The topic of forgiveness used to be almost the exclusive domain of philosophers and theologians. In the last three decades, however, considerable attention has been paid to forgiveness by a host of professionals including educators, psychologists, therapists and health practitioners.
Given the increasing interest in forgiveness, students of forgiveness have studied its religious roots. Most of the Islamic theological writings that exist about forgiveness seem to center on imploring adherents to forgive but often do not provide an integrated and comprehensive process of how to put this into practice. In his numerous writings, speeches and sermons, however, Fethullah Gülen has advanced a coherent perspective on forgiveness situated in the larger context of mercy.
The word ‘forgiveness’ appears 61 times in one of Fethullah Gülen’s books, and a whole section is devoted to the topic of forgiveness (Gülen, 2006). As I read the different parts of the book that relate to forgiveness, I quickly got the sense that Gülen is offering a new renaissance – that of the heart. His efforts toward this renaissance placed him at the top of the list of ‘the World’s Top 20 Public Intellectuals’ by the magazine Foreign Policy & Prospect in 2008 (Yenilmez, 2010). The concepts of love, peace and tolerance, which are prerequisites to forgiveness, stand out as prominent qualities that define both Gülen and his movement. In the Foreword written by Michel to Gülen’s book Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance (2006, p.10), Dr. Michel used the phrase “agent and witness to God’s universal mercy”. Gülen’s pronouncements and teachings about forgiveness are matched by actions which place him at the top of a list of the ‘World’s Top’ agents and witnesses to God’s universal mercy.
Gülen’s perspective is deeply rooted in his Islamic faith and views forgiveness as a supererogatory or merciful act. He always refers to the two primary sources of the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet to teach about or support his forgiving and peaceful stances. In one of his sermons, he cited this hadith, “Without doubt, My mercy precedes My wrath”, and the Qur’anic verses, “My mercy extends to all things (Al-Araf 7:156), and “They swallow their anger and forgive people. God loves those who do good” (Al-Imran, 3:134).
Gülen points out that the divine attribute of mercy is foundational to the concept of forgiveness. God, without showing any exception, “nurtures and protects all human beings, and He continues to give sustenance even to those who deny Him” (Gülen 2004).
A key to understanding Gülen’s perspective on forgiveness is the concept of ‘patient endurance’ which he derived from the following Qur’anic verse: “And if you have to respond to any wrong, respond to the extent of the wrong done to you; but if you endure patiently, this is indeed better for he who endures” (An-Nahl 16:126). The notion of ‘patient endurance’ by which a person buries the pain in his/her chest is synonymous with the Christian notion of absorption of pain, which paradoxically frees one from pain. This pious act of the burying of pain is not to be confused with the psychological concept of repression, which is a natural response to pain. But if left unaddressed, it can grow and fester.
Another key term which Gülen uses, and sometimes interchangeably with forgiveness, is tolerance. In one of his speeches, Gülen (2006) referred to the Prophet Mohammed’s example of tolerance and forgiveness especially with the people of Mecca who were violently hostile to him. They fought him, conspired to kill him, expelled him from his homeland and did everything they could to annihilate him and his followers. When the conquest of Mecca occurred, the hostile Meccans were anxious to see what the Prophet would do to them. “As a sign of his vast compassion and mercy, the Prophet said to them, I speak as Joseph spoke to his brothers: There is no reproach for you today (because of your previous acts). God will forgive you also. He is the Most Merciful of the merciful. Go; you are free.”
A second example of kindness, forbearance and tolerance that Gülen uses as an example to promote tolerance is that when someone called Abdullah ibn Ubayy, who had been a lifelong enemy, died, the Prophet demonstrated his tolerance and compassion by giving his shirt as a burial shroud, and said, “As long as there is no revelation forbidding me, I will attend his funeral” (Gülen, 2006, p.88). For Gülen, since tolerance is rooted in the holy Qur’an and manifested in the actions of the Prophet, a Muslim’s thoughts, feelings and actions must be congruent with these sources.
In the same speech given in 2004, Gülen proposed that “platforms for tolerance should be developed in our society. Tolerance should be rewarded; it should be given precedence at every opportunity” and “tolerance must permeate all of society so much so that universities should breathe tolerance, politicians should talk about tolerance, people in the music world should write lyrics about tolerance, and the media should give support to positive developments concerning tolerance” (p.3).
In addition to the concepts of patient endurance and tolerance, Gülen also included the dynamic of compassion, which provides both the willingness and the will to forgive others. As an example for compassion, Gülen turned to the Prophet Mohammed’s life for inspiration. More specifically, Gülen referred to an incident in which the Prophet was severely wounded in the Battle of Uhud, and manifested his love and compassion by raising his hands and offering the prayer “O God, forgive my people, for they do not know” (p.121). In this example, Gülen saw the compassion, love, courage and optimism that the Prophet displayed in the face of hatred, hostility and ignorance. In this way, he embraces and practices unconditional love. Gülerce (2010) quoted Gülen’s comment when speaking about unconditional love that “When you show love to people, you should not expect a favor in return. There would be no end to it. You must love people unconditionally” (p.2).
Forgiveness Heals Wounds
As to why forgiveness is so central to Gülen’s thinking, feeling and acting, he addressed this issue himself by saying, “we believe that forgiveness and tolerance will heal most of our wounds, if only this celestial instrument will be in the hands of those who understand its language” (Gülen, 2006, p.73). Gülen understands the healing power of forgiveness and discerns its potent transformative effect on the individual and on society. The precondition to reaping positive results of forgiveness depends on the accurate understanding of the language of forgiveness and the proper implementation of its process. Although not included in the quotation given above, Gülen alluded to the language of forgiveness in a recent article that appeared in Today’s Zaman (14 October 2010): Hüseyin Gülerce quoted Gülen’s remarks regarding accusations leveled at him and his movement by saying that “He would still never ask God to punish those who make such groundless claims against his movement and its members … and that the claims will not stand forever”.
In the same article, Gülerce noted that following the harsh criticism by reform opponents after the majority voted in favor of the constitutional amendment package, Gülen “called on everyone to adopt a more peaceful and tolerant language when speaking about others” He went on. “Everyone should revise their discourse. They should quit shouting at others and giving into to frantic behavior. Instead, they should adopt a softer and more loving discourse. We should never forget that screaming and a frantic attitude only trigger hatred, not love”.
Gülen displays a solid grasp of the idea that forgiveness is a process that a person goes through following a personal, unfair and deep offense. According to an interview with Gülen by Nevval Sevindi which appeared in the Yeni Yüzyıl Daily in 1997, he was asked the question “You have suffered a lot in your life. How did you overcome events that could have smothered your enthusiasm and smashed you?”
Gülen’s response was, “Once I was followed for six years as if I were a traitor. It bothered me, but I forgot it. I don’t feel hostility toward anyone. Even then I approached the matter logically, not emotionally. I’ve forgiven the people who did this. If one day I see the faith of the people secured and a peaceful atmosphere surrounding the world, then everything will have been worthwhile”.
Key words and phrases from Gülen’s answer such as “it bothered me”, “I forgot it”, “I don’t feel hostility” and “I have forgiven the people who did this” all relate to the forgiveness steps which Enright et al. (1987) elaborated and which other researchers have modeled subsequently. The first phrase ‘it bothered me’ relates to the first phase in the forgiveness journey and is called ‘Dealing with the Pain, or the Uncovering’. This phase immediately follows the injury, and depending on the intensity of pain, most people employ psychological defenses to shield themselves from the pain. The longer they deny or repress their emotions, the more likely is the pain to take its toll on the individual physically and mentally and to spill over into his or her relationships.
The second phrase, ‘I forgot it’, refers to the mitigation of pain through the passage of time, and that the enormous initial negative emotional response has diminished. If forgetting is not characterized by the cessation of hostility, resentment and anger, then it simply shows that forgetting is being used as a psychological defense mechanism. In Gülen’s case, he stated that he ‘did not feel hostility toward anyone’, which shows that he dealt with the pain which led to replacing hostile impulses with positive ones. The other critical phase of forgiveness that Gülen went through is captured by the phrase ‘then I approached the matter logically, not emotionally’. It can be concluded that Gülen conducted a cost/benefit analysis of forgiving or not forgiving and that his reason prevailed over his emotions. He managed his negative emotion very wisely as he knows about the destructive power of anger. Gülen has described anger as “a temporary madness and it results in regret”, and has advised people to not allow grudges to infect their reason. In a speech, Gülen said, “Let’s not allow our grudges to affect our style. Let’s be fair. Let’s be impartial and objective.”
The other important phase demonstrated by Gülen is his choosing to forgive those who treated him as a traitor for six years. This phase is known in the forgiveness literature as the Decision phase. One can decide to pursue a justice or a mercy route. If the person elects the justice route, he/she can either take the injurer to court and have the legal system resolve the issue, or choose to mete out the punishment him/herself. Meting out the punishment by the individual often leads to a vicious cycle of revenge. The legal route may resolve reparation issues but the injured person must still live with the emotional wounds caused by the injurer.
Gülen’s selection among strategies to deal with the people who hurt him must have considered the others’ motives, needs and reasons for acting the way they did. This cognitive appraisal must have then engendered positive attitudes and feelings of goodwill toward those who had committed the injury.
Given that Gülen’s perspective on forgiveness is rooted in and motivated by his deep and genuine faith, he chose the route of mercy in the belief of being forgiven by God, which made him and continues to make him forgive others. This kind of forgiveness, which Trainer (1981) labeled as ‘intrinsic forgiveness’, is characterized by benevolent behavior and an inner change in attitudes and feelings about the offender, and, over time, it becomes an internalized and automatic response that predisposes the individual to choose it over other options in a crisis situation.
- Enright, R.D. et al. (1987). To err is human…to forgive is not my thing: I dissent. Paper presented at the Dissenter’s Forum, University of Wisconsin-Madison, October 29.
- Gülen, F. (2006). Toward a global civilization of love and tolerance. NJ: The Light, Inc.
- Gülen, M.F. (14 June 2006). Tolerance in the life of the individual and society. Retrieved from http://en.fgulen.com/love-and-tolerance/269-forgiveness-tolerance-and-dialog/1800
- Gülen, M.F. (14 June 2006). Islam as a religion of universal mercy. Retrieved from http http://en.fgulen.com/love-and-tolerance/269-forgiveness-tolerance-and-dialogue/1809-islam-as-a-religion-of-universal-mercy.html
- Gülen, M.F. (14 June 2006). Forgiveness. Retrieved from http://en.fgulen.com/love-and-tolerance/269-forgiveness-tolerance-and-dialogue/1797-forgiveness.html
- Gülerce, H. (2010, October 14). I am just Fethullah the son of Ramiz. Today’s Zaman. Retrieved from http://www.todayszaman.com
- The Meaning of the Holy Quran. (2010). Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Trans., NY: Madison Park.
- Trainer, M.F. (1981). Forgiveness: Intrinsic, role-expected, expedient, in the context of divorce. Doctoral dissertation, Boston University. Dissertation Abstracts International-B, 45(04), 1984, p. 1325.
- Yenilmez, C. (2010, October 14). Al-Zuhayli says Gülen’s ideas hope for humanity. Today’s Zaman. Retrieved from http://www.todayszaman.com