July 13, 2016

[BOOK REVIEW] Renewing Islam by Service

Erkan Toguslu

Renewing Islam by Service: A Christian View of Fethullah Gülen and the Hizmet Movement
The subject matter of this book in focus is of a theological nature: the divine source of the Hizmet Movement. One of the main questions answered is how religion and religious ideals stemming from Islamic values are implemented and circulated in public life. It is a not a biography of Fethullah Gulen or the description of the movement. The central attention is given to the divine inspiration, but at the same time besides this theological approach, a sociological and historical approach are also taken into consideration during the explanation of the Movement and Gulen’s idea on education, dialogue and charity.

Pim Valkenberg, professor of theology and religious studies at The Catholic University of America, introduces the readers the context within which the life and work of Gulen need to be placed in order to be properly understood: the development of Turkey through the secularization, an experiment with AKP (Development and Justice Party) and the recent tensions between the government and the Movement. In a chapter, the focus is on the main fields in which it operates and performs services: education, dialogue and charity. He discussed the structural organization of the movement, the financial aspect and resources, its media outlets. He also pays attention to different networks in Hizmet. He shows that how the activities of the Hizmet movement are connected with Gulen’s analysis of the root causes of diseases of modern society: poverty, ignorance and disunity borrowed from Said Nursi. According to Nursi, these are defined as three basic enemies of the humanity and also Muslims have to fight with these in order to have a just society.

The book also focuses on the modern-traditional-conservative character of the Movement. It is an interesting point to see how Gulen’s political outlook became quite liberal, emphasizing democracy, freedom of the press, individual- collective rights. In his writings and speeches, this openness started to include western values and other religions as well. The notions of dialogue, peace and tolerance between religions, cultures and civilizations became more and more central dimension of Gulen’s messages. This combination of traditional Muslim spirituality and modern Western values explains the great attraction of the movement that Gulen inspired from many socially and economically prominent persons in Turkey.

Some notions such as altruism, asceticism, simplicity, living for others, living together are cross religious borders. The aim of the book is to show these crossing boundaries in Islam and Christianity. Before this comparison, the author goes into details in Islamic tradition to see where the Movement stands on. For him, the movement is not only faith inspired movement, at the same time the activities, the mission, the motivations are faith based. The faith is at the central of the Movement. People in the movement are solidly rooted in their own Islamic tradition. As an example, he draws attention to two notions: pleasing God by serving humankind (rıza-i ilahi) and religious conversations (sohbetler). The goal of seeking God’s pleasure is very present in the Movement among the participants. For Valkenberg, it is not a personal engagement, but also for the people involved in the movement it is the finality, so the inspiration cannot explain all of the engagements. One of the forms of religious discourses is the sohbets in which students receive instruction and basic knowledge on ethical codes and some Islamic texts. These semi-religious gatherings function as a source of spiritual renewal. He argues that the idea of serving humankind is Gulen’s core motivation and the three fields of education, dialogue and charity services in the Hizmet are essential for the right understanding of the Movement. These notions lead to the specific issue of the character of the Hizmet Movement. Valkenberg depicts many Islamic notions, concepts in the discourses and life of people in the Movement. He thinks that faith is not just a kind of motivation and inspiration; it is more than just a personal motivation. Faith is the explanation of the self-committed people’s thoughts on social religious issues. It is one of the root dynamics of the Movement. In the main time, this argument calls the question of secularity post-secularity turn that has highlighted at the intersection of esoteric-exoteric language. While the esoteric discourse is religious oriented, the exoteric has a wider scope and semi-secular. Inside, the core element is very religious, and this core religious inspiration and motivation is expected to be manifested as religious in the public sphere.

Therefore, I think it is useful to use the concept of religio-secular that a combination of both religious and secular phenomena occurring especially in public life. So, the secular outlook and faith neutral manifestation does not contradict with the religious purpose of the people in the movement. It seems very paradoxical that religious and secular go hand in hand in this context. For Valkenberg, this may be understood as having two different languages; esoteric and exoteric. In the religio-secular perspective, the insider language overlaps with outsider one. The outlook is manifested secular or/and religious. Recently, many experts especially sociologists and anthropologists have marshaled data demonstrating the combination of secular- religious. So, the activities of the Movement may expand the esoteric-exoteric or in other terms religious-secular borders.

*KU Leuven, Belgium

Renewing Islam by Service: A Christian View of Fethullah Gülen and the Hizmet Movement; Pim Valkenberg; 2015; The Catholic University of America Press, 394 pp.; ISBN : 978-0-8132- 2755-9

Published on Hizmet Studies Review, November 2015