As someone born and raised in Britain, I am often asked what we
as Muslims have to offer to the west. But before I answer, I should like to ask
a question myself: Are we Muslims because we believe in Allah, or do we believe
in Allah because we are Muslims?
The question occured to me during a march through the streets of
London, over a decade ago, to protest against the Russian occupation of
Afghanistan. I’d made a formal conversion to Islam several years prior to this,
and it wasn’t my first demonstration. There were banners and placards and much
shouting and chanting. And in between "Russians out," "Death to Breshnev," and
"Muslims of Afghanistan rise up," we shouted our own Islamic slogans: Allahu
akbar and La ilaha illa Allah.
Towards the end of the demonstration I was approached by a young
man who introduced himself as someone interested in Islam. "Excuse me," he said,
"but what is the meaning of La ilaha illa Allah?"
Without a moment’s hesitation I answered, "There is no god but
"I’m not asking you to translate it " he said, "I’m asking you
to tell me what it really means." There was a long awkward silence as it dawned
on me that I was unable to answer him.
You are no doubt thinking, "What kind of Muslim is it that does
not know the real meaning of La ilaha illa Allah?" To this I would have to say:
a typical one. That evening I pondered my ignorance; being in the majoority
didn’t help, it simply made me more despressed.
So how did I become a Muslim? You ve no doubt heard the anecdote
about Nasreddin Hoja. A friend of his called on him one day and found Hoja
sitting in front of a large basket of chillies. His eyes were red and swollen,
blood dripped from his gums and tears from his eyes. Yet he carried on eating.
Why are you torturing yourself, his friend asked. Because, said Nasreddin Hoja,
biting into another pepper, I’m hoping one of them will be sweet.
I had been in the same position myself. No ideology or
alternative life-style that I tried could satisfy the inner need for something
more, something worth existing for, that elusive something that is always just
around the corner but never seems to appear. Disenchanted with every aspect of
my life, I left Britain and somehow drifted towards the Middle East. It was not
a conscious choice. And it was there that I found the sweet chili PepPer.
Islam simply rnade sense, in a way that nothing else ever had.
It had rules of government, it had an economic system, it had regulations
covering every facet of day-to-day existence. It was egalitariarı and addressed
to all races, and it was clear and easy to understand. Oh, and it has a God, One
God` in whom I had always vaguely believed. That was that. I said I.a ilaha illa
Allah and I was part of the community. For the first time in my life I belonged.
New converts are invariably enthusiactic to know as much as
possible about their religion in the shortest possible time. In the few years
that folowed, my library grew rapidly. There was so much to learn, and so many
books ready to teach. Books on the history of Islam, the economic system of
Islam the concept of government in Islam; countless manuals of Islamic
jurisprudence, and, best of all, books on Islam and revolution, on how Muslims
were to rise up and establish Islamic governments, Islamic republics. When I
returned to Britain in early’79 to begin a University course, I was ready to
introduce Islam to the West.
It was to these books that I turned for an answer to the
question "What is the meaning of La ilaha illa Allah?" Again I was disappointed.
The books were about Islam, not about Allah. They covered every subject you
could possibly imagine except for the one which really mattered. I put the
question to the imam at the University mosque. He made en excuse and left. Then
a brother who had overheard my impertinent question to the imam came over and
said: "I have a tafsir of La ilaha illa Allah. If you like we could read it
together." I imagined that it would be ten or twenty pages at the most. It
turned out to have over 5000 pages, in several books. It was, as I’m sure you’re
aware, the Risale-i Nur by Ustad Bediüzzaman Said Nursi.
İnitially, I dismissed the Risale-i Nur as mysticism. My brother
pointed out that this was the reaction of a closed mind. Without thıe
intellectual crutches provided by my old books, I felt ignorant and lost. It was
a completely new language, a totally new vision. My brother sensed my unease. He
said: ‘Don’t worry. The books you have read before all have their place. They
are the skin. But this,’ he said, tapping a copy of The supreme Sign, "this is
the fruit." So we began to read, this time in the name of Allah, and slowly
things began to fall into place.
Each of us is born in total ignorance; the desire to know
ourselves and our world is an innate one. Thus "Who am I? Where did I come from?
What is this place in which I find myself? What is my duty here? Who is
responsible for bringing me into existence?" these are questions which each of
us answers in his own way, either through direct observation or through blind
acceptance of the answers suggested by others. And how one lives one’s life, the
criterion by which one acts in this world, depends totally on the nature of
those answers. The Supreme Sign is no less than a guided tour of the cosmos, and
the traveller is one who is seeking answers to these questions.
The Supreme Sign does not presuppose belief in God; rather it
travels from the created to the Creator. And it affirms that anyone who
sincerely wishes to answer the questions, and who looks upon the created world
as it is, and not as he wisher or imagines it to be, must inevitably come to the
conclusion La ilaha illa Allah. For he will see order and harmony, beauty and
equilibrium, gustice and mercy, dominicality and munificence; and at the same
time he will realise that those attributes are pointing not to the created
beings themselves but to a Reality in which all of these attributes exist in
perfection and absoluteness. He will see that the created world is thus a book
of names, an index, which seek to tell about its Owner.
In Nature, Cause or Effect?, Bediüzzaman takes the
interpretation of La ilaha illa Allah even further. The notion that he examines
is that of causality, the cornerstone of materialism and the pillar upon which
modern science has been constructed. Belief in causality gives rise to
statements such as: It is natural; Nature created it; it happened by chance, and
so on. With reasoned arguments, Bediüzzaman explodes the myth of causality and
demonstrates that those who adhere to this belief are looking at the cosmos not
as it actually is, or how appears to be, but how they would like to think it is.
In Tabiat Risalesi [Nature, Cause or Effect?], Bediüzzaman
demonstrates that all beings, on all levels, are interrelated, interconnected
and interdependent, like concentric or intersecting circles. He shows that
beings come into existence as though from nowhere, and, during their brief
lives, each with its own particular purpose, goal and mission, act as mirrors in
which various attributes, and countless configurations of names, are displayed.
Their createdness, transience, impotence and contingence, their total dependence
on factors other than themselves prove beyond doubt that they cannot be the
owners of that which they appear to possess, let alone bestow attributes of
perfection on beings that are similar to or greater than themselves.
The materialists, however, see things differently -they do not
see different things. They ask us to believe that this cosmos, whose innate
order and harmony they do not deny, is ultimately the work of chance. Of chaos
and disorder, of sheer accident. They then ask us to believe that this cosmos is
sustained by the mechanistic interplay of causes whatever they may be, and not
even the materialists know for sure causes which are themselves created,
impotent, ignorant, transient and purposeless, but which somehow contrive,
through laws which appeared out of nowhere, to produce the orderly works of art
of symphonies of harmony and equilibrium that we see and hear around us.
Like Abraham in the house of idols, Bediüzzaman destroys these
myths and supersititions. Given that all things are interconnected, he
ri-iterates, whatever it is that brings existence to the seed of a flower must
also be responsible for the flower itself; and given their interpedendence,
whatever brings into existence the flower must also be responsible for the tree;
and given the fact that they are interrelated, whatever brings into existence
the tree must also be responsible for the forest, and so on. Thus to be able to
create the whole cosmos. That is surely a tall order for a cause which is blind,
impotent, transient, dependent and devoid of knowledge, of our purpose.
More and more scientists are beginning to realize that the
mechanistic theories of old are simply no longer sustainable. Faced with beauty,
awesomeness, order harmony, symmetry and purpose, attempts to explain away
creation hy evoking the idea of chance and causality are becoming increasingly
untenable. Many are so outraged at the imminent collapse of their old gods that
they lapse into hysteria:
One celebrated biologist and biology is still the most rigidly
mechanistic of disciplinesis on record as having said "Funnily, the more beauty
and harmony I discover in the cosmos, the more convinced I become of its
meaninglessness." The poor man seems not to have understood that if everything
is meaningless, his own effect to that is equally so. Another famous -or should
I say infamousscientist, also a biologist, asserts that the existence of beings,
and in particular the phenomenon of form, can in no way be attributed to the
random motions of blind, unknowing and impotent causes. He is not alone in his
thinking, but he is the first eminent Western biologist to state such beliefs
openly. Interestingly enough, he likens the state of the Western scientific
fraternity to Russia under Breshnev.
The mechanistic theory is the rigid, all-powerful orthodoxy to
which all scientists -biologists in particularmust -bow down if they are to
retain their credibility -and their jobs. And so they are forced to live a
fearful charade, shouting their loyalty in public but whispering their real
thoughts in private. When the book in which he attacks causality was published,
the magazine The new Scientist described it as a "candidate for burning" since
then, the author of this book has become an outcast, the Salman Rushdie of
Such widely differing opinions as to the viability of the causal
hypothesis show that the attribution of creative power to Nature or natural laws
is by no means the inevitable corollary of objective, scientific investigation.
It is no more than a personal opinion. Similarly, denial of the Creator of the
cosmos, who has placed apparent causes there as veils to cover His hand,of
power, is not an act of reason but an act of will. In short, causality is a
crude and cunning device with which man distributes the property of the Creator
among the created in order that he might set himself up as absolute owner and
ruler of all that he has, and all that he is.
My aim was not to summarize the Risale-i Nur; but to show how
far removed my previous conceptions about Allah were before reading this work. I
thought that by saying La ilaha illa Allah, I had said all there was to be said
about Allah. Thanks to the Risale-i Nur, I was now able to see that previously,
God had been something that I had brought in to complete the occasion, an
unknown factor placed almost arbitrarily at the beginning of creation to avoid
the impossiblity of infinite regression. He had been the ‘First Cause,’ the
‘Prime Mover,’ a veritable ‘God of the gaps.’ He had been rather a
constitutional monarch of the English veriety, who must be treated with the
utmost respect but not allowed to interfere in the affairs of everyday life.
Inspired by tlie verse La ilaha illa Allah, the Risale-i Nur
shows that the signs of God, these mirrors of His Names and attributes, are
revealed to us constantly in new and ever-changing forms and configurations,
eliciting acknowledgement, acceptance, submission, love and worship. The
Risale-i Nur showed that there is a distinct process involved in becoming Muslim
in the true sense of the word: contemplation to knowledge, knowledge to
affirmation, affirmation to belief or conviction, and from conviction to
submission. And since each new moment, each new day, sees the revelation of
fresh aspeccts of Divine truth, this process is a continuous one. The external
pratices of Islam, the formal acts of worship, are thus in a sense static.
Belief, however, is subject to increase or decrease, depending on the
continuance of the process I have just mentioned. Thus it is the reality of
belief that deserves most of our attention; from there the realities of Islam
will follow on inevitably.
Thus I can say that I had been a Muslim but not a believer; that
which I had assumed was belief was in reality nothing more than the inability to
deny. Bediüzzaman was not responsible for introducing me to İslam which anyone
could have done but for introducing me to belief. Belief through investigation,
not through imitation.
Let’s return now to the question: What do we, as Muslims, have
to offer to the West. The answer is: everything and nothing. We have belief and
Islam, which is everything; and we have our understanding and interpretation of
Islam, which in most cases amounts nothing much at all.
As is evident from the books which introduced me to Islam,
almost everything that has been written with the West in mind has been done more
or less on the level of some benign cultural exchange. Almost invariably the
central question of belief has been glossed over or ignored completely.
In the Qur’an, the word ‘Allah’ appears more than 2500 times,
the word ‘Islam’ less than ten. In a good deal of modern Muslim writing, the
ratio is roughly reversed. In the Qur’an, the ratio between iman and islam is
5:1 in favour of iman. In Arabic book titles until the end of the 19 th century,
islam slightly outnumbers iman in a ratio of 3:2. By the Sixties, this has had
jumped to 13:1, and today it is undoubtedly higher. Inevitably, then, the
approach to the West has centred on Islam as a system, as an alternative
‘ideology’, presented almost totally without reference to the realities of
Another reason why our approach to the West has made little
headway is that we have misunderstood the West. The West is not only a
geopolitical entity, it is also a metaphor. Geographically, the West was the
first place to witness a mass revolt against the Divine. Modern Western
civilization is the first of which we have knowledge that does not have some
formal structure of religious belief at its heart. The West is thus a metaphor
for the setting of the sun of religious belief; a metaphor for the eclipse of
God and since this eclipse is no longer confined to the geopolitical West, one
may say that wherever the West should be seen as a state of mind, a disease, an
aberration. The root cause of this, as Bediüzzaman Said Nursi points out, is the
disease of self-worship, of ‘ENE’ (Ana, the ‘I’ or ego).
From the beginniong of the Renaissance, man in the West has been
his own point of reference, the centre of his own universe, the sole criteriori
by which he lives out his pathetic life. He has stolen the clothes of the Divine
Names and has diressed himself in them and paraded as God. The problem is that
they do not fit, and cannot fit.
Unwilling to accept that his duty is merely to reflect the
Divine attributes in the name of the Creator and according to His Will, he
claims them as his own property and spends a lifetime trying to add to his
imaginary possessions. Seeking the infinite from the finite drags him into a
fierce and often murderous competition with his fellow beings. Man’s endless
desires are heightened by the fact that he is limited, impotent and dependent,
and bound one day to give up all that he imagined was his and face annihilation.
His limitations and deficiencies, which should serve to remind him of his
absolute dependence and impotence, he contrives to conceal. Western man flees
from ill thoughts of his ultimate destiny, smothers his innate ability to know
and love the Creator, to recognize that man is nothing and can have nothing of
The secular, self-absorbed society of the West is designed on
all levels to blind and stupefy. To mask the fact that the religion of the self
has failed to live up to its promises; that the secular of the self has failed
to live up to its promises; that the secular trinity of ‘unlimited progress,
absolute freedom and unrestricted happiness’ is a meaningless as the Christian
Trinity discarded centuries ago. To cover up the fact that economic and
scientific progress which has secular humanism as its underlying ethos, has
turned the West into a spiritual wasteland and ravaged generation after
generation. Yet there are those who are beginning to awake, to realize the
illusion under which they have been living: It is to these that the disease of
ENE must he pointed out. It is no use telling one who is afflicted with this
disease that the Islamic economic or judicial system is the most egalitarian or
moust just. You cannot cure a man suffering from cancer by giving him a new
coat. What is needed is a correct diagnosis, radical surgey and constant back-up
treatment. The Risale-i Nur provides all of these.
You will recall that I dismissed the Risale-i Nur initially as
mysticism, and I have also heard others describe it thus. The truth is
otherwise, for there is nothing egoteric about the stark choice Said Nursi puts
before us: belief or unbelief, eternal felicity or eternal wretchedness,
salvation or perdition, heaven or hell-in this world and the next.
I have also heard the Risale-i Nur deseribed as revolutionary,
and with this I agree. But I am not talking about revolution in the political
sense of the word. There is no mention of this in the Risale-i Nur, although I
am sure that had Bediüzzaman advocated the violent overthrow of all secular
governments, the Risale-i Nur would be requuired reading in every Western
university, and Bediüzzaman would be a household name in the West.
After all, the West has a soft spot for extremism, especially
when flavoured with religion. What can be better, more beautiful, more delicious
in the eyes of the Western media than the sight of thousands of angry Muslims in
some far-off, violent city screaming "Death to America!" and dernanding
revolution and the re-introduction of the Shari’a? The West no longer has to go
to the trouble of misrepresenting Islam: we do it for them, and they simply film
it for their own eonsumpion. I remember watching such a demonstration over a
decade ago, in a place where America is known as the great Satan. What struck me
at the time was the fact that maybe 70% of the crowd were dressed in Levis, and
that every cigarette smoked as the demonstration dispersed was either a Marlboro
or a Winston. As one hand cuts-or elaims to cut-the ties that bind us to the
West, the other hand fastens them even tighter.
Yet still we claim that it is time for action, that we have
spoken enough. I’ve actually heard this said in reference to the Risale-i Nur.
It is all talk, someone said, and no action. But we have not talked, we have
merely moaned and wailed. And because we have not talked, not conversed, brother
to brother, believer to believer, Muslim to Muslim, in the name of Allah, in the
language of the Qur’an and in the language of the book of creation, then when we
act we set incorrectly, without authority, without discipline, without a true
criterion and frame of referenee. And ultimately without any lasting result. The
West understands this perfectly.
No, the kind of revolution clamoured for on the streets of
Tehran, Cairo or Algiers is not the kind of revolution that Bediüzzaman
advocates. The kind of revolution envisaged by the Risale-i Nur is a revolution
of the mind, of the heart, of the soul and the spirit. It is not an Islamic
revolution but a revolution of belief. As such it works on two levels: it is
designed to lead Muslims from belief by imitation to belief through
investigation, and to lead unbelievers from worship of the self to worship of
Allah. And that is why, in the eyes of those who control the West, a work such
as the Risale-i Nur is deadly.
Finally, I would say this: After many years of searching and
comparing, I can say that the Risale-i Nur is the only self contained,
comprehensive Islamicwork that sees the cosmos as it actually, is, presents the
reality of belief as it truly is interprests the Qur’an as ourp Prophet
intended, diagnoses the real and very dangerous diseases that affliet modern
man, and offers a cure. A work such as the Risale-i Nur, which reflects the
light of the Our’an and illuminates the cosmos cannot be ignored. For only İslam
stands between modern man and catastrophe, and I believe that the future of
Islam depends on the Risale-i Nur and on those who follow and are inspircd by