It is a way of moving beyond perfunctory religiosity to put God at the heart of one’s human consciousness and at the center of one’s hopes and motivations. As a Christian student of the Risale-i Nur, I find that Said Nursi’s vision of the God-centered life is one that resonates with my own understanding of the purpose of human existence. In the most basic Christian catechism we read that men and women were created “to know, love, and serve God, and to be happy with Him in Paradise.” Thus, the ideal of the God-centered life is a point of convergence between the two faiths that should unite Muslims and Christians.
2. The culture of violence
The preamble of the Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” Said Nursi’s Risale-i Nur can be seen as an appeal to his disciples to build a culture of peace flows from a commitment to respond faithfully to the prophetic message of God’s guidance and strength.
A God-centered life in which God’s will is paramount and where humans regard themselves as faithful servants of the Divine Master, as elaborated by Said Nursi in his magnum opus, is an antidote to the culture of violence that is so prevalent in the world. There are many possible definitions of what is meant by a “culture of violence,” but the following would seem to be as good as any. A culture of violence refers to a mentality that presupposes that a human life is expendable in the name of some personal or communal goal, and that any institution, group or individual, in a position to do so, can resort to coercion by force to deal with other institutions, groups or individuals that have different values or ways of life.” There are two key elements to this definition: 1) the expendability of human life in pursuit of a selfish or even commendable end, and 2) the willingness to resort to force to impose one’s views, beliefs, and way of life on others.
According to Said Nursi, a person’s actions proceed from the inclinations of one’s heart and emotions and from the sensibilities and needs of his spirit. If those basic drives are left unchecked, one’s emotions can easily lead a person to either spontaneous or premeditated deeds of violence. However, according to Nursi, religious faith “places in the heart and mind a permanent ‘prohibitor.’ When sinful desires emerge from the soul, it repulses them and declares them forbidden.” In this way, he holds, the violent impulses that arise from a person’s emotions and sensitivities can be controlled and held in check by one’s religious convictions before they lead to aggressive and destructive behavior; “Blinder emotions will not drive him down the wrong road and defeat him.”
Faith brings together the light of the mind and the heart. In other words, an enlightened mind can control and heal the heart’s emotions, at the same time that an enlightened heart can soften and mitigate the often harsh judgments of the mind. But, as Nursi warns, “So long as the light of the mind and of the heart are not combined, there is darkness, producing violence and ignorance.” When God is at the center of a person’s life, the mind and the heart, one’s thoughts and emotions, are in harmony because they are guided by God’s word and strengthened by God’s grace.
Moreover, religion teaches the inviolable dignity of each person. A sincere believer in God cannot consider another person’s life expendable for any reason. He cannot even violate the dignity of other by forcing them to accept his ideas, beliefs, or behavior. Nursi notes, “Belief necessitates not humiliating others through violence and despotism and not degrading them.” In a God-centered approach to life one must not humiliate others by subjecting them to violence and threats.
3. Strength for the victims of violence
Similarly, true religion forbids one to humiliate one’s own self by bowing down to anyone other than God alone. While it is not in keeping with God-given human dignity to degrade oneself, faith can help one to respond with forebearance and perseverance in situations of injustice, rather than by lashing out in vengeance, thus perpetuating the cycle of violence, or by seeing one’s self-esteem destroyed in despair and desolation.
In his “Treatise for the Elderly,” Nursi reflects on his personal experience of prison: “Just when in those freezing conditions I was most in need of rest and not catching cold and not thinking of the world, I was overcome with anger and vexation at those who had sent me into this intolerable exile, isolation, imprisonment, and oppression, in a way that spelt out their hatred and ill-intentions, Divine grace came to my assistance.” Nursi was led to understand through his faith that Divine providence had a large role to play in his imprisonment. In God’s mercy and wisdom, Nursi was given the opportunity to guide and console other prisoners, and he was granted time to repent and seek forgiveness for his own faults. He also had the possibility of acting magnanimously by forgiving those who were responsible for the injustice against him, thereby practicing the Qur’anic injunction “Those who suppress their anger and forgive people, truly God loves those who do good.”
Nursi came to realize that the injustice and violence he suffered could actually benefit him spiritually. “If this ill-treatment, distress, and oppression inflicted on me by ‘the worldly’ is for my faulty soul, I forgive it. Perhaps my soul will be reformed by means of it, and perhaps it will be atonement for its sins.” Rather than advising revenge against his enemies, Nursi leaves vengeance to God: “If the worldly oppress me because of my service to belief and the Qur’an, it is not up to me to defend it. I refer it to the Mighty and Compelling One.”
In a strong rejection of the principle that “the end justifies the means,” Nursi refers to the Qur’anic injunction that one may not kill a single innocent person even in order to save all humanity. “The pure justice of the Qur’an does not permit spilling the life and blood of an innocent, even for the whole of humanity. The two are the same, both in the view of Divine Power, and in the view of justice. But through self-interest man becomes such that he will destroy everything that forms an obstacle to his ambition.” Thus, in the view of Said Nursi, a God-centered life is a strong deterrent to the use of violence, even in the pursuit of praiseworthy ends, whereas for a person for whom God’s will is irrelevant to the way he acts, such a person will be likely to lack the inner motivation necessary prevent him from inflicting violence in the pursuit of his self-interest.
Even when the desire to live in accord with God’s will is not a sufficient motivation for avoiding aggressive behavior, religion can still be a powerful deterrent to violence and mayhem. Referring to the youths of his time, Nursi’s judgment cuts across ages and cultures: “It is only the thought of Hell-fire that checks the turbulent emotions of youths, the most vigorous element in the life of society, and their violent excesses, restraining them from aggression, oppression, and destruction, and ensuring that the life of society continues tranquilly. If not for fear of Hell, those drunken youths would, in accordance with the rule ‘might is right’ in pursuing their desires, turn the worlds of the wretched, weak, and powerless into Hell.”
To Nursi, violence is an inevitable effect of rejecting God and God’s promise of resurrection. He warns that when people give up such beliefs and hopes, human dignity suffers and along with it, civic values and social harmony. He states:
“Towns are households for their inhabitants. If belief in the hereafter does not govern the members of that large family, vices like malice, self-interest, false pretences, selfishness, artificiality, hypocrisy, bribery, and deception will dominate, displacing sincerity, cordiality, virtue, zeal, self-sacrifice, seeking God’s pleasure and the reward of the hereafter, which are bases of good conduct and morality. Anarchy and savagery will govern under the superficial order and humanity, poisoning the life of the town. The children will become troublemakers, the youth will take to drink, the strong will embark on oppression, and the elderly start to weep.”
Positing a direct link between godlessness and a culture of violence in society, Nursi holds that without God’s guidance and help, ordinary people can become “monsters” who do harm to others even as they are destructive to themselves.
4. Seeing as God sees
A God-centered life serves as an antidote to a culture of violence by putting injustices, oppression, and discouragement in perspective. As Nursi approached the end of his life, his health impaired by his many years in prison and exile, he was grieving the shortness of life and oppression he experienced. Nursi was only able to avoid recourse to anger and resentment by bearing in mind the verse: “For us God suffices, and He is the Best Disposer of Affairs!” This enabled Nursi to consider life, not from the point of view of his own experience of injustice and suffering, but from the perspective of God. Nursi realized that by dwelling upon his miseries was limiting his reflections to but one of the myriad aspects of the human condition of which God is aware. In other words, life is much greater than what he thought and felt at any given time.
Nursi believes that the sufferings of the present time are insignificant compared to the reward that is awaiting those who persevere with patience. Near the end of his life, he wrote: “Because of the sacred solace for the pains and despair of the adventures of my old age arising from belief and the Qur’an, I would not exchange this most distressing year of my old age for ten of the happiest years of my youth. Especially since each hour in prison of those who repent and perform the obligatory prayers become like ten hours’ worship, and with respect to merit, each transient day spent in illness and oppression gains ten days of perpetual life.” The suffering of an innocent person is itself a kind of worship of God, so that the person whose sight is fixed on God can endure even the worst wrongs and injustices without responding in kind.
Perhaps the most powerful contribution that a God-centered life can make to overcoming the universal human tendency to violence is the influence of God’s loving nature. Since God is both most loving and most loveable, living daily in the conscious presence of this loving Creator should make the believer aware of the centrality of love in human life. When consciousness of God’s love is the guiding principle of one’s actions, violence is seen as the human perversity that it is, a distortion of what it means to be human. As Nursi puts it in The Damascus Sermon: “The thing most worthy of love is love, and that most deserving of enmity is enmity. That is, love and loving, which render man’s social life secure and lead to happiness are most worthy of love and being loved. Enmity and hostility are ugly and damaging, have overturned man’s social life, and more than anything deserve loathing and enmity and to be shunned.” Thus, when God is the focus of one’s daily attention, since God’s nature is the epitome of loving, the importance of love is impressed on the consciousness of the believer, and the aberrant nature of violence becomes evident.
Nursi teaches a God-centered vision of life in which faith, worship, and thanksgiving are the key elements in one’s relationship to God and forgiveness, love, and patience are the fundamental basics of a person’s relations with others in society. Such a program is only possible to maintain over time if one is focused sincerely on God as one’s goal and on doing everything to please God. In this way, the central Islamic virtue of sincerity (ikhlas) is of paramount importance. Nursi holds that especially those who have suffered violence and oppression are in need of sincerity if they are to persevere. He writes: “We are certainly compelled more than anyone to work with all our strength to gain sincerity. We are in utter need of instilling sincerity in ourselves. Otherwise what we have achieved so far in our sacred service will in part be lost, and will not persist.
5. The jihad of the word
Many people will object that in the past religion has often been the cause of war and that even in our own time religion is an important factor in modern-day violence and war. If by “religious adherence” one means belonging by birth to a group of people who share a religious allegiance that is often reinforced by ethnic identity, there is undoubtedly some truth to this claim. In what sociologists call “identity conflicts,” a person’s religious affiliation is often an important factor determining which side of the conflict one is on. At the same time, such conflicts are almost never about theology or religious principles, and the way such wars are waged is but rarely influenced by the ethical tenets of the professed religions. The real dynamic is not determined by religious teaching but rather the atavistic need to make “our” group to overcome “their” group at all costs.
Said Nursi is not interested in shoring up attitudes of nationalistic or ethnic chauvinism, but wants to instill in the students of the Risale-i Nur, a way of life that responds worthily to God as Teacher, Lover, and Pardoner. To him, faith, worship, and thanksgiving are the central issues; worldly affairs, such as who is winning and who is losing a military battle, are not worth his attention. For this reason, Nursi states that he takes refuge in God from partisan politics, and by the end of his life he refused to follow the progress of ongoing wars.
In the Damascus Sermon, Nursi takes up the question of violence in the name of religion and holds that jihad of the sword is passé. In the past Muslims resorted to violence and war, but in Nursi’s view, such actions displayed their weakness and distance from the teachings of Islam rather than their strength of faith. He states: “History shows that the Muslims increased in civilization and progressed in relation to the power of the truths of Islam, that is, to the degree that they acted in accordance with that power. History also shows that they fell into savagery and decline, and disaster and defeat amidst utter confusion to the degree of their weakness in adhering to the truths of Islam.”
The true characteristics of Islamic civilization are, according to Nursi, opposed to enmity and violence, and it is only when Muslims depart from those innate characteristics of Islam that they turn to childish deeds of violence: “Love, brotherhood, and affection are the temperament of Islam, they bond it. The people of enmity resemble a spoilt child who wants to cry, and so looks for an excuse to do so…They resemble an unfair, pessimistic person who so long as it is possible to distrust, never thinks favorably.”
Even if violent action might have been considered appropriate in the past, the world has changed and violence can no longer be justified. He writes: “In the Middle Ages, Islam was compelled to be bigoted and hostile in the face of the Europeans’ savagery, but it nevertheless maintained its justice and moderation. It never instituted inquisitions and the like. In this time of modern civilization, the Europeans are civilized and powerful, and harmful hostility and bigotry have therefore disappeared. For in respect of religion, the civilized are to be conquered through persuasion, not through force, and through showing by conforming to its commands in actions and conduct that Islam is elevated and lovable. Force and enmity are only to combat the barbarity of savages.” Here Nursi is calling for “the jihad of the word” to replace that of the sword. In a civilized world, Muslims must seek to convince and persuade others; they do that by bearing witness to the elevated and noble beliefs of their religion and by making their religion attractive and enticing to others. “In the future, in place of weapons, the immaterial, moral swords of true civilization, material progress, and truth and justice will defeat and scatter the enemies.”
Nursi states that if we have learned anything from the Twentieth Century’s two World Wars, it is that the evil and destruction unleashed by war prove nothing about right and wrong, but only the ambiguous realities of power. Reward and retribution should be left to God, not carried out by human hands. “The time for enmity and hostility has finished. Two world wars have shown how evil, destructive, and what an awesome wrong is enmity. It has become clear that there is no benefit in it at all. In which case, on condition they are not aggressive, do not let the evils of our enemies attract your enmity. Hell and Divine punishment are enough for them.”
6. The diabolic origin of violence
Nursi expects that as the Day of Judgment draws near, believers in God will face a twin challenge on the part of forces opposed to God’s will. These two forces are personified by the figures of Dajjal and Sufyan. Dajjal, the Antichrist, will work outside the Muslim community and seek to turn people away from God. He will be opposed by the prophet Jesus who will return and defeat the Dajjal. In the Muslim community, Sufyan will work to spread corruption and dissention among Muslims, and he will be opposed and defeated by the Mahdi, the Rightly-guided One.
Nursi does not believe that the figures of Jesus and the Mahdi, or those of their adversaries Dajjal and Sufyan, need be understood as individuals, but could represent respectively the collective personality of belief and unbelief. He is waiting for the day when the students of the Risale-i Nur will join hands with the true Christians who are following the path of Jesus, and together these two communities will overcome the forces of evil represented by Dajjal and Sufyan.
In this context we can understand Nursi’s view that violence is a characteristic of the work of the Dajjals, who exercise an invasive despotism that violates even the most private matters of life. He writes: “Because both Dajjals employ the severest despotism, the greatest tyranny, and the maximum violence and terror, they appear to have vast power. Theirs is a despotism so extraordinary that under the cloak of laws, they intervene in everyone’s consciences and religious beliefs, and even their clothes.” The “lovers of freedom,” as he refers to them, opposed the violent tyranny exercised by the agents of the Dajjals at the turn of the century but they erred in misdirecting their resistance. The historical reference to events in Turkish history is somewhat obscure:
“It is my guess that with a premonition of the future the lovers of freedom at the end of the last century perceived this awesome despotism, and letting fly their arrows at it, attacked it. But they were sorely misled and attacked on the wrong front. It is tyranny and coercion so great that it wipes out a hundred villages because of one man, punishing hundreds of innocent people and ruining them by forced migrations.”
7. Origins of class violence
While Nursi does not ascribe to a Marxist analysis of history that would posit inevitable conflict and warfare between social classes, he is aware from his own background that the common people have in the past and still experience violence and oppression on the part of the elite. In the God-centered life that Nursi is proposing, a keen sense of justice must be developed in order to defend the rights of the poor against the tyranny of the wealthy and powerful. In a telling passage, he relates:
“By birth and the way I have lived I am from the class of common people, and I am one of those who by temperament and intellectually have accepted the way of ‘equality of rights.’ Due to compassion and the justice proceeding from Islam, I have for a long time opposed and worked against the despotism and oppression of the elite class called the bourgeoisie. I therefore support total justice with all my strength, and oppose tyranny, oppression, arbitrary power, and despotism.”
However, Nursi does not maintain that class conflict are part of the inevitable march of history; for him, the conflicts arise rather from human failings and a refusal to follow God’s guidance. Instead of the modesty and humility that come from a God-centered life, those who have economic and political power follow their own inclinations to greed and arrogance. “While the virtues of those known by the world as the upper classes should be the cause of modesty and humility, they have led to oppression and arrogance. And while the poverty and powerlessness of the poor and common people should be the cause of compassion and bounty, they have resulted in captivity and condemnation.”
Too often, the upper classes show a disregard for the fate of those who do not share their prosperity. “So long as I’m full, what is it to me if others die of hunger?” summarizes the attitudes of neglect on the part society’s elite that have produced oppression and lack of mercy. To this the lower classes respond with hatred and envy and, when the circumstances present themselves, with violence. The kind of class violence that has upset the peace and equilibrium that should exist between rich and poor is thus a direct result of the lack of social justice. Until both classes deepen their commitment to be guided by God in their social relations, Nursi does not foresee any serious improvement in the state of society.
Although one of the charges made against Said Nursi by his enemies was that he employed a certain “violence of expression,” the implication being that he was mentally unbalanced, Nursi firmly maintained until the end of his life that he never incited violence nor meddled in politics or affairs of state. In the period after he underwent his transformation into The New Said, he withdrew from worldly issues and arguments. He addresses his accusers: “I have not meddled in any way in your world, nor have I had anything to do with your principles, nor as is testified to by my life during these nine years of captivity, have I had any intention or desire to meddle in the world again.” During these final years, he devoted his time instead to showing his disciples how they could live in response to God’s teachings, the signs of God’s love, and the experience of God’s mercy, and thus build a life that would serve as an effective antidote to his century’s culture of violence.
Said Nursi, The Words, Tenth Word, Second Truth, p. 76.
Said Nursi, “The Flashes,” Twenty-sixth Flash, “For the Elderly,” p. 329.
“The Rays,” “The Fruits of Belief,” Eighth Topic, p. 246.
“The Rays,” Fifth Ray, Second Station, p. 115.
“The Rays,” Thirteenth Ray, p. 367.
“The Flashes, Twenty-second Flash, p. 227.