Review by Lucinda Mosher
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1877/78-1960) wended his way into my doctoral research in 1999. Ian Markham commenced his study of Nursi in 2002. Of the relatively short list of English-language scholarly books about Nursi, several contain an essay by one or both of us. Markham, however, has gone steps farther than I. He included a chapter on Nursi in his Theology of Engagement (Blackwell, 2003); and significantly, of the English-language scholarly books on Nursi, Markham’s name is on the front cover of three, including the two texts under review here.
Who is Nursi? A Kurdish-Turkish scholar and spiritual leader, his public career overlapped two world wars, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and Turkey’s subsequent efforts to establish a different kind of government and national identity. His disciples — an extensive global community — see him as an Islamic restorationist, a God-sent reviver of the religion for the 20th century and beyond. Hence, they often refer to him by the honorific Bediuzzaman, that is, Wonder of the Age. His disciples are ardent students of his legacy, having produced more than 5,000 pages of thematically organized Qur’an commentary, practical spiritual guidance, and correspondence, most of which is published as the multi-volume Risale-i Nur (Epistles of Light). Nursi’s biography is compelling; but wading into his Risale can be daunting. He has his modern-day detractors, the government of Russia among them. Ian Markham’s Nursi projects offer guidance toward understanding and appreciation of Bediuzzaman.
Engaging with Bediuzzaman Said Nursi
Engaging with Bediuzzaman Said Nursi is Markham’s attempt to explain his involvement with Bediuzzaman as an act of Christian faithfulness. In Nursi, he sees someone who “represents within Islam an approach that Anglicans represent in Christianity.” That is, both Anglicanism and Nursi’s ever-widening circle of disciples are movements “born out of internal conversations”; both are “committed to the life of the mind” and have sought “to accommodate the best of modernity” (p. 5). Having found the effort transformative, Markham, who describes himself as “a rooted Christian,” seeks to demonstrate what Christians might learn from Nursi’s ideas and example. “The argument of this book,” Markham explains, “is that every religious tradition needs a Said Nursi. The future of the world depends on all of us discovering in our rootedness a commitment to dialogue and living together” (p. 145).
In “Part One: Learning From Nursi” (nine chapters), Markham strives to “relate [Nursi’s] nuanced and complex position” and “to reflect on the implications of his thought for Christian theology” (p. 6). Accordingly, he brings Nursi into conversation with a range of major thinkers — Alasdair MacIntyre, Bertrand Russell, Richard John Neuhaus, John Hick, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri, among others — as he demonstrates what Nursi has to offer to discussions of secularism and ethics, theism versus atheism, human destiny and moral accountability, faith and politics, and globalization. Then, having rehearsed John Hick’s “pluralist hypothesis,” and having countered it by asserting that “the commitment to diversity, conversation, and toleration cannot start from semi-unbelief,” he offers Nursi’s approach as a robust alternative for engaging religious diversity by anyone who insists on remaining “grounded in the particularities of [a] faith tradition” (p. 58). In contrast to the “‘religion-less’ spirituality of secular America,” he proposes Nursi’s “grounded spirituality” (i.e., “a spirituality grounded in a tradition”) as an attractive alternative. Markham concludes Part One by laying out four lessons Christians can learn from Nursi: “remain rooted,” “change in ways that are true to the tradition,” “witness to the truth of your tradition in non-violent ways,” and “continue to connect faith with life.” It seems to me that the book could end here.
Instead, we come to “Part Two: Rethinking Dialogue.” Of its six chapters, three (10, 11, and 12) are adaptations of Markham’s Teape Lectures on “Dialogue Done Differently” given in India in 2004. “The Dialogue Industry” criticizes the assumptions foundational to Leonard Swidler’s approach. “Learning from India” lifts up four case studies of dialogue in a Hindu-majority context. “A New Decalogue” offers dialogue principles “grounded in the Indian experience” (p. 131). Nursi was not mentioned in the original lectures; in their form as book chapters, he is barely mentioned.
Nursi is celebrated in the opening paragraph of “Conservatives and Dialogue” (chapter 13), but that is Markham’s last mention of him as once again he reminds us of the difficulties with John Hick’s pluralist hypothesis and again stresses the need for “a tradition-constituted account of religious diversity” (p. 157). “Neither Conservative nor Liberal: A Theology of Christian Engagement with Non-Christian Traditions” (chapter 14) — a version of Markham’s paper given in Calgary in 2007 — refers to itself as a “concluding chapter,” but it ends with “a brief analysis and description” of Pope Benedict XVI’s “attack on Islam” (p. 169), rather than with a summary of the book. That is left for chapter 15, only a single page in length, in which Markham insists that Part Two has been an attempt to “formulate a Christian (but also an Anglican) account of dialogue, which is grounded in the methodology of Nursi” taught in Part I (p. 175).
Had Nursi been brought more explicitly and fully into each essay in Part Two, I might be more convinced that these essays are grounded in his methodology and thus that they belong in Engaging with Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. That said, Part Two is nevertheless rich and thought-provoking. Anyone interested in an authentically Anglican theology of religious manyness will find much of value there, and Part One is especially pertinent as a rationale for engaging with a brilliant 20th-century Muslim thinker. Anyone who has participated in dialogues, friendship dinners, or tours of Turkey sponsored by one of America’s many Turkish institutes inspired by the teaching of Fetullah Gülen has ipso facto encountered disciples of Said Nursi. Markham’s Engaging with Bediuzzaman Said Nursi will shed light on the commitment of these Turkish-Americans to their tradition and to interfaith engagement, and improve our own similar engagement.
Having been shown the value in taking Bediuzzaman seriously, readers may want to know more about him and be ready to read from the Risale-i Nur. Little exists in English to guide the novice reader of this massive work. In their Introduction to Said Nursi: Life, Thought, and Writings, Markham and his coauthor, Nursi scholar Suendam Birinci Pirim, provide excellent assistance.
Introduction begins with four chapters, each concluded with three sets of “reflection questions.” Chapter 1, a biography, is succinct, yet rich enough in details to orient the newcomer to Nursi and his Risale-i Nur. Characteristics of his theology and spirituality are the focus of chapters 2 and 3. I would have explained Nursi’s relation to Sufism and mysticism differently, and I have concerns regarding the transliteration and use of key Arabic vocabulary in this chapter, but these are too technical to explain here. I nonetheless appreciate what Markham and Pirim have to say on Nursi’s spirituality as a key to understanding his attitude toward other matters. Chapter 4, based on portions of Engaging with Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, provides a brief account of “grounded pluralism” as the alternative Nursi offers to theocracy or secularism.
The remainder of Introduction presents 25 extended passages from the Nursi corpus. Arranged under four headings — Belief, Prophethood, Life after Death and Resurrection, and Justice and Worship — each excerpt is given a brief introduction providing context and some guidance for reading. Footnotes clarify the text as needed. These extracts are not snippets; each are of significant length, thus allowing the reader to experience how Nursi crafts an argument, gives advice, or supplicates; how he “chunks” material and makes creative use of levels of subheadings in order to make his lessons easier to recall. I view the relation of Mathnawi al-Nuriye to the Risale differently, but I am glad it is represented in the excerpts chosen for Introduction.
The collection of extracts is prefaced by an explanation of the style of the Risale-i Nur. This is but a single page; I wish Markham and Pirim had written more. While the Risale’s style and structure did figure in their telling of the story of Nursi’s life (chapter 1), it would be helpful to have that information reiterated and expanded just before entering the Risale.
In short, An Introduction to Said Nursi is an important academic resource that is approachable by the non-specialist as well. A major Muslim thinker with a profound commitment to nonviolence, Bediuzzaman deserves to be better known. An Introduction enhances the accessibility of Nursi’s enormous literary legacy, such that more students and scholars will be inclined to read him alongside Muslims such as Rumi, al-Ghazali, or Ibn ‘Arabi — and alongside Christians such as Barth, Tillich, or the Anglican Divines. It is a fine companion to Engaging with Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. One may find Introduction the better volume with which to start. Having gotten to know something of Nursi’s story and heard him speak for himself, through the annotated excerpts of his work, one will be better prepared to appreciate why the dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary has been so invested in explaining what this Turkish mystic has to offer to the arena of interreligious understanding.
Lucinda Mosher is faculty associate in interfaith studies at Hartford Seminary and author of Toward Our Mutual Flourishing: The Episcopal Church, Interreligious Relations, and Theologies of Religious Manyness.