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The Eighty-Twenty Rule in the Risale-i Nur
Nov 1, 2008

The famous Islamic scholar Bediüzzaman Said Nursi (1877-1960) referred to mathematics in various forms in various places in his work the Risale-i Nur. In the different parts of the Risale-i Nur Collection, numerous examples, from simple arithmetic to jifr and abjad (the studies of deriving numerical values such as dates from Arabic words, particularly Qur’anic verses and hadiths), and to probability calculations, are used to explain Qur’anic verses. When we read Bediüzzaman’s works, we realize that either Bediüzzaman was aware of the Pareto Rule, or he discovered it by himself. The Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) observed that eighty percent of the income of a country was received by 20% of the country’s population. Later, this principle was generalized as eighty percent of the consequences stem from twenty percent of the causes. This principle is called “the eighty-twenty rule” today. If we extend this rule, it is possible to say that eighty percent of problems are solved with twenty percent of the effort expended. The other eighty percent of the effort only solves the remaining twenty percent of problems. So what needs to be done is to separate the smaller number of factors with more impact from the greater number of factors with less impact on the outcome in order to solve eighty percent of problems with twenty percent the effort.

Let me give you some everyday examples. For instance, most customer complaints (eighty percent) stem from a very few reasons (twenty percent). Eighty percent of problems in a company are caused by twenty percent of the employees. This idea is often applied to data such as sales figures: twenty percent of clients are responsible for eighty percent of sales volume. Eighty percent of our expenditure, stems from twenty percent of the items we buy. If we can differentiate cheap items from expensive items, then, we can develop ways to save on our shopping. We need to realize that we make eighty percent of our phone calls to the same twenty percent of our acquaintances. If we look at the clothes we wear, we realize that eighty percent of the time we wear the same twenty percent of them. We can also use this principle to plan our daily schedule and to order things according to their importance. For example, we may calculate the length of the time to do something and determine the importance of the thing we are to do. We calculate the percentages according to all the things waiting to be done. Later, with twenty percent of our time, we put our attention and energy into the things which carry eighty percent of the importance. We leave the things with twenty percent importance to later because those things require eighty percent of our time. What needs to be observed here is that quality is preferred over quantity. Some of us postpone tasks which can be done in a short time, due to the belief that we can somehow do it later. According to the Pareto Principle, it is not a good idea to delay things which are important in terms of quality even if they take a bit of our time to carry out.

Bediüzzaman used this rule very intelligently in his works in terms ofat explaining the wisdom behind seeming realities. manay-Ii harfi. For example, in the answer to the second question under the Twelfth Letter, Bediüzzaman uses the Pareto Principle persuasively as an answer to the following question: “As sending Prophets has caused many or even most people to become unbelievers because of Satan’s seduction, how can you say that creating evil things and acts is good, that raising Prophets is a mercy for humanity?”

In this answer, Bediüzzaman emphasizes the importance of quality over quantity. According to him, quantity has no importance in relation to quality. Moreover, Bediüzzaman shows that it is not an evil to lose atheists and hypocrites, who are many but less important in terms of quality, when you compare them with prophets, saints, and the righteous who are few, in terms of quantity. It is interesting that he uses a twenty percent to eighty percent ratio in each of his two examples:

“As quality is always far more important than quantity, we should consider only qualitative values in making our judgment. To cite an example: 100 date-stones are worth only 100 cents until they are planted and grow into palm trees. But if only 20 grow into trees and the remaining 80 rot because of over-watering, how can you say it is an evil to plant and water them? Everyone would agree that it is wholly good to have 20 trees at the expense of 80 date-stones, since 20 trees will give 20,000 date-stones.

Again, 100 peacock eggs are worth maybe 500 cents. But if she sits on the eggs and only 20 hatch, who can say it is an evil that 80 eggs were spoiled in return for 20 peacocks? On the contrary, it is wholly good to have 20 peacocks at the expense of 80 eggs, because the 20 peacocks will be worth far more than the eggs and will lay more eggs.”

In another example, Bediüzzaman explains why he remained distant from politics in the Thirteenth Letter as a response to the third question:

“…We are travelers in this world. Basing myself on the Qur’an’s light, I say that humanity has reached a marsh in this century. Whole caravans of humanity are trying, with great difficulty, to advance in this putrid marsh. A small minority follow a safe way and some have extricated themselves, but the majority continues to flail around in the dark. Although 20 percent of this majority seems quite happy with this struggle, mistaking its dirt and filth for musk and ambergris, whereas the other 80 percent knows that it is in a filthy marsh but cannot see the safe path (leading them out). We must bring that majority out of the marsh. To do so, we must use a mace to knock the 20 percent back to its senses or provide the 80 percent with a light to see a way to safety. I see that most people hold maces, but almost no one gives light to the helpless 80 percent. If some still have light, they are not trusted because they also carry maces. People are afraid of being beaten after being drawn to the light. Besides, the light may be extinguished

if the mace is broken.”

In this example, Bediüzzaman states that the first thing that needs to be done for those who have deviated from the right path is to show them the Qur’anic truths instead of helping them through politics which is associated with hitting someone on the head. Again it is interesting to see that Bediüzzaman used the Pareto Principle to explain the example. Bediüzzaman considers human beings to be walking in a dark swamp. Moreover, he believes that the priority is to enlighten most of the people’s road (eighty percent) with a small (twenty percent) effort, rather than to help a small number of people (twenty percent) with a large amount of political power (eighty percent of effort).

In the Twenty-Eighth Letter’s seventh matter, Bediüzzaman emphasizes that twenty percent of scholars surpasses the other eighty percent in terms of quality while he is examining how strong truths seem weak in the hands of weak people: “Eighty percent of mankind are not investigative scholars who can penetrate to reality, recognize reality as reality and accept it as such. They rather accept matters by way of imitation, which they hear from acceptable and reliable people, in consequence of their good opinions of them.”

Therefore, it is possible to say that Bediüzzaman, an investigative observer, found the Pareto Principle without using any contemporary methods such as surveys. Besides being known as an eminent Islamic Scholar and Saint of Islam admired by most of the people, Bediüzzaman use of mathematics, physics, astronomy, and sociology in the Risale-i Nur show us how to contemplate the universe using modern science.

Persuasion through Probability in the Risale-i Nur

Bediüzzaman often uses mathematical logic and probability in his works which were written to save the faith from evil (thought). For instance, under the section on the stratagems of Satan in the Twenty-Ninth Letter, Bediüzzaman states how harmful it can be if you use the feeling of fear against its purpose of creation. He gives an example of how he persuaded a person, who had to fear of drowning, to embark on a boat willingly without any fear through giving an excellent example of probability:

An important man (may God’s mercy be upon him) was afraid to travel by boat. One evening, we went to Galata bridge to take the ferry to Eyup.

He did not want to get on, saying that he feared he would drown. When I asked him how many boats were in the Golden Horn, he replied that there might be as many as one thousand. When I asked him how many boats sank each year, he replied usually one or two, and sometimes none.

I made this analogy: “Since a year has 365 days, your chance of drowning is 1:365,000. Why does such a small chance scare you?” I asked: “How much longer do you expect to live?” He answered: “Maybe 10 years; I am old already.” I contunied: “As there are 3,650 days in 10 years, your chance of dying today is 1:3,650. But since we do not know when we will die, you could die at any time. So repent and weep! Write your last will and testament!”

Seeing the truth in my words, he got on the boat even though trembling. On the boat, I told him: “God Almighty placed fear in our nature so that we might preserve our life, not ruin it. He did not give us fear to make life an unbearable burden full of pain and torment. If there is a risk of 1:2 or 1:3 or 1:4, or at most 1:5 or 6, it may be permissible and tolerable to fear and avoid the risk. But to fear a chance of 1:20, 1:30, or 1:40 is groundless suspicion, a sort of paranoia that changes life into a torment.”