1. The need for a modern spirituality
In trying to understanding the reasons for this, I think that several factors can be mentioned. Firstly, people who feel oppressed by the materialist and consumerist character of modern life are looking for a spirituality that can point a way to live authentically and usefully, and many find this spirituality in the writings and movement of Fethullah Gulen. Secondly, Muslims seeking a way to live their Islamic faith in modern situations and make a positive contribution to the transformation of society find in the movement a constructive interpretation of Qur’anic teaching that stresses good deeds and service to humanity. Thirdly, non-Muslims who are looking for Muslim partners with whom they can live and work together, share ideas, and form friendships find in the Gulen movement a body of ethically concerned individuals who are open to cooperate in a pluralist approach to issues of peace, justice, and human development. All these factors contribute to the interest in the ideas of Mr. Gülen and the activities of the Gulen movement associated with his name shown in universities, community centers, churches and mosques. In this talk, I will treat the Sufi-oriented spirituality of Gülen’s interpretation of Islamic life and teaching.
In my paper, I cannot hope to treat all aspects of the thought of Fethullah Gulen or all the activities of the movement associated with his name. I intend to take up only one aspect, that is, the Sufi-oriented spirituality of Gülen’s interpretation of Islamic life and teaching.
A recent survey in Europe showed that there is a decreasing interest in “religion,” but a corresponding increase of interest in “spirituality.” At first glance, this seems inconsistent, but it does reflect, I believe, a widespread and typical modern attitude. When people express disinterest in “religion,” I believe that they are referring to traditional ritual, which they consider, perhaps based on their own unhappy experience, to be dry, formalistic, and empty of deeper meaning. Conversely, their interest in spirituality reflects the need for some form of contact with the Divine in their lives. They are dissatisfied with a purely positivist approach to life and are seeking transcendent input, relevant insights which can help them deal with the challenges raised by post-modern living, a program of exercises that can help one progress on the path of personal interior growth and transformation.
Sufism, the generally accepted term for the Islamic mystical tradition, is seen by many as offering such food for the spirit. Sufism is not a single clearly defined movement, but an interrelated network of ideas and practices aimed at a deeper understanding and faithful pursuit of the Qur’anic message. Non-Muslim scholars, as well as Sufis themselves, inevitably pull out certain elements and emphases that have been central among some Sufis at various periods of history, while ignoring or downplaying other characteristics that do not fit in and perhaps even contradict their definition.
For some, it is asceticism and simplicity of life that is the key to a true following of Islam. Others emphasize love as the central idea and understand the Sufi path as one leading to a union of love with God, the Beloved. For others, Sufism is a voluntarist path by which the believer, by concentrating on virtue and moral behavior, comes into a union of will with God, a state in which the mystic no longer has an independent will of his or her own, but seeks only to do the will of God. Many mystics see the Path as primarily one of knowledge, of becoming aware of the eternal Truth, the perennial wisdom of the heart that is the only sure font of true insight. Still others affirm the oneness of all existence, so that the mystical path is essentially a psychological movement toward recognition that the believer is simply a transient manifestation of the eternal One present in the cosmos and at the depths of one’s own personality. Some Sufis emphasize extraordinary mystical experience, expressed in states of ecstasy, inspired utterances, visions, and dreams, while for others the path is a contemplative pilgrimage to God residing in the silent cave of the heart.
2. Fethullah Gülen and Sufism
When one studies the writings and the actions of Fethullah Gülen in this context, a question that arises is whether “Khoja effendi,” as he is affectionately called by his followers and associates, is a Sufi. At various times in his life, Mr. Gülen has had to defend his movement from accusations that he has founded a new Sufi order, of which he is regarded as the shaykh. In Turkey today, the charge of founding a secret tarekat (tariqa) carries social, legal and political implications. Secular modernists view Sufism as part of the pre-modern past, a relic from Ottoman times, an obstacle to progress, development and prosperity. Conversely, Muslim activists of salafi tendency view Sufism as responsible for introducing unwarranted and unorthodox innovations and for promulgating a passive, pietistic religiosity.
In response, Gülen affirms that he has not founded a tarekat nor ever belonged to any Sufi order. He states: “The religious orders are institutions that appeared six centuries after our Prophet, upon whom be peace, in the name of representing Sufism. They have their own rules and structures. I never joined a Sufi order, and I have never had any relationship with one.” To the question of why he is called Khoja, literally, “Teacher,” a form of address traditionally used by Sufis for their master, he answers that the title carries no hierarchical or Ottoman revivalist connotation, but is simply “a respectful way of addressing someone whose knowledge on religious matters is recognized and acknowledged by the general public.”
Given that Gülen has never belonged to a tarekat, is it still accurate to regard him as a Sufi? In a seminal work on Sufi elements in Gülen’s thought, Zeki Saritoprak calls Gülen “a Sufi in his own way.” Saritoprak affirms that many Sufis in history belonged to no Sufi Order. For the first six centuries of Islam, there were no Sufi Orders, yet there were many important Sufis. Even after the appearance of Sufi orders in the 13th-14th Century, there are instances of well-known Sufis who did not belong to any tarekat.
Yet the appearance of the “independent Sufi” has usually been considered anomalous by most practitioners of the Sufi path. Saritoprak notes the problematic situation of the modern Sufi who follows no tarekat and has no spiritual guide.
“Early Sufis had neither orders nor even Sufi organizations. Rabia, Junayd, Muhasibi, Bishr, Ghazzali, Feriduddin Attar, and even Rumi did not belong to a tariqah. However, they were Sufis. From the vantage point of institutionalized Sufism, their Sufism would be problematic, because these early Sufis did not have a spiritual master. In the Sufi tradition, he who has no a shaykh, finds Satan as his shaykh."
Concerning the necessity for a spiritual guide, it is true that the vast majority of Sufis have discouraged or even forbidden one from following the Sufi path without a shaykh or pir. However, a minority view has always held that the spiritual guide need not be a living person. Kharaqani, for example, was initiated into the Sufi path by the spirit of Abu Yazid al-Bistami, while ‘Attar was inspired by the spirit of Al-Hallaj. Other Sufis claimed to have as their guide Khidr, the mysterious companion of Moses whose story is recounted in the Qur’an.
Gülen’s position is that he is guided in his spiritual development by the Qur’an and the sunna. He holds that the Qur’an is the source and font of all Sufi thought and practice. Rooted in the Qur’an and sunna, and supplemented by the views and experiences of later Sufis down through the centuries who applied the Qur’anic teachings through their own personal efforts (ijtihad), Sufism is not an “alternative” path followed by some Muslims in contradiction to the shari’a, but rather, Sufism should be regarded as one of the basic sciences of Islam.
[Tasawwuf] is not contradictory with any of the Islamic ways based on the Book and the Sunna. Far from being contradictory, it has its source, just like the other religious sciences, in the Book and the Sunna and the conclusions the purified scholars of the early period of Islam drawn from the Qur’an and the Sunna - ijtihad.
Tasawwuf and shari’a are two ways of expressing the same truth and arise from differences in personality rather than from any internal contradictions. Both lead the Muslim to believe and practice the one Islamic truth, but each must find the path most suited to his disposition.
While adherence to the former [shari’a] has been regarded as exotericism (self-restriction to the outward dimension of religion), following the latter [tasawwuf] has been seen as pure esotericism. Although this discrimination partly arises from the assertions that the commandments of Shari’a are represented by jurisprudents or muftis, and the other by the Sufis, it should be viewed as the result of a natural human tendency, which is that everyone gives priority to the way more compatible with his temperament and for which he has aptitude.
Sufism has known antinomian Sufis who claimed that following the exoteric (zahir) regulations of the shari’a were unnecessary for those on the esoteric (batin) path, but Gülen’s position comes down clearly in the camp of those who stress that the Sufi must not abandon the shari’a. Gülen exemplifies the long line of shari’a-oriented Sufis, represented most strongly by the Qadiri and Naqshbandi traditions, and in modern times by Said Nursi, who regard tasawwuf as an interiorized facet of the life of the sincere Muslim who seeks to live fully the message contained in the Qur’an and sunna.
Ozdalga sees three “positive reference points” which have shaped Gülen’s thinking: 1) orthodox Sunni Islam, 2) the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition, 3) the Nurculuk movement, that is, those influenced by the writings of Said Nursi. The Naqshbandis have always insisted on the careful performance of the prescriptions of the shari’a, so there is no contradiction between the first two points. Gülen differs from the Naqshbandi Order, however, in that the Naqshbandi disciple is presented with an explicit program of spiritual development, which is closely monitored by the shaykh, whereas Gülen’s approach is more open-ended in stressing good deeds and service to humanity (hizmet) more than spiritual exercises and devotions.
Probably the most important formative influence on the development of Gülen’s thought, including his approach to Sufism, was Said Nursi. Like Nursi, who was also formed in the Naqshbandi tradition but chose to work and teach outside the confines of an established tarekat, so also Gülen sees the Sufi tradition more as the accumulated wisdom of the saints of Islam, rather than an institutionalized precondition to internalize Islamic values. According to Nursi, Sufism “has been proclaimed, taught, and described in thousands of books written by the scholars among the people of illumination and those who have had unfolded to them the reality of creation, who have told the Muslim community and us of that truth.”
Moreover, like Said Nursi, Gülen is aware that not everything that historically has passed in the name of Sufism is of positive value. A critical approach to the Sufi tradition, however, must recognize the intrinsic strength of the movement as an instrument for fostering and building a sense of community and brotherhood. As Said Nursi states:
“The Sufi path may not be condemned because of the evils of certain ways which have adopted practices outside the bounds of taqwa, and even of Islam, and have wrongfully given themselves the name of Sufi paths. Quite apart from the important and elevated religious and spiritual results of the Sufi path and those that look to the hereafter, it is the Sufi paths which are the first and most effective and fervent means of expanding and developing brotherhood, a sacred bond within the World of Islam.Gülen understands Sufism as the inner dimension of the shari’a, and the two dimensions must never be separated. Performance of the externals without attention to their interior transformative power results in dry ritualism. Concentration on the interior disciplines and rejecting prescribed ritual and behavior reduces spiritual striving to following one’s own preferences and proclivities. Only by activating both dimensions of Islam will the seeker be able to humbly submit (islam) one’s life fully to God.
An initiate or traveler on the path (salik) never separates the outer observance of the Shari’a from its inner dimension, and therefore observes all of the requirements of both the outer and the inner dimensions of Islam. Through such observance, he or she travels toward the goal in utmost humility and submission.
Just as Sufism is what “gives new life to the religious sciences,” so the shari’a keeps the believer rooted in the Islamic tradition. “If the traveler has not been able to prepare his heart according to both the requirements of his spiritual journeying and the commandments of the Shari’a, that is, if he does not think and reason in the light of Prophethood while his feelings fly in the boundless realm of his spiritual state, he will inevitably fall. He will be confused and bewildered, speaking and acting contrary to the spirit of the Shari’a.”
According to Saritoprak, both the appellation, the question of whether one is called a Sufi, as well as that of membership in a tarekat are secondary. He cites Mevlana to the effect that it is not the external trappings that make one a Sufi but the purity of one’s interior disposition:
Gülen never calls himself a Sufi. One is not a Sufi in name, but rather in spirit and heart. As Rumi says: “What makes the Sufi? Purity of heart, not the patched mantle and the perverse lust of those earth-bound men who steal his name. He [the true Sufi] in all things discerns the pure essence.” In short, Gülen understands that one may annihilate himself in the rays of the existence of the Truth through knowing of his impotence, poverty and nothingness.
If Gülen is to be considered a Sufi, what does Sufism mean to him? In two works on the subject, Gülen offers his own definition. In the earlier work he states “Tasawwuf [Sufism] means that by being freed from the vices and weaknesses particular to human nature and acquiring angelic qualities and conduct pleasing to God, one lives one’s life in accordance with the requirements of knowledge and love of God and in the spiritual delight that comes thereby.” In the later work, he gives a very similar definition of the Sufi path: “Sufism is the path followed by an individual who, having been able to free himself or herself from human vices and weaknesses in order to acquire angelic qualities and whose conduct is pleasing to God, lives in accordance with the requirements of God’s knowledge and love and in the resulting spiritual delight that ensues.”
Both definitions come down to the same thing. Gülen gives priority to the will, emphasizing that Sufism means overcoming the human obstacles to God’s power and grace and acquiring the virtues and behavior that God desires in His servants. The person who lives in this way is gradually growing in ma’rifa or spiritual wisdom and in love (mahabba, ‘ashq), both for God and for others. God encourages and confirms the faithful follower of this path by granting the gift of spiritual joy. This understanding is consistent with the mainstream of Sufi teaching down through the centuries, in which the Sufi exerts his or her own efforts to remove one by one the obstacles to divine grace, and then wait trustfully for God to grant as gifts the spiritual states of knowledge, love, and delight.
What is the attraction of the Sufi tradition for Gülen? In a telling comment, he notes that the Muslims who, down through the centuries, most reflected upon and sought to practice the interior values taught by Islam and who developed the spiritual disciplines for controlling selfish impulses, were in fact Sufis. One could almost say that Sufism is the essence or, as he states elsewhere, the spirit of Islam.
As a religion, Islam naturally emphasizes the spiritual realm. It takes the training of the ego as a basic principle. Asceticism, piety, kindness and sincerity are essential to it. In the history of Islam, the discipline that dwelt most on these matters was Sufism. Opposing this would be opposing the essence of Islam.
Gülen finds the importance of Sufism for a modern Islamic spirituality in its offering a program of discipline by which the believer can step by step renounce consumerist tendencies and secular heedlessness. This renunciation is not an empty asceticism for its own sake, but is oriented toward the greater reward of becoming aware of spiritual realities. For Gülen, Sufism brings the blessing of an experiential confirmation of the truths of faith which had previously been only intellectually apprehended. Gülen explains:
“Sufism enables individuals to deepen their awareness of themselves as devotees of God. Through the renunciation of this transient, material world, as well as the desires and emotions it engenders, they awaken to the reality of the other world, which is turned toward God’s Beautiful Names. Sufism allows individuals to develop the moral dimension of one’s existence, and enables the acquisition of a strong, heartfelt, and personally experienced conviction of the articles of faith that before had only been accepted superficially.”In other words, the genius of Sufism, according to Gülen, is its ability to interiorize the message of the Qur’an and sunna so that it influences and shapes the behavior of the Muslim. Through Sufism, the Muslim learns to move beyond obeying commands and regulations that he or she does not understand to an appreciation of Islamic teaching which becomes part and parcel of the believer’s way of life. Sufism shows how a Muslim can overcome selfish tendencies, respond to frustration and opposition, and with patience and perseverance move beyond discouragement and routine. Sufism enables the Muslim to attain the virtuous qualities and the personal disciplines required to live fully in accord with the will of God. Sufism leads the way to shawq, delight, so that religious commitment is not some onerous and unpleasant burden that a person is forced to carry, but can be conducive to a joyful, loving acceptance of life.
What is of most interest for Gülen in Sufism is its ability to provide a practical program by which the Muslim can internalize Islamic faith so that it motivates a life of service to humankind. For Gülen, the ecstatic or para-normal mystical experiences sometimes claimed by or for Sufi saints appear to be of relatively little interest.
Gülen’s appreciation for the teaching of the Sufi masters does not prevent him from criticizing on occasion the way that Sufi life was often put into practice. The dynamism of the early Sufis often got mired in the institutional forms that took shape in the Sufi Orders.
Sufis, in Gülen’s view, are among those responsible for the crisis of education in the Muslim world, including the Turkish republic. In fact, his educational efforts can be understood as a reaction to the impoverishment of choice available to Turkish students. Until Gülen and his colleagues began their schools, Turkish students were forced to study either at schools on the secular republican model, at traditional madrasas, at the Sufi takyas, or at military academies. None of these models was able to integrate successfully scientific training with human and spiritual values. “At a time when modern schools concentrated on ideological dogmas, institutions of religious education (madrasas) broke with life, institutions of spiritual training (takyas) were immersed in sheer metaphysics, and the army restricted itself to sheer force, this coordination [of knowledge] was essentially not possible.”
The Sufi takyas, although they had concerned themselves with fostering the development of spiritual values, failed to meet the challenges of contemporary society and, in Gülen’s word, “console themselves with virtues and wonders of the saints who had lived in previous centuries.” Even if the way that Sufism was handed down in recent decades has not been able to provide guidance for the modern Muslim, the Sufi tradition can enrich still Muslim spirituality and offer direction for the future. If a precondition for progress is the changing of outdated and ineffective mentalities, this is only achieved when one acknowledges his own limitations, recognizes the need for controlling his impulses, and finds motivation to strive for virtue and knowledge. This is what Sufism is all about. “The Islamic spiritual life based on asceticism, regular worship, abstention from all major and minor sins, sincerity and purity of intention, love and yearning, and the individual’s admission of his essential impotence and destitution became the subject-matter of Sufism.”
The Sufi training enables the Muslim to confront modernity critically without falling into the snares either of unreflective acceptance or angry refusal. The question all modern people face is how to develop humane qualities, good behavior, love for others, enthusiasm for self-improvement, and an active desire to serve others, make a difference in the world, and to persevere in this desire in the face of setbacks and failures. For the Muslim, according to Gülen, it is the Sufi thinkers who, down through the centuries, have thought through these questions and have followed the experimental method of dealing with them.
If modern Muslims want to engage modernity critically and make necessary changes, they must begin with their own selves. Sufism offers the collected wisdom transmitted down through the centuries by which one can move toward a transformed mentality, deeper love, positive character traits, and courage to work for the improvement of society. The spiritual program offered by Sufism provides a firm basis for purifying modern scientific study from its ethical inadequacies and positivist limitations. In this way, science and humanities, scientific and humane values, a scientific and a religious approach to life, can be reconciled. This is the challenge facing scholars, educators, and religious teachers today.
Published on Fr. Michel's Website