The Author of the Risale-i Nur: Bediüzzaman Said Nursî


In November, 1907, Bediuzzaman set off a second time for Istanbul with the
intention of obtaining official support and backing for his Islamic university,
the Medresetü’z-Zehra. He was now around thirty years of age. From his
humble beginnings in the village of Nurs, he had established his reputation
among the ‘ulama of Kurdistan, and was a figure well-known not only for
his unbeaten record in debate, extensive learning, and extraordinary abilities,
but also for his pursuit of justice and defence of right, and his absolute
fearlessness before anyone save his Maker. His ambitions matched his ability.
This had marked him out from his earliest years. He had never been content with
the status-quo, something within himself had perpetually pushed him to seek
fresh, new, better paths. As his horizons expanded, this path became clear. As
is described in the previous chapter, besides the continuing process of his
study, two key events may be seen as being decisive in giving him direction. One
was his realization of the extremely severe nature of the threats to the Qur’an
by Islam’s perennial enemies, and that, through his learning, he should make the
defence of it the aim of his life. And the second were the acquaintances he made
in Mardin in 1892, and his learning through them of the struggle for freedom and
constitutionalism, and of the movement for Islamic Unity and other issues
concerning the Islamic world. Until the beginning of the First World War, it was
with these issues that Bediuzzaman was chiefly concerned.

The Constitutional Movement

What was the struggle for Freedom and
constitutional government? What were the issues involved? Why should a young
religious scholar from the remote eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire have
embraced the struggle with such conviction? Primarily these questions find their
answer in a further question, one that had been asked with increasing urgency as
the power of the Ottoman Empire waned in the face of Europe’s development and
expansion in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries: how can this State be
saved? Bu devlet nasıl kurtarılabilir? The great debate revolved around this
question, and around the causes of the decline of the Empire and Islamic world.

The struggle for Freedom emerged as the
response of a group of intellectuals and literary figures, namely Namık
Kemal and Young Ottomans, to the solutions to the above
question offered by the Ottoman rulers. The late 18th and 19th century sultans
had sought to reverse the Empire’s decline by a series of reforms, concentrating
firstly of the army, then between 1839 and 1876 in the period known as the
Tanzimat, on virtually every area of government,
together with education and many areas of Ottoman life. The models for the
reforms were all imported from the west, and were introduced largely under
European pressure and advice.

Furthermore, the Europeans pressed on the
Ottomans the idea that the only civilization was European civilization, and that
it was only through espousing it that they could raise the Empire out of its
state of relative backwardness. This false pernicious idea came to be accepted
more and more by the Ottoman educated classes.1

Namık Kemal and Young Ottomans were not
anti-Western per se, nor were they opposed to progress and reform. On the
contrary, they opposed the Tanzimat reforms as being
obstacles to progress and counterproductive in combating the disintegration of
the Empire. One of the main reasons for this was the increase, rather than
decrease, in the autocratic authority of the Sultan as the result of the
reforms, and thus of arbitrary and absolutist government2. The young
Ottomans were the first to propose constitutional and parliamentary government
as the means of solving the Empire’s problems, Namık Kemal,
in particular, pointing out its compatibility with the Şeriat,
and demonstrating the parallels between such a system and the form of government
practiced by the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) and his
immediate successors.

The struggle was continued after Sultan
Abdulhamid II’s accession to the throne in 1876.
Despite substantial losses of territory, Abdulhamid, a master politician,
succeeded in holding the Empire together for the thirty-three years of his reign
by playing off against one another the Great Powers and opposing interests of
those bent on its destruction. But the price was high. His successful foreign
policies were paid for by internal representation of considerable severity. In
the face of the lack of unity in the First Parliament, elected following the
Proclamation of the first constitution on 23 December, 1876, and many of the
members representing the minorities, that is, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Bulgars,
Serbs and others, pursuing interests other than those of the Empire, Abdulhamid
was left in with little alternative but to dissolve it, through the Constitution
was not abrogated. Following this, the Sultan ruled as a despot from
Yıldız Palace, supported by far-reaching intelligence
networks, rigorous censorship, denunciations, and the like3.

It should be stressed, however, that this was
not a bloody despotism. And it was not from the ordinary people that opposition
came, but from the intellectuals, students educated in the new educational
establishments, and particularly from army cadets in the military academies.
Despite his vigorous criticisms of Abdulhamid’s
absolutist government and its consequences, Bediüzzaman referred to him as
“compassionate”. In the thirty-three years of his reign, he only signed the
death-warrant for three or four criminals, pardoning even those who placed a
bomb in his carriage. Others he sent to exile, rather than spilling their blood4.

The Young Turk movement emerged at this time.
Its members, which included former Young Ottomans, represented a wide spectrum
of ideas, and were united only in their common opposition to Abdulhamid’s
internal despotism and their desire to see fundamental social and political
reforms and the restoration of the Constitution. The Committee of union and
progress, which led the constitutional Revolution of 1908, formed one group
within the movement. They saw representative government and freedom from
despotism to be the essentials conditions for preserving the unity for the
Empire, particularly in the face of the nationalist aspirations of the
minorities, and for securing its material progress. So long as the CUP adhered
to these aims, they continued to enjoy Bediüzzaman’s
Support, as they did in continuing to pursue Abdulhamid’s Pan-Islamic policies,
but when, as they progressively gained tighter control over the government, they
created a worse tyranny than the one preceding it, Bediüzzaman did not hesitate
to oppose them. In a newspaper article which appeared in April 1909, in reply to
the question: “In Salonica you cooperated with the Committee of Union and
Progress, why did you part from them?”, Bediüzzaman wrote: “I did not part from
them; it was some of them that parted. I am still agreement with people like
Niyazi Bey and Enver Bey. But some of them parted from us. They strayed from the
path and headed for the swamp…”5

As we examine Bediüzzaman’s writings and
activities, it will become clear that not only did he see tyranny and despotism
to be a root cause of the Ottoman Empire’s decline and material backwardness
relative to the West, and also to be in no way compatible with Islam, but also
did he demonstrate the solutions for its recovery and progress to all lie within
Islam. He pointed out the dynamic nature of the Şeriat and Islam’s
predisposition for progress, both arterially, and morally and spiritually, an
important element of which is the fact that Islam enjoins the exercise of basic
liberties and rights, without which progress is not possible. Further to this,
at that time of defeat and disintegration for the Islamic world, he saw the
future -the age of science, technology and reason- to be nothing less than a
golden age of Islamic civilization. For him the achievement of this was the
logical consequence of the comprehensive, universal nature of events in the
world, that is, the decline of Western civilization.

Maintaining unity within the Empire was one
of the major problems of the time. Bediüzzaman argued also that
Constitutionalism and Freedom within the framework of Islam was the way to
preserve unity. Just as it created suitable conditions for strengthening Islamic
Unity and brotherhood. However, “Unity cannot occur through ignorance. Unity is
the fusion of ideas, and the fusion of ideas occurs through the electric rays of
knowledge.” 6 Thus, education was an area in which Bediüzzaman
expended great effort, particularly for his native Kurdistan. Quite contrary to
the accusations of his enemies subsequently that he was a Kurdish nationalist,
the aim of all Bediüzzaman’s endeavors for the reform and spread of education in
Kurdistan, and for its material and cultural development, was the strengthening
of the Ottoman Empire and Islamic world. It was with this intention that he had
set out a second time for the Ottoman capital in November, 1907.

Let us now return to 1907, and Bediüzzaman’s
arrival in Istanbul.

Tahir Pasha’s Letter

The Governor of Van and Bitlis, Tahir Pasha, who had provided Bediuzzaman
with so much encouragement and support, now wrote him a letter of introduction
to the Palace, pointing out Bediuzzaman’s fame and position among the ‘ulama
of eastern Anatolia, and requesting the Sultan’s favour and assistance in
securing medical treatment for Bediuzzaman. This medical treatment was for a
form of mental exhaustion brought about by his extreme mental exertion over a
long period of time. Bediuzzaman’s nephew, Abdurrahman, notes that it was the
competitive solving of mathematical problems in particular that had exhausted
his brain, and that for a period of some three years during his stay in Van, he
virtually give up debating of this kind and would only speak when necessary.7
The following is a translation of Tahir Pasha’s letter:

“A request from His most humble servant.

“Since Molla Said, who is famous among the ‘ulama of Kurdistan for his
brilliant intelligence, is in need of medical treatment, seeking refuge in the
compassion and kindness of His Excellency the Shelter of the Caliphate, he has
set out at this time for His Exalted Excellency.

“Although the above-mentioned is a person to whom everyone in these regions
has recourse for solving problems concerning knowledge and learning, since he
considers himself to be a student, he has not as yet consented to change
his dress.

“Together with his being a faithful and sincere servant of His Excellency the
Supreme Benefactor, the above-mentioned is by nature gentlemanly and satisfied
with little, and in the opinion of this most humble servant, whether in regard
to good moral qualities or loyalty and worshipfulness towards His Excellency the
Shelter of the Caliphate, among the Kurdish ‘ulama who up to this time
have had the good fortune to go to Dersaadet [Istanbul], is a person
distinguished for his devoutness and is most worthy of benevolence. It is
therefore boldly submitted that if he is made the object of special favour and
facility in the matter of receiving treatment, it will be considered by all the
students of Kurdistan to be an eternally unforgettable gracious kindness of the
dynasty of His Excellency the Sultan.

“In this and in every matter the command belongs unto him to whom all
commanding belongs.

“3 Teshrin-i Sani 1323 (16 November, 1907)

“The Governor of Bitlis, Tahir”8

The ‘Shekerji Han’

There is no record of this letter having evoked the desired
response. In any event, Bediuzzaman’s first task when he arrived in Istanbul was
to establish himself among the Istanbul ‘ulama, to attract attention
towards the problems of the Eastern provinces, and publicize his ideas on
educational reform. Indeed, by way of spurring him on, Tahir Pasha had said to
Bediuzzaman: “You can defeat in argument all the ‘ulama of eastern
Anatolia, but you could not go to Istanbul and challenge all the big fishes in
that sea,” knowing that Bediuzzaman could not let such a challenge remain
unanswered.9 Thus, on his arrival, Bediuzzaman
established himself in the religious centre of Istanbul, Fatih, in large
building known as the Shekerji (Sweetmakers’) Han, which served as a hostel for
many of the leading intellectual figures of the time. The poet Mehmet Akif, and
Fatin Hoja, the Director of the Observatory, were among its inhabitants. There
are many contemporary descriptions of Bediuzzaman. The following, written by
Ahmad Ramiz Efendi, owner of the Ijtihad Publishing House, describes his

“It was in 1323 (1907) that the news spread around that a person of flashing
brilliance – a rarity of creation – called Said-i Kurdi,10 having risen like the sun
over the rugged, precipitous mountains of the East, had appeared on the horizons
of Istanbul….

“Said said: ‘I have come here in order to open schools in my native land, I
have no other wish. I want this, nothing else.’ In other words, Bediuzzaman
wanted two things, to open educational establishments in every part of the
Eastern Provinces, and to receive nothing in return…”11

Bediuzzaman cut a striking figure in Istanbul. On the door of his room in the
Shekerji Han he hung a sign which read:

“Here all questions are answered, all problems solved, but no questions are

The following are the impressions of some of his visitors to the Han and
those who saw him at that time. The first, that of Hasan Fehmi Basoglu, later a
member of the Consultative Committee of the Department of Religious Affairs.

“About the time the Second Constitution was proclaimed I was studying in the
Fatih Medrese. I heard that a young man called Bediuzzaman had come to
Istanbul and had settled in a han, and that he had even hung a notice on
his door which said: “Here every problem is solved, all questions are answered,
but no questions are asked.” I thought that someone who made such a claim could
only be mad. But hearing nothing but praise and good opinions concerning
Bediuzzaman, and learning of the astonishment of the many groups of ‘ulama
and students who were visiting him, it awoke in me the desire to visit him
myself. I decided that I would prepare some questions on the most difficult and
abstruse matters to ask him. At that time I was considered to be one of the
foremost members of the Medrese. Finally one night I selected a number of
subjects from several of the most profound books on the theological sciences,
and put them into question form. The following day I went to visit him, and I
put my questions to him. The answers I received were quite astonishing and
extraordinary. He answered my questions precisely, as though we had been
together the previous evening and had looked at the books together. I was
completely satisfied, and understood with certainty that his knowledge was not
‘acquired’ (kesbî ) like ours, it was ‘innate’ (vehbî ).

“Afterwards he got out a map, and explained the necessity of opening a
university in the Eastern Provinces, pointing out its importance. At that time
there were Hamidiye regiments in the Eastern Provinces, it was being
administered in that way. He explained to us convincingly the deficiencies of
this form of administration, and that the region had to be awakened from the
point of view of education, industry and science. He explained that he had come
to Istanbul to realize this aim, and he said: “The conscience is illuminated by
the religious sciences, and the mind is illuminated by the sciences of

And another account, from Ali Himmet Berki, a former President of the Court
of Appeal:

“During those years I was a student in the Medresetü’l-Kuzat [Law
Faculty]. I was ahead of the other students. Bediuzzaman’s name and fame had
spread throughout Istanbul; everyone was talking about him in all the scholarly
circles. We heard reports that he was staying as a guest in a han in Fatih, and
that he answered every sort of question that anyone put to him. I decided to go
with some fellow students, and we went to visit this famous person.

“That day we heard he was in a teahouse answering questions. We went there
immediately. There was quite a crowd, and he was wearing unusual clothes. He was
wearing not the dress of a scholar, but the local dress of eastern Anatolia.

“When we got close to him, Bediuzzaman was answering the questions being
asked him. He was surrounded by scholars who were listening to him in rapt
silence and wonder. Everyone was satisfied and pleased with the answers they
received. He was replying to the assertions and ideas of the Sophist
philosophers. He demolished their views with rational proofs.

“That was the first time I saw and met him. What I gathered about him was
this: he knew all the dictionaries. Whatever word you asked him from the Arabic
dictionaries, he would answer immediately and give its meaning. Then in theology
there was no one superior to him. In these two sciences his knowledge was
endless. He knew Arabic literature, Persian literature, Eastern and Western
literature. And there was another piece of information about him that was
well-known: as a man of religion he did not accept gifts, money, etc., from
anyone. He could have owned lots of things if he had wanted. He did not own a
stick in the world.”13

And Abdullah Enver Efendi, known as the Walking Library, gave the following
account in an interview with Necmeddin Sahiner:

“Harbizade Tavasli Hasan Efendi, a teacher in the Fatih Medrese, was a
scholarly and respected figure. He lived into his nineties, teaching right up
until his last days. He was someone who never missed a day at his duties; there
was not one day throughout his whole teaching life that he did not go to teach.
But that day Hasan Efendi said to his students: ‘I cannot come to teach today,
because someone from eastern Anatolia called Bediuzzaman has arrived, and I am
going to visit him.’ He left the Medrese and went to visit Bediuzzaman in
the Shekerji Han. On his return, he expressed the astonishment and love he felt,
saying to his students: ‘Such a person has not been seen before, he is a rarity
of creation. The like of him has yet to appear.’”14

Forty years later Bediuzzaman himself recalled in a defence speech in court
how the Istanbul ‘ulama had sought his assistance. He said: “Forty years
ago and the year before the proclamation of the Constitution I went to Istanbul.
At that time, the Japanese Commander-in-Chief [of the Army] had asked the Muslim
‘ulama a number of questions concerning religion. The Istanbul ‘ulama
asked me about them. And they questioned me about many things in connection with

And finally, an anecdote from Haji Hafiz Efendi, who used also to be present
in the discussions held in the Fatih Medrese at that time of lively and
vital debate. It was recorded by Necmeddin Sahiner exactly as related by Haji
Hafiz’s son, Visali Bey, from his father’s memoirs.

“One day, some ‘ulama were debating a subject in the courtyard of
Fatih Mosque, but they could in no way convince one another and solve the
question. The subject did not become clear and evident at all. The debate
continued. At that point, Bediuzzaman appeared dressed in simple and humble
clothes, with a shawl, and furcap on his head. I recognized him and knew of his
knowledge on scholarly matters, so I observed the situation, and listened.

“Bediuzzaman said to the scholars: ‘What is this matter you are discussing?
May I know? Would you please tell me?’

“Seeing his humble dress, the scholars replied: ‘See here, shepherd efendi!
You would not understand these matters. Off with you, and attend to your own

“Bediuzzaman was not the least offended at this. He learnt what the matter
was, then explained and solved it so beautifully with verses from the Qur’an and
Hadiths that everyone’s mouths dropped open in amazement. All those religious
scholars were completely convinced of the subject. He explained the verses so
masterfully that it was as though he had been at the Prophet (PBUH)’s side when
they had been revealed. And the scholars declared: ‘Your years are few, but your
knowledge is great. Allow us to kiss your hand.’

“Bediuzzaman replied: ‘There is need for that’, and took his leave in a most
modest and unobtrusive manner.”16

Proposals For Educational Reform

Within a short time of arriving in Istanbul Bediuzzaman was successful in
having a petition setting out his ideas for educational reform in the Eastern
Provinces presented to Sultan Abdulhamid, following which the Sultan granted him
an audience. The text was later printed in The East and Kurdistan Gazette,
dated 19 November, 1908. However, as the paper’s introduction to the article
points out, Bediuzzaman’s meeting with the Sultan was to have unhappy
consequences. In the short time he had been in Istanbul, Bediuzzaman had
attracted a lot of attention, both favourable, and as far as the authorities
were concerned, adverse. As was inevitable during those repressive times, being
such a controversial figure, he was kept under close surveillance.17
He had also attracted the enmity of others in the same profession, jealous at
his learning and fame. Bediuzzaman, however, had one aim: to serve the cause of
Islam and the Empire, and he knew no fear in doing this. Then, having been given
an audience with the Sultan, he took the opportunity to put forward his ideas,
and criticisms. Besides openly criticizing the apparatus of despotism, which as
we shall see, Bediuzzaman considered to be one of the greatest obstacles to
progress as well as being contrary to Islam, his main criticism of Abdulhamid
seems to have been his failure to carry out the functions of Caliph
satisfactorily: it was his prime duty as Caliph of the Muslims to have shown
closer and more constructive concern for the question of education and the
institution, since this was the basis of the revitalization of Islam
and the Islamic world.18
Bediuzzaman’s upbraiding Abdulhamid for neglecting Abdürreshid Ibrahim’s calls
for assistance, mentioned below, despite his Pan-Islamic policies, should be
seen in this light. Unaccustomed as they were to such a forthright manner and
outspoken remarks, however reasonable and good-intentioned, it is not surprising
that the Sultan and Pashas should have reacted in the unfavourable manner that
they did.

The text of Bediuzzaman’s petition was as follows. It is preceded by a few
introductory words by the newspaper:

“We are proud to include the exact text of the proposal which Bediuzzaman
Molla Said Efendi presented to the Palace, and as a result became the target of
many misfortunes.”

“While, in order to be in harmony in progress like the other brothers in this
world of civilization and age of progress and competition, the founding and
construction of schools has been ordered as a Government service in the towns
and villages of Kurdistan – and this has been witnessed with thanks – only
children who know Turkish can benefit from them. Since Kurdish children who have
not learnt Turkish consider the only mines of perfection to be the medreses
[traditional religious schools], and the teachers in the mektebs [new
secular schools] do not know the local language, these children continue to be
deprived of education. Their resulting uncivilized behaviour and disorder
invites the West to rejoice at our misfortune. Moreover, since the people remain
in a primitive state, uncivilized and blindly imitating, they become prey to
doubts and suspicions. And it as though these three points are preparing a
ghastly blow for the Kurds in the future, and have caused suffering to those
with insight.

“The remedy for this: three educational establishments should be set up in
different areas of Kurdistan as examples to be followed, and as encouragement
and stimulation. One in Beytüshebab, which is the centre of the Ertushi tribes;
another in the middle of the Mutkan, Belkan and Sasun tribes; and one in Van
itself, which is in the middle of the Haydar and Sipkan tribes. These should be
known by the familiar name of medrese, and should teach both the
religious and modern sciences. Each should have at least fifty students, and
their means of subsistence should be provided by the illustrious Government.
Also, the revitalization of a number of other medreses would be an
important means of securing the future life – both material, and moral and
spiritual – of Kurdistan. In this way, the basis of education would be
established, and together with making over to the Government this huge force
which is now being dissipated in internal conflict, it would cause it to be
expended outwardly. And it would demonstrate that they are thoroughly deserving
of justice, and capable of being civilized, as well as displaying their natural

Thus, Bediuzzaman was finally successful in presenting to the Sultan an
outline of his proposals, the fruit of his own experience over many years. And,
pointing out some of the damaging results of the system as it then was, he with
foresight predicted problems of great magnitude in the future.

Bediuzzaman’s ideas on educational reform were far-reaching and innovative.
They are in part described above and in Bediuzzaman’s ‘Conversation with the
Doctor’ following this section. But due to their importance, before continuing
with Bediuzzaman’s audience with the Sultan, we include a summary of them in
their entirety.

The heart of Bediuzzaman’s proposals lay in reconciling “the three main
branches” of the educational system, the medreses or traditional
religious schools, the mektebs or new secular schools, and the tekkes
or Sufi establishments, and the disciplines they represented. The embodiment of
this rapprochement was the Medresetü’z-Zehra, which has been mentioned
earlier. Bediuzzaman attached the greatest importance to establishing this
university where the religious sciences and modern sciences would be taught side
by side and “combined”, and pursued it till the end of his days.

The second main area of Bediuzzaman’s proposals lay in completely
restructuring medrese education and were extremely ‘modern’ in their
approach. These consisted of what might be described as the democratization of
the medrese system, and its diversification so that “the rule of the
division of labour” could be applied.

A third area concerned the preachers, who “guided the general public”.

While the role the Medresetü’z-Zehra was to play was seen by
Bediuzzaman to be vital for securing the future of Kurdistan and unity of the
Empire as well as acting as an important centre for the eastern Islamic world,
the general principles it represented were applicable to all medreses.
Several of the conditions Bediuzzaman considered to be essential were mentioned
in the petition: the Medresetü’z-Zehra and its two sister establishments
should be known by the familiar name of medrese and the instruction
should be in a language known by potential students. In another work,
, Bediuzzaman stated that they should be tri-lingual, with Arabic
being “compulsory”, Kurdish “permissible”, and Turkish “necessary”.20 In the same work,
he also stated that Kurdish scholars who were trusted by Turk and Kurd should be
selected as teachers, as well as those who knew the local languages, and that it
was necessary to take into account the capacity and cultural level of the
community they were to serve. Also these ‘medreses’ should be on an equal
footing with the official secular schools, and like them, their examinations
should be recognized. The basis of the system Bediuzzaman was proposing,
however, was the combined teaching of the religious and modern sciences.

In the course of time, the medrese syllabuses had become narrow and
sterile, with modern developments in science being rejected altogether. So that
at the beginning of the twentieth century, the medreses were producing
who believed, together with the Europeans, that there was a clash and
contradiction between certain ‘externals’ of Islam and certain matters of
science – matters as basic as the Earth being round. This false idea had caused
feelings of hopelessness and despair, and had shut the door of progress and
civilization. “Whereas”, pointed out Bediuzzaman, “Islam is the master and guide
of the sciences, and the chief and father of all true knowledge.”21

On a human level, Bediuzzaman saw religion as representing the heart and
conscience, and science, the reason; both were necessary for true progress to be
attained. He explained it as follows: “The religious sciences are the light of
the conscience, and the modern sciences are the light of the reason. The truth
becomes manifest through the combining of the two. The students’ endeavour will
take flight on these two wings. When they are separated it gives rise to bigotry
in the one, and wiles and scepticism in the other.”22

On a wider scale, the Medresetü’z-Zehra would unite the three
traditions in the educational system by representing “the most superior
by the reason, the very best medrese by the heart, and the
most sacred zawiye by the conscience.”23 As a result of its
unique value for the Islamic world, it would in time gain financial independence
by reason of the donations and pious bequests it would receive.

The benefits of such a system would be manifold. Just as it would ensure the
future of the ‘ulama in the eastern provinces, at the same time it would
be step towards the unification and reform of general system. So would it
deliver Islam from the bigotry, superstitions, and false beliefs which had
encrusted parts of it over the centuries. And, importantly, would be a means of
introducing modern learning into the medreses in a way which would allay
the ‘ulama’s suspicions concerning modern science. Also, it would “open
the door to spreading the beneficial aspects of constitutionalism.”24

Bediuzzaman wished for Islam to function like a consultative council, that is
to say, through the mutual consultation (shura) of “the three divisions
of the army of Islamic education”, those of the medreses, the mektebs,
and the tekkes, so that “each would complete the deficiencies of the
other”. His aim was for the Medresetü’z-Zehra to be an embodiment of

According to Bediuzzaman, this transforming the medreses from being
‘single-faculty’ institutions into being ‘multi-faculty’ and putting into
practice ‘the rule of division of labour’ was in accordance with wisdom and the
laws of creation. The failure to practise it in previous centuries had led to
despotism and the exploitation of learning in the medreses, and the
teaching being undertaken by those not qualified to do so. It had headed the
s towards their destruction.26

In many places, Bediuzzaman stresses the need for students to specialize in
one subject for which they have an aptitude, and in addition only study subjects
which complement it. Since it is described in some detail in his ‘Conversation
with the Doctor’, together with the need for creative study, debate, and a
return to the study of the essential religious sciences by the students, we
shall leave the description to there. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out
that specialization in particular represented a radical break with traditional

Finally, a further point which could be thought of as radical was
Bediuzzaman’s view that “public opinion” should prevail among both the ‘ulama
and the students. That is to say, he believed that it was “scholastic
despotism”, an offspring of political despotism, “which has opened the way to
blind imitation (taqlid), and barred the way to searching for the truth.”
For the problems of the modern age to be grappled with and progress to be
secured, “constitutionalism among the ‘ulama” should be established “in
the ‘ulama state.” In the same way, among the students, “public opinion”
or the prevalent ideas emerging from debate and the exchange of ideas between
students of varying disciplines should be taken as master. Bediuzzaman predicted
that this would provide a strong stimulation and incentive for progress. Thus,
“Just as public opinion predominates in the state, so too should the prevailing
opinions of the ‘ulama be müfti, and the prevailing opinions of the
students be master and teacher.”27

Thus, during his audience, having given Sultan Abdulhamid first-hand
information about the state of the Eastern Provinces and explained these ideas
and the importance of his proposals, especially concerning the founding of the
new schools, in his capacity as a man of religion, Bediuzzaman went on to remind
the Sultan of the petition made to him by the famous traveller and scholar
Abdürreshid Ibrahim.

Abdürreshid Ibrahim had sought asylum in Japan after having been exiled in
1904 from his native Uzbekistan by the Russians, and travelling both there and
in China, had expended great efforts for the spread and revitalization of Islam.
Seeing the ignorance and poverty of the many Muslims in China, he had sent
requests to Sultan Abdulhamid for both material assistance and for religious
scholars and instructors to be sent there. At the time, the Sultan was giving
great importance to his Caliphate Policy, that is, Pan-Islamic policies, and had
apparently responded favourably, instructing the Shaykhü’l-Islam,
Jamaluddin Efendi, to do everything necessary for its implementation. A certain
time must have elapsed, however, for with unheard-of boldness, Bediuzzaman
addressed the Sultan, saying:

“The rank of the Caliphate is not restricted to the official
ceremony of the Friday prayers. Just as the Caliph possesses moral power, so too
will he have material power, and guarantee and be responsible for all the
dealings of the Muslim community in every corner of the world. Abdürreshid
Ibrahim Efendi is a great striver in the way of Islam. It is a grievous sin to
let his request remain fruitless. Even if the office of Shaykhü’l-Islam
has no power, praise be to God, there are many men of religion in this country
ready to sacrifice themselves for this cause. Why has this request not been
proclaimed and broadcast throughout the Ottoman lands?”28

Bediuzzaman then went on to criticize to the Sultan’s face the
denunciations and networks of spies and agents for which his regime was so
notorious. Bediuzzaman had been the subject of such a report in 1906.29
As someone who never hesitated to speak out in the cause of freedom in that time
of repression, it was inevitable that he should have been. He said to Sultan

“Despotism has no place in Islam. To give a ruling on a person is the right
only of courts acting openly and within the justice of the Shari’a. These
rulings may not be given according to reports made by persons of unknown
identity, which throw no light on their true faces and conceal their

The Shaykhü’l-Islam, Jamaluddin Efendi, who was present, later told
his son, Muhtar Bey: “Until today, I have never encountered anyone who voiced
his opinions in the Sovereign’s presence with such boldness.” This boldness,
however, only led Bediuzzaman to be brought up before the Yildiz Palace Court
Martial. And the unhappy consequences of Bediuzzaman’s audience with Sultan
Abdulhamid were not restricted to the court martial, for he was to be sentenced
by it to a term in Toptashi Mental Hospital in Üsküdar. The judges in the court
were at a loss as to how to deal with this case, and the mental hospital was the
solution they came up with.

When asked by Divisional General Shakir Pasha in the court martial to which
Kurdish tribe he belonged, Bediuzzaman replied:

“To which Tatar tribe do you belong? I am an Ottoman. My being Kurdish is
only on account of the name given to the people of the place where I was born
and grew up.” And he went on to repeat what he had said to the Sultan. On
hearing this, the Public Prosecutor, Süruri Efendi, asked him:

“How can you say such insulting words about His Imperial Majesty the Sultan?”
Bediuzzaman replied:

“I said the same things to the Caliph himself. If you do not believe me, go
and ask him?”

In the face of all this, the judges were worried that if
Bediuzzaman was exiled to Fezzan, Tripoli, or Yemen, as was the usual sentence,
he would continue to spread his ideas. So, in order to be rid of him, on the
recommendation of Zülüflü Ismail Pasha, the Inspector of Military Schools, they
got five doctors, two Jewish, one Greek, one Armenian, and one Turkish to draw
up a report saying that Bediuzzaman was not in his right mind, and then sent him
to Toptashi Mental Hospital.30

Years later, Bediuzzaman wrote: “Born in the village of Nurs in the
province of Bitlis, as a student I entered into contests with all the scholars I
encountered, and continuing through Divine Grace to defeat in scholarly debate
all who challenged me, I continued the contests in this calamitous fame, and as
a result of the incitements of my rivals, on orders from Sultan Hamid, was
dragged as far as the mental hospital.”31

Toptashi and the ‘Conversation With The Doctor’

How long Bediuzzaman’s tribulations in the mental hospital were to continued
is not known, but finally he was released on the strength of the doctor’s
report, which stated: “If there is the tiniest trace of madness in Bediuzzaman,
there is not a sane person in the world.”

Of the doubtless many examinations which Bediuzzaman had to undergo in the
hospital, the following is the text of his conversation with the doctor which
contributed directly to the favourable report. In it Bediuzzaman explains to the
doctor with this usual clarity and logic his aims and intentions, and why he has
aroused opposition in Istanbul.

First of all Bediuzzaman points out to the doctor four points he should take
into account while making his diagnosis. Firstly, Bediuzzaman’s background, for
“the prevalent virtues in Kurdistan are courage, self-respect, strength of
religion, and the agreement of heart and tongue. Matters which are considered to
be polite and refined in civilization are considered by them to be flattery.”

Secondly, the doctor should not make his judgement superficially according to
current deviant norms, but should realize that Bediuzzaman takes Islam as the
criterion for his actions through which he intends to serve the nation, state,
and religion. Thirdly, Bediuzzaman points out that some of those in authority
could not stomach him because he provided answers to a number of the hitherto
insoluble problems of the time, and their only recourse was to declare him mad.
And fourthly, he has for fifteen years been pursuing Islamic Freedom, that is,
“the Freedom which is in accordance with the Shari’a”, and now that it is close
to being realized he is prevented from seeing what is going on, how should he
not be angry? And he adds: “And it is only one in a thousand who is not
afflicted by this temporary madness.”

Bediuzzaman then goes onto expand these points and explain them in greater
detail, stressing that he is not prepared to sacrifice any of his sacred aims
and principles, which are for the common good, for his own personal benefit or
so that he should be better accepted.

Firstly, Bediuzzaman’s aim was for the strengthening and progress of the
Ottoman Empire through the development and progress – educational, material, and
cultural – of its component parts. Through retaining the dress of his native
region, and professing his love for it, he wanted to stress in the Empire’s
capital the importance of provincial development, and create demand for local
industries. And by declaring that he had offered allegiance to Sultan Selim,
that is, Yavuz Selim, known in the West as Selim the Grim, 1512-1520,
Bediuzzaman was stating that he was dedicated to the same aim as Selim, that is,
unity. Reforms aimed at the development of the provinces would serve to
strengthen the unity of the Empire, thereby strengthening Islamic Unity.

Secondly, Bediuzzaman had aroused opposition through his practice of debating
with the ‘ulama. He now explains to the doctor that by doing so he wanted
to offer a practical example for a solution to the stagnation in the medreses.
He was recommending more active participation in the process of study on the
part of the students. A second reason he gives for their backwardness is that
the instrumental sciences [grammar, syntax, logic] had been emphasized in place
of the sacred sciences [Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir), Hadith, theology (kalâm),
and the like]. Thus, firstly, Bediuzzaman is stressing the need for lively
debate and the role of competition in revitalizing the medreses, and
secondly, the importance of the fundamental sacred sciences. He then goes on to
emphasize the need for specialization. It was through taking one science as a
basis and in addition only studying further subjects in so far as they would
complement the main subject, that the students could study in sufficient depth
and penetrate the subject as required.

In the Third Point, Bediuzzaman examines the reasons for the divergence and
differences between the various branches of the educational system, which he
states are a major cause of the backwardness of Islamic civilization, which
constitutes true civilization, in relation to modern civilization. He says:
“Those in the medreses accuse those in the mektebs of weakness in
belief because of their literalist interpretation of certain matters, whereas
those in the mektebs consider the former to be ignorant and unreliable
because they have no knowledge of modern science. While those in the medreses
look at those in the tekkes as though they were following innovations…”
While recognizing the differences in their ways, he stresses that the barriers
between them should be broken down and by way of a remedy modern science be
taught in the medreses “in place of obsolete ancient philosophy”,
religious sciences be taught “fully” in the secular schools, and scholars from
the medreses, “some of the most learned ‘ulama”, be present in the
Sufi tekkes. He then goes on to analyze the reasons for the
ineffectiveness of the preachers, who played such a vital role in educating the
mass of the people. He gives three “causes”, which we quote in full:

“The First Cause: by comparing the present to the past, they merely
represented what they claimed in glittering terms. In former times ease of mind
and blind imitation of the ‘ulama prevailed, and for these proof was not
necessary. But now an urge to investigate the truth has emerged in everyone. In
the face of this, embroidering a claim has no effect. In order for it to be
effective, it is necessary to prove what is claimed, and to convince.

“The Second Cause: by deterring from one thing and encouraging another, they
reduce the value of something else more important. For example, they say that to
perform two rekats of prayers at night is like circumambulating the Ka’ba, or
that if someone indulges in backbiting, it is as though he has committed

“The Third Cause: they do not speak conformably with the demands of the
situation and necessities of the time, which is the requirement of eloquence. It
is as if they draw people into the corners of former times, then speak to them.
That is to say, I want preachers to be both searching scholars, so that they can
prove what they claim, and subtle philosophers so that they do not spoil the
balance of the Shari’a, and to be eloquent and convincing. It is essential that
they are thus.”

Bediuzzaman completed addressing the doctor as follows:

“The Fourth Point: I said that my mind was confused. But my intention from
all this is to point to the forgetfulness in my memory, the distress in my mind,
and the foreignness in my nature. Since no one who is mad says they are mad, how
can it be a proof of my madness? Also, I said that I had three months study
after Izhar.32
This invites doubt in two respects. Either it is untrue…whereas most of
Kurdistan knows that it is true. Or although it is true,… like you said, O
Doctor, things like pride and self-praise would indicate to my madness…

“That is to say, it is our doctors’ understanding that is sick, and their
reports which are mad, and the Minister of Public Security is mad, because he
was angry. Hey, doctor! You are a good doctor, cure those unfortunates first,
then me!”33

It became plain to the doctor, then, that Bediuzzaman was in no way deranged34
and he prepared his report accordingly; whatever the reasons were for his being
sent to the mental hospital, they were not medical, and the doctor did not
concern himself with them. Of course, it was for political reasons that
Bediuzzaman had been incarcerated, and on his release he was still held in
custody. The authorities then embarked on a new tactic in order to silence him;
they tried to buy him off. But to no avail. Just as Bediuzzaman did not know the
meaning of fear, and could not be cowed or scared into abandoning the path he
knew to be right, so too he had no desire for wealth or position, throughout his
life one of his most salient characteristics was his refusal to accept any
personal benefits, material or otherwise; there was no way he could be bought.
If the Islamic world was to progress and be revitalized, it would be through
Freedom and constitutionalism; he could not be made to renounce the cause. The
proposals were put to him by Shefik Pasha, the Minister of Public Security, and
the exchange between him and Bediuzzaman went as follows:

The Minister: “The Sultan sends you greetings. He has assigned you a
thousand kurush as a salary. He said that later, when you return to the
East, he will make it twenty to thirty liras. And he sent you these gold liras
as a royal gift.”

The Reply: “I am not a beggar after a salary; I could not accept it
even if it was a thousand liras. I did not come to Istanbul for myself. I came
for my nation. Also this bribe that you want to give me is hush-money.”

The Minister: “You are rejecting an imperial decree. An imperial
decree cannot be rejected.

The Reply: “I am rejecting it, so that the Sultan will be annoyed and
will summon me, and I can tell him the truth.”

The Minister: “The result will be disastrous.”

The Reply: “Even if the result is the sea, it will be a spacious
grave. If I am executed, I shall rest in the heart of a nation. Also when I came
to Istanbul, I brought my life as a bribe; do whatever you like. And I say
seriously that I want to give a practical warning to my fellow-countrymen that
forming a connection with the State is in order to serve it, it is not in order
to grab a salary. And someone like me serves the nation and State through
advising and admonishing. And that is through making a good impression. And that
is through expecting nothing in return. And that is through being unprejudiced,
which is through being without ulterior motives, which is through renouncing all
personal benefits. As a consequence, I am excused from not accepting a salary.”

The Minister: “Your aim of spreading education in Kurdistan is being
discussed by the Cabinet.”

The Reply: “According to what rule do you delay education and speed up
salaries? Why do you prefer my personal benefits to the general benefit of the

The Minister became angry.

Bediuzzaman: “I have been free. I grew up in the mountains of
Kurdistan, which is the place of absolute freedom. There is no point in getting
angry; do not tire yourself for nothing. Send me into exile; be it Fizan or
Yemen, I do not mind. I will be saved from falling from a height.”

The Minister: “What do you want to say?”

Bediuzzaman: “You have drawn a veil as thin as a cigarette paper over
everyone in the face of all these ideas and emotions which are boiling over, and
called it law and order. Underneath everyone is groaning at your oppression like
moving corpses. I was inexperienced, I did not go in under the veil, I remained
top of it. Then one time it was rent in the Palace. I was in an Armenian’s house
in Shishli; it was rent there. I was in the Sweetmakers’ Han; it was rent there,
too. I was in the mental hospital. And now I am in this place of custody.

“In short, you do so much patching up that I am annoyed, as well. I
was well-acquainted with you while I was in Kurdistan. And now the
above-mentioned events have taught me your secrets well. Especially the mental
hospital, it explained these texts to me clearly. So I thank you for these
events, because I used always to think favourably, instead of distrusting.”35

And finally, a newspaper article on the subject written later by the literary
figure Eshref Edip, who was a close associate of Bediuzzaman’s, and played an
active role in the constitutional movement with his writings and the magazine,
Sirat-i Müstakim, later called Sebilürreshad:

“No one, and most of all the Sultan, could at any time agree that there was
even the smallest amount of disloyalty in him. They appreciated his excellence,
his zeal.

“He had come to Istanbul in order to open schools in the Eastern Provinces,
to revivify education. He was a great cherisher of Freedom, he had great courage
and civilization. Think of the conditions of the time. What was the attitude of
the Palace towards the Namik Kemal’s, the Ziya Pasha’s, and other supporters of
Freedom? Bediuzzaman was far ahead of them as regards courage and fearlessness,
patriotism, and love of Freedom. The Palace displayed great tolerance towards
this struggle of his for Freedom out of respect for his learning and virtue. But
it was not possible to curtail his striving. His youth, his overflowing
brilliant intelligence, his love of Freedom, his combative spirit could not save
him from the consequences to which the other supporters of Freedom were subject.

“He displayed such a degree of courage and boldness in the struggle for
Freedom at a time when everyone was frightened to open their mouths and only
hinted and made allusions that it was incomprehensible to them. It was only
natural that for someone to arrive from the Eastern Provinces and display so
much boldness at a time when the Palace and Pashas were sovereign and held
absolute power would be met with astonishment and surprise. The despotic Pashas,
who considered the people to be their slaves, could see no other way of ridding
themselves of him and regaining their comfort apart from saying: ‘To display
this much courage is not conformable with sanity’, and putting him in the mental
hospital. That was why he was sent there.

“What he said to the doctor in the mental hospital left the doctor in
amazement, he was amazed at his intelligence and knowledge, courage and bravery.
He understood why he had been sent there, and reminded Bediuzzaman of the
refined manners of the age. He advised moderation, then begged his pardon.

“Yes, this is the man they said was mad, this mad lion!”36


1. Lewis, B. The Emergence of Modern Turkey,
London 1968, 124.

2. ibid., 171.

3. Bahadıroğlu, Y. Osmanlı Padişahları
. iii, 722.

4. Bahadıroğlu, Y. Bediüzzaman Said Nursi,
i, 67-8.

5. Lemean-ı Hakikat ve Izale-i Şübehat,
Volkan No. 101, 29 Mart 1325/11 April 1909, in Asar-ı Bediyye, 392-3.

6. Münazarat, 61.

7. Abdurrahman, Bediüzzaman’ın Tarihçe-i Hayatı,
33-4; Şahiner, N. Son Şahitler, iii, 20.


Sahiner, N. Son Sahitler, iii, 17-18. (Istanbul Basvekalet Arsivi)

9. Tarihçe,


In this period, until following the First World War, Bediuzzaman was generally
known by this name. Subsequent to that, he was called ‘Nursî’, after the village
of his birth.


Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 78; Divan-i Harb-i Örfi, 5-6.


H. Fehmi, ‘Bir Hatira,’ Uhuvvet Gazetesi, 11 December 1964, as quoted in
Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 82-3.


Berki, Ali Himmet, in Son Sahitler, ii, 12.


Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 84.




Sahiner, N. Son Sahitler, iv, 356.


Sagman, Ali Riza, in Son Sahitler, iv, 294-5.


In a newspaper article published in March 1909, Bediuzzaman described to the
Sultan in an imaginary conversation how he should act as Caliph in the new age
of constitutionalism: “Since despotism has left no blood in Istanbul, the heart
of the Muslim countries, show that your intention is good and make Yildiz
Palace, which is now abhorred, beloved of hearts in the way you compassionately
accepted constitutionalism with no bloodshed: raise Yildiz Palace to the
Pleiades by filling it with leading ‘ulama like angels of mercy in place
of the former demons of hell, and by making it like a university and reviving
the Islamic sciences, and by promoting the offices of Shaykhü’l-Islam and
the Caliphate to their rightful positions, and by curing with your wealth and
power the weakness in religion which is the nation’s heart disease and the
ignorance which is the disease of its head. Then the Ottoman dynasty may scatter
the rays of justice in the constellation of the Caliphate….” ‘Bediüzzaman
Kürdi’nin Fihriste-i Makasidi ve Efkârinin Programi ‘, Volkan Nos. 83-4,
11-12 Mart 1325/ 23-4 March 1909, as in Asar-i Bedi’iye, 375-6.


, 366-7; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 85-7.


Münâzarat, 71.


Muhâkemat, 8.


Münâzarat, 72.


Münâzarat, 74.

Münâzarat, 74-6.




Muhâkemat, 46-7.


Bediüzzaman Kürdi’nin Fihriste-i Makasadi ve Efkarinin Programi, Volkan
Nos. 83-4, in Asar-i Bedi’iye, 374.


Kutay, Cemal, Tarih Sohbetleri, v, 203-5; Kutay, Cemal, Bediüzzaman,


Kutay, Cemal, Bediüzzaman, 186.


Kutay, Cemal, Tarih Sohbetleri, iv, 214-215; Kutay, Bediüzzaman,

Sualar, 417

32. A
book in the medrese syllabus.


, 324-9; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 89-95.


Two other accounts may be referred to, showing that other doctors reached
similar conclusions. See, Sahiner, N. Türk ve Dünya Aydinlari Gözüyle
Nurculuk Nedir
, 142-3; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi (8th edn.), 106-7.


Asar-i Bedi’iye, 330-1; Sahiner, N. Said Nursi, 95-7.

Edip, Eshref, Islam Düsmanlarinin Tertiplerini Ortaya Çikarmak Vazifemizdir,
Yeni Istiklal Gazetesi
No. 241, 23 March 1966, as quoted in Sahiner, N.
Said Nursi
, 97-8.