June 24, 2015

[BOOK REVIEW] Embracing the World: Fethullah Gulen’s Thought and Its Relationship to Jalaluddin Rumi and Others

Renewed interest in a world-wide civil society movement inspired by teachings of Fethullah Gulen has motivated many scholars outside Turkey to undertake full-time research on Gulen’s thoughts and philosophy. Yet few studies in English have attempted to examine Gulen’s ideas from a comparative perspective and in the context of the larger humanities. One exemplary effort of this sort resulted in the publication of A Dialogue of Civilizations: Fethullah Gulen’s Islamic Ideals and Humanistic Discourse – Jill Carroll’s book on how ideas of Fethullah Gulen find echo in the texts of Confucius, Plato, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and Jean Paul Sartre. Nevertheless, to date, practically no systematic study in English has focused on the place of Fethullah Gulen’s works in relation to a range of Islamic thinkers and in the larger context of Islamic theology.

Ori Z. Soltes, in a more critical spirit than was formerly possible, inquires into the intellectual and spiritual world of one of the most influential thinkers of our time – Fethullah Gulen – and carries on a constructive conversation between him, Rumi, Rabi’a, and Ibn al-‘Arabi. Embracing the World aims to explain a range of distinct connections between Fethullah Gulen and Jalaluddin Rumi, which includes but not limited to speeches, teachings, and writings that reach beyond these scholars. It demonstrates how two thinkers so far apart in time have been ahead of their respective times in terms of thinking, writing, and feeling. Soltes shows how both Fethullah Gulen and Rumi in their own way manifest “this great love…inside me” to the outer world.

Although not a comprehensive study of Fethullah Gulen and Jalaluddin Rumi, the book neatly identifies how thoughts of the one is echoed in the thinking of the other. Ultimately, Soltes singles out important foundation stones under philosophies and theologies of both intellectual giants. It is in this way that this notable study advances public knowledge of Islamic thinking in the twenty-first century and highlights opportunities for improved human understanding.

According to Soltes, Fethullah Gulen is both Islamist and Universalist in the mold shaped by Rumi. He suggests that Rumi himself is part of a universalistic perspective with regard to the mystical process embedded in aspects of the Sufi tradition. The author develops this argument in six chapters. The first chapter examines Sufism within the history of Islam from Rabi’a to Ibn al-‘Arabi. Soltes explains the meaning as well as origins of the term “Sufism” and traces the history of Islamic mysticism from as early as the 7th century to the emergence of the tariqa, a Sufi path of spiritual learning, associated with Jalaluddin Rumi. Rumi’s Mevlevi tariqa, according to Soltes, became one of the renowned tariqas, both within and beyond the Muslim world. Fethullah Gulen Fethullah Gulen Fethullah Gulen

Rumi and Fethullah Gulen

The second chapter examines the life and thought of Jalaluddin Rumi. Soltes points out that Rumi has come to be viewed as the Newton of Sufism. Rumi, according to Soltes, “stood on the shoulders of giants” in order to gain his far-reaching view of humanity and its relationship to God. He was preeminent exponent of the idea promoted by Ibn al-‘Arabi regarding God’s universal, as opposed to Islamocentric focus (p.31). According to Soltes, Rumi teaches us that we can know God only through faith by abandoning the methodologies relevant to our own reality (p.45).

In chapter three Soltes focuses on the intellectual shaping of Fethullah Gulen. Soltes points out the importance of the Ottoman legacy in the formation of Gulen’s ideas. In particular, the author explains why Bediuzzaman Said Nursi has played an important role in Gulen’s intellectual growth. Chapter four is devoted to the analysis of Fethullah Gulen’s thought in its relation to Rumi and other thinkers. Thus, according to Soltes, Fethullah Gulen carries a Rumi-inspired view of God’s presence with the manifestations of His Names.

Chapter five examines some of the implementations of Fethullah Gulen’s ideas. Focusing on the analysis of the Hizmet movement, Soltes argues that those inspired by Fethullah Gulen “are in the gradual process of being part of the solution to the problems that continue to shape too much of the world” (p.123). The last chapter explores Fethullah Gulen’s broader vision and goals. Soltes points out that democracy, in Fethullah Gulen’s view, in spite of its many shortcomings, is now the only viable political system. The author concludes – “Gulen’s life’s work has been no less than an extended expounding upon the words for which Rumi is perhaps best known:
Come, come wherever you are
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving, it doesn’t matter…” (p.140).
Partnering Fethullah Gulen’s ideas with those of Jalaluddin Rumi requires sophisticated analysis and immense knowledge of the subject. Demonstrating example of high academic standards, Soltes skillfully bridges different historical contexts, time periods, places, and ideas. These are only some of the reasons why Ori Z. Soltes’s book deserves to become a prescribed reading for all those interested in Fethullah Gulen’s philosophy and the Gulen Movement.

Nevertheless, several elements could further improve the analysis. First, it would be useful to put the discussion in a larger context of scholarly literature on the Gulen Movement. Besides its academic value, a good literature review might help to establish an intellectual connection between a growing number of students of the subject. Apart from that, an element that might need further clarification is the author’s tendency to present Fethullah Gulen and Rumi as independent thinkers, who paved the way for a unique interpretation of Islam. While contributions of both Fethullah Gulen and Jalaluddin Rumi in Islamic thought are immense, it might also be useful to refer to the Qur’an and Hadiths, a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Muhammad, from where both Fethullah Gulen and Jalaluddin Rumi have drawn their inspiration.

These marginal points, however, fade in light of this study’s contribution. Ori Soltes provides one of the most convincing explanatory frameworks to date for comparing philosophies of Rumi and Fethullah Gulen, supported by a strong narrative that sets the bar high for future works on the topic. Finally, the book is a welcome contribution providing a timely perspective for both academics and policy analysts to examine the ongoing events in Turkey and beyond. While a more global academic exchange would be very welcome, scholars interested in understanding Fethullah Gulen and the Gulen Movement today should read this book.

Published on fethullah-gulen.org, 27 February 2015, Friday