Nursi displayed an unusual ability to learn from an early age, completing the normal course of Madrasa (religious school) education at the early age of fourteen, when he obtained his diploma. He became famous for both his prodigious memory and his unbeaten record in debating with other religious scholars. Another characteristic Nursi displayed from an early age was a dissatisfaction with the existing education system, which when older he formulated into comprehensive proposals for its reform.
He was able to recite many books from memory. For instance "... So then he decided to test his memory and handed him a copy of the work by Al-Hariri of Basra (1054–1122) — also famous for his intelligence and power of memory — called Maqamat al-Hariri. Said read one page once, memorized it, then repeated it by heart. Molla Fethullah expressed his amazement."
Said Nursi was born in Nurs, a Turkish village in the Bitlis Vilayet (province) of the Ottoman Empire, in eastern Anatolia. He received his early education from scholars of his hometown, where he showed mastery in theological debates. After developing a reputation for Islamic knowledge, he was nicknamed "Bediuzzaman", meaning "The most unique and superior person of the time". He was invited by the governor of the Vilayet of Van to stay within his residency. In the governor's library, Nursi gained access to an archive of scientific knowledge he had not had access to previously. Said Nursi also learned the Ottoman Turkish language there. During this time, he developed a plan for university education for the Eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire. By combining scientific and religious (Islamic) education, the university was expected to advance the philosophical thoughts of these regions. However, he was put on trial in 1909 for his apparent involvement in the Ottoman countercoup of 1909 against the liberal reform movement named the Committee of Union and Progress, but he was acquitted and released. He was active during the late Ottoman Caliphate as an educational reformer and advocate of the unity of the peoples of the Caliphate. He proposed educational reforms to the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid aiming to put the traditional Madrasah (seminary) training, Sufism (tasawwuf) and the modern sciences in dialogue with each other. During World War I, Nursî was a member of the Ottoman Empire's "Special Organization". In January 1916 he was captured by Russian forces and taken to Russia as a prisoner of war, where he spent over 2 years. He escaped in the spring of 1918 and made his way to Constantinople. His return was welcomed and he was chosen to be a member of Dar-al Hikmat al-Islamiye, an Islamic academy seeking solution for growing problems of ummah
Nursi was a worrying-enough influence for the incipient leader of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to deem it necessary to seek to control him by offering him the position of ‘Minister of Religious Affairs’ for the eastern provinces of Turkey, a post that Nursi famously refused. This was the beginning of his split from the Kemalist circle. Conversely, the secular government in the Republic of Turkey would later stigmatize his attempts to renew traditional faith. Modernization of intellectual culture in Anatolia thusly bifurcated along two approaches: assimilation of occidental understanding; and functionalization of extant liturgics. Nursi was the major contributor to the latter approach, and his early life as a memorization savant enabled him to use scripture for teaching with mnemonic metaphor. Friction between the two spheres of thought led to breakdowns of civility and the eventual reclusion of Nursi.
After arriving in Istanbul, Said Nursi declared: "I shall prove and demonstrate to the world that the Quran is an undying, inexhaustible Sun by updating it to meet modern life requirements!", setting out to write his comprehensive Risale-i Nur, a collection of Said Nursi's own commentaries and interpretations of the Quran and Islam, as well as writings about his own life.