“THE FUTURE SHALL BE ISLAM’S, AND ISLAM’S ALONE” (PART 1)
· Bediuzzaman Heads East
Bediuzzaman did not remain long in Istanbul after his acquittal. He set off for the East by way of the Black Sea accompanied by two of his students. It was the spring of 1910. It is recorded that on the way, the boat stopped off at Inebolu, and on visiting the town Bediuzzaman had a warm reception from its leading religious figure, Haci Ziya, and others. And on leaving, was accompanied as far as the boat by a large crowd.’ And Bediuzzaman himself related the following incident, which occurred in Tiflis, the capital city of Georgia, while he was making his way from Batum to Van.
Bediuzzaman had climbed a prominent hill known as Seyh Sanan Tepesi, which has a commanding view of the city of Tiflis and the valley of the River Kura in which it is situated together with all the surrounding countryside. He was gazing at the view plunged in thought when approached by a Russian policeman. The following exchange ensued, which began with the policeman asking:
“Why are you studying the land with such attention?” Bediuzzaman replied: “I am planning my medrese.”
“Where arc you from?”
“I’m from Bitlis.”
“But this is Tiflis!”
“Bitlis is one of Tiflis’ brothers.”
The policeman was bewildered: “What do you mean?”
Bediuzzaman explained: “Three lights are beginning to be revealed one after the other in Asia and the world of Islam. While with you three layers of darkness will start to recede one over the other. This veil of despotism shall be rent; it will shrink back, and I shall come and build my medrese here.”
This only increased the policeman’s bewilderment. “I’m sorry for you “,he said. “I’m astonished that you should entertain such a hope.”
“And I am astonished at your not understanding!”, replied Bediuzzaman. “Do you think it possible that this winter will continue? Every winter is followed by spring, and every night by day.”
“But the Islamic world is all broken up and fragmented.”
“They have gone to study. It is like this: India is an able son of Islam; it is studying in the high school of the British. Egypt is a clever son of Islam; it is taking lessons in the British school for civil servants. Caucasia and Turkestan are two valiant sons of Islam; they are training in the Russian war academy y. And so on.
“You see, after these noble sons of Islam have received their diplomas , each will lead a continent, and, waving the banner of Islam, their just and mighty father, on the horizons of perfection, they will proclaim the mystery of pre-eternal wisdom inherent in mankind in the view of pre-eternal divine determining and in the face of obstinate fate.”
`This short anecdote gives the note for Bediuzzaman’s main message for the tribes of eastern Anatolia, and of his celebrated sermon in Damascus early the following year; namely, encouragement and hope for the future. That is to say, despite his disillusion with developments in Istanbul, Bediuzzaman was unwavering in his conviction that constitutionalism was the way to further the cause of Islam and preserve the Empire by securing progress and unity. Indeed, as we shall see when examining the Sermon, Bediuzzaman predicted that according to all the signs, Islam and Islamic – or, true – civilization would prevail in the future, and that the majority of mankind would accept and join the religion of Islam. He said: “In the future when reason , science and technology hold sway, that will surely be the time the Qur’an will gain ascendancy, which relies on rational proofs and makes the reason confirm its pronouncements.”
· Among the Tribes of Eastern Anatolia
Bediuzzaman spent the summer of 1910 traveling throughout the Eastern Provinces. “Making a medrese of mountain and plain,” he wrote, “I gave lessons on constitutionalism.” He found that the general understanding of the subject was “extremely odd” and confused, and therefore suggested the people ask the questions, which he then answered. He afterwards made a compilation of these and published it in Turkish in 1913 under the title, Munazarat, or The Debates. He also prepared an Arabic version with the title Recetetu’1-Avam, Prescription for the Common People.
The questions cover a number of subjects related to Freedom and the new regime, and its consequences for the tribespeople and their leaders. The answers constitute one of the main sources for Bediuzzaman’s ideas on the subject, and form a substantial and fascinating work which space does not allow us to examine in detail. Although those relating specifically to constitutionalism and Freedom have been described in some detail above, here we shall mention a few additional points which explain further how, through the people “awakening” and becoming conscious, as autonomous, enterprising, self sacrificing individuals, of their being members of the “the nation of Islam”, the new order would secure the progress – in this instance – of the Kurds, and the unity of Islamic world and the Empire. But first it should not go unnoticed that Bediuzzaman did not spare himself in this struggle, nor did he restrict it to the pen or to the theoretical. He had pursued it as far as Istanbul, publicizing in particular the needs of the East and doing what he could to further his plans for educational reform. Now he had returned to his native country and proceeded to travel all over that wild, mountainous, backward, and impoverished region. And it was primarily the ordinary people he was seeking to address, the ordinary people who through the adoption of the Constitution had been raised to the rank of “sovereign”, and were the builders of the future.
On giving definitions of despotism and constitutionalism in response to the people’s questions, Bediuzzaman was asked by them why they had not seen the great benefits he described. He replied that it was problems associated with the area such as ignorance, poverty, internal enmity, and lack of civilization that was preventing it. What he wanted to make plain was that the onus lay with them, but added that he only pointed out their faults “to deliver them from laziness.” “If you want constitutionalism to come quickly, build a railway out of learning and virtue so that it can mount the train of attainment and achievement called civilization, and riding on the seeds of progress, surmount the obstacles in a short time and greet you. However quickly you build the railway, it will come with the same speed.”
It is appropriate here to relate the following anecdote: during his travels through the region, Bediuzzaman had arrived at Urfa from Diyarbakir. He then set out to make a tour of the surrounding area, and returning to Urfa, addressed a large gathering in the courtyard of the Yusuf Pasa Mosque. He be an his address by describing how in one of the places he had visited, a villager he had questioned on the state of local agriculture had replied: “Our aga [feudal landlord or tribal chief] knows” to whatever he had been asked. Bediuzzaman had told him: “Well, in that case, I shall talk with your intelligence which is in your aga’s pocket!”, and had proceeded to explain that he should not refer everything to the aga but should be enterprising and have initiative, and himself be informed about all the matters concerning the village. He made this the basis of his address.
It can be seen from these examples that Bediuzzaman wanted to impress on the people that the way forward now lay in their own hands. The sovereignty of the nation was this. When asked about the position of their chiefs and leaders, for traditionally tribal society had been dominated by the chiefs, elders, and religious figures, he replied as follows:
“Each era has its own rule and ruler. According to your terminology, an aga was necessary to make the machine of the former era turn. Thus, the era of despotism’s immaterial rule was force. Whoever had a sharp sword and hard heart rose. But the era of constitutionalism’s spring, spirit, force, ruler, and aga is truth; it is reason, knowledge, the law, and public opinion. Whoever has a sharp mind and luminous heart will rise, and only he. Since knowledge increases as it advances in years, and force decreases, medieval governments, which rely on force, are condemned to extinction. While since governments of the modem age rely on science, they shall manifest immortal life.”
Bediuzzaman was not attacking the chiefs and elders as such by speaking like this, but describing the way the modem world was taking, and the way they, too, had to take if they were not to remain outside the stream of time. Under the new order, leaders were the servants of the people and the nation. He continued:
“And so, O Kurds! If through relying on force their swords are sharp, your beys and agas, and even your Seyhs, will of necessity fall. And they will deserve it. But if, relying on reason in place of compulsion, they employ love and make the emotions subject to the mind, they will not fall; indeed, they will rise.”
In another place in the work we learn of the main criticism Bediuzzaman was levelling at the chiefs, though here he specifies that it is at the former chiefs that he is “throwing his stone”, and describes it as another of “the evils of despotism”. This was that “certain chiefs, and some imposters who posed as patriots sacrificing themselves for the nation, and certain unqualified, phoney Seyhs who claimed exceptional spiritual powers” had drained the nation of material and moral resources, thereby extinguishing the sense of nationhood, and breaking up and destroying the collectivity of the nation. This idea of the collectivity, or the “collective personality” or “corporate identity” (Sahs-i Manevi) of a nation or social body, is frequently encountered in Bediuzzaman’s writings. He described the modern age as “the age of the group or social body (cemaat)… If the `collective personality’ , which is the spirit of a social body, is righteous, it is more brilliant and complete (than that of an individual]. But if it is bad, it is exceedingly bad…” That is to say, Bediuzzaman is explaining to the people of eastern Anatolia that what falls to them now is to transcend their narrow traditional interests and loyalties, expand their ideas, and develop, or rather regain, a consciousness of Islamic nationhood. He told them:
“If only those who hold their lives in little account for some benefit, or minor matter of reputation, or imaginary glory, or to hear the words: `So and so’s a brave hero’, or to uphold the honour of their agas were to awake , would they not hold their lives in little account, and thousands of souls too if they possessed them, for the nation of Islam, which is worth treasuries; that is, the nation of Islam which gains them the brotherhood and moral assistance of three hundred million Muslims?…”
Bediuzzaman went on to say that the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the nation was essentially part of the high morality of Islam, and a requirement of it, which had been stolen from them by non-Muslims. It was the foundation of modem progress. He continued: “We must declare with our spirits, lives, consciences, minds, and all our strength: `If we die, Islam, which is our nation, lives; it will live for ever. Let my nation be strong and well. Reward in the Hereafter is enough for me. My life as part of the nation will make me live; it will make happy in the world above.”
Thus, to recapitulate, with “the destruction of the barrier of despotism” , constitutionalism and the idea of Freedom had spread throughout the Islamic world and had caused a thorough awakening, and had brought about progress in ideas and great changes. This was because it had “showed up the existence of the nation,” and in turn, “the luminous jewel of Islam within the shell of nationhood had begun to be manifest.” Islam was vibrating, stirring to life. This had made it clear to all Muslims that each was not isolated and disjoined, but connected to all the others through shared interest and fellowfeeling. The whole Islamic world was bound together like a single tribe. This vibrating was also making Muslims aware that they had at their disposal a source of great strength and support. This had given birth to hope, which had revived their morale, previously destroyed by despair.
It may be seen from this why Bediuzzaman was insistent on the present regime, despite the objections that could legitimately be raised concerning the CUP. He answered the uncertainties and objections put to him by the tribesmen, pointing out that it was “the lesser of two evils” and that “if consultation now deviates from the Seriat one finger, formerly it did so one hundred yards.” Also through explaining it in this way, he allayed their fears concerning religion, which they had understood to be under threat by the Revolution. On the contrary, constitutionalism was the way to protect Islam. The feeling for Islam and sense of religion which lay behind the public opinion of the nation was a much surer, more effective, and exalted way to protect religion than leaving it to “an unhappy, defeated Sultan, or sycophantic officials, or a few unreasonable policemen.”
· Questions on Minority Rights
As is to be expected; the tribesmen asked a number of questions concerning the Armenians, and non-Muslims generally, and the conformity with the Seriat of their gaining equality of rights under the Constitution. Because both of the universal relevance of the matter, and how it further makes plain Bediuzzaman’s enlightened and realistic views, we include a few of the “. main points.
First, however, to put the questions in context it should be remembered that although the Armenians in their millet had been contented to be part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and many of them continued to be loyal to it despite the rise of nationalist sentiments, following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, the Russians supported by the British intensified their policy of inciting the Armenians to revolutionary acts of terrorism against the Ottoman State as a way of further dismembering it. The acts of terrorism and slaughter were carried out primarily for propaganda purposes: by provoking retaliatory attacks by the Muslims, the Armenians intended to portray themselves as innocent victims and thus to ignite European feeling against the Turks and gain support for the setting up of an Armenian state in astern Anatolia, even to force Russia and Britain to intervene in their support.
After listening to Bediuzzaman’s definitions of Freedom, the tribesmen accepted it as a good thing, but said that the Greeks’ and Armenians’ freedom seemed to them to be “ugly” and made them think. They wanted to learn Bediuzzaman’s opinion. His reply was in two parts:
“Firstly, their freedom consists of leaving them in peace and not oppressing them. And this is what the Seriat enjoins. More than this is their aggression in the face of your bad points and craziness, their benefiting from your ignorance.”
It may be understood from this that again Bediuzzaman is impressing on the Kurds that their real enemy is the situation into which had fallen: “Also, our enemy and what is destroying us is Aga Ignorance, and his son, Poverty Efendi, and grandson, Enmity Bey. Even if the Armenians have opposed us in hatred, they have done so under the commandership of these three corrupters.”
In the second part of his answer to the question, Bediuzzaman pointed out that even if the Armenians’ freedom was as bad as they thought, Muslims still do not cause harm. The Armenians and the total number of non-Muslims in the Empire were relatively few compared with the whole Muslim nation of more than three hundred million. And these three hundred million had been bound with “three dreadful fetters of despotism” and were being “crushed, captive under the Europeans’ tyranny.” “Thus,” continued Bediuzzaman, “the non-Muslims’ freedom, which is one branch of our freedom, is the bribe for [the price of ] the freedom of all our nation [the Islamic world]. It is the repelled of that despotism, and the key to those fetters. It is the raiser of the dreadful tyranny the Europeans have made descend on us.” Bediuzzaman considered they could afford this price, for as we have seen, “the Ottomans’ freedom is the discloser of mighty Asia’s good fortune. It is the key to Islam’s prosperity. It is the foundation of the ramparts of Islamic Unity.”