March 9, 2011

The Place of the Gulen Movement in the Intellectual History of Islam

Bruce Eldridge

In the twenty-first century, Islam is living in a world that no longer accepts the great truths of the past. Faith communities that rely for their identity on their history and on their relationship to a God who is no longer fashionable, are being challenged to come to terms with this new, globalized, postmodern world. As part of the world wide faith community of Islam, the movement which has developed around Fethullah Gülen and his ideology is making a serious attempt to come to terms with that world.

The Gulen Movement is not new in the sense that its ideology is new. Gülen had grounded his teaching in the precedents of historical Islam. Gülen recognizes that throughout its history, individual Muslims and the movements that have developed around them, have sought to extend the boundaries of Islam’s intellectual influence and contemporary relevance. From the Mu’tazilites who argued for the introduction of reason into Qur’anic interpretation, to Ibn Rushd who borrowed from Aristotle, to Said Nursi, who believed that contact with Christianity may be profitable, Muslims have been prepared to move outside the square. Mediaeval Islamic mathematicians borrowed from India, and in al-Andalusia, scientists, theologians and philosophers freely exchanged ideas with their Jewish and Christian colleagues.

Fethullah Gülen stands firmly within this tradition. While remaining a theologically conservative Muslim, he believes deeply in the value of reason, science and technology. He has engaged intellectually with Western thinkers and he has personally shared his desire for inter-religious harmony with leaders of other faiths. It is true that these things have been done before. What makes Gülen unusual is the range of activities in which his followers have become involved, the breadth of his vision, and the opportunities he has created to enable his ideology to be disseminated. Gülen envisions a world where people are deeply grounded in a moral and ethical tradition, where humility and service are highly valued and where reason, science and technology are fully utilized for the benefit of all. His use of interpretation to demonstrate the relevance of the Quran in the world today is significant to the attainment of that goal. So too is his readiness to dialogue with non-Muslim philosophies and faiths. The schools established by his followers have developed curricula which will develop adults capable of bringing his vision to fruition. The media outlets owned by his followers allow for the wider dissemination of his ideas.

At present, Gülen’s influence is strongest in those Asian countries with cultural ties to Turkey, although this is changing as his movement’s schools extend into other parts of Asia and the rest of the world. Gülen is not as well known in the West as he is in Asia, nevertheless, his international profile is increasing. The decision to create the Fethullah Gülen Chair in the Study of Islam and Muslim-Catholic Relations at the Australian Catholic University is not only an indication of his increasing profile, but a recognition of the role Gülen and his movement are playing on the world stage.

The Gulen Movement stands firmly within the intellectual history of Islam. It presents a vision, both for the future of Islam and for the world, a vision that is mindful of the vagaries and relativities of postmodernism while remaining true to its Islamic heritage.

Excerpted from the article presented at the conference "Muslim World in Transition: Contributions of the Gulen Movement" on October 25-27, 2007 in London, U.K.