All societies expend great effort to strengthen ties with their historical pasts. But whatever the reason, those who have studied religion in Turkey have not dwelt sufficiently on the first years of the Republic. Despite this, the intellectuals of the final years of the Ottoman Empire and early years of the Republic have a very important place in the history of Turkish thought. Moreover, there is always need for new scholarly works about this period in order to contribute to the formation of historical and social consciousness today.
When the Law for the Unification of Education came into force in 1924, the long story of religious education in Turkey came to a temporary end. This continued till 1950. Thus, for a quarter of a century there was might be called a transitional period in the field of religious education. There was no institution or source responsible for providing children with religious knowledge. However, a number of sectors were striking in that they continued to provide the people with religious education. One of the most important of these was the Risale-i Nur. Due to the general situation, the education it gives is mostly in the form of a defense of religion. In order to see how the Risale-i Nur defended Islam and what form its endeavors took in this context, and to make a correct evaluation of it, it is necessary to firstly take a brief look at the prevailing conditions in the West, the Islamic world, the Ottoman Empire, and later, Turkey.
Ideas opposed to religion emerged in the 17th century, and in the 18th gained popularity with the Enlightenment in England, France, Germany, and America, and became more widespread with the rise of positivist and materialist ideas, which to a large extent became the main ideology of Western intellectuals. With the Tanzimat in the 19th century, they also came to be influential in the Ottoman Empire. Finally, positivist thought gained dominance over traditional approaches.
The anti-religious views that emerged in the West in the 20th century, took the form in Islamic societies of anti-Islamic ideas. Moreover, an elite class was formed that believed that Islam was an obstacle to progress and development. It looked at everything from a Western point of view. These people thought they had found a system that like a magic wand could instantly transform everything, and as though engaged in a holy war attacked everyone outside their own ranks. Then when they found themselves rejected, they tried to 'educate' the people in spite of themselves.
No men of religion were trained by the state during the first twenty years of the Republic, during which time the reforms were introduced one after the other. This was considered strange by many religiously-minded people who supported the reforms. The degeneration resulting from the banning of all religious education in secondary schools reached unacceptable proportions. So the people tried to overcome the problem by having religion taught secretly in remote or secluded places far from official control. Suppose the medical schools were closed for twenty-five years and people tried to remedy their ills with folk medicines; in the same way, during the time there was no religious education, superstitions and innovations became widespread.
Because the teaching of religion was prohibited, people tried to pursue it secretly and unofficially. This generally took the form of reading the Quran, learning simple facts about religious practices, and teaching them. The Risale-i Nur was most effective in these conditions in teaching both the theoretical and the practical aspects of religion.
There are a number of discussions in the Risale-i Nur about religious education at that time. They may be put into four categories: (1) Religious schools (medreses). (2) Sufi orders (tariqat). (3) Religious books. (4) Relations between religious education and politics.
1. Religious Schools
Although he did not follow the regular pattern, Said Nursi was educated in the 'medrese' or religious school, the primary educational institution in Turkish educational history. He thus had good knowledge of it and his views on the subject should be given due attention. He believed that immediate reforms should be introduced so that the religious schools could meet the needs of the age.
In this period, Said Nursi himself was concerned with science, mathematics, and the technological sciences, which one might say were fashionable. He criticized the education given in the religious schools in respect of both method and curricula. Nursi "opposed the assaults of the atheistic misguidance that came from Europe, and refused to submit to the principles of an absolute despotism born of naturalist philosophy which were contrary to the Quran," and was of the opinion that the science of kalam (scholastic theology) of that time was incapable of refuting the doubts raised about Islam in recent times. He therefore considered it necessary to study modern science. He himself mastered in a short time the basic principles of such sciences as history, geography, mathematics, geology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and philosophy.
Said Nursi supported the efforts at medrese reform in the final decades of the Ottoman period, and believed that even if only partially, prosperity and happiness in this world were dependent on the sciences developed by contemporary civilization. They should therefore be taught in the medreses, and the teachers and 'ulama should learn the fundamentals of the sciences and go to their roots, and the essential sciences should be stripped of all the accretions of the centuries. Materialist philosophy was prevalent at the time, and the Quranic principles could not be defended by the old methods. Both kalam, and logic, and philosophy should be rewritten according to the conditions of the age, and taught accordingly.
Said Nursi pointed out the dangers of separating religion and science: "The religious sciences are the light of the conscience; the modern sciences are the light of the mind; only on the combining of the two does the truth emerge. The students' aspiration will take flight with those two wings. When they are parted, it gives rise to bigotry in the one, and skepticism and trickery in the other."
Although Said Nursi proposed that the modern sciences should be taught in the medreses, he knew that it would not be easy in the conditions of that time. In his words, "a way" had to be found "to introduce the modern sciences into the medreses," and he suggested this was "to open up a pure source of the sciences which would not repel the medrese scholars." Modelling it on the University of al-Azhar, Nursi proposed opening the Medresetu'z-Zehra in Bitlis, as the first of the "sources of knowledge." He wanted to open two more institutions in Van and Diyarbakir.
In this university, education would be primarily in Arabic (vacib), Turkish (laz?m), and Kurdish (caiz), which may be looked on as ‘modern’, thus securing the unity of the Arabs, Kurds, and Turks, and the consciousness of Islamic brotherhood. It would also assist in dispelling the enmity between the inmates of the religious schools and new secular schools, which had developed since the Tanzimat.
The Medresetu'z-Zehra project, which Nursi had prepared with high hopes, did not win the approval of Sultan Abdulhamid. Disappointed he returned to his native region. But he never lost hope, and always worked for its foundation. Finally, when multi-party democracy was established after the single party era, under Menderes and the Democrat Party, Said Nursi again put forward his proposals. But once again it was not fulfilled as he wished.
2. Sufi Orders
Said Nursi did not criticize Sufism, but pointed a number of errors associated with it. It was his view that the Risale-i Nur would continue the function performed by Sufism, since it contained certain Sufistic elements. Nevertheless, he applauded both the Naqshi and Qadiri Orders in his works. Similarly, in his work Mektubat, he said that those who criticized Sufism, did so with a bad intention: "The most regrettable thing is this: making a pretext certain abuses and faults they have seen among the followers of the Sufi path, some externalist scholars from among the Sunnis and some neglectful politicians who are also Sunnis are trying to close up that supreme treasury, indeed, to destroy it, and to dry up that source of Kawthar which distributes a sort of water of life."
According to Nursi, with time the Sufi orders had lost their original qualities, for which reason he said that he had received inspiration not from the orders of the day, but from Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi and Abd al-Qadir Gilani, considered to be the first links in the chains of the orders. Going even further, Nursi claimed that he was being addressed by a letter in Sirhindi's Maktubat entitled "Letter to Mirza ," since his father was called Mirza.
After a long search, Nursi concluded that the Quran was the savior, rather than the Sufi orders: "The head of these various ways and the source of these streams and the sun of these planets is the All-Wise Quran; the true single kiblah is to be found in it. In which case, it is also the most elevated guide and most holy master." So he "clasped it with both hands and clung on to it."
For these reasons, Nursi stated that "the present is not the time of the tariqat," but the time to save belief. For "many go to Paradise without Sufism, but none go there without belief." All efforts should therefore be concentrated on strengthening belief.
Nursi said that if a "supreme spiritual pole" arrived in a town and told people he would raise them to the degree of sainthood in ten days, and a Risale-i Nur student gave up the Risale and went to him, he could never be friends with the "Isparta heroes." For he required it of the Risale-i Nur students that they adhered to their own way.
In another place he points out the differences between the Risale-i Nur and the Sufi orders: "Serving the Risale-i Nur saves belief, while the Sufi orders and sheikhdom win the degrees of sainthood [for people]. It is more important and more meritorious to save one man's belief than to raise ten believers to the rank of sainthood '
3. Religious Books
There was no development in Islamic studies in the first years of the Republic in Turkey. The chief works containing the religious debates that had preoccupied the Ottoman intellectuals in the first twenty years of the century, were relegated to dusty shelves during the 1925-1950 period.
A. Hamdi Akseki, a contemporary of Nursi, pointed out this bitter fact, saying that although numerous works had been written in order to put the young off religion, apart from Ferid Kam's ‘Dini ve Felsefi Sohbetler’ (Religious and Philosophical Discussions), not one book had been written to encourage them. Moreover, not a single text book for religious instruction had been prepared either by the Ministry of Education, or in the schools or teacher training colleges.
During this period, books like Kara Davud, written in the Ottoman period, were read for religious and moral training. It was later understood that such works were harmful from the point of view of learning about Islam, rather than beneficial. Because there were no religious works, the younger generations lived in a vacuum, and Said Nursi and his followers tried to fill the gap by writing religious works.
Said Nursi started a campaign at this time, with his students writing out his treatises. Reading the writings and copying them out, their houses became like small medreses. Nursi attached such importance to this that when the work slowed down during the three months of Rajab, Sha'ban, and Ramadan, he admonished them quoting the Hadiths, "At the Last Judgement, the ink spent by scholars of religion with weigh equally to the blood of the martyrs," and, "Whoever adheres to my Sunna when my Community is corrupted shall earn the reward of a hundred martyrs," and urged them to get back to work.'
It was Said Nursi's view that one of the main reasons for the degeneration of the morals and ideas of the young was the absence of books explaining the truths of religion in a way that everyone could understand and that met the needs of the time. It was also his view that the Risale-i Nur was written in a language that was readily comprehensible, and was therefore popular among the people of Anatolia and read by them. Since there were no religious works written in Turkish, the works were repeatedly printed and disseminated.
When asked if there was need for new works seeing that Gazzal's works were available, Nursi replied that there was need for works that re-explained Islam suitably to the conditions of the age. For the scholars of former times solved the religious problems of their own times, so those of the present should solve today's problems.
4. The Relationship between Religious Education and Politics
There have always been people who exploit religious education for political ends. But in the final Ottoman period and Republican period these went far to excess. This was objected to, and was from time to time reflected in the press.Conduct of this sort harms not only Muslims but also Islam.
Because Said Nursi foresaw this danger, he avoided politics, despite his being active in them in the earlier period, and said: "In order to hold in my hand the light of the Quran, I said, 'I seek refuge with God from Satan and from politics,' and throwing away the club of politics, embraced the light with both hands. (...) All praise be to God, because I withdrew from politics, I did not reduce the diamond-like truths of the Quran to the value of fragments of glass amid accusations of political propaganda." He always advised those close to him to avoid political involvement.
Said Nursi encouraged his students to busy themselves with religious education and not to dissipate their energies on political matters. He told them: "Our enemies are ignorance, poverty, and internal conflict, and we shall strive against them with the weapons of education, industry, and unity.... For there is evil in enmity, and we have no time for it. We shall not interfere in matters of government, for we are not knowledgeable of how it works." According to him, Muslims should act positively. Anarchy was unacceptable, so one should assist in the maintenance of public order and security.
Due to the oppression Said Nursi suffered, during this period the religious education he offered could only be general. It was extremely dangerous to teach the truths of belief to people at this time. Nevertheless, his education policy was characterized by his perennial boldness and determination. Thus, Nursi's efforts to further general religious education in the republican period can categorize as follows:
1. The Risale-i Nur's Chief Source: the Quran
Said Nursi rebuked those who wanted to ascribe the Risale-i Nur to him, saying: "The Risale-i Nur belongs to the Quran. I do not have the right to lay claim to it, lest my faults spread to it. I am rather a faulty servant of it, like one proclaiming the wares of a jeweler’s shop. My confused situation cannot touch it and affect it." He said that the Risale-i Nur had been written profiting from the Quran.
In the New Said period, for ten years Nursi had no book with him other than the Quran. He said that the Quran sufficed him.
2. The Risale-i Nur's Function: Saving Belief
In the Islamic tradition, religious belief is an affirmation that leaves no room for doubt; this affirmation is cognitive. The fact that Muslim scholars have always debated the rational bases of faith shows that no Muslim thinkers have taken irrational stands based on blind belief without evidences. They believe not out of impotence but because they consider it reasonable. Even Yunus Emre, who had a passionate love of religion, said "Wherever the spirit reaches, the reason is its mortar I whatever the heart loves, the tongue should expound it," showing that he wanted to base religious belief on rational foundations.
To a great extent the Risale-i Nur is a collection of works written to seat belief on rational bases, and to defend Islam against hostile people, views, and movements, coming from the West and which had supporters within Muslim society. There was a dearth of books explaining religious truths suitably to the time and place in a way everyone could understand, and a superfluity published for the purpose of weakening religious feeling and causing the youth to feel disgust at religion, so the importance of the Risale-i Nur was further increased. Nursi said: "... through the grace of the Quran's miraculous ness, the comparisons of the Risale-i Nur have demonstrated the fruits and results of the religion of Islam and Quranic truths in such a way that even if someone without religion does not understand them, it is not possible for him not to be sympathetic towards them. And they have shown the evidences and proofs of belief and Islam in such powerful fashion that if a non-Muslim even understands them, he is certain to assent to them."
We may say that the Risale-i Nur's primary duty is the saving of belief. According to Nursi, the most important bounty and duty at this time is firstly the saving of one's own belief, then trying to save the belief of others. He said: "I have sacrificed even my life in the hereafter to save the community's religious belief. I neither long for Paradise, nor fear Hell. Let not one Said but a thousand be sacrificed for the sake of the Turkish community of twenty-five million." He then goes to say that he is ready to sacrifice his life in the hereafter even: "I would not want Paradise even, if the Quran has no listeners on the earth; it would be a prison for me. I am happy to burn in the fires of Hell if I see this nation's belief to be safe, for while my body was burning, my heart would be in bliss."
3. The Risale-i Nur's Aim: Founding a Religious Community
Here, Said Nursi may be seen as an expert in the Islamic sciences who derived from the Quran the principles necessary for Muslims today. He expressed the chief problem facing the Ottomans in terms of reviving the Muslim community.
According to Nursi, the present is the time not for individual effort, but the time of the community or social collectivity. When explaining this, he uses the metaphor of a pool and ice-blocks. For to obtain a pool, the ice-blocks of the ego have to thrown into the pool and dissolved. They otherwise melt on their own and are wasted, and the pool too is of no use.
In another place, in explaining the need for a community, he said that however capable individuals are, they will be defeated by the community. Moreover, the task of enlightening the Islamic world is beyond the power of a single person.
Said Nursi describes the Risale-i Nur students as a community. As its members, their aim is to protect first themselves then society, and seek refuge in the invincible truths of the Risale-i Nur in the face of enemies who seek to destroy both the life of this world and that of the next.
Nursi stressed the importance of consultation for the effective functioning of the community. He gave the principles set out in the Treatise on Sincerity as criteria. For small disagreements could cause the Risale-i Nur great harm at this time.
4. The Risale-i Nur's Aim: Defense of Islam
Said Nursi stated that a project should be implemented in the transitional period to meet the people's needs for religious education. Because of the conditions, this had to be a defensive. This was nothing other than the Risale-i Nur. It defended Islam against the people, views, and currents that came from the West and found supporters within Muslim societies.
According to Nursi, historical and social conditions necessitated the writing of the Risale-i Nur in this period. Every century, people emerged who combated groups hostile to the Quran. But now, the attackers had multiplied from one or two to a hundred, while those defending Islam had diminished from a hundred to two or three. Thus, since study of the truths of belief was very lengthy in the medreses, there was great need for the Risale-i Nur, which taught the profoundest questions in a way everyone could understand.
Said Nursi said that he had silenced even their most obdurate enemies with the diamond sword of the Quran. On the other hand, those who acquired true belief could challenge the whole universe. "What is determined by God cannot be turned by force. A flame, that if lit by God, cannot be extinguished by puffing," he said.
One should not forget that the Risale-i Nur was written in the transitional period, when there were many depredations in the field of religious education. However, it was written for the people in an inimitable simple style and suitably to their mental development. These two properties illustrated Nursi's considerable knowledge, and his acquaintance with the people's mentality. For in that period he wrote very many popular works in every branch of the Islamic sciences. These general educational works showed that he was also a pedagogue.
Since it was a compendium of the religious sciences, the scope of the Risale-i Nur's work continuously increased and widened. The intolerance that grew out of the unconscious, rigid adherence to religious traditions and rules was one of the chief reasons for the death of scientific endeavor in Islam, where it once flourished. Inspired by the Quran, the Risale-i Nur says that neither this world nor the hereafter can be won without knowledge nor learning, for which reason the Prophet's (PBUH) circle was a centre of science and culture. Islam, the true religion, enjoins study, striving, and weighing up everything on the scales of reason, then countries can develop and progress; yet Muslims live in poverty and degradation, their heads full of superstitions, watching their country's destruction. Thus, the only way to be saved from this material and spiritual decline, is to provide Islamic education suitably to current conditions.
According to Nursi, while the Islamic world was taking giant strides in the fields of knowledge, progress, and civilization, Christendom was extinguishing science and philosophy and inflicting the heaviest penalties on men of learning. When scholars were being burnt alive in Europe, in the Islamic world they were held in the greatest respect and honor. Freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression and action all flourished in the Islamic world before the 12th century. Knowledge was accorded the greatest importance in the Islamic tradition, and this knowledge consisted not only of the Islamic sciences, but of many branches of science, such as mathematics, the physical sciences, and medicine. If those who accuse Islam of being inimical to science, civilization and progress, really knew it and if they studied Islamic history without prejudice, they would not be slow to understand just how shameful is their accusation.
Said Nursi pointed out that the teacher is an important element in religious education, for which reason he explained that in the face of his students, the teacher's attitude should be molded by the understanding "our duty is to serve; the results are from Almighty God; we are charged with carrying out our duty." He formulated the teacher's function in these terms:
"The truly learned guide is a sheep, not a bird;
He gives his knowledge altruistically.
For the sheep gives its lamb digested, pure milk;
Whereas the bird gives its chick regurgitated vomit."
According to the Risale-i Nur, in order to increase people's belief, there is need for resolute, determined, tolerant, and honest teachers. For they sacrifice the truth for nothing, nor exploit it, and do not put themselves first. They are responsible for others besides themselves, so should continuously try to widen the circle of those they teach.
The Risale-i Nur's main characteristic is that although the subjects it deals with are difficult, it explains them so that everyone can understand them according to their degree without excessive study or a teacher. They can be learnt easily by following its method of self-teaching.
In Kastamonu, Said Nursi was visited by schoolboys: "In Kastamonu a group of high-school students came to me, saying: 'Tell us about our Creator, our teachers do not speak of God.' I said to them: 'All the sciences you study continuously speak of God and make known the Creator, each with its own particular tongue. Do not listen to your teachers; listen to them.'
According to the Risale-i Nur, people should form groups to pursue their religious studies. The Risale-i Nur students should open small 'study-centers' wherever they can, and if they have four or five children should turn their own homes into small 'medreses' for the reading of the Risale-i Nur. And if they have only one child, they should join forces with their neighbors and read it.
The reasons underlying the Risale-i Nur's successful education may be categorized as follows:
1. Use of Language
In Nursi's view, the Risale-i Nur uses a style so effective, its readers virtually see Paradise in return for their good deeds, and Hell in requital for their bad deeds. One experiences these when reading it. Nursi considered the power of its style to be the reason for its continued popularity despite the repression its students had suffered.
According to the Risale-i Nur, one is doomed to failure if one addresses people without taking their psychology into consideration. This is probably the reason the preachers today are ineffective. Nursi said: "My guess is that one reason the advice and admonitions given at this time have been ineffective is that those giving them say: 'Don't be ambitious! Don't display greed! Don't hate! Don't be obstinate! Don't love the world!' That is, they propose something that is apparently impossible for those they address like changing their inborn natures. If only they would say: 'Turn these emotions towards beneficial things, change their direction, their channel,' their advice would be both effective and they would be proposing something within the bounds of their wills."
It was because of this method of the Risale-i Nur that it taught in five to ten weeks what was taught in the medreses in five to ten years. It is thus more effective in teaching religion than educational institutions.
2. Individual Differences
Society consists of different members, and because they are all different, education has to include certain principles. To expect the same response from everyone, without taking into account the differences in their levels of comprehension, and to apply the same method, is utter disregard for reality.
Said Nursi said: "It is a marvel of the Risale-i Nur; you don't give meat to the horse and grass to the lion, but vice versa," drawing attention to the question of individual differences, much dwelt on by modern psychology. He applied the rule of Comenius "Don't teach everything to everyone," and rather than delivering endless sermons, put quality before quantity and provided people with what they needed. He said that if no importance is given to the individual's abilities and capacity, what is taught him will be fruitless, and pointed out that such disregard is also opposed to the Prophet's (PBUH) practices. In any event, individual characteristics and differences are given priority in education these days.
According to the Risale-i Nur, everything a teacher of religion says should be true, but it is not right that he says everything that is true. Because people with bad intentions will misunderstand it, and it will have an effect contrary to what he wished. Therefore everything that is true should not be said to everyone.
3. Good Words and Deeds
Said Nursi said that if you tell a bad man he is good he may improve, and tell a good man he is bad, he may degenerate, so one should always speak well when communicating religion. He also says: "He who sees the good in things has good thoughts. And he who has good thoughts receives pleasure from life." "If you wish to defeat your enemy, then respond to his evil with good. For if you respond with evil, enmity will increase, and even though he will be outwardly defeated, he will nurture hatred in his heart, and hostility will persist."
According to the Risale-i Nur, it is not right to speak imprudently on religious subjects in a gathering of people, for to do so is harmful for both speaker and listeners. It is important to be balanced.
This is the principle of teaching religion in a way that is gradual and mutually I supportive. Man develops gradually both physically and intellectually, so he should be taught religion in the same way.
The Risale-i Nur is one of the best examples of this. Gradualness is one element in the astonishing success of Nursi's method. It is based on taking the one addressed into account, and his situation, and moving outwards from close to distant, few to many and easy to difficult.
The Risale-i Nur students carry out their work taking into account the younger generation, and follow a different approach to gradual religious education.
5. Providing a Good Example
Providing an example is a way of expressing an idea or concept. It makes it easier to understand, and is a method that should be employed in teaching. It is useful for explaining a subject, facilitating comprehension, developing abilities and strengthening reasoning. It is quicker and more effective.
In almost all his works Nursi used comparisons or parables, and if one thinks that most of those he addressed were adults, it is seen that it was natural to use such a method. He said: "...the most distant truths were brought close through the telescope of the mystery of comparisons. Through the aspect of unity of the mystery of comparisons, the most scattered matters were collected together. Through the stairs of the mystery of comparisons, the highest truths were easily reached. Through the window of the mystery of comparisons, a certainty of belief in the truths of the Unseen and fundamentals of Islam was obtained close to the degree of 'witnessing.' The intellect, as well as the imagination and fancy, and the soul and caprice, were compelled to submit, and Satan too was compelled to surrender his weapons.... Whatever beauty and effectiveness are found in my writings, they are only flashes of the Qur'anic comparisons."
Nursi's frequent use of the teleological approach is striking. He points out that whether in the vast skies or the face of the earth, in everything are aims, purposes, and plans. It is therefore opposed to reason and logic to deny the Omnipotent Creator Who made them thus. Nursi gives the example of a fly to demonstrate man's impotence before God Almighty. If man starts to boast about what he has achieved, a single fly can bid him to be silent, "for if all the fine arts and delicate instruments achieved through man's faculty of will were to be gathered together, they could not be as wondrous as the fine art of my delicate members and tiny body."
Adhering to the Quran and Sunna, Islam's two main sources, Said Nursi formed a barrier with the works he wrote against those opposed to Islam. Using the popular language and focusing on the people's religious needs, he played an important part in spreading religious education. He did not exacerbate differences in his works, but always tried to encourage unity, both theoretically and practically. He spent nearly half of his life writing the Risale-i Nur, and one of his most distinctive characteristics was his allowing people of all ages to receive religious instruction.
Bearing in mind the people's religious needs and the political repression of the period, Nursi attempted with his works to do the very best in spite of the circumstances. With his extensive knowledge and his works, he replied to the criticisms and accusations leveled at Islam by certain circles, and to questions, prejudices, and attacks, offering guidance also to those who were hostile. He thus emerges as a religious teacher of Muslims, but also of humanity. One can safely say that with his works he was the teacher of religion and ethics of the republican period. Moreover, with the works he left as his legacy, he continues to perform that function.
Said Nursi was aware of the efforts to encourage the young to embrace Western culture and give up their own culture and values, and warned of the tragic ends of societies which suffered such cultural erosion. Thus, the Risale-i Nur's function was firstly to inform the young of where the currents causing doubts and misgivings came from, and how they showed their effect, and which points they aimed for, and by teaching them the truths of belief to protect them against these currents. And while performing this task the Risale-i Nur creates an environment free from anarchy.