September 20, 2014

Gülen’s Notion of Hizmet and Public Good: From a Strategy to an Action Plan

Maimul Ahsan Khan
Hizmet [literally, “service”] for Fethullah Gülen implies that a person devotes his or her life to Islam, serving for the benefit of others, which is beneficial for life after death. Gülen is a very restless person who is always asking himself if he might do more for God. Death is always present in his preaching to his followers, and the fear of judgment day is the motivation to work hard. (1)

The Vision and Impact of Fethullah Gulen
Muslim activists have been broadly divided into traditionalists with an apparent orthodox blend and Islamists with radical views of changing politics. However, deeper understanding of Islamic spiritual teachings and adherence to them makes the dividing line between these two groups blurred for non-specialists. For quite some time, many specialists have been speculating how the history of the Gülen movement would look like in the annals of the revival of Islamic heritage, including Sufism and social activism. Some observers claim that Gülen is a traditional alim (Islamic scholar) others say that he is a modern Sufi. Many critics tend to claim that he is neither a religious scholar nor a traditional Sufi, but a modern Islamic propagandist and preacher. (2) These conflicting opinions on the identity of Gülen and the substance of his preaching is not due to the peculiarities and/or style of Gülen’s writing but because of contrasting ideas about Islamic theology, politics, and Sufism.

As Zeki Saritoprak notes, “One can say that Sufism was Islamic law what Jesus was to Hebrew law. In time, some Sufis went too far, underestimating and even neglecting some basic religious law, which resulted in the emergence of extreme, esoteric movements. The debate continues between fundamentalist Wahhabi Muslims and Sufis even today.” (3)

For a long time, many prominent Muslim scholars were also in bewilderment as to how to strike a balance between orthodox interpretations of Islamic tenets and strict adherence to them, on the one hand, and liberal interpretations and observance of the Islamic way of life, on the other. In other words, how to remain a devout Muslim at personal levels and attain a compassionate attitude toward others in regard to religious obedience at public places and in dealing with cultural matters of common interests. Gülen’s position on these matters is quite unique. His writings sound like orthodox interpretations of Islamic tenets, but his practical approach is very flexible and realistic distinguished with love and compassion in treatment of others Saritoprak nicely summarizes Gülen’s unique stance of Sufism:
Gülen’s way of Sufism cannot be confined by the framework of a specific Sufi order. Strictly speaking, Gülen is not a Sufi. However, in light of Hujwiri’s definition quoted earlier, Gülen is a Sufi in practice, if not in name… Gülen can be called a Sufi, albeit a Sufi in his own way. (4)
Solving the paradox: how to be a balanced Muslim

This is Gülen’s most unique achievement. He did not give up his own religious practice in any areas of his activities and also extended his cooperation and collaboration with many other peaceful groups of activists dedicated to good works of social progress and cultural enlightenment A major problem with the orthodox Islamic interpretation is that it gives too much importance to outer aspects of Islamic rituals at the cost of inner values ingrained in them. As a result, many religious groups have become simply ritualistic in their behaviors and tend to ignore responsibility toward society at large and their fellow citizens in particular.

Critics of Islamic religiosity argue that if you become devout Muslim, then you ultimately lose interest in building humane society; contrary to this view, many others say that Islamic activism ultimately make Muslims radical in their political behavior. It is true that some people who are “Sufis” only in name have become indifferent to the miseries of others. Political activists in many Muslim societies are either too engaged in religious matter or insensitive to the economic and social needs of others.

Gülen transmits Islamic tenets in a way that everyone can see a role for himself and herself in building a compassionate society where all human beings can co-exist with one another for greater causes based on sacrifice and altruism. It is not an easy task to accomplish for a society where everyone is concerned only for his or her own material gain. Gülen has argued tirelessly that even for the material wellbeing, a Muslim must follow an Islamic way of life. However, one needs to ignite a fire of faith in his or her soul to keep a balance between material ambitions and spiritual goals. Exploring Gülen’s thought, Yavuz finds the following aspects:
Muslims constantly are reminded that avoiding sin is not enough; rather, engaging to create a more humane world is required. Salvation means not only to be “saved from” sinful activities, but also to be engaged actively in the improvement of the world. According to Gülen, moral consciousness toward other cultures can be raised only through participating in an action. In a way, becoming morally upright person (insan al kamil) is possible only through morally informed conduct. (5)
It is a primary duty for every adult Muslim to try not to engage in any sinful dealings and acts. However, if a societal and state system is based on wide capitalism, extreme communism, or vulgar consumerism, then for a regular person it is quite difficult to escape from sinful deals and activities on a regular basis. As a result, a vast majority of Muslims have either abandoned the so-called puritanical Islamic norms and values, or they have become very pessimistic in their attitude to the national building process and ongoing creative activities for the pursuit scientific discoveries and innovative use the expanding horizons of technology.

Gülen has envisioned new ideas and interpretations and Islamic tenets that invite people in general and Muslims in particular to discover fine lines between extreme materialism and unproductive spiritualism. To Islam, worldly life is like a farmland from which a Muslim needs to collet his capital to be invested for the eternal life after death. The path to spiritual salvation is individualistic in nature, but both the process of cultivation of farmland and the distribution of capital for the Hereafter is a collective endeavor for the fruition of faith in its every stage of mundane and spiritual life. For quite some time, an ordinary Turkish mind took Gülen as a simple follower and disciple of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1877,1960), whose writings, (6) of course, have played a very important role in placing Gülen in the line of peaceful preaching of universal Islam in the Turkish environment.

Gülen is, however, a dynamic preacher, social activist and exponent of Islamic ideas, who pushes the boundaries of the Islamic message far beyond the parameters set by Nursi. Gülen has never underestimated the influence of Nursi on the Turkish religious mind and has held Nursi paradigm dearly in his effort to bring more and more Turks in the field of value-based education for all irrespective of national or ethnic identities, race, religion, and gender.

[O]wing to state political oppression, a new form of Islamic activism evolved out of Ottoman-Turkish intellectual tradition. Said Nursi formulated a new way of religious renewal through collective reading circles, the dershanes, to raise religious consciousness… One can identify Nursi’s writings as the foundational text for Fethullah Gülen because Gülen has always used Nursi’s method of raising Islamic consciousness and the reading circles to create transnational religious networks. (7)

Whenever the Islamic consciousness leading to activism and intellectual discourse is the subject of consideration, many critics talk about “political” Islam based on tribalism and antagonistic politics for the pursuit of capturing state power and money market. However, for Gülen, Islam is not a “political project” to be implemented. If the Nur movement, inspired by the writings of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi was purely ritualistic and somehow Turkish in nature, then Gülen is very much outward looking in terms of his ideas about cosmopolitanism and internationalism. However, this difference might not be of fundamental nature between Nursi and Gülen as the latter has had more means available and is thus able to make use of thee greater means in today’s work.

For an Islamic preacher of Gülen’s stature, the Turkish context was not able to be friendly at all, especially few decades ago. But Gülen has used every heaven-sent opportunity to reach out to everyone at home and abroad. For Gülen, national pride should not be a hindrance to become a true Muslim, nor should it stand in the way of participation in transnational endeavors that benefit of humankind as a whole. Such an inclusive nature of Gülen’s preaching brought him prominence rather quickly amongst his Turkish constituencies and beyond. Gülen’s call for value-based education was an open invitation for all, and it really meant for the enrichment of human soul for the benefits of others.

Because of many misconceptions about fate-related verses in the Qur'an and Hadith, practicing Muslims in general tend to become fatalist in their thinking and are rather quite reluctant to make enough efforts to bring about positive changes for the masses. Misery and hardship constantly threaten the life and dignity of ordinary people of all races, nationalities, and genders. Such a situation has been taken as a destiny of those helpless masses. This very pessimistic attitude has no place in Islamic consciousness. However, because of the overwhelming colonial exploitation and prolonged internecine fighting between Muslim nations and ethnicities within them, even many devout Muslims accept such a horrible and unbearable situation acceptable to masses at large.

Gülen has taken the worldly life as an open book, which you can color according to your determination, capability, and circumstances. However, no one alone can give new height to this special creativity without active and generous help of others. Thus only sincere and collective efforts can make one’s contribution to any area of science or education substantial and beneficial for others and surrounding entities.

As Yavuz argues, “Gülen is an inspirational leader of a transnational education movement, whereas Nursi was the formative giant of intellectual discourse. Although Nursi focused on personal transformation, Gülen has focused on personal and social transformation by utilizing new liberal economic and political conditions.” (8)

The traditional and orthodox forces within Islamic circles tend to act to maintain the status quo, and such a conservative attitude is quite harmful to the underprivileged and disadvantaged segments of any society and state. Apparently one needs to become a revolutionary to speak against such religious taboo or stigma. However, keeping himself within the fold of traditional religious circles, Gülen puts forward his ideas of social change through educational excellence to achieve new heights in Islamic consciousness.

(1) Bekim Agai, “The Gülen Movement’s Islamic Ethics of Education,” Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement. M. Hakan Yavuz and John L. Esposito (eds.), New York: Syracuse University Press, 2003, p. 59.
(2) Zeki Sartoprak, “Fethullah Gülen: A Sufi in his own way,” Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement, p. 167.
(3) Ibid., p. 159
(4) Ibid., p. 169
(5) M. Hakan Yavuz “The Gülen Movement: The Turkish Puritans,” Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement, pp. 26-27.
(6) In the many dimensions of his lifetime of achievement, as well as in his personality and character, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi was and, through his continuing influence, still is an important thinker and writer in the Muslim world. Nursi was not a writer in the usual sense of the word. He wrote his splendid work the Risale-i Nur, a modern commentary of the Qur’an exceeding 5,000 pages, because he had a mission: he struggled against the materialistic and atheistic trends of thought fed by science and philosophy and tried to present the truths of Islam to modern minds and hearts of every level of understanding. Quoted from “Bediuzzaman and the Risale-i Nur,” Humanity’s Encounter with Divine Series, New Jersey, Tughra Books, 2009.
(7) M. Hakan Yavuz, “Islam in the Public sphere: The Case of the Nur Movement,” Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement, pp. 17-18.
(8) Yavuz, “The Gülen Movement: The Turkish Puritans,” Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement, p. 19.

Source: Maimul Ahsan Khan, The Vision and Impact of Fethullah Gülen: A New Paradigm for Social Activism. New York: Blue Dome Press, 2011, pp. 101-106.

Published on, 08 November 2013,