Issue 103 / January - February 2015
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi and Skepticism
M. Tarik Ozgur
What is Skepticism? Skepticism, loosely defined, is the idea that one can never be certain about any piece of knowledge one may possess at any given moment. Fundamental skepticism makes the seemingly absurd claim that one can't even be sure if one is awake at this very moment, as there is no way to reliably tell when one is not dreaming. But if one carefully examines the claims of the skeptic, one begins to realize that, as a matter of fact, skepticism is an idea that cannot be reliably and definitively proven to be false, because one can never be 100 sure of anything, only 99.99 sure at best. In other words, there is always room for some creative doubt to work its way in.
With this realization, skepticism has the potential to become an inconvenience and, at its most extreme, a debilitating disorder of mammoth proportions. An example of the inconvenience of skepticism might look like this: Imagine you are looking to buy a new car from a car dealer you are unfamiliar with. The cars he sells all look to be in great condition, and the man himself seems honest enough. However, because of your skeptical nature you are not entirely sure about the quality of these cars and you ultimately decide not to buy one. Because of this, you end up missing an opportunity to own a great new car at an affordable price due to unwarranted suspicion, stemming from an overly skeptical worldview.
What does it mean to be "overly" skeptical? There are times when skepticism is warranted and even necessary. If you were to notice some odd or shifty behavior from the car salesman, for example, you would be prudent and wise to take a second to doubt the quality of the vehicles he is selling. However, problems arise when you are skeptical in the absence of any evidence to suggest that what you perceive is not in reality what one thinks it is. Is there a remedy for the soul who is afflicted with constant doubt about the world and the intentions of those in it? Is there a cure for the mind that is never satisfied with its ignorance, and wishes to know the truth and reality behind all events in the universe?
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, a twentieth-century Islamic scholar, answers in the Risale-i Nur with an affirmative "yes," and says that having an idea of God in one's life is sufficient to address the concerns of skepticism.
Born in 1877, in an Anatolian village in the city of Bitlis, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in Turkish history, witnessing the end of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the secular Turkish republic under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Nursi's own life was equally tumultuous. Under the young republic's Kemalist ideology, Nursi was routinely held by police, unjustly tried in court, and forced to live in states of exile. Despite these hardships, Nursi never deviated from his message of faith and peace, and managed to compile his incredibly influential Risale-i Nur collection.
What does Bediuzzaman Said Nursi have to say about skepticism? We should first look at Nursi's attitude towards modern science. Said Nursi emphasized contemporary scientific achievements, and used religious and scientific terminologies together. This indicates that he supported and accepted the positive and metaphysical sciences. One of his fundamental ideas was how religious and modern scientific knowledge should complement and support each other, rather than come into conflict. In the following quote, we'll see the importance he places on both sciences, and how skepticism is a result of a lack of the religious sciences:
"The light of the conscience is the religious sciences (ulum-u diniye). The light of the mind is the modern sciences (funun-u medeniye). Combining both manifests the truth. The student's skills develop further with these two (sciences). When they are separated, the former breeds superstition and the latter breeds corruption and skepticism" (from Munazarat, in ibid., 2:1956).
To further the study, we will examine what Said Nursi says about the relationship between man and God. Nursi writes that belief, knowledge, and worship of God are the ultimate purpose of existence, and that these are our innate and original duties. Therefore, belief in God is the highest aim of creation. According to Nursi, because of these facts, which complement each other, human beings can only find true happiness and serenity through belief. This idea of finding inner peace through belief in God is a very important component of the Risale, and although Said Nursi does not speak to skepticism directly, this idea can address skeptical concerns about knowledge and the world. More specifically, it is when a person puts their full trust in God that he or she can stop worrying about their burdens in this world.
Said Nursi writes about putting one's trust in God in the part of the Risale-i Nur known as The Words. He explains this concept in the Twenty-third Word, in the Third Point. Nursi writes that belief in God is both light and power, in that those who have true belief can be relieved from the pressure of events. Since they entrust their burdens to God's Absolute Power, they travel through the world without fear and misery. Nursi writes that belief consists of affirming Divine Unity, which requires submitting to God. Submitting fully to God requires relying on Him, which will yield happiness in this world.
Nursi cautions that relying on God in this manner does not mean that one should ignore the relationship between cause and effect, but rather one should view cause and effect as veils covering Divine Power's hand. For example, in order to earn a high score on a final exam for school, we shouldn't only sit back and pray to God, but we should also study for the exam. He writes that observing the laws of cause and effect is actually a type of worship through seeking to comply with Divine Will. However, this kind of desire and seeking of results is not enough for us to get what we want. According to Nursi, we should understand that, with the right belief, the result we want can only be expected from God, because He is the sole producer of effects.
Said Nursi further explains this concept by use of an allegorical argument. The parable goes as follows: once, two people boarded a ship, each carrying heavy loads on their backs. One man immediately put his burden on the deck of the ship after boarding and sat on it to keep it safe. The other man refused to lay down his cargo, even after being told to do so. He feared that it might get lost, and felt that he was strong enough to carry it himself. His friend told him that the ship was stronger and could hold it better, and also that by holding onto his burden, his strength would eventually fail him. Additionally, if the captain of the ship would see him, he might think he was ungrateful or insane to be carrying that burden by himself. And so he was convinced to lay down his burden and he found relief at last. Said Nursi writes that putting trust in God delivers one from being fearful of things in life, similar to how the men in the boat put down their burdens and stopped worrying about them.
What does any of this have to do with skepticism? Let us recall the problems associated with living a life of skepticism. When a person has an unhealthy amount of skepticism, he or she can no longer be sure about things that should otherwise not concern them. This type of skepticism is like a kind of paranoia, a type of phobia. We saw earlier that Said Nursi views this sort of skepticism as a result of a lack of the religious sciences. By extension, this means that a lack of trust in a Benevolent and Wise God can be responsible for this skepticism. Completely trusting in God first requires one to believe that God has Absolute Power over cause and effect. If one believes that God controls cause and effect completely, and if one believes that everything God wills is for the best purpose and wisest reason, then one has no reason to worry about the things one cannot know for certain, because those matters are entrusted to God's control.
Said Nursi also writes in the Twenty-Fifth Word, Second Station, about evil thoughts and involuntary suggestions that may come to people. He first quotes a verse from the Qur'an:
"O Lord, I take refuge in You from the evil suggestions of the satans, and I take refuge in You, O my Lord, lest they attend me" (23:97-98).
Nursi has this to say about involuntary evil thoughts: the person who is afflicted with these thoughts and fancies is in an unfortunate state. The more one thinks about them, the more they grow. If one ignores them, they will shrink away; but if one exaggerates them, they will loom large in one's life. If one fears them, they will make one sick; but if one does not fear them, they will become hidden.
This approach is relevant with regards to skeptical worries. One can observe that the only people who tend to worry about whether we can ever have knowledge with 100 certainty are philosophers. Most people are free of this type of worry. Most people, for example, wouldn't think to question whether they are awake or asleep at this moment in time. If we see a tomato, we shouldn't worry about the fact that we cannot see every aspect of the tomato at once; this shouldn't lead us to question whether what we see is in fact a tomato. Nursi's advice to philosophers is that we should stop worrying about the 0.01 of knowledge we can never obtain, and instead put our full trust in God, Who has Absolute Knowledge, Wisdom, and control over the world. If God wills it, the tomato will turn out to be a tomato, and if not, it is not the end of the world. Nursi would probably also say not to worry about whether the car salesman is trying to rip you off. If it so happens that you bought a lemon, you should remember that God willed it to happen for a reason you may not yet understand.
On a final note, I can share a related story. About a year ago, I was playing paintball with some friends. We were at a park in the woods. The field was very large, and I went into a thick patch of brush and was quickly lost. After stumbling around for a bit, I emerged in a wide open area, and right in front of me I saw a strange sight: I had somehow ended up behind what I thought was the enemy team. I slowly crept forward, waiting until I was in a prime position to attack. I finally stopped, but I hesitated. And in that moment of hesitation I heard the whistle blow to end the match. I was dismayed at such a wasted opportunity. However, as I sulked back to my team, I soon realized that I had come perilously close to making a massive fool of myself. It turns out that I had bumbled onto an entirely different match with different teams. How differently I viewed the situation after just a few moments! In place of despair, I felt a huge wave of relief wash over me.
While it's true that if I had taken the time to question my surroundings I might not have almost made myself look silly, in this case I would say there was a good reason for skepticism, which was the fact that I had gotten lost. If we have no reason to be skeptical about something we shouldn't try to create reasons to be skeptical. This was the moment in my life where I clearly saw with my own eyes that sometimes things can happen that we may be upset about and appear to be bad for us, but in the long run they may actually turn out to be good. Because of this we should not worry too much about the outcomes of things out of our control, because they are all ultimately in God's control.