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Yaz 2004   [ 87. Sayı ]

The Pathways to Tolerance in a Multi-Madhhab Society Faith and Forgiveness in the Thought of Said Nursi

Yasien Mohamed

University of the Western Cape

Said Nursi (d. 1960) is a religious thinker who inspired a faith movement in modem Turkey that took the shape of madrasas (dershane), which are devoted to the reading of his Risale-i Nur (Epistles of Light). The Risale provides the content for a rational discourse on faith, and the madrasas provide the context in which brothers and sisters meet regularly, and bond together on the basis of a common faith.

There two aspects to Nursi's tolerance, faith and forgiveness. By faith we mean a mature, open-minded faith. This kind of faith is needed today, more than ever before, because of the increasing conflict between the Salafis and the Sufıs, and all those denominations that are subsumed under these two groups. The Salafis want to return to the teaching of the early community and to a literalist understanding of scripture, and the Sufıs want to examine the deeper, esoteric meanings of the scripture. Various schools of thought- whether Sunni or Shia, Shafi'i or Hanafi, Ashari or Mu'tazila will be subsumed under one of these two strands. A particular school can share elements from both these strands. The Deobandis share with the Sufis the acceptance of meditation (dhikr), and share with the Salafis their rejection of innovation (bid'ah). Nursi belongs to neither of these two strands but share characteristics of both. He represents a third strand, which is moderate and open to reconciliation between these two groups. It is a minority of people who adhere to this third strand, but with increasing support, they will play a major role in the future towards unity and reconciliation between these two main strands.

Faith is precious; we should respect it where we fınd it, and we should respect believers for having it, even if they have wronged us in some way or another. Revenge for slight injuries to the ego could lead to a breakdown in human relations; but forgiveness will lead to cementing human relations.

The Definition of Terms

Nursi wants us to cultivate tolerance in a multi-madhhab society. The word madhhab normally refers to a school of Islamic jurisprudence, namely, Shafi'i, Hanafi, Maliki, Hanbali and Shi'a. These schools differ because of ijtihad, independent reasoning, but they all share a common faith in Allah and His Prophet Muhammad (s). We use the term madhhab in a broad sense, to connote an approach or religion conception towards this faith.

The Spirit of the Times

Western superpowers have dominated the Muslim world by more than a century, and instead of bringing peace, they have brought violence. They have subjugated people by military might and not by moral force.

Nursi wanted Muslims to embrace this modem technology in order to be in touch with progress, but he also wanted Muslims to defend their faith in a secular society. The brotherhood of Muslims centered on this common faith was for him the key to Muslim power. The Old Said indulged in politics, but the New Said withdrew from it. It was more important to focus on faith and to purify the soul. The hardness of the soul should give way to a gentler way of social living. He appealed to the awwam, or the populace, whom he considered to be the true carriers of the Islamic message and who came from the rural segments of Turkish society. The New Said became more interested in human relations and the revival of Islamic social ethics.1

1. The Pathway of Faith

The history of Islam is marked by two major trends, the intellectual and the political. The philosophers and Sufis belonged to the intellectual trend and proposed a profound reflection of the nature of humanity and the divine. The Kharijites belonged to the political trend and they believed that by rebelling against the unjust Imam they would bring about change in the society. The pillars of faith include the belief in God, the Prophets, the angels, the revealed books and the Last Day. These are the common elements of faith, but there are different interpretations to these beliefs. For example, the classical kalam scholars debated about whether the Qur'an was eternal or created. This is no longer a pressing issue of our time. Nursi wanted to revitalize kalam by responding to the challenges of the day, including that of science and secularism. He did not challenge modem science, but tried to reconcile it with religion. Nursi supported verified faith (iman tahqiqi), not imitative faith (iman taqlidi).2 He employed science to demonstrate the rationality of faith, and the workings of God in the universe.3

Turkish Muslims found the products of modem science alluring, and Nursi responded by embracing them as positive achievements to be emulated. He recaptured the 'concept of reason itself from a kind of enlightenment nominalism, but he did not use it against religion, but for religion'.4 If employed by religion, reason will lead to an understanding of the Glorious names of God.

Classical scholars also debated about the relationship between faith and good deeds. This is important for the concept of tolerance. Sunni scholars had the view that faith is decisive for salvation, and that major sins cannot annul it, it can only cause it to decrease.5 The Kharijites believed that they do annul faith. Nursi espoused the Sunni view, which is more in keeping with the spirit of tolerance.

Respect for diversity of interpretation of belief and the practice of it, is rooted in a Prophetic tradition which states that 'Differences in my ummah is a blessing'. This refers to minor differences such as whether God is transcendent or immanent, or whether the Qur'an is eternal or uncreated. These differences give no one the right to judge another person's faith. The inability to distinguish the essentials of faith (which are rooted in revelation), and secondary matters (which are rooted in human reason), is for Nursi, the major cause of intolerance in Muslim society.

Like Ghazzali, Nursi questioned the madhhabs of the day, and opposed their blind following. He investigated the schools of his time, but he came to a different conclusion from Ghazzali. Nursi found the solution to the problem of the ummah in kalam, and Ghazzali found it in Sufism. Ghazzali did not reject kalam, nor did Nursi reject Sufism. Ghazzali was an Asha'rite like Nursi, and Nursi lived as a Sufi like Ghazzali. They followed a particular persuasion, but also had respect for other orientations. Nursi and Ghazzali show us that tolerance does not mean that we have to agree with everything. In fact, tolerance implies disagreement.

Attitude to Sufism

Nursi respected Sufism, but at the same time he was critical of certain ideas and practices that crept into Sufism. He disagreed with Ibn Arabi's wahdat al-wujud (Unity of Being), which to him did not acknowledge the world as an independent reality.

Nursi was not a Sufi, but lived like one. He lived simply and meditated constantly. He saw himself as an ustadh (teacher), whose message will survive him through his magnum opus, the Risale-Nur. The Risale reads like music, and Turks could listen to it till the late hours of the night without getting tired. It became a source of mental and spiritual nourishment for Turkish people.

For Nursi, Sufism was like fruit, and faith was like bread. We all need bread, but we do not all need fruit. Those who want to experience union with God, a goal of Sufism, cannot be expected of all Muslims. A pressing need for all Muslims is faith, and an understanding of it has become even more urgent in the age of reason. This explains partly why Nursi did not start a tariqa.

When the fruit of Sufism is overripe, it cannot contain its exuberance, and it overflows in ways that are not religiously or socially acceptable. Al-Hallaj said: 'I am the absolute truth', and he was sentenced to death for his ecstatic utterance which he made while in a state of fana (extinction in God). Ibn Arabi was condemned for his doctrine of wahdat al-wujud (unity of being). Basically, it means that God is the only One reality, and the world is only a reflection of it. Thus, the world does not have an independent existence.

Let us now illustrate Nursi's tolerance through his critique of the Sufism of Ibn Arabi. Nursi was inspired by Sufi orders, but did not operate within their framework. 'Most of Said Nursi's teachers belonged to the Khalidi Naqshabandi order, but he also read the writings of Abdul Kader Geylani, the founder of the Kadiri order. He was heavily influenced by the writings of Naqshabandi leaders such as Ahmad Sirhindi in India and Ahmad Ziyaed-din Gumushaneli.6 Thus, Nursi was not averse to Sufism, which he positively described as fruit. He described its benefits as follows: it prescribes meditation break pride and achieve sainthood; it provides consolation to the suffering; the Sufi man is more precise about faith than the scientific man; it has cultivated brotherhood, the sacred bond in the Muslim world.7 Sufism protects faith, brotherhood, and is nobler than any secular or nationalistic ideology.

However, Nursi is critical of the abuses within Sufism: The Shaykhs have absolute authority over personal and theological matters, and their verdicts often contradict the Qur'an and the teachings of the four Imams; some of them make Sufism an end in itself, and so their meditation does not curb their pride; others are so intoxicated by divine love that they make exaggerated claims (shatahat), harming themselves and others; claims to divine inspiration can be dangerous when it is placed on par with 'revealed verses'.

Thus, for Nursi, we cannot base faith on the imaginations and illusions of people. This conflicts with reason and has no basis in Islam. 'Neither the four rightly-guided caliphs, nor the great jurists, not the righteous scholars of Islam, are reported to have made any reference to, or suggestion of, this school'.8 The kind of Sufism that Nursi supports is a sober Sufism, such as the one represented by Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani.9 (Nursi had an impact on Fetullah Gülen, who adopted a similar attitude to Sufism as a valid way; but not the only valid way).

Without being hostile, Nursi disagreed with Ibn Arabi's metaphysical doctrine. As mentioned, he was neither a Salafi nor a Sufi, but followed a middle way. Nursi stands on the continuum between the Salafi and the Sufi strands. The left jurisprudence to the fuqaha' and focused on the meaning of the Qur'an. Like the Salafis he did not adhere to a tariqa, and like the Sufis he indulged in meditation and asceticism.

He compiled the Gaushan, a manual for meditation and supplications. Moshe states: 'Through Ali, as well, is traced the chain of transmission of the Jawshan al-kabir (The great armour)-a prayer decidedly from Shia sources but long available in Turkish translation and in use among Sunnis'. This devotional resource (after the Qur'an) is the most precious to Nursi.10 These supplications suggest an unequal relationship with God; we can demand nothing from him, and must patiently for Him to answer our prayers.11 As spiritual sustenance the Jawshan supplemented the Risale, which provided intellectual sustenance. All admirers of Nursi use it.

Nursi differs from the Salafis and the Sufis in one respect. He is not anti-intellectual, and attempted to revitalize kalam, a rational approach to faith. This does not mean it was simply intellectual; it was also practical. On predestination, for example, he did not merely discuss in the manner of the classical theologians, defending his position rationally, but he also urged Muslims to act responsibly.

Nursi takes the middle-path between Salafism and Sufism, and in this sense he promotes reconciliation, not polarization. The dershanes became a point of convergence for people belonging to any of these strands. No one aught to feel alienated, or be forced to conform.12

Tolerance implies disagreement we note in Nursi's critique of Ibn Arabi. Nursi disagreed with his view strongly, but did not, like many others, pass the verdict of heresy upon him.13 Moreover, his criticism was not based on mere emotion, but on sound reason and the guidance of the Qur' an.

Tolerance can be defined in terms of what it is not. In respecting other views it does not mean one has to compromise one's belief. In applying reason it does not mean one has to become a pure rationalist, and not take recourse to scripture. Tolerance does not apply to clear, established concepts or beliefs such as the Oneness of God (tawhid); only to interpretations thereof. Nursi's interpretation of it differs from that of Ibn Arabi, The former stresses God's transcendence, and the latter, His immanence.

Muslims should debate, but not fight over these differences, which will divide us. We should unite against the common enemy, which is the doctrine of secularism. It is a poison that corrodes our faith and our morality, "The enemy of human happiness and ethical uprightness is unbelief, irreligion'.14 Secularism is often contrasted with religious fanaticism, and this can be misleading because we think we have to choose between these two positions. Religious fanaticism is grounded in blind faith, but it is better than godlessness. True Muslims, however, follow the path of moderation.

Fanaticism, being a violent and unreasoning devotion, is incompatible with Islam. However deep it is, a Muslim's devotion depends on knowledge and reasoning. Even if it is not, it cannot be described as fanaticism. For the deeper and firmer the Muslim's belief is, and devotion to Islam, whether based on knowledge or reasoning, the further from fanaticism a Muslim is by virtue of Islam being a 'middle way' based on peace, balance, justice and moderation.15

Reason is important, but not all Muslims have to be philosophers like Ibn Sina or theologians like al-Baqilani. It is sufficient to be a devout Muslim with a basic understanding of the faith. Sainthood is important, but not all Muslims have to be saints. Moreover, saints are not to be found in Sufi orders only; pious individuals can also experience mystical states of ecstasy. These spiritual experiences should however not be made public.

Just as we should not question the essentials of faith, we should also not challenge the essentials of the revealed law. 'The fundamentals of the religion and its incontrovertible principles are never subject to dispute or alteration. Whosoever attempts to dispute or alter them becomes an apostate.'16 The details of the law can change from time to time, and we can debate about them. Such differences are a product of human ijtihad, and they are a mercy as suggested by the Tradition, 'Differences among my community is a mercy'. So it is wrong to judge the sincerity of a Muslim on the basis of a difference on a minor detail. The Tradition that warns those who wear there garments above their ankles has a moral message. It warns against pride because the pre-islamic Arabs dressed in this manner to show their pomp and status. Today, Muslims have lost the moral message, and they judge a Muslim's sincerity in terms of his dress code. The question of the dress-code for men is a matter of religious opinion, and therefore a test of our tolerance, not a reason for enmity and division. These are details, not fundamentals. There is no absolute truth in details. By making them absolute we fall in the danger of monopolizing over religious opinions. This is self-righteousness. There is no place for it in a multi-cultural, multi-madhhab society.

2. The Pathway of Forgiveness

As the New Said gave more attention to faith and unity he withdrew from the fellowship of political partisanship (which causes division) and aligned himself with the fellowship of spiritual partisanship (which causes forgiveness). The latter fellowship was important to Nursi because peace is not a mathematical formula, and cannot be worked out by mathematical equations. An eye for an eye, and taking back from what has been taken, are all Aristotelian forms of justice, upon which modern forms of human rights are based. This legal, classical Roman justice, may bring about a sophisticated administration, and some measure of order, not peace. The ummah needs love and forgiveness. Politics may be the instrument of justice, but this is not all that we need. To address material inequalities is not all that we require, we all need to extend love to humanity. This love, this forgiveness, is a matter of the heart, and extends beyond human rights.

Forgiveness is a powerful force. It brings about reconciliation and unity; it is the key to social change. It is even nobler to justice. Forgiveness heals human relations, justice alienates people. We need justice and people should be punished for their crimes, not for what they are. We should show tolerance, but this does not mean we should suspend moral judgment.

Nursi discusses forgiveness in the context of minor wrongs that can cause the breakdown of human relations. People also become angry and revengeful for petty offences, little spites and passing slights. While they are less serious than deep-seated hatreds and revenges, they dwarf the character and cramp the soul. They are due to self-importance and vanity. Frequent resentments of this nature could lead to hatred and enmity. To give up vanity is difficult, but it can be overcome by constant meditation over one's thoughts and actions.

Revenge seems sweet, but poisons the soul, and saps the healthy flow of kindness; causing a person to suffer psychologically and spiritually. He suffers the loss of love; he suffers of a wounded pride, and he suffers of a troubled mind. If he overcomes his pride and vanity, he would not be resentful, but gentle and charitable. He will tolerate the hurts even if he cannot forget them. To forgive is not to erase the wrong from memory, but it is to stop hatred for the wrongdoer.

When we suffer due to an injustice or calamity that befalls us we have to view is in the light of divine destiny. Nursi brings our attention to a bigger picture to explain suffering. We should bear suffering with patience as it is the key to purification. 'Creatures go through many states and experience situations in which they suffer misfortunes and hardships, so purifying their lives'.17 These misfortunes are a test from God.18 Even a brother's wrong towards us is part of divine destiny, and a test of our character.

We should pity, rather then be violent, towards the wrongdoer who is subject to the weakness of his desire (nafs). The heart is capable of both brotherly affection (ukhuwat)19 and enmity (adawat). Affection will change our hatred into pity. Compassion is a divine quality called al-Rahim, but it is a virtue that man can easily emulate. God commands it of the believers,20 who are ruhama baynahum ('compassionate among them'). Compassion is superior to al-wadud (The Loving), which only appears in the Qur'an a few times.21 Compassion is easy, but forgiveness is more difficult.22

Forgiveness is better than revenge, and requires self-mastery. Forgiveness does not exclude punishment, but it does exclude hatred. It is uplifting; it eases the heart of pain, it frees it of hatred. It is difficult because we cannot understand why we should forgive the one who hurt us. Yet it is a quality that God loves: 'Those who curb their anger and those who forgive their fellow-men. Verily God loves the doers of good' (Q. 3: 135). By forgiving the wrongdoer we are saved of causing harm, and perhaps a greater injustice, to him.

In sum, if a person harms us we should heed three things. First, we should think of divine destiny. God states; 'Does man think he will be left to roam at will, that he will be left uncontrolled' (Q. 75: 36).23 Patience in suffering is vital for happiness,24 and for curbing pride.25 It does not conflict with divine mercy. Change is the key to survival in the next world, and yet, it is this principle of change that causes sorrow.

So we should be grateful for the sorrow; it is the key to happiness. Secondly, we should pity the wrongdoer, who is a victim of his lower self (nafs).26 We should not let anger control us, we should control it.27 Thirdly, God punishes you (through the wrongdoer) because of a defect in your own soul. We resent others for defects which we also have. The unpleasant past should humble us, and by taking responsibility for it, we will be less self-righteous and judgmental.


We have discussed two pathways to tolerance, faith and forgiveness. Both require reason to temper religious fanaticism and aggression. They are essential for tolerance in a multi-cultural, multi-madhhab, and multi-religious society. Nursi exhorts us to reflect before we react, and to forgive before we revenge. We should have a mature faith in order to respect diversity of opinion, and we should forgive our dear ones in order that we preserve family ties. Revenge breaks human relations, and forgiveness unites them.


This article we have discussed two pathways to tolerance, faith and forgiveness. Both require reason to temper religious fanaticism and aggression. They are essential for tolerance in a multi-cultural, multi-madhhab, and multi-religious society. Nursi exhorts us to reflect before we react, and to forgive before we revenge. We should have a mature faith in order to respect diversity of opinion, and we should forgive our dear ones in order that we preserve family ties. Revenge breaks human relations, and forgiveness unites them.


1. Ibrahim M Abu Rabi, 'How to Read Said Nursi' in Islam at the Crossroads: On the life and thought of Bediuzzzaman Said Nursi, ed. I. M. Abu Rabi, SUNY Press, Albany, 2003, p. 81f

2. S. Vahide, The Author of the Risale-i Nur, Bediuzzman Said Nursi, 2nd edition, Sosler Publications, 1988, p. 102.

3. Ibid, p.l01.

4. Ke1ton Cobb, Islam at the Crossroads: On the life and thought of Bediuzzzaman Said Nursi, cd. 1. M. Abu Rabi, SUNY Press, Albany, 2003, p. 132.

5. Norman Calder, The Limits of Islamic Orthodoxy, Intellectual Traditioııs in Islam, ed. F. Daftary, 1. B. Tauris, London, 2001, p. 68.

6. Hakan Yavuz, 'Being Modem the Nurcu way', ISIM Newsletter, Leiden, 6/2000, p. 7 and 14.

7. Said Nursi, The Letters, 2, Truestar, London, 1995, 279-281

8. Ibid, pp. 279-281.

9. Fred A Reed, Anatolia Junction, Talon Books, 1999, pp. 83-84

10. Lucinda Allen Mosher, 'The Marrow of Worship and the Moral Vision: Said Nursi and Supp1ication', Islam at the Crossroads, ed. 1. M. Abu-Rabi', SUNY, Albany, 2003, p. 182.

11. Ibid, p.188.

12. I took part in Nursi sessions in Saudi Arabia in 2000, and a member of the Tabligh Jama'at was a regular participant.

13. Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (representing a sober Suti strand) and Ibn Tamiyyah (the Salati strand) are known for their vehement criticism of lbn Arabi. Nursi was inspired by Sirhindi. See Hakan Yavuz, 'Being Modem the Nurcu way', ISIM Newsletter, Leiden, 6/2000 p. 7 and p. 14.

14. Thomas Michel, 'Muslim-Christian Dialogue and Co-Operation in the thought of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi', A Contemporary Approach to Understanding The Qur 'an: The example of The Risale-i-Nıır, lnternational Symposium 4, Istanbul, 1998, 553-554.

15. S. Nursi, The Letters, 2, Truestar, London, 1995, p. 263.

16. Ibid, P. 260

17. Nursi, Words, p. 144.

18. Nursi, Letters, 2, pp. 88-97.

19. Nursi does not use 'love' ('ishq) as a contrast to enmity, but 'brotherly love' (ukhuwat). Sozler edition uses 'love' which is not equivalent to the Turkish ukhuwal.

20. Edward Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon, 1-2, Cambridge 1984; cf. D. Gimaret, 'rahma' , Encyclopaedia of Islam, New editiol1, vol. VIII, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1995.

21. Thanks to Mecit Yaman for this point.

22. For Nursi, forgiveness for fellowmen is of primary concern. For the Sufis, it is not an end in itself, but should lead to the love for God.

23. Nursi, The Words, 2, p. 135.

24. Ibid, The Words, 2, p. 142f; The Words, 1, Sozler edition, p. 477f.

25. Ibid, p. 131 f.; Nursi, Sozler edition, p. 486.

26. Nursi does not make a distinction between minor and major wrongs here; the context suggests that he is referring to minor wrongs such as little slights and insults.

27. Classical philosophers like Isfahani and Ghazzali recommended that we control anger with reason. They give the analogy of the rider and the horse. The rider is the metaphor for reason and the horse is the metaphor for desire. The skilful rider can control his horse, but he is should first control the dog, which is a metaphor for anger. See Yasien Mohamed, 'Islamic psychotherapy: Isfahani's Treatment of Anger, Fear and Sorrow', AFKAR, 4, 2003, pp. 87-102.