WAR AND CAPTIVITY (PART 1)
· Bediuzzaman and The World War I
For Bediuzzaman, the War may be seen as a watershed. On his return from North Africa, he visited Enver Pasa, the Minister of War, to discuss his intention of returning to the Eastern Provinces to participate in the defense against the invading Russians, and was appointed by the Pasa to raise and command a volunteer militia force. This Bediuzzaman then did, making his own students the centre of the force. It was a Holy War, and Bediuzzaman performed this bounden duty of Muslims on two fronts. In addition to raising the militia, training it to the very highest standards, and personally leading his men in the most bold and courageous actions, he continued to teach his students and himself write his celebrated commentary on the Qur’an. Wielding both sword and pen, he was like a figure from the golden age of Islam, a model Muslim. When Bitlis fell to the Russians in early March 1916, Bediuzzaman was captured and spent the next two years in various prisoner-of-war camps in Kosturma in Russia. He escaped, and traveling across Russia safely, came to Warsaw and Berlin, and arrived back in Istanbul in June 1918. But the rigours of his captivity had taken their toll on his health, and his outlook, too, had changed. The dreadful period of defeat and foreign occupation following the War was one of inner turmoil for Bediuzzaman, despite his worldly position and success, but from it the New Said was to emerge.
· Events on the Eastern Front
The first shots of the War had been fired when Russia invaded northeastern Anatolia on 31 October 1914. On this occasion, Russia was not successful, and the invasion was repulsed by the Ottoman army under Enver Pasa. But he was only successful in this after leading the disastrous counteroffensive at Sarikamis in the arctic conditions of December and January as a result of which sixty-thousand out of his one hundred-thousand strong army perished. The Russian Army retreated, and Grand Duke Nicholas spent the following year completing preparations for the final invasion of Anatolia. This operation he began on 13 January 1916. Defeating the Ottomans at Pasinler with an army three times the size of their’s, the Russians entered Erzurum on 16 February.
The Russians had long been inciting the Armenians to acts of terrorism against the Ottoman state, and providing material and moral support for their revolutionary societies. Now, in pursuit of an independent state in eastern Anatolia, the Armenians collaborated with the Russians on a large scale, many entering the Russian army. Just as Armenian officers had played a prominent role in the 1877 invasion of north-Eastern Anatolian. Distorted and exaggerated accounts by Armenian nationalists of the events of 1915 were seized on by the Entente Powers and used in their propaganda war against the Turks, as they had been so doing for years. Indeed, the same propaganda is still being used at the present time. Since Bediuzzaman was present and actively engaged in the defence of the Empire against the Russians and Armenians, we include the following facts concerning those events, all of which are taken from the second volume of the History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey by the American historians S. J. and E. K. Shaw.
Upon the Russian withdrawal in January 1915, the Ottomans ordered the evacuation of all Armenians from the provinces of Van, Bitlis, and Erzurum as part of their preparations for the inevitable second invasion. It was arranged that they should settle in the Mosul area of northern Iraq. A special commission was set up to record the Armenians’ property, all of which was to be handed back on their return after the War. Just as the army was specifically instructed to protect and provide the needs of the deportees on their Journey. Armenian propagandists claimed that over one million Armenians were massacred in the War. But according to the Ottoman census, the population was 1,300,000, not 2.5 million as claimed. And the number of those transported was no more than 400,000. The figure that died was probably around 200,000, and not only of transportation, but of war, famine, and disease that killed 2 million Muslims at the same time.” In April 1915, the Armenians staged a revolt in Van. In May, the Russians reached the city, and a massacre of Muslims followed. An Armenian state was proclaimed under Russian protection, and by July some 250,000 Armenians had crowded into the area. Early the same month, the Ottomans were successful in pushing back the Russo-Armenian Army, together with which were some 200,000 refugees. Of these, some 40,000 perished, not because they were deliberately massacred, but from conditions of war.
· “Arms and Books Side by Side”
On his arrival in Van, Bediuzzaman immediately set about forming the militia. Besides his own students, he toured all the surrounding country raising volunteers for the force, which, when formed numbered four to five thousand men. At the same time, he continued to teach his students.
Quoting one of two friends from Dogubayezit who attended Bediuzzaman’s medrese, Necmeddin Sahiner describes how for military training, Bediuzzaman used to take his recruits up Mount Sübhan and set up eggs for target practice. He would give whoever hit an egg a mecidiye [a silver coin] as a reward. The students Bediuzzaman was thus training became so proficient and bold that when they came to the mountain for training, the Armenian revolutionaries would make themselves scarce and go elsewhere.
With his charismatic character and ability to inspire great love and devotion in his students and followers, which manifested itself particularly under those harsh and testing wartime conditions, Bediuzzaman was able to infuse them with something of his own absolute fearlessness and powers of endurance, and move them to acts of great bravery. The following are some contemporary accounts of Bediuzzaman, his medrese, and the militia he formed; but first, two short descriptions of his activities against the Armenians, the first by himself:
“Since at that time years ago the Old Said’s students’ devotion to their Master was such that they would have sacrificed everything for him, the Old Said never rested in the face of the Armenian Tasnak revolutionary societies, and was able to silence them to a degree although they were very active. He found Mauser rifles for his students, and for a time his medrese was like a barracks with arms and books side by side…”
“In 1331 (1915), the Armenian and Russian savages were in no way successful in killing Bediuzzaman, although they used to attack him from every quarter and tried to do so. As for Bediuzzaman and his followers, they used to pursue the Armenians mercilessly, who used to flee as hard as they could.”
And a description of a visit to Bediuzzaman’s medrese-barracks given to Necmeddin Sahiner by Nureddin Burak, who related it exactly as told by his father, Zeyneddin Burak:
“At that time in the East, studying in the medreses was like this: the hoca (teacher) taught for nothing; in fact, through the mediation of the hoca, the people provided the students’ livelihood. So there was no material reason preventing study. The choice of teacher was made only through his standing in regard to learning. So if someone was known as a great scholar, he would have many students; everyone would want to be taught by him. At that time, a few friends and myself gathered together and began to search for a good teacher. We were told of Said the Famous in Van, in a medrese called the Horhor Medrese.
“Three of us went there. Hoca Efendi was not present when we arrived at the medrese. Someone called Molla Habib met us and invited us inside. He told us to wait saying the hoca would come soon. At this point, the medrese’s walls caught our attention. Hung up on them in rows were Mauser rifles, and various weapons, swords, daggers, and cartridge-belts. Together with these were books on reading-stands. In truth, we were astonished.
“In a short while they said: `Hoca Efendi is coming.’ We straightened ourselves up. He entered, and said: `Welcome!’, then asked us why we had come.
“The second thing that caught our attention and astonished us was the hoca’s manner and dress, because we did not see the customary hoca’s dress which we knew and had expected. With a conical hat on his head, boots on his feet, dagger at his waist, and firm step, he reminded us of a soldier or high-ranking officer rather than a hoca. In fact, because of his youth, we thought to ourselves: `I wonder if he is learned.’ But then Molla Habib, the most advanced student, was studying books like Molla Cami. He was like the students’ sergeant.
“We said we had come to study under him. So he told us: `Fine, but I have conditions. You can on condition you comply with them.’ Then he added: `There is no possibility of going back for someone who starts with me. He remains with me to the end of his life.’ And he then said: `And do not think you can accept and give your word today, then leave later if you get fed up or for any other reason, because the Governor of Van is my close friend. I could have you brought back here through him. Tonight you are my guests. Stay here and think it over, then make your decision in the morning.’
“We were bewildered and did not know what to say to the proposal. We consulted with Molla Habib. We asked him: `Do you stay with the hoca under those conditions?’ `Yes,’ he replied. `We gave our words once and undertook the matter. It is true it is not all that easy, but his learning is truly extraordinary. But you know best, do whatever seems right for you.’ We bowed our heads in shame, and saying we could not accept, left.”
And finally, the owner of the newspaper Hur Adam , Sinan Omur, had these memories of Bediuzzaman and the militia, which he related to Necmettin Sahiner in interview.
“I was a student in the teachers’ training college in Istanbul when the First World War broke out. I was eighteen years old at the time, so they took me into the Army. I first saw Bediuzzaman in August 1331 (1915) on Mount Subhan. He was on a white horse. Galloping up and down, he was raising the soldiers’ morale. He was commander of the militia forces at that time. He had a turban on his head, and epaulets on his shoulders. He was continually moving in among .the volunteers on horseback to give them courage. Enver Pasa had appointed Bediuzzaman to , the militia forces. They had long been friends. So Bediuzzaman formed the militia in the East; it consisted of around four to five thousand men.
“The militia forces did not obtain their weapons and provisions from us, but provided everything for themselves. ‘They always ‘went in front of the Army, and always fought in the front lines. They were known as the Felt Hats. The Russians did not know where to flee when they heard: `The Felt Hats are coming!’; they did not know what had hit them. At that time our swords were only for prodding, but they used to use them on horseback and would hit whatever they struck at. They used to wear white capes so as to blend in with the snow-covered ground and not be detected by the enemy. They would throw the horse’s reins over one arm, or attach them to the horse’s neck and leave the animal completely free, then galloping at speed, would fire their rifles uninterruptedly. They were extremely accurate shots. While the commanders addressed the volunteers in order to encourage them to fight, in their excitement, the volunteers could not remain in their places squatting on the ground; as soon as the order to move was given: “Tention! ‘Tention!’, they would spring up, and flying onto their horses, would gallop off against the enemy.”
· The Front
When the Russians began their second invasion in January 1916, Bediuzzaman and his militia moved to the front at Pasinler near Erzurum. A second Russian force moved south down the eastern side of Lake Van. There at the front the fighting was fierce and cold intense. The Ottomans were greatly outnumbered. To boost the volunteers’ morale in those arduous conditions, Bediuzzaman rarely entered the trenches, but moved around the front lines on his horse, always to the fore of the fighting. He later wrote:
“In the Pasinler Front during the Great War, the late Molla Habib and I were moving forward with the intention of attacking the enemy. ‘Their artillery fired three shells at us at one or two minute intervals. The three shells passed right over our heads two metres high, and although our soldiers were concealed in the ravine behind us and could not be seen, they retreated. By way of a test I said: `What do you say, Molla Habib, I am not going to hide myself from the shells of these infidels?’ And he replied: `I am not going to fall back either, I shall stay behind you.’ A further shell fell very close to us. Certain that Divine succour would preserve us, I said to Molla Habib: `Forward! These infidels’ shells cannot kill us. We shall not deign to draw back! “‘
Of several accounts Necmeddin Sahiner has collected from soldiers present at Pasinler, all describe Bediuzzaman’s moving about the trenches on horseback in this way, in complete disdain of the Russian shells. The following account mentions particularly the severity of the shelling:
“… It was snowing and everywhere was white. We were defending our beloved country against the Russians. We could not raise our heads above the trenches because of the bullets which were falling like rain. We were fighting under shells that fell like rain. It was just as though shrapnel was raining from the skies. The thing we were most powerless before was this shrapnel, which exploded in the air. It was destroying us and our losses were heavy. The shrapnel which exploded in the air was scattered to right and left in fragments.
“Just when this going on, Molla Said the Famous was touring the trenches. He was moving up and down the valley on horseback. Then some people emerged from their trenches, and they were hit and killed.
“I wanted both to see Molla Said and to kiss his hands, but I was frightened of being hit. I had heard the name before, but I was seeing this great person for the first time at the bloody front at Pasinler. Then I saw he had come level with me…. I heard him say:
“Fight for Allah! Allah is our helper! “‘
Another soldier who fought under Bediuzzaman at Pasinler, Mustafa Yalcin, recalled him like this:
“…They suddenly took us from Canakkale, and sent us to the Eastern Front. We were in the Eighth Division in Kars, and at our head was Molla Said. Bands of Russians and Armenians were attacking us ceaselessly.
“At that time, Molla Said used to teach us concerning religious matters. Every night he used to teach us. At Hasankale [Pasinler] we fought against the Russians mercilessly with Molla Said. Before, the Hoca used to wear a turban, but while fighting he would wear what we called a `felt hat’.
“At that point I was wounded at Hasankale and drew back. I received this shrapnel wound on my hip, look, it is still open…. I would have died long before but Molla Said wrote out a prayer for each of four of us. We hung them round our necks, and no bullets hit us. At that time there were a hundred infidels firing on one Muslim. In the end I was wounded and they took me back. Molla Said continued to fight. They treated me in Konya, then sent me to the Western, Austrian, Carpathian, and Galician Fronts.
“Molla Said was an heroic person. At the front, he used to lead the attacks on horseback. He was a good shot. He did not go into the trenches. Once, Molla Said was told that some units were about to break up. He immediately removed the cause of their differences, and made sure that they did not disperse. He explained things wonderfully well, it was as though he could cast a spell on people.
“Then during that hell-like war he was writing a book. His students used to write down what he dictated. He was an excellent horseman. They used to heave out great rocks and roll them down on the Russians. He used to say to us: `Do not be frightened of anything, a Muslim’s belief is stronger than any power.’ Every night he used to read to us from the books he had written. I could not understand much because I am not educated, but whenever I saw Molla Said, my courage soared. He was formidable person, but he acted most kindly towards us.”
· “Signs of Miraculousness”
The book Mustafa Yalcin describes Bediuzzaman as writing here was his commentary on the Qur’an, Signs of Miraculousness (Isaratu’I-I’caz fi Mazanni’I-Icaz), and it was Molla Habib who used to act as his scribe. Written on horseback, in the trenches, and in the skirmishing lines, this Arabic commentary, only the first section of which was completed, was later acclaimed by the ulema in Damascus and Baghdad, while Ali Riza Efendi, the head of the office for issuing fetvas in Istanbul [fetva emini], described it as: “As powerful and valuable as a thousand other commentaries.”‘ In the work, Bediuzzaman described its purpose as follows:
“Our aim from this work entitled Signs of Miraculousness is to explain the indications and signs of the miraculousness present in the Qur’an’s word order. For it is in its word order that an important aspect of its miraculousness is manifested. And it is of the embroideries of its word order that its most brilliant miraculousness consists.”
In addition, in the Preface, setting out the method by which Qur’anic commentaries should be written in the modem age, Bediuzzaman explains further his purpose in writing it.He first explains the nature of the Qur’an as Divine speech addressing all men in every age, then points out that it also encompasses the sciences which make known the physical world. Indeed, the Qur’an’s truths become manifest through the discoveries of science. Thus, in the modern age when the cosmos is being opened up and its workings are being revealed by science, commentaries on the Qur’an must keep pace with these giant strides science is taking. Bediuzzaman points out that it is beyond the capacity of an individual or even a small group to be familiar with all the sciences, and a commentary should therefore be written by a committee of scholars who are specialists in a number of sciences, both religious and modern. It will be recalled that among Bediuzzaman’s proposals for educational reform were the `combining’ and joint teaching of the religious and modem sciences, specialization, and the application of the principle of mutual consultation.
When Bediuzzaman understood that some great catastrophe was going to occur – he gave repeated warnings; of it in the years preceding the First War as many of his students testified,he began to write Signs of Miraculousness on his own. It was because he realized its extreme urgency and importance that he continued to write it in the unfavorable conditions of the front. In fact, he had had a dream or vision around the beginning of the War which had corroborated his premonitions and confirmed his intention to write the commentary.’ Thus, he presents the work as a model or example which could be followed by a committee of schoIars such as he had described at some point in the future.
· Bediuzzaman and His Millitia Move South
The Ottomans were unable to prevent the enemy advance in north-east Anatolia, and retreated as the Russians moved or to take Erzurum. Bediuzzaman and his militia withdrew to Van to join its defence against the second major Russian force, though it is not known at precisely what point. There, as the city was being evacuated in the face of the Russian attack, he and a number of his students decided to hold out to the end in the citadel. Unwilling to lose such a valuable figure in that way , the Governor of Van, Cevdet Bey – who was the son of Tahir Pasa the old Governor – insisted that they withdraw to Gevas, on the road to Bitlis. For it was to Bitlis that all the officials, the army, and people of the area were retreating.
There are many incidents recorded of the heroic actions of Bediuzzaman and his volunteers at this stage of the bitter fight to save eastern Anatolia from the Russians and Armenians. At Gaves, as the mass exodus from Van was in progress, a Cossack cavalry regiment staged an attack. Bediuzzaman together with about forty men made a stand against the attack in order to prevent the people and their possessions falling into the hands of the enemy. Climbing a mountain, they attacked the Cossacks at night from above, and deceived them into thinking a large number of reinforcements had arrived. In this way, Bediuzzaman and his force threw the Cossacks into sufficient disarray to allow the people to move on to safety, and Gaves too was saved.
Many of Bediuzzaman’s students and volunteers fell at this time. Molla Habib also was killed, at Gaves, after having successfully conveyed news of the enemy’s movements to Halil Pasa at the Iranian Front.
On one occasion when the Ottomans were retreating, the Felt Hats lured the Russians and Armenians – filled with false confidence – into an enclosed valley, and opening fire on them, wiped out the entire force.
On another occasion, Bediuzzaman and his volunteers were able to recapture thirty large guns off the Russians by surprising them at night. And using them to delay the Russian advance, allowed all the woman and children of the area to be evacuated. Necmeddin Sahiner notes that all these exploits appear in the contemporary military records of the militia forces. Bediuzzaman’s students, too, were famous for their daring and bravery. One of them called Mir Mahey actually crossed into the Russian units several times, and killing as many as ten to fifteen of the enemy returned to his own lines.
Just as Bediuzzaman is mentioned in the Ottoman records, so also do his activities at this time appear in foreign records. One of these, quoted by Necmeddin Sahiner, is the French, Documents Sur Les Atrocites ArmenoRusses, a copy of which is in Istanbul Municipal Library. The following is a translation of just one page:
“Yusuf and Abdurrahman, sons of Mehmed, said the following under oath:
“Our family comes from Nurs, Vavink, And, and Mezraa-i And, the summer pastures of the district of Isparit in the sub-province of Hizan. After the sub-province of Catak had been occupied by the Russians, the Armenians of the neighboring villages of Livar, Yukari Chutes, Asagi Kutis, Cacuan, Sicker, and Yukari Adr came to the village of Yukari Kutis under the leadership of Lato, also known as Mihran, and Kazar Dilo, both of whom had infiltrated into Anatolia from Russia. They presented three written proposals to the notables there. Among the notables was Molla Said, who is well-known under the name of Bediuzzaman. Was he taken prisoner, or was he killed? I do not know. These were the proposals:
2. Evacuate the district.
“Nine hours after the enemy had arrived, a force of six hundred attacked the village. The enemy soldiers were wearing uniforms and caps. We could not discover whether or not there were Russians soldiers among them. The number of those who looked destitute in the enemy army was extremely high. These could have been Russians or Armenians come from Russia.
“The enemy took all the people of our village to Mezraa-i And. Abdurrahman, the son of Hursid Bey, one of the notables, was also present together with his son and wife. The following day, thirty-three men and boys, and around eighty women, young women, and girls were moved to Mukus in separate convoys. The women’s convoy was left at Cacuan, but at night all the men were put to the sword. I was saved from the slaughter because I had been assigned a duty. When they gave me the duty, they said this:
“`We promise to give you money. Go to Molla Said, and tell him to hand over to us the Armenians who remain there. Tell him there is no benefit in having them killed unnecessarily. The country is just about entirely occupied. The Russians have reached as far as Aleppo. Armenia has been set up. Bring us information about the numbers and strength of the Turkish Army there.’
“This was said to me by Dilo. I set out immediately. When I reached Cacuan, I saw that our forces, which were formed of gendarmes and Kurds, had arrived there together with our mayor and Molla Said. Our forces under the command of Bediuzzaman Said Efendi were successful in saving the women’s convoy after five hours of fierce fighting. The state of the women was really pitiful. They did not have the strength to walk. Most of the children had been trodden underfoot. And of the thirty-three men, only two of us survived.”
When the Armenians massacred the Muslim women and children as well as the men, Armenian children would sometimes be killed in retaliation. But to a degree Bediuzzaman was able to put a stop to this barbaric practice through his example true Islamic conduct, and was able to bring some humanity to the chaos of war. One time, thousands of Armenian women and children had been gathered together in the place where Bediuzzaman was. He issued an order that none of them were to be touched. Then later he released them and they returned to their families in Russian-held territory. The Armenians were so impressed at this example of Muslim morality that from then on they themselves refrained form slaughtering Muslim children. In this way, many innocent lives were saved.