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Absolute Justice and Bediuzzaman's Cup
Nov 1, 2014

Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (d. 1960) defines justice either in terms of absolute, as opposed to relative, or positive, as opposed to negative. In this paper we explore the absolute nature of Nursi’s approach to justice, with the aim of elucidating those areas of his thought which have not hitherto been well-known. Particular focus will be on the implications of human free will for the concept of justice, in its “absolute” state. The paper raises questions about the possibility of absolute justice.

The question of the possibility of absolute justice is vast and needs to be explored from various angles. However, space constraints dictate that we subject this topic to no more than a general overview. Focusing on the absolute nature of justice in Nursian thought may help to sharpen our understanding of existing theories of justice at the very least; it may even force us to rethink our prejudices and give us greater understanding of the concept of justice itself.

Given the limitations of space, I aim to focus on the question of injustice in the creation of different environments for the testing of different people. In other words, is God just when he creates Leo Nikolayevich in Siberia and Rashid in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in the same age at the same time, and holds them responsible for their actions? Say if one is born from Muslim father and mother into the Islamic environment whereas the other might have never heard of Islam and been in touch with the aforementioned environment? We can do vice-versa and apply the same theory for Christianity and other religions. Can such a God be just in any sense of justice? To this end, I will deal chiefly with the issue of absolute justice as it pertains to the issue of free will. I believe the theories that I put forward could be applicable irrespective of faith and religious differences. Of course, the issue of salvation is an even bigger issue and it is out of the subject at hand here.

Before we continue, I would like to emphasize that our focus is neither meta-ethical, nor epistemic. I am not concerned here with the question of the ontological basis of justice, nor with how we can know what is just.

Justice functions in different spheres. While seemingly obvious, this is an important point because how the absolute nature of justice is perceived may differ according to the particular sphere in which justice functions. This perception differs in accordance with whether we are talking about God’s absolute justice towards His creatures, the absolute justice reflected in human beings, or about the relative justice of man towards his fellow beings and other creatures that he shares the universe with. As Nursi states, the purpose of human existence is to manifest God’s Names and exhibit their marvels before the eyes of creatures. In this paper, we take justice as the reflection of the Divine name of Just (al-Adl) as it appears to us in free-will-related justice and we will try to understand how this is reflected in Nursi’s writings.

It is important to take into account Nursi’s terminology, in particular his categorization of the Divine names and attributes into the Glorious (Jalali), the Amiable (Jamali), and the Absolute (Kamali). Under the umbrella of the first, there is the name Compassionate (Rahman), which Nursi connects particularly to this world, where it manifests itself in its most perfect form as distributive justice; under the umbrella of the latter, there is the name Merciful (Rahim), which Nursi connects primarily to the hereafter, where it manifests itself in its most perfect form as retributive justice. Under the umbrella of the third category, there is the name Just (Adl), which Nursi connects to both worlds, where it manifests itself in its most perfect form as absolute justice.

First, I shall present an outline of my conclusions regarding free-will-related justice; we shall then see what these conclusions teach us about the unjust appearance of different environments designed for competition (imtihan). Justice is one of the key concepts in Nursi’s discourse. He states that the fundamental aims of the Quran are fourfold: divine unity (tawhid), prophethood (nubuwwa), the resurrection of the dead (hashr), and justice (adala).

Before I go any further, I would once again like to express my gratitude to the Smilansky’s article on which most of the following of this article is based. It has given me great inspiration and ideas. I have simply adapted some of his examples and arguments and applied my arguments and conclusions of the Nursian approach to them.

Mimar Sinan example

Let’s look at an example given by Similansky and adapt it here. Imagine two men who wish to be a great architect like Mimar Sinan (d. 1588), the famous chief architect of the Ottomans. One of them is from a small provincial town While he has had both the time and training to develop his architectural talents, they have never been more than mediocre. The other man is from a well-known rich family. He has, on the other hand, acquired all the great skills and qualities to turn out to be a great architect. In fact with a rich family and great chain of ancestry, he seems to have all the qualities to become famous, if not more.

These men go to Istanbul and are confronted with the wonderful arts of Mimar Sinan and are overcome with envy and a sense of injustice. The classical argument might be that there is a sense in which the differences between these men and Sinan seem unfair and unjust. Neither men are responsible for this difference, nor have they consented to it: it is an arbitrary, brute fact, not following from any ethical decision-making process. Our men feel unfortunate and the state they are in is hardly their fault, so how can we say that it is not unfair and unjust? They have not created beautiful buildings and monuments like Sinan and thus do not deserve the latter’s acclaim; therefore, may one not argue that our man does deserve to be as famous as Sinan?

There seem to be a number of options open to us in our evaluation of this issue in the classical philosophical approaches to justice. Firstly, we can discount the whole matter as not one of justice, since no human agency is responsible for the man’s comparative lack of talent or fame. According to this option, injustice occurs only when one agent has wronged another and – the issue of Divine decree apart – no one has wronged our men. So, this position blames the Divine for this seemingly unjust situation.

Another way of understanding this would be to say that the situation is neither just, nor unjust. It is not just that our men lack the fame of Sinan (they do not deserve not to; it is sheer luck, after all), but neither is it an injustice. There is simply a “limbo.”

Similarly much can happen to people that is not a result of their free choice and, hence, is not within their control and cannot be just in terms of the core conception. People who become severely ill through no fault of their own, are laid off after years of work in a massive company work-force reductions, or lose close relatives in car accidents are only a few among many possible examples.

Bediuzzaman’s cup example

Nursi offers a different solution here: God has designed life and anything related to it with a precise and just measure. As an analogy, let’s think that every individual is given a special cup, and he/she is asked to fill it. That everyone’s cups come in different sizes signifies that everyone’s test is different. It’s possible one has a small Turkish tea cup and the other has a British coffee cup and the other has an American extra large size coke cup. The test is designed with varying components, like coming from different families, in different countries, with different backgrounds and means. However, all these do not make the test or competition for salvation unjust. Since, the sizes of cups are specially designed for every individual, so that one’s effort to fill his cup would not differ from another’s effort to fill his/her different sized cup.

From the point of view of absolute justice, everyone will be tested according to their particularly designed circumstance, with some fundamental choices being same – like that of submission. Nobody, one way or another, chooses to be born either in an Islamic environment or, say, in an Inuit environment. Therefore, there is no inequality and injustice. When Nursi uses Sadi Taftazani’s definition of “iman” – or belief – he quotes, “belief is a light revealed into someone’s heart after that person’s – be it he or she – use of free will.” Wherever or whatever one was born into, depending on the size of their cups, one has to make a conscious choice of submission and use their free will, like in the story of Hay Bin Yakzan, who was on an island isolated from everything. Questioning starts from the outer world in nature; whereas in the case of a Sufi, let’s say Abd al Qadir Gilani, questioning starts from the inner world. They both need to question and act, contest and challenge, in accordance with their predesigned, mysterious competition, but eventually they will be held responsible in accordance with their cup sizes and use of free will.

Nursi believes that that all virtues and perfections are products of coming into existence and that the basis of all rebellion, calamities, and defects are of non-existence. As a result, existence is pure good, while non-existence is pure evil:

Existence is entirely good, for it generates every beauty and perfection; non-existence [which absorbs every good like black holes] is purely evil, for all sin and misfortune originate in it. Given this, whatever contains a hint of non-existence contains an element of evil. So, life, the most brilliant light of existence, becomes stronger as it is confronted with different circumstances. It is purified and perfected through contradictory events and happenings, and produces the desired results by assuming different qualities. Thus it testifies to the impresses of Names of the Giver of life. It is because of this subtle reality that living creatures pass through many states and experience pains, tribulations and hardship, through which the lights of existence are continuously renewed in their lives, and the darkness of non-existence draws distant and their lives are purified. In quality and as conditions, idleness, inertia, and monotony are aspects of nonexistence. Monotony reduces even the greatest pleasure to nothing.

[S]ince life displays the impresses of God’s All-Beautiful Names, everything occurring in it is beautiful. Consider this: A very rich and infinitely skilled clothes designer uses an ordinary model to display his works of art in return for wages. He requires the model to dress in a jeweled and artistically fashioned garment that illustrates his work’s art and his invaluable wealth. He continues to modify the garment while the model wears it. Does the model have any right to say: “Your orders to bow and stand up are causing me trouble. Your cutting and shortening of this garment, which makes me more beautiful, spoils my beauty.” Can the model accuse the designer of treating him unkindly and unfairly?

Similarly, in order to display the impresses of His All-Beautiful Names, the Maker of Majesty, the peerless All-Originating, alters within numerous circumstances the garment of existence He clothes on living creatures, bejeweled with senses, reason, intellect, and heart. Circumstances that appear to be calamitous and painful are actually rays of Divine Mercy within gleams of Wisdom and contain subtle beauties. They show the acts and impresses of the Divine All-Beautiful Names. (Twenty-Sixth Word, p. 490-1)

It is in this regard he even goes further and Nursi discuses, from the point of view of Divine Justice or adalet-i mahza, that one cannot harm his own self and body; they have been bestowed on you by God. He also goes even further to explain that you cannot abuse or misuse animals, plants, or anything else that maintains life; we neither own, nor control them. We can only use and control as little as is necessary to maintain our lives. Furthermore, we will be held responsible and questioned about the things and animals we use, abuse or misuse.


We see that in classical philosophical terms, things could be both just and unjust. However, in reality, nothing can be both just and unjust. It is simply that things which appear unjust to us are in reality just from the point of view of Divine decree and Justice. Philosophically, it is quite acceptable that something can be both just and unjust. However, the implications of this for our explication of the Nursian perspective are that as a believer, of course, Nursi would deny that some things can be both just and unjust: it is as meaningless as saying that something can be both black and white at the same time. However, working from Nursi’s cup analogy, we can talk about apparent or relative justice/injustice, which can exist at the same time as absolute justice. In actual fact, whatever happens is, ultimately, a manifestation of pure or absolute justice, although — and particularly in the retributive sense — it often appears as the opposite.


  1. Nursi, Bediuzzaman Said. 2010. The Words, NJ: Tughra Books.