August 22, 2013

The Reconciliation of Science and Religion in the Gulen Movement

Michael J. Fontenot, Ph.D.* and Karen A. Fontenot, Ph.D. **

The basic orientation of the Gülen Movement contains an apparent contradiction. On one hand, it sharply and broadly criticizes scientifically based Western materialism from the standpoint of Sufism, a strongly mystical current within Islam. On the other, it strenuously promotes science and technology—the primary handmaidens of materialism—seeing them as essential to progress and prosperity in the Muslim world. That position was established by its founder and principal inspirer, Fethullah Gülen, who is a firm believer in the transformative capacity of science. He sees no innate danger in scientific discoveries, expresses no doubt about the proper “ends of knowledge,” and largely dismisses the threats posed by religious or ideological distortions of the scientific enterprise. That level of optimism is alien to many educated westerners, whose common historical experience has been studded with disruptive interactions between religion, science, and society.

…Fethullah Gülen’s basic positions are easily summarized. In the first place, he asserts that there can be no conflict between science and religion because the phenomena described by scientists are manifestations of God’s characteristics (in Sufi terms, His Names) in the physical universe. Any contradiction is only an apparent, not an actual, one, for science and revealed truth both flow from the Divine Will. Gülen makes this point in an interesting, and thoroughly Islamic, 1 way that leaves room both for the miraculous and for law-bound natural processes: “Causality is a veil spread by God Almighty over the rapid flux of existence so that we can plan our lives to some degree.” Using vivid imagery, Gülen has extensively elaborated on that idea:
“…there can be no conflict among the Qur’an, the Divine Scripture (coming from God’s Attribute of Speech), the universe (coming from His Attributes of Power and Will), and the sciences that examine them. The universe is a mighty Qur’an deriving from God’s Attributes of Power and Will. In other words, if the term is proper, the universe is a large, created Qur’an. In return, being an expression of the universe’s laws in a different form, the Qur’an is a universe that has been codified and put on paper.”
….Secondly, Gülen maintains that a serious engagement with science and technology is unavoidable. He is quite pragmatic here: if “Muslims want to end their long humiliation,” he insists, they must come to terms with modernization:
“…It would be incorrect to oppose science and technology with ‘idealistic’ thoughts; such an opposition is only a form of utopia. No good for humanity can come from ranting at machinery or cursing the factories. The machines will continue to operate; the factory will continue to exude its fumes, even if we heap curses upon it.”
Besides, Gülen is acutely aware of the benefits that accrue to the members of an advanced technological society. Speaking for Muslims in general and Turks in particular, he observes that the industrial West “undoubtedly has many superior aspects” that could alleviate their problems. Thirdly, Gülen has full confidence that the application of deep Islamic—i.e., Sufi— insights will turn science into a reliable servant of humankind. “…What is important here,” he says, “is not this or that technology, but rather who controls science and technology and what purpose they serve.” He strongly believes that these processes are now in the wrong hands:
“…thought is capital wasted in the hands of people suffering from intellectual poverty; science is a plaything of materialism; and the products of science are tools used in the name of unbelief.” Yet this can be corrected. Since we are: “Created to rule creation, we need to observe and read, discern and learn about our surroundings so that we can find the best way to exert our influence and control. When we reach this level, by the decree of the Exalted Creator, everything will submit to us and we will submit to God.”
...Gülen’s primary inspiration and the major source of his ideas is Said Nursi’s massive compilation, the Risalei Nur. It is well-known that Nursi, a powerful rhetorician and noted Islamic reformer, has been an important influence on Gülen, who views him as an original thinker and frequently quotes him. However, the extent of Nursi’s influence only becomes apparent when their core ideas are compared.

As is the case with Gülen, Nursi held that science and religion are conjoined because they flow from the same source. Employing imagery that Gülen subsequently borrowed, he described the world as “a mighty embodied Qur’an” that “makes known the Inscriber and Author of the book of the universe together with his infinite perfections. Proclaiming ‘God is Most Great!’ it makes Him known. Uttering words like ‘Glory be to God!’ it makes Him loved.”

…There is a consistent, two-tiered subtext that works its way through their discussions. The first is a strong and abiding confidence in the power of reason and of its value in discerning truth. This confidence goes well beyond the norm found in Islam, and is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Gülen Movement. The second is a pronounced aversion, amounting to odium, toward what they consider the negative, and dominant, cultural and intellectual predispositions of the West. Gülen has described those predispositions as the “lethally polluted atmosphere of materialistic aspiration and ideological fanaticism.” Nursi labeled them “the second Europe,” and charged it with holding “…a diseased and misguided philosophy in your right hand and a harmful and corrupt civilization in your left….” While he admitted the existence of a “first Europe” that still injected humane Christian values into its decisions, that segment clearly was submerged by the “barbarism that disguises itself as civilization:” The acceptable humanitarian aspects of the civilization of the unbelievers and the spiritual virtues to be seen in it are either borrowings from the civilization of Islam or leftovers from the heavenly religions or are owed to the guidance of the Qur’an [being in the world].

…Ibn Rushd’s arguments are concise and pointed. He held that Islamic Law requires the study of nature, quoting the same Qur’anic passages later used by Nursi and Gülen: “‘Have they not studied the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, and whatever things God has created?’ and He said, ‘and they give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth.’” Furthermore, its study should be demonstratively based— that is, empirical—because that is how humans learn and because the study of nature will shed increased light on God’s nature: “for beings only indicate the Artisan through our knowledge of the art in them, and the more perfect this knowledge is, the more perfect the knowledge of the Artisan becomes.”

Ibn Rushd thus established the principle of the second path to God; the first, of course, is through revelation; the second is through a careful examination and consideration of God’s works. For this approach to be effective a sound method of analysis must be followed and, Ibn Rushd continued, that had not yet been properly undertaken in the Muslim world. It has, however, been done by “those ancients who studied these matters before Islam.” Accordingly, outside help should be sought “regardless of whether this other one shares our religion or not.”

…After tracing the sequence of ideas regarding science and religion from Fethullah Gülen to Ibn Rushd, we can come to a number of conclusions about the Gülen Movement’s approach to knowledge. First, it does have an epistemological foundation, one that is both scholastic and Aristotelian at its core. However, it is a tempered Aristotelianism that, through Ibn Rushd’s adaptations, has been aligned to Islamic doctrine. Put differently, his successful harmonization of Aristotle’s methodology with the Qur’an is a classic, and classically Aristotelian, exercise in rhetorical invention. Both Said Nursi and Fethullah Gulan internalized Ibn Rushd’s key arguments and repeated them verbatim. They may well have viewed their approach to knowledge as being thoroughly Qur’anic in nature, and Ibn Rushd himself may have believed the same thing. But we must not forget that it was so because Ibn Rushd made it so.

Secondly, while not described as such, both Nursi and Gülen retained Ibn Rushd’s notion of the two paths to God. Their description of the interrelationship between those two paths differs somewhat from his, for they at least imply that physical laws can be interrupted by Divine action while Ibn Rushd saw God consistently working within the physical laws that he established. A committed Aristotelian, Ibn Rushd probably viewed a miracle as an extraordinary result of law-bound physical interactions rather than as an action flowing from their suspension. Thus, his “two paths” might best be described as one path with two gradients. However, those differences are insignificant from an operational point of view, for the main principle involved—the validity of the use of reason within the context of a revealed religion—is still preserved.

*Professor at Department of History Southern University at Baton Rouge
**Professor at Department of Southern Louisiana University

Excerpted from “Fontenot, Michael J., and Karen A. Fontenot. “The Second path to God Revisited: The Reconciliation of Science and Religion in the Gulen Movement" presented at “Second International Conference on Islam in the Contemporary World: The Fethullah Gülen Movement in Thought and Practice”, University of Oklahoma, November 3-5, Oklahoma.