Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s Approach to the Environment

Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s Approach to the Environment

by Ibrahim Ozdemir


The aim of this paper is to point out the chief characteristics of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s philosophy/understanding of the environment. In this way, a concrete example will have been offered for ‘A Contemporary Approach to Understanding the Qur’an,’ the title of this symposium. For Said Nursi laid greater emphasis than other contemporary Muslim scholars on the Qur’anic view of the universe, that is, its cosmological aspect, and its meaning. But firstly, what do we mean by the concept of environmental philosophy? This has to be explained. Although the meaning and history of the concept of philosophy has ancient roots, it was only in the last quarter of the 20th century that the concept of environmental philosophy gained currency. Although there is no consensus concerning what this comprises, it may be understood as the application to the environment of a general definition of philosophy. To put it another way, the endeavour on the one hand to examine from a philosophical viewpoint the reasons for environmental problems, and on the other to understand and give meaning to the environment as a whole. People have always tried to understand themselves and their environment, but efforts to redefine man and his environment in the context of the present while benefiting from the work of the past is what is called environmental philosophy.

With the increase in environmental problems, many thinkers began to ask philosophical questions about their roots and reasons. There emerged as a result of these, the concepts of environmental/eco philosophy and environmental ethics. The following are the questions to which answers are most frequently sought in environmental philosophy:

? What is the universe or nature?

? Does the universe have any meaning?

? What is the meaning of the aesthetic dimension of the universe?

? Why should the universe be an orderly whole?

? Does nature have any intrinsic value independently of man?

? What is man?

? What is man’s place in the universe?

? Are we responsible for future generations?

It is truly interesting that despite all the scientific and technological advances and economic development man has achieved in the 20th century, he should still be struggling to discover the meaning of the universe and life and thus to reinterpret life. Even if there are a number of practical reasons for this, it may said that one of the most important reasons is the fact that the human spirit seeks the answers, for it is not satisfied with the purely material. The definition of environmental philosophy of the thinker Skolimowski is noteworthy in this connection: “Environmental philosophy is the rediscovery of the human meaning of the human project related to the universe.“1 The same writer lists the chief characteristics of environmental philosophy as follows. Environmental philosophy is:

? life centred;

? related to the values of man, nature, and life;

? alive spiritually;

? all-embracing and global;

? concerned with and related to wisdom;

? environmentally sensitive;

? puts paramount importance on the quality of life;

? politically sensitive [that is, a person with an environmental point of view is concerned with all political decisions related to himself and the environment in which he lives, and tries to be involved in every stage of these decisions];

? puts paramount importance on the well-being of society;

? emphasizes personal responsibility;

? tolerant towards the metaphysical world;

? health-sensitive.2

If one investigates the chief characteristics of this rediscovery, the following hypothesis emerges: the environmental problems occur as a result of Cartesian dualism, due to which, since the 17th century, man has misread and misinterpreted nature. That is to say, the things that have emerged today as problems stem from our mistaken actions, and these in turn stem from our misinterpreting nature, or interpreting it inadequately. For since the earliest human groups, men have developed life-styles and behavioural models in accordance their view of nature and themselves. This point is important for understanding the philosophical dimension of present-day environmental problems and the nature of modern man’s relations with the environment.3 To put it another way, there is a direct relation between the world-view people have and how they behave. They give meaning to themselves and their environment in accordance with their world-view.

I shall attempt to situate the ideas related to the environment (in the widest sense) of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, a contemporary thinker, within the framework of this paper, and point out if only briefly how they define the relationship between man and nature. However, there is one question to which attention should be drawn before discussing Said Nursi’s approach to the environment, which is that in the Risale-i Nur -which comprises 130 parts- he is aware of the challenges to religion and especially to Islam of modernity, and enters into conscious combat with it. This coincides with environmental philosophy’s criticism of modern philosophy. To put it another way, throughout his life Said Nursi replied to the challenges of “irreligious, materialist-mechanistic"4 Western civilization, which dominates the present age, and concerned himself with the chief problems this civilization has caused. It is this that underlies his being both a regenerator of religion who conveyed the message of religion, and a man of action.5 It is therefore necessary to offer a brief discussion of these two discourses.

The Challenge of Modernity

The most serious challenge(s) in the present age not only to religion but to all transcendental and metaphysical values spring from two sources:

(a) The materialist-mechanistic understanding of the world, which when it comes to nature, denies every sort of transcendental value. (This includes all similar philosophical currents born of this understanding.)

(b) The existential approach, which denies and rejects the religious and spiritual side of ethics and moral values.

As is known, Cartesian dualism formed the basis of the 17th century scientific revolution. The universe, which had previously been envisaged as a living whole, was for the first time divided into matter and spirit. And the most radical point of this new, modern understanding was its emphasis on matter and the material alone, and its rejection of knowledge of everything spiritual and non-material. With John Locke, knowledge of anything not objective was considered secondary and the product of imagination.6 Modern positivist philosophy looked on everything outside the material as meaningless, and as futile speculation. In Prof. Teoman Dural?s words: modern science took matter as its basis, and defined it as something that “existed in any particular time and place, was observable, and had estimable mass and dimensions.“7

As for the second, existentialism, it consists of those modern philosophical approaches which assert that nature is the result of chance, and that absurdity is the fundamental fact of life. We know there were existentialist philosophers who believed in God, such as Jaspers, Kierkegaard, G. Marcel and so on, but the atheistic existentialists posited the chief characteristic of the universe to be its futility and that everything is the result of chance, coincidence, and necessity. The main propounders of this view8 were Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. One of Sartre’s most popular novels was called Nausea; the nausea felt at the meaninglessness and futility of the universe, and everything being absurd.9

The universe’s meaningless and absurdity was reflected in all Camus’ works. He made absurdity into a moral principle, for in his view the clearest and most basic thing in the universe was the fact that everything is absurd. Only one thing remained, a lifestyle to match this absurdity and complement it. So Camus proposed an absurd morality which rejected all traditional and social values. According to him, all religious, traditional, and social values and norms were invalid. They were all obstacles and pitfalls before man’s freedom. Man had to be free in order to exist. So adopting the principle of the here and now, one had to progressively divest oneself of all values and have the sole aim of fulfilling oneself.10

Thus, this understanding comprised rejection of all moral teachings and religious and social values. In my opinion, it is not possible to understand the problems and crises with which man is today faced outside this philosophical and intellectual context. R. Garaudy criticizes it severely, saying: “The false prophets of nihilism and absurdity showed this chaos to be unpreventable and everlasting, instead of trying to defeat it, thus teaching our youth that life had no meaning. If life had no meaning, everything was lawful, even crime. We had anyway been subjected to all the displays of animal violence.“11

If we consider it from the point of view of environmental problems, do such problems express any meaning for an individual or society which espouses a world-view dominated by a mass of hypotheses which do not accept that there is an order and harmony in nature or any ecological system and balance; which take its fundamental principle to be conflict and transgression against the weak,12 deem self-interest to be the most important principle in life, and consider it licit and fair to sacrifice not only the environment, but people even, for these benefits and interests? Can it be expected of someone who does not believe that he comes only once to this world and then will depart for the next world; considers force to be the sole measure of right and truth; and that the only purpose of llife is the unlimited satisfaction of the limitless desires and needs of his soul - can it be expected that he should feel concern at environmental problems or bother himself with the rights of forthcoming generations, or with extinct species? These questions are debatable. But the answer given by the contemporary thinker and historian Arnold Toynbee was negative. His starting point was a fact that is widespread especially in the western world, and has infected all modern societies like a contagious disease, and that is the greed and materialism of modern man and his egotistical attitude, and his readiness to sacrifice everything for his own interests and pleasure. Toynbee describes this as follows:

“People, carried away by greed and materialism, narrow-mindedly say: after me the storm. They should know that if they cannot limit their greed, they are condemning their children to extinction. They may love their children, but their love may be insufficient to allow them to sacrifice a part of their wealth in order to guarantee their children’s futures. In my opinion, so long as this goal is not bound to a form of religious belief (using the word religion in its widest meaning), it will not be possible to persuade the modern generations of the advanced countries to make any sacrifices to their own cost (ecosystem).“13

Influenced by all these views, throughout the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, modern society grew away from religion and traditional moral values, and began to reject religious values. Nietzsche’s words “God is dead” illustrates this, and that for modern man God’s commands and spiritual values no longer have any worth. While Nietzsche’s contemporary, the Russian thinker and novelist Dostoevsky, said: “If God is dead, it means that everything is now permissible.“14

Prompted by this, the famous thinker asserted that God did exist, and he tried to demonstrate the meaningless of life without God, and that it would lead to confusion and anarchy. One of the most powerful examples of this was his novel Crime and Punishment.

It was for these reasons that in order to be saved from the nihilist, absurd world-view which takes force as its absolute point of reference, and to have a meaningful life, Said Nursi declared: “Knowledge of the Maker is man’s sole refuge and point of support.“15 In the early period of his life, he said:

“If man does not believe in the All-Wise Maker, Who performs everything wisely and with order, and unthinkingly attributes everything to chance; and if he thinks of the inadequacy of his power in the face of those calamities; it will result in a hellish and heartrending state for him, of compounded fright, fear, alarm, and anxiety. Being the noblest and best of creatures, he will be more wretched than anything, thus opposing the reality of the perfect order of the universe.”

Thus, as we mentioned briefly above, in the Risale-i Nur, Said Nursi on the one hand attempted to reply to the challenges of modernity, and on the other, offering a new understanding of Divine revelation,16 he emphasized above all else the order, harmony, measuredness, and beauty of the world, which he called the book of the universe, and in this way set out to demonstrate God’s existence together will all His Most Beautiful Names. We may see something similar to this in Imam Ghazali’s works.17 For this reason, Said Nursi’s emphasis on the Divine Names has great importance. For teaching a Qur’anic way of looking at the universe, it quite simply reconstructs the Muslim’s belief.18 Thus, in the very place that modern materialist philosophy attacks belief and instils doubts, he demonstrates convincingly foremost God’s existence, the hereafter, and prophethood.

An Environment-Friendly Life

While investigating Said Nursi’s views on the environment, one of the first points to strike one is from his childhood his close relationship with the world about him. It may be said that his love of nature grew together with the development in his ideas and later came to form the basis of all his views. A striking point was the great interest and curiosity he felt from his childhood towards nature and all the beings in it.19 He studied in wonderment the mountains, high plateaux, rivers, springs, plains, and all the living creatures found in them, while feeling a great love and compassion for them. If we consider the structure of the society in which he lived and was raised, we see that the Sufic profundity that was dominant in eastern Anatolia was dominant also in him.20 It is enough to look at the biographies of Said Nursi and the memoirs of his close students to see what a good observer of nature he was, even from the his childhood and youth. When memorizing the Qamus while in retreat in the mausoleum in Tillo, he shared the soup brought to him by the villagers with the ants, which he called “republicans.” He rebuked one of his students who killed a lizard, asking him: “Did you create it?” When arriving at Barla, his place of exile, he prevented a gamekeeper who was acccompanying him from shooting the partridges, reminding him that it was their nesting time. Then when in prison, he was most upset when the flies were killed by spraying, and wrote a short piece called The Treatise on Flies.21 And firstly in the mighty plane-tree in front of his house in Barla, and in all the places he stayed, he had close ties, almost a friendship, with all the creatures. In short, he formed relations of a very different sort with the universe and with everything around him; he established a form of relationship with all creatures based on wisdom, compassion, and kindness.

To put it another way, Bediuzzaman asked the following fundamental questions, within a Qur’anic context, and sought the answers:

? What is the meaning of the universe?

? Where did the universe and all it contains come from, and where is it going?

? What is the source of the beauty, order, harmony, and perfection in the universe?

? What is man?

? What are man’s duties and responsibilities?

The search for answers, within a Qur’anic context, to these and similar questions/problems -which philosophy has tried to answer ever since it first emerged- form the basis of his project. The following quote is important for understanding these and the answers he sought, even in his early works:

“When mankind, like a successive caravan and procession, departs from the valleys of the past and its lands, travels in the deserts of existence and life and goes towards the heights of the future, facing towards its gardens, events shake it and creation turns its face towards it. It is as though the government of creation sends natural science to interrogate and question mankind, saying: ‘O men! Where are you from? Where are you going? What are you doing? Who is your ruler? And who is your spokesman?‘“22

He is trying in this way to define the Qur’anic world-view, and the individual produced by it. So too he attempted to present in a Qur’anic context a living world-view propounded as much by the ancient traditions as the revealed religions, in this way emphasizing in the context of Divine unity the relationship between man, the universe, and God.

The Universe’s Metaphysical Dimension

Said Nursi lays greater stress on the metaphysical dimension of the universe than on anything else, and it forms the basis of his world-view. The essence of this world-view is that the universe and everything in it are created by God.

Expounding the verse, And there is nothing but it glorifies Him with praise, he makes the following basic points:

a) Everything has numerous aspects that give onto Almighty God like windows.

b) The reality of the universe, and of all beings, are based on the Divine Names.

c) The reality of every being is based on one Name or on many.

d) The attributes of things, and the arts in them, are all based on a Name. The true science of philosophy is based on the Name of All-Wise, true medicine on the Name of Healer, and geometry on the Name of Determiner, and so on.

e) In the same way that all the sciences are based on and come to an end in a Name, so the inner realities of all arts and sciences, and of all human attainments, are based on the Divine Names.

In consequence, Bediuzzaman says that he agrees with the view of some of the Sufis that “the Divine Names constitute the true reality of things, while the essences of things are only shadows of that reality.“23 While expounding verse 18 of Sura al-Hajj, he says this:

“The All-Wise Qur’an states clearly that everything, from the heavens to the earth, from the stars to flies, from angels to fishes, and from planets to particles, prostrates, worships, praises and glorifies Almighty God. But their worship varies according to their capacities and the Divine Names that they manifest; it is all different.“24

He thus explains the existence of the universe and nature as above. Then stating that the sole purpose of the existence of things is not man as asserted by the anthropocentric view,25 but that the universe has aims and purposes independent of man, he says:

“There are numerous purposes for the existence of each thing, and numerous results flow from the being of each. These are not restricted to this world and to the souls of men, as the people of misguidance imagine, thus going for nothing and purposelessly. On the contrary, the purposes for the existence and the results of the lives of all things relate to the following three categories.

“The first and the most exalted pertains to the Creator. It consists of presenting to the gaze of the Pre-Eternal Witness the bejewelled and miraculous wonders He has affixed to the object in question, as if in a military parade. ... Thus the first purpose of all things is to proclaim, by means of their life and existence, the miracles of power and the traces of artistry of the Maker and display them to the gaze of the Glorious Monarch.

“The second purpose of all existence and the result of all being pertains to conscious creation. Everything is like a truth-displaying missive, an artistic poem, or a wise word of the Glorious Maker, offered to the gaze of angels and jinn, of men and animals, and desiring to be read by them. Each is an object for the contemplation and instruction for all the conscious beings that look upon it.

“The third purpose of all existence and result of all being pertains to the soul of the thing itself, and consists of such minor consequences as the experience of pleasure and joy, and living with some degree of permanence and comfort.“26

Stating in this way that man is not the sole aim of the universe, Bediuzzaman gives the following example concerning the universe’s first and chief aim:

“If you look at the aspect of things that is turned towards the Divine Names and the hereafter you will see that each seed, a miracle of power, has an aim as vast as a tree. Each flower, which is like a word of Divine wisdom, has meanings as numerous as the flowers on a tree, and each fruit, a wonder of God’s workmanship and a poem dictated by His mercy, has wise purposes as numerous as the fruits of a tree. As for the fruit serving us as sustenance, it is merely one out of those many thousands of wise purposes; it fulfils its purpose, expresses its meanings, and dies, being buried in our stomach. Since these transient beings yield eternal fruits in another place, leave there permanent forms of themselves, and express everlasting meanings; since they engage in ceaseless glorification of the Maker; and since man attains to being man by perceiving these aspects of things that are oriented to the hereafter, thus finding his way to eternity by means of the transient - since all of this is true, there must be some other purpose for all these beings that are tossed around between life and death, being first gathered up then dispersed.“27

Said Nursi illustrates with examples how the universe and all beings act as mirrors to God’s Names, and says that this is a directly Qur’anic way:

“Understand therefore that the reality of beings is based on and relies on the Divine Names; rather, that their true realities are the manifestations of those Names; and that everything mentions and glorifies its Maker with numerous tongues in numerous ways. Understand too one meaning of the verse: And there is not a single thing but extols His glory and praise.28 Say, “Glory be to Him Who is hidden in the intensity of His manifestation.“29 And understand one reason why phrases like the following are repeatedly mentioned at the end of the Qur’an’s verses: And He is the Mighty, the Wise. * And He is the Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. * And He is All-Knowing, All-Powerful.30

“If you are unable to read the Names in a flower and cannot see them clearly, look at Paradise, study the spring, watch the face of the earth. You will be able to read clearly the Names written there, for they are the huge flowers of mercy. You will be able to see and understand their impresses and manifestations.“31

Having explained that looking at the universe in this way is a characteristic of the Qur’an, Said Nursi states that this Qur’anic viewpoint is one of its chief factors differentiating it from the approach of modern philosophy:

“With its acute expositions, the Qur’an of Miraculous Exposition rends the veil of familiarity and the habitual cast over all the beings in the universe, which are known as ordinary things but are all extraordinary and miracles of Divine power, and reveals those astonishing wonders to conscious beings. It attracts their gazes and opens up before their minds an inexhaustible treasury of knowledge.

“As for philosophy, it conceals within veils of the commonplace all the miracles of power, which are extraordinary, and passes over them in an ignorant and indifferent fashion.“32

Two concepts important for an understanding of Said Nursi’s view of nature should be mentioned here, which he used whenever the subject arose. These are the concepts of the significative meaning of things (mana-y?and their nominal meaning (mana-y?). According to Bediuzzaman, the Qur’an’s emphasis on nature and the universe was secondary. That is, the Qur’an does not mention the universe for the universe’s sake, but for the sake of its Creator and Owner, God. Just as the universe was created by God, so too all it contains are the signs and missives of God. That is, they point to him.

These concepts were used by leading Sufi figures,33 and appear too in Said Nursi’s early works, which he considered to be “seeds” and “seed-beds” of the Risale-i Nur. In the Risale-i Nur, he used the concepts, but more vitally and effectively. We may look first at his definition of them in the earlier period. In the introduction he wrote to Mesnevi-i Nuriye, which he wrote in Arabic in the Old Said period, and later had translated into Turkish, he said:

“In my forty years of life and thirty years of study, I have learnt only four words and four phrases. They will be explained later in detail, and here mentioned only briefly. What is meant by the words is ‘the significative meaning’ of things (mana-y? ‘the nominal meaning’ of things (mana-y?), intention (niyet) and point of view (nazar). They are as follows:

“All things other than God [the universe] should be looked at as having a significative meaning (mana-y? and on His account. It is mistaken to look at them as signifying only themselves (mana-y?) and on account of causes.

“Yes, everything has two aspects; one looks to the Creator and the other to creatures. The aspect that looks to creatures should be [seen] as a veil which shows the aspect looking to its Creator beneath, like a lace veil or a transparent piece of glass. In which case, when one looks at bounties, the Bestower of bounties should come to mind, and when looking at the art [in creatures], their Fashioner, and when looks at causes, the Truly Effective Agent should occur to one. (...) If material things are looked at on account of causes, it is ignorance, where if it is on account of God, it is knowledge of God.“34

A New Viewpoint and Way of Reading: The Significative Meaning of Things

In my opinion, one of the ways to understand Said Nursi’s philosophy of the environment is by way of his conceptualization of ‘the significative meaning’ of things and their ‘nominal meaning’. When the basic logical structure underlying this conceptualization is understood, it leads to an understanding of the basis on which the entire Risale-i Nur project is constructed.35 This viewpoint swiftly attracted the attention of the first Risale-i Nur students. The reply Bediuzzaman wrote to Re’fet Bey, who was curious about the meaning of mana-y?nd mana-y?, of which was frequent mention in the first parts of the Risale-i Nur to be written in the Barla period, also illustrates how he looked on nature:

“As for discussion of mana-y?nd mana-y?, they are explained at the beginnings of the all the grammar books. There is also adequate discussion of them in the treatises called S?r (The Words) and Mekt?(Letters). Further discussion would be superfluous for an intelligent and attentive person like yourself. When you look in the mirror, if you look at the glass, you see it intentionally, and Re’fet strikes the eyes secondarily and indirectly. But if you look at the mirror in order to see your blessed face, you would see lovable Re’fet intentionally, and would declare: ‘Blessed be God, the Best of Creators!’ The glass would strike the eye secondarily and indirectly. Thus, in the first case, the glass is mana-y?, and Re’fet is mana-y?while in the second case, the glass is mana-y?that is, it is not looked at for itself, it is looked at for another meaning, which is the reflection. The reflection is mana-y?; that is, it indicates a meaning in itself, which in a way is included in the definition of ismAnd the mirror indicates a meaning other than itself, which is a definition of harfAccording to the Qur’anic view, all the beings of the universe are letters (hur?with mana-y?they express the meaning of another. That is to say, they make known [the Divine] Names and attributes. For the most part, soulless philosophy looks in accordance with mana-y?, and gets stuck in the mire of nature.“36

The answer to another question asked in this connection is important in respect of our subject, and this is Said Nursi’s starting virtually every piece he wrote, including letters and even anecdotes, with verse 44 of Sura al-Isra. The answer is interesting in as much as it provides important clues about the Risale-i Nur’s method:

“You ask the reason for all my letters being headed with And there is nothing but it glorifies Him with praise. The reason is this: this was the first door opened to me from the sacred treasuries of the All-Wise Qur’an. Of the elevated Qur’anic truths, it was the truth of this verse that first became clear to me and it is this truth which pervades most parts of the Risale-i Nur.“37

“A letter written in a book indicates itself in only one way, but it indicates its writer and describes the one who inscribed it in many ways. Similarly, if all the words inscribed in embodied form in the book of the universe show themselves to their own extent, they show their Maker in numerous way, both singly and all together, and display His Names. Each is quite simply an ode written to sing the praises of its Maker through its attributes, forms, and embroideries.“38

We said above that looking at and reading the universe as though it was a book is much more vital and effective in the works of the New Said period. One of the best examples of this is to be found in the Thirtieth Flash, which discusses the Divine Names:

“The greatest manifestation of the Divine Name of Sapient has made the universe like a book in every page of which hundreds of books have been written, and in every line of which hundreds of pages have been included, and in every word of which are hundreds of lines, and in each letter of which are a hundred words, and in every point of which is found a short index of the book. The book’s pages and lines down to the very points show its Inscriber and Writer with such clarity that that book of the universe testifies to and proves the existence and Unity of its Scribe to a degree far greater than it shows its own existence. For if a single letter shows its own existence to the extent of a letter, it shows its Scribe to the extent of a line.

“Yes, one page of this mighty book is the face of the earth. (...) A single line of the page is a garden. We see that written on this line are well-composed odes to the number of flowers, trees, and animals, together, one within the other, without error.

“One word of the line is a tree which has opened its blossom and put forth its leaves in order to produce its fruit. This word consists of meaningful passages lauding and praising the All-Glorious Sapient One to the number of orderly, well-proportioned, adorned leaves, flowers, and fruits. It is as though like all trees, this tree is a well-composed ode singing the praises of its Inscriber. (...)

“For example, in all its blossoms and fruits is a balance. The balance is within an order, and the order is within an ordering and balancing which is being constantly renewed. The ordering and balancing is within an art and adornment, and the adornment and art are within meaningful scents and wise tastes. Thus, each flower points to the All-Glorious Sapient One to the number of the tree’s blossoms. And in the tree, which is a word, the point of a seed in a fruit, which is like a letter, is a small coffer containing the index and programme of the whole tree. And so on. To continue the same analogy, through the manifestation of the Name of Sapient and Wise, all the lines and pages of the book of the universe -and not only its lines, but all its words, letters, and points- have been made as miracles so that even if all causes should gather together, they could not make the like of a single point, nor could they dispute it. Yes, since each of the creational signs of this mighty Qur’an of the universe display miracles to the number of points and letters of those signs…“39

As is seen, Said Nursi calls the universe “the mighty Qur’an of the universe” and he repeats this in many places. Also, a noteworthy point from the environmentalist’s point of view is his emphasis on the order and balance in the universe. On the one hand, this order and balance indicate God’s existence, and on the other draw people’s attention to the preservation of the order and balance, if only implicitly. On the one hand, he says: “There is no wastefulness, futility, and absence of benefits in the nature of things. Wastefulness is the opposite of the Name of Wise, so too frugality is necessitated by it and is its fundamental principle,” and on the other, he wants men to take lessons from this: “O prodigal, wasteful man! Know that by not practising frugality, the most basic principle in the universe, you have acted in a way entirely contrary to reality! You should understand what an essential, encompassing principle is taught by the verse, Eat and drink, but waste not in excess.“40

According to Said Nursi, the Qur’an’s discussion of the universe is “digressive (istitradi),” that is, indirect. The Qur’an mentions the universe not for itself, but because it was created by God and points to Him. “It is as though each creature is a tongue, glorifying its Maker’s wisdom. Each species raises its finger testifying and pointing to him.” (...) When considered from this point of view, “every member of the universe who enters the elevated gathering of the Qur’an is charged with four duties.” Of these it is the first and fourth that should be noted in connection with our subject:

“The First: Proclaiming through order and unity the Pre-Eternal Sultan’s sovereignty…

“The Fourth: Since each is a sample of reality, it directs, and encourages minds towards truths, and alerts them. In short, they constantly warn the heedless who neglect to reflect on the lofty and lowly bodies, which have gained distinction by virtue of the Qur’anic oaths. Yes, the Qur’anic oaths are a ‘rap over the knuckles’ for those plunged in slumbers of heedlessness.“41

Here, Bediuzzaman is drawing attention to the Qur’an’s emphasis on the univerese, particularly in the Meccan Suras, and stating that its chief aim is to arouse man from heedlessness.42

It may be said that this approach in Said Nursi’s early works later became the foundation and nucleus of the Risale-i Nur Collection. Other important points are this viewpoint being centred on the Qur’an, that is, its being based directly on the Qur’anic text, and on the other, its adhering to the line of Ghazali, Imam Rabbani (Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi), and Mawlana (Jalal al-Din Rumi).43

To put it another way, in a mytho-poetic style that addresses everyone, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi focusses on some of the points he emphasized in his early works. The aim of all these is to explain the relationship between God and the universe, and thus to assist people in establishing a firm relation with God. In his view:

“Just as each particle on its own proclaims its Maker, so by preserving the balance of the general current in all the stations and relations of the ascending, interconnected compounds of the universe, which resembling interwoven designs and by being means of different benefits in every relation, each particle makes known its Maker’s wisdom and intention, and recites them. There are therefore very many more evidences for the Maker than there are particles.

“If you say: Why can’t everyone see this with their minds?

“The Answer: Because of its perfect clarity… For some things are so glaringly obvious that they are invisible, like the sun. Study the lines of the universe; For they are missives to you from the Sublime Assembly. That is, look with the eye of wisdom at the lines of successive events inscribed by the Pre-Eternal Inscriber on the broad dimensions of the pages of the world, and ponder over their reality. Then tthese successive missives stretching down from the Sublime Assembly may raise you up to affirm Divine unity at the highest of the high.“44

Seeing the universe as missives coming from a transcendent being (the Sublime Assembly), reading these missives, and drawing conclusions from them form the greater part of Bediuzzaman’s work. This at the same time makes clear the chief characteristics of men as the Qur’an wishes them to be.

One of the chief conclusions of the universe being read like a letter or book is this:

“In consequence of the point of support and point of assistance in his heart, man’s conscience does not forget his Maker. Even if his mind ceases to busy itself with Him, his conscience does not, for it is preoccupied with two important duties. It is like this: if recourse is had to the conscience, just as the heart spreads life to every part of the body, ... so, like the heart, knowledge of the Maker, the life impulse in the heart, spreads life to the various ramified hopes and inclinations, which like the body are proportionate to man’s unlimited potentialities; it affords them pleasure and importance, and expands and extends them.”

Another conclusion is this, that ..

“the sole point of support in the face of the innumerable calamities and difficulties of the world which one after the other attack tumultuous life, the arena of strife and struggle, is knowledge of the Maker.”

Thus, a powerful consciousness and faith form the foundation of ‘I’-ness, and the psychological states these create perform a motor function in ordering the life of the individual person and in their withstanding all sorts of difficulties.45

The opposite of this, as noted above, is the position represented by philosophy, against which Said Nursi strove throughout his life. And these are the materialist-mechanistic and nihilistic viewpoints, which reject God and all metaphysical values.

Said Nursi sets out his views concerning the Divine Names in connection with the verse, God, there is no god but He; His are the Most Beautiful Names.46 He considers the Names should be understood comprehensively, and that just as a partial and selective approach will lead to false conclusions, so it will make difficult true understanding of God’s dominicality (rububiyet). For example, “if one who sees the works of the Names of All-Powerful and Creator does not see the Name of All-Knowing, he may fall into heedlessness and the misguidance of nature.” What he should do, the ideal, is:

“He should always keep in view and recite: ‘He!’ and: ‘He is God!’ He should listen, and hear from everything: ‘Say, He is God, the One!’ His tongue should utter and proclaim: ‘All the world declares: There is no god but He!’ Thus, through the decree of God, There is no god but He; His are the Most Beautiful Names, the Qur’an points to these truths we have mentioned.“47

“If you want to observe these elevated truths from close to, go and ask a stormy sea or the quaking earth: ‘What are you saying?’ You will hear that they are saying: ‘O Glorious One! O Glorious One! O One of Might, All-Compelling!’ Then ask the small animals and their young being raised with kindness and compassion in the sea and on the land: ‘What are you saying?’ They will surely reply: ‘O Beauteous One! O Beauteous One! O Most Compassionate and Merciful One!’ Then listen to the skies; they say: ‘O Glorious One of Beauty!’ And give your ear to the earth; it says: ‘O Beauteous One of Glory!’ Listen carefully to the animals; they are saying: ‘O Most Merciful One! O Provider!’ And ask the spring; you will hear many Names like: ‘O Gentle One! O Most Merciful One! O Most Compassionate One! O Most Generous One! O Gracious One! O Benevolent One! O Giver of Forms! O Giver of Light! O Bestower! O Adorner!’ Then ask a human being who is a true human, and see how he recites all the Most Beautiful Names and how they are written on his forehead. If you look carefully, you too may read them. It is as if the universe is a huge orchestra celebrating the Divine Names. Mixing the faintest song with the most powerful refrains, it produces a sublime and subtle harmony.“48

Another point Said Nursi emphasizes is that everyone can read the universe in this way. The main condition for this is “attention.” He believes, as the Qur’an itself states in numerous verses, that if they consider the universe attentively, everyone can see the Names’ manifestations and read them.49

Said Nursi also draws ‘a pluralist’ conclusion from the varied forms, sorts, dimensions, and intensities of the Names’ manifestations in the universe. As the Names’ manifestations are all different and various, so in accordance with their own capacities, viewpoints, and situations, people perceive them all differently, and this should be greeted as normal.50

The Meaning of Nature

We should at this point touch on Said Nursi’s views on nature. It is a fact that he used the concept of the universe more than the concept of nature, the latter more with particular meanings. In his view, nature is:

“...a collection of the laws of Divine practice and an index of dominical art, which resemble a slate for writing and erasing of Divine Determining in the sphere of contingency; it is like a constantly changing notebook for the laws of the functioning of Divine power…“51

“The imaginary and insubstantial thing that Naturalists call Nature, if it has an external reality, can at the very most be work of art; it cannot be the Artist. It is an embroidery, and cannot be the Embroiderer. It is a set of decrees; it cannot be the Issuer of the decrees. It is a body of the laws of creation, and cannot be the Lawgiver. It is but a created screen to the dignity of God, and cannot be the Creator. It is passive and created, and cannot be a Creative Maker. It is a law, not a power, and cannot possess power. It is the recipient, and cannot be the source.“52

When we look at nature in the way it is defined here, we see “an All-Glorious Maker to Whom all beings from particles to planets testify with their different tongues and Whom they indicate with their fingers!“53

The Relationship Between Man and Nature

According to Said Nursi, the universe does not only point to its Maker, nature as though has particular relations with those who recognize Him and those who do not, if one may say so, either loving or loathing them. He says that all the beings in the universe are concerned with what men do and how they act. Expounding verse 8 of Sura al-Mulk, he says that the universe and its elements become angry at the people of misguidance. This is because in the Qur’anic view, all beings are charged with elevated duties, both performing functions and glorifying their Sustainer as Divine officials. But unbelief demotes them from their high position, so they are reduced to being “lifeless, transitory, meaningless creatures.“54

“The All-Wise Qur’an states in miraculous fashion that the universe grows angry at the evil of the people of misguidance, and the universal elements becomes wrathful, and all beings, furious. In truly awesome fashion it depicts the storm visited on the people of Noah and the assaults of the heavens and earth, the anger of the element air at the denial of the ‘Ad and Thamud peoples, and the fury of the sea and element water at the people of Pharaoh, and the rage of the element earth at Qarun, and in accordance with the verse, Almost bursting with fury, the vehemence and anger of Hell at the people of unbelief in the Hereafter, and the rage of the other beings at the unbelievers and people of misguidance; in miraculous fashion it restrains the people of misguidance and rebellion.”

When expounding verse 29 of Sura al-Dukhan, which states that the universe grows angry at the unbelievers and does not grieve at their deaths, Said Nursi again emphasizes this dimension of the relations between man and the universe:

“Study closely the meaning of the verse, And neither heaven nor earth shed a tear over them, and heed it. Look, what does it say? With its explicit meaning it says: ‘When the people of misguidance die, the heavens and earth, which are connected with man, do not weep over them, that is, they are pleased at their deaths.’ While with its implied meaning, it says: ‘The heavens and earth weep over the bodies over the people of guidance when they die; they do not want them to depart.’ For all the universe is connected with the people of belief and they are happy with them. For since they know the Creator of the Universe through belief, they appreciate the universe’s value, and respect and love it. They do not nourish implicit enmity and contempt for it like the people of misguidance.“55

Thus, in Nursi’s philosophy of the environment, all living things are meaningful and interrelated. All beings in the universe, animate and inanimate, recognize God; so do they glorify Him. They hear the commands that come from Him and obey them. Some of the stories of the prophets in the Qur’an are noteworthy in this respect.56

Cleanliness as a Universal Principle

Attention should also be drawn to a few points related to environmental cleanliness. Seeing that the point arrived at today by the environmentalist movement is one related to the metaphysical and philosophical dimensions of environmental problems, the place in these debates of the right to live in a clean world is clear. Said Nursi points out firstly that in actuality there is no dirt, filth, refuse, disorder or disharmony in the universe; what governs in fact is a universal principle of cleanliness. So where do they come from, all the cleanliness and beauties of nature, about which men write poetry and of which they are enamoured?

In expounding verse 48 of Sura al-Dhariyat in connection with the Divine Name of Most Holy, Nursi examines the naturalness, purity, and cleanliness of the universe, and says that it reflects a maximum manifestation of that Name. All the pure and clean states we see in nature, do not occur of themselves (mana-y?), they proceed from a universal principle, the manifestation of the Name of Most Holy (mana-y?

“The factory of the universe and guest-house of the earth, however, are totally pure, clean and spotless, and completely unsoiled, untainted and fresh; there is nothing unnecessary, nothing without benefit, not a random piece of dirt to be found. Even if there is apparently, it is quickly thrown into a transformation machine and cleaned. This means that the One Who looks after this factory does so very well.“57

All beings therefore hear and obey the command to be clean, which comes from the Name of Most Holy:

“... it is not only the carniverous cleaners of the seas and the eagles of the land which obey the commands proceeding from that sacred cleansing, but also its cleansing officials which gather up corpses, like worms and ants. Like the red and white blood-corpuscles flowing in the body obey those sacred commands and do the cleaning in the body’s cells, so does breathing purify and clean the blood.

“And as eyelids obey the command to clean the eye and flies to brush their wings, so the extensive atmosphere and the clouds obey it. The air blows upon the pieces of dust and soil settled on the surface and face of the earth and cleans it. The sponges of the clouds sprinkle water on the garden of the earth and becalm the dust and soil. Then, in order not to dirty the sky, the air quickly collects the earth’s rubbish and withdraws and hides itself with perfect orderliness. It displays the beautiful face and eye of the skies as swept and polished, all sparkling and shining.

“And as the stars, elements, minerals, and plants obey the command to clean, all particles and atoms also obey it: they pay attention to cleanliness within the astonishing upheavals of change and transformation. They never congregate anywhere unnecessarily and get in the way. And if they do become soiled, they are quickly cleaned. They are impelled by a hand of wisdom to acquire the cleanest, neatest, and most shining states and the most beautiful, pure and subtle forms.

“Thus, this single act, that is, making clean, which is a single truth, is a greatest manifestation of a Greatest Name, the Name of Most Holy, which shows itself in the maximum sphere, that is, throughout the universe. Like the sun, it shows directly to eyes that are far-seeing and broad-sighted the Divine existence and Unity together with the Most Beautiful Divine Names.“58

In this way one may understand the importance accorded cleanliness in Islamic culture. That is to say, cleanliness and being clean is not something personal or haphazard; it is a universal reality. Bediuzzaman therefore concludes the following:

“For sure, this exalted, universal cleansing which keeps the palace of the universe clean is the manifestation and requirement of the Divine Name of Most Holy. And just as the glorification of all creatures looks to the Name of Most Holy, so also does the Name of Most Holy require the cleanliness of all of them. It is because of this sacred connection of cleanliness that the Hadith, ‘Cleanliness is a part of belief’ deems it to be a light of belief. And the verse, Indeed, God loves those who turn to Him constantly and He loves those who keep themselves pure and clean shows that cleanliness is a means of attracting God’s love.“59

Another important matter from the ecological and environmentalist point of view is the existence of very sensitive eco-systems in the universe. Again, the prevalent view today in quantum physics and biology is that the universe is quite simply a living organism. With the development of these ideas in science, the mechanistic world-view has relinquished its place to the view of the organic world, while classical physics has relinquished its place to the ‘new physics.‘60 It is through these new developments in science that environmental philosophy gains legitimacy. The corollary of the perception of the universe as a living organism is the idea of man as part of the organism. Thus, one of the main, basic hypotheses of Cartesian philosophy, the mind-body question, lost its attraction. So what sort of new paradigm should there be, now that it is clear that the mechanistic, materialist world-view cannot sustain the man-universe relationship? All these questions have been fiercely debated over the last twenty years. It would exceed the scope of this paper to examine them in detail. What we want to point out is that Said Nursi’s view emphasizes the universe as a single whole, and the extremely sensitive balance and measure of the universe, and that these proceed from God.

While drawing attention to the balance, order, and measure of the universe, Said Nursi again bases his argument on the Qur’an. Expounding verse 21 of Sura al-Hijr, he relates all the ecological systems we observe in the universe, and the balance, harmony and measuredness, in other words everything being tied to everything else and forming a whole, to the manifestations of the Names of Just and All-Powerful:

“Thus, everything from the cells of an animate body, the red and white corpuscles in the blood, the transformations of minute particles, and the mutual proportion and relation of the body’s organs, to the incomings and outgoings of the seas, the income and expenditure of springs under the earth, the birth and death of animals and plants, the destruction of autumn and the reconstruction of spring, the duties and motion of the elements and the stars, and the alternations, struggles and clashes of death and life, light and darkness, and heat and cold, are ordered and weighed with so sensitive a balance, so fine a measure, that the human mind can nowhere see any waste or futility, just as human science and philosophy see everywhere and point out the most perfect order and beautiful symmetry. Indeed, human science and philosophy are a manifestation and interpreter of that order and symmetry.“61

According to this, all the beings in the universe are

“being raised and administered in accordance with the balance, law, and order of a single All-Just and Wise Creator in Whose hands are the reins of all things, Who has the key to all things, for Whom nothing is an obstacle to anything else, and directs all things as easily as a single thing.“62

Thus, on the one hand Bediuzzaman says that the order and balance of the universe are the manifestations of the Divine Names of All-Just and All-Powerful and that they are based on them; and on the other, that related sciences emerged in consequence of this phenomenon. As ޼kran Vahide stated,

“The Qur’an is the source of this conformity between Islam and science. For according to Said Nursi, the Qur’an is the interpreter of the book of the universe. Thus, since the principles it lays down for the ordering of life are in conformity with the laws in force in the universe (?9;at-?iye-i ilahiye), the Qur’an is the sole source of man’s true progress.“63

Bediuzzaman does not suffice with this, in his view, men should take lessons from this universal principle, and live orderly, purposeful, frugal lives. He rebukes those who see the order, harmony, and measure in the universe, yet do not draw the necessary lessons from it:

“O wasteful, prodigal.. wrongful, unjust.. dirty, unclean.. wretched man! You have not acted in accordance with the economy, cleanliness, and justice which is the principle by which the whole universe and all beings act, and are therefore in effect the object of their anger and disgust. On what do you rely that through your wrongdoing and disequilibrium, your wastefulness and uncleanliness, you make all beings angry? Yes, the universal wisdom of the universe, which is the greatest manifestation of the Divine Name of All-Wise, turns on economy and lack of waste. It commands frugality.

“While the total justice in the universe proceeding from the greatest manifestation of the Name of All-Just, administers the balance of all things. And it enjoins justice on man. Mentioning the word ‘balance’ four times, these verses in Sura al-Rahman, And the firmament has He raised high, and He has set up the balance [of justice], * In order that you may not transgress [due] balance. * So establish weight with justice and fall not short in the balance, indicate four degrees and four sorts of balance, showing its immensity and supreme importance in the universe. Yes, just as there is no wastefulness in anything, so too in nothing is there true injustice and imbalance.

“And the cleanliness and purification proceeding from the Name of Most Holy cleans and makes beautiful all the beings in the universe. So long as man’s dirty hand does not interfere, there is no true uncleanliness or ugliness in anything.“64

In Said Nursi’s view, living as they do in a universe which runs on the principles of frugality and lack of wastefulness, men should not live an extravagant, prodigal lives. To put it another way, the starting point and foundation of a meaningful measured life are the order and balance which we observe in the universe and are the manifestations of the Names of All-Just and All-Powerful. The reason Said Nursi dwells so insistently on the manifestations of the Divine Names in the universe is to show that there is no dichotomy between the two books of God Almighty. That this approach is one of the chief distinguishing characterstics of the Risale-i Nur, and is illustrated in another context as follows, again by the author:

“Attaining a sense of the Divine presence through the strength of certain, verified belief and through the lights proceeding from reflective thought on creatures which leads to knowledge of the Maker; thinking that the Compassionate Creator is all-present and seeing; not seeking the attention of any other than He, and realizing that looking to others in His presence or seeking help from them is contrary to right conduct in His presence… “65

The points to note here are that the reflective thought on all the things around one strengthens belief and may take one to knowledge of the Maker, that this knowledge may gain for one an awareness of God’s omnipresence; and that this awareness may govern all our actions and behaviour. Bediuzzaman says that God is the source of all the fine, positive attributes we see in the beings around us:

“The effulgent perfections in creatures are but pale shadows derived from the Maker’s perfection. This means that whatever beauty, perfection, and goodness there are in the universe, the Maker is qualified by attributes of beauty and perfection at a degree infinitely beyond them.“66


Said Nursi’s philosophy of the environment is based on the Qur’an. Since as the universe was created by God with a particular order, balance, measure, beauty, and aesthetic structure, it forms the clearest and most decisive evidence for its Maker. Said Nursi thus emphasizes the cosmological and metaphysical dimension of the Qur’an, stating that:

? The purpose of the universe’s creation is not solely anthropocentric; before everything the universe is a missive, a book, showing its Maker. It therefore has a dimension which transcends man.

? There are certain aims in the creation of all living beings; man’s prime obligation is to understand these, and act in conformity with them.

? Since there are no wastefulness and prodigality in the universe, man should not be wasteful in his life.

? The models of unlimited growth and unlimited consumption are opposed to the spirit of the Qur’an. Man is compelled to take heed of the ecological balances and systems which the Creator has placed in the universe.

? Man will be called to account in the hereafter for what he has done in this world. Included in this will be his treatment of the beings in the universe, animate and inanimate.

? For man to be able to live in peace, happiness, and affluence, he has to recognize his Maker, adhere to Him, and abide by the rules He has laid down. One who denies the Maker and ignores the order He has put in nature will only bring down unhappiness on himself. He will experience a hellish state of mind even in this world.

Thus, Bediuzzaman challenged the mechanistic, materialist, modern world-view, which has been dominant since the 18th century and in fact opposes all religions. His views, which we tried to summarize above, gain even greater importance in the light of the efforts of environmental philosophy to redefine the environment in terms of meaning. Despite the similarities in his approach to those of the great geniuses of Islamic tradition such as Ghazali, Imam-?ani (Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi), Ibn ‘Arabi, and Mawlana (Jalal al-Din Rumi), as he frequently stated himself, his approach was based on the Qur’an. He interpreted in a Qur’anic context the concepts he took from Sufism and from his own environment, and redefined them.

In brief, while investigating the meaning of the universe, Said Nursi set out the meaning of man and his place in the universe. Man’s chief duty and the aim of his life is not to live as he likes unrestrained by moral scruples, but to study in the light of the Qur’an the book of the universe, which is created from top to bottom with instances of wisdom and is as though an embodiment of the Qur’an. In this way will he live a meaningful life. He will make it meaningful through the inspiration and principles he derives from these two books. He will not forget the human dimension. In consequence, while living in harmony with the world and all animate beings, man will not forget that he will be called to account for all misconduct and bad actions.

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Dr. ݂RAHݍ ֚DEMݒ

Dr. ֺdemir graduated from the Theology Faculty of Ankara University in 1985, and in 1988 was awarded a Master’s degree by the Philosophy Dept. of the Middle East Technical University. In 1996 he received his Doctorate from the same department. He at present lectures in the Theology Faculty of Ankara University. He has published numerous articles. Among his other published works are: ǥvre Sorunlar?slam (Environmental Problems and Islam) (tog. with M??i?5; The Ethical Dimensions of Human Attitudes Towards Nature, 1997; ǥvre ve Din (The Environment and Religion), 1997.

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FOOTNOTES for this article are at: