What Can My Enemies Do To Me?

A Reflection on the Struggles of Said Nursi (1877–1960)

UNSW Muslim Students Association
13 min readSep 23, 2021
Photo by Shifaaz shamoon on Unsplash

Bismillah. A good piece of text begins with a story.

A person dear to me has a principle in life — he calls it ‘go with the flow’. He uses an analogy of entering the waters at a beach. When the current begins to take you away, there’s no point in panicking. You will eventually end up at another point alongside the coastline safety. It’s a matter of simple ocean physics — just focus on floating and remaining above the waters. It’s only when you begin to fight against the current and exhaust your energy, you’ll end up in trouble. And most probably drown as a result of exhaustion. The same can be applied to life. There’s no point worrying or fighting things outside our control — the purpose of life is to end up where we’re destined to be. Just go with the flow.

And yet, there are people in this world likely to misinterpret this and argue, since everything has been decreed, there’s no point changing, even for the better. Rather than fight the current or go with the flow, they’re more than happy to sink to the bottom. My uncle once put it eloquently:

Yes, everything about you has been written in a book. But Allah knows you don’t know what’s written in your book.”

To which we come to the story of Said Nursi. My intention was to write about the life of Said Nursi (1877–1960), a well-known Kurdish scholar, Tafsir exegete and visionary from the late Ottoman Period and a person I know very little about. This article was to be a reflection on his life, a great man honoured with the name Bediüzzaman (translated as “Wonder of Our Age”). The context in which he lived was a time when the Muslim world was undergoing significant changes — intellectually, spiritually, politically and economically — during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire and following its collapse. Foreign ideologies permeated throughout Ottoman society and numerous secret organisations were formed in opposition to the Ottoman Government.

It was believed, by many, the problems faced by the Ottoman State required a political solution — a solution that required ‘Westernising’ in order to modernise. These two concepts were held synonymous.

Then I realised this so-called article (based on my brief readings of the life of Said Nursi) would be a dishonour to his legacy. It’s difficult working and studying full-time to dedicate proper time to the acquisition of knowledge. It’s another to convey knowledge when one is not qualified to do so. While writing this, I kept asked myself, what is the main point I’m trying to convey to the audience? Should I simply write a biography, or extract and reflect on key parts of his tafsir or write a contemplation on his life of exile and so on. I really didn’t know.

It’s unfortunate to say, in this age many people have a tendency ‘to know’. To have an opinion and to immediately share their opinion, or what they think or believe, is ‘knowledge’. So, it left me in a conundrum — what am I going to write about? And is there a need in the first place?

I’ll start off by arguing ‘yes’ for three reasons:

Photo by Drahomír Posteby-Mach on Unsplash

In the current secular environment, there is a tendency to apply a reductionist approach to everything — the idea that facts and principles used in the application and governance of life can be reduced to their atomic components. And these can either be empirically observed and/or inferred / deduced rationally. Unfortunately, the consequence of this is the separation of the spiritual from the material.

And why is this important? For two reasons:

  1. How often do we see an emphasis on the outward display of worship in comparison to an inward contemplation and reflection?
  2. How often do we read biographical texts of the great people of Islam, only to read historical facts and dialogue, yet little if no spiritual lessons or hidden meaning are offered?

I’ll share an example on the second point — I had a conversation with a brother in Melbourne over the phone who told me he was listening to one of the lectures of Sheikh Hamza Yusuf. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf approached the topic of Evil and the question of Good and Evil as not irreconcilable facts of reality that should cause doubt in a person, but that Evil itself was ‘the absence of God’. A simple statement with a profound meaning that was enough to input the ‘wow’ factor.

When we look at the history of our Deen, we have many great examples of people who carried within them deep Taqwa and Ihsan. An example of this is the life of the Noble Companion Sa’ed ibn Aamir Al Jumahi r.a. In one part of his story, Umar r.a. sent 1000 dinars to Sa’ed r.a. after hearing of his situation of relative poverty in Hims (Homs in modern day Syria). Upon receiving the purse, Sa’ed r.a. sullenly said to his wife:

The worldly material has entered my household to destroy my Hereafter.”

This was a Noble Companion who reserved the night for the worship and remembrance of his Rabb. Unfortunately, the story omits the finer details of what this means other than vague mention of prayer and reciting Qu’ran. This is what I mean by the reductionist approach — giving details to feed the intellect but starving the soul.

With regards to second reason, there is a part in the life in Said Nursi which I found to be really fascinating — his concept and proposal to the Ottoman Government of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Madrasah al-Zahra. An Islamic University (to use modern day terminology), to serve as a sister to Al-Azhar and would combine the traditional Islamic Studies taught at Madrasahs with the positive sciences taught at secular schools. This was important given the context — there were prevailing foreign ideologies in the Ottoman Empire towards the end of the late 19th century and early 20th century, which, on the surface were seen as binary opposites (i.e. positivism, materialism, secularism vs traditional Islam), but in the eyes of Said Nursi this was a false dichotomy.

He set out to on a programme to integrate and harmonize the education of the two into one which he believed would address and solve the major problems faced by the Ottoman State and society.

He sincerely and wholeheartedly believed all the problems in the world can be answered with solutions from the Qu’ran, an unextinguishable sun that illuminates the soul as if the Qu’ran speaks for the first time to every new generation since the time of the Beloved Prophet (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him) with new and profound insights and answers to the problems faced by that generation. The concept of light features predominantly in his work.

Education and knowledge are two fundamental concepts in our Deen. It can be said the life of our Beloved Prophet (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him) is split into two parts (after the first revelation was revealed on Mount Hira):

  • Meccan Period
  • Medinan Period.
Photo by abdurahman iseini on Unsplash

In Mecca, our Beloved Prophet (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him) set-up Darul- Arqam in secret to teach the people their new Deen, while in Medina our Beloved Prophet (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him) inaugurated Suffa in the hallowed grounds of Masjid-Nabawi, open to all without fear of persecution.

In many ways Suffa became an extension to the pedagogy of Darul Arqam in Mecca. It served many roles and purposes in Medina — a place of learning, a madrasah, a mosque, an established order with a curriculum, a social gathering, a place to learn etiquette, a base to announce the good news — instructing and teaching the Noble Companions.

Note: The reason why this paragraph is italicised is because I wrote this for a website yet to be officially launched — I don’t believe I could have put it any better for this text.

The Noble Companions were seeds nurtured and guided by their Beloved Teacher and Prophet (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him) in the hallowed grounds of Masjid- Nabawi at the rear end of the mosque, in a veranda called Suffa, in Medina. These seeds would one day grow to be fruit bearing trees of knowledge, guiding the next generation of Believers as stars guide travellers on perilous journeys. Unfortunately, Said Nursi would never realise his dream of launching Madrasah al-Zahra. But there was another madrasah he spoke of while imprisoned — Madrasah-Yusuffiye, or (translated using modern words) the University of Yusuf a.s. Many of our great scholars of the past were graduates from Madrasah-Yusuffiye — giants such as Imam Abu Hanifa r.a., Imam Malik r.a., Imam Shafi r.a., Imam Hanbal r.a., Shiekh Ibn Taymiyyah and so on.

There’s a quote from Sheikh Ibn Taymiyyah my brother once told me (on multiple occasions, because he loves this quote):

What can my enemies do to me? My paradise and my garden are in my heart wherever I go. They are with me and never leave me. If I am imprisoned, it is seclusion for worship. If I am killed, it is martyrdom. If they expel me from my land, it is tourism.”

Imprisonment, exile and personal loss are themes which feature significantly in the life of Said Nursi. He was a stranger in his own homeland, exiled from one place to another and persecuted. There is a hadith that states, “Islam began as something strange (ghariban) and will go back to being strange, so glad tidings to the strangers”. The concept of Exile (ghurbah) is an important concept in Tasawwuf (loosely translated as Sufism). Exile is a way to renounce this worldly life in order to attach oneself to Allah as a part of a person’s spiritual growth. However, it is not easy — it comes with loneliness and alienation. It is a paradigm designed to create the essence of survival within a person, to turn estrangement into companionship with Al-Wakil (The Trustee) and to put one’s complete trust in Allah.

I am not free and independent; I am a traveller with duties.”

This quote by Said Nursi reminds me of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s r.a. reply when he was asked ‘How are you this morning?’:

How would anyone be whose Lord is demanding that he carry out the obligatory duties, and His Prophet is demanding that he follow the Sunnah, and the two angels are demanding that he mend his ways, and his nafs is demanding that he follow its whims and desires, and Iblees is demanding that he commit immoral actions, and the angel of death is watching and waiting to take his soul, and his dependents are demanding that he spend on their maintenance?”1

Both suffered hardships at the hands of the authorities because both refused to submit to their dictates that contravened the dictates of the faith.

The reason why I mentioned Suffa was to tie it with the experiences of Said Nursi — he had students take down notes while he was exiled and imprisoned. This was the tafsir Risale-i Nur, along with other texts, which exist to this day. It is hard to imagine that such a text would arise from one of the remotest parts of Turkey and affect millions across the globe, while it’s Imam and followers were continuously persecuted by the authorities of a new regime that replaced the Ottoman State. The text, or early copies of it, became the reason for Said Nursi’s imprisonment — the authorities believed Said Nursi was using Islam for political purposes and to instigate public disturbance. However, this was not true. In fact, he was acquitted by the courts on several occasions because the Judges did not find evidence in the Risale-i Nur to support the charges. However, this didn’t prevent the authorities from plotting to murder him, from poising his meals, keeping him in solitary confinement to refusing to fix a broken window in his cell during harsh winters.

We now come to the third reason — to experiment with a new style of writing. It might not be everybody’s cup of tea but there is an underlying reason. I realised there is an inherent linearity in texts that nearly always begins with an introduction and conclusion, and in between are sequential series of facts or body of information. And I asked myself, does writing in this style ever achieve it’s intended purpose?

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

If I want to write about the topic of motivation on how to be a good enough Muslim, does it make sense for me to outline a prescriptive series of steps that are to be followed? Motivation is something inherently subjective and based on values — it’s very difficult to find motivation from just reading prescriptive and normative statements.

Do this, do that. Cry for an extra five minutes after Maghrib. But no matter what, you will always fall short and never will be like the Noble Companions, Great Imams, Scholars and Martyrs of the past in the first.

What kind of motivation is this? Especially the last sentence — I’ve heard that sentence (rephrased differently) so many times in my life and it always left me wondering, why even bother? A person does a good deed by calling others to good actions, then does a disservice by telling them they will never be good enough. There is a reason why our Deen emphasises the importance of keeping the tongue silent except for absolute, necessary speech.

This is where I find storytelling helpful. Or at least different. It’s a habit of mine to simultaneously read different texts in order to create connections between them. I’ll give an example — what does the commentary on Surah Baqarah (i.e., translation and Tafsir in the Ascendent Qu’ran), the life of Malcolm X (after he was released from prison and worked at the Cut Rate Discount Store) and tailors have in common?

Something which will get me expelled for writing here, so I won’t even bother (sorry for the anticlimax).

It’s hard to finish a book when some sentences in the book happen to be long- winded, some paragraphs come off as unnecessary and some chapters appear to be a regurgitation of facts from earlier chapters. It reminds me of the story of when my dad was given a thick book about Democracy — he gave up trying to read it after a couple of pages.

Me: How come Baba?

Father: Son, it’s as if this so-called academic went out of his way to make this book unreadable ON PURPOSE. I tried reading the section on ‘The Greater Middle Eastern Project’ countless times, and I still don’t know what he’s talking about.

Now, there is something I’m keen to share at this point. It begins with a conversation I had with an uncle yesterday about Yunus Emre.

As I was saying, the uncle said something very interesting — everybody in this age has an answer to something. Everybody has an opinion. Everybody is a Google or goes online to learn from Google. But no one says, ‘I don’t know’.

Uncle: Let me ask you, what was the first hadith of Rasulullah s.a.v?

Me: I don’t know.

Uncle: That’s right.

Me: I’m serious. I didn’t know.

Uncle: I know you didn’t know, but I understood what you meant. And he continued.

Uncle: When Jibrail AS visited Rasulullah s.a.v and said “Iqra”, what did Rasulullah s.a.v say?

I don’t know (how to read).

To not know is also a Sunnah and there is no shame in it. But it’s not an excuse to remain ignorant.

It reminded me of an episode from the Turkish series Ask Yolculugu — a series about the life of the Anatolian poet and mystic Yunus Emre.

There was a scene where the head of a guild fraternity visited Sheikh Tapduk Emre to ask for his advice on inheritance to resolve a family matter between two brothers. Yunus, as a Pir, overheard the conversation, and after the head of the guild fraternity left, Yunus approached his Sheikh, excited to offer his help, recalling his deep knowledge about inheritance from his studies at a reputable madrassah. The Sheikh simply smiled.

The following morning Sheikh Tapduk Emre approached Yunus to assign him his first task — daily dhikr. Yunus was to do dhikr by saying ‘I don’t know’ to everyone who spoke to him. For a person who studied at a reputable madrassah this was both embarrassing and difficult to bear. And soon his nafs began to talk to him, mocking him, saying nasty things about the Sheikh when Yunus was alone in his room.

The lesson here is that this was a test for Yunus — Yunus may have been knowledgeable, but he was still captive to his nafs.

The dikhr was simply a test for him to learn to humble himself.

I’ll like to end with a representation from the Risale-i Nur about the meaning of Bismillah — In the Name of Allah — an expression frequently spoken by Believers daily. Before travellers embarked on a journey, they would seek protection from a well-known Chieftain against the dangers posed by bandits and other foes across the lands. And so, if they encountered such threats, they would invoke the name of the Chief as protection in order to ensure safe passage. Our life in this world (Dunya) is nothing but temporary and we are merely travellers in a strange place. In this world there are open and hidden dangers waiting for Believers. By invoking the Name of Allah, we are placing our trust in the protection of Allah, knowing we willingly and consciously sought out the protection of The One who commands power and authority across the domain and The One with the only real power to protect and enact justice against those who threaten / harm the ones who sought protection under His Name.

References: https://ia600200.us.archive.org/4/items/EnglishTranslationOfMusnadImamAhmedBin HanbalVolume1/EnglishTranslationOfMusnadImamAhmedBinHanbal-Volume1.pdf

By Atilla Olgun

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors’ and may not reflect the position and viewpoint of UNSWMSA. All information aims to be accurate, however Islamic rulings should always be taken from a trustworthy scholar.



UNSW Muslim Students Association

Showcasing the intellectual and creative works of young Muslims from UNSW