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A Universal Islamic Phenomenon in Turkish Religious Practice: the Gulen Case
Jul 1, 2009

Fethullah Gulen started his professional career as a traditional imam, trained and certificated by the governmental authorities in Ankara. His innovative ideas of educational and social reform have made him a household name in modern Turkey and increasingly around the world for several decades now. In 2008 he was recognized as the most influential intellectual in the world in a prestigious survey by Foreign Policy journal.

Gulen and those inspired by him have presented a new kind of Islamic intellectualism and altruism coupled with a deeper sense of activism and spirituality that has been missing from many contemporary Muslim movements of the twentieth century. The failure of many politically oriented Muslim movements around the world finds no reflection in the preaching and writing style of Gulen. The revival of other religious groups or non-Islamic religious traditions has not discouraged Gulen in any way from shaping his own ideals of spreading value-based education and people-oriented spirituality and cultural activities.

With the appearance of Muslim nation-states on the political map of the world, different kinds of extreme religious indoctrination have harmed the genuine revival of universal Islamic values. Gulen's preaching demonstrates that he is quite aware of this intellectual weakness of the political movements of his many predecessors to uphold the moral and ethical values derived from Islamic scriptures and traditions. A good number of Muslim countries have based themselves on the nationalist ideals of the people concerned in order to try to prosper politically and economically. Like many Arabs and Persians, in the early years of the Republic many Turks also seemed to want to build a prosperous modern state based solely on nationalist ideals and thus tended to show a discriminatory attitude toward all kinds of religious traditions and phenomena based on religious beliefs. Many Islamic religious symbols were either misused or attacked disproportionately in the political games of capturing and upholding state power. Gulen's voice of moderation surfaced at this juncture of dichotomous Muslim polity and the ideological struggles between extreme forces in the Muslim world. Gulen preached the path of moderation, honesty and sincerity to protect the interests of the masses, irrespective of the ethnicity or the religious practice of particular groups of people.

Unlike some religious leaders and clerics in other parts of the world who are his contemporaries, Gulen has never aimed to overthrow a secular government and replace it with a religiously oriented political party. He has never considered this as an option to eliminate corruption within the state and political system. Gulen finds this unacceptable as it contradicts the core principle of the non-compulsory character of Islamic religious practice and no state or society can be truly transformed merely by such partisan politics. Thus, Gulen has always preferred to promote sound education based on universal values in order to generate a virtuous society.

Modern-day Rumi

Many analysts and authors have called Gulen the modern-day Rumi of Turkey, the land where Rumi was put to rest for eternity in the city of Konya. A thirteenth-century poet, philosopher, and mystic, Rumi is celebrated by both Turks and Iranians, but he is also a matter of contestation between the two nations regarding his ethnic identity. But Rumi's Sufi traditions cut across the lines between nationalistic and sectarian differences, and the truth of the matter is that eight hundred years ago national and ethnic identity played a very insignificant role determining someone's contribution to Muslim civilization. In practice, Gulen has brought that glorious tradition back to the minds of millions of modern and religious Turks.

Gulen is neither a poet nor a mystic in its traditional or typical sense, but perhaps his series of writings on Sufism has earned him the title of Sufi. Gulen's preaching is full of compassion for all, and none of his writings ignite any kind of hatred against anyone. That might be one of the reasons why Gulen has been considered seriously as a Sufi. A second reason could be his lifelong personal piety and austere lifestyle.

Muslims would probably not call Gulen a Mahatma Gandhi of Turkey or the Muslim world, though some Westerners have started to call him a Muslim Gandhi.1 In the substance of his preaching and writing, Gulen is a voice very close to both Rumi and Gandhi; he has always sought truth in bringing people together for the causes of peace and humanity for all, irrespective of race and religion. Like Rumi, Gandhi also never abandoned any of his own religious traditions. However, both of them were disliked, if not hated, by many of their orthodox co-worshipers for their extraordinary humility towards the followers of other religions. Gandhi was killed in 1948 by a Hindu fundamentalist who, like many other orthodox Hindus, believed that Gandhi was betraying the cause of the Hindu religion and that he was influenced by the Muslim intellectuals of British India and the Sufis of South Africa. Away from the persecution of false accusations of igniting religious hatred in Turkey, Gulen lives in the USA where he has proven himself a champion of the cause of inter-faith dialogue and bringing people of all races and religions together to work for peace and harmony between nations and religions.

Spirituality and the Anatolian spirit

Many Muslim authors seem to believe that the modern Western mind is too materialistic to favor the core universal spiritual message of Islam. Thus, many Muslim analysts tend to conclude that it is useless to preach Islamic values to Westerners. Gulen does not accept this simplistic presentation of Western materialism as a barrier to spreading the peaceful message of the Qur'an and Sunnah upon which a compassionate society can be built. He does not believe that Westerners have any inherent problem in appreciating and accepting the spirituality derived from the fundamental sources of Islam; for him the question is how well Muslims can represent Islamic spirituality and the universal message of Islam so as to attract Westerners to build a global society based on genuine equality, tranquility, and humane treatment for all, irrespective of gender, race, and religion.

Gulen advocates a compassionate and brotherly form of Islam that emphasizes inner spirituality rather than an aggressive, outer expression of religious beliefs and coercive propaganda. In rediscovering this fine line of spirituality, Gulen has skillfully avoided the tendency to overemphasize a particular set of characteristics that might be seen as belonging to western or eastern, northern or southern people. He is critical of any kind of nationalistic or ethnic confrontational policies which lead to discriminatory attitudes to others, or dividing people between "us" and "them."

His definition of nation does not compromise one race or ethnic group; Anatolia has always been a land of diverse ethnic groups and forms one united nation today. Free of any chauvinism, he addresses the colorful mosaic of Anatolia as "a crucible for peoples that have come from Central Asia, the Balkans, and Mesopotamia."2 Extrapolation of this notion automatically leads to the principle that the whole of humankind is the offspring of Adam and Eve. Gulen insists on seeing the potential for good in all peoples and religions. He stresses the merit of good deeds, and rejects the empty words of hostile propaganda and ways of terrorizing others.

Gulen believes that all human beings have an urge and need to achieve spiritual salvation expressed in their ability to appreciate the heavenly attributes which surround everybody in this world up to the end of physical existence on this planet. Gulen sees the world and human existence on earth as an open book of God Almighty, and the Qur'an is the glorious reflection of the process of the revelation of truth to the whole of humankind. Reading such thoughts in Gulen's books or hearing them from him directly, many observers have believed that he is ultimately a Sufi and mystic and therefore his messages will not attract the younger generation of Muslims in secular Turkey and elsewhere whom they assume to be hot-blooded and radical. This assumption has found no ground in reality, however, as most of those inspired by him are young people.

Gulen and politics

Gulen is very active religiously and socially, while apparently very reluctant to play any part in the political moves of particular political parties or forces. As a non-political entity Gulen has become something of a center of gravity for many millions of Turkish people from all walks of life. Thus, even secular political parties have tried to use his style of preaching and argumentation to reach out to the voters. However, in his own life he is quite secluded from all kinds of political activities.

Some Westerners view Gulen's way of life as monastic in the Eastern style. They may even see him as a Muslim Dalai Lama seeking nirvana throughout his entire life. However, even in his self-imposed exile in the USA he has never aspired to any media attention or publicity or popularity of any kind. He is deeply involved in interfaith activities and devoted to his Islamic duties as a true Muslim sacrificing every moment and everything quietly for the benefit of others.

Not sectarianism, but dialogue and diplomacy

Gulen does not devote much time to explaining the differences between Shi'as or Sunnis, Hanafis or Hanbalis, Malikis or Shafis, whereas many contemporary Muslim scholars give the utmost importance to these differences of sect and madhhab. According to such scholars, focusing on these distinctions is the right way to purify the Muslim nation from shirk (that is, any belief contrary to tawhid, the oneness of God), bida (illegitimate innovation in religious affairs), or just deviation from the siratul mustaqim (the straight path) demonstrated by the Prophet of Islam.

For Gulen, however, the most important thing is to establish a close relation between the human self and the sifats (Attributes) of God Almighty. Only when a great number of people are selflessly and honestly devoted to the higher spiritual cause prescribed by the holy ideals of Islam of making the entire human race preserve and protect its own dignity and surroundings for the benefit of all, can we hope to regain the lost glory of the Muslim civilization and the generosity and liberality of the Muslim nation for which we hope. Gulen does not believe that much can be achieved for these noble causes through military or political means. Dialogue and diplomacy is the better option for all sides in any ongoing conflict. Welfare-oriented governance is the best alternative to the corporate greed for profit and deception of all kinds aimed at making money for a tiny group of people in society.

Unlike most Muslim nations, Turks have never experienced direct foreign colonial rule of any kind. This unique feature of the Turkish nation has made Turks better prepared to accept the universality of Islam that has been expressed or reflected in thousands of Gulen's sermons and in the numerous speeches delivered to Muslim congregations and interfaith meetings both in Turkey and the USA. Those ideas are crystallized in dozens of books written by Gulen. Alongside his preaching about universal values, Gulen has always been mindful of the troubles afflicting the hearts and minds of Turkish people. Knowing very well the risks of alienating himself from some of his own people, he has nevertheless shown great enthusiasm for reform of the education system in Turkey. In doing this, however, he has never allowed any sect, group, or political party to own or disown him completely. His strategy is very clear: whoever does good and honest work as a Muslim I should be with him, and I must avoid all kinds of bad or wicked works.

Opposition to Gulen

Ultra-secularist forces have tried unsuccessfully to use Gulen for their own political ends in various ways. One attempt was to characterize him as an innovator of religious reforms with little compatibility with the preaching and life of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Having failed in that, some anti-Islamic forces inside and outside Turkey are now trying to portray Gulen as the future Khomeini of Turkey. But Khomeini's year-long stay in the city of Bursa in Turkey, once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and his exposure to the Sunni communities in Turkey and Iraq did not make him Sunni, and Gulen's exposure to the USA will not make him a revolutionary or worldly Islamic preacher. Gulen's beardless face and modern dress do not make him less Islamic, but he is neither a fanatic nor a so-called modernist incapable of appreciating the attributes of God Almighty. Comparing Gulen's educational and cultural movement with Khomeini's revolution in Iran is either a reflection of ignorance about the many diverse methods of social reform with wide-ranging ramifications for the revival of Islamic values, or shows a complete lack of knowledge about the many dissimilarities between these two great Muslims nations.

In Gulen's writing, Islamic revolution and jihad with its detailed rules and regulations are either absent or he limits himself to a clarion call for spiritual jihad that has nothing to do with war, violence, or even aggressive ways of spreading the religious message.

Our interest in our environment and our love for humankind – that is, our ability to embrace creation – depends on knowing and understanding our own essence, our ability to discover ourselves, and to feel a connection with our Creator... Humanism is a doctrine of love and humanity which is articulated recklessly these days, and it has a potential to be easily manipulated through different interpretations. Some circles try to impose an abstract and unbalanced understanding of humanism by confusing people about jihad in Islam and awakening suspicion in their hearts... Jihad can be a matter of self-defense or of removing obstacles between God and human free choice..."3

For many years now, Western commentators have asked why world-renowned Muslim and non-Muslim authors fail to demonstrate any clarity in the complicated issues related to Islam and jihad. In this area, Gulen is a voice of complete clarity and consistency in his presentation of Islamic issues and their correlation with universal humanitarianism. Thus, Gulen has filled, at least to some extent, an intellectual gap between the Muslim world and the West. His message is very clear for any careful reader, not least on matters like terrorism: "Terror can never be used in the name of Islam or for the sake of any Islamic ends. A terrorist cannot be a true Muslim and a true Muslim cannot be a terrorist. A Muslim can only be a representative and symbol of peace, welfare, and prosperity."4

Questioning or challenging the universality of Western concepts of human rights is rather an easy job. However, to present a comprehensive and better alternative to a Western consumption-based society is a gigantic task that has been initiated by the Gulen movement in the areas of educational and cultural exchange between religions and nations.

Even Gulen himself may not even be able to imagine the impact he is having now on the Turkish public psyche and beyond in formulating a new and completely peaceful strategy to bridge the East and West or the Muslim world and the rest of the world. This is truly a huge intellectual advance wrought almost single-handedly by Gulen and based on his convincing arguments for peace and dignity for the whole of humankind. His emphasis on a value-based educational system without indoctrination is shown clearly in all his books. This emphasis has led to the founding all around the world of hundreds of schools sponsored by Turkish educators and businessmen where teachers are trying to implement Gulen's ideals.

There is still more to say about the Turkish and Sunni features of the Gulen movement as it has been spearheaded by Sunni Muslims of Turkish origin. One might inquire into how an ultra-secularist state such as Turkey could have produced a social, cultural, and educational reformer like Gulen. However, it seems life-long dedication to the universal causes of Islam and humanity may ultimately produce such a result. Gulen's followers never indulge in nationalistic, sectarian, or chauvinistic agendas in propagating Islamic values or an educational and cultural system within Muslim communities and beyond. This is the key to the remarkable success of the Gulen movement today. That is what has made him a living legend and, of course, the world's most influential intellectual of 2008.

Maimul Ahsan Khan is a professor of law (Islam, Human Rights and International Commerce) at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh.


  1. Mark Scheel, "A Communitarian Imperative: Fethullah Gulen's Model of Modern Turkey," The Fountain, 61st issue, January–February 2008.
  2. Gurkan Celik, Kate Kirk, Yusuf Alan, "Gulen's Definition of Peace," in: Dialogue: Asia-Pacific, Issue 15, January – March 2008, p. 8.
  3. M. Fethullah Gulen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love & Tolerance, The Light, New Jersey, 2006, pp. 6, 8, 59.
  4. Ibid, p.8.