Birth and Early Childhood
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi was born early one spring morning in the village of Nurs, a small hamlet in the province of Bitlis in eastern Turkey. The year was 1293 according to the Rumi calendar then in use in the Ottoman Empire, that is, 18771. The circumstances into which he was born were humble; the house, of sun-dried brick, one of twenty or so built against the south-facing slope of a valley in the towering Taurus Mountains to the south of Lake Van.
Even at his birth the child displayed signs of being exceptional. It is said that on coming into the world he peered around attentively, his look fairly frightening those present. It was as if he was going to speak. He did not cry, just clenched his fists. Then they chanted the call to prayer in his ears, and named him SAID2.
Said's mother was called Nuriye, and his father, a villager with a small-holding of land, was Mirza. They were a Kurdish family. Said was the fourth of seven children. The two eldest were girls, Dürriye and Hanim, then came his elder brother, Abdullah. Said was followed by two more boys, Mehmed and Abdulmecid, and last was a girl, Mercan.
Mirza's forbears had come originally from Cizre on the Tigris3. Also known as ‘Sufi’ Mirza, he died in the 1920's and was buried in the graveyard at Nurs. At the head of his grave stands a rough uncut stone with simply the name `Mirza' etched on it. Nuriye, Said's mother was from the village of Bilkan, three hours distant from Nurs4. Like her husband, she was devout and virtuous. She died during the First World War and was also buried in Nurs. In later years, Said was to say: "From my mother I learnt compassion, and from my father, orderliness and regularity."5
Said passed his early years with his family in Nurs. Long winters in the village, short summers in the higher pastures or in the gardens and fields along the river banks in the valley bottom. A short growing season, but sufficient to meet the villagers' needs. A life close to the natural world, in harmony wilh its rhythms and cycles, full of wonders for an aware and responsive child like Said. He was unusually intelligent, always investigating things, questioning and seeking answers. Years later when explaining how scholarly metaphors may degenerate into superstition "when they fall into the hands of the ignorant", he himself described an occasion which illustrates this.
One night, on hearing tin cans being clashed together and a rifle being fired, the family rushed out of the house to find it was an eclipse of the moon. Said asked his mother: "Why has the moon gone like that?" She replied:
"A snake has swallowed it." So Said asked:
"Then why can it still be seen?"
"The snakes in the sky are like glass; they show what they have inside them."6
Said was only to leam the true answer whcn studying astronomy a few years later.
Whenever the opportunity arose, and especially in the long winter evenings, Said would go and listen to any discussions being held by students and teachers of the medreses, that is, the religious schools, or by religious figures. These discussions, often about the famous scholars, saints, and spiritual leaders of the past, usually took the form of contest and debate. If any of the students or scholars displayed more intelligence than the others, or was victorious in debate, he was made much of by the others, and was held in great esteem.7 This appealed to the young Said, too.
In addition, more than being merely independent-minded, it was as though from his very earliest years, Said was reaching for or was being driven to discover a way other than that which those around him followed, as the following, written by some of his students, shows:
"Our Master himself said: `When I was eight or nine years old, contrary to my family and everyone else in the vicinity, who were attached to the Naksi tarikat and used to seek assistance from a famous figure ealled Gavs-i Hizan, I used to say: `O Gavs-ý Geylani!' Since I was a child. if some insignificant thing like a walnut got lost, [I would say] `O seyh! I'll say a Fatiha for you and you find this thing for me!' It is strange and yet I swear that a thousand times the venerable Seyh came to my assistance through his prayers and saintly intluence. Therefore, however many Fatihas and supplications I have uttered in general in my life, after the Person of the Prophet (PBUH), they have been offered for Seyh-i Geylani. While I am a Naksi in three or four respects, the Kadiri way and love of it prevail in me involuntarily. But preoccupation [with study of the religious sciences] prevented my becoming involved with the tarikat."8 Although, as is stated here, Said never joined a tarikat or followed the Sufi path - he was later to describe Sufism as being inappropriate for the needs of the modem age, his close relationship with Seyh Abdulkadir Geylani continued throughout his life; on many occasions throughout his life Said received guidance and assistance through his saintly influence.