All Muslims know the famous hadith from the prophet Muhammad which says: “Seek knowledge, even in China.” In saying this, the prophet of Islam is affirming that truth and sound knowledge are like valuable jewels of the mind that should be sought wherever they might be found. It is worth the effort to go far and labor hard in order to obtain knowledge and grow in the truth. Even when the source of that wisdom is found far away, among those who are not of one’s own people, tradition, or culture, it is worth the effort to search it out.
Similarly, in the Christian tradition, a saying attributed to St. Ambrose, the Fourth Century bishop of Milan, goes: “Whatever is true, no matter by whom it is expressed, comes from the Holy Spirit.” In other words, real truth, genuine wisdom, and sound insight, wherever we might find it, always has God at its origins. The seeker of truth must not arbitrarily limit himself to those sources with which he is comfortable - those of his own nation or language or even religion. For if any human statement – whether it be a profound insight, heart-felt advice, a paean of praise, or a transcendent work of art or music - bears the unmistakable ring of truth, we can say without exaggeration that its nature is divine.
In some of my earlier talks and articles, I suggested that portions of the Risale-i Nur, and specifically “The Damascus Sermon,” could be beneficial reading also for those who are not Muslims. I believe that such writings of Said Nursi transcend the limited scope of the spiritual needs of members of the Islamic community and speak more broadly to the hopes and needs of human society. Said Nursi was consciously writing for Muslims – the Damascus Sermon was originally a Friday khotbah delivered to Muslim worshipers – but could the case be made that Nursi was not writing exclusively for Muslims? Bediuzzaman was consciously offering a prescription for the generic ills of Muslim societies, but had he been asked whether non-Muslim societies gave evidence of similar weaknesses and could those societies also profit from his insights, would he have rejected the idea? For a reason that I will take up in the conclusion of this paper, I feel that Nursi would have strongly considered the possibility that non-Muslim societies might also profitably take up the challenges expressed in the Damascus Sermon.
In what follows, I would like to elaborate on what non-Muslims might learn from the central insights of Said Nursi in the Damascus Sermon and how his presentation of the sicknesses of Muslim societies might be applied to modern societies in general.
1. FROM DESPAIR TO HOPE
Nursi’s first point concerns “the rise of despair and hopelessness in social life.” This illness, which is by no means limited to Muslims, is expressed by ordinary people and by scholars alike in phrases such as: “Nothing ever changes; in another 50 years things are going to be no different from the way they are now.” or “What can one person do? One individual can’t make a difference.” or “What’s the use of trying to change things? Every time some well-meaning group tries to make things better, they are always stopped by powerful forces that want the status quo to remain unchanged.”
I’m sure that we have all heard such statements of despair and have probably found ourselves uttering – at least inwardly – such views. Nursi himself must have heard such expressions of hopelessness countless times and felt that the inertia resulting from such attitudes was a major obstacle to the transformation of society for the better, so much so that he regarded despair as the first and central sickness of Muslim societies. In the Damascus Sermon, he spends as much time speaking about despair and its cure, hope, as he does all the other sicknesses combined.
It is true that many things in modern societies are beyond the scope of ordinary people, even among those who try to keep well-informed. The complexity of life as it affects transnational economic systems, bioethical advances, geopolitical considerations, and similar fields can make people despair of ever understanding the basic issues involved. It is the very complexity of our societies that induces people to leave the decisions to those who call themselves experts (who, as often as not, disagree among themselves and may be quite uncertain about the best strategy to follow in confronting a given problem.)
But this is not the kind of despair that Said Nursi is referring to. He is writing, not as a political scientist or a sociologist, but as a Muslim believer, a man of faith. He wants his fellow-believers to realize that a great portion of the sad economic and political state their regions were experiencing was their own fault. To blame all the problems on others was to miss the point. They had to be the first ones to change, and only if they and their comrades were to become a new kind of person would society itself eventually be transformed. But in order to do this, they have to trust that God will give them the strength and the vision to change themselves. They have to have hope that God is on their side and will enable them to undergo this spiritual transformation.
Nursi’s basic insight is that the sickness of societies is due not to political, military, and economic realities which are outside the power of ordinary believers to control, but rather to the fact that believers themselves have lost hope that God will grant them success if they persevere with faith and trust. But what kind of hope is needed? If people simply place their hopes in a regime change or a new five-year economic plan, but remain their same old lazy, untruthful, selfish selves, societal transformation will be at best superficial and ephemeral. The next generation will merely have a new set of problems of the same type as those faced by earlier generations.
This insight brings Nursi to what is, in my opinion, the heart of the Damascus Sermon. The real hope that can transform society is the hope that the life of this world is not the only life that we will experience. For Nursi, nothing leads to greater malaise, world-weariness, and self-complacent despair than the idea that this life “is all there is.” Nursi raises the rhetorical hypothesis: “You will rule the world and live for a million years but in the end you will be dispatched to non-existence with no possibility of a return to life.” Confronted with such a disagreeable fate, Nursi holds that “the imagination of one who has not lost his true humanity and who has been awakened, rather than being joyful and pleased, would weep with longing, and with sighs and regrets at there being no eternal happiness.”
Thus Nursi arrives at core of his analysis. A society that has no religion, no hope for a life to come, no belief or trust in God, is condemned to live with its sicknesses and hand them on to the next generation. A person in a modern godless society is like a man condemned to death; he realizes that he is incapable to saving himself. As Nursi puts it: “In the face of the sentence of death, before anything else man is searching for a truth, contained only in true religion, so that he may save himself. The present state of the world testifies to this fact.”
The point I want to make is that it is not only Muslim societies that are held back and prevented from making true progress because of their lack of hope in God’s favor and strength, but the same sickness of despair infects all modern-day post-religious societies. Without the hope in God’s aid and His promises of eternal reward, people around the world will not be able to find the motivation or the courage to work to improve their societies. The goals of peace, social justice, human dignity, equality of opportunity, and care for the poor and disadvantaged will remain unattainable dreams. Only with the strength that is rooted in a firm conviction of the faithfulness of God to support those who seek to do His will can social activists hope to change what is sick in their societies, no matter whether those societies are Muslim, Christian, post-religious or – as is increasingly the case today – pluralist or multi-religious.
The conclusion that Nursi draws from his analysis of the sickness of despair and the promise of hope is that “just as the existence of Heaven and Hell in the hereafter is a necessary fact, so too shall the religion of good and truth prevail absolutely in the future so that, as is the case with all other beings, good and virtue will prevail absolutely over mankind.” Should not all believers of good will, whether Muslims or Christians, work together so that Nursi’s vision of the triumph of good and virtue become a reality in our world?
2. FROM FALSEHOOD TO TRUTH
Nursi turns to another sickness, “the death of truthfulness in social and political life.” Nursi is harsh in his evaluation of lying and falsehood. He writes: “truthfulness and honesty are the vital principles in the life of Islamic society. Hypocrisy is a sort of actualized lying. Flattery and artifice are cowardly lying. Duplicity and double-dealing are harmful lying. And as for lying, it is to slander the All-Glorious Maker’s power. Unbelief in all its varieties is falsehood and lying. Belief is truthfulness and honesty.”
Although Nursi is writing about Islamic society, non-Muslim societies would do well to heed Nursi’s warnings. Falsehood in the public sphere is an illness that is prevalent in Muslim societies but perhaps even more so in non-Muslim regions. Political and social discourse today is marked by terms like “expediency,” “collateral damage,” “surgical strikes,” “ethnic cleansing,” “manipulated accounts,” “damage control,” and “spin management” that are themselves terms of falsity, created purposely in order to disguise and hide the truth rather than affirm and expound it.
Nursi points out that there are many forms that untruthfulness takes. Hypocrisy is professing one thing but doing something else. Flattery is praising someone to their face in order to ingratiate or manipulate them, all the while speaking or working against them in their absence. Duplicity is pretending to hold one view when one’s real opinion is the opposite. A person today does not have to follow the national and international news very closely to discover that these various forms of untruthfulness are rampant in all modern societies. Such forms of untruth are even recommended in training courses as successful diplomatic or marketing strategies to be followed.
By contrast, Nursi holds that a society can only progress through a reliance on the truth. Although he claims that there can be no compromise with the truth, he is not suggesting the kind of “full disclosure” for which sensationalist tabloid newspapers are noted. He advises: “Everything you say must be true, but it is not right to say everything that is true. If on occasion it is damaging, then be silent, but there is no fatwa for lying. Everything you say must be the truth, but you do not have the right to say everything that is true, because if it is not sincere, it will have a detrimental effect and truth will be spent on wrong.”
3. FROM ENMITY TO LOVE
Love of enmity is a sickness that infects many societies, Muslim and non-Muslim. It is difficult to understand the human psychology that leads people to dislike, suspect, and fear their neighbors who are different from them in terms of race, language, religion, or nationality, and yet that seems to be a universal phenomenon in human history. This tendency, which runs counter to the teachings of both Islam and Christianity, nevertheless gives rise to hatred, violence, and war, causing untold human suffering and material damage.
Nursi asserts that even if past history has been marked by enmity and violent encounters, “The time for enmity and hostility has finished. Two world wars have shown how evil, destructive, and what an awesome wrong is enmity. It has become clear that there is no benefit in it at all. In which case, on condition they are not aggressive, do not let the evils of our enemies attract your enmity. Hell and Divine punishment are enough for them.”
In consigning the punishment for wrongdoing into the hands of God rather than declaring an obligation to mete it out on earth, Nursi is indicating a way to break the chain of righteous injury and retribution, whereby one group avenges themselves on those who have wronged them and in the process brings about a new cycle of injury and reprisal. This unhappy model has formed the historical pattern of relationships between many national, ethnic, and religious groups. Each group claims that it has been wronged by the other and is simply giving the others “what they deserve.” Nursi is suggesting that believers let God give their enemies what they deserve, rather than they arrogating that responsibility to themselves.
The unhappy reality of enmity and hostility provokes Nursi’s famous statement on love. “The thing most worthy of love is love,” he states, “and that most deserving of enmity is enmity. It is love and loving that render man’s social life secure and lead to happiness. Enmity and hostility are ugly and damaging and have overturned man’s social life.” Reading these words as a Christian, I am immediately reminded of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Nursi sees love as that religious attitude for which we must most strongly strive to attain and that and love is also the most effective basis for establishing harmonious and secure social bonds. Similarly, Jesus asserts that loving and being reconciled with one’s neighbor is an essential prerequisite even for a person’s right relationship to God. He says, “If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.
4. FROM COMPLACENCY TO ZEAL
Nursi’s “Fifth Word” brings together two related social illnesses: a lazy “What’s the use?” attitude and a self-centered “If I do not experience happiness, let the world go to rack and ruin.” Both these destructive attitudes are, in Nursi’s view, evidence of a common failing, the lack of appreciation for the strength that comes from unity with fellow believers. What is impossible for an individual alone can be accomplished by people united by a common bond. For Nursi, the strongest social bond should be among fellow Muslims, who together can accomplish great things, but too often Muslims are not convinced of the strength that comes from their common bond. They say, “We do no harm, but we do not have the power to do anything beneficial; therefore we are excused [from trying].” According to Nursi, this defeatist attitude is not acceptable. The only antidote to this debilitating sickness is trust in the bonds of unity.
I believe that Nursi is correct in his analysis, but I believe that is not only Muslims who excuse themselves from serious effort by failing to appreciate the value of being part of something greater than themselves. All the “heavenly” religions are meant to be, not private philosophies, but a way of living and working together for the betterment of the world according to the will of God. The modern disease of “rugged individualism” (a bad-tempered attitude that Nursi describes as “If I am dying of thirst, let it not rain again anywhere on earth” also infects my own Christian community. Too many of us only care about ourselves and fail to trust in the unity that God has intended among us, and thus we accomplish little in the way of building a more just, peaceful, humane planet.
Moreover, I believe that this bond of unity extends beyond the members of each of our respective communities to include fellow believers of the Abrahamic tradition whose lives are guided by God and who seek to act as God’s representatives on earth. Muslims and Christians (and Jews) must trust that if they can regard one another as sincere communities of faith whose purpose is to carry out God’s commands on earth, they can accomplish much to work for positive social change in human society.
5. FROM DESPOTISM TO CONSULTATION
No one would dispute the fact that people in predominantly Muslim countries have suffered much from despotic forms of government. Whether it be from absolute monarchies, autocratic presidents-for-life, or military dictatorships, the people too often have had no say in those public affairs that intimately touch their lives and well-being. Such despotism breeds many negative effects that debilitate society: despair and apathy, anger and discontent, corruption and greed, violence and disregard for the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.
Nursi’s solution for the various forms of despotism is the kind of mutual consultation that is enjoined by the shari’a. Just as individuals need to consult one another on plans and policies, so do governments in internal affairs and states in matters of international relations. Such consultation puts an end to the despotism where one man’s whims and decisions become the law for a whole nation. Consultation opens the door for the freedom enjoined on Muslims by the shari’a.
In Nursi’s view, it is the “noble-mindedness and compassion” that comes from obedient worship of God that is able to break the chains of tyranny and bring freedom to Muslim societies. “The freedom born of the shari‘a,” he states, “enjoins two principles: belief necessitates not humiliating others through oppression and despotism and not degrading them, and secondly, not abasing oneself before tyrants.”Nursi does not speak explicitly of democracy in this context, but in modern times a well-functioning democracy would seem to be one of the most effective expressions of shari’a-based mushawarah or consultation. Whatever the system of government that is followed, Nursi insists that, according to what is laid down in the Islamic shari’a, the governors must consult with the people; the people’s voice must be heard and taken seriously. The result of consultation seriously undertaken and conscientiously followed up will be a strong, united society. This is the case whether that be a society composed of Muslims or non-Muslims.
INSIGHTS OF UNIVERSAL VALUE
At the beginning of this paper, I intimated that the insights found in The Damascus Sermon, and more broadly in the Risale-iNur, are valuable not only for Muslims but also for all those who are seeking to respond to the God of Abraham in faith and obedience. The non-Muslim - Christian or other - who sincerely seeks to do God’s will in this world will immediately recognize in his own society the symptoms of societal illnesses described by Nursi. Moreover, he will appreciate the value of Nursi’s prescriptions for a return to good health. The Christian who is committed to worshiping and loving God through the medium of his own faith will understand that Nursi is writing primarily for Muslims and that Nursi envisions the victory of Islam in the future, whereas the Christian will interpret Nursi’s words to mean the triumph of God that is to be accomplished in and through all the heavenly religions.
Is this to distort the vision and hope of Said Nursi? I believe that it is not. In an appendix to his “rules for sincerity” which Nursi elaborates in the 20th and 21st Flashes of the Risale-i Nur, Nursi notes that: “It is even recorded in authentic traditions of the Prophet that at the end of time the truly pious among the Christians will unite with the People of the Qur’an and fight their common enemy, irreligion. And in our day, too, the people of religion and truth need to unite sincerely not only with their own brothers and fellow believers, but also with the truly pious and spiritual among the Christians, temporarily from the discussion and debate of points of difference in order to combat their joint enemy, aggressive atheism.”
If “in our day too” the Muslims need to unite with Christians in order to effectively oppose irreligion, it follows that Nursi would approve if those Christians could draw profit from his analysis of the sicknesses of society and what is needed to heal those maladies. If Muslims and Christians are to work together to bring the values of faith – worship, obedience, care for the weak etc. – to bear upon the problems of our world, then they need to be united in their analysis of the situation. They should regard one another not as enemies or rivals but as fellow believers in God who want to cooperate in bearing witness to God’s guidance and help. Thus it is my conviction that in The Damascus Sermon Nursi provides not only Muslims but also believing Christians with clear insights into the problems and dangers of our day and also sound advice on what must be done to confront these issues.
 Said Nursi, The Damascus Sermon, Istanbul: Sözler, 1996, “First Word,” p. 30.
The Damascus Sermon, “First Word,” p. 31.
The Damascus Sermon, “First Word,” p. 42.
The Damascus Sermon, “Third Word,” p. 45.
The Damascus Sermon, “Third Word,” p. 48.
The Damascus Sermon, “Fourth Word,” p. 50.
The Damascus Sermon, “Fourth Word,” p. 49. Cf. Risale-iNur, Twenty-second Letter.
The Damascus Sermon, “Fifth Word,” p. 52.
The Damascus Sermon, “Sixth Word,” p. 57.
Said Nursi, Risale-iNur, The Twentieth Flash, “On Sincerity,” footnote 7, p. 203.