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· Return to Istanbul




Soon after giving his Sermon, Bediuzzaman left Damascus for Beirut, and from there took the boat for Izmir and Istanbul. His intention in returning to Istanbul was to renew his efforts to found the Medresetu'z-Zehra or Eastern University. The last part of Munazarat is devoted to this ideal of Bediuzzaman's, and he many years later described it as "the spirit and foundation" of the work. Thus, after his long travels through the region he resolved to get official support and backing for the construction of the university, reaffirmed in his conviction that it was the most comprehensive and far-reaching solution for the region's problems. And this time he was to have success, though the tide of events finally prevented the realization of his project.




· The Rumelia Journey




On 5 June, 1911, Sultan Mehmed Resad set out with a large retinue on his famous Rumelia Journey. It was to be the last time an Ottoman sultan visited the European provinces, for soon they were all to be lost to the Empire. The previous year had seen the first Albanian uprising. The purpose of the Sultan's journey was to reawaken feelings of patriotism and solidarity among the various peoples of Macedonia and Albania in the face of the upsurge of nationalism, and to secure social calm. On the request of the Palace, Bediuzzaman joined those accompanying the Sultan as the representative of the Eastern Provinces.


Traveling by sea to Salonica, the Sultan and his party stayed there two days, and then continued their Journey by train, arriving at Skopje on 11 June. In the same compartment as Bediuzzaman on the train were two school teachers who had studied modem science. A discussion of great relevance started between the three on their asking Bediuzzaman: "Which is more necessary and should be stronger, religious zeal or national zeal?" The gist of Bediuzzaman's answer was that "With us Muslims religion and nationality are united, although there is a theoretical, apparent, and incidental difference between them... Religious zeal and Islamic nationhood have completely fused in Turk and Arab and may not now be separated..." And by means of a comparison in which Muslims were represented by a six-yearold child and Europeans or unbelievers by the heroes Hercules and Rustam, he demonstrated the unassailable strength of belief in Divine Unity. Related from some elderly inhabitants of Skopje who recalled the visit was the following description of Bediuzzaman:


"Bediuzzaman was wearing boots. His moustaches were short and his eyes brilliant. He was a handsome, imposing young man with a darkish complexion. He carried a Circassian, gold tula-work whip and at his waist was an ivory-handled dagger. Within a short time he was known in Skopje as `Bediuzzaman Molla Said Efendi.' The Skopje ulema came group by group to visit him and put their questions to him.


"Bediuzzaman was immediately next to Sultan Resad while the Sultan was greeting the people from the balcony of the High School in Skopje, which was later destroyed by an earthquake. Thousands of Skopjans gave them the most enthusiastic reception."


On 16 June, the Sultan and his retinue arrived in Kosova from Pristina, and in the large open space where the tomb of Sultan Murad Hudavendigar is situated, they performed the Friday Prayers, a congregation of two hundred thousand. It was an unforgettable and nostalgic occasion.


While in Kosova, there was much talk of a large university they were attempting to found there, doubtless for reasons similar to Bediuzzaman's Medresetu'z-Zehra. It provided Bediuzzaman with just the opportunity he had been waiting for. He suggested to Sultan Resad and the CUP leaders who were accompanying him that the East was in greater need of a university such as that, for it was like the centre of the Islamic world. They accepted his arguments and promised that a university would be opened in the Eastern Provinces. At the end of the following year, the Balkan War broke out and Kosova was lost to the Empire, whereupon Bediuzzaman applied for the nineteen thousand gold liras allotted to its proposed university. His application was accepted. He then returned to Van and on a site on the shores of Lake Van at Edremit, finally laid the foundations of the Medresetu’z-Zehra. But it was not to be. With the outbreak of the First World War shortly afterwards, the construction was halted and never resumed.


Sultan Resad and his accompanying party completed their visit to Rumelia on returning to Salonica. There they once again boarded the warship Barbaros and attendant vessels, and, being greeted by a cannon-salute at Canakkale, retraced their path to Istanbul. There, on 26 June, they were met by large welcoming crowds. The trip had lasted three weeks.


The tide that was flowing against the Ottomans was running too strongly by this time, however, to be stemmed by such gestures, despite the Sultan's enthusiastic reception on the trip and the large demonstrations of loyalty. The nationalists and separatists continued to receive support from the foreign powers, but more than anything it was CUP misrule that exacerbated the already volatile situation and led finally to the end of Turkey in Europe with the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. Also in late 1911 there had been the Tripolitanian War: Italy had attacked Tripoli and Benghazi, modem-day Libya, and they too were lost to the Empire. The Italians went on to occupy the Dodacanese Islands and bombard the entrance to the Dardanelles. And with the outbreak of the Balkan War in November 1912, Greece seized the Aegean Islands, and Salonica was also lost. The deposed Sultan Abdulhamid was hurriedly removed from his place of exile and taken to Beylerbeyi Palace in Istanbul. The unexpected occupation of Tripoli added to the other events caused a political crisis in Istanbul and the CUP were ousted from power for a period of some six months, from July 1912 until the famous `Raid on the Sublime Porte' in January 1913 led by Enver Pasa. After the liberation of Edirne in July 1913, Enver was made Minister of War, and it was he who set up the alliance with Germany the following year which brought Turkey into the First World War on the side of the Central Powers.




· The Special Organization




Nevertheless, these stark facts of the Ottoman demise mask truly heroic efforts on the part of numbers of largely unsung heroes to maintain its wholeness and regain the independence it had bartered away to the European powers over a period of some hundred years. One of the main organizations to undertake this at this time was the Teskilat-i Mahsusa, or Special Organization. The Special Organization has remained little known in Turkey even, and it is thanks to the publishing enterprises of the historian Cemal Kutay to whom its founder and chief, Esref Sener Kuscubasi (1873-1964), Ieft all his memoirs and papers that we learn of the prominent role Bediuzzaman played in the Organization.


It will be recalled that when Bediuzzaman first visited Istanbul in 1896 it was in the residence of Esref Kuscubasi’s father, Mustafa Bey, that he stayed. His close friendship with Esref Bey began at this time. According to one source, Esref Bey founded the Special Organization together with Baytar Miralay Rasim Bey the following year in Mecca. Its purpose was to gather intelligence for the cause of Islamic Unity, and it was opposed to Abdulhamid's despotism. Another source states that he founded the Organization in 1903 as a clandestine revolutionary society working for the restoration of the Constitution.s After the dethronement of Abdulhamid, the new Sultan, Mehmet Resad, made it an official intelligence service by imperial rescript working for national security and unity. It became the Empire's main security organization, and played an important role in all the main actions of the Tripolitanian, Balkan, and First World Wars. When he became Minister of War, Sultan Resad made Enver Pasa its Commander-in-Chief; however, it remained independent of the State in its operations. Within its ranks were leading intellectual and religious figures, as well as figures from the military establishment and from all fields and walks of life. Mehmed Akif was a member, as was Abdurresid Ibrahim, both old and close associates of Bediuzzaman's. The realization of Islamic Unity continued to be one of the major areas of its activities. Cemal Kutay describes Bediuzzaman as one of its chief theorists and planners in this area, as well as being one its most active members. As one of its propaganda exercises for Islamic Unity, the Special Organization undertook the preparation and distribution of the Cihad Fetva, or religious ruling calling on all Muslims to unite in Holy War against the Entente Powers at the beginning of the First World War. Bediuzzaman played an active role in both its preparation and the distribution.


Cemal Kutay mentions that the person closest to Bediuzzaman in his ideas on Islamic Unity was the poet Mehmed Akif. When in Istanbul, they used frequently to forgather in the offices of the Sirat-i Mustakim, later renamed Sebilurresad. Mehmed Akif was the chief writer for the magazine, which was published by Esref Edip Fergan. Like the poet, Bediuzzaman made a fine brew of tea, and it was he who used to boil up the samovar whenever he visited the Sebilürresad. On one occasion, he translated the following lines of Akif's into Persian, Arabic, and Kurdish:


Your nation was Islam; this nationalism, what is it?


Ah, your nation, if only you had clung to it.


What's being Albanian? Has it a place in the Seriat?


Unbelief it is, advancing your people, not the rest!


What superiority has Arab over Turk,


Persian over Chinese, or Laz over Circassian or Kurd?


What is this? Has Islam now undergone division?


But the Prophet cursed the idea of racialism.


The greatest enemy of division is His spirit,


May the ... .'s name who introduced it into Islam be forgotten!




· The Balkan War




But nationalism was now a fire that could not easily be quenched. Towards the end of 1912, the Balkan War broke out when, seeking their independence; four states united and attacked the Ottomans. Again from Cemal Kutay we learn that as a member of the Special Organization, Bediuzzaman participated in some of the most valiant actions of this disastrous war as an Honorary Colonel commanding a militia force brought from Eastern Anatolia. According to Esref Kuscubasi’s younger brother, Selim Sami, on whose right flank he fought in the Kalikratya [Kumburgaz] division, "With his athletic physique and dress peculiar to himself, Bediuzzaman fought in the front line like a true hero."


In his memoirs, Esref Bey mentions the retaking of Edirne and the setting-up of the short-lived republic in Western Thrace, and Bediuzzaman's appreciation of Abdulhamid's successful policy of preventing the Balkan states uniting against the Ottomans. It was the CUP's failure to continue the policy that had allowed the present situation to arise:


"We were in the darkest days of the Balkan War. The Bulgarians were drawn up before Catalca. Differences had arisen among the enemy; they were attacking one another. In the Peace Conference in London, the Bulgarians were determined not to return Edirne and it was vital to put [additional] pressure on the Bulgarian Front, which was being shaken by bold action over and above the consent of the Government. And this, the Special Organization undertook to do.


"In truth, the heroic deeds which soothed our hearts at that bitter time did not stop at delivering only Edirne, we set up an independent state in Western Thrace, too. It was the first republic of that sort successfully set up, and ten years before the Republic established in Ankara in 1923.


"Because, through our own negligence and lack of foresight and with our own hands, we had put an end to the deep differences between the Greek and Bulgarian Churches which Sultan Hamid had so masterfully perpetuated for thirty years, Athens and Sofya were reconciled. Then the Serbs and Montenegrans joined them, and they set up themselves up against us as a quadripartite alliance. Bediuzzaman and I were together in the fight to save Edirne and Western Thrace. One time we were having a discussion weighing up events; after addressing me in the gracious way he always did as "my respected commander", he said:


"`I complained to Sultan Hamid himself in his own palace because he did not prefer the learned institution [the ulema] to Yildiz Palace, which I considered to be among the duties of Sultan and Caliph. However right I was to criticize him in that matter, it is necessary to praise and publicize his efforts in administering the Balkans for thirty or so years without raising any trouble. If I do not carry out my duty now, my conscience will be uneasy.'


"And he wrote a letter making known these feelings to the former Sultan , who was virtually a prisoner in Beylerbeyi Palace, and presented it by means of Major Rasim Celaleddin Bey, who was at that time the officer responsible for protecting the former monarch."'


Cemal Kutay also recorded the following description of Bediuzzaman at that time given to him by Esref Bey in person when they together visited Bediuzzaman in Emirdag in 1953:


"As you know, I already knew him in 1896 when he came on the recommendation of Yahya Nuzhet Pasa to Istanbul to our house in Serencebey Yokusu in Besiktas. He had a power to influence that no one who met him could easily forget. In later years, his meeting with Sultan Abdulhamid, his being sent to Toptasi Asylum and the way he got out of it, and his refusing the Sultan's offers of position and wealth all attracted attention to himself. He was straightforward, natural, and unobliged. In those days he had his own way of dressing. He was of athletic build and very handsome. He rode a fine horse and was an excellent shot. He read continually, whenever he had the opportunity. When he had mentioned an event, a name, a text, just once, his memory could henceforth recall it totally and without error from his unconscious at the required moment. He used to listen to the person he was talking to carefully and in silence. And when he started to speak, the person felt himself compelled to listen to him with respect and in silence also.


"I shall tell you of an incident I have not told anyone of before that illustrates this gift of his: when we set up the Western Thrace Government, we fell out with Istanbul. The Grand Vizier, Said Halim Pasa was hesitant and timid, and frightened of some new problem arising. A delegation under the leadership of Cemal Pasa came from Istanbul in order to make us consent to leaving Western Thrace to Greece in return for our taking Edirne. Ali Fetih was one of the delegation; he was later Prime Minister. Fethi and I were together in the ranks of the Special Organization in Tripolitania.


"We were in complete control of the situation, and Great Britain, France, Italy, and Rumania had recognized the legitimacy of the Western Thrace Government. Cemal Pasa said that this recognition was temporary, and that in a short while we would be on our own, and also that Istanbul was not in a position to help us. Our foreign affairs were in the hands of Tevfik Rustu, later Foreign Minister for the Republic. As he was preparing to reply to Cemal Pasa, Bediuzzaman spoke and recalled - using exactly his words - that Cemal Pasa had said when the Bulgarians were drawn up before Catalca that he would kiss the feet of those who would save Edirne:


"`Do not kiss our feet,' he said, ` but do not prevent us either. Conditions were no better for those who conquered this country centuries ago than they are for us now. This nation's history is full of the marvels of its brave, believing sons. The politics of the day are making you deceive yourself.' Only Bediuzzaman could have said that in those circumstances, and to Cemal Pasa..."


On 10 August 1913, the Second Balkan War came to an end with the Treaty of Bucharest. Turkey had retaken Edirne, as we have seen, and all of Eastern Thrace. However, the Republic of Western Thrace was to be short-lived: on the peace agreement between the Ottomans and Bulgaria being signed in Istanbul on 29 September, it was returned to Bulgaria.




· Return to Van -1913




Sometime previously to this Bediuzzaman had returned to Van, for it was at that time that he laid the foundations for the Medresetu'z-Zehra. His old patron and friend Tahir Pasa, the Governor of Van, was present at the ceremony, and both he and Bediuzzaman gave speeches. The occasion was marked by further celebrations and a banquet.


During his researches in the Archives of the Prime Minister's Office in Istanbul, Necmeddin Sahiner has unearthed twenty or so documents concerning this matter, most of which bear the seal and signature of Tahsin Bey, the Governor of Van, and are addressed to the Palace and Sultan Resad. N. Sahiner writes that Sultan Resad was well-informed of the progress of the project. In the letter he quotes, dated 4 Haziran 1329 (17 June 1913), the Governor writes to the Grand Vizier's Office that all the ulema, notables, and tribal chiefs of the area were requesting the speedy payment of sufficient money "from the Imperial pocked' - only a small amount had been paid up to that time due to the financial straits of the Government - to begin the construction of an Islamic university for eighty students in Van, the plans and preliminaries of which had already been completed. It was hoped the running costs would be met by the Imperial Estates. He writes it would be an important point of support for the continued existence of Islam and the Ottomans [in the area] in the face of daily increasing Shi'i propaganda and the ignorance of the Kurdish people. It would strengthen feeling for Islam and remove every sort of misunderstanding, and would be most beneficial and effective.


While in Van, Bediuzzaman spent much of his time teaching his students in his medrese, the Horhor, which took its onomatopoeic name from the spring that rose at its side. A young visitor to the medrese described it as follows: "There was a green-covered table in Bediuzzaman's medrese in Horhor on which he had written out in thumb-tacks the Hadith: `Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.' He himself taught the students when they had finished studying. His students were all selected. He taught about twenty-five of them. He was very fond of me and never called me by my name; he used to call me `nephew'. Before the War he used to stay in Nursin and Husrev Pasa Mosques..."


It was also during this visit to the East that what was known as the Bitlis Incident occurred, when, in July 1913, rebelling against the irreligious behavior of some of the military commanders of the Government, Seyh Selim of Hizan occupied the town for a week. The Seyh had first approached Bediuzzaman seeking his support. But as on numerous occasions including the much larger Seyh Said revolt in 1925, Bediuzzaman declined, refusing to draw his sword against fellow Muslims. He told the Seyh:


"Those bad things and that irreligious behavior is peculiar to commanders like those. The Army is not responsible for them. There are perhaps a hundred thousand saints in the Ottoman Army; I will not draw my sword against it. I will not join you." He continued: "Those people left me, drew their swords, and the futile Bitlis Incident occurred. A short time, later, the First World War broke out, and the Army took part in it in the name of religion, it undertook the Holy War. A hundred thousand martyrs from the Army attained the rank of sainthood, and confirming what I had said, signed their diplomas of sainthood with their blood..."




· Outbreak of the First World War and the Proclamation of Holy War




It seems likely that the outbreak of War in November 1914 saw Bediuzzaman back in Istanbul. According to Esref Kuscubasi, initially Bediuzzaman thought the Ottomans should remain neutral, "but on the War breaking out, he took up arms and hastened to the front."


Three days after the Ottomans, together with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had declared war on the Triple Entente, that is, Britain, France, and Russia, they proclaimed it a Holy War. Their aim in this was to call on all Muslims throughout the world to unite under the banner of the Caliphate, and rid the Islamic lands of the imperialist yoke of Europe. That they should have done so is understandable when it is remembered that, as has been mentioned, the movement for Islamic Unity or `Caliphate Policy', to which Sultan Abdulhamid had attached such importance, had been continued by the CUP after the Constitutional Revolution. And despite the rise of nationalism among even some of the Muslim peoples of the Empire, the Caliphate continued to be a potent means of mobilizing Islamic feeling, and a point round which Muslims would rally. It is also interesting to note the terms in which the British Prime Minister of the time, Lloyd George, saw the war with the Ottomans. Cemal Kutay quotes him as saying: "...the Crusaders have begun their Crusade and shall continue until they reach their aim and goal: we shall bring down the Crescent!..."


Thus, just as it had been the Special Organization who had been responsible for both providing the theory for the Caliphate Policy, and putting it into practice for the CUP, so too, according to Cemal Kutay, it was the Organization who undertook both the preparation of the fetva proclaiming the Holy War together with the Seyhu’l- Islam’s Office, and its dangerous and difficult distribution. A committee of five religious scholars prepared the fetva: Seyhü’l-Islam Hayri Efendi, Seyh Sanusi, Mahmut Efendi, Hamdi Yazir, and Bediuzzaman Said Nursi.


With what remained of the Ottoman Empire being the only Muslim lands unoccupied by enemy powers, the distribution of the cihad proclamation called for much ingenuity and daring. It was undertaken by the Special Organization together with the Germans, who, besides printing in Germany millions of copies of the proclamation in all the myriad languages of the Muslim lands, provided assistance for the groups .dispatched to every point of the compass, including submarines.


Again we learn from Cemal Kutay that Bediuzzaman together with Esref Kuscubasi, were members of a group of twenty which set off in the spring of 1915 by submarine for North Africa from Antalya on Turkey's southem coast. From another work, we have a description of this dangerous mission from the pen of Esref Bey himself:


"...We could not have got from Egypt to Tripoli. The bold way was to travel by German submarine and come up on the shores of Benghazi. We knew the endless small inlets of the coast well. Suson Pasa, who joined the meeting, gave guarantees that the German Navy would manage the matter...


"The German Naval Ministry set aside the best submarines. These would take aboard Turkish and German officers, a mobile medical squad, and a number of select theorists and religious scholars, and secretly put them ashore at Tripoli.


"Among the `idcas men' and men of religion in the group was Seyh Salih Serif Tunusi. He was advisor to the Of ice of the Commander-in-Chief of the Special Organization, and its representative. Secondly, there was Bediuzzaman, who had the authority and standing to have given the first political and religious address in Freedom Square in Salonica after the proclamation of the Constitution. There was Emir Ali Pasa’s grandson, Suleyman Nasuh. As political advisor to the Group was Muhsin Setvan Bey, the brother of Yusuf Setvan Bey, the Deputy for Benghazi. And from the Royal Family was Prince Osman Fuat Efendi, the grandson of Sultan Murad V; he was going to go to Tripoli with a number of officers in a different submarine. We ; had chosen tested people possessing absolutely the qualities sought among men of ideas and religion. Enver Pasa completed our - the Special Organization's - preparations by appointing his own brother, Nuri Pasa, as commander of the military forces in Benghazi.


"We came ashore at night at a pre-arranged place in Benghazi without mishap or misadventure after a Journey the greater part of which had passed beneath the surface. And when we were successful in moving inland, our hopes increased. Our families, even, did not know where we were, and our closest friends thought we were employed elsewhere.


"We waited a while for the other submarines to arrive. Despite the Italian and British fleets which were patrolling the area, the others were able to come ashore continuously, thanks to experience from the 1911 War and the signaling of the local sailors, who were bound to us from the heart. Almost four years had passed since our struggles here against the Italians. 0ur old fighting partners came to find us and greeted us eagerly. Three of us were going to ,Seyh Ahmed Sanusi; Seyh Salih ,Serif Tunusi, Bediuzzaman, and myself. The oldest of us was Seyh Salih serif Tunusi, who was over sixty. Bediuzzaman was around forty years of age. And I was two years older than this friend of mine who had fought in the Balkan War in the ranks of the Special Organization and whose strength and courage were as exceptional as his mind and knowledge. I knew the Benghazi-Jaghbub road, for I had traveled it twice while fighting against the Italians in 1911. In the stopping-places, everything was provided for travelers through those endless, empty, solitary sands; they were welcomed and all their needs catered for.


"Seyyid Ahmed Sanusi greeted us with courtesy and modesty. Since I was an old friend, he showed me particular attention. He was well-informed about Seyh Salih Serif Tunusi and Bediuzzaman. They won the Sanusi Seyh’s admiration with their extensive eloquent, eloquent Arabic, and reassuringly wide knowledge of both religious and worldly subjects. Besides our discussions on how the proposals we had brought with us should be carried out, all the time we were the Seyh’s guests, 0ur discussions on religious subjects also continued. When the day for our departure was drawing close, Seyh Sanusi found a pretext for a private meeting with me...


"On our departure, Seyh Sanusi embraced each of us separately: `Do not stint on your prayers for succour and success. I shall await the military ad visors. May Almighty God protect us always. Amen!'


"Hopes had been tied to Seyh Sanusi's attitude. I had explained the situation. I recommended that as far as it was possible, the basic effort should be for the German assistance to be satisfactory, continuous, and if possible with previously made inventories. Leaving Seyh Salih serif Tunusi at Benghazi, I returned with Bediuzzaman. The German aid of weapons and ammunition were conveyed to Benghazi and Derne by various ways, and, being taken inland by camel-train, were there collected together for transport to Western Egypt"


It may also be noted here that this visit to ,Seyh Ahmed Sanusi was instrumental in securing the active participation of this influential and staunch supporter of the Caliphate and Islamic Unity in the liberation of occupied ' Turkey following World War I. As is well-known, founded as a movement for the revitalization of Islam, the Sanusiyya in North Africa played an important role countering expanding French influence in the 19 th century. In the early 1900's, Seyh Ahmed Sanusi took over as leader of the movement, which took to arms alongside the Ottoman forces in the defense of Tripoli [modem Libya] against Italian aggression in 1911. His close association with Esref Kuscubasi, Enver Bey, and other Ottoman leaders dated from this time. Seyh Sanusi was invited to Istanbul in 1918, and was subsequently sent to Ankara by Sultan Vahideddin to persuade Mustafa Kemal to give up his opposition to the institution of the Caliphate and Sultanate. He stayed in Turkey till the final victory of the 'Turks in the War of Independence in which he played no small part. He was given the position of `General Preacher', and traveled the eastern and southern provinces in particular addressing the people and getting them to unite with the Ankara Government and the national straggle. It was Seyh Ahmed Sanusi's position of `General Preacher' that, among other things, Mustafa Kemal was to offer to Bediuzzaman in 1923 when trying secure his support, but Bediuzzaman declined to accept them, as we shall see.

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