A Nursian view on our cosmic significance
In 1990, the NASA space probe Voyager 1 took a photograph of our planet from an incredible distance of 3.7 billion miles out. At this distance, the earth could be seen as a mere fraction of a pixel surrounded by fading sunlight and the darkness of space. From this viewpoint, our species and our world looks virtually insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, these were the sentiments that the astronomer Carl Sagan penned in his book “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space”:“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
“Seen from about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles, 40 astronomical units), Earth appears as a tiny dot (the blueish-white speck approximately halfway down the brown band to the right) within the darkness of deep space.” (Source: Wiki).
Some profound points are made by Sagan in his reflection upon this photograph of our earth at such a distance. Our desires to be the “momentary masters of a fraction of a dot” really do look pathetic in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, as humans we may well have an inflated sense of self-importance about us. Our desire to prove ourselves to others and show that we have achieved significant “worldly achievements” are clearly humbled and held in context by such a photograph. Our desire for power and worldly success is made to look very insignificant in the grand theatre of the universe. Indeed, the very notion that the sun or the universe would conform to geocentrism by revolving around such a small and tiny speck in the great dark cosmic ocean has been invalidated. Copernicus clearly put pay to such a notion and corrected many powerful people in religious organisations who saw the Earth with such material importance. Sagan’s reflection prompts us to ask the big questions about our status and our relevance. Are we merely a lonely speck left to our own devices by an uncaring universe? It is tempting for an agnostic mind to take this viewpoint, but in this short article I will aim to clarify our place in the grand scheme of things. I will do this not only from the perspective of somebody who believes in a Creator, but more specifically – from the perspective of the influential Muslim scholar Ustadh Said Nursi
Ustadh Said Nursi was given the name of “Bediuzzaman” (“wonder of the age”) by his students and peers and was largely responsible for the rejuvenation of Islam
in modern Turkey. He experienced the final days of the once-mighty Ottoman Empire and the rise of Kemalist nationalism and an aggressively secular Turkish nation. As a youth he stood out from many others because his constant desire to question and obtain as much knowledge from his school teachers as possible. He would move from village to village and town to town across Turkey in order to find a better teaching environment and his knowledge and status grew as he travelled. His defence of the rights of people to retain the call to prayer in Arabic and to keep their religious customs and their private religious schools ended up in his incarceration. Large parts of his life were spent in jail cells and it was in these places that the inspiration of his great work – the Risale-i Nur would come to him. These are treatises and meditations on the various various verses of the Qur’an. With time, his students and followers wrote down his work by pen and often under the threat of prison if they were caught doing so. His work was a mighty contribution towards the revival of Islam in an era where it was under assault from the ideologies of agressive secularism and materialism. He uses many analogies and metaphors and allegories to explain the inner meanings and wisdoms that the Qur’anic verses convey to us. And so for him, his work helps the believers to equip themselves with the “diamond sword” of the Qur’an and to fight the “jihad of the pen” against false ideologies in an age of apparent material and philosophical progress. A good biography of Ustadh Said Nursi is Islam in Modern Turkey: An intellectual biography of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi by Sukran Vahide.
One particularly notable metaphor that Nursi uses to describe the goal and nature of both worldly and eternal creation is that of plant life – namely trees and their fruits and seeds. He uses analogies from nature to describe how the deeds of creatures are recorded in such tiny vessels. Indeed, not only are their deeds recorded but in fact, their entire nature and all their qualities are held within such a small space. This, to Nursi; is surely a sign of God’s miraculous power and shows the depth of His concern and His compassion. Indeed, why would Almighty God of this vast universe even care about the denizens of a tiny blue planet such as ours? Yet, He does care as Nursi argues with references to such creations as the wings of flies being proof of God’s kind consideration of the needs of tiny beings. Nursi talks about how the smallest and the weakest of creation are the ones that are best provided for by their Lord, and indeed they have the greatest chance of survival in the long-term. After all, complex organisms such as mammals and humans are vulnerable newcomers to this earth of ours and their livelihood is harder to secure than simple bacteria. Yet, if God cares about such a tiny blue planet in the vast darkness of space then surely He would care for a very good reason? Nursi argues that if all of this worldly life was simply created for worldly goals and desires then it would be completely fruitless. It would be absurd for any powerful Being to warrant such detailed concern and care to such a tiny speck in the cosmic ocean. How would it reflect His glory or His greatest achievement to create His most complex creation in such tiny specks of planets like Earth? Indeed, it would not. And if there are other worlds in the universe that can support complex life; they are but tiny specks in the grand scheme of things. The parameters for complex life are very specific indeed. And so, Nursi argues that our lives are like seeds that are created from the fruits of our actions in this world. They have a far greater potential than those seeds that produce limited visible results in the limited soil and environment of this world. They will truly blossom into a huge tree of Reality in the next world if we allow ourselves to grow from the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
For now, we can ponder an example from our world that may help us think about the significance of our “pale blue dot” and our tiny lives here. The Giant Redwood tree is a coniferous tree that grows in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. It is a tree that can grow to enormous heights, exceeding 300 feet in some cases. Amazingly, these immense living beings start life as a tiny seed which have a length of around 0.20 inches. They are shed from their cones and can lay dormant in the soil for months before sprouting. Most of them will fail to germinate, but the ones that do germinate may reach a very great potential size indeed. These trees can even be planted in soils outside their native environment as long as conditions are suitable. One can then ponder the existence of a tiny tree seed lying in a tiny region of topsoil that is part of an enormous forest that spreads itself for miles. This lonely seed may seem insignificant yet within it there is the potential to grow to a size that is thousands of times greater. It may then tower above all of the other trees and be seen for miles around. Hence, this apparently lonely and insignificant seed is like a hidden jewel in the sand. The same could be said for our apparently lonely and insignificant planet that seems embedded in a vast cold and dark cosmic ocean – as dark as the soils of the forest surrounding the Great Redwood seed. Yet, what we are seeing is a tiny seed that can bear enormous potential. Paradoxically, the denizens of this “pale blue dot” have developed lenses powerful enough to see objects that no human eye can see. We can see countless clusters of galaxies at unimaginable distances from our home and we can even draw maps and positions of these grand cosmic formations. Our fascination and curiosity is as large as the universe but our life is short and our power is extremely weak in the scheme of things, and this is a point that is often repeated by Said Nursi in his Risale. There is a great danger of us becoming arrogant over our place in this universe and that is why we should be reminded that our desires should not be directed solely to this lowly material world. However large our worldly achievements and however great our material power; they are as nothing compared to the majesty of what exists around us.
In a part of Nursi’s treatises called The Words; he elaborates on the idea of our lives as existing as seeds which will yield either a beneficial tree or a harmful tree in the next world. Our lives may be small and our existence apparently insignificant, but they bear the index of our deeds and our entire nature which points to something far greater:
“The original seed of a tree and its root, as well as the seeds contained in its fruit and final outcome, all manifest a sort of life, no less than the tree itself; indeed, they bear within themselves laws of life more subtle than those of the tree. Similarly, the seeds and roots left by last autumn, before the present spring, as well as the seeds and roots that will be left to subsequent springs after this spring has departed — they all bear the manifestations of life, just like this spring, and are subject to the laws of life. In just the same way, all the branches and twigs of the cosmic tree each have a past and a future. They have a chain consisting of past and future stages and circumstances.” – Nursi, “Second Addendum to the Tenth Word,” The Words.
And so Nursi uses the analogy of the seasons of this world to argue for the evidence of the Resurrection. The life of this world is no less a form of life than the true and lasting life that resides in the next world. This world is like an autumn which lies dormant waiting for the true results of its deeds to be yielded in the coming spring of the eternal realm. And indeed, the physical and metaphorical seeds deposited in this world connect the dunya (this world) to the “cosmic tree” and beyond.
In the Fourth Addendum to the Tenth Word, Nursi uses the tree-metaphor to explain the meaning of the Qur’anic concept of deeds being “revealed on a written page”:
“God Almighty expresses the following: “Upon resurrection, everyone’s deeds will be revealed on a written page. This appears to be very strange, and totally beyond the reach of reason. But as the Sura indicates, just as the resurrection of the spring is a parallel to other matters, so too the ‘spreading out of pages’ has a very clear parallel. Every fruit-bearing tree, every flowering plant has its deeds, actions and functions. It performs a certain kind of worship, depending on the fashion in which it glorifies God through the manifestations of His Names. Now all of its deeds and the record of its life are inscribed in all the seeds that are to emerge next spring in another plot of soil. With the tongue of shape and form, the seeds make eloquent mention of the origins of those deeds, and spread out the page of deeds together with branch, twig, leaf, flower and fruit. He Who says: ‘When the pages are spread out’ is the same Being That performs, before our eyes, these wise, preserving, nurturing and subtle acts.” – Nursi, Fourth Addendum to the Tenth Word, “The Words”.
Nursi likens our lives to that of plants that grow in a particular environment and reach a certain potential with their seeds reflecting the story of their growth. Like the differing plants, we all bare different qualities of God’s Names that we have the capability of reflecting. The “next spring” that Nursi speaks of can be interpreted as the next world which is like the fertile spring in which the book of our deeds can be written. The soils and the environment of this world are limited in terms of what they can yield for us. However, they are still capable of producing a seed of iman that God miraculously preserves as clearly as He preserves life each autumn and winter.
“In order to be convinced of the elevated truth which these verses state, that, ‘All things together with all their states are recorded before they come into existence, when they come into existence, and after they have departed; and they are being recorded,’ we point out to be observed the All-Glorious Inscriber’s including and preserving in immaterial fashion in the seeds and roots of the innumerable well-ordered creatures which He changes every season on the page of the earth, and particularly in the spring, the indexes of their beings, life-histories, and principles according to which they act; and when they die His inscribing in immaterial fashion with the same pen of Divine Determining those indexes, life-histories and principles in the simple seeds in their fruits; and every passing spring even His preserving them –whether fresh or dry– in perfect order in seeds like dry chips of wood and bones, limited and tiny.” – Nursi, “Fourteenth Words”, The Words.
Nursi continues to use the analogy of seasons and the cycle of regeneration of plants to continue his case for the Resurrection. Indeed, he makes the case that God records the nature and potential of a plant in its seed; before it actually sprouts out of its shell. Its life and movement are also being recorded as it grows and lives in its environment and it becomes encapsulated in the seeds of its fruits to later be preserved. The same happens to the human soul’s nature and potential being recorded before it leaves the womb and establishes itself in the world. The soul continues to grow according to its actions and the environment it immerses itself in, and then yields the seeds which are “indexes” to the persons’ nature and spiritual status.
Nursi continues to remind us that things that are apparently small, vulnerable and insignificant are actually of enormous significance:
“All things act in the name of Almighty God, for minute things like seeds and grains bear huge trees on their heads; they raise loads like mountains” – Nursi, “The First Word,” The Words.
“Belief in God bears the seed of what is in effect a Tuba-Tree of Paradise, while unbelief conceals the seed of a Zakkum-Tree of Hell” – Nursi, “The Second Word,” The Words.
He tells us to look around at the constantly re-occurring miracles of the seasons and know that they are a sure Sign that our Lord is capable of preserving not only both our deeds but also our spiritual life in an apparently tiny vessel. That such a vast spiritual consciousness can emerge from the rotting kernel of our bodies is as miraculous as the emergence of an immense tree from a tiny seed. Both the body of man and the kernel of the seed are lying in the mud waiting for the time of their resurrection. Surely this is a sign that Nursi wishes for us to reflect on as a form of comfort in the face of the inevitability of our death. The seeds of the afterlife are created here and there is far more significance to them than our attempts to immortalize ourselves in this limited world through our physical offspring. The flowers of our youth are naught but small signs of our true potential to bloom in the next world:
“The moments of one’s life will apparently vanish and rot like kernels and seeds. But then the flowers of blessedness and auspiciousness will open and bloom in the realm of eternity, and each will also present a luminous and reassuring aspect in the Intermediate Realm.” – Nursi, “The Sixth Word,” The Words.
Nursi reminds us of the great Wisdom and Power of God in His ability to create such a huge and complex being from such a tiny vessel. Not only that, but its fate and destiny are also written by the divine “pen” into this small vessel. And so, our lives and this world may be seen as an index of Signs that can yield a potential far more vast than the limited face of this globe:
“The compression of the exact programme of development of a beautiful flower into a minute seed, the inscription on a small seed by the pen of destiny of the scroll of deeds of a tree, its life-history and list of equipment, show that a pen of utmost wisdom is at work” – Nursi, “The Tenth Word” The Words.
The world is a place where mankind has been put to reside for a short while, and just as the life of the blooming flower is short; so too is the life of man. Nursi looks at the way the seeds of flowers are like cameras that record the essence and qualities of the flower so that it may continue its existence. The seed is like a memory that is retained. Nursi also tells us that the flower carries meanings that transcend the mere superficial nature of its appearance. It etches memories in the minds of humans that evoke inspiration towards God’s Names. Indeed, poets have written works inspired by the existence of flowers in spring. Like the existence of man and the flower, the planet that carries them is also like a seed that records the inner essence of the Signs of God that are briefly revealed. And the growth and development of mankind is the greatest of these Signs:
“Look, for example, at the flower, a word of God’s power; for a short time it smiles and looks at us, and then hides behind the veil of annihilation. It departs just like a word leaving your mouth. But it does so entrusting thousands of its fellows to men’s ears. It leaves behind meanings in men’s minds as numerous as those minds. The flower, too, expressing its meaning and thus fulfilling its function, goes and departs. But it goes leaving its apparent form in the memory of everything that sees it, its inner essence in every seed. It is as if each memory and seed were a camera to record the adornment of the flower, or a means for its perpetuation. If such be the case with an object at the simplest level of life, it can be readily understood how closely tied to eternity is man, the highest form of life and the possessor of an eternal soul”
Nursi then goes on to remind us again that God cares a great deal about recording the tiniest details of the most tiny and temporarily-lived creatures. Surely this is a sign of something greater?
“Considering that the results of such transient, commonplace, impermanent and insignificant things are preserved, is it at all possible that men’s deeds, that yield important fruit in the world of the unseen, the world of the hereafter, and the world of spirits, from the point of view of universal dominicality, is it at all possible that they should not be guarded and preserved, should not be recorded as a matter of importance? No, by no means!”
Given how tiny our planet is in the grand scheme of God’s universe; it seems amazing that God has invested such incredible attention and care towards the smallest and most delicate forms of life and guaranteed the retention of their qualities and their instincts. Why give so much intention to preserve such tiny things with such a great care? And just as He preserves every detail of the smallest living thing in this world, He would certainly preserve something as significant as the spirits of all beings. In his work, Nursi argues that it would be absurd for the Lord of such a grand creation to create the lives of humans and preserve them merely for their existence on this temporary rock in space. Surely if His Mercy reaches out to the tiniest needs of the smallest beings within this tiny “blue dot” of Earth, then it would also extend to the preservation of the souls of humans who desire immortality so much? And would the actions and the intentions of humans really not be recorded? If God attributes importance to the recording of such tiny details that ensure the preservation of all life, then surely the preservation of much greater things must exist according to the Greatness of His Grace and Mercy. If such tiny bacteria matter to Him, then surely do the innate desires and deeds of mankind? Surely man’s desire for Absolute Justice (which must exist for a reason) will be satiated if God can satiate the tiniest needs of an insignificant gnat? Nursi constantly reminds us of this. Indeed, humans may be tiny creatures in the grand scheme of things, but they are like the seeds of a great tree that yields itself elsewhere:
“That Wise and Preserving One, Who preserves and inserts the spirit of a great tree in the smallest seed, no bigger than a dot — is it permissible even to ask how He preserves the spirits of those who die?”
Nursi states that God addresses the fundamental desire of mankind for seeing the true meaning and aim beyond the limited realm that he resides in:-
“Is it at all reasonable that He should impose on every being, even the seed, a task as heavy as a tree, mount in it instances of His wisdom as numerous as the flowers, and beneficial aspects as numerous as the fruits, but assign to that task, to those instances of His wisdom and those beneficial aspects, a purpose pertaining only to this world, one as small as a seed? That He should make that purpose nothing more than the life of this world, something less valuable than a grain of mustard-seed? That He should not make of beings seeds for the world of meaning and tillage for the realm of the hereafter, for them to yield there their true and worthy results? That He should permit such significant alternations to remain without purpose, to be empty and vain? That He should not turn their faces towards the world of meaning and the hereafter, so that they might there reveal their true purposes and fitting results?”
Here Nursi states that it would be pointless for the Creator to create such an epic story of life that is confined to such a transitory and small existence within this world. Why would He give a small seed the potential of such a mighty tree thousands of times its size? Yet, such a mighty tree is an insignificant speck on a larger but still insignificant blue-dot in space. Also, why would He make each species last only a blink of an eye as far as geological timescales are concerned? What would be the wisdom in creating such complex beauty and co-operative harmony (that evokes so much inspiration) that exists in the shape of such a brief bloom on a small rock? Why would a being such as humanity be created with such thoughts that motivate him to seek meaning and symbolism in the universe? If his aims are merely to survive and breed (as the materialists say) then why does his curiosity stretch out to the heavens and beyond? Would “nature” alone create a being that asks questions that transcend the base routine of survival? Clearly Nursi is asking us to think about how futile it would be for the Lord of the Worlds to invest such care and detail into what is effectively a blink of an infinitely small eye while leaving most of the universe apparently empty. That is what complex life and what human life seem to be in the grand scheme of things – a blink of an eye. So transient and so vulnerable, yet all such beings desire deeper layers of meaning beyond what is physically apparent. They may seek it in a variety of things such as political ideologies, cultural identity, literature and art. So many people are thirsty for something greater. But deep down, Nursi tells us that the true world of meaning lies behind the limited abode of this world. What we see and experience here, are but small signs that can point us toward it if we know how to read the creation as the Qur’an intends us to.