Turkish animation film documents life of Muslim scholar Said Nursi

Yazeed Kamaldien

Nationalism is a strange creature at the best of times and a few decades ago in Turkey its protagonists were determined to wipe out all remnants of the centuries-old Ottoman Empire and its Islamic rule.

In retrospect, it is bizarre to imagine that Turkey’s secular government wanted to prohibit citizens from practising Islam when most locals were Muslim.

Savas Karabulut, a Turkish expatriate living in Cape Town, explains that the secular authority during the 1930s to 1950s wanted to force Muslims to forego religion in favour of serving their government’s ideologies.

Karabulut is the Western Cape branch leader of the non-governmental organisation Turquoise Harmony Institute which promotes inter-faith dialogue and activities.

“For 16 years in the 1950s the Arabic ‘athaan’ (Muslim call to prayer) was forbidden in Turkey. The ‘athaan’ had to be made in Turkish. This meant that many people who were making the ‘athaan’ in Arabic started hiding from the authorities. The Arabic version was legalised again years later,” says Karabulut.

“Everybody was also forced by law to wear western style hats. Wearing the turban (a sign of Islamic influence) was prohibited. Of course not everybody wore hats. Those who were scared of the government did. Many also stopped wearing traditional clothes.

“There was a wave of secularism, communism, socialism and atheism across the world. This reached Turkey too.”

Muslims who stood up against the government were sent into exile or imprisoned. Among them was the well-known Turkish scholar and writer Bediuzzaman Said Nursi who was born in Turkey in 1876 and died there in 1960.

Nursi continued wearing his turban in trying times and challenged the secular state with his writings. While the state eschewed nationalism and secularism, Nursi wanted locals to remain God-conscious.

Nursi’s life story is the subject of a recently released animated film, ‘God’s Faithful Servant’. This Turkish production used motion capture techniques to achieve a more life-like animation. This means that the animation was based on recordings of live human action to ensure that expressions are better captured.

The film’s synopsis informs that it explores Nursi’s “life and teachings in a turbulent climate of political and religious change”. It “details his conflict with the regime that imprisoned and exiled him for his controversial views”.

One reviewer on the widely read and referenced website The Internet Movie Database wrote that this film is the “best sample of the Turkish animation movies”. This reviewer also outlines some of Nursi’s past.

“Nursi became a teacher when he was just 16. When World War 1 began, he joined the militia forces of the Ottoman Empire. While defending a city, he was captured by the Russian army,” writes the reviewer.

“He was a prisoner in Russia for a long time until he ran away and made it to Istanbul which was occupied by the United Kingdom at that time. Nursi began to work on organising protests against the British occupation.”

“He was invited to join the (newly-formed) National Assembly (after Turkey’s independence). He refused that offer and went to his village in Van. He was loved by people and the new government started to consider him a threat. He was sent into exile. Isolation and even poisoning followed in exile.”

Karabulut explains that the film details Nursi’s life in exile. It documents Nursi’s struggle against “fantasised ideologies”. He explains that Nursi had achieved public status because his writing was spreading throughout Turkey.

Bureaucrats banned Nursi’s books but that did not deter reproduction efforts. At least 600,000 hand-written copies were reproduced from 1925 to 1950, when his books were unbanned.

“Turkish people believed that they needed his books especially to protect the new generation who had no Islamic identity. They had a secular ideology,” says Karabulut.

He adds that “many people were confused because of different ideologies” and they “felt hopeless after the Ottoman Empire fell”.

“They thought that religion was not going to help them progress. Western countries got rich very quickly through colonialism. There were people who did not believe in God but Nursi wanted to inspire them to believe again,” he adds.

Karabulut says that this film, which focuses on a prominent Turkish Muslim leader, would not be relevant only to Muslims.

“Two million people in Turkey and Europe have watched it. It is an inspiring movie for the youth. Everybody can take some lessons from stories like this,” says Karabulut.

‘God’s Faithful Servant’ runs for 110 minutes. It will be screened at Ster Kinekor Cinema Nouveau at Cavendish Square on Sunday and Monday at 9:30am, 12:30pm, 2:30pm, 5pm, 7:30pm and 10pm.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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