Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1878-1960), the author of the Risale-i Nur collection, is a contemporary Islamic scholar and thinker who recognized and responded to the realities and challenges of modern times.
The 6000-page Risale-i Nur collection, which Nursi regarded as the reason of his existence, the fruit of his life and the means of his happiness. Thus, it manifests the scope of his intellectual and religious brilliance, and continues to be one of the most widely read and highly influential intellectual master piece of our time. With its relevance, clarity and originality, it continues to inspire Muslims and Non-Muslims alike throughout the world.
Said Nursi was born in 1878 in the small village of Nurs (and thus his last name ‘Nursi’) in the city of Bitlis in Eastern Turkey. He received his early education between the ages of 9 and 15 from the well-known madrasa scholars of his childhood environment. He then moved to the city of Van where he stayed for about 15 years and self-studied the positive sciences as well. Young Said distinguished himself through his unusual intelligence, inquiring mind and debating skills, which quickly earned him reputation and fame (and thus the name Bediuzzaman – the wonder of time).
In 1907, Nursi traveled to Istanbul to present to the Sultan his proposal for a university in Eastern Anatolia where Islamic and the modern sciences would be studied together. This dream was not realized due to the outbreak of war.
In 1910, Nursi returned to the eastern provinces to meet with local leaders to answer their questions about new developments in world affairs, including freedom and the newly declared constitutional monarchy of the Ottoman Empire. His work Münazarat (The Debates) is composed of these exchanges, in which Nursi emphasizes that Islam is in support of freedom and constitutionalism (and later republicanism), and rejects all forms of oppression and dictatorship. His passion for freedom was such that he said “I can live without bread, but not without freedom.”
In 1911, Nursi was asked to deliver a sermon in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus where hundreds of scholars were present in the congregation. In this historical sermon, Nursi diagnosed the six deadly illnesses of despair, corruption, enmity, disunity, despotism and self-centeredness that held back the Islamic world and he offered cures for each. The expanded sermon was later published as the pamphlet Hutbe-i Şamiye (Damascus Sermon).
In 1915, Nursi and his students joined the fight against the Russian invasion of Eastern Anatolia during World War I. He was wounded and captured by Russians and was sent as a prisoner of war to Kosturma camp in northern Russia. Three years later, he miraculously escaped via St. Petersburg, Warsaw, Berlin, and Vienna and arrived in Istanbul in 1918. While on the battle field and with death being imminent, he dictated Isharat al-I’jaz (Signs of Miraculousness), which is a scholarly and comprehensive exegesis of the first and parts of the second chapters of the Qur’an.
In 1918 he was selected as a member of Daru’l-Hikmet’il-Islamiye, a learned council of highly regarded Islamic scholars, to develop solutions to the problems of the Muslim world.
When the British occupied Istanbul in 1920, Nursi joined the resistance force and published a highly effective pamphlet against the British occupation which was later included in the booklet Sünuhat (Inspirations). Between 1920 and 1923, he wrote Mathnawi al-Nuriya, which he later referred to as the seed of the Risale-i Nur.
In 1922 Nursi accepted an invitation from the newly established Turkish government and went to Ankara where he received a hero’s welcome by the Grand National Assembly. Nursi addressed the members of the Assembly, but was disappointed by the dominant pro-Western and laicist policy in Ankara. He refused high government positions offered to him and instead moved to Van where he spent his time in seclusion.
When the “Eastern rebellion” against the government broke out in early 1925, he rejected the rebels’ invitation to join them on the premise that armed struggle is for external aggression only and is not to be resorted to for internal conflicts. Nonetheless, he was still sent into exile in Burdur, a small town in southwestern Anatolia. Nursi resided there for 7 months and wrote Nurun İlk Kapısı (The First Door to Light) during his stay.
In 1926, Nursi was exiled to the small isolated village of Barla in the mountains of Isparta province, and was forced to live a solitary life there. During eight years of exile in Barla, he wrote three quarters of the Risale-i Nur Collection. The hand-written risales were reproduced by hand and distributed by his students throughout Turkey.
The first Risale, Nursi wrote in Barla in 1926, was the monumental Tenth Word, which is about the resurrection of the dead. Its writing was prompted by the government’s plan to teach children in schools that believing in life after death is absurd. Through reasoned arguments, analogies and observations from nature, Nursi convincingly demonstrated that life in the hereafter is more certain than life in this world.
In 1927, in response to the attacks on the Qur’an to discredit it, Nursi wrote Twenty Fifth Word ‘The Miraculousness of the Qur’an’. He showed in this remarkable treatise that the Qur’an is indeed miraculous both in expression and content by numerous accounts. And in 1929, Nursi wrote the Nineteenth Letter ‘The Miracles of Muhammad,’ demonstrating the truthfulness of Prophet Muhammed (peace and blessings upon him) and the purity of his message.
In 1934, Nursi was brought back to Isparta on charges that his books violated secularism. At a court trial in 1935, he was sentenced to one year in prison in Eskişehir with 120 of his students.
In 1936, Nursi was exiled to the city of Kastamonu where he spent seven and a half years. The major outcome of this stay was Ayetu’l-Kubra (The Supreme Sign), which demonstrates the existence of God and his dominicality via an imaginary journey of a curious observer of the universe ranging from bees and birds to the stars.
In 1943 he was arrested again and jailed in Denizli for having a treatise printed in Istanbul. The Meyve Risalesi (The Fruits of Belief), which deals with different tenets of belief, is written on small pieces of paper which were then smuggled out in matchboxes. In 1944, Nursi was acquitted, but still exiled to Emirdag, a small town in Afyon province, where he stayed until October 1951.
After the first free elections in 1950, Nursi gained some freedom of movement. His last trip was to the Southeastern city of Urfa where his uneasy worldly journey ended on March 23, 1960, leaving behind the Risale-i Nur collection, a legacy for all inquiring minds.