Skip to main content
Right or Might?
Jan 1, 2007

A Criticism of Materialist Philosophy and Praise for Human Rights

"Philosophy considers force to be the point of support in social life, and life as the realization of self-interest (as its goal) and conflict (as its principle).”1 When Said Nursi wrote this sentence in The Words, he was looking at the Cyclops-like aspect of the European philosophy of his time, which totally excluded spirituality from the interpretation of the relationship between humans and the universe. There was only one eye on that face which concentrated solely on the materialist side of the creation. Said Nursi called this face “philosophy”; he was opposed to nineteenth century materialist philosophy, but rather favored one that was open to metaphysics and the spiritual as well as to the rational, an approach that he would later call “the marriage of the mind and the heart.”

This materialist philosophy, which considers “power” to be the point of support in social life, actually shaped the social and political movements of the twentieth century. Those individuals who were empowered with personal and financial resources built production facilities and had the less powerful individuals in society work for them in exchange for little remuneration. Capital thus quickly accumulated in the hands of an increasingly prosperous minority, whereas the majority of the members of the “developing” society were barely able to make a living. Mercy seldom descended from the narrow top of the pyramid to the base-and envy and resentment rose in dark clouds from the wide base to the top. Power became the main determining effect in social life, as individuals or groups tried to realize their self-interests to the degree that their “power” allowed them to.

When there was a conflict between interests, might was used as the arbitrator. Revolutions simply shifted the building blocks of the pyramid, but the shape of the pyramid always remained the same. “Natural selection,” a misconception thought to be observed in nature, became the very basis of civilizations. The political arena always had its actors whose pockets were full and waves of ordinary people were merely directed, explicitly or implicitly, in what they should do with their lives. Nations with less economic power became oppressed, their lands and resources were looted, and their futures were thrown into a deep, dark well of uncertainty. The world saw the bloodiest wars of all times as humanity descended to the lowest of the lowest, “asfal al-safilin.”

There has not been any single event in the course of social history which has not been motivated by a system of thought. The intellectuals of the last century tended to strip human beings of their inner dimensions and consider them as a piece of walking/talking machinery. This machine was supposed to produce goods constantly in order to satisfy the increasing needs of mankind. Simultaneously, the circle of the needs extended itself to the farthest point of the imagination, until there was no way that circle could be encompassed. Most of these needs took the shape of carnal desires, and the machine became dedicated to gratifying these desires. Relations between individuals and their families, in neighborhoods and within countries, started to deteriorate. Divorce, domestic violence, deceit, murder, and other crimes-enough to make anyone with a heart grow mute-began to seem and sound normal to the general public. Thus, the machine began to annihilate itself and its surroundings. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi brought the matter to public attention at that time with the following words: “Force calls up aggression, seeking self-interest causes battles over material resources, and conflict brings strife.”2

Since life was considered to be the realization of self-interest, the self became the center of all interests. Individualism was raised as the banner of victory, while the bonds that connected selves together began to disappear. “Country, religion, family, ideas of civilization, all the sentimental and historical forces that stood between cosmic infinity and the individual, providing some notion of place within the whole, have been rationalized and have lost their compelling force.”3

Contrary to accepting power as the fabric of social life, such as it has been in the past two centuries, the Holy Qur’an accepts “rights” to be the constant point of support in social life. The first Caliph of Islam after the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, the honorable Abu Bakr, stated this Qur’anic approach in his first speech to the public: “The weakest among you is the strongest in my eyes until his rights have been delivered to him, and God willing I will accomplish that; and the strongest among you is the weakest in my sight until he delivers the rights to their real owner, and God willing I will pursue that.”4

One of the five pillars in Islam is the prescribed alms, zakat. According to the Qur’an, every Muslim with adequate financial resources is obligated to give one-fortieth of his wealth to people in need. This portion of the wealth of the rich is considered a right that is given to the poor from God. This is a very interesting point, because the Qur’an draws a circle around the rights of the powerless within the circle of the powerful. In so doing, the Qur’an effectively silences brute force and allows “rights” to speak instead. Thus, the Qur’an teaches and commands believers to practice “giving precedence to the common interests of the community over one’s own interests.” The fact is that all unrest in human social life proceeds from two sources or attitudes: “Once my stomach is full, what do I care if others die of hunger?” and “You work, I will eat.”5 These statements symbolize a world where labor and capital confront each other and zakat, as a moral imperative, is abandoned; yet mankind has been advised to use charity as a form of purifying alms that is essential to the establishment of social welfare and order.

Human rights, huquq al-ibad, are a very important issue in the Qur’an. A devout believer who has pursued a virtuous life in this life may be pardoned for all their sins. However, the violation of the rights of others is excluded from this pardon, for such a violation must be resolved between the person who violated the rights and the one whose rights has been violated. The “others” here can be Muslims or non-Muslims and they can be of any race, ethnicity, belief, or worldview, in fact, anybody whom God has created. An anecdote from the time of the third Caliph, Umar is noteworthy here. It occurred in the city of Hims (Syria) in 635. The Muslim army was in retreat and leaving the city at the approach of a huge Roman army. The commander of the Muslim army ordered his men to reimburse the people of the city for the taxes that had been collected. The tax collectors told the Christian population of the city that the Muslim army would not be able to protect the city against the Roman army, and that since the taxes had been collected in payment for the protection of the city, the army no longer had any right to keep the taxes.6

The Qur’an does not leave the individual by themselves in the universe. “Does man think that he will be left uncontrolled (without purpose)?” (Qiyama 75:36). Human beings have the willpower and determination to choose between evil and good. Humans are responsible for their choices as well as their actions, and they will be held accountable for every deed they commit. This very fact should urge everyone who hears this message to adjust their standing within the community. The Qur’an commands each soul to uphold righteousness and forbid evil. This command is not limited only to the person’s interactions with the rest of the society. Rather, each person is also responsible for their own physical and psychological being. Nobody can commit suicide, harm their own body, or fall into despair or cut themselves off from society.

From a Muslim’s point of view the holy books that preceded the Qur’an also hold “rights” to be paramount within the community for the establishment of justice and harmony; the Qur’an states, “And we have sent down to you (O Muhammad) the Book (the Qur’an) in truth confirming the Scripture that came before it” (Maida 5:52). If we want to live in a safer and a happier world, where every human being’s rights are secured, the followers of the Holy Scriptures should refer to the enlightening realm of the revelation, advocating “right” rather than “might” as the criteria for any decision that affects the destiny of humanity. Rights have to be promoted at every level of society, and this cannot be done without taking the metaphysical dimensions of the individual into consideration. Looking at how people all around the globe are returning to the warm home of religion and how members of different faiths are striving to understand each other, one can hear the joyful celebration of the marriage between the mind and the heart and can see rights sitting on their throne supported on the shoulders of might.


1. Nursi, Said, The Words, The Light, Inc., NJ: 2005 p. 146-7.

2. ibid. p. 146-7.

3. Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind, Simon & Schuster Inc., 1988, p.85

4. Hz. Muhammed (s.a.s.) ve Hayati (Prophet Muhammad and His Life), Diyanet Yayinlari, Ankara: 1996, p. 435, Turkish Religious Council Publications, p. 435

5. Nursi, Said, The Letters, 22nd Letter, Truestar, London: 1995, p. 74.

6. Belazuri, Futuhu’l-Buldan, Beirut, 1987, p. 187.