Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Concept of "Jusitice"

Bediuzzaman and the Concept of 'Adl:
Towards a Nursian Ontology of Divine Justice

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2010 DOI: 10.1163/156853110X517782
Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582
Bediuzzaman and the Concept of ʿAdl:
Towards a Nursian Ontology of Divine Justice
Colin Turner
University of Durham
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1876–1960), one of the foremost Muslim thinkers in the modern
era, is one of few scholars in the Sunni Islamic tradition to make the notion of justice (ʿadl ) a
cornerstone of his theological discourse. This article is an attempt to prise open the shell of
Nursian thought on Divine justice by examining the concept as it applies to three different but
overlapping spheres: the sphere of the relationship between God and the cosmos in general; the
sphere of the relationship between God and man in particular; and the sphere of the relationships
that man enjoys with his fellow men. The objective is to throw light on one of the most
controversial, yet under-researched, aspects of Muslim theology as seen through the intellectual
prism of one of the Muslim world’s most overlooked scholars of Qurʾanic exegesis.
Nursi, God, justice, good, evil, Qur’an
Ontologists ask questions such as: ‘What does it mean to say that something
exists.’ The ontology of justice, therefore, is the study of what it means to say
that justice exists or that something or someone is just. In short, what is justice?
While ontology is usually defined as the study of ‘being’ — a definition
that would, for some, preclude by default our applying the term to an
abstract concept such as ‘justice’ — our concern here is with Divine justice,
which is arguably itself a mode of being; being, that is, as imbued with the
colours and characteristics of a particular attribute predicated of God that is
referred to in the Qur’an as ʿadl. This is a term that is usually translated as
‘justice,’ but which, like all words in the Islamic revelation, are more often
than not lost in translation. For the intents and purposes of this paper, however
— and to obviate too much semantic nit-picking —, we will not be
abandoning the word ‘justice’ completely, but we will be questioning its
suitability as an English rendering of a Qurʾanic term which is full of rich
C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582 555
theological and philosophical nuances, and which arguably encompasses
rather more than is connoted by the English rendering in question.
That secularity and moral relativism have served as the default setting for
social scientific discourse in the post-Enlightenment period is more or less
axiomatic. While this is bound to render any meta-ethical question such as
‘what is justice?’ problematic, the issue becomes even thornier when the question
is asked with regard to the justice of God. Those for whom God is not
part of the equation deal with the problem by dismissing it, and understandably
so: If there is no God, then the subject of ‘Divine justice’ is incoherent
and not worth discussing. That is not to say, of course, that those who do not
believe in God do not enter into debates concerning the attributes of the
Creator whose existence they deny. Much of the fame of notable self-professed
atheists, such as the biologist Richard Dawkins, for example, inheres in their
eagerness to engage believers in vigorous debate concerning the merits and
demerits of belief in an omniscient, omnipotent and, more importantly, just
God. That such debates are so often launched from positions that are theologically
flawed comes not only from their own misconceptions of what God
actually means but also, in many cases, from the ontological and epistemological
poverty of their religious adversaries. We shall revisit this issue briefly
later in the article when we discuss the notion of the perceived absence of
God from natural disasters.
The problem is, of course, is that God remains largely unknown, most certainly
to unbelievers, but often to many believers also. Nursi (1995:233)
himself alludes to this in the introductory section of his treatise on nature
and causality, where he says that there are certain phrases which people use
which imply unbelief, and that believers use them also but without realising
their implications. The point Nursi is making here concerns the causal nexus
and the fact that the materialist view which holds that causes actually create
their own effects, or that beings come into existence through the random creational
power of nature, is parroted by believers without their realising that
such assertions run counter to the notion of Divine Unity.
A similar problem exists in the context of Divine justice, obviously for
unbelievers but also, it seems for some believers. For unbelievers, the problem
is how to square the notion of an omnipotent, all-compassionate God with
the existence in the world of events and phenomena which are deemed ‘evil’
and acts which are deemed ‘unjust.’ One may argue that these criticisms are
based on the presumption that the disputants are singing from the same definitional
hymn sheet and are in agreement on what evil and injustice actually
are. God is put on trial, then, by those who have already decided on the
definitive meanings of evil and injustice and who would judge God — in
556 C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582
whom they do not believe — in accordance with their own frame of definitional
For Muslim believers, the problem is not one of denial of God, but of general
opacity of thought when it comes to the issue of Divine justice. For laymen,
the problem of reconciling God’s compassion with the existence of ‘evil’
and ‘injustice’ is not an insignificant one. For Muslim scholars, the problem
is more an epistemic than an ontological one. There is a famous dispute in
early medieval Muslim history between the Muʿtazilite and the Ashʿarite
schools of theology which focused on whether good and evil were discernible
intellectually or whether they can be known only through revelation; or
whether good and evil inhere in things essentially or whether they are good
or evil only because God has commanded that they be so.1 The Ash‘arite
argument was, in short, that whatever God decrees is just because He decrees
it as absolute Sovereign of the cosmos and not because it conforms with any
external standards of ‘justice’ discerned or formulated by human ratiocination.
The Ash‘arite belief — which, in the Sunni world at least, found favour
and became the mainstream theological position — was that whatever is
good is good only because God has decreed it so. The position of the
Muʿtazilites — the so-called ‘rationalists’ of early Muslim theology — was
that man is able to distinguish good from evil through his own powers of
ratiocination and that if God commands the good, it is because that which
He commands is good inherently and essentially. In short, the Mu‘tazilite
position begins with an a priori notion of what good is and, in one sense,
suggests that God’s decrees are based on what is good and not the other way
round. While this appraisal is not wholly immune from accusations of oversimplification,
one cannot escape the fact that however the Mu‘tazilites
regarded good and evil, they posited a Creator whose decrees were determined
by, and dependent on, external factors. A full discussion of this issue
is, of course, beyond the scope of this article, and it should be mentioned
that compromise positions have been suggested by various theologians which
are able to reconcile the Divine Command Theory with the human sense of
good and evil. What is important here is the problems that arise when God is
judged on the basis of notions which are products of human thought alone,
unaided by revelation.
It is worth noting at this juncture that Nursi is what we may call a neo-
Ash‘arite in this respect. As such, he writes very much as a theologian rather
than a philosopher of ethics and therefore the dynamics of his discourse
1 For background on the Ashʿarites, see Makdisi (1962:37–80). For an insight into Ashʾarite
theodicy, see Legenhausen (1988:257–266). For an insight into Mu‘tazilite thought, see Hourani
C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582 557
should be understood on that level and with an acknowledgement of the
constraints of scholastic theology. This article therefore does not aim to excavate
from his works any grand meta-ethical theory; rather, it is simply an
introduction to Nursi’s understanding of ʿadl as one of the few theologians of
note in the modern Muslim world.
The Definitional Problem
The main problem, of course, is the word ‘justice’ itself. For the most part,
our understanding of the concept of justice is shaped largely by our experiences
as children of modernity, as inheritors of the Enlightenment project’s
reformulation of moral concepts and the language through which they are
expressed. As Alasdair MacIntyre argues, the Enlightenment is celebrated as
the period which gave us ideals such as ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’
and which redefined moral concepts such as goodness, truth and justice.
The Enlightenment was seen as a tool designed to liberate man from the
choking grip of centuries of tradition.
For MacIntyre, however, the whole Enlightenment project was doomed
from the outset. He takes issue specifically with what he describes as the
Enlightenment project’s attempt to justify morality, to ground it rationally in
a conception of human nature, but while disposing simultaneously with any
kind of teleological underpinning. The Aristotelian tradition in both its classical
and Thomistic variants based moral enquiry in a belief in an essential
telos or purpose for man. The role of morality was to allow man to advance
from the way he actually is towards realising this purpose (MacIntyre,
2007:54–55). Moral claims and concepts were thus anchored in a conception
of man’s ultimate purpose.
The architects of the Enlightenment project, however, attempted to turn
this on its head. Because the natural sciences had discredited the Aristotelian
notion of teleology in the realms of physics and biology, the Enlightenment
philosophers thought they could do the same with regard to moral theory.
What they were left with was, on the one hand, a certain Christian bourgeois
morality which they wanted to justify, and on the other hand a certain understanding
of human nature as it is. MacIntyre argues that the rejection of the
notion of ultimate purpose makes the equation impossible, since these two
components are inherently incompatible. Which is why, he asserts, the
Enlightenment project could never succeed (MacIntyre, 2007:54–55). In its
rejection of morality which is based on divine imperatives and the notion of
an ultimate purpose for man, the Enlightenment project and the process of
secularisation which followed has left us with fragments of theological and
558 C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582
teleological schemes and concepts, but stripped of any proper context in the
modern world. The secular children of the Enlightenment still debate issues
such as freedom, truth and justice, but they impose upon them their own
ontological and epistemic framework — one which lacks any rational way of
making sense of morality: The old framework is gone, and without that
framework, the concepts under discussion — truth, freedom, goodness, justice
— become mere tools of emotivism rather than subjects for a moral
debate that makes sense (MacIntyre, 2007:8–9).
Emotivism, MacIntyre argues, is what happens when the proper moral
context is lost.2 Moral debates still take place, and people can even argue back
to a set of basic premises; however, there is nothing to do when they reach
them. All they are left with, ultimately, is the assertion of personal preference.
For example, the invasion of Iraq by the USA and Great Britain was hotly
debated, particularly with reference to its status as a ‘just war.’ Nevertheless,
for the most part, these debates boiled down simply to the assertion of individual
preferences. One believes war is justified in some instances because one
prefers the basic premises which lead to this conclusion. Conversely, pacifism
stems from preferring an opposing set of premises. What, then, is left of
morality? In truth, not very much. Morality is reduced to the assertion of
individual whims, and this really is no morality at all. Moral language is still
used, but to express preferences rather than real moral claims. Moreover,
emotivism is buttressed by the prevalence in contemporary academe of social
constructivism and the fact that moral relativism is very much the ‘default
setting’ in postmodern intellectual discourse.
One consequence of this is that the words we use to express our pseudomoral
values also become debased. The definitional problem of the word
‘justice’ is one that cannot be underestimated. Postmodern man is faced
constantly with the issue of what the linguist Uwe Poerksen (1995) calls the
‘tyranny’ of modular language. Although Poerksen is not an anthropologist
of religion, what he is actually describing are the names given to what Nursi
would most probably have described as the gods of modernity. While Poerksen
does not describe them as gods, he does describe them as tyrants, with
certain instantly recognisable characteristics. One is that they defy definition,
yet carry with them an aura of respectability and goodness (Poerksen,
1995:25–26). In linguistic terms, they have many connotations but no denotation:
While they connote certain things, they denote nothing in particular.
There is, as he says, no such thing as ‘care’ or ‘welfare’ or ‘standard of living,’
yet these words suggest good and beneficial things to most people, even
2 For a penetrating deconstruction of emotivism, see MacIntyre (2007:6–35).
C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582 559
though their real meanings are never questioned.3 Justice, while absent from
Poerksen’s list, is, I contend, one such word. So much that is written on justice
today is based on the premise that we are all agreed on what justice actually
is — what it actually denotes rather than connotes — when, in fact, in
the absence of absolute values, definitions of justice become, by default, subjective
and conventional.
For this reason, this paper endeavours for the most part to talk not about
the justice of God, but rather about Divine ʿadl — the Arabic word that is
usually translated as ‘justice’ but which, for reasons already given, may in fact
have only a tenuous link with the notion of justice as understood in the
Rawlsian sense of the term or, indeed, in the sense understood in most secular
discourse today. Furthermore, the discussion is based on what may be seen
as a sort of inductive approach to the definitional framework within which
our exposition takes place. In other words, rather than attempting to observe
God, man and creation through the prism of our preconceived notion of
what justice is, we begin instead with the premise that God is, as the Qurʾan
describes, possessed of ʿadl and from there we explore, through Nursian eyes,
the consequences that this has for the cosmos in general and man in particular.
This will, I hope, serve to throw light on what is arguably one of the most
poorly understood of the Divine attributes, and in so doing clear up misconceptions
which may exist with regard to God’s creational acts which occur
when we view them through the opaque glass of our preconceived notions of
what it means to be just.
To this end, we are going to look at what ʿadl denotes according to one of
the Qur’an’s most formidable interpreters, Said Nursi. Firstly, however, we
need to take a brief look at the Qur’anic use of the term. The root ʿa -d -l
appears in its various forms no more than 28 times in the Qur’an. Verbs of
the first form — ʿadala — derived from this root have a wide range of meanings,
including: to act and deal justly, equitably, with fairness and proportion;
to establish justice; to straighten; to dispose aright; to hold as equal; to adjust
properly as to relative magnitude; and to pay as an equivalent (Omar,
2005:454). Interestingly, ʿadala can also have the meaning of ‘to swerve from
the right path,’ and is used in the Qur’an on at least three occasions in
this sense (Qurʾan, 4:135, 5:9, 27:60).4 However, ʿadala is used mostly to
connote the notion of acting with equity, fairness and, most importantly,
proportion. The only verbal noun derived from this root which appears in
the Qurʾan is ʿadl. This too admits of a number of meanings, including
3 For his list of ‘plastic words,’ see Poerksen (1995:25–26).
4 The translation of the Quran used throughout this article is that of Yusuf Ali (n.d.).
560 C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582
justice, equity, accuracy and equivalent (Omar, 2005:454). The noun ʿadl can
also mean ransom, recompense and compensation, and is used in this sense
at least three times in the Qur’an, for example, in verses 2:48, 2:123 and
6:70. For the most part, however, ʿadl is used to connote equity, fairness and
It is the notion of acting with proportion and with balance — the latter
signified directly by several other verbal forms derived from the same root —
which sets ʿadl apart from a similar term, qist,̣ that is also used in the Qur’an
to mean fairness and just dealing. The term qist,̣ however, is not as sensitive
to subtle nuances of meaning as ʿadl, particularly in terms of the notions of
balance, equilibrium and equanimity, and would seem to suggest justice and
fairness on a societal level rather than on a creational one as well.5 It is also
the word ʿadl rather than qist ̣ which forms the basis of Nursi’s ontology
of Divine justice, although Nursi tends to use the term ʿadāla, which is
derived from the same root as ʿadl and carries more or less the same weight of
Key to our dissection of the Qurʾanic-Nursian perspective on ʿadl is the
verse below:
O man! What has seduced thee from thy Lord Most Beneficent? — Him Who created
thee, fashioned thee in due proportion, and gave thee a just bias; In whatever
Form He wills, does He put thee together. (82:6-8)
The above verse concerns the actual creation of man — the fashioning of his
physical body and the provision of supra-material faculties in, according to
Yusuf Ali, ‘due proportion’ and with a ‘just bias.’ Yusuf Ali’s translation of the
verb ‘adala as the giving of ‘a just bias’ is open to question. The verb is actually
used transitively in this verse, suggesting that ‘setting aright’ or ‘fashioning
harmoniously’ would offer a more suitable rendering. This is supported
by Muhammad Asad (2003:1067–1068), who translates ʿadala in this verse
as ‘to make proportionate.’ His translation of the full verse is below:
O Man! What is it that lures thee away from thy bountiful Sustainer, who has created
thee, and formed thee in accordance with what thou art meant to be, and shaped thy
nature in just proportions, having put thee together in whatever form He willed (thee
to have)?
5 For the definition of qist,̣ and instances of its usage in the Qurʾan, see Omar (2005:454).
C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582 561
Assuming that what ʿadl actually denotes in the creational sense of the term as
used by the Qur’an is the ‘giving of proportion and balance’ and the ‘putting
of things in their rightful place’, we shall now look at the concept of Divine
ʿadl from the Nursian perspective as it functions in the context of three different
but interconnected spheres. The first sphere is that of the relationship
between God and the cosmos in general; the second sphere is the sphere of
the relationship between God and man in particular; and the third sphere is
that of the relationships that man enjoys with his fellow men.
The First Sphere
For Nursi, the ontological reality of ʿadl in the creational sense is such that it
serves two inter-related aims. Firstly, through the production of apparent
polarities and complementary opposites, it facilitates the coming into existence
of difference and individuation. Light and dark, good and evil, day and
night, birth and death, construction and destruction, heaven and hell, beauty
and ugliness — all of these mutually dependent pairs and complementary
opposites, some of which have external reality but not external existence —
are there for an express purpose. In the words of Nursi (1995:401):
Everything from the cells of an animate body, the red and white corpuscles in the
blood, the transformations of minute particles, and the mutual proportion and relation
of the body’s organs, to the incomings and outgoings of the seas, the income and
expenditure of springs under the earth, the birth and death of animals and plants, the
destruction of Autumn and the reconstruction of Spring, the duties and motion of
the elements and the stars, and the alternations, struggles and clashes of death and
life, light and darkness, and heat and cold, are ordered and weighed with so sensitive
a balance, so fine a measure, that the human mind can nowhere see any waste or
futility, just as human science and philosophy see everywhere and point out the most
perfect order and beautiful symmetry. Indeed, human science and philosophy are a
manifestation and interpreter of that order and symmetry.
Nursi then adduces the balance and equilibrium of the heavenly bodies in the
solar system as particular evidence of Divine ʿadl. Drawing for inspiration on
the anthropic cosmological principle, Nursi (1995:401) turns to the finelytuned
balance evident in the movement of the earth:
[The earth] travels an orbit of twenty-four thousand years in one year, not scattering
or shaking the things stored up and stacked on its face, despite its extraordinary
speed, nor throwing them off into space. If its speed had been increased or reduced
just a little, it would have thrown its inhabitants off into the atmosphere, and
562 C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582
scattered them through space. And if its balance was to be destroyed for a minute, or
even a second, it would destroy the world.
This balance, he claims, points ‘as clearly as the sun’ to the existence of a Creator
who is not only powerful and compassionate but also, more importantly,
‘All-Just’ (ʿādil ) (Nursi, 1995:401). Indeed, in all of the workings of the cosmos,
including the apparent binarities mentioned above, such as life and
death, light and darkness, and the apparent struggle for existence between
denizens of the natural world, Nursi sees balance and equilibrium where others,
he claims, see nothing but conflict and contradiction. Addressing the
naturalists and materialists, he writes (1995:162–163):
You say: ‘Every living being from the greatest angel to the tiniest fish owns itself and
works for itself and struggles for its own pleasure. It has the right to life. Its aim and
purpose and all its endeavour is to live and continue its life.’ And supposing to be
conflict the compassionate, munificent manifestations of the universal law of the All-
Generous Creator which is manifest through plants hastening to the assistance of
animals and animals hastening to the assistance of man through a principle of mutual
assistance, which is conformed to in perfect obedience by all the principal beings of
the universe, you declare idiotically: ‘Life is conflict.’
In Nursi’s view, all of these apparent opposites and seemingly hostile polarities
are mediated with such precision that one cannot help but conclude that
it is harmony and cooperation that underpin the creation rather than hostility
and chaos (1995:162):
How can particles of food hastening with total eagerness to nourish the cells of the
body — a manifestation of that principle of mutual assistance — be conflict? How
can it be a clash and struggle? Rather, that hastening and assistance is mutual help at
the command of a Munificent Sustainer.
We now arrive at the second and more important aim of ʿadl. Harmony and
equilibrium, which are the by-products of ʿadl, can exist only among things
which are different, be this difference real or apparent. And diversity and plurality
exist for one purpose and one purpose alone, and that is to allow us to
recognise the reality of existence itself. For if existence did not occur in
degrees, gradations and individuations — in other words, in the form of different
things, held together in harmony and equilibrium through the medium
of Divine ʿadl, then man would be unable to perceive it. The diversity of created
beings, the production of complementary opposites and the plurality
which exists within unity are there in order to make existence known.
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For without knowledge of existence, knowledge of the Necessarily Existent
One — i.e., God — would be impossible.
To know that there is existence, and that there is One in whom existence
inheres and from Whom existence emanates, we need diversity, plurality,
complementary opposites and apparent instances of lack and absence. Man
needs darkness in order to understand light; he needs death in order to
understand life; he needs evil in order to understand good; and so on. Darkness,
death and evil are the apparent lacks and absences, the gradations in
existence, which make existence known.6 All of this is mediated by ʿadl and
with one supreme aim in mind: to facilitate the self-disclosure of God and
the revelation, to man, of all of the divine attributes, the manifestation of
which is possible only through the mediation of ʿadl, which, together with
Divine determining (qadar) and wisdom (ḥikma), is responsible for the
ordered and orderly manifestation of the Divine names and, with it, the
means whereby man is able to make sense of the created world.
According to a Prophetic Tradition, God said: ‘I was a hidden treasure —
kuntu kanz an makhfī an — and I created the world in order to be known, worshipped
and loved.’7 This ‘hidden treasure’ is disclosed through the mediation
of ʿadl — an attribute so important that Nursi (1990:12) accords its equal
status with the three main fundamentals of belief — tawḥīd (Divine Unity),
nubuwwa (Prophethood) and ḥashr (the Resurrection) — as being one of the
four ‘aims’ (hadaf ) of the Qur’an. There is to the knowledge of this writer no
other modern scholar who puts so much importance on ʿadl in the creational
sense, and when one considers the ‘hidden treasure’ Tradition, it is not difficult
to see why this is so.
In the creational sense, then, ʿadl is that function of the Creator which
ensures harmony and equilibrium between different things. The existence of
different things is to make known the existence of existence itself, while the
6 The lacks and absences in the cosmos by which created beings are known and recognised
are described by Nursi in terms of ‘degrees’ (marātib and darajāt). Degrees of the existence of a
thing, he says, are through the intervention of its opposites. Thus the degrees of heat are
through the intervention of cold; degrees of light are through the intervention of darkness, and
so on. For a more detailed explanation, see Nursi (1992:546). There are interesting parallels
between Nursi’s theological exposition of ‘degrees’ of intervention of non-existence and the
seventeenth century Iranian theosopher Mullā Ṣadrā’s philosophical principle of the ‘gradation
of being’ (tashkīk al-wujūd ), the theory he invokes to account for the differentiation between
created beings. For more on Ṣadrā’s theory, see Jambet (2006:97–102).
7 There is no consensus among ḥadīth experts as to whether the ‘Hidden Treasure’ Tradition
is actually a Tradition at all, although it enjoys currency among a number of Sufi thinkers, poets
and mystics, including Jalal al-Din Rumi and Ibn al-ʿArabi. For an interesting dissection of the
‘Hidden Treasure’ Tradition from a mystical perspective, see Murata (1992:61–65).
564 C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582
purpose of existence is to facilitate man’s awareness of the One who makes
existence possible.
The Second Sphere
We now turn to the second sphere in which ʿadl functions, namely the sphere
of the Creator-creature relationship, and in particular the relationship
between man and God. This relationship is multi-faceted and highly complex;
however, the scope of this article is such that we can deal with two
aspects of this relationship only, and even then with considerable brevity.
They are, however, aspects which are key to Nursi’s understanding of ʿadl
insofar as it impacts on man’s existential position and his relationship with
the Creator, which is discussed at length in the Risale-i Nur, and particularly
in the 30th Word, the ‘First Aim’ of which is also known as Ene Risalesi, or
‘Treatise on the Human I’ (Nursi, 1992:557–569).
The First Aspect
The first aspect is that of man’s position as khalīfa — as representative — of
God on earth, tasked as he is with the heavy responsibility of the Divine trust
or amāna.8 As recipient of the trust, which consists, among other things, of
knowledge of all the Divine names, his responsibility is, as Nursi tells us on
numerous occasions, to relinquish his imaginary ownership of these names
and reflect them as the Creator intends them to be reflected.9 The fulcrum
upon which rests his ability to either reflect the names or appropriate them
for himself and ‘cover up’ their link to the Divine is the component of the
human soul (nafs) which in Turkish is called ene — from the Arabic anā —
and which in English we call ‘I.’10
8 The ‘Trust’ appears in verse 33:72 of the Qurʾan and signifies for Nursi the acceptance by
man of the role of vicegerent of God on earth, a position from which even ‘the Heavens and
the Earth and the Mountains’ shrank, so heavy was its burden. See also Nursi (1992:268).
9 Nursi’s insistence that man’s most pressing responsibility as bearer of the Trust is to give
up his imaginary ownership of the Divine names that are reflected in him finds expression in
much of his work. The notion of the human appropriation of the Divine attributes is a theme
which runs throughout Ene Risalesi, as well as other parts of the Risale-i Nur. For example, see
Nursi (1992:332, 480; 1995:162–163, 458–459; 1997:267, 434, 497; 1998:90).
10 The word ene is, like the word nafs, is sometimes translated as ‘ego,’ a word that is avoided
in this article in order to obviate any misconstrual of the term as one which has Freudian
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As Nursi explains in Ene Risalesi, man is gifted with tiny samples or simulacra
of the Divine attributes which are placed in him in order that he can, at
the outset of his quest to fathom the riddle of existence, make comparisons.
As Nursi says, man looks at the house he has built and considers himself a
builder; he then looks at the cosmos and concludes that if he is the builder of
his own house, then the cosmos too must have a master Builder. In this way,
he uses his ‘I’ as a yardstick, in order to be able to recognise the attributes of
God (Nursi, 1992:559).
In actual fact, this ene — this ‘I’-ness — which man uses in order to be
able to recognise God, is a shadowy, insubstantial entity with an external reality
but no external existence. It is simply a unit of measurement which makes
known the existence of other things. However, as Nursi avers, it is not necessary
for a unit of measurement to have actual existence: like the hypothetical
lines in geometry, a unit of measurement may be formed by hypothesis and
supposition. Another example concerns light and darkness: An endless light
without darkness may not be known or perceived; however, if a line of real or
imaginary darkness is drawn, then it becomes known (Nursi, 1992:558).
This enigmatic ‘I’, which has no substantial existence of its own, is thus
tasked with doing one thing and one thing only, and that is reflecting the
names of God, all of which were apparently taught to Adam — i.e. to man —
by God at the outset of his creation.11 According to the Tradition mentioned
at the outset of this article, which Nursi alludes to on a number of occasions
in his work, God is, after all, a hidden treasure Who desires to be known: in
effect the cosmos is like a full-length mirror in which God discloses to Himself
the entirety of His names and attributes. And man, lauded by Nursi as
the most precious fruit of the cosmos, is that cosmic mirror in miniature, created
to submit (taslīm), namely to reflect back the Divine names which shine
on the mirror of his being.
In this submitting and reflecting back of the Divine names, the concept of
ʿadl would appear to be the key. For just as it is Divine ʿadl which facilitates
the emergence of plurality and, with plurality, harmony, so too in man is ʿadl
the means by which he is able to carry out the responsibility of the Trust
in the way God intended him to do. If ʿadl means putting things in their
11 The ‘teaching of the names’ to Adam, an integral part of the Islamic creation mythos,
appears in the Qurʾan, 2:31. Historically, commentators have been unable to reach a consensus
as to what these ‘names’ actually signified. Numerous theories abound, with some saying that
they were the names of all created beings, whether animate or inanimate, some saying that they
were the names of Adam, Eve and all their descendants, and others opining that they were the
actual names of God himself. The latter view is one which, I contend, fits well with Nursi’s own
discourse on the Divine Names and the function of man as locus of their manifestation.
566 C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582
rightful place so that equilibrium and harmony may exist, then ʿadl denotes
the attribute which man must nurture in himself if he is to truly act as
khalīfatullāh fī al-ʿarḍ, or God’s representative on earth. It means, in short,
man’s ‘surrendering’ the names of God to their rightful Owner and admitting
that in and of himself, he is nothing but a mirror in which God contemplates
His own attributes. The term ʿadl, then, connotes, inter alia, acting in God’s
name, and for His sake alone. It means living in accordance with the old Sufi
adage, Takhallaqū bi akhlāq Allāh (Nursi, 1992:564),12 of displaying God’s
attributes while giving up all rights of ownership over them. This, according
to Nursi’s understanding of the Qur’an, appears to be precisely what man was
created for. And just as taslimiyya — submission — brings about islam, then
ʿadl, which means putting things in their rightful place or, in other words,
acting in accordance with the Divine order Fa istaqim kamā umirta (Be steadfast
and do as you were commanded!) (Qurʾan, 11:112) is supposed to bring
about peace, harmony and equilibrium in man’s personal life, thus fulfilling
the requirements of Divine justice and shaping the kind of relationship he
has with God. Indeed, Nursi (1992:780) adduces the verse as evidence of the
importance of moderation, the ‘middle way’ and, by extension, the conscious
manifestation of ʿadl in all aspects of human life.
In Nursi’s view, when man acts without ʿadl — in other words, when he
refuses to submit his imaginary ownership of the Divine names — he brings
about chaos, imbalance, disequilibrium, disharmony and, in a very real sense
of the modern term, injustice, both in his own personal life and in the lives
of those he touches. To refuse to surrender that ownership, or in other words
to choose to ‘cover up’ (Arab. kafara) his existential link with the Divine, is
nothing less than to choose unbelief (kufr),13 and to choose unbelief is, as far
as Nursi is concerned, to make a mockery not only of oneself but of the
whole creation, the very purpose of which is the recognition and glorification
of God. And, as Nursi tells us in no uncertain terms, to denigrate the cosmos
in this way is indeed the greatest of all injustices (1995:119):
So too, since they (i.e., the people of unbelief ) deny the manifestations of the Divine
Names which are apparent in the mirrors of beings, exalting their value, they insult
those sacred Names, and in addition, by degrading the value of all beings, greatly
12 Sụ̈ kran Vahide translates this phrase as ‘Be moulded by God-given ethics,’ which does not
quite connote the idea of man’s manifesting consciously the attributes of God while abjuring
any ownership over them.
13 The term kufr, usually translated as ‘unbelief ’ is a verbal noun from the Arabic root kafara,
meaning ‘to cover.’ Unbelief in the strictly Qurʾanic — and, by extension, Nursian — sense
concerns the misappropriation of the Divine Names, refusal to surrender them to their rightful
Owner, and thus the conscious covering up of man’s existential link to the Transcendent.
C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582 567
detract them. And while all beings are dominical officials charged with elevated
duties, through unbelief, the people of misguidance cast them down, and showing
them to be lifeless, transitory, meaningless creatures, they in a way violate the rights
of all of them.
Common perception has it that the antithesis of ʿadl is jawr, particularly in
the modern interpretation of these words, with ʿadl translated as justice and
jawr as injustice (Wehr, 1976:596, 147). While ʿadl and jawr are indeed polar
opposites even in the classical sense of the terms, arguably a more appropriate
term to describe what actually happens when ʿadl is deficient in human
behaviour is the word ilḥād. According to the Qurʾanic verse (7:180), the
‘most beautiful names’ (asmā al-ḥusnā) belong to God and man should call
on Him by means of them. It then says that man should beware of those who
yulḥidūna fī asmāihi — those who ‘pervert,’ ‘twist’ or ‘corrupt’ the names of
God.14 Bearing in mind the Nursian notion of man as a ‘mirror’ whose function
it is to manifest the Divine attributes, it may be argued that ‘perverting’
the names of God means either not reflecting them consciously at all, or
reflecting them imperfectly.
An example may be of use here. God is compassionate and enjoins compassion
on all men. Mothers, as Nursi reminds us on numerous occasions,
are especially gifted with the capacity to reflect Divine compassion, wittingly
or unwittingly.15 However, there is true compassion and there is compassion
that is well-meant but misdirected.16 A mother may be unable to bear the
tears of her child and, as a result, may capitulate to his demands for chocolate
every time he cries for it. She is acting out of what she believes to be compassion,
and indeed, it is a hard heart indeed that can watch a child cry and not
be moved. Indeed, the mother may consider that to withhold chocolate from
her child is wrong, and that justice demands that her child not suffer. However,
as Nursi points out time and time again, Divine ʿadl is always tempered
by Divine ḥikma or wisdom:17 God puts things in their rightful place as He
pleases, but in accordance with an inherent wisdom and purpose which,
while sometimes fathomable by man instantly and sometimes in theoretical
14 While there is no explicit mention by Nursi of ilḥād in this particular context, the notion
is easily construed from his discussion on the corruption which man wreaks on his own soul
when he is out of balance and far from the ‘middle way,’ the epitome of which was the Prophet.
For this, see Nursi (1995:92–93).
15 For some examples, see: Nursi (1992:21, 43, 75, 368; 1995:136, 181, 260).
16 The possibility of ‘misdirecting’ compassion is mentioned in Nursi (1995:261).
17 It should be reiterated here that when Nursi discusses ʿadl, qualities such as Divine wisdom,
mercy and compassion are often mentioned as ‘companion attributes.’ For example, see
Nursi (1992:67).
568 C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582
concord with human intellects only when the latter are fully tuned in to their
transcendent source, are not always apparent at first glance. In the example of
the mother, the provision of an excess of chocolate shows that her compassion
is lacking in wisdom, and so in trying to be kind to her child, instead
she makes him obese, unhealthy and helps him on his way to an early grave.
The example of the mother and her sweet-toothed child may be a trivial
one, but it is no less salient for being so. The fact is that, in the Nursian
scheme of things, if one does not act consciously as a polished mirror through
which the names of God may be reflected, ilḥād is inevitable. The etymology
of this word is interesting. Among the meanings of the Arabic verb laḥada is
the notion of making a place — a niche or a hole — for a corpse. The verbal
noun laḥd thus means grave, and by extension it may be argued that the
mulḥid — a word usually translated by modern linguists as ‘unbeliever’ or
‘atheist’ — is one who believes that beyond the grave there is nothing. Interpreting
the word creatively, one may conclude that ilḥād is the act of cutting
off the divine attribute from its true root and, instead of attributing it to its
transcendent origin, ‘burying’ it, metaphorically, in the grave of the unregenerate
human ego. In this state, when the soul regards compassion, or wisdom,
or knowledge, it does not acknowledge that there is a transcendent component
to these attributes. Rather, it deracinates them from their sacred soil,
cuts them off at the root and refers them solely to itself. When the soul cuts
something off from the root, it kills it. When it cuts justice off from its transcendent
source, that justice becomes wholly self-referential and is painted in
the colours of man’s own ego. As mentioned earlier, the mother as epitome of
compassion is a recurring trope in Nursi’s writing, highlighting an attribute
that he sees at its zenith in the female of the species in order to ensure the
nurturing of the young. When it is attributed to its true transcendent source,
compassion will be exercised for the sake of God. When it is cut off from its
root, compassion, while still connoting many sacred truths, will lose its true
meaning and take on the colour of the ego. Cut off from their roots, the
divine names as reflected by man become twisted and perverted, leading to
imbalance in the self and, ultimately, imbalance in the creation, of which
man is a pivotal part. A cursory glance at today’s world reveals all too plainly
the results of this imbalance: wars, political corruption, moral bankruptcy,
ecological disaster, psychological and social meltdown. For Nursi, the iniquities
which beleaguer modern civilisation are a result of deviation from the
‘straight path,’ which is synonymous with ʿadl itself (1992:778):
Guidance is healing, but fancies block out the feelings. This requires solace, it requires
feigned unmindfulness, it requires occupation, it requires entertainment. Enchanting
C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582 569
desires. Then it can deceive the conscience and put the spirit to sleep so they feel no
pain. Otherwise that grievous suffering scorches the conscience; the pain is unendurable,
the despair cannot be borne. This means, however far one deviates from the
Straight Path, to that extent one is affected in that way, causing the conscience to cry
out. Within every pleasure is a pain, a taint. That means glittering civilization, which
is a mixture of fancy, lust, amusement, and licentiousness, is a deceptive panacea for
the ghastly distress arising from misguidance, a poisonous narcotic.
Examples of social and civilisational ills in Nursi’s writings are too numerous
to mention, and are all interpretable in his schema as a result of the inability,
or unwillingness, of man to ‘give up’ the names, to acknowledge their rightful
owner, and to make ʿadl central to his endeavours as a human being.
With regard to ʿadl in the sphere of man’s relationship with God, the second
aspect that Nursi stresses is the non-arbitrary nature of Divine justice. In
fact, whenever he talks about ʿadl, he almost always mentions words such as
ḥikma (wisdom), raḥma (compassion) and qadar (Divine determining) in the
same breath.18
This is important particularly in the context of events and situations which
most people are likely to deem unjust. For example, after the devastating tsunami
of 2004, when some 230,000 souls perished within the space of a few
hours, one of the most common responses among believers as well as unbelievers
was to question the goodness of a God who seemingly failed to ‘intervene’
in order to obviate such terrible human suffering. The aforementioned
Richard Dawkins was among the more vocal of God’s critics, while apologetic
rejoinders in the form of tracts such as David Bentley Hart’s The Doors
of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? failed to engage convincingly with
the notion of a God whose compassion is eminently reconcilable with the
existence of what for both the Qurʾan and Nursi would be an evil in appearance
That the occurrence of so-called ‘natural disasters’ should provoke such a
response is not surprising when one considers the poverty of modern Muslim
theology and the intellectual and emotional complexities which inhere in the
general theodicean problem. One brutally frank response to those who doubt
God’s justice when such events occur would be the classical Ash‘arite question:
Is the creation not His to do with as He pleases? In the words of the
Persian poet, Harcheh ān Khusraw konad, shīrīn bovad — ‘Whatever that
18 For example, see Nursi (1992:77–78, 95–99; 1995:31, 105, 329; 1997:59, 273, 300;
1998:86, 207–209).
19 A clip of Richard Dawkins discussing the tsunami on the 2009 Channel Four documentary,
Tsunami: Where Was God? can be accessed at
tsunami-where-was-god-richard-dawkins.html. See also Hart (2005).
570 C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582
King does, it is good.’ Several hundred thousand people across the world die
every day, our Ash‘arite disputant would argue, but no-one raises the kind of
objection that was raised when the same number lost their lives in the space
of a few hours and as the result of a disaster that was seen as both ‘natural’
and an ‘act of God.’
Ultimately, of course, it is a question of relativity. When, in July 1994,
over twenty fragments of a passing comet smashed into the southern hemisphere
of the planet Jupiter, providing astronomers on earth with their first
direct observation of a collision between two heavenly bodies, the excitement
among the scientific community was palpable. Had those fragments hit the
southern hemisphere of our earth, however, the response would have been
very different. As far as the creational act of God is concerned, what is
deemed unjust depends on every individual’s own perspective, and the extent
to which it affects him or her personally. The Qurʾan itself attests to this quite
clearly in the verse below (2:216):
Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a
thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But God
knoweth, and ye know not.
Although this verse was revealed in the particular context of jihad, and the
aversion of some Muslims in the nascent community-state of Medina to go
into battle, one may quite easily apply the reasoning in the verse to any situation,
as the wording of the verse itself — ‘. . . it is possible that ye dislike a
thing which is god for you . . .’ indicates. However, the extent to which one
considers something abhorrent or unjust depends on how much consideration
is given to the important factors of ḥikma and qadar — those indispensable
facets of God’s creational command which, according to Nursi,
always go hand in hand with his ʿadl. As we have seen, in the Qurʾanic-
Nursian sense of the term, one of the key meanings of ʿadl is to put something
in its right place, but what its right place actually is depends on Divine
wisdom rather than the judgement arrived at through the workings of human
ratiocination, particularly when the latter is decoupled from the moderating
influence of revelation. And Divine wisdom is married to Divine compassion,
and Divine compassion to Divine mercy, and so on. God does what He
wills with His creatures, but what He wills is never ad hoc or arbitrary: There
is, the Qurʾan claims, always an underlying wisdom, even if man is unable to
grasp it at first.
This is borne out by, inter alia, the famous story of Moses and the figure
described by the Qurʾan as ‘one of Our bondsmen,’ who accompanies Moses
C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582 571
on his search for truth and, in so doing, inducts him into the secrets of the
Divine wisdom that lies beneath acts which are unfathomable on account of their
apparent injustice.20 The ‘bondsman’ in question is not named by the Qurʾan,
although many have identified him as the legendary saint-cum-prophet-guide
Khiḍr.21 When Moses asks the bondsman of God to accompany him on his
journey, the latter is reluctant to agree: Moses, the bondsman says, may claim
to be in the pursuit of wisdom, but will not have the fortitude to bear what
he encounters on the way. Eventually, the bondsman agrees to accompany
Moses on the condition that the latter exercise patience and refrain from
judging events on the basis of their outward appearances. As their journey
progresses, Moses is tested severely as the bondsman proceeds to scupper a
boat, kill an innocent boy and restore a crumbling wall for the inhospitable
people of a town. Each apparently inexplicable and iniquitous occurrence
drives Moses to question the bondsman’s wisdom, and finally, when Moses is
seen clearly to have failed the test of trust and patience, the bondsman
announces that their companionship is over. Before they part, however, the
bondsman reveals the hidden wisdom behind his seemingly unfathomable
actions, indicating that each one was in the best interests of all concerned,
and that he had been directed to act as he had by God.
The story of Moses and the bondsman is designed apparently to demonstrate
the limits of human reason and the infinitude of Divine knowledge. It
also shows that there are paradoxes in human life that are often beyond
human comprehension: apparent loss, for example, may be real gain; apparent
cruelty may actually be mercy; and returning good for evil may in actual
fact be justice rather than generosity. Arguably the most important lesson
afforded by the story is that God’s wisdom is infinite, transcending all human
calculation. Consequently, whatever befalls man in the creational sense cannot
help but be a result of ʿadl, or else Divine Wisdom would not have
decreed it for him.22
An excursus into Nursian theodicy would be of value here, but again a
lengthy exposition of his stance on the goodness of God in the face of the
existence of evil is unfortunately beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to
say that the Nursian position mirrors to some extent the Augustinian notion
of the asymmetry of good and evil. In short, for Nursi, ‘evil’ is simply what is
20 For the whole story of the truth-seeking quest of Moses and his encounter with the wise
‘bondsman’ of God, see Qurʾan, 18:60–82.
21 Khiḍr is one of the four messengers of God deemed to have superhuman longevity,
although they live on a different existential plane and are not normally visible to mortals. The
other three are Ilyās (Elias), Idrīs (Enoch) and Īsā (Jesus).
22 For a fascinating Jungian insight into the Khiḍr legend, see Battye (1993:166–191).
572 C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582
known theologically as privatio boni, or the privation or lack of good.23
St. Augustine’s (1961:11–12) exposition of privatio boni is summed up in this
excerpt from his Enchiridion:
And in the universe, even that which is called evil, when it is regulated and put in its
own place, only enhances our admiration of the good; for we enjoy and value the
good more when we compare it with the evil. For the Almighty God, who, as even
the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself
supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works,
if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil. For
what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? In the bodies of animals, disease
and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected,
that does not mean that the evils which were present — namely, the diseases and
wounds — go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist;
for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance, —
the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils —
that is, privations of the good which we call health — are accidents. Just in the same
way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And
when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: When they cease to exist in
the healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.
Snatches of Nursi’s discourse on good and evil can be found throughout his
writings, but particular focus on the issue can be found in his treatise on
Divine Decree and Determination, which forms the Twenty-Sixth Word
(Nursi, 1992:477–490). There, Nursi exonerates God of any blame for the
existence of evils in the world by attributing them to the capacity of man to
exercise his free-will injudiciously. Evil, which Nursi (1998:582) dismisses as
the non-existence of good — a privatio boni — is decreed by God in response
to man’s desire for it and the exercise of his will in pursuing it (1992:478):
As for evils, it is man’s soul that wants them, either through capacity or through
choice, — like in the white and beautiful light of the sun some substances become
black and putrefy, and the blackness is related to their capacity — however, it is
Almighty God Who creates the evils through a Divine law which comprises numerous
benefits. That is to say, the cause and the request are from the soul, so that it is
the soul which is responsible, while it is Almighty God Who creates the evils and
brings them into existence, and since they have other results and fruits which are
good, they are good.
It is for this reason, Nursi argues, that man’s ‘acquisition’ (kasb) of evil,
through his desire for it, is itself evil, while God’s creation of that evil in
23 The theory of privatio boni is usually attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430). For
his exposition of evil as the ‘lack of good,’ see Augustine (1961:11–18).
C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582 573
response to man’s request is evil only in appearance, at least as far as God’s
involvement is concerned (1992:478):
A lazy man who receives damage from rain, which comprises many instances of good,
may not say that the rain is not mercy. Yes, together with a minor evil in its creation
are numerous instances of good. To abandon that good for a minor evil becomes a
greater evil. Therefore, a minor evil becomes like good.
Nursi concludes by saying that because of this, there is no evil or ugliness in
Divine creation: evil and ugliness — and, by extension, injustice, which is a
result of man’s unwillingness to manifest God’s names as he has been commanded
— pertain to man’s own wish and his ability to desire the non-existence
that is evil (Nursi, 1992:478).
In the Nursian schema, then, evil is a lack of good, and its ‘creation’ by
God is metaphorical: That which is deemed evil is only apparently so, and it
is evil simply by dint of the wish and will of the human individual who has
abused his free-will by desiring it. The notion of privatio boni and the exoneration
of God from any blame for the existence of evil in the world place
Nursi firmly in the Augustinian camp as far as the problem of theodicy is
concerned. A corollary of this is that Nursi must be seen as an adherent of
the ‘Divine Command Theory,’ and therefore would surely agree with our
Ash‘arite disputant with regard to the inability of man to discern what is right
and wrong — and, therefore, what is just — through reason rather than
Thus what is just is just because God has decreed that it be so, and not
because things are inherently just in themselves. On one level this shows the
vast difference which exists between secular notions of justice and the
Qur’anic-Nursian concept of ʿadl; indeed, its sheer otherness is often undeniable,
particularly when it concerns issues of orthopraxy which, from a purely
jurisprudential perspective are, while not irrational, at least non-rational.
There are issues within Muslim ritual practice which cannot — and, indeed,
for the Muslim believer, need not — be explained rationally. The explanation
that can be given, however, is that while they are just solely because they are
commanded by a just God, their existence is also underpinned by a wisdom
and purpose which may at first not be apparent to the untrained or unbelieving
eye. Nursi explains the hidden wisdom behind apparently irrational or
24 According to Divine Command Theory as it is understood classically, morally good acts
are willed by God not because they are morally good inherently; they are morally good because
they are willed by God. For more on the Divine Command Theory and its variations, see Joyce
574 C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582
unjust acts and situations as one of the mysteries of Divine Determining
Divine Determining is both exempt from evil and ugliness with regard to results and
fruits, and free from tyranny and ugliness with respect to reason and cause. Because
Divine Determining looks to the true causes and acts justly. Men construct their
judgements on causes which they see superficially and fall into error within the pure
justice of Divine Determining. For example, a judge finds you guilty of theft and
sends you to prison. You are not a thief, but you have committed a murder which no
one knows about. Thus, Divine Determining also sentenced you to imprisonment,
but it sentenced you for the secret murder and acted justly. Since the judge sentenced
you for a theft of which you were innocent, he acted unjustly. Thus, in a single thing
the justice of Divine Determining and Divine creation and man’s wrongful choice or
acquisition were apparent in two respects; you can make analogies with this for other
Nursi concludes by saying that with regard to origin and end and to cause
and results, God’s Determining and creation are thus completely exempt
from evil and injustice (Nursi, 1992:479). In short, injustice may have an
apparent existence, but even then it is in the eye of the beholder: what
appears to be injustice will, if seen through the prism of belief, appear as
something both just and eminently wise.
Divine ʿadl, then, is not arbitrary, and must be understood as working in
tandem with wisdom (ḥikma) and Divine determining (qadar). As Nursi
(1992:78) says:
Do you wish for a proof that all things are done with justice and balance? The fact
that all things are endowed with being, given shape and put in their appropriate place
in accordance with precise equilibrium and in appropriate measure, shows that all
matters are done in accordance with infinite justice and balance.
All things are done, he asserts, with justice and balance. And this includes
those events which occur in life which man believes at first glance are bad for
him, but which, if he reflects on them, he realises were for his own good. Add
to the fact that evil is relative the reality of God’s sworn intention to test man
with all manner of tribulations, and the wisdom behind God’s acts of ʿadl
become even clearer.25 This world is, after all, a ‘sphere of Divine trial,’ and
Divine trial is imposed on man in order to allow him to evolve spiritually and
25 ‘Be sure We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives
or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere . . .’ (Qurʾan,
C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582 575
achieve a state of equanimity in this world and, ultimately, salvation in the
world to come.
The Second Aspect
The second aspect of the Creator-creature relationship focuses on a more practical
issue, namely the methods adumbrated by the Nursi — and, indirectly,
by the Qurʾan itself — by which man is able to effect this relinquishment of
the Divine names in his everyday life and attain to that state of balance and
equanimity that is synonymous with both ʿadl and islām. One is his advocacy
of a quasi-Sufi method of attaining self-knowledge and Divine gnosis,
embodied in his famed ‘four steps’ of impotence (ʿajz), poverty ( faqr), compassion
(shafaqa) and reflection (tafakkur) — steps which, he asserts, have the
ability to lead man more safely and surely to the mercy of God than the various
programmes of self-awareness employed by of some of the Sufi brotherhoods
(Nursi, 1992:491).26 Nursi’s brief exposition of these four steps in the
addendum of the Twenty-Sixth Word (Kader Risalesi) is important not only
because it sheds light on the general spiritual psychology of man which
underpins most of the Risale, but also because it posits a path to self-understanding
and God-knowledge which, like the author’s work itself, is accessible
to all, and which eschews the need for spiritual guides, elaborate devotional
exercises or formal affiliation to any particular Sufi or mystical brotherhood.
The ‘four steps’ advocated by Nursi constitute only one aspect of his teachings
on the methods open to man if he is to attain a ‘constant awareness of
God’s presence’ (Nursi, 1992:494), itself a crucial component of the existential
equilibrium and harmony that man must attain in order to manifest ʿadl
and fulfil his potential as Divine vicegerent on earth. Another aspect — and
arguably one which is more germane to the issue of justice in the Qurʾanic-
Nursian sense of the word — is his discourse on the three main ‘powers’
which inhere in the human soul, and the fact that spiritual well-being, social
harmony and, ultimately, man’s eternal salvation are dependent on these three
powers being in a state of equilibrium. In his discussion of these three ‘powers’
and their centrality to man’s psycho-spiritual development one can find
the key to Nursi’s whole thesis on justice, namely his invitation to the
‘straight path’ of moderation.
Nursi’s exposition of man’s — or, rather, the soul’s — ‘powers’ appears in a
number of places in the Risale, but the most comprehensive treatment can be
26 For his complete exposition of the ‘four steps,’ their aims, objectives and methods, see
Nursi (1992:491–494).
576 C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582
found in his exegesis of the opening chapter of the Qurʾan, al-Fātiḥa, in his
Ishārāt al-iʿjāz (Signs of Miraculousness; Nursi, n.d.). There he says that the
human soul possesses three powers (quwwa): the power of animal appetites
(al-quwwa al-shahwiyya al-bahīmiyya), the function of which is to attract benefits;
the power of animal passion or repulsion (al-quwwa al-ghaḍabiyya), the
function of which is to ward off harm; and the power of intellect (al-quwwa
al-ʿaqliyya), the function of which is to distinguish between that which is beneficial
and that which is harmful (Nursi, n.d.:23). It is how these powers are
used by man that determines his behavioural states and affects his spiritual
progression. Each power may be either overused, which leads to excess (ifrāt)̣
or it may have a deficiency (nuqsạ̄ n), in which case it leads to negligence
(tafrīt)̣ . Nursi warns against both extremes — excess and negligence — and
cautions man to aim for the ‘middle way,’ which is justice (Nursi, n.d.:23).
For example, deficiency in the power of intellect results in foolishness
(ghabāwa) and idiocy (balāda), while excess leads to deception and trickery
( jarbaza), preoccupation with trivia and inordinate attention to minutiae
(tadqīq fī safāsif al-ʿumūr). When the power of intellect is used properly and
attains the ‘middle way,’ the result, Nursi says, is wisdom (ḥikma) (Nursi,
n.d.:23). A deficiency in the power of animal appetites results in lassitude
(khumūd ) and lack of enthusiasm (ʿadam al-ishtiyāq) while at the other end
of the spectrum, excess results in depravity and dissolution ( fajr). When the
‘middle way’ is attained, however, man is led to a state of mind in which he is
encouraged to do what God has commanded and eschew what he has forbidden
(Nursi, n.d.:23). As far as the power of passion/repulsion is concerned,
underuse leads to fear and cowardice ( jabāna) while an excess results in rashness
(tahawwur), a precursor of tyranny (ẓulm) and despotism (istibdād ). The
‘middle way’ as far as this power is concerned is courage (shajāʿa), which
enables man to uphold the message of Divine Unity and protect the sanctity
of Islam (Nursi, n.d.:23–24).
True justice, Nursi avers, obtains when the ‘middle way’ is achieved. By
way of illustration, he uses a medieval theological controversy to demonstrate
what happens when men are unable to avoid excess or deficiency in their
exercise of these powers. With regard to the issue of the creation of man’s
actions (khalq al-a ʿmāl ), he says, the Sunni position is the just one since it
represents a mean between excess and deficiency, with excess typified by the
Mu‘tazilites, whose inordinate reliance on reason led them to champion the
notion of absolute free-will, and deficiency typified by the Jabriyya, who supported
the idea of absolute determinism (Nursi, n.d.:23).27 The Sunni path
27 For background on the Jabriyya, see Montgomery Watt (2010).
C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582 577
is, he concludes, the ‘middle way,’ and synonymous with the ‘Straight Path’
(sị rāt ̣ al-mustaqīm), to which all believing Muslims are to aspire. And the sị rāt ̣
al-mustaqīm is synonymous with ʿadl, or Divine justice (Nursi, n.d.:22).
Nursi’s moral philosophy here involves a merger of at least two disparate
traditions: Aristotelian eudaimonism and Muslim theology. The former, as
we have seen, manifests itself in Nursi’s exposition of the various powers that
man possesses which motivate him to behaviours which are either excessive,
deficient or poised in equilibrium between the two. This schema — redolent
of the Platonic notion of the tripartite soul — draws on traditional Muslim
theology insofar as it is embedded in his exposition of the ‘straight path’ (sị rāt ̣
al-mustaqim), the ‘golden mean’ or ‘middle way,’ adherence to which is the
sine qua non of eternal salvation for the Muslim believer. But where Aristotle
almost identified morally commendable conduct with an aesthetic mean
between opposite extremes, Nursi, thanks to the inspiration he takes from
traditional Muslim theology and Qurʾanic ethics, sees the virtuous man with
a vision that Aristotle never enjoyed. For Aristotle, a man was basically virtuous
because he displayed an aesthetically pleasing balance in his moral
actions, not unlike the harmony that is displayed in a work of art. Thus the
appealing aspect of virtue is often stressed by Aristotle and his modern imitators,
but at the expense of the nuts and bolts of morality proper. What is
missing from the Aristotelian vision are two dimensions of morality which
Nursi, in his understanding of the Islamic revelation, highlights time and
time again: firstly, that man’s thoughts, intentions and actions are virtuous
not merely by dint of the innate aesthetic harmony of agent, behaviour and
environment, but because they propel those who attain this mean in the
direction of their final destiny to eternal life after death; and secondly, that
virtue is more than just the attainment of a ‘golden mean’ between two vices
or extremes of behaviour, for it is in fact predicated on a primal obligation to
a wise Lawgiver (shāri ʿ hạ kīm), whose will is manifest in the cosmos as a
whole and in man’s own conscience in particular, and to whom obedience,
love and worship are owed as man’s Creator and Lord. Thus for Nursi, to
attain equilibrium and harmony between these behaviouristic extremes is not
merely to attain virtue, it is also to manifest the ʿadl or ‘justice’ that is not
only an essential attribute of the Creator, but also an integral component of
the cosmic structure. In doing so, man carries out his duty as bearer of the
Trust, and acts in concord with the rest of the creatures in the cosmos,
the aim being to bring into play his role as khalīfatullāh or vicegerent of God
on earth.
578 C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582
The Third Sphere
The third sphere in which ʿadl is designed to function is the sphere of interhuman
relations. The idea of social justice and its attendant concepts of
human rights and equality, together with the notion of the achievability of a
socially more just world, is probably what comes to mind most readily when
the English word ‘justice’ or the Arabic words ‘adl or ‘adāla are invoked.
Moreover, one of the prevalent themes in the writings of contemporary Muslim
thinkers and ideologues is issue of social justice. Indeed, it is no exaggeration
to say that the so-called ‘Islamic revival’ of the past 150 years has as one
of its central tenets the need to restore justice to a Muslim world beleaguered
by a myriad ills, some of its own making, some engendered by its encounter
with certain forms of non-Muslim hegemony: imperialism, political and cultural
colonialism, globalisation, and so on.
Nursi is no exception, for social justice features largely in many of his treatises,
not least in those parts of the Risale-i Nur where he rails against the
injustices heaped upon him in the form of numerous arrests and trials — all
on trumped-up charges and all ending with his acquittal — together with
periods of imprisonment and years spent in exile or under surveillance.28 That
ʿadl is crucial to the harmonious functioning of this third sphere — the
sphere of human society and interpersonal relations — was therefore not lost
on Nursi, who had experienced the results of its absence or deficiency at close
However, Nursi does not offer any neat prescriptions for the establishment
of a just society, at least not in political terms. Unlike the vast majority of
Muslim ideologues and thinkers of the past century and a half, for whom the
most pressing problem has arguably been the issue of governance and power,
Nursi offers no political solutions for the ills of the Muslim world. He makes
no call for the restoration of the Caliphate, for the re-institution of the shari‘a
or for the creation of an Islamic state. He formulates no grandiose plans for
the creation of an ideal society and, unlike most of his Islamist coevals, does
not advocate the use of force or the fomenting of rebellion to usher in a new
Islamic ‘golden age.’
For Nursi, social justice is something which in theory should evolve from
man’s awareness of the dynamics of Divine justice on the creational level and
his conscious manifestation of that justice in the societal sphere. For Nursi,
social justice is obtained through the adherence of individuals to the shariʿa —
the set of codified laws derived from the Qurʾan and the Prophetic custom
(sunna) which regulate personal and interpersonal relationships on a whole
28 For example, see Nursi (1995:326–328; 1997:96–98; 1998:224).
C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582 579
host of different levels. And this shari ʿa is, from the Nursian perspective,
nothing more than a microcosm of what he calls the ‘Greater Shari‘a,’ which
is nothing less than the Divine custom (sunna ilāhīyya), or the creational laws
which are evident in the workings of the cosmos.29 The interrelationship and
interdependence of these two codes are taken as given by Nursi (1992:763):
There are two Divine Shari‘as: Proceeding from two attributes, man is addressed by
both, and bound to comply with both. The Shari‘a of Creation, which proceeds from
the attribute of Will, orders the circumstances and motions of the world, the macrocosm,
which are not voluntary. It is dominical will, and is also wrongly termed
‘Nature.’ The Shari‘a proceeding from the attribute of Speech is the code of laws
which orders the actions of man, the microcosm, which are voluntary.
That Nursi acknowledges the voluntary nature of the ‘code of laws which
orders the actions of man’ shows not only that he sees adherence to the codified
shari ʿa as something which, ideally, grows organically out of man’s awareness
of the creational shari ʿa, but also that he stands apart from those Muslim
thinkers who believe that the codified shari ʿa is something that is to be
imposed from above.
In this sense, Nursi is a gradualist in his approach to social change. His
emphasis throughout the Risale-i Nur is on the perfection of belief, not the
imposition of a social code: Each individual is to work at purifying his own
soul rather than attempting to purify the souls of others, and if a healthy
social system emerges, it emerges because of the collective efforts of individuals
rather than the top-down imposition of a code of laws which address the
socio-economic and political problems of society but which take as given the
belief of its members and thus ignore or gloss over it. Ever the pragmatist,
Nursi eschews the kind of utopian vision that lies at the heart of much of the
modern Islamist endeavour to re-create the mythical golden age of Medina at
the time of Muhammad. While he asserts unequivocally that on a purely creational
level, Divine justice underpins all things, he admits readily that on
the societal level, absolute justice does not — and can never — manifest itself
in this earthly realm.30 In his treatise on the necessity of the Resurrection, he
29 According to Nursi, the Greater Shariʿa, which he also calls the ‘Shariʿa of Creation’ comprises
‘the order of the universe and the Divine laws of creation.’ See Nursi (1992:549).
30 Nursi’s exposition of the concepts of ‘absolute justice’ and ‘relative justice’ are key to his
discussion of the conflict known as the ‘Battle of the Camel,’ which took place between supporters
of the Prophet’s cousin, Ali, and supporters of the Prophet’s wife, Aisha. Nursi contends
that the battle was basically a clash over conflicting legal concepts, with Ali’s belief in the possibility
of applying absolute justice ranged against his opponents’ view that the time for absolute
justice had passed, and that the community had now to rely on the notion of the ‘lesser of two
580 C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582
adduces the absence of absolute justice in this realm as one of the proofs of
the ‘Supreme Tribunal’ in the world to come, asserting that not only are
reward and punishment virtually non-existent here, but that not even ‘a
thousandth part’ of the requirements of justice is fulfilled (Nursi, 1992:61).
While it may have been possible in the earliest years of Islam for the Prophet
to manifest absolute justice in his capacity as legislator, with the passing of
time and the corruption of Muslim society, the attainment of absolute justice
on the societal level became increasingly difficult and ultimately impossible:
the only alternative was what Nursi terms ‘relative’ (iḍāfī) justice, which was
the best that rulers, judges and jurists could hope for.
In short, Nursi’s approach to the amelioration of society and the pursuit of
social justice mirrors to an extent the approach of Muhammad himself. The
first 13 years of Muhammad’s mission were dedicated largely to matters of
faith, metaphysics and the fostering of self-knowledge and God-awareness;
when he eventually migrated to Medina, he did not do so with any preplanned
programme of reform or radical social change. Indeed, he entered
Medina as a political refugee rather than as a utopian visionary bent upon
creating an ideal society. The Muslim community-state which evolved in
Medina evolved out of a pooling of the efforts of individuals rather than the
imposition by one man of a credo and an accompanying code of canon law.
Nursi’s emphasis on the need to perfect belief, his eschewal of politics, his
rejection of jihad as a military endeavour31 and his gradualist approach to
societal amelioration and the establishment of social justice all suggest that,
unlike the vast majority of Muslim thinkers whose ‘dreams of Medina’ propel
their ideological and political discourse, based on the mythical golden age of
the Prophet during the final decade of his life, Nursi’s focus is very much
Meccan in orientation, and aimed at the betterment of the human soul as a
prerequisite to the betterment of human society.
Taking our cue from the Islamic revelation itself, at the outset of this article,
three different but overlapping conceptual spheres were posited in which the
Divine attribute ʿadl — translated, albeit with certain caveats, as ‘justice’ in
English — functions were posited: the creational sphere, where justice is synevils’
enshrined in the concept known as relative justice. Nursi concludes that since both sides
were sincere in their interpretations of the law, both those who killed and those who died were
in the right. See Nursi (1997:74–75).
31 For insight into Nursi’s views on politics and jihad, see Turner (2007:94–111).
C. Turner / Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 554–582 581
onymous with balance; the sphere of the Creator-creature relationship, and
in particular the relationship between man and God, where justice is something
that man is created to manifest by attaining a state of spiritual balance
and equanimity; and the sphere of interhuman relations, in which the attainment
of social justice is contingent on man’s ability to base his social life on
the spiritual balance and equanimity that he has attained in his spiritual life.
More importantly, we have seen how Said Nursi’s discourse on Divine justice
follows the contours of the Qurʾan, both structurally and conceptually.
While Nursi does not posit overtly the existence of the three interlinked
spheres mentioned above, we have seen that his arguments are eminently
amenable to such a tripartite division. Although Nursi is bound theologically
to the notion that ʿadl is what God decrees it to be, we have seen how, on the
creational level, he has opened up the Qur’anic concept of Divine justice and
elaborated upon it by adducing examples of balance and equilibrium in the
cosmic realm. In so doing, he has contextualised ʿadl within the nexus of
Divine names and attributes such as wisdom, compassion and determining
in an attempt to prove its non-arbitrary nature.
We have also seen how, on the level of the Creator-creature relationship,
and in particular with regard to man’s position before God, Nursi enjoins
justice on believers in their personal-spiritual lives, outlining means and
methods of personal growth which are designed to ensure progress towards
the ‘straight path’ of moderation, which he sees as the epitome of justice.
And finally, on the level of interhuman relations, this article has attempted
to show that while Nursi is as aware as any of his coevals of the need for
social justice in a world which appears to be bereft of that value, he does not
offer any specific political solutions in order to secure it. Rather, his contention
is that in order to manifest justice in as full a sense of the word as his
own existential limitations allow, man needs to focus not on the creation of
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