My original paper was actually on the subject of love in the teachings of Said Nursi. However, once I had submitted my abstract, I had a change of heart, thinking that what I had to say on love was in many ways far too abstract and conjectural. I decided that I would contact the organisers and ask whether they would mind if I were to change the subject of my paper. A few weeks later, however, the matter was taken from my hands when I received official notification that my abstract had been accepted, with the title ‘Faith as the foundation of progress in the teachings of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’. I have no idea how or why this happened, but it certainly wasn’t a title that I had submitted or, even, that I had considered. After some deliberation, however, I decided that I would treat this as a blessing in disguise, and act as though I was totally unaware of this unintended change of plan. And so instead of love, the conference organisers have decided that I am to talk about faith. And not just faith, but faith as the foundation or bedrock of progess.
I have no problem talking about the importance of faith in the teachings of Said Nursi; after all, faith and its renewal provided Nursi with the bedrock of his Weltanschauung and permeated each and every one of the six thousand pages which make up the Risale-i Nur. However, I am on less firm ground when it comes to talking about progress. Progress, for me, is, to use the term coined by the linguist Uwe Poerksen, a ‘plastic word’. This means, in short, that we all know what progress connotes, but few of us, if any, can actually pin the word down definitionally and say what it actually denotes. What makes my brief even more difficult is that that when they used the word ‘progress’, the conference organisers did so without any qualifying adjective. Exactly what kind of ‘progress’ was meant, I cannot say.
What I can say, however, is that when most of us think of progress, we think of it either in technological or societal terms, and very often we make a link between these two. For example, governments and businesses often promote the belief that technological progress leads to social progress. Again, the definitional vagueness here is not helpful. If social progress means not just increased wealth but improvements in the quality of life, then we know from experience that this is simply not the case: in many instances, technology has helped to create problems in society rather than to enrich it in any meaningful sense of the term. Technology may well be a force for good, but when it is simply a tool for those who seek profit, this can never be guaranteed.
The view that technological progress engenders social progress is extremely common, not least in the Muslim world. It is a view which Muslim thinkers and reformers picked up on first in the 19th century, following the colonial encroachments of the West into the Muslim near-east and the gradual decay and dismemberment of the Ottoman empire. Early modern reformers such as Afghani and Abduh saw in the adoption of modern technologies and advancements pioneered by Europe a means whereby the Muslim world might be able to pick itself up out of the mire of scientific backwardness and social degeneration. Nursi’s Damascus Sermon, the centrepiece of this Mardin conference, was delivered in the wake of these Muslim calls for reform. Indeed, as a supporter of constitutionalism and an advocate of a new educational project – the Medressetu’z-Zehra – which would combine the teaching of traditional Muslim seminary subjects with the so-called ‘natural’ sciences, Nursi may be seen as having aligned himself with the early modern reformist movement of which Afghani was the leading spokesperson. However, my contention is that even for the ‘Young Said’, the only kind of progress which was ultimately of any importance was spiritual progress, without which material progress would be hard, if not impossible, to define, implement, sustain and keep in check.
Turning directly to Nursi, now, let us take a brief look at his discourse of belief, concentrating not on the formal or technical aspects – i.e. what is to be believed in and how – but at the innate virtues of belief, as well as the consequences that it has for those who attain or reject it. Nursi structures this discourse around four main focal points: belief as connection; belief as light; belief as trust; and belief as strength through the acceptance of weakness. Since time is short, I will be concentrating only on the first two: belief as connection and belief as light.
Let’s look first at belief as connection. For Nursi, belief is primarily about forging, or uncovering, the relations between man and god. Without this connection, man’s actual value, he claims, is no greater than the net worth of the components which make up his material existence. He uses the analogy of an antique. “Sometimes”, he says, “an antique work of art is worth a million dollars, while the material of which it is composed is not even worth five dollars.” Man, he says, is a dominical work of art, a miracle of Divine power created to manifest all of the Divine names and inscriptions and to act as a microcosm of the vast book of creation. Seen in the light of this connection, man’s value is in accordance with his role as a mirror held up to the Divine names and attributes; by virtue of this, man is thus priceless. When seen through the prism of belief, the value accorded to man changes. No longer is he reducible to little more than a bucket of water, two square metres of skin and a few handfuls of calcium, magnesium and other such elements. When seen through the eye of belief, man is appreciated for what he really is: a Divine work of art which represents and reflects all of the attributes of perfection possessed by its Artist. Seen through the eye of belief, which connects all things to a Creator, man and his world are elevated and given a value that exceeds by far any work of art or product of cultural endeavour produced by man. In short, belief reveals man to be far more than the sum of his physical parts: it reveals him to be nothing less than the locus of manifestation par excellence of all of the Divine Names and Attributes.
Unbelief consists of the inability or, more often, the unwillingness to perceive the relation between the art and the Artist. When this happens, Nursi says, ‘all those meaningful inscriptions of the Divine names are plunged into darkness and become illegible.’ The Artist becomes forgotten, the spiritual aspects which look to him are not comprehended, and whatever art there is in man is ascribed to nature, causes and chance. And ultimately they become entirely devoid of value. In reality, Nursi says, they are brilliant diamonds, but they are treated by unbelief as though they were glass. Seen through the eye of unbelief, man’s status as Divine representative becomes obscured. Nursi’s contention notwithstanding, it is not that man’s connection with God is actually severed: rather, it is ignored, dismissed and covered over, and treated in effect as though it were non-existent. The Arabic verb kafara, from which the words kufr and kāfir are derived, actually means to ‘cover over’ and describes quite literally what happens when belief fails to obtain.
Unbelief does not reject the notion of certain perfections, but it does uproot them from Divine soil, planting them instead in the ground of man’s instinctual soul, where they are appropriated as man’s own belongings. However, when the connection between man and God is cut, so too is the connection between man and eternity, and thus even though disbelief may make man the centre of the universe, it cannot, as Nursi puts it elsewhere, provide him with any answers to the ‘awesome silence of the grave’. If there is no connection made through belief, all of the wondrous signs and symbols that God places there to be read and deciphered will remain locked, unfathomable and meaningless forever. Severing the connection between himself and God, then, reduces the disbeliever to a tragic animal with delusions of grandeur; to a being which, owing to its eventual annihilation, has little if any existential value at all.
Belief, then, is not so much the forging of a connection between oneself and one’s creator as the acknowledgment and acceptance of the link between God and the cosmos which exists – and has always existed – by virtue of the fact that the created realm is His place of manifestation. Furthermore, unbelief is not so much the actual cutting of a connection between oneself and the Source of one’s being as the inability or, more usually, the unwillingness to acknowledge the link which may indeed be denied and covered over, but which can never in fact be severed.
Nursi’s assertion that belief is light has distinct similarities with his assertion that belief is about connection, for just as connection is something which allows man to make sense of his existential position in creation, light is something which is needed in order to make the contours of this connection visible to the eye of the heart.
Elaborating on this, Nursi describes a vision he once had in which he was standing on a bridge between two mountains, the deep valley below swathed in darkness. In every direction he looked, using nothing but the tiny torch of his own power of reason, he saw nothing but gloom and doom: to his right there appeared to be vast graveyards, swathed in darkness; to the left he saw nothing but black storm clouds. Beneath him was an abyss, while all around him there appeared bizarre and frightening shapes, some of which, he imagined, were terrifying monsters and dragons. When he relinquished his torch, however – and the relinquishing of the torch here signals his reliance not solely on reason but on revelation – the darkness was dispelled and everywhere was filled with light. Immediately, he saw that what he imagined to be graves were in fact beautiful gardens; to his right were places of recreation; those shapes which he had imagined to be monsters were actually the shapes of familiar domestic animals, and so on.
What the vision was trying to tell him, Nursi believes, was that one who relies on his own ego will inevitably fall headlong into the darkness of ignorance and misguidance: equipped with a tiny torch that produces only the faintest of lights, he is thus unable to see things as they really are. Thus the past appears to be a huge grave, immersed in a depressing gloom that tells of non-existence, while the future appears as a stormy and desolate wasteland, governed arbitrarily by blind chance, plagued with painful events and peopled with monsters. To see reality through the prism of the unregenerate ego, Nursi says, is to see it in the dark, and to see it in the dark is really not to see it at all. Those who approach the world in this way, he asserts, manifest the meanings of the Quranic verse And those who reject belief, their protectors are the evil ones; they lead them out of light into darkness.
Belief, however, turns this whole scenario on its head. If man accepts Divine guidance, Nursi says, and allows belief to enter his heart and cleanse it of the tyranny imposed by his egoism and inflated self of sense-worth, he will encounter the kind of world that appeared in the vision once the ‘torch’ of the self was smashed.
From the Nursian perspective, then, while unbelief is a deliberate obfuscation of the truth, a ‘covering up’ which plunges the vast ‘book of creation’ into darkness and makes it unintelligible, belief is an illuminative, enlightening force which rends the tenebrous veils of unknowing and makes all of the Divine inscriptions on man and the universe readable and amenable to interpretation. Nursi’s likening of belief to light reminds one of the very first revelation vouchsafed to Muhammad in which he was commanded to ‘Read!’ His response – ‘How should I read?’ – was met with a Divine reiteration: “Read, read in the name of your Lord…”. Man cannot help but read the ‘book of creation’, but from a Quranic – and thus, by extension, a Nursian – perspective, the ‘book of creation’ makes sense only when it is read ‘in the name of God’. Muhammad’s original protestation – ‘How should I read?’ – may well be an allusion to his alleged illiteracy, but it is equally likely that when he asked how he should read, what he really wanted to know, in fact, was how he should interpret. The Divine response confirmed that he must interpret the ‘book of creation’ in the name of his Lord. In short, through the light of Muhammad’s belief in God, the true meaning of the universe would be made apparent to him: any veils which were on him would be cast away and he would be able to see things as they truly were. His mission henceforth would be to encourage others to see things as they truly are, through the prism of belief, which, according to Nursi, banishes all shadows and gloom and enables man to read the book of creation as it is meant to be read.
In conclusion, one may say that from a Nursian perspective, the true means of human spiritual progress – which, for him, is ultimately the only progress which matters – is to forge a connection with the transcendent and to avail oneself of the light of belief which makes the book of creation legible and its verses understandable. Without a connection to the Transcendent, and without the light of revelation, man is thrown back onto his own meagre, impoverished resources; onto his own limited abilities and insufficient powers of reason. Without connection and without light, man stumbles through the darkness with the same tiny torch that Nursi describes in his vision. The past becomes a graveyard and the future becomes dark and frightening, while the present, with its faint light, appears full of threatening shapes, shadows and iniquities. Without connection and without light, man is truly alone and can rely on no-one other than his self to carve out his fate. Nursi, in his exposition of the tragedies of post-Enlightenment experience in Europe, describes only too well what happens when connection and light are not forthcoming. The ills of so-called modern civilisation, with its emphasis on progress, itself part of a discourse of power that is, given man’s innate impotence, utterly misplaced, are enough to show that lack of connection and lack of light are equal to lack of humaneness and, by extension, lack of humanity. Progress without humanity – without spiritual progress – is not really progress at all. True progress – the progress of the human spirit and the actualisation of those inner qualities of the human being which can take him or her from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high, and past the angels in rank – is the only kind of progress which is ultimately of any import, and the only prism through which material progress, should it obtain, should be viewed and understood.
 Quran, 2:257.