Engaging with Bediuzzaman Said Nursi
A Model of Interfaith Dialogue
By Ian Markham, Virginia Theological Seminary, USA
Too often interfaith dialogue is generic and unfocused. Often it involves 'liberals' from each tradition coming together to criticize the 'conservatives' in their own traditions. This book provides a model for interfaith dialogue that challenges very directly the 'dialogue industry'.
This book involves a Christian theologian in deep conversation with a Muslim theologian. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1877–1960) was born at the end of the Ottoman Empire and lived through the emergence of an aggressive secular state. He had to think through, in remarkably creative ways, the challenge of faith within a secular environment, the relationship of faith and politics, and the implications and challenge of diversity and difference. His entire project is captured in his magnum opus 'The Risale-i Nur'. In the first eight chapters of this book, we engage closely with the thought of Nursi and tease out insights that Christians can learn from and accommodate.
Having established the method, the second section of the book examines the precise implications for the interfaith movement. The problem with the interfaith movement is that it is an act of western cultural imperialism – they are taking the individualist assumptions of modern America and imposing them on the conversation. The problems with John Hick's and Leonard Swidler's approach are exposed. Moving out from Islam, the book then demonstrates how the model of interfaith changes when Christians are in conversation with Hinduism in India. A new set of Dialogue Ten Commandments are suggested. The book concludes with an appeal for a commitment to include and reach the 'conservatives' in the major religious traditions.
Part One Learning from Said Nursi:
- Introduction: Christian Theology and Islam;
- Religious basis for ethics;
- Challenging atheism;
- Living life accountable;
- Faith first, politics second;
- Engaging religious diversity;
- Coping with globalization;
- Grounded spirituality: the challenge of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi;
- What Christians can learn from Bediuzzaman Said Nursi?
Part Two Rethinking Dialogue:
- The dialogue industry;
- Learning from India;
- A new decalogue;
- Conservatives and dialogue:
- Why it is essential to get conservatives excited about the dialogue project;
- Neither conservative nor liberal:
- A theology of Christian engagement with non-Christian traditions;
Introduction: Christian Theology and Islam
Let us not make matters needlessly complicated. The place Christian theology should start as we engage with other faith traditions is the disclosure of the Eternal Word in Jesus. Perhaps a useful text to begin with is the commandment of Jesus that “you should love your neighbor as yourself.” This sets out our fundamental obligation and duty. This obligation starts with self-love. A person cannot love unless there is a self with which to love. The author of the first epistle of John insists that “we love God because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). It is because the Creator of all has demonstrated love for us that we respond with love. Love is a response to the love of God. This love of God creates the fundamental condition for self-love: we can and should affirm ourselves as creatures loved byte Creator. We can and should love ourselves as creatures granted the gift of life and the capacity to enjoy loving relations with others. As we are loved by God, so we are called to love others. The act of loving others must involve understanding, empathizing, and “standing in the other’s shoes.” In the same sense we seek to be understood, so we should seek to understand.
So the Christian approach to interreligious dialogue should start out of a place of “self-love.” We are allowed to come to this encounter—rooted and committed. We are allowed to come out of a place of deep discipleship and obedience to Jesus. In so doing, we will find the dialogue richer. We love others because Christ first loved us. We love our neighbor as ourselves. We do unto others as we would have them do unto us. We start the task of loving our Muslim neighbor by understanding and learning from our own tradition.
In my years of being involved in Christian–Muslim dialogue, I have learned that the mainstream Muslim is feeling very battered. First, they have had to cope with the fear of terrorism that now pervades Western cities. Plenty of Muslims were in the World Trade Center and on the London Underground during the 2001 and 2005 attacks. They too have been direct victims of terror. Second, they have to handle the fact that a small minority of their co-religionists have turned their religion into a religion of hate. It hurts them deeply to watch Osama Bin Laden insist that the God they Engaging with Bediuzzaman Said Nursi worship is calling for the death of Jews and Americans. Third, there is the growing Islamophobia in the West. Endless commentators are denigrating their faith and suggesting that there is an intrinsic connection between Islam and violence. Fourth, there is harassment—it is the Muslim who is delayed at the airport; it is the Muslim who is constantly monitored for any unpatriotic activity. Movement and privacy are difficult for the Muslim in the United States.
Our mainstream Muslims lose all round, and the lack of empathy by Christians is an act of disobedience to the commandment of Christ. We are called to love our neighbor and to stand in the shoes of Muslims. They are hurting and we are called to stand alongside them in their hurt.
The act of empathy is just the place to begin. Since 2002 I have been studying the thought of the Turkish Muslim theologian Bediuzzaman (which means “Wonder of the Age”) Said Nursi (1877–1960). This has been a life-changing process. One finds in Nursi all the challenges of modernity and, at the same time, a robust response to those challenges. It is a response that I believe Christians can and should learn from.
Nursi was born at a time when the Ottoman Empire was coming to an end. He fought in World War I and was captured in 1916, spending two years as a prisoner-of-war. He opposed the subsequent occupation of Istanbul by the British and supported Turkish independence. However, Nursi distanced himself from the leadership of Mustafa Kemal when Nursi became aware of the radical secularizing plan being proposed. Then, in an inspired move, Said Nursi became the leader of a form of Islam which recognized that the purpose of faithful living is to live a transformed life as an individual and not to be obsessed with the world of politics. M. Hakan Yavuz describes this when commenting on Nursi’s shift from nationalist political leader to a religious leader:
His enthusiasm only abated when he became aware of the radically anti-Islamic plans that the new Republican leaders intended to implement. He took a train from Ankara to Van and later referred to this as the “transitional journey” from the Old Said to the New Said. During this journey in April 1923, he concluded the rejuvenation of Islamic consciousness had to be carried out not at the state level but at the level of individuals. He shifted his emphasis to the inner dimension of individual spirituality and the development of a new, reflective Islamic consciousness. He saw the minds of the reformist elite as having been invaded by skepticism and positivist philosophy. In order to counter this skepticism, he sought to “bring God back” by raising Islamic consciousness in everyday life. He no longer believed in societal transformation through political involvement saying that it was necessary to develop an “intellectually Introduction: Christian Theology and Islam able group” to create a counterdiscourse of Islamic identify and morality. The goal thus became the construction of an Islamic consciousness and anew map of meaning to guide everyday life. … The New Said, therefore, was characterized by his withdrawal from politics and public life.1
For Nursi, the problem facing Islam in the 1920s in Turkey was not the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, but the emergence of a skeptical, secular philosophy which denied the reality of God. Nursi affirmed and celebrated the achievements of modernity (especially in the realms of science and technology), but he feared for Turkish culture and society if it lost its spiritual foundation. The challenge for Nursi was to illustrate that a commitment to modernity is not incompatible with a commitment to the Qur’an. In addition, he believed that a healthy moral Turkish society should and could be grounded in the affirmation of Islam. For Nursi, the affirmation of Islam by individual Muslims is not a threat to the secular Turkish state but a helpful support to it. The individual Muslim will be pious, caring, honest, and supportive of community—in short, a good citizen. Nursi’s major work is the Risale-i Nur (the Treatise of Light)—a remarkable thematic commentary on the Qur’an.
Nursi’s situation has so many similarities with the situation that confronts every person of faith in the West. Nursi faced an aggressive secularism, as do Western Christians; Nursi wanted to affirm the achievements of science and democracy, as do we; Nursi felt it important to challenge unbelief, as do we; Nursi is a mirror that continues to reflect the challenges of the world in which we all live.
An additional reason why Nursi is such a helpful conversation partner is that he represents within Islam an approach that Anglicans represent in Christianity. I write this book as an Episcopal priest and Dean and President of a seminary. Anglicanism is a tradition born out of conversation (between Geneva and Rome); Anglicanism is committed to the life of the mind; and Anglicanism seeks to accommodate the best of modernity. The Nur tradition is born out of internal conversations within Islam (as Turkey came to terms with the challenge of secularism); Nursi is committed to the life of the mind; and Nursi is committed to accommodating the best in modernity. Both Anglicanism and the Nur movement are sensitive to the ways in which so many forms of religious life on this planet are cruel, intolerant, and opposed to dialogue. Both Anglicanism and the Nur movement seek to witness a different way of being faithful.
We embark now on a journey. In Part I we are going to engage the thought of Nursi on a variety of levels. It is a conversation. I have worked hard to understand the position of Nursi—to relate to his nuanced and complex position—and have sought to reflect on the implications of his thought for Christian theology. As I have done so, I have found myself fascinated and changed by the encounter.
From this encounter I seek to deduce certain underlying principles for the dialogue. This is the second section of the book. I start by arguing that the assumptions of the modern interfaith dialogue industry are deeply misguided. I then illustrate that my approach to the encounter with the thought of Nursi is found in a variety of other dialogues in the world (especially in India).
So in the light of these discoveries I suggest a revision of Leonard Swidler’s classic “Dialogue Decalogue.” We need to create a dialogue that enables those most committed to faith to participate. So please embark on the journey with me. It is an exciting journey. We are now going to encounter difference and learn from it.
1 M. Hakan Yavuz, Islamic Political Identity in Turkey (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 154.
Website price:$89.96(Regular price: $99.95)
Published: December 2009
Format: 234 x 156 mm
Extent: 188 pages
ISBN Short: 9780754669319
BL Reference: 201.5
LoC Control No: 2009020734