It is hard to define and categorize Risale-i Nur as a collection of Islamic books. Is it a kind of tafsir or a book of irshad? How shall we define it? People who just come across it may sometimes find it difficult to get started, and to comprehend it and get benefit from it. Here is the first of a series of articles aiming at introducing it to the world of readers.
1. WHY WAS IT GIVEN THE NAME “RISALE-I NUR” [Treatises of Light]?
Imam Bediuzzaman Said Nursi describes how the treatises were authored in the period of New Said and how the name ‘Risale-i Nur’ was given to them:
“I have buried the Old Said which is a time period of my life in my terminology. I have retired from worldly pursuits, being a New Said focusing totally on the Afterlife. I drew back to the Yûşâ (Yusha) Hill in Istanbul in complete seclusion from society. Later, I went to Bitlis, which is my birthplace, and Van, and secluded myself in the caves. I have stayed alone with my spiritual and heart pleasures. I have been absorbed in my spiritual realm according to the principle of “Auzu billahi minash-shaytan was-siyasah”, that is, “I seek refuge in Allah from Satan and politics” and I have begun to live as New Said by busying myself with study and research of the Qur’an. However, the manifestations of destiny have made me travel to several places as an exile. During these times, I have made people around me write the inspirations from the Qur’an born into my heart and in that way the Risale-i Nur Collection was formed. I have given the name ‘Risale-i Nur’ to all of these treatises as a whole. Truly, since it was dependent on the light (nur) of the Qur’an, that name was born out of my conscience and I am sure with all my conviction that this is a Divine inspiration. And I have said “Barakallah!” to those who have reproduced these treatises, because it is impossible to begrudge the light of faith to anybody. These treatises of mine were shared among some of the people of faith and they were reproduced by hand. My conviction is that it is a Divine prompt to strengthen the weakened faith of the Muslims. A man of faith cannot be thought to prevent this divine prompt, and I personally felt to be obliged to encourage it. These treatises, whose number has exceeded one hundred and thirty, pertain to themes such as the afterlife and faith, and they purposely avoid politics and worldly matters.”(The Rays, Altınbasak Pub, V. 2, p. 531)
The reason why these Thirty-three Words and Thirty-three Letters were given the name Risale-i Nur is as follows; throughout my life I have run into the word ‘Nur’ (light) in many ways.
- My village is Nurs.
- The name of my late mother is Nuriya.
- My Naqshi sheikh is Sayyid Nur Muhammad.
- My Qadiri sheikh is Nuraddin.
- One of my Qur’an teachers is Nuri.
- Those of my students who are the most interested in me are those who have the names including Nur.
- The metaphor which best explains and enlightens my books is Nur (light, sun, etc.).
- The verse which first occurs to me and occupies my mind with is the verse, “Allah is the Light (Nur) of the heavens and the earth.”(Nur, 24:35)
- The name has been most useful in solving the difficulties that I have experienced in dealing with the Divine truths is the name Nur among the other Most Beautiful Names of Allah (SWT).
- My particular guide for my profound gravitation towards the Qur’an and my confining my service to it is (Imam Uthman) Zinnurayn (R). (Barla Addendum)
2. WHAT IS RISALE-I NUR?
As the materialistic perception of the West progressed throughout the Islamic world in the twentieth century, a profound political, economic and cultural devastation was observed in the Muslim communities. Doubts and conflicts emerged among the Muslims as their loyalty to Islam was loosened. People moved away from the Qur’an and the Sunnah; the Islamic morals degenerated and irreligion spread.
Imam Bediuzzaman authored the Risale-i Nur Collection in order to neutralize the negative effects of Western civilization in the Islamic world; to silence the atheists who were aggressively criticizing the religion; to refresh the loyalty of Muslims towards the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and to revive the religious life of the people.
The Risale-i Nur treatises are composed of four main books which are the Words, the Letters, the Flashes (the Gleams) and the Rays. These four books together contain 130 chapters on different themes which are called risala (for ‘treatise’ or ‘letter’ in Arabic). While some of these treatises are only 2 or 3 pages long, others contain 80-90 pages.
Imam Bediuzzaman defines the Nur treatises mostly as ‘the mujaddid (restorer) of this age’; ‘a semantic interpretation and commentary of the Qur’an’, sometimes as ‘a kalam discipline’, and sometimes ‘a path which takes the man from the external world to the internal realm’ like Sufism.
Risale-i Nur is a tafsir (interpretation) of the Qur’an, but it does not interpret the Qur’an from beginning to end as usual tafsir books do. Risale-i Nur is a work of kalam at the same time, but it differs from the ancient kalam discipline methodologically. It also resembles Sufism in terms of the themes that it covers, but it is not exclusively Sufic either.
Though Risale-i Nur resembles the books of tafsir, kalam and Sufism, it differs from them in terms of method and style.
Imam Bediuzzaman covers the themes in Risale-i Nur in such a unique way, it is as if nobody has ever mentioned them before, analysing them with strong proofs and by this means resolving them. Mostly he does not even quote from previous books. He does not imitate anybody in terms of style. He has his own original style.
The word ‘bedi’’ is defined as ‘an object which is formed without sample and model’ in the dictionary. According to this definition, we could say that the Risale-i Nur should be the recipient of the title ‘bedi’’ because of its unique and original style which does not resemble any previous Islamic books. A statement of Imam confirming this meaning is as follows: “Risale-i Nur which is like spiritual electricity is neither a light borrowed from the disciplines of knowledge of the East nor a product transferred from the philosophy and science of the West. Maybe, we could say, it has been taken from the lofty highest heaven of the celestial Qur’an which is superior to both East and West.” (Sikka-i Tasdik-i Ghaybi, First Ray, Altınbaşak Pub, p. 63)
Of course the person who has authored such a work should also be the recipient of the title ‘bedi’. Another meaning of the word ‘bedi’ is given as ‘a person who forms and establishes an object without sample and model’. For that reason, it is quite meaningful that the Imam has for many years been called ‘Bediuzzaman’. However, the Imam did not consider himself being deserving of such a title, and says as follows: “The title ‘Bediuzzaman’ which has been given to me since my earlier years,
though it was not deserved, did not belong to me. Maybe it was a spiritual name of the Risale-i Nur; and it was given to its interpreter as a loan temporarily. Now this borrowed name has been returned to its real owner.” (Sikka-i Tasdik-i Ghaybi, Eighth Ray, Altınbaşak Pub, p. 114)
As a conclusion to what we have said so far, we could define Risale-i Nur as follows: Risale-i Nur is a sui generis (of its own kind) work of tafsir and kalam which performs the duty of mujaddid (restorer) in our age, and at the same time it is a path, like Sufism, which takes man from the external world to the internal realm.
We will cover the tajdid, kalam and tafsir aspects of the Risale-i Nur in the following paragraphs.
3. RISALE-I NUR AS A WORK OF KALAM
Risale-i Nur marks a new era in the knowledge of the kalam of Ahl al-Sunnah. Let me give you a brief account of kalam discipline before discussing Risale-i Nur as a work of kalam:
Definition of the discipline of kalam:
The discipline of kalam has been defined in two ways in terms of their content and purpose:
Definition of the discipline of kalam according to its content:
It is a discipline of knowledge which covers the Self and the attributes of Allah (SWT), the themes regarding nubuwwah and risalat and the situation of created beings in terms of the origin (mabda’) and the ultimate state (ma’ad) based on the Islamic canon.
Definition of the discipline of kalam according to its purpose: It is a discipline of knowledge which strengthens the religious doctrines of faith by using certain proofs and removing any doubts that may occur.
The purpose and benefits of the discipline of kalam
The ultimate goal of all Islamic disciplines of knowledge is to make it possible for human beings to gain the happiness of this world and the afterlife. In addition to that, the scholars have mentioned the secondary goals and benefits of the kalam discipline.
These are as follows:
1. It causes the imitative faith of a man to turn into a verified unshakable faith.
2. It guides those who seek the path of righteousness, and it silences the irreligious and people of bid’ah.
3. It protects the doctrines of the faith from being shaken due to the doubts cast by the irreligious.
4. The other disciplines of knowledge of Islam depend on kalam. It is not possible to talk about the validity of tafsir, hadith or fiqh unless the discipline of kalam proves the existence of Allah (SWT), the authenticity of the prophethood and the righteousness of Divine books. Therefore, the discipline of kalam pursues a goal which is the sound foundation for all the other religious disciplines of knowledge.
5. It purifies the intention of the individual in terms of good deeds, and it strengthens one’s creed.
The rank of the discipline of kalam
Imam Al-Ghazali says the following about the discipline of kalam: “The discipline of knowledge which undertakes the duty of proving all the principles and essentials upon which all religious disciplines depend is kalam. All the other disciplines are insignificant in comparison to kalam. As a conclusion, kalam is in the highest rank of the Islamic disciplines because it is the channel which opens up to the other disciplines.” (Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad Al-Ghazali, The proofs and methodology of interpretation, Mustasfa (trans.), Kayseri: Rey Pub., 1994, p.5)
Some scholars, the prominent scholar Al-Taftazani being in the first place, have said the discipline of kalam is ‘the most honourable and superior of the Islamic disciplines’. They have declared their rationale for that as follows:
1. The coverage of the discipline of kalam is comprehensive and its themes – such as the self, and the attributes of Allah (SWT) – are honourable.
2. Its purpose is the most superior and beneficial of all purposes.
3. The proofs that it uses are both clear (in that reason comprehends them) and authentic (that they can be traced back to the main written sources of Islam). Therefore, kalam is a discipline which combines all honour in it.
4. The discipline of kalam has the merit of being authentic knowledge, because the true disciplines of knowledge have the feature that they do not change with change of the religion and the missionaries. Kalam is such a discipline of knowledge because all the prophets have brought and propagated the same truths. (Bekir Topaloğlu, The Discipline of Kalam, Damla Publication, 1985, p.47-55)
However, we need to state that Risale-i Nur is a work of kalam, yet it differs from the ancient discipline of kalam in terms of its methodology. For example, while the ancient discipline of kalam used the argument of huduth and imkan (cosmological argument) on the theme of tawhid (the existence of God), Risale-i Nur has adopted the argument of nizam (order) and ghaya (purpose), which is one of the methods used by the Qur’an itself.
Risale-i Nur is a work of Kalam
On the subject of Risale-i Nur’s being a work of kalam, Imam Bediuzzaman said the following:
“O my precious and hardworking brother of the hereafter and fellow traveller in my cause, Hulusi the second and Sabri the first! You have stated that you desire to receive the lectures of kalam from me. However you are already receiving them. All the treatises that you have been writing are the themes of that illuminating and true discipline of kalam. Some blessed seekers of truth such as Imam Rabbani have said: A person will speak about kalam, that is, themes of faith of kalam which is a path of the people of truth, in such a way that it will cause the spread of those divine lights more than all the paths of the heart and Sufism. Furthermore, Imam Rabbani considered himself in place of that person.
I, as your weak and poor brother, who is really nothing, cannot claim that I am the person who will come and carry out that duty, since it is a thousand times beyond my capacity and I in no way deserve it. However, I suppose that I am a servant of that exceptional person and a rearguard who makes a place for him and a foot soldier in the vanguard of that great commander. For that reason, you have sensed that exceptional scent from what you have been writing.”(Barla Addendum)
“I am declaring an important reality, an issue which is related to the people of the madrasa and the scholars. It is as follows:
In earlier times, the people of the madrasa were submissive and obedient to the people of the sufi lodge and they applied to them for their harvest of walayat (sainthood). They sought the pleasures of faith and the divine lights of truth in their spiritual stores. Furthermore, a great scholar of the madrasa used to kiss the hand of a little wali from the sufi lodge and obey him. They sought the fountain of the water of life in the lodge. However, the Risale-i Nur has shown by the spiritual miracle of the Qur’an whose declarations are miraculous that a shortcut opens up to the lights of truth in the madrasa and that there is a purer and cleaner fountain of the water of life in the disciplines of the knowledge of faith. There is a path of walayat which is higher and sweeter than deeds, worship and Sufism, in knowledge, the truths of faith and the discipline of the kalam of Ahl al-Sunnah, and this is all clear from the pages of Risale-i Nur.
Now while the scholars who are members of the madrasa tradition need to favour Risale-i Nur, first of all feeling proud of it and advocating it, unfortunately, most of the scholars of the madrasas did not know and seek and protect this fountain of the water of life and this precious treasure. Praise be to Allah, now they have started to do so. The Words has attracted both the scholars and the teachers to the treatises.” (Kastamonu Addendum)
4. RISALE-I NUR AS A WORK OF TAFSIR
Risale-i Nur is a work of tafsir, yet since it is different from the usual tafsir books, some claim that it is not a tafsir.
First of all, let us touch upon what tafsir is:
The word tafsir derives from the root ‘fasr – فسر’ or through the way of taqlib it derives from ‘safr – سفر ’. Al-fasr – الفسر’ is said in the dictionary to be used for ‘little water which the doctor looks at to diagnose an illness.’ The doctors find the causes of the illnesses by examining this water (like urinalysis of today). Other than this meaning, that word is used to mean ‘to declare, to discover, to manifest and to uncover’.
Although the root ‘As-safr -السفر’ has several different meanings, one of these meanings is to uncover what is covered, and to illuminate.’ For example; it is said ‘- سفرت المراة عن وجهها the woman uncovered her face’ (İsmail Cerrahoğlu, Tefsir Usulü (Tafsir Methodology), Ankara: Diyanet Vakfı pub., 1997, p. 213)
It is possible that the word tafsir may have derived from one of these two roots. Some scholars say both of them mean ‘discovery’. (As-sifr) means a material discovery and (al-fasr) means a spiritual discovery and the word (tafsir) which comes from them in the form of (taf‘il) meaning ‘discovery and manifestation of the meaning.’
Among scholars, tafsir has been used to mean the discovery of the meaning of the Qur’an and a declaration of what is meant by certain expressions where the meaning is not immediately obvious.
In conclusion, from all these explanations we could say that tafsir is ‘discovery, declaration and manifestation of secret meanings of the Qur’an’.
Imam Al-Ghazali compares the Qur’an to an ocean which has no shore. There are pearls, rubies and jewels in the depths of this ocean. The discipline of tafsir is the knowledge of how to extract the hidden pearls, rubies and jewels from the depths of this ocean.
Risale-i Nur does not start with surah al-Fatiha and end with surah an-Nas, which is the usual way of tafsir methodology. However, since it discovers, declares and manifests the secret meanings of the Qur’an based on the definitions of tafsir above, it would not be wrong to consider it as a sui generis (of its own kind) tafsir. Imam Bediuzzaman has interpreted the Qur’an by first of all taking the needs of the modern age into consideration.
Imam Bediuzzaman states that Risale-i Nur is an interpretation of the Qur’an as follows:
There are two kinds of tafsir:
The first kind: These are conventional tafsirs which explain, prove and declare the meanings of expressions, words and sentences of the Qur’an.
The second kind of tafsir: These tafsirs prove, explain and declare the truths of the Qur’an regarding faith with strong evidences. This kind of tafsir has great importance. The conventional commentaries of the Qur’an sometimes summarize such themes. Yet, Risale-i Nur is a semantic tafsir which has forthrightly adopted the second way, and which silences the obstinate philosophers in an unprecedented way.” (The Rays, Altınbaşak Pub, V2, p.545)
5. RISALE-I NUR AND ISLAMIC RESTORATION (THE MISSION OF TAJDID)
The Hadith on the Mujaddid
It is reported that the Prophet Muhammad said:
“Allah (SWT) sends a mujaddid who will restore His religion on the beginning of every one hundred years.” (Sunan Abu Dawud, Kitabu’l Malahim, Bab 1, Hn. 4291)
Tajdid and Mujaddid:
The word ‘tajdid’, which lexically means ‘restoration’ is used to mean when departures from the Qur’an and Sunnah arise due to the emergence of sinning, bid’ah and irreligion within the Islamic communities after the age of bliss, to fight against corruption and the degenerated ideas and behaviours, restoring the Islamic community in the light of the authentic sources (the Qur’an and Sunnah). The word ‘mujaddid’ which means ‘renewer (restorer)’ is used to describe the knowledgeable person who is a sincere follower of the Qur’an and Sunnah, and has a high degree of information on Islamic disciplines of knowledge, reviving the community by struggling against bid’ah and irreligion.
Since the earlier times of Islam the mujaddids who struggled against sinning, bid’ah and irreligion have not been lacking. They have always battled to take the society back to the age of bliss by neutralizing the bid’ahs, reviving the Qur’an and Sunnah and restoring the spiritual life.
20th Century and Tajdid
The materialistic Western philosophy, which began to influence the Islamic world in the 19th century, became widespread in the 20th century. Because of the spread of Western philosophy and anti-Islamic propaganda, people’s positive feelings for Islam lessened and doubts were raised in their minds. Morals degenerated, anti-Islamic ideas proliferated and people gave up living by Islam. Furthermore, being religious was regarded as something reactionary and out-of-date. Generations were raised who were partially, if not totally, sceptical, or even hostile, towards Islam.
Imam Bediuzzaman is a person who proved to be a mujaddid of this age with his success in the battle against bid’ah and irreligion, which were spread by the materialistic Western philosophy affecting the Muslim community in the 20th century.
For us, there are six items which may be considered evidences of the Imam’s being a mujaddid. They are as follows:
1. The Faith Mission: The scholars of kalam have indicated the importance of making the faith verified by saying, “It is fardh (obligatory duty) for every man to make his faith verified. Even if imitated faith is authentic, the person who does not make his faith verified is a sinner.” Especially in such a time when atheism has been caused by science and spread to the world, it is even more important to shed light into matters of faith. Risale-i Nur has proved the truths of faith with evidences which are so powerful that they cannot be refuted, and it has strengthened the faith of believers while at the same time silencing the deniers. This is the greatest evidence of the fact that Imam Nursi is the mujaddid of this age.
2. Guidance (Irshad): We live in an age when worldly benefits and pleasures are cherished, the afterlife is ignored and, furthermore, the believers have become addicted to sinful actions and behaviours. In such an atmosphere, Risale-i Nur has guided many people to the right path and saved them from sins by proving that there are painful spiritual torments in the sinful deeds even in the world and there are heavenly pleasures in the truths of faith and Islamic morals. Although there are many persons and groups who are conducting irshad (guidance) activity, it is seen that Risale-i Nur is more effective and widespread.
3. Attacks on Islam and their Answers: There are some issues which have been brought up by anti-Islamists to criticize it since the end of the 19th century. Body-covering (tasattur); polygamy; ‘sexist’ inheritance law (that sisters receive half of what brothers receive); the multiple marriages of the Prophet, the Mi’raj (ascension to heaven) and the creation of devils and evil (the problem of theodicy) are a few of them. Imam Bediuzzaman has silenced the enemies of Islam and defended the Islam by bringing satisfactory explanations for these themes.
4. Addressing to all levels: Imam has taken all levels of people – from seven to seventy – into consideration while authoring his books.
a. For children, Imam Nursi says that “they are natural students of Risale-i Nur”.
b. For youth, “A Guide for the Youth”,
c. For women, “A Guide for the Women”,
d. For elders, “A Guide for the Elders”,
e. For the sick, “A Guide for the Sick”.
5. The Groups in Society: Imam Bediuzzaman has put forward Islamic rulings on many issues and groups in society with a satisfactory and persuasive style. These groups and issues are: Sufism, politics, Shi’ism, Wahhabism, liberalism from Islamic school of laws (anti-madhabism), nationalism, materialism, positivism, capitalism, socialism, mischiefs peculiar to the End Times and people manufacturing and performing bid’ah. Besides, in addition to rational and narrational evidences, through using evidences from the New and Old Testaments, he has authored the treatises which have proved the prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) for the people of the divine books. He has proved the superiority of Islamic civilization over the Western civilization by comparing the differences between them.
6. The Personality of the Imam: One of the evidences of Imam’s being a mujaddid is his scholarly personality and Islamic lifestyle which were acknowledged by everybody. He was an authority in all of the Islamic disciplines of knowledge. He led an active, brave life, enduring hardships and striving to make Islam a way of life for himself and for everybody, based on zuhd (ascetism) and taqwa (meticulousness for the pleasure of Allah).
Imam Bediuzzaman states clearly that Risale-i Nur is a mujaddid of the modern age in the treatises that he authored. Some of them are as follows:
“Before the Great War (First World War), I saw in an true dream that I was at the bottom of the famous Mount Ağrı which is also called Mount Ararat. All of a sudden, that mountain blew up and the mountain-like particles were spread all around the world. I was in shock and I saw my mother beside me. I said: “Do not be afraid, mother! This is by the order of Allah (SWT); He is Compassionate and Wise.” When I was in that situation, I realized that an important person was ordering me in a commanding tone: “Declare the miraculousness of the Qur’an!” I woke up and understood that there would be a huge explosion. After that explosion and change it brought about, the walls around the Qur’an would be destroyed and the Qur’an would protect itself on its own. There would be onslaughts against the Qur’an; yet, its miraculousness would be its steel armour. And I concluded that I, though it is far beyond my limits, would be a nominee for the manifestation of that sort of miraculousness in this age.” (The Letters, Altınbaşak Pub. p. 218)
“Dear Loyal, Respected Khodja Haşmet Efendi,
We have read your letter regarding the issue of the mujaddid and informed the Imam about it. The Imam says: “Yes, now there is an urgent need for an important mujaddid in this time for restoration of the faith and the religion, the life of the community and Islamic law, and public rights and Islamic politics. However, the restoration regarding the protection of the truths of faith is the greatest and most sacred one. The law and the regulation of society and politics have secondary or tertiary degree importance. The importance attached to restoration of the religion (tajdid) in the narration of the hadith is regarding the restoration of the truths of faith. However, since in public opinion and for those who cherish the mass movements, the social aspects of Islamic order and religious politics have a more immediate and widespread appeal, they evaluate the hadith from that perspective and motivation.
It is only a remote possibility and may even be impossible that these three duties could be owned by a person or a group in this age; that they could be in such a perfect harmony that they would not exclude or contradict each other. They can only come together in the Mahdi who represents the spiritually enlightened community of Ahl al Bayt (the Prophet’s family) and the collective personality of his community. Limitless thanks to Allah (SWT) that He has made the collective personality of true Risale-i Nur students perform the duty of tajdid (restoration) regarding the protection of the truths of faith. Forty thousand men can bear witness to the fact that it has been retaliating efficiently and successfully against the extremely fearsome and horrendous onslaught of unbelief and misguidance with its publication, and saving the faiths of hundreds of thousands of men for the last twenty years. However, I say that you should not put me forward to take on such a duty, which is a thousand times beyond my limits as a weak and poor man, and I salute you.” We also salute your highness and those who are engaged with Risale-i Nur there.
Emin and Feyzi,
the Risale-i Nur students”