Islamic Spirituality in the Modern World: Spiritual Dimensions of Said Nursis Risale-i-Nur

Kamran Mofid, Ph.D.

Posted Dec 1, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Islamic Spirituality in the Modern World: Spiritual Dimensions of Said Nursis Risale-i-Nur

by Kamran Mofid

A Conference Report by Kamran Mofid, PhD
On “A Compassionate, Spiritual and Dialogical Islam”

Conference Coordinator: Prof. Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi
Prof. of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations, Hartford Seminary, USA

Organised by: Istanbul Foundation for Science and Culture
Istanbul, 16-18 August 2005

I am greatly honoured and delighted to have received an invitation to participate and present a paper at the International Conference on Spiritual Dimensions of Said Nursi’s Risale-i-Nur- in which many speakers representing, religions, business, academia, civil society, media, young people and others participated.

Speakers had travelled from different parts of the world to be in Istanbul: the City of culture and civilisation, home to many from different religions and backgrounds, the Bridge of Reconciliation and Dialogue, connecting and uniting Europe and Asia.

My fellow esteemed and learned speakers included: Sukran Vahide, Writer/ Author, a resident of Istanbul, British by birth, the principal translator of the collected works of Nursi; Prof. Bilal Kuspinar, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, Canada; Dr. Lucinda Allen Mosher, Interfaith Education Officer for the Episcopal Church, USA; Fred A. Reed, Journalist on Islamic issues, Montreal, Canada; Yehezkel Landau, faculty Associate in Interfaith Relations, Hartford Seminary, USA; Prof. Homayoun Hemmati, Prof. of History of Religions and Comparative Mysticism, Tehran University, Iran; Dr. Marcia Hermansen, Prof. Of Theology, Loyola University, Chicago, USA; Stephen Hirtenstein, Editor of the Muhyiddin Ibn’ Arabi Journal and Founder of Anqa Publishing, Oxford, UK; Prof. Yohanan Friedmann, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, and Dr. M. Sait Ozervarli, Centre for Islamic Studies, Istanbul. The Conference also hosted many observers from different parts of the world.

We all arrived in Istanbul in good time prior to the conference to enjoy the cultural and social tours and sightseeing which had been organised by our hosts for us. We visited many places, including Topkapi Palace, Haghia Eirene (The Church of Divine Peace), Haghia Sophia (The Church of Divine Wisdom), Faith Mosque, Blue Mosque, Galata Tower, Egyptian Spice Bazaar, Theodosian Walls. We also had a great cruise up the Bosphorus.

The Conference was held at the “Wedding Hall” of the historical district and municipality of Eyup and during the conference we were welcomed by the Mayor of Eyup at a reception hosted by him.

A further memorable social occasion was when one of the most successful industrialist and businessmen of Turkey, Mr. Fehmi Cetinkaya, hosted us at his house. We much enjoyed the gifts of hospitality, food, friendship, laughter and joy that we shared with Mr. Cetinkaya, his family and other invited industrialists and guests. It was a personal delight for me to hear their stories of how inspired by Nursi they are spiritual, compassionate wealth creators.

They showed us that, business people inspired by their faith, love and compassion can, not only create wealth, but can provide goods and services, create jobs, act justly, be honest and selfless, serving the common good. May their examples be emulated by many more across the world.

For too long now and especially since 9/11, the promoters of fear of a clash of civilisations have monopolised our thinking in their attempt to degrade, dishonour and dehumanise the Muslim people, their culture, heritage and their contributions to the world. This kind of generalisation is neither right nor just. One can only look to people such as Nursi and others like him in the Muslim world to see a more focused and correct picture of the Islamic world.

In this report, I will share with you the gist and summary of my paper “To Heal Our Broken World: Bringing Economics, Religions and Spirituality together for the Common Good”, which I presented in Istanbul. First, I will give the introduction to my paper. Then, I will introduce you to Globalisation for the Common Good. In the final part, I will share with you what I have learnt from Nursi which has enriched my understanding of a spiritual and compassionate economics and globalisation. Of course what I say about Nursi is nothing but a drop in the ocean of spirituality and compassion that he is. Nonetheless, it is a good introduction to Nursi and some aspects of his thoughts.

I- Introduction

The topic which I wish to address here is vast; all I can reasonably hope to do is paint a picture with very broad brushstrokes. Today’s world of globalisation is marked by immense wealth and acute poverty. Moreover, total concentration on wealth creation and economic growth, without knowing why, what for and how, has led to an erosion of moral and spiritual values, as well as a destructive decline in the institutions that traditionally promoted and protected these true human values: the family, religious institutions and community structures. There is a poverty of values such as love, compassion, justice, morality, solidarity, spirituality and faith, while certain parts of the world are a washed with materialism and consumerism.

Economic globalisation may be able to address economic problems but neither the free market nor any other vale-free system can fill a moral vacuum. The undeniable fact of life confronting us on this planet of ours is that there is gross and growing inequality, amongst people, different nations and within nations. Material wellbeing, economic growth and wealth creation are important. But, to create a world of true happiness, peace and wellbeing, wealth must be created for a noble reason.

Economics, commerce and trade, without a true understanding of the aspirations of the people it is affecting, cannot bring justice to all. Social transformation can be achieved only when unselfish love, spirituality and a rigorous pursuit of justice are embraced. Furthermore, as Albert Einstein once wisely remarked: “The world cannot get out of its current state of crisis with the same thinking that got it there in the first place”.

In this paper I argue that the marketplace is not just an economic sphere, ‘it is a region of the human spirit’. Whilst considering the many economic questions and issues we should also reflect on the Divine dimension of life, Moreover, and should, in contrast to what is practised today, be concerned with the world of heart and spirit. Although self -interest is an important source of human motivation, driving the decisions we make in the marketplace every day, those decisions nevertheless have a moral, ethical and spiritual content, because each decision we make affects not only ourselves but others too. Today’s modern economists consider their discipline a science, and thereby divorced from ethical details, the normative passions of right and wrong. They have turned their discipline into a moral-free zone.

In short, this study views the problem and challenge of globalisation partly from economic but primarily from ethical, spiritual and theological point of view. How can we order the modern world so that we may all live well and live in peace? In all, globalisation will need to combine economic efficiency to meet human needs with social justice and environmental sustainability. The study moreover, argues for the creation of an “ecumenical space”, for dialogue amongst civilisations and the building of community for the common good by bringing economics, spirituality and theology together.

A cornerstone of promoting ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue is that world religions can be paths, rather than obstacles, to peace. Religions can jointly contribute to the process of peacemaking by sharing the depth of their accumulated wisdom and reflective resources. Through education and meaningful interaction in settings of openness, dignity and respect, people of faith can bring about significant societal transformation.

Therefore, what the world needs now is a “Spiritual Revolution”. If we truly want to change the world for the better, all of us, the politicians, business community, workers, men and women, young and old, must truly become better ourselves. We must share a common understanding of the potential for each one of us to become self-directed, empowered and active in defining this time in the world as an opportunity for positive change and healing. We can achieve a culture of peace by giving thanks, spreading joy, sharing love and understanding, seeing miracles, discovering goodness, embracing kindness and forgiveness, practicing patience, teaching tolerance, encouraging laughter, celebrating and respecting the diversity of cultures and religions and peacefully resolving conflicts. We must each of us become an instrument of peace, promoting kindness, justice, spirituality and the love of God and His Creations.

One of the main causes of today’s global disorder is the absence of justice and the rise in the false religion of materialism. When justice disappears, it becomes no wonder to see oppression, corruption, occupation and terrorism reigning. So, applying justice is a key factor and necessary step towards restoring peace and security in the world. Coupled with this, materialism, the philosophy that argues what matters most is the matter itself, denies the existence of all spiritual entities, and God Himself.

These false and self-destructive values are at the heart of the teachings of the spiritually-arid neo-liberal economics, in contrast to the teachings of religions throughout history.

The major religions of the world prescribe the unselfish love and service of others. Only when this love extends to all humanity without exception can a dignified and peaceful human future become possible. The Hindu faith states that in service to others is happiness; in selfishness is misery and pain. For the Sikhs, God is love and love is God. St. Paul wrote, “Love (agape) is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no records of wrongs” (I Corinthians 13). Buddhism teaches us to cultivate universal compassion. Judaism teaches that “those who are kind reward themselves” (Proverbs 11:17). The Qur’an reads, “My mercy and compassion embrace all things” (Qur’an 7:156). In these and other traditions, unselfish love is deemed a Creative Presence underlying and integral to all of reality, participation in which constitutes the fullest experience of spirituality.

There is an urgent need about realizing unselfish love in our globalising world. Love is a joyful and full-hearted affirmation of the well-being of others that can be expressed in the forms of tolerance and forbearance, forgiveness and reconciliation, compassion and care, and service to the neediest as well as to the nearest. When we extend ourselves to others in this way we become happier and more content, for paradoxically, in the giving of self lies the unsought discovery of self. Moreover, given our desire to realise a globalisation which is good for all, it should be noted that, social transformation can occur only when unselfish love, spiritual experience and a rigorous pursuit of justice are linked.

People everywhere, given a chance prefer to be compassionate, spiritual and caring. They want to be able to practice their religions freely. More and more, they also want to see that their religious values have a bearing on their economic systems and structures. This philosophy is nowhere stronger than in the Middle-East, whose people by and large are very spiritual, religious, hospitable, informed and cultural. They largely do not reject the pivotal values behind the market economy. Indeed, the Middle-East region throughout the history has been the major area of, and for, business, trade and commerce. They do know that, under the right conditions, a market economy can drive development, decrease poverty, encourage productivity, and reward entrepreneurial energy.

Moreover, Great many Muslims everywhere want their societies to be economically and politically compatible with the West, while remaining in social and spiritual terms true to their Islamic heritage. They want to trigger both the equivalent of a renaissance and a rationalist enlightened movement in the Islamic world. Based on our commonly shared values of love, compassion, justice and progress for the common good, we should be able to formulate a partnership for mutual benefit and development.

However, it is a great tragedy that many so-called modernisers in the region itself, as well as great many specialists/advisors from the West, have misunderstood the people of the Middle-East by forcing upon them a social engineering model that is not in harmony with the region’s culture, civilisation, tradition and spirituality. This was very clearly and unquestionably demonstrated in Iran during the 1973-78 period, resulting in the creation of a revolutionary environment and the eventual 1978 Revolution. It would be an affront to humanity if the same mistakes are allowed to happen again. This is why I am suggesting a “spiritual/theological economics” approach to development and modernisation in the Middle- East.

The ethical and spiritual teachings of all religions and their striving for the common good can provide a clear and focused model of moral behaviour in what has been termed “the market place”. The religious and business values and sentiments, such as human dignity, communal solidarity, humility, patience, service, compassion, reciprocity, social justice, equity, efficiency, growth and profit should go together, hand-in-hand, leading to Globalisation for the Common Good, where every one is a winner. We should acknowledge that, the marketplace is not just an economic sphere, but, it is a region of the human spirit, compassion and dignity.

The call for this dialogue is an appeal to the deep instinctive understanding of the common good that all people share. It is an appeal to our essential humanity to deal with some of the most pressing concerns of peoples the world over. Religion has always been a major factor in the growth of human civilisation. Business and wealth creation when they are for a noble reason are blessed and vital for human survival.

II- Globalisation for the Common Good

Globalisation for the Common Good means the promotion of ethical, moral and spiritual values - which are shared by all religions - in the areas of economics, commerce, trade and international relations. It emphasizes personal and societal virtues. It calls for understanding and collaborative action - on the part of civil society, private enterprise, the public sector, governments, and national and international institutions - to address major global issues. Globalisation for the common good is predicated on a global economy of sharing and community, grounded in an economic value system whose aim is generosity and the promotion of a just distribution of the world’s goods, which are divine gifts.

Globalisation for the Common Good is not about charity. It is not about collecting money. It is about justice. To know justice and to serve it, is to feel the pain of, and to become one with the sufferer; is to ask fundamental questions about the roots of injustice and to fight for their eradication. Today’s global problems are not economic or technological only. The solutions are not more economic growth, privatisation or trade liberalisation. What the world needs is a Spiritual Revolution, where I, I, me, me, culture is replaced with we and us culture. Globalisation for the Common Good is that needed culture: the culture of solidarity and oneness with the poor, suppressed, marginalised and excluded. Globalisation for the Common Good is for the practise of Economics of Compassion, Economics of Kindness and Economics of Solidarity. These kinds of economics can only be practised by people who are compassionate and kind. Globalisation for the Common Good is the way to build a world that is just, free and prosperous.


The acknowledgement of God, Ultimate Reality, or the One. Our lives are grounded in an Ultimate Reality, the source of the sacredness of all life and of the spiritual power, hope, and trust that we discover in prayer or meditation, in word or silence, and in our striving for just relationships with all existence.

The investment of Spiritual Capital. The most powerful way for faith and spiritual communities to influence beliefs, norms and institutions is through prophetic voice and public action. Highly visible faith and interfaith affirmation of the great spiritual truths of peace, justice, and the sacredness of the Earth and all life can make a tremendous contribution to Globalisation for the Common Good. Action and service by spiritual and faith communities and groups can provide a vital source of inspiration and energy for the healing of the world.

The practice of selfless Love. The most important point of convergence shared by the world’s great spiritual traditions is to be found in the practice and power of selfless love for all humanity. It is the wellspring of the best hope for a better future.

The cultivation of interfaith Dialogue and Engagement. It is absolutely vital that religious and spiritual communities come together with one another in honest and open dialogue. It is also essential that these communities enter into dialogue with secular groups, organizations and governments working for a better world. Religious and spiritual communities - in mutual respect and partnership - must engage the critical issues that face the planetary community as the 21st century unfolds.

The nurturing of cultures of Peace. True cultural evolution is perhaps best measured in the growing rejection of violent approaches to conflict resolution in favour of the cultivation of the infrastructures of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. Our greatest contribution to the future lies in ensuring that our children grow to maturity in cultures of peace.

The struggle for Justice. Justice is the heart of all creation. It is the profound feeling of oneness with all other beings in the universe. Today, it finds its most vital expression in social and economic fairness, concern for others and the vigorous defence of human rights.

The realization of Gender Partnership. Challenging the assumptions and infrastructures of patriarchy is essential to cultural evolution. Women and men, living and working together in harmony and equity, can build stronger, more creative religious communities and societies.

The path of Sustainability. In this rapidly changing world, our reverence for the Earth will determine the fate of the entire community of planetary life. This deep, visionary and unconditional caring for what is yet to come, is the love of life embedded in ecological sustainability.

The commitment to Service. Service is our link to spirit. Personal action for a better world is the discernable manifestation of the divine in the human. The essence of service is the grace of giving. We give because giving is how life begins and how it continues. This process will enhance personal responsibility for the common good.

Globalisation for the Common Good affirms that economics is, above all, concerned with human well-being and happiness in society and with care for the Earth. This cannot be separated from moral and spiritual considerations. The idea of a “value-free” economics is spurious. It demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what it means to be a human being.

We affirm our conviction that genuine interfaith dialogue and cooperation is a significant way of bringing the world together. It is indispensable to the creation of the harmonious global culture needed to build peace, justice, sustainability and prosperity for all. The call for Globalisation for the Common Good is an appeal to our essential humanity. It engages the most pressing concerns of peoples the world over.

Globalisation for the Common Good, by addressing the crises that face us all, empowers us with humanity, spirituality and love. It engages people of different races, cultures and languages, from a wide variety of backgrounds, all committed to bringing about a world in which there is more solidarity and greater harmony. This spiritual ground for hope at this time of wanton destruction of our world, can help us to recall the ultimate purpose of life and of our journey in this world.

III- How to Heal our Broken World- A view from Said Nursi

As elaborated above, the main causes of the wanton destruction of our world today are spiritual poverty, materialism and injustice. In this section, I will attempt to provide a concise reflection on what Nursi has to offer on these and how we can heal our broken world by adopting Nursi’s recommendations. However, before this, I will provide a brief introduction to Nursi.

Who was Bediuzzaman Said Nursi: A brief Introduction

Bediuzzaman Said Nursi was born in 1876 in eastern Turkey and died in 1960 in Urfa in Turkey. Readers may refer to his biography for details of his long and exemplary life, which spanned the last decades of the Ottoman Empire, its collapse after the First World War and the setting up of the Republic, then the twenty-five years of Republican Peoples’ Party rule, well-known for the measures taken against Islam, followed by the ten years of Democrat rule, when conditions eased a little for Bediuzzaman.

Bediuzzaman displayed an extraordinary intelligence and ability to learn from an early age, completing the normal course of madrase (religious school) education at the early age of fourteen, when he obtained his diploma. He became famous for both his prodigious memory and his unbeaten record in debating with other religious scholars. Another characteristic Bediuzzaman displayed from an early age was an instinctive dissatisfaction with the existing education system, which when older he formulated into comprehensive proposals for its reform. The heart of these proposals was the bringing together and joint teaching of the traditional religious sciences and the modern sciences, together with the founding of a university in the Eastern Provinces of the Empire, the Medresetü’z-Zehra, where this and his other proposals would be put into practice. In 1907 his endeavours in this field took him to Istanbul and an audience with Sultan Abdulhamid. Although subsequently he twice received funds for the construction of his university, and its foundations were laid in 1913, it was never completed due to war and the vicissitudes of the times.

Contrary to the practice of religious scholars at that time, Bediuzzaman himself studied and mastered almost all the physical and mathematical sciences, and later studied philosophy, for he believed that it was only in this way that Islamic theology (kalâm) could be renewed and successfully answer the attacks to which the Qur’an and Islam were then subject.

In the course of time, the physical sciences had been dropped from madrase education, which had contributed directly to the Ottoman decline relative to the advance of the West. Now, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Europe had gained dominance over the Islamic world, and in efforts to extend its dominance, was attacking the Qur’an and Islam in the name of science and progress in particular, falsely claiming them to be incompatible. Within the Empire too was a small minority which favoured adopting Western philosophy and civilization. Thus, all Bediuzzaman’s endeavour was to prove and demonstrate the falseness of these accusations, and that far from being incompatible with science and progress, the Qur’an was the source of true progress and civilization, and in addition, since this was the case, Islam would dominate the future, despite its relative decline and regression at that time.

The years up to the end of the First World War were the final decades of the Ottoman Empire and were, in the words of Bediuzzaman, the period of the ’Old Said’. In additions to his endeavours in the field of learning, he served the cause of the Empire and Islam through active involvement in social life and the public domain. In the War, he commanded the militia forces on the Caucasian Front against the invading Russians, for which he was later awarded a War Medal. To maintain the morale of his men he himself disdained to enter the trenches inspite of the constant shelling, and it was while withstanding the overwhelming assaults of the enemy that he wrote his celebrated Qur’anic commentary, Signs of Miraculous ness, dictating to a scribe while on horseback.

Stating that the Qur’an encompasses the sciences which make known the physical world, the commentary is an original and important work which in Bediuzzaman’s words, forms a sort model for commentaries he hoped would be written in the future, which would bring together the religious and modern sciences in the way he proposed. Bediuzzaman was taken prisoner in March 1916 and held in Russia for two years before escaping in early 1918, and returning to Istanbul via Warsaw, Berlin, and Vienna.

The defeat of the Ottomans saw the end of the Empire and its dismemberment, and the occupation of Istanbul and parts of Turkey by foreign forces. These bitter years saw also the transformation of the Old Said into the New Said, the second main period of Bediuzzaman’s life. Despite the acclaim he received and services he performed as a member of the Darü’l-Hikmeti’l-Islamiye, a learned body attached to the Shaykhu’l-Islam’s Office, and combating the British, Bediuzzaman underwent a profound mental and spiritual change in the process of which he turned his back on the world. Realizing the inadequacy of the ’human’ science and philosophy he had studied as a means of reaching the truth, he took the revealed Qur’an as his ’sole guide.’ In recognition of his services to the Independence Struggle, Bediuzzaman was invited to Ankara by Mustafa Kemal, but on arrival there, found that at the very time of the victory of the Turks and Islam, atheistic ideas were being propagated among the Deputies and officials, and many were lax in performing their religious duties. He published various works which successfully countered this.

Remaining some eight months in Ankara, Bediuzzaman understood the way Mustafa Kemal and the new leaders were going to take and on the one hand that he could not work alongside them, and on the other that they were not to be combated in the realm of politics. When offered various posts and benefits by Mustafa Kemal, he declined them and left Ankara for Van, where he withdrew into a life of worship and contemplation; he was seeking the best way to proceed.

Within a short time, Bediuzzaman’s fears about the new regime began to be realized: the first steps were taken towards secularization and reducing the power of Islam within the state, and even its eradication from Turkish life. In early 1925 there was a rebellion in the east in which Bediuzzaman played no part, but as a consequence of which was sent into exile in western Anatolia along with many hundreds of others. Thus unjustly began twenty-five years of exile, imprisonment, and unlawful oppression for Bediuzzaman. He was sent to Barla, a tiny village in the mountains of Isparta Province. However, the attempt to entirely isolate and silence him had the reverse effect, for Bediuzzaman was both prepared and uniquely qualified to face the new challenge: these years saw the writing of the Risale-i- Nur, which silently spread and took root, combating in the most constructive way the attempt to uproot Islam, and the unbelief and materialist philosophy it was hoped to instil in the Muslim people of Turkey.

A) Nursi on God

“Man came to this world to be perfected by means of knowledge and supplication. In regard to his nature and abilities everything is tied to knowledge. And the foundation, source, light, and spirit of all true knowledge is knowledge of God, and its essence and basis is belief in God.” — Said Nursi

As noted already, the modern world’s rejection of God is one of the most harmful aspects of the so-called “modernity”. This philosophy has become to be known as the existential approach to life, which denies and rejects the religious and spiritual side of ethics and moral values.

If we consider it from the point of view of neo-liberalism, 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, 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 life is the unlimited satisfaction of the limitless desires and needs of his/her soul - can it be expected that he/she should feel concern at environmental problems or bother himself with the rights of forthcoming generations, or with extinct species, or injustices, poverty, etc; for example? These questions are debatable.

But the answer given by the contemporary thinker and historian Arnold Toynbee was negative. 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).”

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.” 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.”

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, he emphasized above all else the order, harmony, measured ness, 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. Thus, in the very place that modern materialist philosophy attacks belief and instils doubts, he demonstrates convincingly foremost God’s existence, the hereafter, and prophet hood.

In Nursi’s philosophy, as it has been noted, this world in the sheer sense is a clean being. The reasons for this may be reduced to two:

• This world is the work of God. It receives its existence from Him. It is also evidence for His existence.
• This world was given to men by God so that they might win clean livelihoods from it.

B) Nursi on Justice and Injustice

Justice is an elusive concept to define. However, we can’t imagine a world without imagining justice. Justice isn’t only about law, courts, police, and prisons. It’s about how all of us live, every day. Justice shapes how we think and feel about ourselves in the world because it touches everything we do every expectation we have, every decision we make, and every action we choose. Justice has this all-pervasive quality because it forms our sense of meaning and self-worth: What are we here to be and do?

A few perspectives on justice are noted below:

Saints have a heart full of justice.
— Thomas Aquinas quoted in Confessions by Matthew Fox

Dom Helder Camara counsels that we must carry a reverence for justice as a mother carries a reverence for her unborn child.
— Dom Helder Camara quoted in Lyrics for Re-Creation by James Conlon

There can be little growth in holiness without growth in a sense of social justice.
— Edward Hays in A Lenten Hobo Honeymoon

This spiritual journey is often characterized by an intense passion for justice and liberation, especially in the face of exploitation and deprivation. The desire for justice is motivated not merely by the plight of appalling suffering, but by a deeper sense that love and well-being must prevail in the end.
— Diarmuid O’Murchu in Quantum Theology

Justice is not an ideal state or theory but a matter of personal sensibility, a set of emotions that engage us with the world and make us care.
— Robert Solomon in A Passion for Justice

Believe in spiritual power to bring healing and justice to our lives and to this earth.
— Jim Wallis in The Soul of Politics

More than a few Christians might be surprised to learn that the call to be involved in creating justice for the poor is just as essential and nonnegotiable within the spiritual life as is Jesus’ commandment to pray and keep our private lives in order.
— Ronald Rolheiser in The Holy Longing

What is Justice? An Islamic Perspective

Justice is described in the Qur’an with two important words: Al-`Adl and Al-Qist. Al-`Adl means “equity, balance.” It means doing things in a proportionate manner, avoiding extremes. Al-Qist means “share, portion, measure, allotment, amount.” It means that every one and every thing has a due. One who gives every one and everything its due is “Muqsit” and the one who takes away others dues is called “Qasit”.

Allah says: (... and be fair: for Allah loves those who are fair (and just). (Al-Hujurat: 9)

Justice thus means to maintain the balance and to give every one and every thing its proper due. It means living one’s own life in a balanced way maintaining the balance between the needs of the body, mind and soul. It also means recognizing:

1. Huquq Allah - rights of God,
2. Huquq Al-A`Ibad - rights of human beings, and
3. Huquq Al-Ashya’ - rights of things.

Islam teaches that we should be just in every aspect of our life, to all people and things and at all times.

The opposite of justice in Islam is not only injustice, but oppression and corruption. The opposite of `Adl is Zulm, which means “disorder, wrong, oppression and evil.” Wherever there is injustice, it will lead to oppression, exploitation, evil and corruption. There is a very nice saying of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When people do injustice or tolerate injustice in one place, sooner or later its terrible effects reach to other places. Injustice brings the downfall of mighty nations. Imam Ibn Taymiah (d. 1328) used to say: “The nations may live long in spite of their disbelief, but they cannot live long when they do oppression”.

Injustice in the world today:

Today there is a lot of injustice in our world. There is social injustice, economic injustice and political injustice. There are problems of racism, religious prejudices and propaganda. The gap between the haves and have-nots is increasing. There are problems caused by poverty, hunger, malnutrition, death of children and diseases. There are problems caused by the denial of human rights, basic freedoms, and occupation of lands, terrorism, wars, and weapons of mass destruction. We are living in a broken world. The hearts are broken, families are broken, relations are broken, homes are broken, cities and towns are broken.

We need to heal this brokenness and it can only come by bringing justice to the world. There cannot be any peace without justice and there cannot be any justice without reforming our thinking, our behaviour and our policies. It is strange that there is so much talk today about seeking safety and security, but very little about how to bring justice to those who are suffering under deep oppression and occupation. The world cannot be safe unless it becomes more just and fair world.

In short, doing justice is a central imperative in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Buddhists are urged to be socially engaged. Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, and primal religions emphasize right relationships within communities as building blocks of justice.

This practice applies to the whole range of human interactions, and today it is also being extended to animals and the environment. It means that we deal fairly with others, recognizing the equality and dignity of all. It requires that we work to insure that all people, especially the poor and the weak, have access to opportunities. It assumes that none of us is free until all of us are. The quotes below clearly highlight these:

God commands men to act with justice and virtue and enjoins upon them generosity to kinsfolk. He forbids them evil deeds and oppression. He admonishes you out of His mercy, so that you may accept His advice. — Quran(16:90-)

Love, truth and justice; hate, falsehood and injustice. Stand behind your promises: let them be as binding as a written contract. Disdain mental reservation, trickery and evasion. Live honestly, conscientiously and cleanly. Let your loyalty to truth be your priceless wealth, for there is no heritage equal to honor. Be compassionate to the poor ad the sorrowing: let them share in your joys and attend your feasts. Avoid those who love friction. If your own relatives like to stir up strife, act like a stranger to them. Avoid revenge, for it may come back on your own head. Revenge results only in hatred, confusion and sleeplessness. —Moses Maimonides

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? —Prophet Micah

What actions are most excellent?

To gladden the heart of a human being.
To feed the hungry.
To help the afflicted.
To lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful.
To remove the wrongs of the injured.
That person is the most beloved of God who does most good to God’s creatures.
— Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)

At this point an attempt is made to shed some light on Nursi’s views on Justice. His discussion of justice is succinct and of great value. For Nursi, it seems, the adequacy of the definition of “justice” depends upon who is giving and who is receiving. A true path to justice for Nursi, it appears, is for the man in the first place to find God. He then provides the man with a spiritual journey to God, consisting of four principal stages that are derived primarily from the Qur’an. These four “Virtues” are emphasized throughout the Risale-I Nur for the improvement of the individual and ultimately, humankind: Impotence, Poverty, Compassion, and Reflection. Impotence means the realization that Man is not the measure of all things, and that he is subject to God. Poverty means the voluntary abstention from the acquisition of worldly goods. Compassion is to put into the action the realization that all human life is related. Reflection is to use the rational capacity that God has placed in every individual to understand the interrelatedness of these concepts.

The Four Virtues are like the four legs of a table - they must be of equal size, or else the table lacks stability. An individual in whom one of the Virtues is in unequal measure to the other three can be said to be “imbalanced.” In the Material World (Dunya), poverty is often seen as both a cause and effect of injustice.

But how does one define Poverty? “There are many kinds of “poverty.” There is the “poverty” expressed by Muhammad (SAW), that his poverty was his pride. This refers to a lack of attachment to material objects or goods, an attachment to this World, the Dunya. It is ultimately an abstention that is voluntary. This is precisely the kind of poverty referred to in the Four Virtues.

Opposing voluntary poverty is involuntary poverty, which the individual (or segment of society) has no control over his economic status. But within this involuntary poverty, there is an important distinction to be made. It is the Spiritual. One can be economically poor (that is, lacking material wealth), yet spiritually rich. Generations of Mankind have lived at barest of subsistence levels, and they lived out their lives with nobility. Or one can lack spiritual values, or debased values, which creates a “poverty of spirit.”

Further points of supreme importance in understanding justice according to Nursi are faith and love. It seems to me that, for the path to justice, Nursi has emphasised that intellect and heart must be combined harmoniously by the light of faith. Without faith no balance can be established between the two, a balance that is necessary for man’s successful completion of struggle for perfection.

All in all, in Nursi’s view, faith is vital for man in order to bridge the sound and balanced relationship between the heart and the intellect. It is the intellect, he argues, that connects man to all times, past, present and future, from all of which he also obtains both pain and pleasure. But it is faith that makes all these three segments of time meaningful to man. In other words, through the light of faith man liberates himself from the darkness and sorrows of his past and from the uncertainty of his future. Again, with the light of faith he illuminates his present life by adorning it with spiritual pleasures.

Nursi furthermore, ascribed to the intellect and the heart another sub-faculty, namely “love”; the cause of the universe’s existence. This is also both the light of the universe as well as its life. Since man, Nursi remarks, is the most comprehensive fruit of the universe, a love that will pervade the entire universe has accordingly been deposited in his heart, which is in effect the seed of that fruit. So, one who is worthy of such an infinite love can as well be a possessor of an infinite perfection.

In all, man has to render all his faculties, intellect, heart, spirit, soul and love, etc. to the service of their real Owner, which will bring about the sought after perfection.

In conclusion, among all the faculties, two of them, Nursi strongly advises, must be consigned in the first place to the service of God, that is, the Intellect, the centre of will and the heart, the centre of love. Intellect, he says, is a tool that ought to be sold to God. If it is used at the service and for the sake of the soul, it will turn into a harmful tool. If it is employed, however, on behalf of God, it will gain a kind of talisman-like power through which its possessor will be able to unfold the infinite treasures of the Creator, hidden in the universe. It is this intellect that will also elevate him or her to the rank of a lordly master in the present world and make him worthy of the everlasting happiness in the hereafter.

Furthermore, whether be it love or fear, man ought to turn them or, in Nursi’s own expression, “give them to their true Owner,” in Whom he takes shelter and in Whom he finds peace and care. To be more specific, once man has directed his whole love to God, he will begin to love everything else in His name without any distress or pain, while seeing them in his heart as His mirrors.

Needless to say, ‘selling all the faculties and abilities to God’ in Nursi’s terms means employing them at the behest, and in the service, of God. Since they are God-given trust in the hands of man, they should not put them under the sway of the carnal soul, which will not only manipulate them but also exploit them in vain. In this process, the spirit has also a role to play, that is, to manage and govern the senses. The eye for instance, serves as a window for the spirit to observe the world. Under the control of the spirit, the eye can be a learned observer and reader of this world, which is in fact a divine library. If it is ever relegated to the employment of the carnal soul, Nursi admonishes, it becomes a wicked concierge for the lustful desires of the latter.

C) Nursi on Materialism: The False Religions formed by Materialism

As mentioned in the previous sections, materialism is a dangerous ideological movement that destroys spiritual values and distances people from religion. Today, sadly, a vast majority of the societies globally, consciously or not, remain under the influence of the materialist and consumerist mind-set.

As it has been remarked, there are many questions confronting us daily. Questions, such as:

How did the endless universe we live in come into being?

How did the equilibrium, harmony, and order of this universe develop?

How is it that this Earth is such a fit and sheltering place for us to live in?

Questions such as these have attracted attention since the dawn of the human race. The conclusion reached by scientists and philosophers searching for answers with their intellects and common sense is that the design and order of this universe are evidence of the existence of a supreme Creator ruling over the whole universe.

At this point, it is beneficial to reflect on these questions from an Islamic perspective. As it has been observed, In His holy book, the Qur’an, God states that He has created the universe when it was not, for a particular purpose, and with all its systems and balances specifically designed for human life.

In Qur’an God invites people to consider this truth in the following verse:

Are you stronger in structure or is heaven? He built it. He raised its vault high and made it level. He darkened its night and brought forth its morning light. After that He smoothed out the earth… (Surat an Naziat: 27-30)

Elsewhere it is declared in the Qur’an that a person should see and consider all the systems and balances in the universe that have been created for him by God and derive a lesson from his observations:

He has made night and day subservient to you, and the sun and moon and stars, all subject to His command. There is certainly Signs in that for people who pay heed. (Surat an-Nahl: 12)

In yet another verse of the Qur’an, it is pointed out:

He makes night merge into day and day merge into night, and He has made the sun and moon subservient, each one running until a specified time. That is God, your Lord. The Kingdom is His. Those you call on besides Him have no power over even the smallest speck. (Surah Fatir: 13)

The Fallacy of Materialism

Nursi in his writings has made extensive reference to the defects of materialism. He notes that, the materialists, whose use of reason is limited to what is immediately apparent to them, have, in their nonsensical philosophies which are based on foundations of futility, taken the transformation of particles, which they regard as the result of coincidence, to be the fundamental basis of all their principles and have shown that divine works and creatures result from those transformations. Anyone with a grain of intelligence would know how unreasonable it is to attribute creatures adorned with infinite examples of wisdom to something based on a purposeless, meaningless coincidence, which is quite without order.

Furthermore, as it has been remarked, even if we leave out the human values, lofty truths and ideals, and spiritual happiness, which have all been sacrificed for the sake of material development, modern civilisation based on scientific materialism has caused mankind much harm.

The products of science are usually exploited in favour of the great world powers to consolidate their dominion over the world. Besides, the developments in genetics, biology, physics and chemistry are threatening the very life of humanity on the earth. Modern civilisation, as pointed by Said Nursi is founded upon five negative principles:

*It is founded and rests upon power; power tends to oppression.
*It aims at the realization of individual self-interests; pursuit of their self-interests causes people to rush madly upon things in order to possess them and gives rise to pitiless rivalry and competition.
*Its understanding or philosophy of the nature of life is struggle; struggle causes internal and external conflicts.
*It seeks to unify its people on the basis of racial separatism, fed by swallowing up the resources and territories of ‘others’; and racism leads to terrible collisions between peoples.
*The service it offers to people is satisfaction of the novel caprices or desires it arouses in them; (whether the satisfaction is real or not) this service brutalizes people.

Modern materialistic civilisation stimulates consumption and therefore gives rise to new, artificial needs and increases them day by day. Through the power of propaganda and advertisements to exploit some disprovable human tendencies such as ‘keeping up with the Jones’, it can impose its demands upon people. As a result of the way of life it necessarily leads to-producing to consume and consuming to produce-it destroys the nervous balance of man and causes extraordinary increases in mental and spiritual illnesses. In such a way of life there is left room for neither spiritual profundity nor true intellectual activity. For intellect is put under the command of pragmatism and earning more and more.

Another disaster materialistic science has brought upon man is the destruction of nature and environmental pollution. “What a pity it is that nature, this magnificent book, this charming exhibition, which God, the infinitely Merciful One, has created and presented to us to observe and study and to be exhilarated by, is no longer given any more care than is given to a heap of junk or rubbish. Worse than that, it is more and more becoming a wasteland and like a dunghill. Today, air, that magnificent conductor of Divine commands, is a suffocating smoke and a perilous ‘whirlpool’. Water, that source of life and other Divine bounties, is either a hazardous flood or forms desolate expanses of pitch. And earth, that treasure of Divine Grace and Munificence, is a wilderness no longer safely productive and whose ecological balance has been ruined”.

The five essentials of Islamic civilisation

—  It should rest upon right, not upon power; right requires justice and balance.

—  It should aim to encourage people to virtue, which is a spur to mutual affection and love.

—  Its understanding or philosophy of the nature of life should be not struggle but mutual help, which leads to unity and solidarity.

—  It should unify people on the basis of a common belief, shared values and norms, which can lead to internal peace and brotherhood.

—  It should guide people to truth. Therefore, besides encouraging them to scientific progress, it should elevate them, through moral perfection, to higher ranks of humanity.

This civilisation is that which the Qur’an proposes to mankind and urges them to found.

In conclusion the following passage by Nursi writing at the beginnings of the 1930s is most illuminating:

Reality and the wisdom [purposive ness] in the existence of the universe require that the heavens should have conscious inhabitants of their own as does the earth. These inhabitants of many different kinds are called angels and spirit beings in the language of religion.

It is true that reality requires the existence of angels and other spirit beings because the earth, although insignificant in size compared with the heavens, is continually being filled with and emptied of conscious beings. This clearly indicates that the heavens. . . are filled with living beings who are the perfect class of living creatures. These beings are conscious and have perception, and they are the light of existence; they are the angels, who, like the jinn and mankind, are the observers of the universal palace of creation and students of this book of the universe and heralds for their Lord’s kingdom.

The perfection of existence is through life. Moreover, life is the real basis and the light of existence, and consciousness, in turn, is the light of life. Since life and consciousness are so important, and a perfect harmony evidently prevails over the whole creation, and again since the universe displays a firm cohesion, and as this small ever-rotating sphere of ours is full of countless living and intelligent beings, so it is equally certain that those heavenly [realms] should have conscious, living beings particular to themselves. Just as the fish live in water, so those spirit beings may exist in the heat of the sun. Fire does not consume light, rather, light becomes brighter because of fire. We observe that the Eternal Power creates countless living beings from inert, solid substances and transforms the densest matter into subtle living compounds by life. Thus It radiates the light of life everywhere in great abundance and furnishes most things with the light of consciousness. From this we can conclude that the All-Powerful, All-Wise One would certainly not leave without life and consciousness more refined, subtle forms of matter like light and ether, which are close to and fitting for the spirit; indeed He creates animate and conscious beings in great number from light, darkness, ether, air and even from meanings and words. As He creates numerous species of animals, He also creates from such subtle and higher forms of matter numerous different spirit creatures. One kind. . . are the angels, others are the varieties of spirit beings and jinn.

D) Nursi on Decadent Civilisation and Virtuous Civilisation

As it has observed, for the last three centuries Islamic scholars have debated what the attitude of the Muslim world should be towards Western/Christian civilisation. Nursi found himself in the middle of this debate at the critical moment in the 20th century, when the westernisation/modernisation currents were rapidly gaining strengths.

Today, once again, given the global situations, it seems, the Muslim world is asking pertinent questions with regard to its cultural/economic relationship with the west. Given the significance of these questions and their serious potential consequences on world affairs, globalisation and inter-cultural/religious understanding and dialogue, I will attempt to shed some light on what can be offered on this, and at times troubled, relationship: Islam and the west; Islam and modernity/westernisation.

In contrast to those rejecting western civilisation all together, Nursi distinguished between two Europe, representing two civilisations. The first Europe “follows the sciences which serve justice and right and the industries beneficial for the life of society through the inspiration it has received from true Christianity”. He called this “virtuous civilisation”.

The second Europe, whose source is philosophy rather than religion, which claims that mankind can find happiness only in vice, Nursi called the “decadent civilisation”. It is because this second Europe is characterised by its encouragement of vice that Nursi rejects capitalist culture and decadent civilisation.

Nursi observes that “absolute vice” is being called civilisation. He is very critical of this “decadent civilisation”. In a letter Nursi calls it “low” civilisation and elsewhere he says that it cast humanity down to the level of animals:

...its alluring service is to excite lust and the appetites of the soul and facilitate the gratification of whims, and their result is vice.
The mark of lust and passion is always this: they transform man into a beast, changing his character; they deform him, perverting his humanity.
If most of these civilised people were turned inside out, you would see their characters in form of apes and foxes, snakes, bears, and swine.

Nursi moreover states that the goal of decadent civilisation is “mean self-interest instead of virtue”, while virtue is the basis of Qur’anic virtuous civilisation. Virtuous civilisation takes all man’s subtle faculties into account, causes him to progress spiritually, and to rise higher than angels. In Nursi’s words:

Its aim is virtue instead of self-interest…Its service takes the form of guidance and direction instead of lust and passion. And the mark of guidance is progress and prosperity in way benefiting humanity; the spirit is illuminated and perfected in the way it requires.

In my view, Nursi’s thoughts on decadent and virtuous civilisations are extremely significant and timely. They establish the bankruptcy of those who promote the clash amongst civilisations, in particular between Christianity and Islam. The clash is not between civilisations, but between decadent and virtuous civilisations. True Christianity and Islam form the front in virtuous civilisation, while secularism, laicism, and capitalism are the three allies on the front of decadent civilisation. Therefore, Nursi’s writings and reflections on these matters could serve to promote Muslim-Christian dialogue at these troubled global times.

In all, Nursi sees the following contrast between the “second” European and Qur’anic civilisation.

In Seeds of Reality Nursi clearly summarises some elements of difference between the two visions. Nursi observes that, the Qur’an, which is a mercy for mankind, only accepts a civilisation that comprises the happiness of all, or at least of the majority. He then remarks that, modern civilisation has been founded on five negative principles:

1. Its point of support is force, the mark of which is aggression.
2. Its aim and goal is benefit, the mark of which is jostling and tussling.
3. Its principle in life is conflict, the mark of which is strife.
4. The bond between the masses is racialism and negative nationalism, which is nourished through devouring others; its mark is collision.
5. Its enticing service is inciting lust and passion and gratifying the desires. But lust transforms man into a beast.

However, the civilisation the Shari’a of Muhammad (PBUH) comprises and commands is this: its point of support is truth instead of force, the mark of which is justice and harmony. Its goal is virtue in place of benefit, the mark of which is love and attraction. Its means of unity are the ties of religion, country, and class, in place of racialism and nationalism, and the mark of these is sincere brotherhood, peace, and only defence against external aggression. In life is the principle of mutual assistance instead of the principle of conflict, the mark of which is accord and solidarity. And it offers guidance instead of lust, the mark of which is human progress and spiritual advancement.

According to Thomas Michel S.J. the contrast is clear; the Qur’an proposes very different principles. In the civilisation envisioned by the Qur’an (and the teachings of the earlier prophets):

1) It is truth, not might, which makes right.
2) Virtue, non self-interest, is the proper motivation for human acts.
3) Unity rather than conflict should be the basis for social relations, and
4) Mutual assistance instead of cutthroat competition.
5) It upholds divine guidance rather than human whims as the norm for ethical behaviour.

A society built on such principles Michel S.J. remarks, will be characterised by values like justice, harmony, love, peace, brotherhood and solidarity. It will attract others by virtue of its own good qualities, rather than by imposing its views or by dominating and looking down on others. When a civilisation accepts the principle of “might makes right”, the result is injustice. This, as well as the “cherished” principles of conflict, competition, and enmity, valued in “second” Europe, will inevitably result in war and destruction. Even a casual look at the state of our world today, will clearly show how correct Nursi has been in his observations.

Concluding Remarks

One of the main contributions of this paper, as I see, is its message of challenge and it’s questioning the current wanton destructive aspects of fundamentalism and terrorism from whichever corner which it comes from. The essence of this paper is its recommended path from clash of civilisations/religions/cultures to dialogue, creating a culture of peace and harmony.

Today, everywhere you look you see anger and the forces of destruction at work: crime and the gun culture, alcohol and drug abuse, cheap sex and human trafficking, injustice and inequality, xenophobia and bombs - smart bombs and not-so-smart ones, even human bombs.

Nursi as has been noted by many, is a religious scholar, a reformer, an educator, a philosopher, a committed Muslim and promoter of inter-religious dialogue. He was a distinguished critic of materialism, atheism, and communism and struggled against secularism and nihilism. He was a true spiritual teacher.

I see Nursi’s teachings very relevant to today’s troubled world. His recommendations can envision, enable and empower us to take actions to heal our broken world.

For example, I see, as Nursi saw, two “Europe” (for me, two western civilisations, and two globalisations). One is compassionate, descent, virtuous and just and the other which is unjust, decadent, exploitative and inhumane. Similarly, I also see two Islam/Muslims.

The choice is ours, either we choose the path of clash (as some have done so already) or choose the path of dialogue and mutual respect (as many are doing so already).

I suggest that, and as shown clearly in this paper, given the persistence and existence of compassion, justice, love in both Christianity and Islam, and indeed, in all other religions, then, the correct path is the path of dialogue for the common good. All religions must come together in dialogue and work harmoniously together in the creation of a more humane and just world.

In all, in contrast to the cheap stereotype, tabloid image of Islam and Muslims, I see spiritual religious leaders and educators such as Said Nursi to provide a working model for such dialogue for mutual understanding, benefit and harmony. In this day and age, more than ever before, we need voices of our time which speak to people’s hearts. It has been important to me in choosing these words that they come from people who have not only expressed their faith in words, but who have actually lived what they thought and wrote and believed.

For all of the sources consulted and a bio of Kamran Mofid please go to

Originally published at and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.