Muslin-Christian Dialogue and Cooperation
in the Thought of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi

  Thomas Michel, S.J.

 

In any study of the development of Christian-Muslim dialogue in the 20th Century, special attention must be given to the writings and preaching of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. As one of the first religious thinkers in the course of this century to propose and promote dialogue between Muslims and Christians, Said Nursi’s advocacy of this dialogue dates back to 1911, a full half-century before the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council urged Christians and Muslims to resolve their differences, to move beyond the conflicts of the past and to build relations of respect and cooperation. Bediuzzaman’s repeated promotion of Muslim-Christian dialogue is even more striking in that his recommendations frequently date from times of tension and even warfare between Muslim and Christian peoples.

As a Christian reading the voluminous writings of Said Nursi, I find many attitudes and viewpoints expressed with which I immediately resonate. I have discovered in the writings of this committed Muslim thinker many points of contact with my own faith in the One and Only God, as well as many areas in which I find myself wishing that I had known the man in person, so that I could have raised questions, pursued further various elements of his teaching, and profited from his responses.

My task in this brief presentation is not to survey the broad outlines of the thought of Said Nursi nor to list the many areas where he offered new and valuable insights, but to look precisely at one topic, that of “Muslim-Christian Dialogue and Cooperation in the Thought of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi.” Even at moments of great tension between Christians and Muslims, such as during the First World War and the following years, Said Nursi was a seminal thinker on the question of Muslim-Christian dialogue. His insights are valid for our own reflection, and many of his insights on the subject are only now beginning to bear fruit within the Muslim and Christian communities of believers.

     Muslims and Christians united in a critique of civilizations

One of the main tasks of every community of believers in God is to face the challenges of the age. Every period in history provides its own unique set of challenges, because people of every historical era and each cultural setting continually succumb to the temptation to replace the values of God’s will with those of their own desires. The Christian faith has been marked by Jesus’ confrontation with the evils of his age: the collusion of power and religious leadership, a legalistic mentality that gave greater weight to human legal opinions than to the values of compassion and love, an exclusivist religiosity that provided special privileges to some groups while marginalizing the poor, the outsider, the female, and the individual unversed in religious subtleties. Similarly, Islam carries on the tradition of the struggle of Muhammad against the values of unbelief in the Arabia of his time: the arrogance of those who had no use for God and no belief in eternal life, the idolatrous worship of the traditional cult of jahiliyya times, the oppression wrought by powerful persons upon slaves, women, orphans, the outcast, the wayfarer.

Our present age has produced its own challenges to sincere believers in God who seek to do God’s will in all things. These can be summed up in what is usually called “modern civilization.” It is a civilization which is not all evil and has brought many benefits to humanity. Not all of its spiritual values are opposed to God’s will, but it affirms and supports many good human qualities. However, modern civilization can include a way of thinking in which people no longer feel a need for God. Not only can people claim to feel no need to worship, thank, and seek help from God, but often they do not look to God’s Word for guidance and instruction concerning the way to lead their lives. They may choose to follow their own self-conceived philosophies and ideologies.

For those who desire to lead their lives in every respect according to God’s will, a critique of modern civilization is an inescapable task. Said Nursi was one of the pioneer thinkers in our century to recognize that the task of formulating a critical approach to the values of modernity is one that should be carried out together by Muslims and Christians. In 1946, shortly after the end of the Second World War, he stated: “Believers should now unite, not only with their Muslim fellow-believers, but with truly religious and pious Christians, disregarding questions of dispute and not arguing over them, for absolute disbelief is on the attack.” (1) 

For Said Nursi, the enemy of human happiness and ethical uprightness is unbelief, irreligion. It is people deciding to find their own path through life, not seeking Divine Guidance, not caring about God’s will or wise design for humankind, not wishing to give up their own pet desires and ideas to submit to God’s teaching about human nature and destiny. In seeking to affirm a Divinely-guided way of life in the modern age, Muslims find their natural allies in those Christians who are committed to following the teachings of Jesus and who seek to live according to the truth. Facing a common enemy, that of “aggressive atheism”, Muslims should unite, according to Said Nursi, “not only with their own fellow-believers, but also with the truly pious Christians.” (2) 

For such a common effort to succeed, he holds, Christians and Muslims will have to refrain, at least for the some time, from disputes between these two families of believers. In saying this, Said Nursi is not implying that there are no differences between Muslims and Christians or that those differences which exist are not important. There are real and important differences between Christian and Islamic faith. His point, with which I agree, is that concentrating obsessively on these differences can blind both Muslims and Christians to the even more important common task which they share, that of offering the modern world a vision of human life and society in which God is central and God’s will is the norm of moral values.

It must not be thought that Said Nursi is some kind of anti-modern traditionalist who seeks to turn back the clock. He recognizes that “there are numerous virtues in [modern] civilization.” (3)  These positive values were not solely the products of Europe, but are the property of all and arise from “the combined thought of humankind, the laws of the revealed religions, innate need, and in particular from the Islamic revolution brought about by the shari’a of Muhammad.” With such positive values of modern civilization, religious people have no quarrel. Rather, they accept and rejoice in the benefits this civilization brings to humankind.

His nuanced evaluation of modernity is paralleled by a subtle evaluation of the role of Europe as the main exponent of modern civilization (and, of course, America as its most active disseminator.) He is no doctrinaire scorner of things European, but recognizes that its contributions to modern life are ambiguous and require careful discernment. On the one hand, Europe has brought much good to many people but, on the other, it has caused much damage to human life. He considers that various currents of thought in Western history have enabled negative qualities of modern civilization to emerge and sometimes even predominate over the good.

Basically, these developments were two. Firstly, Western civilization, according to Said Nursi, became distant and estranged from true Christianity and based its personal and societal views on the principles of an anthropocentric Greco-Roman philosophy which exalted the human person to the center of the universe and pushed God to its margins. Said Nursi held that European societies replaced divinely guided Christian ideals with the philosophical principles of the Enlightenment, focusing on the freedom of the individual, dismissing the formative role and rights of society, and reducing religious faith to a private, personal commitment with no voice in the autonomous spheres of politics, economics, and social relations.

Secondly, Western civilization in its unchecked market policies, was based on “appalling inequality in the means of livelihood.” (4)  This awareness of the relationship between globalizing market tendencies which divide the world into winners and losers and philosophical presuppositions that favor the rights and aspirations of the individual is an insight of Said Nursi that presages much recent, at the close of this 20th century, post-modern and post-colonial critique of European civilization.

The result, from the point of view of those who believe in God, is a Europe which presents a double face - a “good” Europe and a “bad” Europe. As he said in 1933-1934:
“Europe is two. One follows the sciences which serve justice and right and activities beneficial for the life of society through the inspiration it has received from true Christianity. This first Europe I am not addressing. Rather, I am addressing the second, corrupt Europe which, through the darkness of the philosophy of naturalism that considered the evils of civilization to be its virtues, has driven humankind to vice and misguidance.” (5) 

This negative current, he holds, seeks to destroy both Muslims and Christians by alienating them from the source of spiritual and moral values and by creating enmity between Christians and Muslims. All those who believe in God and seek to promote a theocentric approach to life must recognize the dangers involved: “It is essential,” he states, “that missionaries, pious Christians as well as Nurcus, be extremely careful, for with the idea of defending itself against the attacks of the religions of Islam and Christianity, ‘the current from the North’ will try to destroy the accord of Islam and the missionaries.” “The current from the North” is an obvious reference to the Soviet Union, and it is not by accident that these words of Said Nursi date from 1945-1946, a time when atheistic communism was extending its rule throughout Eastern Europe.

In his view, modern civilization is the product of various sources and results in a value system which, despite its evident good qualities, is often in contradiction with Divine teaching. Not all the sources of modernity were human; some appear to be the result of demonic inspiration. In his commentary on the Qur’anic verse, “O People of the Book! Come to a common term between us and you,” he stated: “Modern civilization, which is the product of the thought of all mankind and perhaps the jinn as well, has taken up a position opposed to the Qur’an, which individuals and communities have failed to dispute.” (6)  In this situation, the Qur’anic injunction to come to a ‘common term’ with the People of the Book carries the meaning of Muslims and Christians coming to a mutual awareness that as communities founded on faith in God, they have a common mission to bear witness to Divine values in the midst of modern civilization. Far from being divided by a supposed ‘clash of civilizations’, they are called to work together to carry on a critical civilizational dialogue with the proponents of modernity.

     Tensions between Christians and Muslims

It is a sad fact of human history that Christians and Muslims, despite their communitarian nature as peoples (umam) called to worship and obey the One and Same God, have often been in conflict and even at war with one another. They have seen one another as enemies to be resisted and overcome. Energies which should have been employed to cooperate in the establishment of God-centered societies have been dissipated in mutual suspicion, domination, and bloodshed. Writing at a time of serious tensions and massacres between the two communities at the end of the First World War, Said Nursi offered a way out of this historical impasse.

In the early years of the turkish Republic subsequent to the First World War, some Kurdish tribesmen in Eastern Anatolia found the idea of freedom for Greeks and Armenians repugnant, and they asked Said Nursi’s advice. His answer not only affirmed the right to liberty of these Christian peoples as something commanded by the shari’a, but went farther to turn the question back on the tribesmen, challenging them to recognize the deeper problem as one that lay at the heart of their own ignorance and hard-heartedness. He said, “Their freedom consists in leaving them in peace and not oppressing them, for this is what the shari’a enjoins. More than this is their aggression in the face of your bad points and craziness, their benefiting from your ignorance.” (7) 

He went on to state that the real enemy is not this or that group of Christians, but rather the situation of degradation into which all had fallen. As he said, “Our enemy, that which is destroying us, is A_a Ignorance, his son Poverty Effendi, and grandson, Enmity Bey. If the Armenians have opposed us in hatred, they have done so under the leadership of these three corrupters.” (8) 
As a Christian, I find his approach, which reaches to the heart of the problem, similar to what I find in the writings of St. Paul, who said: “Our battle is not against human forces, but against the dark powers that govern this world.” In other words, at the deepest levels of spiritual striving to do God’s will and build harmonious and peaceful societies, our true enemies are not other persons, but rather the powers of ignorance, poverty, and aggression that cloud our powers of perception and prevent us from acting as we should. These dark powers lie not outside ourselves, but within our own hearts. For this reason, both Islam and Christianity have always stressed repentance (Ar. tawba, Gk. metanoia) as the key to all personal and societal transformation.

The message of Said Nursi is as valid for our own day as it was when he wrote these words almost 80 years ago. At the root of tensions and conflicts between Muslims and Christians today lie not so much the evil nature of the other as our own egoistic desires to dominate, control, and retaliate. In this sense, the freedom of others from these “dark forces” is a part of our own freedom or, as Said Nursi put it: “The freedom of non-Muslims is a branch of our own freedom.” (9) 

     The reward of innocent martyrs

The second decade of this century was one of the most disastrous in the history of Anatolia. “Between 1914-1923, 20% of the Anatolian people died. In some eastern provinces, one-half of the inhabitants died and an further one-half of the survivors were refugees.” (10)  As the historical demographer J. McCarthy notes, “No other country suffered in the period of World War I as did Anatolia. The ‘lost generation’ in England, France, and Germany was a real and terrible loss. Yet the total populations of the United Kingdom and Germany actually rose between 1911 and 1922, while that of France only declined by one percent. The Anatolian population fell by more than 30% - 10% were emigrants, 20% died.” (11)  The secondary causes of war - disease, starvation, and exposure - accounted for a greater number of victims than did battles, raids, and massacres.

Writing during one of the most tragic periods in the history of Anatolia, Said Nursi could not ignore the reality of the deaths of so many innocent persons. It is to his great credit that he rose above sectarian loyalty to address the question of innocent Christians as well as Muslims who fell victim to the times. “Even if those innocent people were unbelievers,” he stated, “in return for the tribulations they suffered due to that worldly disaster, they have such a reward from the treasury of Divine mercy that if the veil of the Unseen were to open, a great manifestation of mercy would be apparent in relation to them and they would declare, ‘O Lord, thanks be to You! All praise belongs to God.’” (12) 

Said Nursi noted that he was moved to intense compassion and pity when he saw the sufferings of innocent people, and he was “touched strongly by the afflictions, poverty and hunger visited on unfortunates as a result of mankind’s disaster and the winter cold, as well as by a harsh non-physical, spiritual cold.” He held that those innocent people who died in such circumstances “were martyrs of a sort, whatever religion they belonged to,” and that “their reward would be great and save them from Hell.” “Therefore,” he concluded, “it may be said with certainty that the calamity which the oppressed among Christians suffer, those connected to Jesus (Upon whom be peace)...is a sort of martyrdom for them.” (13) 

Not all those who died during the war years were innocent of wrongdoing. Those who oppressed others and perpetrated evil against their neighbors, declared Said Nursi, will be punished by God. By contrast, he adds, “If those who suffered the calamity were those who hastened to assist the oppressed, and who strove for the welfare of humanity, and struggled to preserve the principles of religion and sacred revealed truths and human rights,” their rewards will be so great from God as to completely transcend their earthly sufferings.

This willingness to understand and empathize and with both the sufferings and the goodness found in persons of other religious communities is the sign of an honest man guided by Divine teaching. Too often the vision of a religious individual does not go beyond the trials and accomplishments of one’s own community. In this context, the attitude of Said Nursi towards the Christian “martyrs” of his time presages the 1969 attitude of Pope Paul VI concerning the Muslim martyrs in Uganda. Referring to those Ugandan Christians who gave their lives in the last century rather than renounce their faith, the Pope called the attention of his hearers to the fact that there were also many Muslims in that country who chose death rather than betray or compromise their Islamic faith. These too, he held, are true martyrs and witnesses to faith in God.

     Peace, reconciliation, and friendship between Muslims and Christians

Said Nursi was aware that Muslim-Christian relations were not limited to an alliance of believers in critically confronting the dangers of modernist ideology, to the resolution of conflicts, and to empathizing with innocent victims, but should move in the direction of peace, reconciliation, and even friendship. Five years before his death, in supporting the Baghdad pact, he noted that an advantage of the pact was not only that Turks would gain 400 million brothers and sisters among Muslim peoples, but that the international accord would also gain for Muslim Turks “the friendship of 800 million Christians” (14)  and be a step toward a much-needed peace and general reconciliation between the two communities of faith.

In his final years, Said Nursi exerted his personal efforts at building reconciliation and friendship with Christians. In 1950, he sent a collection of his works to Pope Pius XII in Rome and received in reply, on 22 February 1951, a personal letter of thanks. One observer notes that it was only little over ten years later that, at the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church proclaimed its respect and esteem for Muslims and asserted that Islam was a genuine path of salvation. (15)  In the same way, a few years later in 1953, Said Nursi visited the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Istanbul to seek cooperation between Muslims and Christians in the face of aggressive atheism.

Many years before in 1910-1911, Said Nursi was questioned concerning his desire to build relations of friendship with Christians. He was confronted with the restrictive interpretation that some Muslims had placed on the Qur’anic verse: “O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors” (5: 51). In the light of this verse, he was asked, why did he say that Muslims and Christians should be friends?

His answer is instructive, not only for understanding Said Nursi’s desire to encourage love and friendship between Muslims and Christians, but for his approach to Qur’anic interpretation. In his view, the Qur’anic proscription is not general but absolute and, as such, can be restricted. “Time,” he states, “is a great interpreter; if it determines its limits, it cannot be gainsaid. That is, when a matter becomes clear in the course of time, one cannot object to it. Moreover, if the judgment is based on derived evidence, the source of the derivation shows the reason for the judgment.”

In applying this principle to the interpretation of this verse, he holds that the prohibition from friendship with Jews and Christians is effective only when they reflect Jewishness or Christianity. But, he concludes, just as not all of the characteristics of an individual Muslim necessarily reflect the teaching of Islam, so also, not all of the qualities of individual Jews or Christians reflect unbelief. If Muslims find in a Jew or Christian qualities that are in agreement with Islamic teaching, they should consider those qualities praiseworthy. It is those good qualities that form the basis for friendship with Jews and Christians. “Can a Muslim love a Christian or Jew?”, he asks and in answer gives as example a man married to a woman of the People of the Book. “Of course, he should love her.” (16)  His argument is based on the very fact that the Qur’an permits a Muslim man to marry a Jewish or Christian woman presumes that he can and should love her.

     Return of Jesus

In no area is interpretation more difficult than those passages of sacred writings which speak of the future and the coming age. Such passages, whether one is speaking of Qur’anic verses which point to the approach of the Hour of Judgment or of apocalyptic writings in Christian Scriptures, are customarily clothed in difficult and complex symbolism and obscure allusions. Interpreting such passages demands the discipline of an interior grappling with the text by an interpreter soundly grounded in faith. Otherwise, the interpreter can be easily led astray by his own preconceptions and prejudices.

We see Said Nursi employing this careful regimen in his efforts to interpret in the context of our century the hadith reports of Muhammad that relate to the return of Jesus before the Final Hour. He accepts the soundness of these hadith reports and awaits the return of Jesus. “Since [God] promised it, He will most certainly send him.” (17)  At this historical time, Jesus, like Idris, is present in the heavens in his earthly body. (18)  But at the end of time, Jesus will return to earth to fight and kill the Dajjal.

The meaning of these hadith, he says, must be understood in terms of the concept of collective personality, that of an individual person who represents in himself a community of individuals. “The Christian religion,” he states, “will be purified and divest itself of superstition in the face of the current of unbelief and atheism born of naturalist philosophy and will be transformed into Islam. At that point, the collective personality of Christianity will kill the fearsome collective personality of irreligion. Representing the collective personality of Christianity, Jesus will kill the Dajjal, who embodies the collective personality of irreligion. That is, he [Jesus] will kill atheistic thought.” (19) 

Said Nursi foresees two great threats to religion, two currents of unbelief represented by the evil figures of Sufyan and Dajjal. The first, that of Sufyan, will seek to destroy the shari’a of Muhammad and will be defeated by the Mahdi from the family of the Prophet. The second, represented by Dajjal, will promote naturalist and materialist philosophy and lead to the total denial of God. Both will work through secret societies to subvert God’s reign over human hearts and eliminate the element of the sacred in social life. (20)  It is against this second current which the true, purified Christianity, which comprises the collective personality of Jesus, will emerge. The true Christianity will reject superstition and distortion and be in unity with Islamic teachings. In effect, wrote Said Nursi, “Christianity will be transformed into a sort of Islam.” (21) 

It is not necessary that everyone recognize Jesus when he returns. Said Nursi believes it more likely that only those who are true believers and close to Jesus will know him to be the true Jesus, but it will not be generally evident to all. What is more important is that the Dajjal, symbolizing atheistic currents in humanity, will be a huge and powerful opponent who will deceive many with promises of a false paradise, alluring amusements, and the varied enticements of civilization. It is impossible for the reader of Said Nursi’s descriptions of the Dajjal not to find allusions to the vast empire of the former Soviet Union as well as to the secular hegemony of European nations.

However, he looks forward to the day when the true religion of Christianity will emerge and spread its light to many to fight against the secret societies of Sufyan and the Dajjal. This purified Christianity he describes as “a zealous and self-sacrificing community known as a Christian community but worthy of being called “Muslim Christians.” It will work “to unite the true religion of Jesus with the reality of Islam. In killing the Dajjal of rampant atheism, it will save humanity from godless destruction.”

Thus, the kind of purification that Said Nursi expects to occur in Christianity seems to be not that of Christians abandoning their religion in order to enter Islam, but rather an inner transformation and completion of what they already have that is good. He states: “The Qur’an does not order you to abandon your religion completely. It proposes only that you complete your faith and build it on the fundamentals of religion that you already possess. The Qur’an...is a modifier and perfecter of basic principles. As for its nature as establisher, this only concerns such details as are subject to change and alteration because of differences of time and place.” (22) 

     Conclusion

In all this, Said Nursi offers original and thought-provoking insights on Muslim-Christian dialogue and cooperation. His central thesis is that Muslims and Christians together can built a true civilization according to God’s plan in which human dignity, justice, and fellowship will be the norm. This is possible if they seek to ground their mutual relationships on love. In his famous Damascus Sermon, he states that the Fourth Word on which civilization is to be built is love. “The thing which is most worthy of love,” he states, “is love, and that most deserving of enmity is enmity. It is love and loving - that render people’s social life secure and that lead to happiness - it is these which are most worthy of love and being loved.” (23)  “The time for enmity and hostility is finished,” (24)  he concludes.

This call to love, even across the boundaries of one’s religious community, still rings true today. Events which have occurred in our world since Said Nursi first delivered his Damascus Sermon in 1911 have underlined the importance of this message: two World Wars, conflicts between India and Pakistan, massacres in Rwanda and Burundi, the plight of the Palestinian people, the destruction first of Bosnia and now of Kosova, and so many other bloody conflicts around the world remind us that love is the only solution to fratricidal destruction. The world still looks to Muslims and Christians as two communities of faith founded on the Loving and Compassionate God to show the way to love as the Divine Alternative to hatred and war.

Thomas Michel, S.J.

1Emirda_ Lahikas_, i, 202 (190).
2Lem’alar, p. 146. Sincerity and Brotherhood, Istanbul, 1991, p. 13.
3“Hubab,” in Mesnevi-i Nuriye, Istanbul, 1980, p. 81. Cited in _ükran Vahide, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Istanbul, 1992, p. 158.
4Muhâkemat, Istanbul, 1977, pp. 37-38.
5Lem’alar, p. 111.
6“The Twenty-Fifth Word,” Sözler, Eng. Trans. The Words, Istanbul, 1992, p. 420.
7Münâzarat, Istanbul, 1977, p. 20, cited in Vahide, p. 95.
8Münâzarat, (Ott. ed.), p. 433, cited in Vahide, p. 95.
9Münâzarat, p. 21.
10Justin McCarthy, Muslims and Minorities: the Population of Ottoman Anatolia and the End of the Empire (New York, 1983), p. 118.
11McCarthy, Muslims and Minorities: the Population of Ottoman Anatolia and the End of the Empire, pp. 120-121.
12Kastamonu Lahikas_, Istanbul: 1960, p. 45.
13Kastamonu Lahikas_, p. 75.
14Emirda_ Lahikas_, ii, 24, 56, cited in Vahide, p. 354.
15_ükran Vahide, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, p. 344.
16Münâzarat, pp. 26-27.
17Mektûbat, pp. 52-54.
18Mektûbat, p. 6 (Letters 1928-1932, 22).
19Mektûbat, p. 6 (Letters 1928-1932, 22.)
20Mektûbat, p. 424.
21Mektûbat, p. 52.
22Isharatü’l I’caz, Istanbul: 1978, pp. 55-56.
23The Damascus Sermon, Istanbul: 1996, p. 49.
24Ibid., p. 50.


 

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