Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s Concept of ‘Uboodiya’ Sufi Mystical Servitude Vs. Islamist Ideological Oppression by Muhammad Ashraf
CIP July 17, 2016
When I began to read Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, I encountered numerous deeply aesthetic narrations of the bond between man and Almighty God. Nursi describes the divine bondage of man to the Almighty as a beautiful servitude. Nursi understood that being a slave to the most compassionate, powerful, beautiful and gracious God provides humanity with a heavenly experience very far from the sterile and negative lives of those who do not think about the purpose of life on Earth. An aesthetic accounting of the philosophical existence of humanity was obviously guided by an urge to ‘celebrate the servitude’. Unfortunately, as a result of the rise of materialist philosophies like existentialism, grounded in 20th century nihilism, human history experienced a destructive quest to ordain or identify man’s life as unalterably absurd and hopeless, leaving no ultimate aim for this worldly life.
The religiosity of Said Nursi, revived in Ottoman Turkey and surviving through the decades, was subjected to the supreme will of the Creator. His mystical writing was developed significantly to portray the serene beauty of holy servitude (Uboodiya). In contrary to the epicurean philosophies such as that of the ancient Indian school known as the Carvakas, which were critical of Vedic traditions, the joyful servitude of mysticism offers a distinct and hopeful way of life for both Muslims and others, and it bestows on humanity evident hope and courage to survive the turbulent tests of life. A practical schema of mystical scholarship is seen in Said Nursi’s constant conversation with secularism and with other religious sects, especially Christians, in Ottoman Turkey.
Divine Servitude (Uboodiya) and its Celebration
My reading of Nursi occurred while I was a serious reader of Islamic mysticism. His narratives on Sufi principles were beautiful, and his vision of the revival of Muslim belief was unquestionably conscious and deep. As he wanted to spend his entire life reviving the contextual, belief-oriented Muslim spirit, he strove to fully acknowledge the vitality of believing in God and teaching, therefore, the beauty of being a slave to God. His description of the divine bondage of man to the Almighty as an aesthetic and beautiful servitude was path-breaking and innovative. He imbued in his narratives of this beautiful servitude an inner sense of celebration of submission. Contrary to the institutionalized systems of racial and social stratification, I surmise that this sense of an ‘imagined’ servitude in the human mind, as narrated by Nursi, should be beneficial and significant to the development of a broader humanity and a feeling of common solidarity among those invited to believe in God. Only by submission to faith in God do humans become powerful, according to Nursi. And yet, anybody from outside a religious realm where you worship a God cannot witness this joyful servitude in its perfect sense. The state of mind of being a spiritual slave would negate the illegal practice of human trafficking, one of the present day forms of erstwhile servitude, still prevalent following the legal abolition of slavery.
What makes something an object worthy of celebration? I argue that it is its efficacy in producing happiness and intellectual satisfaction. It is said that Nursi argued always that worldly pleasures never last. Nursi’s conviction was that “It is only through belief that human beings can find happiness and fulfillment”. This constitutes one of the main themes of Risale-i-Nur [The Message of Light], the compendium of Said Nursi’s works. Therein he points out the paradoxes and failures of philosophy and misguided science, which, although their stated aim is the conquest of human happiness, have rather brought humanity pain and suffering, since they have sought it in worldly pleasures and through their false viewpoint” (Şükran Vahide 2006, p. 62). He had a powerful conviction that Western materialist philosophy and modernity – ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Modern Civilization’ in his terms – deprive humanity of real happiness and pleasure. Therefore, he strove relentlessly, in contrast, to portray a beautiful and divine servitude, and he tried to substantiate this with narratives about its everlasting happiness. This mystical thought was underpinned by realization of the impotence of human beings, which he described plainly as “impotent and infinitely weak, utterly poor, and endlessly needy”.
Modern day epicurean attitudes and existentialist dogmas are products of Western philosophy and its culture. As a result of the spread of materialist philosophies like existentialism, a ‘philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will’, and other anarchical trends which were perhaps formed inside religion but were influenced by ‘others’, antihuman sociopaths have appeared, attached to so-called religious extremism but who had nothing to do with the world’s faith traditions. In reality, they adopted alien ideas, owing mainly to the manner in which the ideological bases of the modern world order crept into the religious communities over time. For many more there was a need to confront Marxism, an offshoot of modernity that treated religion, toward which “it had no eyes with which to see the spiritual, [and] interpreted religion solely as a material construct”. Therefore, religion was perceived by many as “nothing but a political ideology” (Bayman 2003) and brought about homicidal danger to humanity in the form of the cults of radical Islam. Hence, Nursi committed to fight against this modernity and materialism, to rescue Islam and support efforts to “reverse its decline vis-à-vis the West”, which was “not through political struggle or the establishment of the Islamic state or other means, but through the revitalization of faith or belief (iman)” (Şükran Vahide 2006). This is amazing to many Muslims and Westerners alike.
In response to the needs of his time, Nursi approached the endeavor of revival with an astute project, which also seemed to be rational and scientific, for a commentary on Qur’an giving primacy to description of belief. He narrated divine servitude with different beautiful sketches. Among them were his powerful descriptions of ‘belief and humanity’ which were at the same time celebration of Uboodiya, in other words a deeply conscious call to invoke the festivity of servitude, in that “Belief is both light and strength. Yes, the person who acquires true belief may challenge the whole universe and be saved from the pressure of events in accordance with the strength of his belief. Saying, ‘I place my trust in God’, he travels through the mountainous waves of events in the ship of life in complete safety. He entrusts all his burdens to the hand of power of the Absolutely Powerful One, voyages through the world in ease, then takes his rest in the Intermediate Realm. Later he may fly up to Paradise in order to enter eternal happiness. But if he does not rely on God, rather than flying, the burdens of the world will drag him down to the lowest of the low. That is to say, belief necessitates affirmation of divine unity, affirmation of divine unity necessitates submission to God, submission to God necessitates trust in God, and trust in God necessarily leads to happiness in this world and the next” (Nursi, Words, p. 322).
Most of the later theologians in Islamic history, such as Imam Al-Ghazali [11th-12th c. CE], one of the most important Muslim philosophers the world ever saw, attached their greatest interest to reviving the Islamic spirit by seeking a variety of spiritual modes, such as Tazkiyatunnafs (refining the mind) and stress on Ikhlas (sincerity in activities). They emphasized the matters that come after belief. Nursi stressed the realized (haqiqi) belief in God and its protection from outside threats of a materialist nature. His primordial argument was to resist such stress in the modern world. He lived in the time of secular repression undertaken by Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk”, the modernizing ruler of Turkey. Therefore, the atmosphere where a Muslim theologian called Nursi was formed was of great importance to development of the notion of the supreme importance of belief. He gave hope to the believers (divine slaves) in the mercifulness of the Almighty, which encourages humans to celebrate their spiritual servitude. He pointed out “Belief, which consists of being connected to the Maker, makes apparent all the works of art in man,” and “in this respect, insignificant man becomes God’s addressee and a guest of the sustainer worthy of paradise superior to all other creatures” (Nursi, The Words, p. 320).
He rightly said that being a slave to the Almighty would bring great happiness and pleasure to a human being: “For man in this position (of necessity of belief) the only True Object of Worship will be One in whose hand are the reins of all things, with whom are the treasuries of all things, and who is present everywhere, who sees all things, and who is beyond space, exempt from impotence, free of fault, and far above all defect; an all-powerful One of glory, an all-compassionate One of beauty, an all-wise One of perfection. O man. If you are the slave of him alone, you will earn a place superior to all creatures” (Nursi, 1992, The Words). In his commentary on the Quranic verse ‘God is enough for us, for He is the best disposer of the affairs’, Nursi calls for us to “give up egotism and arrogance. With the tongue of seeking help proclaim your impotence and weakness at the divine court and with the tongue of entreaty and supplication, your poverty and need” (Nursi, 1992). He enhanced this by saying “O man! In regard to your vegetable, physical being and animal soul, you are a deaf particle, a contemptible atom, a needy creature, a weak animal, who, tossed on the awesome ways of the flood of beings, is departing. But being perfected through the light of belief, which comprises the radiance of divine love, through the training of Islam, which is enlightened in regard to humanity and servitude to God, you are a king, and universal within particularity and within insignificance, a world, and within your contemptibility, a supervisor of such high rank and extensive sphere that you can say: ‘My compassionate sustainer has made the world a house for me, the sun and moon lamps for it, and the spring, a bunch of flowers for me, and the summer, a table of bounties, and the animals He has made my servants. And He has made plants the decorated furnishings of my house’ ” (Nursi, 1992).
I will end my examples from Nursi’s celebrative narrations about divine servitude by this quote, “Also, do not say: ‘I am nothing. What importance do I have that the universe should purposefully be made subject to me by an Absolutely All-Wise One, and universal thanks required of me?’ Because certainly you are as though nothing with respect to your soul and form, but from the point of view of duty and rank, you are an observant spectator of this majestic universe, an eloquent, articulate tongue of these beings so full of wisdom, a discerning reader of this book of the universe, a supervisor of these creatures full of wonder at their glorifications, and like a director of these beings full of respect for their worship” (Nursi, The Words).
A modern context for mystical thought
As perceived from his narrations, a believer who could rely on Said Nursi may surpass the turbulent moments in his life with hope and even satisfaction that he will be rewarded in the hereafter. And a realization of such a vision and wisdom is seen in Nursi’s unquestionable and uncompromising decision to protect the ideals he saw as powerful. Imprisonment or conspiratorial temptations could not stop him from his efforts to assert the vitality of belief and to wage intellectual wars against materialist threats like extreme secularism. Thus, the practical schema of this mystical scholarship was seen in his constant conversation with emerging secularism and with other religious sects, especially Christians, in Ottoman Turkey. And I believe that this hopefulness and positivity can defeat attacks by psychopaths indoctrinated in radical Islam. The life of Said Nursi was an embodiment of his mystical thought, crying out to unite humanity for the protection of faith, freedom and minorities.
This vision was inextricably interwoven with a deep desire to free humanity from three fatal disorders: ‘poverty’, ‘ignorance’, and ‘disunity’. As ‘Uboodiya’ is a comprehensive term deriving from the Qur’anic verse, ‘You Alone do we worship and You Alone do we ask for Help’ (Qur’an 1:5). This consists, as elaborated by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah [13th-14th c. CE], of the servitude of the heart (Qawl), and the belief and activity of the heart (Amal). That is the heart that encompasses love for God, reliance upon God, turning to God in repentance and other duties. It is joined to the tongue (primarily through knowledge, which is used to convey what Allah has revealed regarding Himself, His Names and Attributes, His Actions, His Commands, His Prohibitions, and all that is related to this religion) and links to God (including prayer, charity and other observances) [Ibn al-Qayyim, A Chapter on The Dispraise of Desire, p. 10].
In Nursi’s vision, every human being is a creature with two aspects, of which one is ‘that of creation, good, acts, and positivity’ and the other is that of ‘destruction, non-existence, evil, negativity, and passivity’. As he propounded, the first is realized in man through attaining belief, which is in reality divine servitude or submission to the power of the Almighty. Thus, this divine servitude becomes an aspect of ‘creation, good acts, and positivity’, which may also help shape a positive world order, where belief and the believers facilitate charity, harmonious interaction and dialogue. In these positive activities, one who follows Nursi’s celebratory divine servitude witnesses the pleasure of helping others, with the primary intention being the satisfaction of the All-Wise God. All else is worldly and ultimately unrealistic to those who realize this beauty of divine servitude, as evident from Nursi’s reply to a man who asked about his worries and even the danger to his life: “Why should I be frightened? I have no connection with the world apart from the appointed hour. I have no family and children to think of. It is not wanting to preserve worldly glory and renown which consists of hypocritical, undeserved fame, may God bless those who help in destroying it. There only remains the appointed hour and that is in the hands of the All-Glorious Creator” [Nursi, Letters, p. 69).
Those realized mystics (celebrant divine slaves) cannot conform to aggressive nationalism, racism and the other modern day ‘diseases’ that wrought disasters to the humanity over the past two centuries. They would argue that they are working for a broader humanity, and that this vision of mercy is the core of Sufism. In reply to an anticipated question, ‘They call you Said-i Kurdi [Said the Kurd]; perhaps you have some nationalist ideas, and that doesn’t suit our interests’, Said Nursi rightly declared “Sirs! The things the ‘Old Said’ and the ‘New Said’ have written are clear. I cite as testimony the certain statement, ‘Islam has abrogated the tribalism of ignorance.’ For years I have considered negative nationalism and racism to be fatal poisons, since they are varieties of European diseases. And Europe has infected Islam with these diseases thinking they would cause division, and Islam would break up and be easily swallowed” (Nursi, Letters, p. 86).
Said Nursi held dialogues with opposing trends and he called for more of it. His mode of conversation, which I love to call the Sufi method of interreligious coexistence, had many echoes in the history of Indian Muslims. One prominent Sufi scholar, Sayyid Alavi Mouladaveel Al-Hussainy Thangal [1752-1845 CE], came from Tarim on the Hadramawt coast of south Arabia to Kerala on the west coast of the Indian subcontinent, where he conversed often with the downtrodden Hindu population. He was even considered a shelter for them.
Said Nursi preached his unwillingness to partake in politics, but held to a great concern for protection of minorities, which is inherent in his vision. Shedding light on the Quranic verse, ‘We made it a law for the children of Israel that the killing of a person for reasons other than legal retaliation or for stopping corruption in the land is as great a sin as murdering all of mankind. However, to save a life would be as great a virtue as to save all of mankind’ (Q 5:32), he elaborated that “The politics of civilization sacrifices the minority for the comfort of the majority. Indeed, the despotic minority sacrifices the majority of people for themselves. Qur’anic justice would not take the life of a single innocent, spill their blood, or sacrifice him even for all mankind, let alone the majority” (Nursi, The Words, p. 742).
This realized mystical thought inspired Nursi to wage intellectual war against threats to freedom of expression, which was neither hazardous nor detrimental to the public welfare of the state and people. His mystical realization of divine servitude led to the abandonment of lethal weapons in the face of new phenomena such as radical secularism that questioned the right to the religious freedom of personal conviction. He argued “According to the principles of freedom of thought and conscience, so long as they do not upset the government, if some of the Risale-i Nur students do not accept the regime and your principles on scholarly grounds, and act in opposition to it, and even if they are inimical to the regime’s leader, they should not be touched judicially” (Nursi, The Rays, p. 373). But personally, I do not argue against those compelled to fight in protection of their lives.
In the difficult life on this planet, the lessons from Risale-i Nur are widely adaptable, as it teaches the positivity of speaking openly about disagreements, reinforcing the right to freedom of thought and relying finally on the countless mercy of the Almighty. In Nursi’s words “As for the people of guidance and religion, the religious scholars and those who follow the Sufi path, since they rely upon truth and reality, and each of them on the road of truth thinks only of his Sustainer and trusts in His succour, they derive dignity from their belief. When they feel weakness, they turn not toward men, but toward God and seek help from Him” (Nursi, Flashes, p. 203).
I have tried in this paper to draw on a broad array of subthemes – pluralism, dialogue, interreligious harmony, and others – to argue for a comprehensive conceptualization of the aesthetics of Nursi’s narrative regarding Uboodiya. I have attempted firstly to describe the format, expressions and his mode of presenting the divine servitude, while comparing it with of Imam Al-Ghazali, and contrasting it with the trends of nihilism and existentialism. And more particularly, this paper has attempted to underscore some of very important solutions for present crises, like the disputed Intifadas and relentless terrorist conspiracies, linking his view and practice of dialogues with opposing trends, as a result of the realization of a more or less perfect Uboodiya. His vision of conversation with minorities had many echoes in the history of Indian Muslims.
Ibrahim Abu-Rabi. 2006. The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
Bayman, Henry. 2003. The Secret of Islam: Love and Law in the Religion of Ethics. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books.
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Words. 2004. [Eng. Trans.] Istanbul: Sözler Publications,
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Letters. 1997. [Eng. Trans.]. Istanbul: Sözler Publications,
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Flashes. 2004. [Eng. Trans.] Istanbul: Sözler Publications,
Ibn ul Qayyim, [Eng. Trans.] A Chapter on The Dispraise of Desire.
Muhammad Ashraf Thachara Padikkal is affiliated currently with the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Markaz, India.
 Used to denote the literal meaning, not referring to the philosophical branch ‘Aesthesis’.
 In the modern use of the term “Epicurean”, associated with “hedonism”.
 “Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s Approach to Religious Renewal and its Impact on Aspects of Contemporary Turkish Society” by Şükran Vahide, in The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought, ed. Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi’.