Nursi, known in Turkey as Ustad Bediuzzaman, was a polymath who excelled not only in the classical Islamic sciences but also in the modern natural sciences. He was a universal thinker of great exactitude, an erudite theologian of tremendous dignity, a brave voluntary commander in the service of freedom, a life-long teacher of millions, a peacemaking hero advocating positive engagement, and a magnetic and vastly successful leader of the Muslim community within our contemporary secular setting.
He was born in 1293/1877 in the village of Nurs, in the Bitlis district of eastern Turkey. Nursi was a sayyid, or descendant of the Prophet Muḥammad, having traced his lineage to Ḥasan on the side of his father, and Ḥusayn on the side of his mother, the grandchildren of the Prophet Muḥammad (blessings and peace be upon him).
Until the age of nine Nursi lived with his family, receiving his basic education from his eldest brother, Mulla Abdullah, himself a religious scholar. During a short period studying with the ulama in various medreses in eastern Turkey, his photographic memory, intelligence and courage drew attention, and people soon acknowledged his special scholastic talents – he had been able to complete study of the entire curriculum of the Ottoman ulama of the time in a phenomenally short period of about three months, and was able to pass, with flying colours, all of the examinations given to him by his teachers, and to defend his theses in the scholastic discussions to which they subjected him. As a child, his instructor Mulla Fethullah named him Bediuzzaman, ‘the wonder of the age’, due to the extraordinary strength of his memory, and his singular intelligence; and this epithet soon came to be deemed appropriate by the rest of the ulama of eastern Turkey. He was able, due to the level of memory and understanding conferred on him by his phenomenal degree of self-motivation and drive, to memorise ninety works in the Islamic sciences, including many that were highly technical; normally such a course of study would have been completed in fifteen years.
His Idea of Renewal in Education
After moving to Van in Eastern Turkey in the late 1800s, Nursi came to believe that the study of the sciences of mainstream modern civilisation was a necessary means to conveying the message of Islam in a way that would enable the predominant spirit of the age to comprehend it. He now put this new realisation into action by driving himself to master those sciences, again in a very short period of time, sciences such as mathematics, geology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, history, geography and philosophy. He was engaged in teaching, guiding and counselling the tribesmen for the entirety of his fifteen year stay in Van, and had been able to open his own medrese there, known as Horhor; amongst other works, during this time Nursi wrote an advanced commentary on Ismail Gelenbevi’s Burhān in logic.
In order to realise his new-found ideal of harmonising the contemporary European natural sciences and the traditional Islamic sciences in a manner taking into account their relationality and the natural hierarchy obtaining between them, he decided to establish a university in eastern Turkey, named Medreset-üz Zehrâ. In order to realise this vision, he came to Istanbul to seek imperial support. Nursi had hung a sign on the door of his rooms in the Fatih area of Istanbul where he was staying, which read, ‘Here, all problems are solved, and all questions are answered – yet none are asked,’ and he did indeed answer the questions of the Istanbul ulama, who eagerly visited him after news of his scholarly renown had spread. In hanging this sign, Nursi had intended to draw the attention of the centre of the Caliphate to the people of Eastern Turkey, and to seek support for Medreset-üz Zehrâ, which he hoped would be based there. However, he was unable to realize his dream. The Istanbul administration of the time were unable to offer their support, deeply distracted as they were by the political concerns and circumstances of the tumultuous beginning of the twentieth century. Later, due to the Russian invasion of the region during the First World War, which had broken out at that time, the project was postponed. It was only in the aftermath of the First World War that Nursi began to author the Risale-i Nur, applying the Islamic sciences to numerous modern questions and thus to a large degree fulfilling the function he had envisaged for Medreset-üz Zehrâ.
For a time, Nursi remained in Istanbul, hoping to serve Islam by attempting to positively impact the political situation. On his return to Van, he strove to guide the tribes of the region; the lessons he gave to the tribesmen are gathered together in his book al-Munāẓarāt. Nursi then visited Damascus, where he delivered his celebrated sermon in the Umayyad Mosque, later published as The Damascus Sermon. Nursi took part in the First World War as a commander of a battalion that he had composed of his own students, and defended the eastern Ottoman lands against the Russian army. During the war, in the trenches, under the rain of gunfire, and in conditions where writing was simply not possible – he dictated Signs of Miraculous Inimitability (Ishārāt al-I‘ jāz) a book widely regarded as a masterpiece of Qur’anic exegesis.
During the Russian occupation of Bitlis, a wounded Imam Nursi was taken prisoner and sent to Siberia, where he remained in captivity for two and a half years. During this period, far from languishing in inactivity, he in fact strove to raise the awareness of the prisoners with his religious and spiritual instruction. In the end, he was able to escape, and via St. Petersburg, Warsaw and Vienna, he made his way to Istanbul, arriving on the 25th June, 1918; it was soon after his return that he was appointed a member of Dârü’l-Hikmeti’l-İslâmiye.
The Ottoman Empire was defeated in the First World War, and it was not long before the British, French, Italians and Greeks began to occupy its territories. Correspondingly, the activities of the War of Independence began throughout Turkey. Nursi encouraged and supported the Kuva-i Milliye ‘National Forces’ fighting against the occupiers throughout Turkey, and the government in Ankara, approving of Nursi’s activities, invited him to Ankara, where he was given a warm welcome. Yet Nursi was far from impressed by the pervading spiritual state of affairs in Ankara, seeing, amongst many other things, that many of the deputies in the parliament had no interest in religion nor the canonical prayer.
He clarified the great importance of the prayer and of following the sacred ordinances laid down by religion to them in a circular of ten paragraphs, and the number of deputies praying regularly increased dramatically; but his influence in this regard did not impress a certain leader of the time, with whom an ever forthright Nursi became involved in a sharp confrontation. Nonetheless, in an effort to subdue him, Nursi was offered the political position of member of parliament, and the position of head of religious affairs for the whole of Eastern Turkey, both of which he declined (not unlike the manner in which the Prophet Muḥammad, blessings and peace be upon him, rejected offers of power and wealth offered by the Meccan polytheists, who hoped to be able to subdue him thereby). Instead, at this worrying and dangerous time, Nursi entered a period of spiritual seclusion. It was not long after the abolishment of the Caliphate in 1924 that the Kurdish “Shaykh Sa‘īd Rebellion” erupted. After much bloodshed, the rebellion was put out. While Nursi played no part in this rebellion, (and in fact disapproved of it), he was exiled to Istanbul in 1925 on the grounds that he had been involved. From Istanbul he was taken to Burdur, and then to Isparta. He was then compelled by the authorities to stay in Barla under house arrest, a small village subordinate to Isparta, wherein they would be able to watch his every movement, and prevent him from mixing with people.
The “New Said” Period and Service to the True Faith
Said Nursi referred to the early period of his life, when he was partially involved with world politics as the ‘Old Said’ period, and the rest of his life, from 1921 onwards, as the “New Said” period, starting with the authoring of the Risale-i Nur, and newly characterised by a disengagement from politics and a unique focus on service to true faith and the Qur’an. Nursi was to dedicate the rest of his life to a struggle for the protection of people’s faith, in the face of assaults against the foundations of true faith by currents of atheism that had taken over much of the Muslim world. Due to his ideas and activities in his New Said period, he was exiled, imprisoned, poisoned several times and his books were banned, the result of plots set in motion by secret committees that seduced government officials into covert actions against Islam.
In his eight years of exile in Barla, he authored threefourths of the Risale-i Nur. In distributing his writings all throughout Turkey, he adopted an unprecedented method largely responsible for saving Islam in those lands; he would make it a rule that anyone wishing to be a student of his would have to copy out some of the Risale-i Nur in Qur’anic Arabic letters, and also enlist another person to copy it. The small group of his students in Isparta and Barla copied the Risale-i Nur, and strove to increase the number of copiers; thus was the Risale-i Nur distributed in secret, and in a short time, throughout the whole of Turkey.
Later, the authorities moved Nursi to Isparta, and then to Eskişehir Prison alongside one hundred and twenty of his students, accused of “founding a secret organisation, opposing the regime, and endeavoring to overthrow it.” After his release from Eskişehir Prison, he was exiled to the Kastamonu province, where he spent eight years in exile. Despite these extreme attempts to silence Nursi, new parts of the Risale-i Nur were always being composed. Newly written epistles and letters were sent to Isparta. Students within Isparta would make clean copies so that they could be easily distributed throughout the villages of Anatolia, to even the most remote of areas. Every day, his circle of students widened.
In 1943, he was sent to the High Court of Denizli, along with one hundred and twenty-six of his students. The Risale-i Nur was scrutinised by an expert committee made up of high-ranking scholars and judges in Ankara. In 1944 he was acquitted and his incrimination was proved unfounded, due to the efforts of the defence during the trial, as well as the report affirming both his lack of interest in political activity, and the politically neutral character of the Risale-i Nur. Nursi stayed in prison for nine months during the trial, in which time he was prevented from seeing his students, exposed to a great number of hardships, and indeed poisoned multiple times. Nursi was again moved to Emirdag, then to Afyon. Nevertheless, neither exile, imprisonment nor attempted murder were able to force him to give up his cause. In the latter years of his life, the bans on all of his books were lifted, at the conclusions of long processes of examination and investigation. In 1950 in Turkey, the multi-party period commenced, and the election was won by the Democratic Party. The changes that had taken place as a result of their coming into power allowed Nursi and his students some degree of partial freedom and breathing space, and at the end of a life devoted to the service of true faith and the Qur’an, and one filled with pain and hardship, Imam Nursi passed away late at night on the 23rd March 1960, which was the 25th of Ramadan, 1379. The next day, a vast crowd of people performed the funeral prayer of this Imam of the age, in the Ulu Mosque. He was carried by the masses to the Mosque of Halilurrahman where he was buried in what would prove a temporary abode, for two months later, on the 27th May 1960, a military coup took place, and another dark age ensued for the country. So severe was the darkness of this period that the grave of the noble Imam was attacked by officials on the 12th July 1960. Those who had, out of their fear, persecuted him for his entire life, had become even more frightened of what would now occur after his death; and they moved his blessed body to an unknown place.
THE RISALE-I NUR SERVICE AFTER BEDIUZZAMAN SAID NURSI
Before his demise, both in his works and his words Bediuzzaman Said Nursi appointed his closest student and the arch-scribe of the Risale Nur Epistles, Sayyid Ahmed Hüsrev Efendi, to direct and lead the service of the Risale-i Nur after himself.
While Nursi was still alive, Hüsrev Efendi was already known to the students of light as al-Ustad al-Thānī – The Second Master. This is well documented and supported by numerous texts in the Risale, letters between senior students and his contemporary witnesses, and even court records as well as by Imam Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s own verbal confirmations.
Hüsrev Efendi is the calligrapher of the most famous script in Turkey. He is the Serkâtib – the arch-scribe of The Risale-i Nur Corpus and bears an honorary title given by Bediuzzaman: “Diamond-penned Hüsrev.”
During the lifetime of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Hüsrev Efendi was placed in charge of the duplication and distribution of the Epistles. In the Risale-i Nur, Hüsrev Efendi is the most frequently mentioned of Nursi’s students. Moreover, he was the only student to be given direct authorisation by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi to amend, modify and correct the Epistles, and he carried out this duty meticulously. Furthermore, during the periods Bediuzzaman spent in prison, Hüsrev Efendi directed and led the Risale-i Nur service on his behalf.
Hüsrev Efendi’s Services
After the demise of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Hüsrev Efendi (Ahmed Hüsrev Altınbaşak) faithfully fulfilled his duty of direction and leadership, without compromising the principles of the Risale-i Nur Service. In this period, he undertook many important services, including his endeavours to continue spreading the Risale-i Nur, ensuring that the notion of service to the Qur’an and imān became deeply rooted all around Turkey, and his many projects to facilitate the education of students. He was also able to finalise the copy of the Qur’an that he wrote under the instructions of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. This copy is known as Tevâfuklu Kur’ân-ı Kerîm “The Qur’an in Congruous Alignment”. (In this Qur’an, excluding very few exceptions, all of the names of Allah, Rabb and Qur’an, as well as words of the same root, are aligned with one another, either on the same page beneath one another, or side by side on corresponding pages, or back to back across two pages. This special characteristic of the Qur’an was recognised by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, a wondrous miracle of the Qur’an pertaining to eyes – for an empirically-minded people “in this age who say ‘we don’t believe what we cannot see.’”
In order to publish The Qur’an in Congruous Alignment and continue his educational activities, Hüsrev Efendi founded Hayrat Foundation in 1974. Since this date, all the services and activities that Hüsrev Efendi inherited from Bediuzzaman Said Nursi have been undertaken under the umbrella of Hayrat Foundation.
Hüsrev Efendi, who dedicated his entire life to the service of imān and the Qur’an, passed away in 1977. Since then, Hayrat Foundation has been fulfilling the mission of the Risale-i Nur service.