November 24, 2014

Hizmet: A Language and Culture of Compassion for and Service to Humanity

Margaret J. Rausch

Fethullah Gülen’s vision of education focuses on language and culture as integral to self-perfection and global societal reform. Whilst spiritually grounded, its holistic approach and goals comprise multi-level intellectual, emotional and material development. By contrast, in nationalist projects language and culture are employed as means to unify, improve and integrate, but sometimes as tools for envisioning diversity with mistrust and animosity.

Education, in Gülen’s view, is a life-long process that begins in childhood. Both parents participate in the education of their children through their words and deeds, which reflect their values and principles. Role modeling is an essential component of education during this, but also subsequent phases, as elucidated in the following excerpt:
The real teacher[s] … lead and guide the child in his or her life and in the face of all events … . [A] child is cast in his or her true mould and attains to the mysteries of personality … [I]magination and aspirations, or specific skills …, everything acquired must [be] … a guidance to the ways to virtue … to connect happenings in the outer world to their inner experience … . [As] intermediaries, teachers … provide the link between life and the self … find a way to the heart of the pupil and leave indelible imprints upon his or her mind. Teachers … provide good examples for their pupils and teach them the aims of the sciences … through the refinement of their own minds …
Educating people is … the most difficult task in life. In addition to setting a good example, teachers should … know their students well, and address their intellects and their hearts, spirits, and feelings … , not forgetting that each individual is a different ‘world’. (1)
Fethullah Gülen emphasizes the importance of developing the whole individual and advocates equal participation for women and men as parents and teachers.

Education, according to Gülen, continues beyond formal schooling in the form of further development of the self. For men and women affiliates [of the Hizmet Movement], it entails the individual and communally supported pursuit of self-perfection, through the acquisition of attributes and propensities such as
  • self-supervision (muraqaba),
  • self-scrutiny (muhasaba) and
  • limiting one’s relationship to material things (zuhd).
It centers on self-renewal through the emulation of advanced-level affiliates and prepares affiliates to offer service to humanity as a means to address global problems linked to widespread animosity and lack of compassion for others, which he understands as arising primarily from excessive materialism.

Fethullah Gülen envisages self-perfection as a means to revitalize compassionate acceptance of others, which is central to true humanism. It empowers spirituality against the carnal self (nafs) instead of shunning the material world. The compassionate acceptance of others, dialogue and a mutually supportive existence are central to discovering ‘true identity’. The two essential components, action and thought, are integrally linked to serving and guiding others, as articulated in the following excerpt:
[T]he way to true existence is action and thought, and likewise the way to renewal, individual and collective.

Action … means embracing the whole of creation with full sincerity and resolve … expending all one’s physical, intellectual and spiritual faculties in guiding the world … .
As for thought, it is action in one’s inner world. Any truly systematic thinking entails seeking answers to all questions arising from the existence of the universe as such. In other words, … [it] is the product of a conscious mind relating itself to the whole of creation and seeking the truth in everything through its language.

[T]he realization of such noble aims depends on the existence of guides and leaders able to both diagnose our external and inner misery and to be … in constant relation with the higher worlds … . Thus, all the institutions of life will be remolded … . Sciences will progress hand-in-hand with religion, and belief and reason combined will yield ever-fresh fruits of their cooperation. In short, the future will wit- ness a new world built in the arms of hope, belief, love, knowledge, and resolve. (2)

Unlike early European Christians, early Muslims, honoring the message of the Qur’an, saw no contradiction in combining science and religion, which Gülen underlines in the extract above. Furthermore, he elucidates the interconnection between language and culture and the central role of language in developing thought, at present and progressively, as follows.
Language is one of the fundamental dynamics in the composition of a culture. Language is an important tool for humankind in our efforts to better understand the cosmos and events both holistically and analytically. The more richly and colorfully a nation can speak, the more they can think; the more they can think, the broader is the span their speech can reach. Every single society leaves behind what they speak and think today for its validity to be probed, tested and protected by future generations. In this way, a huge reserve of experience and learning are saved from being wasted; the knowledge and ideas of the past are utilized for the benefit of the present; what was right or wrong in the past is compared with the rights and wrongs of today so that we do not tread the same path and suffer from the same errors. This is valid for all nations of the world; the capacity of a language to express a thought is related to the level of development it has achieved, and a thought can become the instrument by which the language is tuned to this level of development. From every aspect, language plays a defining role in the formation of our culture. (3)
This elevation of the interplay between language and culture, and between language and thought, is linked to the interrelationship between reason and spirituality, but also to emotion, whose disavowal was at the core of European Enlightenment thinking. Also emphasized is the humility and honesty which, while essential to acknowledging past mistakes and present flaws and ensuring future advancement, are lacking in many current contexts, particularly in the West. Gülen uses the term ‘nation’ to encompass all societies and peoples, in their past, present and future forms, defined by their unique languages, which number between 3,000 and 6,000, and refers to the potential service that they can offer others when they develop themselves so as to promote the advancement of humans as a species and family. Elsewhere, Gülen grounds the compassionate acceptance of others (hoşgörü), imprecisely translated into English as ‘tolerance’, in the following Qur’an verses: “If your Sustainer had so willed it, He would have made humankind into a single nation, but they will not cease to be diverse … . And, for this God created them [humankind]” and “O Humankind! God has created you from a male and female and made you in diverse nations and tribes so that you may come to know one another”. Implied here is a self-perfection process comparable to that undertaken by [Gülen] movement affiliates, facilitated by group spiritual reflection and conversations (sohbetler), in which more advanced affiliates serve as role models and monitor novices’ progress.

While providing no explicit guidelines for sohbetler, Gülen makes clear that his writings offer a new language and culture to be cultivated by a future generation of role models for humanity, whose attributes and tasks are elucidated in his writings. They will “put might under the command of right, never discriminate on grounds of colour or race”, and “unite in their character profound spirituality, wide knowledge, sound thinking, a scientific temperament, and wise activism … . Never content with what they already know, they will continuously increase in knowledge – knowledge of the self, knowledge of nature, and knowledge of God”. They attain ‘true life’ by applying the attributes and values developed in the self-perfection process.
… There is a mutually supportive and perfective relation between one’s actions and inner life … . Attitudes like determination, perseverance, and resolve illuminate one’s inner conscience, and the brightness of this inner conscience strengthens one’s will power and resolve, stimulating him or her to ever-higher horizons. They will always seek to please the Creator and humanity [...] and enjoy orderliness, harmony, and devotion to duty in their outer worlds. At the same time, they increase the pure light of their inner worlds … . Their intellect can combine … all current knowledge … and thereby obtain new syntheses. They are so modest that they see themselves as just ordinary people … . [T]heir altruism has reached such a level that they can forget their own needs and desires for the sake of others’ happiness. (4)
The attributes and values listed here enable them to confront societal problems globally.

Key to their resolution is guiding others, as elaborated in the following excerpt:
In order to awaken the people and guide them to truth … they … implant hope in our hearts, enlighten our minds and quicken our souls … . They will visit every corner of the world … and pour out their reviving inspirations into the souls of the dumbstruck people. (5)
As revealed here, affiliates continuously pursue self-perfection in preparation for, but also in the process of, offering service and guidance to others. All three aspects,

◾cultivating self-perfection,
◾guiding others by example, and
◾compassionately accepting and serving all of humanity,

are equally accessible to men and women, and both are able to work to resolve societal problems. Most importantly, every action is undertaken to please God.

This vision stands in sharp contrast to the concept of ‘progress’ as it is understood in the Western European philosophical tradition from its emergence until very recently. The enthusiasm with which the tenth- to the fourteenth-century Muslim scholars embraced advanced knowledge of philosophy, medicine and science (which they wrote treatises on) alongside their deep religious conviction, was not matched by Europeans’ experiences of these fields, which came centuries later. After the treatises were translated into Latin and Europeans began to embrace, study and teach these fields in their universities, in some cases using the translations as textbooks, their reaction and approach were entirely different. In fact, their vision of science and rational thought as being incompatible with and contrary to religion led them to distinguish sharply between the body and intellect and between emotion and reason. This dichotomy resonates in projects promoting nationalism created around the globe beginning in the late nineteenth century, including Kemalism, the Turkish version.

(1) Gülen, F. (2006b). ‘Our education system’, (
(2) Gülen, F. (2006a). ‘Action and Thought’, available at (
(3) Gülen, F. (2008b). ‘Language and thought’, The Fountain, January – February, Issue 61
(4) Gülen, F. (2008a). ‘Balancing the spiritual and the physical’, http://en.fgulen. com/about-fethullah-gulen/as-a-teacher/809-the-balance-between-the-physical- and-the-spiritual.
(5) Gülen, F. (2006c). ‘The awaited generation’, available at http://loveandtolerance. net/love-and-tolerance/towards-the-lost-paradise/123-the-awaited-generation.

Excerpt from: Margaret J. Rausch. ‘A Bucket with a Hole’: Hizmet Women and the Pursuit of Personal and Professional Progress Through Sohbetler (Spiritual Conversations). Hizmet Studies Review
 Vol. 1, No. 1, Autumn 2014, 75-95

Published on, 21 November 2014, Friday

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