The nature of the Risale-i Nur and its place in Islamic history

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The Hayrat Publishing Translation Committee

What type of book is the Risale-i Nur? Many new readers of The Book of Light, especially in translation, note that it is not easy to place in a single genre. It variously embodies aspects of theology and Qur’anic exegesis, sometimes in the form of allegorical narrative, at other times in the more conventional form of scholarly treatise. At first glance, some parts of the Risale-i Nur seem similar to Sufi litany, and even philosophy and poetry. However, for Nursi, it is neither; the direct source of the Risale-i Nur is the Qur’an. Nursi was certainly highly familiar with the great Greek and Islamic philosophers, such as Plato and Avicenna, and even occasionally cites some of them. What is more, we know that Nursi had studied al-Abḥarī’s Hidāyat al-Ḥikma and al-Kātibī’s Ḥikmat al-‘Ayn, both advanced works of Avicenna and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī influenced philosophy.

However, Nursi explicitly disavowed the notion that The Book of Light was a work of philosophy – indeed, he provides numerous analyses of the weakness of certain philosophical methodologies as means of arriving at truth, especially when compared with the powerful and direct methodology of the Qur’an.

Likewise, Nursi was on intimate terms with the great Sufi poetry of the likes of Rumi, Hafiz, Yunus Emre, Erzurumlu İbrahim Hakkı, Niyâzî-i Mısrî and others, and quotes them quite frequently in The Book of Light. However, although he loves and respects the great Sufis of the past and often expounds aspects of Sufi doctrine and practice, he deemed institutional Sufism unsuitable for the times; in an age in which attacks on religious faith and especially Islam have become so widespread, one’s primary duty is to defend and preserve faith, by strengthening one’s own understanding of the realities and truths of religion, as well as that of others. Nursi thus devised an alternative rooted in the Qur’an, exemplified by The Book of Light and the movement surrounding it.

In the Twenty-first Flash, Nursi affirms that his way is not Sufism, but a way of absolute brotherhood and service (elsewhere, Nursi explains that this methodology is the Prophetic wont or sunna, and that of the Companions of the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him).

“Our way is that of brotherhood, and it is not possible for a brother to be his brother’s father, nor can he take on the stance of a spiritual guide, for in brotherhood, the positions of standing are spacious and broad, so they cannot be the locus of envious competitiveness. A brother is only the helper and backer of his brother and strengthens his service.”1

However, the two disciplines that Nursi was content to broadly characterise The Book of Light by were kalām, and especially Qur’anic exegesis (tafsīr).

“Risale-i Nur is an immensely potent, authentic exegesis of the Noble Qur’an. Since certain inattentive persons have not been able to understand this completely, I will explain this reality. There are two types of exegesis. The first is the familiar exegesis that expounds, clarifies and establishes the meanings of the expressions, words and sentences of the Qur’an. The second is the type of exegesis that expounds, clarifies and establishes the truths of faith of the Qur’an with conclusive proofs and evidence. This type is of crucial importance – the first type of exegesis treats of these matters only briefly. The Risale-i Nur however is directly rooted in the second type; it is an exegesis that can silence even the very most obstinate of philosophers.”2

Moreover, replying to a letter to Nursi from a student asking to study kalām with him, Nursi replied:

“In your letter you ask me to teach you kalām, yet you are already learning it from the Risale-i Nur, for all of the Words [epistles] that you copy out are lessons in the true, illuminated [type] of kalām.” 3

Although in our day the study of kalām has declined, Nursi grew up in an Ottoman milieu in which the study of advanced works of kalām such as al-Sayyid al-Sharīf al-Jurjānī’s Sharḥ al-Mawāqif was very widespread; today, one would be hard put to find more than a few teachers of these works in each Islamic country, bearing traditional chains of transmission. Blessed with a prodigious memory, we know that (amongst around ninety other books) Nursi had memorised the Mawāqif, since the earliest days of the empire the single most important advanced work of kalām on the Ottoman curriculum. The names of the books that Nursi studied are common knowledge; but what was the nature of the kalām that Nursi imbibed, and how did he employ it and change it in his The Book of Light? Sharḥ alMawāqif, which enjoys supercommentaries by such Ottoman luminaries as Mulla Fenari, Hocazade, Mulla Kestelli, Hatibzade, Hasan Çelebi Fenari and many others, set the seal on Fakhruddīn al-Rāzī’s 13th century transformation of kalām. Rāzī and the generation after him imported the vast majority of the questions of general ontology (al-umūr al-‘amma) into kalām, and as a result, when the Mawāqif was written it standardised the detailed, highly technical discussions of being (al-wujūd), quiddity (māhiyya), individuation (alta‘ayyun), causality (al-‘ illiyya), possibility and necessity (alimkān wa al-wujūb) and many other topics that were seen as principles grounding the special topics of kalām, such as the existence of God and the nature of the soul, in the firmest possible foundations. After all, if we are to understand what it means for God to be the Necessary Being, we must be able to understand exactly what both necessity and existence are. Although Nursi respects this tradition of kalām, and often utilises its terminology, to meet the needs of his time he ultimately advocated a significantly different approach.

“Although the scholars of kalām theology are students of the Qur’an and each wrote tens of books, [which if added together] amount to thousands of books on the pillars of faith, they were unable to explain as clearly, prove with such certainty, nor persuade with as much seriousness as even ten verses of Qur’an, because of their partiality for reason over tradition.”4

The Book of Light, then, is a “kalāmī tafsīr” that is, a Qur’anic exegesis with theological aims, yet one that follows the Qur’anic method of setting forth proofs of the creed and themes for contemplation by way of analogies and illustrations pertaining to the created cosmos.

When writing The Book of Light, what objective did Said Nursi have in mind?

Nursi perceived that two alarming states of affairs were becoming widespread in the Muslim world of his time. The first was the adoption amongst the new Westernised intelligentsia of currents of atheism arising from certain varieties of natural science and philosophy. Throughout the 19th century, materialists and naturalists had gained popularity and power, and had started to systematically oppose religion, both institutionally and within groups and associations.

In these contexts, articles of faith as fundamental as the existence of God and life after death were being challenged and denied, in a manner that threatened terrible social consequences for the Muslim world should they trickle down to the layman. In the face of these challenges, Nursi later wrote works like The Epistle on Nature, a rebuttal to the claims of naturalism, The Supreme Sign, an extended, Qur’anic proof of the existence and unity of God, and The Resurrection Epistle, an extended proof of the reality of life after death. The second, and related “alarming state of affairs” is the ubiquitous contemporary domination of the senses over minds, and preference for trivial advantages over the “diamonds” of spiritual advancement. This godless culture encourages an emotional landscape that is the source of hedonism and sensualism’s overwhelming control over human rationality, which in turn threatens the likelihood that truly Islamic and indeed human modes of life can be realised.

Nursi envisaged The Book of Light as an urgent remedy for the unprecedented trauma of the time he lived in, as well as for those to come; indeed, in a way, the only possible remedy. The world that he knew was being turned upside down. The new anti-Islamic government in Turkey abolished the Ottoman institutional structures meant to preserve both the outward and inward aspects of Islam, namely the tekkes, the Sufi lodges, and the medreses, the traditional colleges. He realised that in this situation, designed to destroy the systematic production of the Islamic scholars and elites, it would no longer be possible to train ulama; nor would the institutions responsible for instilling a deep faith in the hearts of the masses, the tekkes, be able any longer to fulfil this important function. The solution Nursi produced was as remarkable as it was brave and audacious. Secretly taken and conveyed epistle by epistle by loyal students visiting Nursi in his exile and imprisonment (some of whom had themselves been educated by Nursi while accompanying him in prison) hand-copied and then distributed to nearby towns and villages and throughout the whole of Turkey, The Book of Light was to fulfil the function of medrese and tekke. In the epistles that make up The Book of Light, Nursi attempted to summarise all of the Islamic sciences, and to make them accessible to non-specialists, that is, ordinary Muslim laypeople; indeed, he said:

“Whoever reads the entirety of these epistles and lessons with comprehension and approval within a single year can be an important, true scholar [of the realities of true faith] of this time.”5

Moreover, for Nursi, the Risale-i Nur was also to fulfil the function of the mekteb (that is, the Western-model schools of the late-Ottoman Empire), in acknowledging and in a certain manner celebrating the new scientific information about the natural world brought to light in the West. However, Nursi clearly stipulated the crucial condition that this information could only be deemed valuable in so far as it is shown to point to the wisdom and creativity of God.

Through its allusive language, repeated phrases and devotional tone, The Book of Light often takes on a prayerful, litany-like quality. Although its content is often highly technical and theologically rich, it is at heart a devotional work, and this is how it is approached by its readers. The Book of Light thus became both a new Qur’anic path of selfpurification, and a new Qur’anic path of knowledge, keeping the profundities of Islamic knowledge and practice alive in a time in which they were in danger of extinction due to the deliberate elimination of the institutional structures supporting them.

Does The Book of Light belong to an identifiable genre in Islamic literature?

The Book of Light can be credibly viewed as a successor to the works of the great renewers of true faith that came before Nursi, for example the Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn (“Revival of the Religious Sciences”) of Imām al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111), and to some degree the Maktūbāt of Aḥmad al-Sirhindi (971–1034/1564–1625) (referred to as Imam-ı Rabbâni in The Book of Light and throughout Turkey). All are comprehensive works in that they provide answers to the majority of general questions related to the Islamic sciences (for example creed, law, ethics and spirituality), as well as many more specific topics. However, with its exposition of abstruse spiritual doctrines the Maktūbāt was written with more advanced audiences in mind, and the Iḥyā’ is primarily meant to chart out a detailed path of practical spiritual wayfaring (sulūk) and an ethical programme. While The Book of Light contains both ethics (e.g. The Epistle on Sincerity, The Epistle on Frugality) and the exposition of abstruse doctrines (for example, discussion of the subtle spiritual centres (allaṭā’if ) in the Sixteenth Flash and the intricate discussion of predetermination in the Twenty-sixth Word or “Epistle on Destiny”), its overwhelming focus is on deeply inculcating in its readers the truths of the Islamic creed, as contained within the verses of the Qur’an, especially the four most basic themes of the Qur’an, namely, the affirmation of Divine unity (tawḥīd), prophethood (nubuwwah), servanthood and worship (‘ubūdiyya) and the Resurrection (ḥashr).

The Book of Light and its place in the history of the Islamic sciences

There is a real sense in which The Book of Light encapsulates more than a thousand years of the development of the Islamic sciences. Like al-Ghazālī’s Iḥyā’, Ibn ‘Arabī’s al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya, Jāmī’s al-Durra al-Fākhira and Ibn Bahā’uddīn’s al-Qawl al-Faṣl, it also constitutes a type of synthesis of the Islamic sciences and Islamic spirituality, that is, a marrying of the data of rational deduction (naẓar) with the data of spiritual unveiling (kashf ). Nursi’s advanced education gave him access to the same intellectual (‘aqlī) and traditional (naqlī) resources that generations of Ottoman scholars before him shared; he was familiar with the classical exegeses of the Qur’an, those of Zamakhshari, Bayḍāwī and others, and as we have said, with the most advanced books in kalām, like Taftāzānī’s Sharḥ al-Maqāṣid and Sharḥ al-Mawāqif. In The Book of Light, he aimed to make something of the high culture of the Islamic sciences, of rhetoric, theology, logic and scriptural exegesis, accessible to the believing masses. Thus, although it is written primarily for a popular audience, The Book of Light is full of references to the terminology, conceptual apparatuses and questions of the Islamic sciences. To give only one amongst countless examples:

In his celebrated The Qur’anic Miracles, Nursi attempts to give the general reader a taste of the rhetorical inimitability of the Qur’an without overloading the reader with the complexities of Arabic rhetoric, saying

“(ولئن مستهم نفحة من عذاب ربك) If but a breath of the punishment from your Lord should touch them slightly. (Qur’an: al-Anbiyāa, 21:46)

In order to demonstrate the extreme severity of the punishment in this verse, He reveals its nature by showing the severe impact of even the smallest amount of it. That is, each aspect of the phrase that conveys diminution orients itself towards the diminution in the meaning of the verse, and strengthens that meaning. The utterance ‘If ‘ (لئن) conveys uncertainty, and uncertainty is attributable to diminution. The utterance ‘touch’ ( مَسَّ ) means to be ‘hit’ lightly, thus also conveying diminution. The utterance ‘breath’ (نفحة) means a light odour. It thereby conveys diminution, and words following the morphological form, (مَرَّةٌ ) marrah convey a single instance. Moreover, the indefiniteness within the nunnation ( التنكیر فی تنوین ) of ‘breath’ ( نفحة) is for diminution, and means that the thing in question is a thing so small that it can scarcely be known.

The utterance ‘of ‘ ( من) denotes a part of a whole, and therefore conveys diminution. The utterance ‘punishment’ ( عَذَابٍ ) refers to a light form thereof, when compared to stronger words like ‘torture’ ( نكال ), and ‘reprisal’ ( عِقَابٍ ) – thus does it indicate diminution. The utterance ‘your Lord’ ( ربك ) imparts a sense of the Divine pity, rather than bringing to mind the meanings of ‘the Subduer’ (اَلْقَهَّارِ ), ‘the Compeller’ ( الجبار ) and ‘the Avenger’ ( المنتقم ) – and thus it conveys diminution.

The verse conveys the sense that ‘if even such an insignificant amount of this punishment has such potency, then you should be well able to ascertain the extent of the severity of the Divine reprisal’. Just as the form of each little part of this phrase corresponds to the other and supports it, so too do they strengthen the overall import of the phrase, with the individual tongues particular to them.”6

Due to the phenomenal depth of Nursi’s traditional studies, The Book of Light in many ways constitutes a type of resolution and final “critical verification” (taḥqīq) of many questions that had concerned Islamic scholar-sages for centuries, despite the fact that it was mostly written with a popular audience in mind. Furthermore, unlike earlier works, it takes into account the radically changed modern context in which it appeared, and so contains numerous discussions of modern sciences and technology, as well as the challenges of modern atheism and naturalism.

Said Nursi’s place in Islamic history: Nursi’s Ottoman context

From the earliest days of the Ottoman Empire, scholar-sage and Sultan were intimately intertwined. The saintly sage Muhlis Baba kept company with Osman Gazi (656-727 /1258-1326) on his military campaigns. His son, Sultan Orhan (d. 764/1362), was to build the first Ottoman medrese in history, and place the famous Akbarian mystic and scholar Dawūd al-Qayṣarī (d. 752/1350) in charge. The synthetical character of Qayṣarī’s Prolegomena to the Ringstones of Wisdom was immensely influential, in its marrying of scripture, the data of spiritual experience and rational deduction into a single, harmonious whole. Not much later, one of Ottoman history’s most revered scholar-sages, the logician, theologian and mystic Mulla Fenari (751-834/1350–1431), took this genre forward in his The Pool of Intimacy Between the Intelligible and the Mystically Witnessed, a highly innovative commentary on Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī’s Key to the Unseen.

Soon after Fenari’s demise, Constantinople was liberated by the True Faith, and its liberator, Muḥammad al-Fātiḥ (widely known as Fatih Sultan Mehmed in Turkey) would prove to be one of the greatest patrons of the arts and sciences in Islamic history. The theologian, physicist and astronomer Ali Qūshjī (806-879/1403-1474), and the activities of the great metaphysicians and scientists ‘Alā’uddīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 877/1473), Mulla Kestelli (d. 901/1496) and Hocazade (838-893/1434-1488) all took place under the auspices of Mehmet Fatih’s great cultural project; several great works were specially commissioned by the Sultan, including ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Jāmī’s (d. 897/1494) famous The Precious Pearl (al-Durra al-Fākhira), (which adjudicated between and to some degree synthesised kalām, Avicennan philosophy and Akbarian metaphysics) Hocazade and al-Ṭūsī’s adjudications between Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī and the philosophers, as well as a new commentary on Key to the Unseen, alongside many other works. It is clear, then, that the notion of synthesis, the reconciliation of the various scriptural, philosophical, theological and mystical intellectual currents of Islam, was a distinguishing mark of Ottoman intellectual activity in its formative period.

For a thousand years until after the Battle of Vienna in 1683, Islam (later in the guise of the Ottomans) was almost always viewed as a much greater threat to European civilisation than contrariwise. During the Middle Ages, before this pivotal battle, faithful Christians bemoaned the cultural “Islamisation” of their co-religionists, whether because of the employment of Arabic as a literary language, or because of the fact that after the conquest of Toledo it was impossible to disassociate with Islam the new forms of science and philosophy appearing in Europe, thanks to the discovery there of the oeuvres of figures like Avicenna, whose original works would be so central to the development of the Medieval universities.

For the Muslims to come to perceive the Christian West as a major threat, then, would take a major shift in attitude on their part, because by the time the West had its post-Medieval “awakening”, the Muslims had certainly had the upper hand both culturally and politically for the best part of a millennium. One has only to look at a famous work like al-Shaqā’ iq al-Nu‘māniyya, by Taşköprüzade, which is a history of the Ottoman “learned establishment” (ilmiye) and of its relationship with the Ottoman sultans, from the beginning of the existence of the Ottoman State in the 1300s, right up to the very end of the 16th century, to find that there is absolutely no discernable Western influence whatever to be seen in the cultural life of the period. In the 18th century, the huzur dersleri, or “seminars in the Imperial presence” were inaugurated formally for the first time by Mustafa III, in which traditional scholars would gather at the Topkapi Palace, one of whom would deliver a lesson in Qur’an exegesis to the Caliph. The 18th and 19th centuries were moreover witness to a new mass Sufi and scholastic movement, that of the Naqshbandi “renewer” Mevlana Khalid (1190-1243/1776-1827), that significantly strengthened medresebased religious life. Mevlana Khalid himself was more than a contemplative and mystic, but was also a celebrated theologian who wrote a number of intensely technical works in the tradition, such as his supercommentary of Siyalakoti’s advanced supercommentary (ḥāshiya) on Khayālī’s classic supercommentary on Taftāzānī’s Sharḥ al-‘Aqā’id, and his original Taḥqīq al-Irāda al-Juz’iyya, a treatise on the true meaning of particular volition, in the context of the reality of Divine predestination.

When they came, the Tanzimat reforms would only touch political, administrative and “secular” educational policy, but not the ulama, the learned traditions of whom had continued to be held sacred. Of course, many ulama had opposed the Tanzimat altogether; but it is a historical reality that even those who did not ensured that the full integrity of traditional learning would be safeguarded.

Ulama who opposed the Tanzimat altogether were able to put a temporary stop to the Westernising reforms by force in 1807, with the help of the Janissaries. They condemned the reforms as reprehensible innovations (bid‘a), and imitation of the disbelievers. The ulama objected to the new Western dress, and staunchly refused to replace their turbans with the red fez (just as Nursi would later refuse to replace his turban with the European flat-cap). They objected to the sultans’ new habit of having their portraits painted, and forbade that they be hung in public places. A famous account even exists of a well-known Sufi, Şeyh Saçlı, who sought out Mahmud II and publically denounced him for “destroying the religion of Islam.” The dervish was subsequently executed, but became a hero of the traditionalist movement in the process.

The Ottoman world of the turn of the century was at a crossroads. We now know that Turkey and the possessions of the former Ottoman State would storm in the direction of unrelenting secularisation; yet in 1907, towards the end of Sultan Abdulhamid’s reign, this eventuality would have seemed far from a foregone conclusion, for the muhafazakarlık (“conservatism”) movement had strong support at the Palace and amongst the ulama. The reformists finally won over when the Committee of Union and Progress (İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti) came into power after the 1913 coup. The very next year the long-debated “Reform of the Medreses” bill was signed into the law. Medrese students were now to sit on chairs behind desks and study Western natural sciences, sociology (one of the new teachers of whom was none other than the architect of Turkish nationalism Ziya Gökalp) and Western languages amongst other subjects.

This was no synthesis of the Islamic sciences and the modern natural sciences as envisaged by Nursi, in which the latter are subordinated to and placed into the service of the former; rather, it was an imposition of an alien curriculum that provided no means of harmonising the two, or of putting the modern sciences in their proper places relative to the Islamic sciences. Despite Mustafa Sabri Efendi’s attempt to cancel some of the changes when he became Şeyhülislam in 1919, it was the end of 600 years of the medrese as a truly indigenous Ottoman institution.

Nonetheless, until the very end of the Ottoman State, there were still certain substantial efforts on the part of the traditionally-minded, including certain individuals in the administration, to continue the struggle against modernist and reformist thought. When the Dâr-ül Hikmet-il İslâmiye was set up in 1918, an official and prominent think-tank, it gathered together the most renowned scholarly and cultural figures of the empire in an effort to hold modernism at bay:

Şeyhülislam Mustafa Sabri (d. 1954) (the author of Mawqif al-Aql and staunchly traditionalist mutakallim), Elmalılı Hamdi Yazır (d. 1942) (who incisively critiqued Western philosophy according to the principles of traditional ‘ilm al-Kalām in his notes to his own translation from the French of Paul Janet’s Histoire de la philosophie, and later wrote a renowned exegesis of the Qur’an in Turkish), Izmirli Ismail Hakkı (d. 1946) (the author of Yeni Kalam), the celebrated poet Mehmet Akif Ersoy (d. 1936), and Said Nursi himself.

When the Ottoman Caliphate came crashing down with the advent of the anti-Islamic, militantly secular republic, the traditional spiritual and cultural symbols of religion that had so deeply permeated Ottoman public life were replaced by symbols of European civilisation. In 1926, the Sacred Law that had held sway in Ottoman lands for six hundred years was replaced by the Swiss civil code and the Italian penal code. Traditional religious clothing and the turban were banned, and martyrs such as the traditional scholar İskilipli Atıf Hoca, were killed because of their refusal to abide by the new laws. The tekkes and institutional Sufism were banned, and the medrese colleges were closed, and replaced by forms of education imported from the West, based on positivist and scientist methodologies. The Western calendar was adopted, as were Western-style surnames; the Islamic holy day, Friday, was replaced by Sunday as the national day of rest. The Qur’anic, Arabic script in which Ottoman Turkish had been written was replaced by the Latin script. Arabic and Persian roots were as far as possible extracted from Turkish, and replaced by invented, “pure” Turkish words. Not content with effecting these radical and traumatic changes, champions of the new anti-religious secularism would regularly enter schools in order to indoctrinate school children in their atheistic propaganda.

The beginnings of Westernisation during the Tanzimat period did not affect ordinary people at all until a very, very late stage; and by the time it was imposed upon them in any real way, it was already too late. That is, it was only able to take real hold and be implemented when the traditional system had been defeated and dismantled. At least in the Ottoman State, by the time the magnitude of the danger had become fully manifest, the traditional system was already embargoed, on pain of no less than death. As a member of Dâr-ül Hikmet-il İslâmiye, Said Nursi had been cognizant of the danger posed by Westernisation from an early stage.

It had already become clear before the fall of the Ottoman caliphate that the great challenge of the times was the polarity of a society divided down the middle, into believers in the continuing viability of Islamic civilisation on the one hand, and proponents of liberalising, secularising Westernisation on the other. When the secular government took power and began his reforms, it became clear that secularising Westernisation was to be forced upon Turkey and its people, and that an attempt was going to be made to completely destroy Islamic civilisation in Turkey. This was the momentous task and responsibility that Nursi faced at the beginning of the Republican period; to save Islamic civilisation, against enormous odds and overwhelming state opposition, by saving that which gave rise to its splendours and beauties: real faith in the truth of Islam.

This piece is from the preface to the translation of the Risale-i Nur printed by Hayrat Publishing.


1) Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Lemalar (“The Flashes”), Altınbaşak Neşriyat, Istanbul, 2013, p. 170 (Unless otherwise stated, all references refer to the Ottoman Turkish editions of the Risale-i Nur.)

2) Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Şualar (“The Rays”), Altınbaşak Neşriyat, Istanbul, 2013, vol. 2, p. 284

3) Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Barla Lahikası (“Barla L etters”), Altınbaşak Neşriyat, Istanbul, 2013, p. 362

4) Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Zülfikar, Altınbaşak Neşriyat, Istanbul, 2013, p. 145

5) Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Lemalar (“The Flashes”), Altınbaşak Neşriyat, Istanbul, 2013, p. 175

6) Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Zülfikar, Altınbaşak Neşriyat, Istanbul, 2013, p. 84