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Who is Said Nursi, and Why Do Millions of Muslims Call Him ‘The Marvel of the Age’?

Nursi is the interdisciplinary, non-sectarian thinker that 21st century Muslims need. He studied philosophy, but he wasn’t a philosopher. He was influenced by Sufism, but his students did not form a Sufi order. He went through the madrasah system, but embraced other subjects and perspectives.

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Nursi is the interdisciplinary, non-sectarian thinker that 21st century Muslims need. He studied philosophy, but he wasn’t a philosopher. He was influenced by Sufism, but his students did not form a Sufi order. He went through the madrasah system, but embraced other subjects and perspectives.

Said Nursi was born in a small town in Eastern Turkey in 1877, but the struggles he faced then as a Mujaddid, or renewer, of Islam are just as relevant 60 years after his death in London or LA. His works have been translated into 55 languages, and almost every major city in the world has a ‘Nursi study circle’.

Nursi had a traditional madrassah Islamic education, as well as studying Physics, Mathematics, and Philosophy. He worked to create unity between all these subjects in helping humans understand their place in the universe, and their relationship with their Creator.

Nursi also lived through the disappointment, frustration, and alienation that so many Muslims feel today. He fought on the front lines in World War I, and saw the Muslim nation lose. He witnessed the fall of the Muslim empire. He watched as aggressive secularism became the norm in his homeland, squeezing religion out of public life.

But he didn’t let politics and power consume him. He famously said “A’oudhi billahi min alshaitan walsiyasah” – I seek refuge in Allah from Shaitan and politics.

This doesn’t mean that Muslims should never get involved in politics – sometimes they should. But most of the time it is more important to start at the ‘inner circle’ and work on our own iman before thinking about the ‘outer circles’ of politics and society, which is something those inspired by Nursi continue in their commitment to today.

The more political and social upheaval Nursi went through, the more he turned to Allah. When he was on the front lines in World War I, he wrote a book of tafseer, titled Signs of Miraculousness. When he was put in exile by Turkey’s secular President Ataturk (despite Nursi opposing a revolt against him), Nursi authored his 6000-page seminal work, a tafseer called “the Risale-i-Nur”, the Epistles of Light.

The Risale-i-Nur is still studied every week in thousands of study circles, from Istanbul to Indiana. Because Nursi encouraged students to use their own intellect, there is often no ‘Sheikh’ leading the study circles, but there is a discussion between fellow students.

Nursi is the interdisciplinary, non-sectarian thinker that 21st century Muslims need. He studied philosophy, but he wasn’t a philosopher. He was influenced by Sufism, but his students did not form a Sufi order. He went through the madrasah system, but embraced other subjects and perspectives.

Nursi’s thought was based on the idea that the universe is a book to be understood. His students, through to the present day, are as focussed on shukr (gratitude), as they are on dhikr (remembrance of Allah) and fikr (contemplation). This contemplation is focussed on the outside universe, as well as human beings, who carry the Divine breath and are themselves a ‘sign’ of Allah.

As pain and suffering spread across the Muslim world a century ago, Nursi taught his students to ultimately view everything positively, and see the world through an Islamic ‘glass half full’ lens. Those followers do not make up a ‘group’, ‘sect’ or ‘party’. But Nursi’s teachings have spread across the world, and are used in curriculums in places as far-flung as Ukraine and Indonesia. 

There is no exact number of ‘Nursi followers’ (ie. people who have been enriched by his teachings in some way), but it is thought that maybe more than 100 million Muslims around the world are influenced by Nursi. This includes millions in Europe and the United States, and maybe a quarter of all Turks. Nursi’s duas are repeated by everyone from simple farmers to famous footballer Mesut Ozil, who posted one on social media recently.

Nursi’s mission of reminding all human beings to study themselves, study the universe, and strengthen their iman has spread across the globe. Just one of his students, Mehmet Firinci, dedicated his life of 91 years to da’wa. His life story was recently made into a documentary, which can be watched here

Thousands of Phds and Master theses have been written on Nursi’s work. His teachings, however, are still better known in academic circles than amongst English-speaking Muslim communities – but it’s time to change that.

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