Journey to the Divine According to Bediuzzaman Said Nursi
By Yamina Bouguenaya
And I have not created the Jinns and human beings to any end other than that they may [know and] worship Me. (Qur’an, 51:56)
Why are we here on earth? To worship God, says the Qur’an. This is a profound response that is worthy of exploring. What is meant by worship? Are we supposed to live in the mosque, or a monastery? Who is God really and how come my purpose and fulfillment is tied to worshipping and adoring God? What if I decline this purpose, what are the consequences?
In this essay, we shall explore these key questions with the help of a wonderful Muslim scholar, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. Said Nursi, like many Muslim teachers before him, engaged with the Qur’an with an open heart and intellect. As an interpretation of this key verse, what Nursi offers is really a journey of the spirit, the heart, the intellect and other faculties. He shows how knowing and worshipping God is a journey that leads to joy and fulfillment in this world and in the next. He also insightfully talks about the consequences of not worshipping God; human life without it is miserable and loses all meaning and peace. In what follows, let’s look at how this is so: how worship of God fulfills a human being, and how the alternative paths lead to dead ends. As it turns out, we have two basic choices before us at every turn.
A Choice with Implications
From the outset, Nursi explains that there are two ways of being in the world. The first is being aware of one’s vulnerable self (‘ajz and faqr), embracing this vulnerability and acknowledging with gratitude one’s dependence on the Sustainer (Rabb). The second way of being is to be in denial of one’s vulnerability and struggle with its reality and attempt to become self-sufficient. Note that in both cases our reality is the same: we are vulnerable. In other words, we do not choose to be vulnerable, it is a given; we just choose how to respond to it. The first way is the heart’s mode of being while the second is the nafs’ or ego’s mode of being. As the ego is purified from its illusions of self-sufficiency and the faculties entrusted to it are employed in the name of the Creator, they start to display a variety of worship, thanks and praise. Then, the seeker of God gradually transforms and enters a new mode of being and knowing under the leadership of the heart. This transformation affects all human senses. Nursi reminds us that all senses and subtle faculties (laṭāif), like the intellect (‘aql), the spirit (ruh), mystery (sirr), and the ego (nafs) have their calling for worship.
Hence the intellect, to which the faculty of reasoning is ascribed, operates either in the modality of the ego or that of the heart. Under the spell of the ego, we mistakenly believe that we exist separately and independently of our creator. We rely on our own extremely limited power and strength to live our life and as a consequence, we bear the burden of constant fears of the unknown, of the uncontrollable, and of death. In contrast, in the heart mode, we free our faculty of reasoning from the illusions of the ego and put it at the service of the heart. We are saved from the troubles of an intellect that is stuck with ‘unreasoning’. Indeed, as Nursi explains, “Know that ideas cannot be enlightened without the light of the heart.”
Now, how is it that following the heart yields light and insight, and following the ego yields darkness and illusion? Let us open this up further through another verse that Nursi insightfully interprets. When commenting on the following verse, “Indeed, God has purchased from the believers their lives (anfusahum) and their properties for that they will have paradise.” (Qur’an, 9:111) Nursi explains that the possessions of one’s life and what they include such as the eye, the tongue and the intellect are a trust from the Creator. If they are not ‘sold back’ to the Compassionate and Omnipotent Creator, i.e. used in His name, they will be employed for the sake of the ego and thereby will be ruined.
For instance, if the intellect functions for the sake of the ego, it will become only a troublemaker. Indeed, when it turns away from the heart modality, the human intellect only multiplies suffering. After all, only when we use our mind, we sense in one separation that we experience the news of all future separations. Thus, Nursi notes, the intellect becomes “an ill- omened, noxious and debilitating tool that will burden your weak person with all the sad sorrows of the past and the terrifying fears of the future; it will descend to the rank of an inauspicious and destructive tool.”
In contrast, if the intellect is employed in God’s name it will unlock the infinite treasures of compassion and the meanings of wisdom in the universe. It will become a precious key helping uncover the indications to infinite beauty and majesty throughout the universe. Thus, instead of being a nuisance tool that we constantly try to avoid, the intellect will rise to the station of ‘Divine guide’ (murshid rabbanī) preparing its owner for eternal bliss. Likewise, if the eye, which is a window through which the spirit looks out on this world, is employed on behalf of the ego, it will gaze on transient and impermanent beauties and sceneries and sink to the level of being a servant of the nafs’. In contrast, if it is employed in the name of the Creator, our capacity to see will rise to the rank of contemplator of the cosmos, a witness to the miracles of Divine art. Nursi also gives the example of the tongue. When employed on behalf of the ego, its function simply becomes shoveling stuff into the stomach, after a very brief enjoyment. But if it is sold to the Generous Provider, the sense of taste will rise to the rank of a skilled and grateful overseer of the treasuries of Divine compassion. That is, even though one’s enjoyment of delicious food will be still brief and passing, it will enable the person to get a glimpse of an eternal delight: namely, the undying mercy and power of the Generous One.
The two modes of human attitude to life, namely embracing one’s dependence on God versus resisting the fact that we are utterly dependent, are also connected to the two ‘faces’ of the universe. According to Nursi, every thing has two aspects (wajh), each of which corresponds to each of the two modes of being in the world. One looks to the malakūt, which is like a mirror reflecting the beautiful qualities of God, the other is the transient side of the world, i.e. its mulk side, and it is like the dark side of a mirror. The former is beautiful; it is “an arable field of the hereafter” as mentioned in a hadith, a saying of the Prophet. To love this aspect of things is the means to attain knowledge of God and worship Him. Note how worship is much broader than we might have imagined: it encompasses all the experiences and actions through which we get to know our Creator, who is the Artist behind all beauty in life.
These two aspects of things, the mulk and malakut, are the result of two ways of being and perceiving the world: the so- called harfi (indicative) vision and the ismī (nominal) one. Nursi explains that the ego modality of being sees only the transient aspect of the world and its logic is ismī; it is unaware that every thing with all its qualities exists only through God and hence points to Him. It looks at things not on account of their Maker and Sustainer, i.e. not as signs (ayāt) of God. For instance, in looking at the phenomena in the world, instead of saying, ‘How beautifully they have been made’, this ismī perspective says, ‘How beautiful they are.’
This ismī perspective of the ego modality is the default perspective, so to speak; the one we find ourselves in the beginning. This default mode of the ego is then interrupted by the heart. Under the thrust of the heart’s existential questions such as, ‘Who am I? Where am I coming from? And where am I going?’ we are invited to look for answers. As we cannot reach satisfactory answers through our own resources, like Prophet Abraham (upon him be peace), we feel the need for seeking out answers beyond ourselves and we become receptive to Divine revelation. In other words, Nursi is clear that the answers are revealed or gifted to us through the scripture given to the prophets. And the intellect commands that this revelation be followed, because everything it says is reasonable. In other words, once the revelation reveals the answers, the intellect can indeed understand and confirm them.
Thus, it is the Qur’anic verses that point to the beautiful malakut aspect of things behind the mirror of the mulk or apparent aspect. The Qur’an instructs us with a new way of looking at the world and events, as signs that carry messages from the Divine. This is what Nursi terms the harfī vision. In order for the harfi vision to unfold within us, we need to gradually purify the soul or ego of its false claims of independence from its Maker. That is, we need to let go of our appropriation of what God has given us as trust. As we are awakened, we realize that our ego’s dogmatic baggage and fancies fall apart upon questioning. Through this questioning the intellect transforms into a faculty of the heart, which unlike the ego, is sensitive to beauty and to the pain of its transience. At this point, it is clear that intending to question our assumptions about our existence and what we take for granted is crucial. Intending itself entails that awareness. This is why Nursi gives great importance to cultivating awareness through reflection (tafakkur), as well as remembrance (ẓikr), reminding that acts of worship without awareness become mere habit. And, through awareness of the One who sustains our existence, mundane acts become acts of worship—a notion that further enriches the concept of worship mentioned in the Qu’ranic verse, which describes the purpose of human existence.
Indeed, reflection plays a vital role in knowing God. Nursi asserts that the “reasoning heart” has “to reflect by means of the signs or verses of God.” That is, as the reasoning heart grasps the very logic of the Qu’ranic verses, it will see through them and reflect under their guidance. When we give up the ismī mode of being, and surrender to the Creator through the teachings of the Qur’anic verses, they become like buraq or a heavenly mount, for our heart and spirit to gaze upon the reality of the universe, which is the Divine attributes of perfection. There starts an ongoing process, where we gradually leave our prejudices and preconceived ideas aside and listen to the Qur’anic verses. In turn, the ayāt will start speaking to us and revealing themselves to our heart. At each stage of this process, the ego will be purified with the help of the ayāt. As we attain to a higher level of self-purification, we further increase our receptivity to the disclosure of God’s self- disclosure, and so on ad infinitum. The Option of the Heart
Each human being has thus a momentous choice before him: harkening to the heart and being open to infinity, or being stuck with the ego and its illusionary finite vision. Let us re-emphasise that it is the Divine messages revealed through the prophets—the final one being the Qur’an—that actually awakens us to the alternative to the ego’s vision. For Nursi, Qur’anic verses reveal and display the reality (haqīqa) as it is. They teach how to see the malakūt aspect within mulk. They teach the meaning of the universe, and all beings and events; they instruct in true wisdom and knowledge. A human being with his restricted capacity cannot comprehend the truth. However, from the vantage point that the universal view of the Qur’anic verses provides, he can look at universal truth through the verses to the extent they unfold to him. And, they unfold unto him to the extent he purifies himself of his false beliefs and opens his heart to listen and remember.
The Qur’an, Nursi writes, is Divine speech in regard to Absolute Sovereignty (rubūbiyā) and it comes from the greatest name of God and from the greatest level of every one of His beautiful names. It is a source of genuine knowledge. This means that the Qur’an reveals how it is to be understood and used. If one tries to ‘understand’ the Qur’an with his own ismī logic, he will only project his own understanding onto the Qur’an. Once one becomes aware of this fact and starts the process of purification, he begins to listen in the name of the Bestower of Knowledge. Then, the meanings of the Qur’an start unfolding to him as it is alluded to in the verse, “None but the pure (of heart) can touch it.” (Qur’an, 56:79) Hence to be a student of the Qur’an requires an active posture; merely reading the words on the page does not guarantee understanding.
What is worth noting in Nursi’s work is that it embodies the harfī approach that the author expounds. That is, Nursi does not merely talk about the Qur’anic approach but demonstrates it in his exposition of the Qur’anic verses. He does not ‘interpret’ them in the classical meaning of the word; rather he carefully listens to their wisdom, interacts with them and follows their guidance. Indeed, in his writings, he very often talks about his encounter with Qur’anic verses. For instance, he says that the verse “Every living creature shall taste death” (Qur’an, 56:79, 21:35, 29:57) entered his ear, penetrated to the depths of his heart and established itself there. In that text, he also explains the meaning that unfolded in his heart from the indications of that verse.
It is Nursi’s commitment to open himself up to the Qur’anic verses that is expressed in his statements such as, “It is not I who speaks in any of the Words (another name for his Risale-i Nur).” Indeed, Nursi says that the Risale-i Nur was bestowed to him as a result of need; his share in it is only his intense need and his seeking (talab), and his extreme weakness and his beseeching (taẓaru’). As he put it, “The ill is mine, the cure is the Qur’an’s.”
Thus, in the Risale-i Nur, Nursi describes in detail the journeying of the nafs, the intellect, the heart and other faculties towards truth. The journey for all faculties consists in detaching themselves from the nafs’ and entering the service of the heart. The latter will then mount the verses of the Qur’an like buraqs and reach heights that are otherwise unattainable. From there, the spirit and heart will soar to the realm of the beautiful names and attributes of God. The seeker of God will then realise that the seemingly meaningless and horrifying flux of life is a purposeful, worthwhile and satisfying experience. He will know and love God as the sole Sustainer, as the Compassionate Provider, as the Merciful and Forgiving Guide. He will thank God and praise Him with all His beautiful names. Thus, the seeker worships God alone and asks for help from God alone.
In sum, the aim of human life as worshipping God fulfills human needs and brings much needed peace to the human spirit. This purpose of life is the state of finding our true freedom and fulfillment by submitting to and being a conscious mirror to God’s beautiful names—those beautiful attributes of God that constitutes the ground of existence. Hence, the Qur’anic notion that we have been created for worship means that we have been created to revel in and enjoy God’s beauty. It also means to gratefully and appreciatively reflect God’s beauty in our way of being in the world, and in our way of dealing with others.