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Attaining Knowledge of God
Oct 1, 2007

Every human being is endowed with an inquisitive nature; there is an innate quest to find answers to the existential questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where will I go? Those who pursue answers to these burning questions seek to attain knowledge of their Creator through the scriptures. Principles of hermeneutics (making sense of a text) require knowledge about the author/speaker and the addressee, and the purpose of the author in writing the text. Hence in Usul al-tafsir (the methodology of Qur’anic exegesis), the speaker (mutaqallim), the addressee (muhatab), the purpose (maqsat), and the occasion (maqam) are essential components.1 It is with this purpose in mind that Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1877-1960), a renowned Muslim scholar of the twentieth century, presents a comprehensive analysis of the Qur’an in his magnum opus, the Risale-i Nur. The Risale-i Nur is an inclusive study of Islamic theology that employs Qur’anic methodology. Since there is no designated beginning, no development of arguments, or conclusion, the mastery of the entire text is necessary in order to analyze Nursi’s methodology and his main arguments. The introduction to The Twenty Fifth Word provides very specific and concise “definitions” of the Qur’an, revealing Nursi’s understanding of the nature of the Qur’an. Nursi asks, was the Qur’an an inspiration from a transcendental being to Muhammad, and then put into words by Muhammad? Who speaks to whom, how, and for what purpose? Is the Qur’an created or is it eternal? Is it historical, contingent in time and place, or is it a historical?

Analysis of the Risale-i Nur

In order to analyze Nursi’s perception of the Qur’an and the role of revelation, it is imperative to discuss Nursi’s overall framework. According to Nursi, the word “worship” (ibadah) is the key to understanding the verse, “I created not jinn and humankind except that they might worship me” (Dhariyat 51:56). Nursi’s understanding of worship is encompassing, and not confined to ritual forms of worship. The process of worship necessitates three steps, which consist of, first, recognizing the Creator of all beings, getting to know Him, and believing in Him (see Figure 1). Secondly, love of the Creator is only possible in proportion to believers’ knowledge of Him. Thus, as believers get to know the Creator through His Divine Attributes, they cannot but love Him. Thirdly, a natural outcome of love is worship, which entails adoration. The primordial duty of humanity and the obligation incumbent upon them is to know God (marifatullah), to believe in Him (to affirm His existence and unity) in submission and absolute certainty (Nursi, The Rays, p. 71-74).

These phases (knowledge, love, and worship) do not necessarily happen sequentially. One does not graduate from the knowledge phase, having learned everything, to go onto the love phase. For instance, one can love God as much as one knows Him. Likewise, one can worship God in the true sense of the word as much as one knows and loves Him. Thus, human beings live the three phases at once, and continue increasing and renewing their knowledge. According to Nursi, knowledge of God is acquired through witnessing (shahaada) (see Figure 2). Human beings witness the manifestations of God’s Attributes constantly. In fact, for Nursi, the real essence of creation is nothing but the manifestations of God’s Divine Attributes. For instance, by contemplating the compassion that God places in a mother’s heart for her child, one witnesses God’s Absolute Compassion manifested through the mother. Thus, for Nursi, science is a means to further discover and admire God’s Attributes of All-Knowing, All-Powerful…etc. Thus, in Nursi’s framework, creation has to be experienced and contemplated upon in order to know God. There is no “worldly” deed as opposed to “other- worldly” deed in absolute terms. Everything is in the perception of the beholder. One can approach all “worldly” deeds with the intention of knowing God, thus turning them into eternal “other-worldly” deeds. From this aspect, Nursi does not endorse ascetic life over experiencing the Attributes of God as a parent, an employee, a student . . . etc. Continuous witnessing leads to continuous confirmation (tahqiq) and submission (islam). For instance, according to Nursi’s framework, the first of the five pillars of Islam is not “to say” I bear witness that there is no deity but God, Muhammad is His servant and messenger, but “to witness” this statement constantly. “In Islam, ‘testimony’ (shahaada) to the truth of the unity of divinity (tawhid) is central to faith. The one who surrenders (muslim) himself to the truth should actually observe how everything in the observable world (‘alam al-shahaada) indicates the truth of tawhid and, consequently, testify to the truthfulness of the Qur’anic message” (Yamina Mermer, Principles). Yet in Nursi’s paradigm, tawhid (unity of God) is a continuous process that is directly linked with the Divine Attributes. As mentioned above, in order to know God, one contemplates upon the manifestations of Divine Attributes. For example, when one contemplates a flower, one realizes that the flower cannot be beautiful of itself, and that this quality can only belong to its Creator. Thus, the flower is not beautiful but it is made beautiful; it manifests God’s Attribute of Al-Jameel. In this very process, one testifies to the unity of God by acclaiming there is no jameel (beauty or beautiful) but Al-Jameel, God. Likewise, when thinking of human intelligence, or contemplating one’s own brain and its functions, one acknowledges that the ‘ilm (knowledge or knowing) is not from the self, but again is only a manifestation of God’s Attribute, Al-‘Alim. Thus, it is a given quality that invites one to conclude that there is no ‘alim (knower) but Al-‘Alim, God. For Nursi, then, unity of God is highly experiential and is the purpose of every thought, action, encounter in life that leads to iman, absolute certainty. Where does belief (iman) fall in this process? According to Nursi, iman is not a fixed phenomenon. Thus, analytically speaking, these “phases” or conscious acts of increasing one’s knowledge through constant witnessing, confirming, and submit tinglead to increased iman, and the lack thereof results indecreased iman. How do human beings know whator how to witness? In the Risale-i Nur, Nursi outlines four universal instructors (mu’arrif) as the ways to knowledge of God: Prophet Muhammad as the representative of all the prophets; the Qur’an as the representative of all revelations; the universe as representative of all of creation; and human consciousness Thus, Nursi argues that God has created man and put him in this world, yet He did not leave man without guidance. In fact, everything in the cosmos testifies to God’s existence and manifests His Attributes (Asma al-Husna) for humans to witness, confirm, and submit. Revelations are sent to guide humans and to increase their knowledge of God. Moreover, messengers are sent by God to teach us how the universe and the revelations are to be understood (interpreted) and to educate them therewith. Lastly, God has given humans certain faculties (such as reason, heart, etc.), all of which, under the guidance of man’s innate consciousness,2 can help to confirm the truthfulness of the revelations, the messengers, and the message embodied in the universe (Ali Mermer, Divine Speech). In Figure 3, the four instructors that are provided for human beings to attain knowledge of God mutually confirm one another. Thus, the outside arrows depict the circular affirming and reaffirming of the four sources of knowledge. According to Nursi, human beings are created with the capacity to comprehend and confirm the message that is brought by these four sources. In fact, all human faculties-such as emotions, reason, soul, etc.-have been given to serve this end. Yet, human beings should use their faculties with the guidance of revelation. In other words, reason without heart (consciousness), and heart without reason, cannot but lead man astray.

Nursi’s definition of the Qur’an

The Twenty-Fifth Word, titled “The Miraculousness of the Qur’an,” is an exegesis of the verse, Say: “Surely, if humankind and the jinn were to come together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they will never be able to producethe like of it,though they backed one another up with help and support”(Isra 17:88). This is one of the longest chapters in the volume called,The Words. Nursidedicates The Twenty-Fifth Word to explaining these verses, which have been contested and questioned byagnostics and atheist scientists (Nursi, The Words, p. 375). However, before going into detail and explaining specific verses, Nursi starts this chapter by posingtwo complementary questions: What is the Qur’an?And how is itdefined? In the introduction, Nursigives concise but profound definitions of the Qur’an. Nursi begins to answer these questions by statingthat, “The Qur’an briefly contains all Scriptures revealedto previous prophets.”3 First, Nursi argues that the Qur’an was revealed by God to a prophet, and it contains “briefly” previous revealed Books, as well. Inother words,Nursi assumes a continuation, overlap,and confirmation between prior revelations and theQur’an. The word “briefly” can be understood to implythe message of the Books for all previous prophets.Hence, the underlying or core message of all theScriptures revealed by God is one and the same. ForNursi, this message is, ‘there is no deity but God.’Thus, by virtue of stating this quality of the Qur’an at thevery beginning, it can be argued that Nursi’s followingdefinitions of the Qur’an apply to all revelations prior to the Qur’an.In Nursi’s view, the Qur’an is, first and foremost,“an eternal translation of the great Book of theUniverse.”4 This role of the Qur’an, or revelations in general, is crucial, as depicted in Figure 3. Revelationconfirms the other sources of knowledge, one ofwhich is the universe. According to Nursi, human beings are created with the innate quest for meaning. Byobserving the universe, all the events, eco-systems…etc., human beings can assert that there has to be a Creator and meaning and purpose to all this, yet human reason and other faculties stop at that point.

Without the guidance of revelation, human beings cannot know what that meaning or purpose is. Thus, the Qur’an reads and translates the meaning of the book of the universe to human beings in a form that is comprehensible to them. For example, many verses of the Qur’an end with one or perhaps two Attributes of God after an event or a fact has been narrated. Nursi interprets these “asma-i tayy” as Attributes that encapsulate the essence of the reality that the believer should derive from the event narrated in the verse. In this manner, the Qur’an teaches believers how to interpret the universe, and how to witness the Attributes. Nursi adds that the Qur’an is not only a book that explains this world, but it also brings news from the World of the Unseen (ghayb) as, “the interpreter of the books of the visible, material world, and the World of the Unseen.”6 Human beings have not been given any faculties to see, comprehend, or know beyond this creation through any means other then revelation. Thus, revelation is the only outlet or source that brings news from the World of the Unseen, beyond “the veil of this visible world.”7 For instance, news of the Afterlife, angels, World of Spirits (‘alam al-arwah), etc., are examples from the World of the Unseen which are narrated in the Qur’an. Hence, without the guidance of the revelations, human beings cannot speculate about the Unseen. According to Nursi, one of the roles of the revelation is to disclose, “the immaterial treasuries of the Divine Names hidden in on Earth and in the heavens.”

For instance, as mentioned above, many verses in the Qur’an end with one or more Divine Names that teach the reader how, in the specific story, event, or statement, God’s Attributes can be seen. Hence, through revealing God’s Names in certain contexts, the Qur’an increases the readers’ knowledge of God, and acts asthe “articulate proof and clear translator of the Divine Essence, Attributes, Names, and acts.”9 Thus, bearing in mind Nursi’s overall framework, the Qur’an is a guide that teaches human beings how to increase inmarifatullah Another role of the Qur’an is related to the Hereafter. Nursi states that the Qur’an is “the sacred mapof the Hereafter’s worlds.”10 The “map,” in this statement, can be understood to be a tool that shows the user how to get to a certain destination. Therefore, Nursi argues that if a person desires Heaven as the ultimate destination, the Qur’an is the map that teaches them how to get there. Likewise, the Qur’an is also the map that discloses to the reader what will bring them to Hell-i.e. deprivation of Heaven, which is the embodiment of God’s Mercy. However, Nursi’s description of the Qur’an as, “the sacred map of theHereafter’s worlds” should not necessarily be understood as referring to the specific verses that directly talk about Heaven and Hell. In Nursi’s thought, human beings are building their Afterlife (akhirat) right here while they are living in this world. So, a sharpdelineation between this life and the Afterlife does notexist for Nursi. Hence, even verses about how to live this life are directly related to the Afterlife, and can beconsidered as maps to the hereafter.Nursi states that Qur’an is, “the educator and trainer of humanity’s world,”11 addressing all of humanity,rather than a specific people at a specific point in time:“Addressing every age and every class of people in itsstories and historical narratives, it does not recount one part or one lesson from them, but points out elementsof a universal principle, as though it were newly revealed.”12 In other words, for instance, the prophets’stories are paradigms for believers (i.e. whoeverchooses theQur’anashis/her guidance) right here and now. In addition, Nursi believes that its message is so comprehensive that it is, “like a sacred library,[it] contains numerous booklets from which all saints, eminently truthful people, all purified and discerning scholars, and those well-versed in knowledge of Godhave derived their own specific ways, and which illuminate each way and answer their followers’ needs.” In this statement, Nursi also touches upon a principle he often explicates elsewhere in the Risale-i Nur: that paths leading to the Truth are multiple and the path of the Qur’an is wide enough to encompass all these turuq (paths). Thus, according to Nursi, whoever reads the Qur’an can find guidance for his/her currentstate of heart and mind. He states that the Qur’an, “is a book of law, prayer, wisdom, worship and servanthoodto God, commands and invitation, invocation and reflection [and] is a holy book containing boks for all of our spiritual needs.” Hence, viewing the Qur’an disproportionately or solely as a book of law distorts its truly comprehensive nature. Finally, Nursi addresses the issue of the hierarchy of the Qur’an among other revealed texts and inspirations. He argues that “the Qur’an briefly contains all Scripturesrevealed to previous Prophets.”15 The major difference defined by Nursi is that the Qur’an is the direct speech of God, whereas some of the other revelations are inspirations. Also, he points out that the Qur’an is universal with regard to the Divine Attributes, whereas prior revelations had a particular scope.


One fundamental theme that emerges from Nursi’s definitions is that the Qur’an and the universe cannot be divorced If one is to understand and confirm the message of the Qur’an, one has to witness the signs in the universe, and without the guidance of the Qur’an, one cannot make sense of the message hidden behind creation or understand its meaning. As one contemporary Nursi scholar argues, according to Nursi, “the meaning of the Qur’an unfolds in the cosmic signs” (Yamina Mermer, Principles).

The Qur’an refers to things in the universe as signs (ayat) and invites the reader to contemplatetheir meaning in order to confirm the teachings of the Qur’an: Surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are signs for the people of discernment (Al Imran 3:190).16 “God speaks through Qur’anic signs as well as through cosmic signs” (Yamina Mermer, Principles), thus the Qur’an is God’s speech with words, whereas the universe/creation is God’s speech with acts. In a sense, God speaks as He creates. Nursi explains that everything in creation translates, explicates, confirms the Qur’anic ayat, and “the Qur’an, which comes from God’s infinite knowledge, is a translation of the universe...” (Ali Mermer, Divine Speech). Both the Qur’an, as divine speech and the universe, as a “speaking book” are divine revelations: “There is a continuous mutual relationship between them. The Qur’an explains the universe; the universe is proof of the Qur’an’s assertions” (Ali Mermer, Divine Speech). Thus the universe can only be read correctly with the guidance of the Qur’an, whereas the universe confirms the truthfulness of Qur’anic claims (Ali Mermer, Divine Speech). In the light of Nursi’s framework, Read, and your Lord is the All- Munificent... (Alaq 96:1) everything must be read, not only the revealed texts, but also creation in the name of their Creator (Yamina Mermer, Cause and Effect, p. 41). Thus, in the Risale-i Nur, Nursi invites the readers to look around themselves and observe the universe to see how “things are signs and evidences making known our Maker and teach us the method of reading and deciphering them” (Yamina Mermer, Cause and Effect, p. 41).

In conclusion, Nursi contends that the Qur’an teaches about who the Creator is, what the purpose of creation is, how to know the Creator through His Attributes, and finally how to love and worship Him alone.

Works Cited

Mermer, Ali. “Divine Speech: The Ways to the Knowledge of God in the Risale-i Nur,” in TheReconstruction of Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century and Bediuzzaman SaidNursi, 24th-26th September, 1995. The Istanbul Foundationfor Science and Culture. Istanbul: Sozler Nesriyat A.S., 1997. Mermer, Yamine B. “Cause and Effect in the Risale-i Nur,” inThe Reconstruction of Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century and Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, 24th-26th September, 1995. The Istanbul Foundation for Science and Culture. Istanbul: Sozler Nesriyat A.S., 1997. “Principles of Qur’anic Hermeneutics,” Journal of ScripturalReasoning, Vol 5.1, (April 2005). Nursi, Bediuzzaman Said. Kaynakli-Indeksli-Lugatli Risale-i NurKulliyati. Vol 1, 2. Istanbul: Nesil Yayinlari, 2004. Nursi, The Rays, Istanbul: Sozler Publications, 1998. Nursi, The Words, The Light, Inc, NJ: 2005.


1. See, Nursi, The Words, The Light, Inc., NJ: 2005, p. 449.

2. Nursi mentions human conscience or consciousness as one of the four proofs of God’s existence in the Eleventh Treatise of his Al-Mathnawi al-Nuri (The Light, Inc., NJ: 2007, p. 368). However, in the Nineteenth Word he lists only three proofs: the Prophet, the Qur’an, and the book of the universe. Human conscience is a subjective factor, thus Nursi may have decided to exclude it in The Words, which he wrote at a much later date than Al-Mathnawi al-Nuri. See The Words, The Light, Inc., NJ: 2005, p: 247.

3. Nursi, 2005, p. 389.

4. Nursi, 2005, p. 388.

5. Nursi, Kaynakli-Indeksli-Lugatli Risale-i Nur Kulliyati, p. 188.

6. Nursi, 2005, p. 388.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Nursi, The Rays, Sozler Publications, Istanbul:2002, p. 263.

13. Nursi, 2005, 388-9.

14. Ibid., p. 388.

15. Ibid., p. 389.

16. For an extended discussion on all creation being signs see Murata and Chittick, The Vision of Islam, Paragon House Publishers, 1995 p. 52.