The Concept of Responsibility for Positive Change: The Nursian Vision of Social Reform During the Ottoman Empire

While pan-Islam would support the political and social unity of all Muslim states, Nursi’s support was towards the spiritual and economic unity of the Muslim world. He wrote and gave sermons about uniting features of Islam and the political dangers of nationalism, materialism, and philosophy that were contradicting to the teachings of the Quran.

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While pan-Islam would support the political and social unity of all Muslim states, Nursi’s support was towards the spiritual and economic unity of the Muslim world. He wrote and gave sermons about uniting features of Islam and the political dangers of nationalism, materialism, and philosophy that were contradicting to the teachings of the Quran.

In the present global sphere where menacing and detrimental issues and matters are evolved gradually, religion has become a crucial topic of discussion. Religious doctrines and identities are being threatened and questioned with voluminous amounts of challenges that render divine ideologies and concepts to degrade and depreciate, and thereby fail to display its reality and actual serenity to the society.

It is highly pertinent and quite imperative to realize this emasculation that has affected the Muslim community and turn our attention towards resolving these problems. Although reformative movements are also prevalent, working with the intention of reviving the lost Muslim glory and spirituality, a true and genuine endeavor that could act as a legitimate solvent, is still a subject of controversy.

The initiatives and reformative modes put forth by Said Nursi, the leading intellect who reinvented the political background of Turkey from depression through his powerful and noteworthy movements and thoughts, place a good premium in this challenging global structure. His ideology of responsibility that each should take as an obligation, which he found the basis for regenerating the poisoned and worse ambiance of Turkish community and the religious environment, prevailed as both significant and feasible and also fruitful in sweeping out the negativities. 

This essay will try to understand the vision of Said Nursi, on social reform as an individual responsibility, for the restructuring of polluted religious atmospheres and thereby reach ample solutions for all sorts of problems and difficulties that disturb the equilibrium of the nature and the peaceful living of the humanity and the Muslims in particular.

Said Nursi: Life and Ideology

Said Nursi, who also called Bediuzzaman, was a renowned thinker, theologian, leader, political commentator, prisoner, and soldier who lived through one of the most important periods of 19th century Turkey. Having witnessed a series of challenges that haunted humanity, the Muslim community in particular, he analyzed the vulnerabilities of the condition well, addressing the people and redressing those difficulties by contributing solutions and leading reformative movements both through his conceptions and the involvements he entered into.

The period he lived through marked a couple of key events that happened in the world including the two world wars, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which gave birth to the Republic of Turkey, the emergence of ideologies such as communism and capitalism, and major movements like atheism, materialism and anarchism and so on. With all, the entire globe was substantially being subjected to a reshaping and rebirth during the life span of Nursi.

Nursi was born into the Ottoman Empire and grew into his youth through the last decades of this old domain. By then, the Ottoman Empire was known as the greatest empire of Islamic civilization, although it employed diverse ethnic groups and cultural factions. The period spanning from the 15th to 17th centuries are remarked as the crucial years of the empire. Modernization and reform within the empire began in the first fourteen years of this century. And further into the 20th century, several wars and the gradual fall of the empire were inevitable. 

Nursi witnessed all these transformations in the last phase of the Ottoman rule as an adolescent and youth during the decline, and an adult throughout the descent of the empire and caliphate. Throughout this period, Nursi’s primary aim was to preserve the integrity of Islam. Even though he earlier believed that unity of Islam could be achieved through Ottoman identity, as events moved on, he moved toward a pan-Islamic outlook.

While pan-Islam would support the political and social unity of all Muslim states, Nursi’s support was towards the spiritual and economic unity of the Muslim world. He wrote and gave sermons about uniting features of Islam and the political dangers of nationalism, materialism, and philosophy that were contradicting to the teachings of the Quran. Among the popular trends of the time, Ottomanism, nationalism, and Islamic unity, Nursi remained as an advocate of Islamic unity.

From a very early age, Nursi was distinctive from others, with his unusual photographic memory, bright intelligence, and brave personality. His powerful commitment towards serving the community and uplifting them from the deeply rooted negativities was seen from his younger period itself as he strongly intended and wished to study and teach like his elder brother Abdullah, who was Nursi’s first instructor. Another dominant character that opened doors in accomplishing his intentions was “parrhesia”, the personality of speaking candidly. He offered his views and challenged perceived injustices. Even, on many occasions, he corrected scholars and challenged older students.

Having received and acquired a good scholarship of knowledge, Nursi set out his public engagement in terms of socially serving the wider community. In pursuit of knowing the cultural and behavioral attitude of the wider world, he traveled vast distances to the eastern provinces and engaged in frequent conversations with the ulema of his period.

It was during this period when Molla Fethullah of Siirt realized Nursi’s extraordinary and sharp mind that he gave him the title ‘Bediuzzaman’, which meant the wonder of the age, resembling his cleverness to Bediuzzaman Hamadani.

Thereafter, Nursi met governors and politicians and gradually developed himself an interest in matters concerning society and politics. By then, Nursi established a fine and close relationship with Tahir Pasha, which helped him earn good support for his desire and intention of teaching the community. Even though Nursi acquired a medrese education excelling into the highest positions, he was still frustrated in the matter of traditional religious scholars, whose discussions could not give viable solutions to the major problems of the period.

Religion, instead of confining to faith matters, he argued, is connected with every branch of sociology, political situations, and even the economy. Being highly troubled with the educational system at the time, which gave no room for the reconcile of scientific and religious training, he started up a new mission and laid the stonework for an ideal system of learning which resolved the difficulty of the deficiency in the knowledge economy.

The involvement of Nursi in the educational and cultural endeavor did not keep him aloof from paying attention to the challenges of the empire and that of the Muslim world. He actively and effectively responded to the circumstances adequately, through writing articles and delivering public speeches. Objecting and rejecting the despotic form of government, he strongly supported freedom, constitutionalism, and a secular pattern of the system. He put forth a new wave of constitutionalism which was enabled through the Islamic mode of justification. His stringent support for freedom can be read from his work, as once he said, “I can live without bread, but I can’t live without freedom”.

Being a committed and devoted religious scholar, he took a powerful stand against violence and acted as a key element in putting an end to the internal conflicts of the empire. His efforts for standing with the people, assisting them, and in resolving their difficulties carried him to travel lengthy distances and meet local leaders – answering them with the benefits of a constitutional mode of rule and freedom.

The public sermon he offered to the mass gathered at the Umayyad mosque, known as the ‘Damascus Sermon’, explores the involvement of Nursi deeply in the society. This historical event quotes the elaborate picturesque of the Muslim world and the condition in relation to the West. He identified six major elements that marked this pathetic condition and also he described six remedies for this long healing.

The period during the last stages of Nursi’s public service was through his endeavor to share his reformative thoughts and ideas, and explain the purpose and accountability of living to the public by jotting down a series of work, both exegesis, and commentaries and also a number of other writings which informed the regain of spirituality. The most notable work, the composing of Risale-I-Nur, the best commentary for Quranic verses, was completed during these last years.

The long life of imprisonment and objections Nursi had to encounter posed great problems for the spreading of his thoughts and writings, however the works of Nursi contributed to a marvelous understanding of the religious sciences. Moreover, it stimulated the attitude of responsibility and a sense of obligation in the hearts of a wide section of people, even after his demise, for the rejuvenation of the lost past spirituality and glory and also for resolving the issues that render severe threats and problematic circumstances in the public sphere.

Nursi on Social Reformation as an Obligation

The life of Nursi showed a good reformative movement – it was definitely this attitude of a responsible Muslim personality that overthrew the despotic rule that was aroused in the fall of the Ottoman Empire. His committed involvement in the socio-political and religious activities described the very concept of the responsible Muslim character, that prompted him to help wipe out all vulnerabilities and bad engagements from the religious and global sphere.

Undertaking the responsibility of the social reformation of a society that was subscribed to weak and worse activities, Nursi also convinced the large section of people crowded before him the necessity of practicing this in the individual life as well. Speaking on this obligatory behavior, Nursi once said, “Willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the nation was essentially part of the high morality of Islam”.

Nursi attracted a good audience and the attention of a wider community, both from inside and outside the religion. He often tend to criticize the people pointing to their laziness saying, the attitude of self-sacrifice has been stolen by non-Muslims.

Along with the major theme in Risale-I-Nur of teaching the purpose of life and creation and human responsibility and accountability, another dimension of this human responsibility can also be grasped between the lines and from the pattern and sense he accepted for scripting the work. There are a lot of instances which show his urge to realize the difficulties of people in all matters.

When Nursi rented a room in the guest of Ferric Ahmad Pasha, in Sekerli Han, in the faith district, where he could mingle with many scholars and thinkers of the time, he tried to express his eagerness to solve the problems of society, hanging a sign on the door, “here all questions are answered, all problems are solved, but no questions are asked”. It clearly revealed his strong desire and to heal the problems of a much wounded nation and the Muslim world. His sole dedication even prompted him to turn his face and say no to the invitations from scholars around the Muslim world, where he was called to reside in their different countries, due to the terrible and troubling injustices he had to suffer with his messages being suppressed.

However, despite the attacks on Nursi and his ideas, it still remains true today that we must understand the influence of social commitment and responsibility in rejuvenating the community from worse attitudes and activities to the better. The remembrance of Nursi regarding the backwardness caused in faithful matters and other socio-political affairs provided him the platform to receive vast support and acceptability and bring considerable reforms in order to build a positive order of living.

Teaching Morality and Justice

The community during his life period, which was seen as morally and educationally backward and downtrodden, prompted Nursi to think of establishing an ideal platform that could provide morality at its base level, together with imparting other branches of knowledge. He was highly in despair and depressed in the decline of the people in faith matters.

Realizing the scenario and the vulnerability of the learning system, he dreamt of building an ideal educational system where religious training would be provided and taught well to all. It was when Nursi felt disappointed in seeing the lack of either religious knowledge or scientific knowledge without any connectivity with a religious understanding that he proposed opening a new window to resolve this critical juncture.

Where there was previously no system of education offering both scientific and religious training (mekatib and medaris), Nursi intended on founding a university in Eastern Anatolia which was named Medrasethuz Zahra, working as a sister university of Al Azhar in Cairo. His frequent engagement with a broader spectrum of scholars, intellectuals, and politicians there paved the way to make his vision more practicable and beneficial. Istanbul, the heart of the Ottoman intelligentsia of that period and the center of the Muslim world, provided him a most fertile ground to apply and adopt these ideologies of a renovated means of giving education.

Nursi questioned the prevailing system highly, and warned against the dangers of such a split among the educated of the nation. The educational system in the view of Nursi gave either a priority in science with a minor in religion or the other way round.

The key factor to mention here is that his ideology of supplying adequate and enriched education for all people evolved from the rebellion that was growing in every corner of the empire. Connecting distant communities, he established two major campuses in two important cities.

This initiation from Nursi created dramatic changes in the political and religious environment of Turkey. What made every progress and the upliftment of the masses was the responsible character of Nursi, distinctive from the other contemporary scholars. Although Nursi lived amidst a lot of scholarly personas, interacting with them and discussing matters, he often expressed his disregard and reluctance – lamenting in the disability and inattentive living of these scholars in resolving the disturbances of the time. He was highly urged to become a member of a new initiation, a learned counsel, or an Islamic academy in order to seek solutions to the growing problems of the Ummah.

Nursi on Faith and Religiosity

Scrutinizing the society by approaching higher and dignified personalities, Nursi identified faith as a key element in the solution of all problems. This realization pushed him forward to convince the people of the vitality and role of faith in defining the circumstances and occasions.

He tended to express his criticism in the lack and erosion of religious piety among the parliamentarians. Nursi underscored the significance humanity must pay, as he told said, “the highest aim for humanity is to complete their faith with knowledge and love of God”. The duty of human beings is, he viewed, to act and live responsibly and as caretakers of all other creations – and he believed societal imbalance caused from the depreciation in this human mentality.

Nursi related the position of vicergerency, with the acceptance of the trust, which exalts human beings to an elevated rank over the rest of creation and charges them with the duty of caretaker of other beings in the universe. His conception of priority paid for a faith-based approach to concepts of vicergerency and trust enabled him to attract a wider community to the true and genuine living, leaving all filthy and astray lively practices, and thereby nurture them in the path of justice. In his understanding, he found and shared that true happiness can only found in the belief that is enriched with knowledge of God.

In many occasions, the reference and awakening of Nursi in faith protected the Muslim world from disaster and dangerous aftermaths. In one instance, once when Tahir Pasha, with whom Nursi formed a close friendship based on mutual respect during his days at Van, showed Nursi a quote in the newspaper from the British secretary for the colonies, “so long as the Muslims have the Quran, we shall be unable to dominate them. We must either take it from them, or make them lose their love of it”, Nursi asserted, ”I shall prove and demonstrate to the world that the Quran is an undying, inextinguishable sun“. 

The composition of Risale-I-Nur itself joined the conceptions of Nursi, portraying the basic ideologies of the Nursian vision of seeing a positive worldly order, which was rooted in realizing the purpose of life and creation, and human responsibility and accountability. Giving an explanation for these two important theories, Nursi described the servitude humans must undertake for the positive building of society. The huge recognition received for Risale-I-Nur was due in part to this feature of the texts. Apart from being a thematic commentary for the Quran, it stood as an important tool of teaching morality and justice, even for the adherents of other religious sciences. Hence, the Risale was not composed for mere Muslims only; instead, it was written focusing on the entire humanity, who seeks refuge in justice and positive living.

On Freedom and Pluralist Living

When human character functions for the well-being of the entire society, causing no harm to any creature, there arise tendencies to say no and send rejections and objections towards injustice and that comes against peaceful existence. The life panel of Nursi also produced a similar condition, as he was highly critical and even provoking to the emerging pessimist and unjust actions and order of the time. It was this idea that promoted him to challenge the despotic and anarchy rule of his lifetime, which viciously destroyed the peaceful living of individuals.

Rather than being a mere theologian and a religious scholar and reformer, Nursi strongly supported the pluralist mode of social system which united the different ethnic groups live together. Nursi believed that, “freedom of non-Muslims is a branch of our own freedom”. Moreover, Muslim commitment to violence shows a lack of confidence in beauty, coherence, and rationality of Islam, he explained.

It is also quite a matter of amazement, that though he called upon Muslims to invite the advocates of other faith traditions to Islam, he did not dream of establishing a world free from other faith traditions, and never proposed of founding an Islamic republic expelling all fellow faith followers. He stated, “The commitment to diversity, conversation, and tolerance cannot start from semi-unbelief, but needs to be grounded in the particularities of the faith tradition. He added, we need ‘orthodox’ believers in each tradition to commit to toleration. 

Contrary to the existing rationalist and atheist movements, Nursi wished a public square where moral and religious conversations could perform freely. He had a vision of an intense conversation which was grounded in deep commitment to the particularities of each tradition. He often said, one may try and persuade the other. Although he believed that Islam is the one true religion, he accepted that it was not possible to dominate the public square.

This behavior of persuasion underpins clearly his resolute commitment to non-violence. His recognition that there are many positive reasons, explicitly grounded in the tradition, that encourage a positive attitude to co-existence with non-Muslims, powerfully indicates his support for freedom and his salute for the freedom of others. The way of the Risale-I-Nur was also justifying this peaceful jihad or “jihad of the word” (manevi jihad) in the struggle against aggressive atheism and irreligion. By working solely for the spread and strengthening of belief, it was to work also for the preservation of internal order, and peace and stability in society in the face of the moral and spiritual destruction of communism and the forces of irreligion which aimed to destabilize society and create anarchy, and to form “a barrier” against them. Within Islam, Nursi insisted that it is an obligation on all faithful Muslims to stand united.

Thomas Michel, in documenting the life of Nursi, explains how Nursi considered the commitment to peaceful co-existence an important part of the basic commitment to love. He describes, “when Kurdish tribesmen in Eastern Anatolia are worried about permitting Greeks and Armenians to be free, Nursi is adamant that the ‘freedom of non-Muslims is a branch of our own freedom'”. Michel adds more as “the message of Said Nursi is as valid for our own day as it was when he wrote these words almost eighty years ago. At the root of tension and conflicts between Muslims and Christians today not so much the evil nature of the others as our egoistic desires to dominate, control, and retaliate”.

Nursi emphasizes this obligation for Muslims with the Quranic instruction in the verse, “no bearer of burden can bear the burden of another” (Q, 6:164). Modern Islamist and jihadist movements and activists have a strong lesson to be grasped from these teachings of Nursi obviously. It is of course not a matter of wonderment to imagine of a world grounded in the pluralist living of Said Nursi. How far it will be possible? And how much better would the living of the people be?

Another important aspect that protects the living of all people is his call for the united stance of Muslim community. Nursi says that internal enmities must be forgotten and abandoned when foreign enmities appear and attack. And he viewed that one who fails to forget petty enmities, and instead prepare the ground for the enemies’ attacks, is the advocate of disgraceful savagery and one who commits treason against the social life of Islam. It is to be understood primarily that believers are together like a well-founded building – one part supports the other.

Nursi analyses here the idea that a committed Muslim is one who can enjoy engaging with other traditions because of the power of their arguments. The most celebrated historical event of ‘The Damascus Sermon’ clearly depicts the conceptions and assumptions of Nursi on community, which shows a genuine responsible Muslim scholar, working for the well-being of the people in all socio-political affairs. Addressing the mass gathered at the momentous Umayyad mosque, Nursi gave a self-critical look at the Muslim world, identifying “six dare sicknesses” that caused the Muslim world and also suggested six solutions, or ‘remedies’, each based on Quranic teachings. He counted them as:

Firstly: The rising to life of despair and hopelessness in social life.

Secondly: The death of truthfulness in social and political life. 

Thirdly: Love of enmity.

Fourthly: Not knowing the luminous bonds that bind the behavior to one another.

Fifthly: Despotism, which spreads and becomes widespread as though it was various contagious diseases.

Sixthly: Restricting endeavor to what is personally beneficial.

Lamenting on these diseases that caused the Muslim world, Nursi also adopted medicines for each one from the Quranic esoteric meanings. What made Nursi and the event ‘Damascus Sermon’ influential in the world was the self-realization of Nursi, the responsible Muslim leader in the plightfulness of the whole Muslims, and his urge to develop and instruct solutions adequately for each issue. 


The possibility of evolving a positive world order expelling every negativity and insecurity is depicted and illustrated in the norms and conceptions introduced and proved by Nursi. Coming to the conditions and commonalities of the modern world, the hope of this emergence is given much recognition through these reformative ideas.

Moreover, the plight condition of contemporary human living, in all engagement of human life, is resolved by adopting to and applying these theories. These are not mere theories, instead they are ideologies and realities which can be applied today in certain areas, and easily can be adopted in other areas also. 

Although there is no lack in reformative movements in the present world, to stimulate and revive the lost spirituality and generate peaceful co-existence, the thing that renders everyone void is a lack of sincerity, and above all, the reluctance of human soul to undertake the responsibility of making peace and tranquility.

The quote of Nursi becomes relevant here: “Three men between whom there is true solidarity may benefit the nation as much as a hundred men. Many historical events inform us that as a result of true sincerity, solidarity and consultation, ten men may perform the work of a thousand men”. The collective effort of Muslims to act as a responsible Muslim can bring about drastic changes and develop a positive world of peace and tolerance.


Ian Markham, Engaging with Bediuzzaman Said Nursi: A Model for Interfaith Dialogue, (Ashgate publishing, 2010).

Said Nursi, ‘Thirteenth Droplet’, the Words, p-249.

Thomas Michel, A Contemporary Approach to Understanding the Quran: The Example of the Risale i Nur (Istanbul: Sozler Nesriyat Ticaret Ve Sanayi A.S 2000).

Said Nursi, Munazarat (Istanbul: Sozler Yayinevi 1977), p.21.

Said Nursi, The Damascus Sermon (Istanbul: Sozler publications, 1996), p.49.

Said Nursi, Emirdag Lahikasi (Istanbul: Soz press, 2006).

Ian S Markham and Suendem Birinci Pirim, An Introduction to SaidNursi: Life, Thought and Writings (Ashgate publications, 2010).

Sukran Vahide, Islam in Modern Turkey: An Intellectual Biography of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (state university of newyork press, 2005).