The Ethics of Pardon and Peace: a Dialogue of Ideas between the Thought of Pope John Paul II and the Risale-i-Nur

At international congresses around the world, there are always many papers and speeches about peace. We hear the speakers of each religious group profess that their religion wants peace, teaches peace, builds peace. The leaders of various nations say how they are committed to peace among nations, peace in their regions, civil peace within their societies. There is a human paradox here that we must face. It seems like everyone is in favor of peace, no one ever admits to being against peace, and yet there is very little peace in the world. The problem, I believe, lies in the fact that we are all in favor of peace in the abstract, but without saying in what peace consists, and without examining what is involved in building peace.

Of those religious thinkers of modern times who have attempted to study the concept of peace to explore what is involved in establishing and maintaining peace, I want to compare the thought of two persons who have made an remarkable contribution to the topic. One is a Christian, Pope John Paul II, leader of the Catholic Church, and the other a Muslim, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, the author of the Risale-i-Nur. In this paper I hope to bring together the thinking of these two scholars and religious teachers into a kind of dialogue on the theme: "the ethics of peace." I will do this by summarizing the position of the Pope as the basis or point of view from which I will then read and explain the views of Said Nursi as found in the Risale-i-Nur.

1. John Paul II: Peace rests on two pillars: justice and forgiveness

As he does every year on 1 January, also this year, 2002, Pope John Paul II sent a message for the World Day of Peace at the beginning of the new year. In this message, the Pope proposes that true peace must rest on two pillars: justice and forgiveness. Without these, you cannot have real peace. Both justice and pardon are necessary. One element without the other is not enough.

The Pope's reasoning is like this. Any real peace, if it is to be more than simply a "cease-fire" or temporary cessation of hostilities, has to get to the heart of the conflict and try to heal the breach in human relations which was ruptured. When peoples are at war, when individuals are estranged and alienated from one another, they are angry, suspicious, and resentful of one another. They see the other as an enemy to be overcome, defeated, the object of retaliation, rather than a fellow-human with whom one ought to be reconciled. Thus, no talk about peace cannot proceed effectively without addressing the issue of broken relationships and without taking positive steps to repair those relations.

If one group or individual is being oppressed or treated unjustly by another, one cannot hope for peace between the two until there is justice. The Pope sees justice in two ways: firstly, as a "moral virtue," that is, as a human quality which a person can acquire and develop with God's powerful assistance (which Christians call grace), and secondly as a "legal guarantee," that is, part of the functioning of the national and international rule of law.1 The aim of justice, both as a personal quality and as an element of the international system of relations among peoples, is to insure "full respect for rights and responsibilities" and to carry out a "just distribution of benefits and burdens."

Justice is thus a first, indispensable condition for peace. Unless one person treats another justly, that is, with respect for the other's rights and duties and by giving them their proper share of what is due to them, there will be no peace between them. The same holds true between social groups, ethnic groups, peoples and nations. Where there is aggression, oppression, occupation, transgression, there can be no peace. First, justice has to be established, then peace can be built.

All of this the Pope has said before. However, in his Day of Prayer for Peace message, he adds another element that he sees as intrinsic to the peace-making process. This is forgiveness, which goes beyond strict justice to strive to heal the historical burdens brought about by one individual's or one group's injustice and wrongdoing towards another.

Every nation, every religious or ethnic group, can draw up a long list of grievances that we have against each other, of wrongs that our group has suffered at the hands of the others. This is the human burden of past misdeeds experienced that we bring into our relations with others, that complicate the way we relate to individual members of the other group, that can poison all efforts at cooperation and reconciliation, and that can flare up into violence the slightest provocation.

Justice alone is not sufficient to heal these wounds; we need to exercise forgiveness. Forgiveness is, as the Pope states, "a personal choice, a decision to go against the natural instinct to pay back evil with evil." In doing so, it always involves an apparent short-term loss, but brings about the possibility of achieving a real long-term gain. "Violence," the Pope notes, works exactly the opposite: "opting for an apparent short-term gain, but involving a real and permanent loss."2 "Forgiveness," the Pope notes, "may seem like weakness, but it demands great spiritual strength and moral courage."

It should not be surprising to discover that both Christianity and Islam lay great importance on the notions of justice and forgiveness, if these are to be the indispensable pre-conditions of peace. In the Gospel, Jesus taught his disciples: "You have heard it said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,' but I say to you 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.'" In a similar vein, the Qur'an permits vengeance up to the limits of strict justice but no farther, and then always adds: "But it is better to forgive."

2. Social Ethics in the Risale-i Nur

When we turn to the Risale-i Nur, we find that for Said Nursi, as for Pope John Paul II, ethics, as the study of what is good and bad, is primarily oriented toward the social sphere. In the thought of both men, a religiously based ethical system above all must treat questions of right and wrong in society, and only secondarily regards the goodness or evil of acts of private morality. Moreover, both root this primacy of social ethics in the Scriptural teaching of their respective faiths. For Said Nursi, ethical systems drawn up by philosophers and put into practice by public and private welfare associations fail to reach the levels of social commitment demanded by the teaching of the Qur'an. He states: "Together with all its associations for good works, all its establishments for the teaching of ethics, all its severe discipline and regulations, [society] has not been able to reconcile these two classes of mankind [the rich and the poor], nor heal the two fearsome wounds in human life."

The evils of which he is speaking here are social complacency on the part of the wealthy who feel no responsibility to share what they have with the poor and needy, and class struggle on the part of the poor who seek to take by force from the rich what they will not give freely. "The Qur'an, however," Said Nursi continues, "eradicates the first [social irresponsibility] with its injunction to pay zakat, and heals it, and uproots the second [class struggle] by prohibiting usury and interest, and cures that. Indeed, the Qur'an stands at the door of the world and declares usury and interest to be forbidden. It reads out its decree to mankind, saying: 'In order to close the door of strife, close the door of usury and interest!' and forbids its students to enter it."3

Instead of the ethics of the jungle where the rich and powerful take what they can and defend what they have by use of force, and that of class struggle in which the poor and oppressed seek to obtain their rights by force, Said Nursi sees the Divinely-guided ethic proposed by Islam as one in which truth, justice and harmony are paramount. "The civilization the shari'a of Muhammad (PBUH) comprises and commands is this: its point of support is truth instead of force, the marks of which are justice and harmony. Its goal is virtue in place of [selfish] benefit, and its characteristic marks are love and attraction. Its means of unity are the ties of religion, country, and class, in place of racialism and nationalism, and the mark of these are sincere brotherhood, peace, and only defence against external aggression. In life is the principle of mutual assistance instead of the principle of conflict, the mark of which is accord and solidarity."4

Said Nursi holds that philosophically-based ethical systems fail to reach the heights of moral teaching proclaimed by the Qur'an because they fail to take into account an essential element of the human reality, that is, human weakness. If an ethical system presumes that people know what they want and will always work to achieve their desired goal, it will miss the point, for in fact people often act against their best interests out of anger, timidity etc., and for reasons of selfishness, laziness, ignorance, and the like fail to achieve what they desire.

However, a religious outlook, exemplified in Qur'anic teaching, takes into consideration and allows for the reality of human failure by urging believers to return to God in repentance, seeking forgiveness, and starting over. Thus, he calls on believers to be shaped by a "God-given ethics," which he holds to be an essential element in the message of all the prophets. "Be distinguished by God-given morals and turn towards God Almighty with humility, recognizing your impotence, poverty, and defectiveness, and so be a slave in His presence." Philosophically-based ethical systems, he holds, tend to ignore this element of human nature and selfishly aim at perfection through human efforts alone.

This Nursi sees as basically self-deception. "The essence of humanity," he states, has been kneaded with infinite impotence, weakness, poverty, and need, while the essence of the Necessarily Existent One is infinitely omnipotent, powerful, self-sufficient, and without need."5 He concludes: "The aim of humanity and duty of human beings is to be moulded by God-given ethics and good character, and, by knowing their [own] impotence to seek refuge with Divine power, by seeing their weakness to rely on Divine strength, by realizing their poverty to trust in Divine mercy, by perceiving their need to seek help from Divine riches, by seeing their faults to ask for pardon through Divine forgiveness, and by realizing their deficiency to be glorifiers of Divine perfection."6 Thus, if they are to act in an ethical way people need to be informed and guided by God's revelation and to be supported by God's strength or grace. These two elements (Divine guidance and Divine strength) are often ignored in philosophically-based ethical systems that do not take into account elements of God's revealed word.

3. Inner peace

a. How does the concept of peace fit into Said Nursi's ethical thought? In the Risale-i Nur, he treats various aspects and elements of peace, not from a theoretical perspective, but as a practical guide for those who seek to pursue peace. In the first place, he treats of peace in the eschatological sense, as the ultimate goal of human life, almost synonymous with salvation. Specifically, it is the final destination of the collective personality of those who study the Risale-i Nur. He sees the Risale-i Nur students, through their efforts carried out in solidarity and sincerity, as contributing in their diverse activities to the building of an eternal realm of peace and happiness. "O Risale-i Nur students and servants of the Qur'an! You and I are members of a collective the components of a factory's machinery which produces eternal happiness within eternal life. We are hands working on a dominical boat which will disembark the community of Muhammad (PBUH) at the Realm of Peace, the shore of salvation. So we are surely in need of solidarity and true union, obtained through gaining sincerity."7

This concept not only gives meaning and direction to individual acts, but in this way the believer also achieves a kind of conquest over death. "Through the mystery of true brotherhood on the way of Divine pleasure...there are spirits to the number of brothers. If one of them dies, he meets death happily, saying: 'My other spirits remain alive, for they in effect make life continue for me by constantly gaining reward for me, so I am not dying. By means of their spirits, I live in respect of merit; I am only dying in respect of sin.' And he lays down in peace."8

b. A second way in which the Risale-i Nur looks at peace might be called the psychological sense, as tranquillity and peace of mind, an inner confidence born of faith that enables the religious believer to face adversity without anxiety or despair. Particularly when one is facing the approach of death, the believer can attain a peace of mind which will enable the person to overcome spiritual turmoil and fear.9 Reflecting on the long periods of his incarceration, he notes that his close companions, students of the Risale-i Nur, who were imprisoned with him did not waste their time or give in to selfish expressions of worry, complaint, or pride, or try to change what cannot be altered, but they achieved a peace of mind and steadfastness that bore witness to the spiritual values and dignity that they had achieved.10

This interior peace, not only of individuals but of whole societies, he sees as one of the marks of Islamic civilization. Along with justice, harmony, brotherhood, solidarity, human progress and spiritual advancement, peace should characterize the Islamic community.11 It is peace as the basis of societal relations which should be the force that attracts others to Islam.

c. A third aspect of peace studied by Said Nursi is universal peace. Particularly in his rewriting of the Damascus Sermon in the years immediately following the Second World War, he reflects the widespread conviction of the time that humankind can sink no lower in criminality towards its own kind12 and expresses the longing for a time of peace and prosperity for all.13 This Said Nursi sees as the specific mission of Islam, that "God willing, through the strength of Islam in the future, the virtues of civilization will prevail, the face of the earth cleaned of filth, and universal peace be secured."14 He is optimistic that this hope for peace through Islam is no vain desire, but that people may confidently "expect from Divine mercy to see true civilization with universal peace brought about through the sun of the truth of Islam."15

It is in his analysis of peace, based on truth, as the only viable alternative to the use of brute force that the thought of Said Nursi prefigures that of Pope John Paul II. Said Nursi notes that wars and violence can never resolve ethical conflicts concerning who is in the right. All that wars and violent actions can accomplish is to show which party has access to reserves of force which it can use to coerce others to obey and to punish the recalcitrant.16 Truth, on the other hand, is characterized by justice and harmony and seeks goodness and virtue instead of selfish gain.17

He sees a tendency in modern governments and rulers which is relevant for the discussion of globalization as a theme of this symposium. He criticizes modern governments for fomenting a kind of false nationalism, which in reality amounts to a type of racism, by picturing those of another nationality or religion as the enemy against whom war must be waged. Meanwhile, the governments concentrate on providing amusements to gratify the senses and favor consumerist policies to "create needs." The result, he states, is "a sort of superficial happiness for about 20% of mankind and cast 80% into distress and poverty."18 By contrast, the Qur'an, he states, takes truth rather than force as its starting point. Hence the Qur'an proposes an alternative to the use of force in resolving conflicts, that of negotiation, compromise and uprightness, rather than the employment of brute force with the very limited aim of "winning."

Said Nursi's opposition to war as an inhumane and ultimately useless endeavor was highly controversial in his time, for in any nation all citizens are expected to support whatever wars are decided and carried out by their governments, and anyone opposing war is accused of being disloyal. In fact, ruling parties and cliques have been known to foment conflict and war in an attempt to increase their popularity and rally support for unpopular or incompetent government. In the Flashes collection, Said Nursi notes that he was often challenged because of his commitment to peace. Critics claimed that war against British and Italian incursions provided an opportunity to revive Islamic zeal and to assert the moral strength of the nation. They charged Said Nursi, who proposed prayers for peace and negotiated settlement as indirectly supporting the invaders' aims.19

In response, Said Nursi held that he wanted release from the attacks of aggressors, but not by using the same methods which the attackers were employing. In other words, he rejected the practice of opposing force by force. Religion teaches people to seek truth and uprightness, not to try to achieve their aims by use of force. In consequence, he felt that the students of the Risale-i Nur could better use their time studying the Qur'an than by engaging in military service. Later in his life he was asked whether freely relinquishing one's rights for the sake of peace could not be considered a form of compromise with wrongdoing. Again reflecting on his prison experiences, he responded that "A person who is in the right, is fair. He will sacrifice his one dirhem's worth of right for the general peace, which is worth a hundred."20

In the long run, he concludes, the preoccupation with current events and international crises is of secondary importance to seeking the personal, interior transformation of peace that comes through the study of Scripture. Said Nursi carried this principal to an extreme degree, as he recounts: "For a full two years in Kastamonu and seven years in other places I knew nothing of the conflicts and wars in the world, and whether or not peace had been declared, or who else was involved in the fighting. I was not curious about it and did not ask, and for nearly three years did not listen to the radio that was playing close by me. But with the Risale-i Nur I triumphantly confronted absolute unbelief, which destroys eternal life, and transforms the life of this world even into compounded pain and suffering."21

This attitude, which places a higher value on interior peace which is based on the study of God's Word than on current events, presents a challenge to modern people for whom the daily newspapers and evening news on television are fixed appointments in their daily schedules. However, when one reflects on the degree to which the news media is slanted by the prejudices, policies and propaganda, not only of individual journalists but also of those who own and direct the communications industry, one can see in Said Nursi's practice the freedom of the honest individual who renounces an obsession with transitory events which will be forgotten in a few years in favor of the search for eternal, unchangeable truth presented in the Word of God.

The irony here is that Said Nursi was often accused of being a troublemaker guilty of disturbing the peace and inciting his followers to revolt. He was accused of "working secretly in Emirdag. He poisoned the minds of some people giving them the idea of disturbing the peace."22 In defending himself against false accusations of fomenting public disorder, he also defends the students of the Risale-i Nur against similar charges. "In twenty years, six courts of law and the police of ten provinces...have not recorded any incident involving the disturbance of public order and breaching of security in connection with the 20,000 or perhaps 100,000 people who enthusiastically read copies of the Risale-i Nur.

He asserts that this reputation of being a troublemaker and rabble-rouser is based on fear of non-religious people for those who take religious faith seriously. "'The worldly' are exceptionally and excessively suspicious of me. Quite simply, they are frightened of me, imagining non-existent things in me, which even if they existed would not constitute a political crime and could not be the basis of accusation, like being a shaykh, or of significant rank or family, or being a tribal leader, and influential, and having numerous followers, or meeting with people from my native region, or being connected with the affairs of the world, or even entering politics, or even the opposition. Imagining these things in me, they have been carried away by groundless fears."23

He makes it clear that his silence must not be interpreted as agreement with all decisions made by public officials, but should be understood rather in terms of passive resistance. He states: "I support neither intellectually nor on scholarly grounds the arbitrary commands, called laws, of a commander, which have made Aya Sophia into a house of idols and the Shaykh al-Islam's Office into a girls' high school. And for myself I do not act in accordance with them. But although for twenty years I have been severely oppressed during my tortuous captivity, I have not become involved in politics, nor provoked the authorities, nor disturbed public order. And although I have hundreds of thousands of Risale-i Nur friends, not a single incident has been recorded involving the disturbance of the peace."24 Along with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Said Nursi must be seen as one of the Twentieth Century's great exponents of non-violent resistance.

4. Peace and forgiveness

When we turn to the question of the relationship between peace and forgiveness, the similarity of thought between Said Nursi and the later views of Pope John Paul becomes even more striking. He analyzes the nature of wrongdoing. In the case of a crime such as murder, the killer might derive a momentary satisfaction by having taken revenge on his enemy, but he pays for it over and over by suffering the consequences, not only of imprisonment, but of fear of retaliation by the relatives of the murdered person. The result is fear, anger, anxiety. "There is only one solution for this," states Said Nursi, "and that is reconciliation, which the Qur'an commands, and which truth, reality, benefit, humanity, and Islam require and encourage."25 He notes that Islam commands that "one believer should not be vexed with another believer for more than three days," and that so long as there is no reconciliation, both sides perpetually suffer the torments of fear and revenge." His conclusion is that "it is essential to make peace quickly."

Often a person's unwillingness to forgive arises, according to Said Nursi, from a lack of self-knowledge, a resistance to finding in oneself many of the same qualities that one condemns in the other. If someone is unwilling to confront the defects in ones own attitudes and actions, it is much easier to demonize the other and regard them as an enemy. Said Nursi's advice is to "Look at the defect in your own soul that you do not see or do not wish to see. Deduct a share for that too. As for the small share which then remains, if you respond with forgiveness, pardon, and magnanimity, in such a way as to conquer your enemy swiftly and safely, then you will have escaped all sin and harm."26 Thus, self-awareness should lead to repentance, repentance to forgiveness, forgiveness to reconciliation and the seeds for a lasting peace are laid.

So long as no reconciliation takes place, the wounds to the human relations fester and grow and turn into resentment. Discord produces more discord, violence engenders even greater violence, and the state of conflict is perpetuated. The only way out of a spiraling succession of violent reactions and counter-reactions is for one party to take the initiative to reconcile. Reconciliation heals what force can never heal, the suspicion and resentment caused by wrongdoing one against another. As Said Nursi puts it, "A minor disaster becomes a large one, and continues. But if they make peace, and the murderer repents and prays continuously for the man he killed, then both sides will gain much and become like brothers. In place of one departed brother, he will gain several religious brothers."

Said Nursi's analysis of peace and reconciliation is very similar to the words of the Pope with which I began this talk: "Forgiveness is a personal choice, a decision to go against the natural instinct to pay back evil with evil. In doing so, it always involves an apparent short-term loss, but brings about the possibility of achieving a real long-term gain. Violence works exactly the opposite: opting for an apparent short-term gain, but involving a real and permanent loss. Forgiveness may seem like weakness, but it demands great spiritual strength and moral courage." Here we find a strong convergence between these two great religious teachers.

So important is the element of forgiveness in human relations that Said Nursi commands the students of the Risale-i Nur to pardon each other's faults speedily. In fact, mutual forgiveness should be a characteristic mark that identifies students of the Risale-i Nur. "It is absolutely essential," he states, "that you completely forgive each other. You are brothers closer to each other than the most devoted blood brother, and a brother conceals his brother's faults, and forgives and forgets. I do not attribute your uncustomary differences and egotism here to your evil-commanding souls, and I cannot reconcile it with the Risale-i Nur students. I rather consider it to be a sort of temporary egotism found even in saints who have given up their souls. So on your part, do not spoil my good opinion through obstinacy, and make peace with each other."27

Since the study of the Risale-i Nur creates a relationship even closer than that of blood brothers, there is no offence so serious that it should go unforgiven among its students. Said Nursi goes so far as to state, "I swear that if one of you were to insult me most terribly and entirely trample my honor but not give up serving the Qur'an, belief, and the Risale-i Nur, I would forgive him and make peace with him and try not to be offended."28

Said Nursi sees a relationship between God's abundant forgiveness of the faults of humans and the need for believers to forgive one another. Just as God is generous in forgiving any one who repents, so Said Nursi encourages the students of the Risale-i Nur to imitate these Divine qualities by acting with love and forgiveness toward those who wronged them. "Your sincerity, loyalty, and steadfastness are sufficient reason to disregard one another's faults...For the powerful brotherhood within the Risale-i Nur is such a good thing it causes one to forgive a thousand evils. Since at the Last Judgement when good deeds will preponderate over evils, Divine justice will forgive, you too, seeing that good deeds preponderate, should act with love and forgiveness."29

One must even forgive one's enemies and those who have done them wrong. Said Nursi repeatedly expressed his forgiveness for his prison wardens,30 judges31, government officials,32 law officers33, and civil authorities,34 who had treated him unjustly during his period of courtroom trials and subsequent imprisonments. His point in forgiving others is that the relationship of enmity created by the wrong done by one person to another can only be overcome and superceded by forgiveness. Otherwise, one becomes a prisoner of circumstances, events, and the deeds of others, and history becomes a string of injustices and retaliations. This chain of evil and violence can only be broken by one who is willing to take the initiative to forgive.

In conclusion, I might mention that according to Said Nursi forgiveness and peace-making should not be limited only to students of the Risale-i Nur or, more generally, to fellow Muslims. He argues that members of the People of the Book, Jews and Christians, if they want to make peace, should be allowed to do so. "A Christian may," he states, "accept some sacred matters and may believe in some of the prophets, and may assent to Almighty God in some respects."35

5. A convergence of ideas

When I examine the thought of Pope John Paul and that of Said Nursi, I am stuck by the many similarities. Both understand peace to be not only a universal human longing, but also a cornerstone of the Message which God has revealed to humans. It is not only that humans long for peace, but God desires and intends that men live in peace. Both are convinced that the use of violence and force can never be the truth path to peace. Both hold that societies can succeed only if they are founded on the principles of justice and harmony. Both agree that the cycle of injury and revenge, wrongdoing and retaliation, violence and counter-violence can be broken when people take recourse to forgiveness and pardon. This act, which seems to be a sign of weakness and to result in a short-term loss, is in fact a courageous effort to move beyond past conflicts and establish reconciliation. Both agree that true forgiveness is beyond humankind's unaided resources and is possible only by the guidance and strength that come from God.

The human race would certainly be facing a better future if people would heed the advice of these two great moral teachers.


1John Paul II, "No Peace without Justice, No Justice without Forgiveness," Message of His Holiness Pope John Paul II for the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2002, p. 5.

2Ibid., p. 12.

3The Words, Twenty-fifth Word, First Light, Third Ray, p. 422.

4The Damascus Sermon, Seeds of Reality, p. 106.

5The Words, Thirtieth Word, First Aim, p. 564.

6The Words, Thirtieth Word, First Aim, p. 563.

7The Flashes, Twenty-First Flash, On Sincerity, p. 214.

8The Flashes, Twenty-First Flash, On Sincerity, p. 215.

9The Rays, Ninth Ray, p. 203.

10The Rays, Thirteenth Ray, p. 343.

11Letters, Seeds of Reality, p. 548; The Damascus Sermon, 106.

12The Damascus Sermon, p. 29.

13The Damascus Sermon, p. 43.

14The Damascus Sermon, p. 38.

15The Damascus Sermon, p. 39.

16The Words, Twenty-Fifth Word, First Light, Third Ray, p. 422.

17Letters, Seeds of Reality, p. 548.

18The Words, Twenty-Fifth Word, First Light, Third Ray, p. 422.

19The Flashes, Sixteenth Flash, p. 144.

20The Rays, Thirteenth Ray, p. 345; The Flashes, Twenty-Eighth Flash, p. 362.

21The Rays, Fourteenth Ray, p. 373.

22The Rays, Fourteenth Ray, p. 447.

23Letters, Addendum to the Sixteenth Letter, p. 96.

24The Rays, Fourteenth Ray, p. 417.

25The Rays, Fourteenth Ray, p. 484.

26Letters, Twenty-Second Letter, First Topic, p. 316.

27The Rays, Thirteenth Ray, p. 369.

28The Rays, Fourteenth Ray, p. 510.

29The Rays, Thirteenth Ray, p. 355.

30The Rays, Fourteenth Ray, p. 487.

31The Rays, Fourteenth Ray, p. 416.

32The Rays, Fourteenth Ray, p. 460.

33The Rays, Fourteenth Ray, p. 416.

34The Rays, Fourteenth Ray, p. 395.

35Letters, Twenty-Ninth Letter, Seventh Section, p. 512; The Flashes, Seventeenth Flash, Seventh Note, p. 168.

Makale Yazarı: 
Dr. Thomas Michel, S.J. , ITALY