Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Nursi on sincerity and brotherhood

with 4 comments

Or “How to Regain Imperial Power”

I was handed a neat little booklet titled “Sincerity and Brotherhood” not too long ago. It was all in English, and claimed to be from Said Nursi‘s Risale-i Nur Collection. Having just been implored by a Turk to read Nursi in English rather than Turkish (significantly better, in his opinion), I was delighted to run across the booklet. And so, on yet another unpleasantly long bus ride (not an uncommon phenomenon), I began to read some Nursi.

It was not at all what I expected.

One thing was made clear to me from the outset: Nursi is very political, and very much a product of his times (late Ottoman Empire). There are two parts in the booklet: One on “Sincerity” and one on “Brotherhood.” But they really aren’t about sincerity or brotherhood—they are about how sincerity and brotherhood are instrumentally useful for delivering Muslims from their humiliation and disgrace as a civilization. In fact, the whole booklet reads like an apology for the collapse of Islamic civilization.

Here’s how it begins:

The agreement among the people of misguidance is on account of their abasement, and the dispute among the people of guidance is on account of their dignity. That is to say that the people of neglect – those misguided ones sunk in worldly concerns – are weak and abased because they do not rely on truth and reality. On account of their abasement, they need to augment their strength, and because of this need they wholeheartedly embrace the aid and co-operation of others. Even though the path they follow is misguidance, they preserve their agreement. It is as if they were making their godlessness into a form of worship of the truth, their misguidance into a form of sincerity, their irreligion into a form of solidarity, and their hypocrisy into concord, and thus attaining success. For genuine sincerity, even for the sake of evil, cannot fail to yield results, and whatever man seeks with sincerity, God will grant him it.

From this excerpt, it is not entirely clear what “attaining success” means, but it seems to me that Nursi is speaking of imperial power—the imperial power that has been lost by the Ottoman Empire and gained by the godless Europeans.

What surprised me was that, immediately before explaining the success of the “people of neglect,” Nursi accuses them of being “sunk in worldly concerns.” In order to avoid calling Nursi a hypocrite himself, we can only assume that imperial power is either (1) not a “worldly concern,” or (2) a “worldly concern” that only Muslims are allowed to have.

The implications of this view—if it has been conveyed to me accurately by this booklet—are enormous. From the man who is regarded as perhaps the most notable Turkish-Muslim Sufi in history, this is not what I was expecting.

Written by M. James

August 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I’ve encountered similar sentiments and had similar concerns myself. One of my professors, a guy named Wael Hallaq, made a point relevant to this discussion during a debate on a similar topic, and it helped clear up things for me. It is a distinction that may be useful for you, too. The explicit point, at least in theory, of Muslim rule is to create a morally upright human community. What that would actually mean in practice is of course up for large amounts of debate, but the basic concept of a morally upright community undergirds Islamic politics in an explicit and deliberate fashion.

    One Muslim criticism of European-Christian rule and the human community it fosters – and I am grossly simplifying here for brevity’s sake – is that it is essentially a corporate venture: production, consumption, capital efficiency, and the spread of markets are the highest ideals. I have not read Nursi, so I do not know if he is addressing this issue, but it is a current that runs in a lot of Muslim writing critical of the West. Hope that helps in some way!

    Allan MacLeod

    August 28, 2012 at 1:09 pm

  2. What it takes to effect that morally upright human community is what’s throwing me for a loop. I wouldn’t have thought imperial power—or freedom from others’ imperial power—would be problematic in creating a morally upright Muslim community (as I understand what constitutes “uprightness” in Islam). What I wonder about Nursi (and perhaps al-Banna as well) is if he is merely using Muslims’ imperial-economic failure as a litmus test for morality—surely God would not subject the truly faithful to such humiliation.

    If this is the case, Nursi would judge moral uprightness in terms of imperial success, because God’s favor would be the best way to tell if the umma is being truly faithful.

    That certainly makes sense in terms of the criticism of European-Christian rule as you explained it. The Europeans consider their economy the highest ideal—something that is good for its own sake. On the other hand, the Muslims see it as a confirmation of their faithfulness—where it is not a good for its own sake. With this reading, Muslims’ seeking imperial power is not really a “worldly concern” at all. As strange as that sounds.

    That definitely helps, thank you. I’m glad someone else sees this as a bit of a melon-scratcher. And as a subject of great concern as well.

    M. James

    August 29, 2012 at 12:13 am

  3. An interesting reading, quite intriguing indeed!
    Without going as deep as you did in the pursuit, I want to highlight a couple of issues with the man under the spot-light and your thoughts.

    First of all, Said Nursi is regarded as a significant personality only by a marginal group of people in the modern day Turkey. As much as it is getting placed in the front lines more often nowadays, he does not play any significant role in our heritage as the Turkish people. A small effort would be sufficient to find who the real Turkish Islam thinkers are and why they are valued by Turkish people in general.

    What’s more important arethe reasons behind his popularity and the materialization of his thoughts, which has a direct impact even in the US (i.e., Gulen Charter Schools). You probably know more about this than I do but, here is a link that pictures this materialization: http://caveocavicautum.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/spiegel-online-the-shadowy-world-of-the-islamic-gulen-movement-august-08-2012/

    This may look like a biased perspective, but the point of this article is to draw your attention to the hypocrisy, where the thin line between wordly and “other”-wordly concerns gets blurred: In my opinion, the “Hizmet Movement” owned by Fethullah Gulen masterfully plays with the other-wordly sentiments to achieve “very” wordly benefits. Well, that’s just my opinion and maybe you can help me make something better out of all this.


    September 5, 2012 at 11:47 am

  4. Like with any movement, I would guess that there are some committed to solely otherworldly concerns, and a good amount who are concerned with material benefit for material benefit’s sake. If power corrupts, there is certainly room for corruption within the movement.

    I’m afraid I really can’t help you make sense of this—I’ve yet to understand it myself. I am very grateful to have heard your opinion, though. It’s hard to broach this subject in normal conversation, so it’s never easy to get a read on what people, generally, think about Nursi and Gülen.

    I’ll let you know if I figure anything out.

    M. James

    September 5, 2012 at 1:50 pm

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