11/08/2011

Book Review: An Intellectual Biography of Bediuzaman Said Nursi

Şükran Vahide is truely a historian of high calibre. Her Intellectual Biography of thinker and mufassir, Said Nursi is the first of its kind that explores the intellectual developments and phases of his life. In all probability no other historian is currently better qualified for the task, this study is the product of years of rigorous investigation and the range of sources is incredible.

Whilst I take issue with some of the Vahide's judgements, and would have benefitted from more details, (specifically some samples from Nursi's life work, the Risale-i Nur) for those interested in the great thinker, late Ottoman/Republican history or Islam in the early 20th century, this is a recommended read.
Nursi's Life
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1876-1960) was a seminal Islamic activist and theologian, who strongly believed in peacefully coexisting between all peoples of faith, choosing as his main tool "Jihad of the Word". Vahide chooses to use her subject's own words as a guide for catagorising the development of his life; simply the "Old" and "New" Said.
The "Old Said" was a young man with a mystifying ability to absorb knowledge. He made a name for himself in the East as an expert negotiator, and travelled to Istanbul earning notoriety (and a fair dosage of envy) as unbeatable in debate and upstanding in morals, never accepting gifts or bribes in his struggle for constitutionalism, national unity and representative government. His main objective throughout, was educational reform and the foundation of a university in the east (the Madrasa al-Zahra) which would unite a rapidly divergent Ottoman society through a combination of Islamic philosophy and ethics, with Western science.
The "New Said" returned from the First World War and War of Independence ready to abandon public life. However, with the founding of a new 'modern' republic knowing no distinction between secularism and irreligion, totalitarian in the face of a weary public susceptible to either indifference or fury, Nursi set about writing an interpretation of the Qu'ran fir for the modern masses as the only means to effectively re-engage Muslims with the basics of faith. For his effectiveness in this, he suffered twenty years of exile, imprisonment and poisoning.
Setting the Story Straight
Aside from simply telling the story, Vahide's book has a number of aims, some necessary, some distracting. Firstly, it is an active defence of Nursi for those brought up to believe the charges lodged against him, from which he was aquitted three times. He was accussed of being an incitor of unrest, exploiter of religion for political purposes and - most contentiously, a Kurdish nationalist.
The latter point is contradicted most irrefutably as it has formed the backbone of Kemalist attacks on his memory. Also, it served the original pretext for his internal exile and subsequent imprisonment immediately after the Said Nursi revolts of 1925, which was followed by a brutal clampdown on all opposition in the country through legal and military measures.
When asked directly by Sheikh Said to lend his support to the revolts, Nursi wrote in reply, "the Kurds and Turks are brothers. The Turkish nation has acted as the standard-bearer of Islam for centuries. .. The sword may not be drawn against the sons of Islam's heroic defenders, and I shall not draw mine!
Another thing highlighted well, but not to excess, is the general background of oppression and misery that characterised the CHP's time of one party dictatorship in Turkey. Because of the enthusiasm of state lawyers in seeking to ban historical and political pieces, and the learnt self-censorship of many academics, any great or small attempt to discredit the official narrative in this way is healthy.
Another revelation in the book is that Nursi was not against the concept of a republic, nor even particularly aposed to the abolition of sultanate and caliphate, in line with his argument that such institutions had become despotic and that the virtues of constitutional rule were right to meet the demands of the age, with or without them. However, upon visiting Ankara after the war, he was dismayed by the 'worldliness' of its moral compass, and foresaw that as the inheritors to the caliphate’s powers, the people would either "copy their [irreligion] or hate them for it". In the end he was right on both counts – the country was divided in a way it still is today.
Divergences
One feels that Vahide has had to be extremely disciplined in not allowing the focus to drift too much towards the dramatic events of the era. Very little is actually mentioned of either wars but for Nursi's experience of them. In most places this is appropriate, but in some parts, a working knowledge of Turkish history is assumed of the readership.
However, it is telling of one intention on the part of the writer that, given the details of so many events and currents are skimmed over, that such care is not taken on any occasions to emphasise the Armenian's as main culprits in the violence in the east. This is normal in Turkish historiography depending on the passions and views of the author, but as the only reoccuring element which diverts from the narrative it becomes distracting. This especially as, whilst Vahide's views are made clear on the historical fact of the Armenian atrocities against Muslims, a literal white-washing is given to Ottoman figures complicit in the mass killing of Christians.
No less is this so than in the case of Enver Pasha (pictured), who is interpreted as a foreboding anti-Imperialist. This is to neglect his subservience to German military attaches, disasterous leadership in the First World War and desire to totally wipe out minorities and their (heritage) through the Teşkilât-ı Mahsusa. This organisation lay beyond the directive of the government but included vast swathes of officials, commanders and police in its mission to, "maintain the integrity of the empire and to furthur the causes of pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism". However Vahide pushes aside the fact that, to this aim, it was highly involved in political assasinations of the Unionist opposition, and in the war years directed the mass killing and forced exile of Anatolia's Christian population to the desert.
Another case of unfair dismisal by the writer, is perhaps less forgivable. Vahide raises an extremely interesting question regarding whether Nursi's support from the public was due to his integrity and character in a time of great distress and oppression, or was it due to the Risale-i Nur.
Without pondering further, Vahide simply talks of her subject's humility, for which he certainly earnt his reputation, even saying, “I hate people who love me”. By concluding as such, the author achieves her aim of only concerning herself with Nursi himself, however of all historians, Vahide is equipped enough to broach this interesting question whilst retaining relevance and it is unfortunately she did not indulge in starting a debate.
Followers of Nursi and his magnum opus, the Risale-i Nur, are many and misunderstood. A set of patient, researched clarifications on the facts of Nursi's accomplishments are thus always in need. This biography provides a good backdrop for those students of his work, and encourages potential students on their way to seeking it.

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