C H A P T E R    S E V E N

WAR AND CAPTIVITY
 
 

Bediuzzaman and The War

For Bediuzzaman, the War may be seen as a watershed. He was appointed by Enver Pasha to raise and command a volunteer militia force.1 This Bediuzzaman then did, making his own students the centre of the force. It was a Holy War, and Bediuzzaman performed this bounden duty of Muslims on two fronts. In addition to raising the militia, training it to the very highest standards, and personally leading his men in the most bold and courageous actions, he continued to teach his students and himself write his celebrated commentary on the Qur'an. Wielding both sword and pen, he was like a figure from the golden age of Islam, a model Muslim. When Bitlis fell to the Russians in early March 1916, Bediuzzaman was captured and spent the next two years in various prisoner-of-war camps in Kosturma in Russia. He escaped, and travelling across Russia safely, came to Warsaw and Berlin, and arrived back in Istanbul in June 1918. But the rigours of his captivity had taken their toll on his health, and his outlook, too, had changed. The dreadful period of defeat and foreign occupation following the War was one of inner turmoil for Bediuzzaman, despite his worldly position and success, but from it the New Said was to emerge.

Events on the Eastern Front

The first shots of the War had been fired when Russia invaded north-eastern Anatolia on 31 October 1914. On this occasion, Russia was not successful, and the invasion was repulsed by the Ottoman army under Enver Pasha. But he was only successful in this after leading the disastrous counter-offensive at Sarikamis in the arctic conditions of December and January as a result of which sixty-thousand out of his one hundred-thousand strong army perished. The Russian army retreated, and Grand Duke Nicholas spent the following year completing preparations for the final invasion of Anatolia. This operation he began on 13 January 1916. Defeating the Ottomans at Pasinler with an army three times the size of their’s, the Russians entered Erzurum on 16 February.2

The Russians had long been inciting the Armenians to acts of terrorism against the Ottoman state, and providing material and moral support for their revolutionary societies. Now, in pursuit of an independent state in eastern Anatolia, the Armenians collaborated with the Russians on a large scale, many entering the Russian army. Just as Armenian officers had played a prominent role in the 1877 invasion of north-eastern Anatolia. Distorted and exaggerated accounts by Armenian nationalists of the events of 1915 were seized on by the Entente Powers and used in their propaganda war against the Turks, as they had been so doing for years.

“Arms and Books Side by Side”

On his arrival in Van, Bediuzzaman immediately set about forming the militia. Besides his own students, he toured all the surrounding country raising volunteers for the force, which, when formed numbered four to five thousand men. At the same time, he continued to teach his students.

Quoting one of two friends from Dogubayezit who attended Bediuzzaman’s medrese, Necmeddin Sahiner describes how for military training, Bediuzzaman used to take his recruits up Mount Sübhan and set up eggs for target practice. He would give whoever hit an egg a mecidiye [a silver coin] as a reward. The students Bediuzzaman was thus training became so proficient and bold that when they came to the mountain for training, the Armenian revolutionaries would make themselves scarce and go elsewhere.3

With his charismatic character and ability to inspire great love and devotion in his students and followers, which manifested itself particularly under those harsh and testing wartime conditions, Bediuzzaman was able to infuse them with something of his own absolute fearlessness and powers of endurance, and move them to acts of great bravery. The following are some contemporary accounts of Bediuzzaman, his medrese, and the militia he formed; but first, two short descriptions of his activities against the Armenians, the first by himself:

“Since at that time years ago the Old Said’s students’ devotion to their Master was such that they would have sacrificed everything for him, the Old Said never rested in the face of the Armenian Tashnak revolutionary societies, and was able to silence them to a degree although they were very active. He found Mauser rifles for his students, and for a time his medrese was like a barracks with arms and books side by side...”4

“In 1331 (1915), the Armenian and Russian savages were in no way successful in killing Bediuzzaman, although they used to attack him from every quarter and tried to do so. As for Bediuzzaman and his followers, they used to pursue the Armenians mercilessly, who used to flee as hard as they could.”5

And a description of a visit to Bediuzzaman’s medrese-barracks given to Necmeddin Sahiner by Nureddin Burak, who related it exactly as told by his father, Zeyneddin Burak:

“At that time in the East, studying in the medreses was like this: the Hoja (teacher) taught for nothing; in fact, through the mediation of the Hoja, the people provided the students’ livelihood. So there was no material reason preventing study. The choice of teacher was made only through his standing in regard to learning. So if someone was known as a great scholar, he would have many students; everyone would want to be taught by him. At that time, a few friends and myself gathered together and began to search for a good teacher. We were told of Said the Famous in Van, in a medrese called the Horhor Medrese.

“Three of us went there. Hoja Efendi was not present when we arrived at the medrese. Someone called Molla Habib met us and invited us inside. He told us to wait saying the Hoja would come soon. At this point, the medrese’s walls caught our attention. Hung up on them in rows were Mauser rifles, and various weapons, swords, daggers, and cartridge-belts. Together with these were books on reading-stands. In truth, we were astonished.

“In a short while they said: ‘Hoja Efendi is coming.’ We straightened ourselves up. He entered, and said: ‘Welcome!’, then asked us why we had come.

“The second thing that caught our attention and astonished us was the Hoja’s manner and dress, because we did not see the customary Hoja’s dress which we knew and had expected. With a conical hat on his head, boots on his feet, dagger at his waist, and firm step, he reminded us of a soldier or high-ranking officer rather than a Hoja. In fact, because of his youth, we thought to ourselves: ‘I wonder if he is learned.’ But then Molla Habib, the most advanced student, was studying books like Molla Jami. He was like the students’ sergeant.

“We said we had come to study under him. So he told us: ‘Fine, but I have conditions. You can on condition you comply with them.’ Then he added: ‘There is no possibility of going back for someone who starts with me. He remains with me to the end of his life.’ And he then said: ‘And do not think you can accept and give your word today, then leave later if you get fed up or for any other reason, because the Governor of Van is my close friend. I could have you brought back here through him. Tonight you are my guests. Stay here and think it over, then make your decision in the morning.’

“We were bewildered and did not know what to say to the proposal. We consulted with Molla Habib. We asked him: ‘Do you stay with the Hoja under those conditions?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘We gave our words once and undertook the matter. It is true it is not all that easy, but his learning is truly extraordinary. But you know best, do whatever seems right for you.’ We bowed our heads in shame, and saying we could not accept, left.”6

And finally, the owner of the newspaper Hür Adam, Sinan Omur, had these memories of Bediuzzaman and the militia, which he related to Necmeddin Sahiner in an interview.

“I was a student in the teachers’ training college in Istanbul when the First World War broke out. I was eighteen years old at the time, so they took me into the Army. I first saw Bediuzzaman in August 1331 (1915) on Mount Sübhan. He was on a white horse. Galloping up and down, he was raising the soldiers’ morale. He was commander of the militia forces at that time. He had a turban on his head, and epaulets on his shoulders. He was continually moving in among the volunteers on horseback to give them courage. Enver Pasha had appointed Bediuzzaman to the militia forces. They had long been friends. So Bediuzzaman formed the militia in the East; it consisted of around four to five thousand men.

“The militia forces did not obtain their weapons and provisions from us, but provided everything for themselves. They always went in front of the Army, and always fought in the front lines. They were known as the Felt Hats. The Russians did not know where to flee when they heard: ‘The Felt Hats are coming!’; they did not know what had hit them. At that time our swords were only for prodding, but they used to use them on horseback and would hit whatever they struck at. They used to wear white capes so as to blend in with the snow-covered ground and not be detected by the enemy. They would throw the horse’s reins over one arm, or attach them to the horse’s neck and leave the animal completely free, then galloping at speed, would fire their rifles uninterruptedly. They were extremely accurate shots. While the commanders addressed the volunteers in order to encourage them to fight, in their excitement, the volunteers could not remain in their places squatting on the ground; as soon as the order to move was given: ‘'Tention! 'Tention!’, they would spring up, and flying onto their horses, would gallop off against the enemy.”7

The Front

When the Russians began their second invasion in January 1916, Bediuzzaman and his militia moved to the front at Pasinler near Erzurum. A second Russian force moved south down the eastern side of Lake Van. There at the front the fighting was fierce and cold intense. The Ottomans were greatly outnumbered. To boost the volunteers’ morale in those arduous conditions, Bediuzzaman rarely entered the trenches, but moved around the front lines on his horse, always to the fore of the fighting. He later wrote:

“In the Pasinler Front during the Great War, the late Molla Habib and I were moving forward with the intention of attacking the enemy. Their artillery fired three shells at us at one or two minute intervals. The three shells passed right over our heads two metres high, and although our soldiers were concealed in the ravine behind us and could not be seen, they retreated. By way of a test I said: ‘What do you say, Molla Habib, I am not going to hide myself from the shells of these infidels?’ And he replied: ‘I am not going to fall back either, I shall stay behind you.’ A further shell fell very close to us. Certain that Divine succour would preserve us, I said to Molla Habib: ‘Forward! These infidels’ shells cannot kill us. We shall not deign to draw back!’”8

Of several accounts Necmeddin Sahiner has collected from soldiers present at Pasinler, all describe Bediuzzaman’s moving about the trenches on horseback in this way, in complete disdain of the Russian shells. The following account mentions particularly the severity of the shelling:

“... It was snowing and everywhere was white. We were defending our beloved country against the Russians. We could not raise our heads above the trenches because of the bullets which were falling like rain. We were fighting under shells that fell like rain. It was just as though shrapnel was raining from the skies. The thing we were most powerless before was this shrapnel, which exploded in the air. It was destroying us and our losses were heavy. The shrapnel which exploded in the air was scattered to right and left in fragments.

“Just when this going on, Molla Said the Famous was touring the trenches. He was moving up and down the valley on horseback. Then some people emerged from their trenches, and they were hit and killed.

“I wanted both to see Molla Said and to kiss his hands, but I was frightened of being hit. I had heard the name before, but I was seeing this great person for the first time at the bloody front at Pasinler. Then I saw he had come level with me.... I heard him say:

“Fight for Allah! Allah is our helper!’”9

Another soldier who fought under Bediuzzaman at Pasinler, Mustafa Yalçin, recalled him like this:

“...They suddenly took us from Çanakkale, and sent us to the Eastern Front. We were in the Eighth Division in Kars, and at our head was Molla Said. Bands of Russians and Armenians were attacking us ceaselessly.

“At that time, Molla Said used to teach us concerning religious matters. Every night he used to teach us. At Hasankale [Pasinler] we fought against the Russians mercilessly with Molla Said. Before, the Hoja used to wear a turban, but while fighting he would wear what we called a ‘felt hat’.

“At that point I was wounded at Hasankale and drew back. I received this shrapnel wound on my hip, look, it is still open.... I would have died long before but Molla Said wrote out a prayer for each of four of us. We hung them round our necks, and no bullets hit us. At that time there were a hundred infidels firing on one Muslim. In the end I was wounded and they took me back. Molla Said continued to fight. They treated me in Konya, then sent me to the Western, Austrian, Carpathian, and Galician Fronts.

“Molla Said was an heroic person. At the front, he used to lead the attacks on horseback. He was a good shot. He did not go into the trenches. Once, Molla Said was told that some units were about to break up. He immediately removed the cause of their differences, and made sure that they did not disperse. He explained things wonderfully well, it was as though he could cast a spell on people.

“Then during that hell-like war he was writing a book. His students used to write down what he dictated. He was an excellent horseman. They used to heave out great rocks and roll them down on the Russians. He used to say to us: ‘Do not be frightened of anything, a Muslim’s belief is stronger than any power.’ Every night he used to read to us from the books he had written. I could not understand much because I am not educated, but whenever I saw Molla Said, my courage soared. He was a formidable person, but he acted most kindly towards us.”10

“Signs of Miraculousness”

The book Mustafa Yalçin describes Bediuzzaman as writing here was his commentary on the Qur'an, Signs of Miraculousness (Ishârât al-I’jaz fi Mazânn al-Ijaz), and it was Molla Habib who used to act as his scribe. Written on horseback, in the trenches, and in the skirmishing lines, this Arabic commentary, only the first section of which was completed, was later acclaimed by the ‘ulama in Damascus and Baghdad, while Ali Riza Efendi, the head of the office for issuing fatwas in Istanbul [Fatwa Emini], described it as: “As powerful and valuable as a thousand other commentaries.”11 In the work, Bediuzzaman described its purpose as follows:

“Our aim from this work entitled Signs of Miraculousness is to explain the indications and signs of the miraculousness present in the Qur'an’s word order. For it is in its word order that an important aspect of its miraculousness is manifested. And it is of the embroideries of its word order that its most brilliant miraculousness consists.”12

In addition, in the Preface,13 setting out the method by which Qur'anic commentaries should be written in the modern age, Bediuzzaman explains further his purpose in writing it. He first explains the nature of the Qur'an as Divine speech addressing all men in every age, then points out that it also encompasses the sciences which make known the physical world. Indeed, the Qur'an’s truths become manifest through the discoveries of science. Thus, in the modern age when the cosmos is being opened up and its workings are being revealed by science, commentaries on the Qur'an must keep pace with these giant strides science is taking. Bediuzzaman points out that it is beyond the capacity of an individual or even a small group to be familiar with all the sciences, and a commentary should therefore be written by a committee of scholars who are specialists in a number of sciences, both religious and modern. It will be recalled that among Bediuzzaman’s proposals for educational reform were the ‘combining’ and joint teaching of the religious and modern sciences, specialization, and the application of the principle of mutual consultation.

When Bediuzzaman understood that some great catastrophe was going to occur – he gave repeated warnings of it in the years preceding the First War as many of his students testified, he began to write Signs of Miraculousness on his own. It was because he realized its extreme urgency and importance that he continued to write it in the unfavourable conditions of the front. In fact, he had had a dream or vision around the beginning of the War which had corroborated his premonitions and confirmed his intention to write the commentary.14 Thus, he presents the work as a model or example which could be followed by a committee of scholars such as he had described at some point in the future.

Bediuzzaman and His Militia Move South

The Ottomans were unable to prevent the enemy advance in north-east Anatolia, and retreated as the Russians moved on to take Erzurum. Bediuzzaman and his militia withdrew to Van to join its defence against the second major Russian force, though it is not known at precisely what point. There, as the city was being evacuated in the face of the Russian attack, he and a number of his students decided to hold out to the end in the citadel. Unwilling to lose such a valuable figure in that way, the Governor of Van, Jevdet Bey – who was the son of Tahir Pasha the old Governor – insisted that they withdraw to Gevash, on the road to Bitlis. For it was to Bitlis that all the officials, the army, and people of the area were retreating.

There are many incidents recorded of the heroic actions of Bediuzzaman and his volunteers at this stage of the bitter fight to save eastern Anatolia from the Russians and Armenians. At Gevash, as the mass exodus from Van was in progress, a Cossack cavalry regiment staged an attack. Bediuzzaman together with about forty men made a stand against the attack in order to prevent the people and their possessions falling into the hands of the enemy. Climbing a mountain, they attacked the Cossacks at night from above, and deceived them into thinking a large number of reinforcements had arrived. In this way, Bediuzzaman and his force threw the Cossacks into sufficient disarray to allow the people to move on to safety, and Gevash too was saved.15

Many of Bediuzzaman’s students and volunteers fell at this time. Molla Habib also was killed, at Gevash, after having successfully conveyed news of the enemy’s movements to Halil Pasha at the Iranian Front.16

On one occasion when the Ottomans were retreating, the Felt Hats lured the Russians and Armenians – filled with false confidence – into an enclosed valley, and opening fire on them, wiped out the entire force.17

On another occasion, Bediuzzaman and his volunteers were able to recapture thirty large guns off the Russians by surprising them at night. And using them to delay the Russian advance, allowed all the woman and children of the area to be evacuated. Necmeddin Sahiner notes that all these exploits appear in the contemporary military records of the militia forces. Bediuzzaman’s students, too, were famous for their daring and bravery. One of them called Mir Mahey actually crossed into the Russian units several times, and killing as many as ten to fifteen of the enemy returned to his own lines.18

Just as Bediuzzaman is mentioned in the Ottoman records, so also do his activities at this time appear in foreign records. One of these, quoted by Necmeddin Sahiner, is the French, Documents Sur Les Atrocités Arméno-Russes, a copy of which is in Istanbul Municipal Library. The following is a translation of just one page:

“Yusuf and Abdurrahman, sons of Mehmed, said the following under oath:

“Our family comes from Nurs, Vavink, And, and Mezraa-i And, the summer pastures of the district of Isparit in the sub-province of Hizan. After the sub-province of Çatak had been occupied by the Russians, the Armenians of the neighbouring villages of Livar, Yukari Kutis, Asagi Kutis, Çaçuan, Sikuar, and Yukari Adr came to the village of Yukari Kutis under the leadership of Lato, also known as Mihran, and Kazar Dilo, both of whom had infiltrated into Anatolia from Russia. They presented three written proposals to the notables there. Among the notables was Molla Said, who is well-known under the name of Bediuzzaman. Was he taken prisoner, or was he killed? I do not know. These were the proposals:

1. Surrender.

2. Evacuate the district.

3. Fight.

“Nine hours after the enemy had arrived, a force of six hundred attacked the village. The enemy soldiers were wearing uniforms and caps. We could not discover whether or not there were Russians soldiers among them. The number of those who looked destitute in the enemy army was extremely high. These could have been Russians or Armenians come from Russia.

“The enemy took all the people of our village to Mezraa-i And. Abdurrahman, the son of Hurshid Bey, one of the notables, was also present together with his son and wife. The following day, thirty-three men and boys, and around eighty women, young women, and girls were moved to Müküs in separate convoys. The women’s convoy was left at Çaçuan, but at night all the men were put to the sword. I was saved from the slaughter because I had been assigned a duty. When they gave me the duty, they said this:

“‘We promise to give you money. Go to Molla Said, and tell him to hand over to us the Armenians who remain there. Tell him there is no benefit in having them killed unnecessarily. The country is just about entirely occupied. The Russians have reached as far as Aleppo. Armenia has been set up. Bring us information about the numbers and strength of the Turkish Army there.’

“This was said to me by Dilo. I set out immediately. When I reached Çaçuan, I saw that our forces, which were formed of gendarmes and Kurds, had arrived there together with our mayor and Molla Said. Our forces under the command of Bediuzzaman Said Efendi were successful in saving the women’s convoy after five hours of fierce fighting. The state of the women was really pitiful. They did not have the strength to walk. Most of the children had been trodden underfoot. And of the thirty-three men, only two of us survived.”19

When the Armenians massacred the Muslim women and children as well as the men, Armenian children would sometimes be killed in retaliation. But to a degree Bediuzzaman was able to put a stop to this barbaric practice through his example true Islamic conduct, and was able to bring some humanity to the chaos of war. One time, thousands of Armenian women and children had been gathered together in the place where Bediuzzaman was. He issued an order that none of them were to be touched. Then later he released them and they returned to their families in Russian-held territory. The Armenians were so impressed at this example of Muslim morality that from then on they themselves refrained form slaughtering Muslim children. In this way, many innocent lives were saved.20

The Fall of Bitlis and Capture of Bediuzzaman

Having taken Van to the east of Lake Van and Mus to the west, the Russians moved south with three divisions to attack Bitlis. Their advance was halted for a time by the fierce resistance they met from the Turkish and volunteer forces at the defence line at Mount Dideban. In the appalling February conditions of eastern Anatolia with snow lying to a depth of three to four metres the important centre of Bitlis was evacuated. Once again the women and children, the sick and the lame, the Government officials and dignitaries retreated before the advancing enemy. The Russians were unable to break the Ottoman lines, and it was only through the treachery of the Armenians, who opened up the way for them by capturing Mount Dideban, and setting up machine-guns at crucial points and gunning down many people, that they were finally able to enter the town. Bediuzzaman was in the town with what remained of his volunteers, and fought a fierce hand to hand battle with the enemy cavalry. With one of his legs broken, Bediuzzaman hid with his four surviving students in an underground water conduit. After thirty hours they surrendered to the Russians. We have a description of this from Bediuzzaman’s own pen:

“...Although in one minute three bullets hit me in vital spots, they had no effect. When Bitlis fell, a number of my students and myself found ourselves in the middle of a battalion of Russians. They surrounded us and there was firing on every side. All my friends were killed with the exception of four. Then we broke through the four lines of the battalion and went into a place that was still where they were. Although they were above us and all around us and could hear our voices and coughs, they did not see us. We remained thirty hours in that way in the mud with me wounded; I was preserved with a tranquil heart by Divine succour.”21

Finally, since their lives were in danger from loss of blood and extreme cold, one of them went and informed the Russians of their whereabouts. The Russians came and took them prisoner.

One of those four surviving students of Bediuzzaman’s was Ali Aras from the village of Çoravanis near Van. Also known as Ali Çavus, he wrote down his memories of Bediuzzaman at the fall of Bitlis, and they were published in the newspaper Ittihad six years after his death, in April 1971. They also give a lively account of Bediuzzaman and his Russian captors after they had been taken prisoner.

“The Russians occupied Mus before we reached it. The people who had evacuated Mus said when we met them on the road that all the ammunition together with fourteen heavy guns had remained there. Ustad Bediuzzaman divided up the three-hundred man force according to the fourteen guns and assigned a six-man squad to capture the ammunition. We captured the guns and ammunition and handed them over to a regular regiment which was posted on the Bitlis-Tatvan road. At this point the Russians began to attack from three sides and left us cut off in the Bitlis valley. The defence against the Russians continued day and night for seven days. Three shells hit Ustad. Of these, one hit the handle of his dagger, another his cigarette case, and the third his right shoulder. Kel Ali, the commander of the regular troops, witnessed this and said to Ustad:

“‘Bullets have no effect on you either, Bediuzzaman!’ To which Bediuzzaman replied: ‘If Allah protects a person, even the shells of a heavy gun cannot kill him!’

“At the end of a week’s fierce resistance, the Russians still could not enter Bitlis, so they evacuated the Papshin Han on the Tatvin road and withdrew. Then it was seen that guided by the Armenians, they had skirted round the south of Bitlis by the Güzeldere road by way of Simek, had cut the Bitlis-Siirt road, and were holding the Arab Bridge. After midnight they started the attack on Bitlis. There was very fierce fighting. At this point Ustad’s nephew, Ubeyd,22 of whom he was very fond, and many of his students, and our friends, were killed.

“Since the Russians had taken the town’s three bridges, Ustad wanted to get to the other side of the town. We jumped down from on top of a conduit which passed beneath a large building next to what is now Kazim Pasha Primary School. Because the water was entirely covered by snow and it was also night-time, we could not estimate the ground, and Ustad hit his leg on a stone and broke it. Showing me a more suitable place underneath the conduit, he said: ‘Get me in there, Ali. Then go. I give you permission. God willing, you will get away.’ I got him in there and sat him down. He continued to insist that I go, but when I said that I was not going and that I wanted to remain and die as a martyr alongside him, he stroked my head with his hand, and said: ‘Fate has made us prisoners.’ I declared that I too had surrendered to fate.

“We remained in the water for about thirty-six hours. The Russians had occupied the building over the conduit and their voices could be heard from below. We were busy planning how we could get out of there when a squad of fifty Russians soldiers arrived. They pulled us all out and took us to a building which was a hotel beneath and in which the Russian Second Army was billeted. They placed us in a room.

“A regimental commander met us. They brought a chicken for Ustad to eat. Two Russian commanders started to speak with Ustad. It was clear they were talking about the War. Ustad was talking to them standing on one leg. It was as though Ustad was the commander and the two Russian commanders were prisoners. Ustad did not take them seriously at all. They realized that his leg was broken, and called a health orderly, who put it in plaster. After about two and a half hours there, we were taken to the Government Building by a detachment of soldiers. A Tatar officer, who we later learnt was a Muslim, took pity on us, and taking us inside, put us in the Governor’s room.

“It was during the first week of our stay in Government House that an aide-de-camp arrived. He asked for Ustad, then said the General had summoned him. They took Ustad to the place the General was staying in Mahallebasi by stretcher, because his leg was broken. Ustad went in. The General asked a number of questions. These were centred on someone well-known called Abdülmecid, who had gone to Iran and was planning to go from there to the Caucasus to organize the Muslims there to fight against the Russians. They wanted information about him from Ustad. Ustad answered the questions as required. The General’s questioning and the coming and going continued for about two weeks. Since we waited in the room outside, we could hear them speaking. We would hear Ustad’s terse answers and sharp retorts, and from time to time the sound of a fist being thumped on the table. We would get worried and shudder at the possibility of being lined up and shot, and when from time to time Ustad emerged from the room, we did not neglect to reproach him because of these sharp exchanges.

“On the twenty-seventh day of our stay in Government House they took us to what was then the Gendarme Station and is now the Courthouse. They had brought there around twenty-five captured officers and government officials, most of whom were high-ranking. Then the General’s aide-de-camp again came, and said to Ustad: ‘Take one of your students, we are sending you away now.’ Ustad took a student called Said. We did not want to part from him. To console us he said to the police chief, Irfan Bey, who also a prisoner: ‘I entrust my students to you. Show them the police there.’

“Before leaving the Gendarme Station, he said as a prayer: ‘I am hopeful that, God willing, you will return, but I cannot say the same for Said.’ And in fact, the student he took with him called Said was killed while fighting the Russians in Turkestan. They separated us from Ustad, and sent us to Russia. Ustad told me on his return from captivity that they had made him wait a further month because his leg was in plaster.

“A month later, they sent Ustad to Van, and from there on to Khuy in Iran, from where he was put on a train for Russia. We remained in Russia thirty months as prisoners. On the Communist Revolution, we got away to Rumania by way of Hungary and handed ourselves over to a Turkish division there. As for Ustad, I read in the newspapers in Rumania that he had got to Berlin by way of Warsaw, the capital of Poland, and from there had returned to Istanbul.

“The 15th Division in Rumania was formed into the North Caucasus Corps with some reinforcements, and I served a further fourteen months in it before being demobilized after the Treaty of Sèvres, when I returned to Van.”23

The heroism of Bediuzzaman and his students in defending the east against the Russians and Armenians became legendary among the people of the area. They told also of how the Russians had tried to kill Bediuzzaman on his surrendering to them, and how this desire had been transformed into wonder at this courage, since Bediuzzaman did not so much as wince when they handled his broken leg.24 Also one of his students who fought alongside him tells of Bediuzzaman’s anger on learning, when being questioned by the Russians, that the Armenian interpreter was misinterpreting what they said, so that the Russians brought a Tatar interpreter, and his rejection of the Russians’ proposals that he should write letters to all the tribes calling on them to surrender their arms.25

Further interesting documents which have recently come to light in the Archives of the Prime Minister’s Office in Istanbul show that in September of 1916, Bediuzzaman was still in Tiflis in Georgia, presumably receiving treatment for his leg. The first, dated 9 August 1332 (22 August 1916) is from Memduh, the Deputy Governor of Bitlis, to the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Istanbul. It states that the officials held as prisoners-of-war in Tiflis required their salaries to be sent to them. Also in need of money there was Bediuzzaman Said-i Kürdî, who had saved eight large guns from Mus during the fall of Bitlis and had gathered together volunteers. The second, dated 7 Eylül 1332 (20 September 1916), is from the Interior Minister, Tal'at Bey, to the Director of the Ottoman Red Crescent Society, Besim Ömer Pasha, requesting him to send sixty lira to Bediuzzaman in Tiflis by special courier. And the third is Besim Ömer Pasha’s reply, dated three days later, informing Tal'at Pasha that the sixty liras had been changed into 1254 marks and despatched as requested.26

The Prisoner-of-War Camps

Bediuzzaman was sent to the province of Kosturma in north-western Russia. Firstly, to the town of Kologrif, and then – according to one source, after a period in a large camp further into the northern wastes – to a camp in the town of Kosturma on the River Volga. It was here that a large part of his two years of captivity was spent. There are various accounts of him and his activities in the camp from a number of his fellow prisoners. As the commanding officer of a regiment, he was in a position of authority. This he used to ensure the prisoners’ freedom to practise their religious duties. He won the right for them to perform the five daily prayers, which he led, and secured a room for use as a mosque. Also, as a commander he received a salary which he spent almost entirely on the mosque and things beneficial for the other prisoners. He was in a group of ninety or so officers, to whom he would give ders or religious instruction. Conditions were hard in the camp. The winters long and dark and extremely cold. In this way he endeavoured to maintain the prisoners’ morale.

Mustafa Yalçin, whose description of Bediuzzaman at the Pasinler Front is quoted above, was already at the camp when one day to his amazement he saw that Bediuzzaman had been brought there. Among his recollections, he says:

“...And on our arriving there, they said that some prisoners had arrived from the Eastern Front. We all gathered outside in the camp with interest. There were a lot of prisoners, but there were two they were bringing from the other side and keeping a close eye on. I looked and suddenly saw that these were MOLLA SAID and one of his students, whom we called Iznikli Osman. He was carrying something like a trunk; it had Ustad’s books in it. He did not allow anyone other than Osman to be with him. Osman saw to his needs. He was wounded. He had been wounded in the leg. They treated it there. They put him in a dormitory.

“It was terribly cold. And you could not tell day from night. [In the summer] the sun did not set. And there as well, Molla Said Efendi was not idle at night; he used to go to other camps and read to them, although it was forbidden. He himself used to lead the prayers for us during the day. First of all they intervened and did not let us perform them. Then Ustad spoke to them and they allowed us a bit more freedom. They did not want too many of us to gather together at the same time. We used to call Bediuzzaman ‘Head of Religious Affairs’. He used to explain religion to the Russian guards even. The Russian officers would harass those of them who listened. Molla Said Efendi always boosted our morale. ‘Do not worry’, he used to say. ‘We shall be saved.’ I never knew him sleep at night there. He always read and took notes. He would say to us: ‘These will be Muslims, too, in the future, but they do not know it now.’ We were never frightened or distressed so long as he was with us.”

Mustafa Yalçin went on to describe how one night he escaped along with a group of seventeen other prisoners. Bediuzzaman declined to join them, but among the group was a major who had been trained by him. He acted as their guide, finding the way “from everything from the stars to the moss on the trees.” He continued:

“Molla Said was completely fearless. Night and day he strove for Islam. He always used to say: ‘It is belief in God that is necessary,’ and, ‘Belief in God is worth everything’.”27

Another fellow prisoner, Dr. M. Asaf Disçi, recalled that he first saw Bediuzzaman in the town of Kologrif. They were together there for about six months and then Bediuzzaman was sent to another large prisoner-of-camp further into the interior. In Kologrif they were held in a cinema, and he divided off part of it and made it into a mosque. Dr. Asaf Disçi went on to say:

“...Because he was the commander of a regiment, the other prisoners used to be very respectful towards him, but he used to say: ‘I am a Hoja [teacher]’... He lived very frugally. He would make do with two eggs and a slice of bread a day... His time was always full. He would read his commentary on the Qur'an, and teach the prisoners. The officers and men were all extremely deferential towards him... he commanded respect...”28

Mustafa Bolay, a prisoner who spent six months in the Kosturma camp with Bediuzzaman, stated that Russians wanted to kill Bediuzzaman and that it was the military high command that had specified his being sent to that camp. Bediuzzaman’s nephew, Abdurrahman, who wrote a short biography of his uncle, corroborated this claim. He wrote:

“They sent my uncle to Kosturma by way of Van, Julfa, Tiflis, and Kologrif. I wanted to describe in detail all the dangers to which he had been subject at this time – the Russian officers had even wanted to kill him on several occasions, then record that he had committed suicide – but he would not permit it, so I just wrote it briefly.”29

Perhaps further insight into this is provided by the following statement in ‘Tal'at Pasha’s Memoirs From Exile’, prepared for publication by Cemal Kutay. According to this, Bediuzzaman informed the Ottoman Government that the Bolshevik Revolution would occur. One passage states: “Bediuzzaman Said-i Kürdî, who was in the structure of the Teshkilat-i Mahsusa (the state intelligence service)... provided information from Siberia where he had been exiled concerning the state of the Russians that we would not have been able to learn from any other source.” “We learnt the Bolshevik Revolution would happen from Bediuzzaman Said-i Kürdî.”30

Both Mustafa Bolay and Mustafa Yalçin also corroborate an event concerning Bediuzzaman which happened in the prisoner-of-war camp, and doubtless contributed to the awe in which he was held by captors and captives alike. It is described in Bediuzzaman’s biography, and Necmeddin Sahiner gives a longer version from an article by Abdürrahim Zapsu in the magazine Ehl-i Sünnet, which is what we give here:

On one occasion, Nicola Nicolayavich, the Czar’s uncle who at the same time was Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces at the Caucasian Front, came on an inspection of the camp. While on his tour of it, he passed by Bediuzzaman, who was seated. Bediuzzaman paid him no attention and did not so much as stir. The General noticed him, and finding some excuse, passed in front of him a second time. Bediuzzaman still did not rise to his feet. So he passed by him a third time then stopped. He said to him through an interpreter:

“Do you not know who I am?”

“Yes, I know,” replied Bediuzzaman, and told him.

“So why do you insult me?” asked the General.

“Forgive me, but I have not insulted you. I only did as my beliefs commanded me.”

“What do your beliefs command?”

“I am a Muslim scholar. There is faith in my heart. A person with faith is superior to a person without. If I had risen to my feet, it would have been disrespectful to my beliefs. Therefore, I did not.”

“In which case, you are saying that I am without faith, and you are insulting both myself, and the Army of which I am a member, and my nation, and the Czar. A court martial will be set up immediately, and you will be questioned.”

As the General decreed, a court martial was set up. The Turkish, German, and Austrian officers all came to the headquarters and tried to persuade Bediuzzaman to apologize to the General, but he told them:

“I am eager to travel to the realm of the Hereafter and enter the presence of God’s Prophet, and I have to have a passport. I cannot act contrary to my beliefs.”

Unable to dispute this reply, they awaited the court’s verdict. The examination was completed. Then the decision was given for Bediuzzaman’s execution on the grounds of insulting the Czar and the Russian Army.

When the squad arrived to carry out the sentence, Bediuzzaman requested fifteen minutes “to perform his duty.” This was to take his ablutions and perform two rak'ats of prayers. The Russian General arrived on the scene while Bediuzzaman was doing this. He suddenly realized his mistake and said to Bediuzzaman when he had finished praying:

“Forgive me! I thought you behaved as you did in order to insult me and I acted accordingly. Now I realize you were merely acting as your beliefs required. Your sentence is quashed. You should be commended for your firmness of belief. Once again, I apologize.”31

Bediuzzaman mentioned this incident, which demonstrates his extraordinary personal qualities, in a letter to one of his students written when being held in another prison, Afyon, in 1949. The story had appeared in the newspapers. He wrote:

“The incident which happened while I was a prisoner-of-war is basically true, but I did not describe it in detail because I had no witnesses. Only, I did not know [at first] that the squad had come to execute me; I understood later. And I did not know that the Russian Commander had said some things in Russian by way of an apology. That is to say, the Muslim captain who was present and told the newspapers of the incident understood that the commander had said repeatedly: ‘Forgive me! Forgive me!’”32

In the spring of 1918, Bediuzzaman found a way to escape amid the confusion following the Bolshevik Revolution. In later years, he wrote an evocative description of his “temporary awakening” in the winter darkness of the days preceding his escape, and the almost miraculous ease with which it was accomplished. The following is a translation of part of the piece, which forms part of the Twenty-Sixth Flash.

“In the First World War, as a prisoner, I was in the distant province of Kosturma in Northern Russia. There was a small mosque there belonging to the Tatars beside the famous River Volga. I used to become wearied among my friends, the other officers. I craved solitude, yet I could not wander about outside without permission. Then they took me on bail to the Tatar quarter, to that small mosque on the banks of the Volga. I used to sleep in the mosque, alone. Spring was close. I used to be very wakeful during the long, long nights of that northern land; the sad plashing of the Volga and the mirthless patter of the rain and the melancholy sighing of the wind of those dark nights in that dark exile had temporarily roused me from a deep sleep of heedlessness. I did not yet consider myself old, but those who had experienced the Great War were old. For those were days that, as though manifesting the verse: A day that will turn the hair of children grey,33 made even children old. And while I was forty years old, I felt myself to be eighty. In those long, dark nights and sorrowful exile and melancholic state, I despaired of life and of my homeland. I looked at my powerlessness and aloneness, and my hope failed.

“Then, while in that state, succour arrived from the All-Wise Qur'an; my tongue said: God is enough for us; and how excellent a guardian is He.34

“And weeping, my heart cried out: ‘I am a stranger, I am alone, I am weak, I am powerless: I seek mercy, I seek forgiveness, I seek help from You, O my God!’

“And, thinking of my old friends in my homeland, and imagining myself dying in exile there, like Niyazi Misri, my spirit poured forth these lines:
 
 

Fleeing the world’s grief,

Taking flight with ardour and longing,

Opening my wings to the void,

Crying with each breath, Friend! Friend!

It was searching for its friends.

“Anyway... My weakness and impotence became such potent intercessors and means at the Divine Court on that melancholy, pitiful, separation-afflicted, long night in exile that now I still wonder at it. For several days later I escaped in the most unexpected manner, on my own, not knowing Russian, across a distance that would have taken a year on foot. I was saved in a wondrous fashion through Divine favour, which was bestowed as a consequence of my weakness and impotence. Then, passing through Warsaw and Austria, I reached Istanbul, so that to be saved in this way so easily was quite extraordinary. I completed the long flight with an ease and facility that even the boldest and most cunning Russian-speakers could not have accomplished.

“And that night in the mosque on the banks of the Volga made me decide to pass the rest of my life in caves. Enough now of mixing in this social life of people. Since finally I would enter the grave alone, I said that from now on I would chose solitude in order to become accustomed to it.

“But, regretfully, things of no consequence like my many and serious friends in Istanbul, and the glittering worldly life there, and in particular the fame and honour granted me, which were far greater than my due, made me temporarily forget my decision. It was as though that night in exile was a luminous blackness in my life’s eye, and the glittering white daytime of Istanbul, a lightless white in it. It could not see ahead, it still slumbered. Until two years later, Gawth-i Geylani opened my eyes once more with his book Fütuhu’l-Gayb.”35

FOOTNOTES

1. According to a curriculum vitae Bediuzzaman made out for an official form while a member of the Darü’l-Hikmeti’l-Islamiye in October 1921, he “first joined the Imperial Army as a regimental mufti,” and secondly as a regimental commander. See, Albayrak, S. unpaged Appendix to Son Devrin Islam Akademisi, Istanbul 1973.

2. Danismend, iv, 420, 427, 431.

3. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 156.

4. Sualar, 439-440.

5. Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 158.

6. Ibid., 156-8.

7. Ibid., 158-9.

8. Emirdag Lahikasi, ii, 13; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 160-1.

9. Arslan, Ahlatli Ismail Hakki, in Son Sahitler, v, 236-7.

10. Yalçin, Mustafa, in Son Sahitler, ii, 21-22.

11. Tarihçe, 99.

12. Ishârâtü’l-I’jaz, 11.

13. Ibid., 7-8; Tarihce, 99-100.

14. See, Mektûbat, 343; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 73; Tarihçe, 48.

15. Tarihçe, 98; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 161.

16. Tarihçe, 101; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 161.

17. Ibid., 162.

18. Ibid., 162.

19. Ibid., 162-4.

20. Tarihçe, 101.

21. Sikke-i Tasdik-i Gaybî, 124; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 168.

22. Ubeyd was the son of Bediuzzaman’s eldest sister, Dürriye.

23. Çavus, Ali, ‘Erek Daginda Bir Islam Mujahidi,’ Ittihad Gazetesi, No. 181, 20 Nisan (April) 1971, as quoted in Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 169-174.

24. Alp, Siddik, in Son Sahitler, iv, 347.

25. Molla Münevver, in Son Sahitler, i, 80-1.

26. Sahiner, N. Article in Zaman Gazetesi, 28 Ocak 1992, p.12.

27. Yalçin, Mustafa, in Son Sahitler, ii, 23-4.

28. Disçi, Dr. M. Asaf, in Son Sahitler, i, 189-190.

29. Sahiner, N. Son Sahitler, i, 78-9; Abdurrahman, Tarihçe, 38.

30. Zaman Gazetesi, 29 Ocak 1992, p. 12. Cemal Kutay also quotes Eshref Kusçubasi as recalling Bediuzzaman sending the same message to Enver Pasha by means of a letter carried by a Kazan fur trader. See, Kutay, Bediüzzaman, 84.

31. Zapsu, Abdürrahim, in Ehl-i Sünnet Mecmuasi, vol. 2, No. 46, 15 Te_rin-i Evvel (October) 1948, quoted in, Sualar, 442-3 and Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 174-5; Tarihçe, 103-4.

32. Sualar, 441.

33. Qur'an, 73:17.

34. Qur'an, 3:173.

35. Lem’alar, 224-5; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 181-2; Tarihçe, 107-8. 

The Author of the Risale-i Nur Bediuzzaman Said Nursi by Sukran Vahide, Sozler Publication