In my WhatsApp communication (or better put, chats) of the day, I come across an old picture. I call it old, not because of the circumstances surrounding the object portrayed, Said Nursi (1878-1960). No. It is because of the colour. Black-and –white analogue images have no room in the digital technology age.
Typical of his life, sincerity, Said Nursi, who appears also as Said-i Nursi and Imam Bediuzzaman in the classic literature world, looks at me into the eyes. The accompanying text (caption) reads:”The death of the scholar is like the death of the world.” I smell some news. Quickly, I cross check on the Internet. I get confirmation that he actually died on this date –23rd March– in 1960. Romantically, he passed away this day sixty years ago, in nineteen-sixty. What a good rhyme to celebrate the Imam’s anniversary with!
Sixty years in human history is not big news. The big news connection with the Said Nursi death anniversary traces its roots in reading between the lines of political life of his time to the present day and critically subjecting it to his moral weights and measures standards. Of course, Turkey, his home, is taken as the departure point, leaving the rest of the world counties to find their individual morals index slots.
According to available information, he died 82 or 83 years old. Symbolically, this means that as a child, he was conceived in the womb of the Ottoman Empire to which he was consequently born and on whose milk he subsequently breasted. The Romulus et Remus legendary story of the founding of the City of Rome does not apply here. It’s all real. No fiction.
Three years senior to the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), Said Nursi went through an experience that must have had a bearing on his way of life as a great thinker, author and what I can dear call “genuine Muslim.”
He was around when his age mate Mustafa got the Kemal nickname – meaning “the perfect one”—from his teacher. This name he (Kemal) kept during the First World War in which he emerged as a national hero, became the most effective leader of Turkish resistance and went on to become the key figure in the creation of modern Turkey.
At 42 years (1920) he saw Mustafa Kemal and his supporters establish a new Turkish government and capital at Ankara. He witnessed the national assembly abolishing the Ottoman sultanate and Greek forces being driven out, opening doors to the Republic of Turkey to come into formal existence.
Three years later in 1923, against 45 years of his age, Said Nursi bears witness to Mustafa Kemal assuming the presidency and turning tables on everything. “The Perfect One” goes for the Latin alphabet, abandoning the Arabic script. The western calendar replaces the Muslim one. Traditional Islamic religious schools and courts are abolished.
Turkey’s age-old political unity based on religion, it is declared, should be replaced by one based on nationality. The fez, a symbol of faithfulness to Islam, becomes a sign of backwardness and ignorance.
The President is quoted as saying: “If we will be a civilized people, we must wear civilized international clothes.” To walk the talk, his attire becomes a Panama hat and suit. The assembly passes the Hat Law, criminalizing the fez. To avoid punishment, men in one village wear women’s summer hats complete with ribbons and feathers!
The salaam greeting gets outlawed. It’s time for the gentleman’s handshake. Come 1934, surnames are introduced and the assembly gives him a name sole of Ataturk (‘Father of the Turks’). Thank God. What if COVID-19 was to emerge in Ankara or Istanbul at this time?
Kemal regime is run by trusted ministers as he grows more reserved, solitary and remote. He moves into the Sultan’s Palace in body and spirit, leading a luxurious life until his death at 57 in 1938. Men are busy looking for power and riches; while women indulge in gossip, giving banquets, arranging amusements, and competing for worldly things. At this time Said Nursi is in his 60th year of age – another figure 60-based coincidence and about two decades away from his death in March, 1960.
After the death of the Father of the Turks, the country enjoyed a bit of stability to be plagued on by internal strife and the World War Two. Government popularity waned. The exit tangent from this world problem was to sign the United Nations Charter in 1945 and look forward to multi-party rule.
In Africa, indigenous knowledge has it that you can make a monkey put on a golden ring but that can’t kill its habit of stealing maize from the farm. Another one says you can boil water to any temperature but it will never forget its origins (coldness). Likewise, you can expose an elephant to urban life but you cannot prevent it from littering streets. However, Turkey finally in 1950 puts its first foot on political pluralism.
Between 1950 and 1960, the situation was ticking with religious restrictions being relaxed while the economy boomed. The picture changes in the latter part of the decade. Short of dying on 23rd March in 1960, Said Nursi could have witnessed the 27rd May 1960 coup, which is recorded in some quarters as having taken place on the 23rd.
Since 1960 Turkey has goes through a sort of coup cycle — 1971, 1980, 1993, 1997 and the controversial one of June 15, 2016, which has the smell of an inside job due to the speed at which the so-called perpetrators were identified and treated.
This ‘failed coup’ presents itself as extremely important at the time when the world is marking 60 years after the death of Said Nursi. It is blamed on self-exiled Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen, currently living in the US State of Pennsylvania. Gulen is a disciple of Said Nursi and, like him, does not harbour political ambitions.
Dr. Jon Pahl summarizes the situation rightly in his book on Gulen and the life of Hizmet when he says: “… to focus on events in Turkey in recent years, and Fethullah Gulen’s role as cause, effect, villain, hero, winner or loser would be to reduce the meaning and significance of his life to something like wax; ephemeral relations with a paltry kind of power…”
Said Nursi has all along said it categorically that the real enemies of the Turkish (in fact any) people are none other than ignorance, poverty and disunity, whose solution revolves on the axis of molding a cohesive and disciplined community through education, mass media and financial networks targeting the establishment of a new power balance of justice, love, respect and equality among people.
An environment has to be built whereby one has to see all others as God sees them with the eyes of mercy and compassion. People must be revived; not killed. Today, about a quarter of the Turkish people wish it were possible for them to live somewhere else == not at home.
Said Nursi emphasized: “Moral laws are absolute. They are not relative. Efforts spent on spicing our actions in the interest of our desires points in the wrong direction. This is why, as it is noted, we substitute legal and illegal, right and wrong with attributes. And a State is created along these lines.”
In the Seedbed of The Light, Fourth Treatise, Third Part of the Spark, he said: “Happiness and real pleasure lies in forsaking everything, including existence for His (God’s) sake. A drop of water has the same nature as an ocean (both are water) and a river (both are from clouds).
“Whatever is suffered for God is good. It is sweet even if apparently bitter, for it makes you taste the pleasure of supplicating and praying to Him. Every speech unconcerned with Him is idle talk.”
Giving us a sort of cardinal self-observation point, he said: “Human beings are usually susceptible to shedding positive knowledge as they go down the learning lane. Instead, we pick and treasure meaningless and sometimes wrong convictions, which eventually lead us astray.”
This is the man whose anniversary is we are supposed to celebrate. It’s unfortunate the day is tagged on his death when, if looked at critically, we find it is his life we are supposed to celebrate – his sincerity and stand for leading moral lives as individuals and nations for the sake of God and his creation because of peace and development.