December 9, 2015

The roots of Fethullah Gulen’s theory of education and the role of the educator [1]

Muhammed M. Akdag, PhD. [2]


Fethullah Gulen is an important and widely renowned Sunni-Muslim scholar and preacher, whose fellows and sympathizers share his ideas and through that put new projects on education, intercultural dialogue, charity organizations and social projects in every parts of the public sphere. Having the human being in the focus of attention has brought Gulen positive acknowledgments from all around the world in the blink of an eye, although he and his followers are being criticized.

In this article we are going to examine Gulen’s ideas about education, educators and schools as holy places of education. Hence the Islamic roots of Gulen’s thought and his Sufi-Islamic way are very important to understand his viewpoint, especially about education. Through this way we can see how important teachers are in his thought and the role of his Sufi-Islamic roots to educate these teachers, mentors and crew reconciled to modern methods and theories. The critics and their main arguments are going to be discussed too.



Gulen calls for dialogue and peace (Haughey, 2008), and takes position between traditionalism and modernism. His understanding of Islam is more liberal and tolerant for other religions, life styles and philosophies (Aras and Caha, 2000: 31; Bilir, 2004: 270; Özdalga, 2006). The key words of his civil Islam perspective that is based on social reforms and intellectual transformations are education and spiritual improvement. (Kurtz, 2005: 377; Kim, 2005; Bulaç, 2007: 89-106) He demands condolence instead of retreat. A society, he states, could be changed by only the individuals who belong to it. Hence, Gulen’s doctrine is: “Build new schools instead of new mosques” (Steinvorth, 2008: 26; Agai, 2004).

Gulen condemns terrorism sharply and he is arguing against Huntington’s apocalyptic theses of “Clash of civilizations”. (Penaskovic, 2007) By doing so he became a bridge between Islam and the West as a temperate Muslim. His interpretation of Islam persuades the Moslem and the non-Moslem in a humanistic and peaceful way (Osman, 2007).

The Hizmet Movement could be presented as an example for international and global civil movements and a modern type of Islamic activism. The Sufism-orientated activism of the movement is also noteworthy on the basis of the movement. It places special emphasis on serving in the society, to educate individuals and thereby form a new generation.

The Movement and Gulen have been on the agenda of researchers for more than ten years and studied carefully. On behalf of these researches our attempt in this paper is to describe Gulen’s theory of education on a new interpretation and mobilization of human resource and the role of teachers in the movement as mentor, tutor and educators. We want to examine the critics to Gulen’s theory of education too.

Today it is not easy to discuss the aforementioned matters on a solid platform because of the dynamic and progressive nature of the Hizmet Movement. We need a variety of methods and materials. However, we are going to examine the theoretical side of the topic and use primary and secondary literature and the results of our researches, experience and observations on the field. We should not forget that Gulen and his friends are often subjects to attacks through media.

The educational theory of Fethullah Gulen

Education and pedagogy take the first place in Gulen’s thought. In his speeches, sermons and books he elaborates on education and underlines its importance. As an Islamic scholar he himself is a teacher, preacher and mentor. For these reasons, he described the essentials of education considering not only the methods of Islamic religious perspective but also in view of modern methods. Besides, he carried and still carries out his lessons personally and taught them to his pupils, who are the forerunners of the movement now (Akdag, 2013:116).

Like some other contemporary Islamic scholars, Gulen criticizes todays’ educational systems (Gulen, 2011:13). Nasr sees in western curricula and teaching contents means of the secular degeneration (Erken, 1995: 80; Nasr, 1993). Gulen agrees with Nasr and underlines the lacks of ethical and moral values in this system cursorily and emphatically which has a global influence on all cultures and of course on Muslims. This entails that Muslims on many are confronted with many difficulties in an education which does not contain curriculums supported by the faith and Islamic roots (Gulen, 2011:14). According to Gulen the stencils of the education system in Turkey which was founded in the period of the early republic would have to be changed absolutely (Kuru, 2003: 130).

At the other side Gulen attaches a special meaning to the human agency in bridging of theory and practice to educate an ideal youth. According to his opinion Islam is a constitution of morality and identity. For him, the role of education must be stressed for self-cultivation. Therefore, his education project is based on many principles such as self-control, cultivation of ethic, teaching science, etc. This project is inspired by the faith and morality, and discipline plays big role. Their essentials are making sacrifices, taking responsibility and living in idealism. Muslims are constantly reminded of the fact that it is not enough to avoid sins. Rather than that, engagement is necessary to create a more humanly world. Hence, moral consciousness can be raised only by participating in action. According to him a Muslim should be an investor who understands the service on others as a holy assignment. Besides, the power of God’s love is reflected in the spirit of Gulen’s Sufi training, and he tries to educate the perfect and universal person (Turkish: insan-ı kamil and arabic: al-insān al-kāmil), and being a morally straight person is only possible by having a morally qualitative behaviour.

In this connection, the institutions of the movement and particularly the schools and teachers play a big role. They are models for the pupils with their behaviour without making available a formal religious instruction in the classroom. This position can be called an “Activist-Pietism”. Gawrych describes this method of the education, which could be described as the method of the Prophets, as the center way of absolute balance between materialism and spiritualism, between rationalism and mysticism, between worldliness and excessive asceticism between this world and the following. The most important thing with Gulen’s method is that it pleads for a secular education, although it gives big value to Islamic morality (Gawrych, 2004: 650; Agai, 2004).

The experts and observers want to see the aim of Fethullah Gulen and The Hizmet Movement in that sense. Experts like Saritoprak, Kim and others state that Gulen’s secluded life and his pietistic world view as well as the moral education and position of the Hizmet Movement show that Gulen and the Hizmet movement do not want to be get rich by their activities materially, and do not want any political power or win any fame in the world. According to them and also to the state authorities he, and the pupils who have been in his near vicinity do not have any worldly possessions, and he lives unmarried. Consequently, his achievements are not material, but from spiritual nature and are all-embracing (Saritoprak, 2007: 641; Kim, 2008a: 185).

Within the scope of his hizmet thought, Gulen developed a new model of human-being: “hizmet insanı” (the man who serves). Besides, he always underlines the importance of the central state of the human as it was treated in the Sufism, and explains the good moral and attributes of his model as well as the signposts of this perfection process. His doctrine is: „Serving people means serving God“ (Turkish: Halka hizmet, Hakk’a hizmettir) (Aslandogan, 2007: 672). However, the good actions in Islam contain a wide spectrum of matters. Thus, for example teachers serve people by giving lessons, education. There is no limit to serve God. One can never sit down contented. As soon as work is done, one must hurry up to get into the next project. Gulen names a sort of ideal person as “a man of action” (Aksiyon insanı ), too .

“Hizmet insanı” is described as “the traveller of the truth” and his activities as searching for the truth (Ünal and Williams, 2000: 24). With this idea Gulen has been stressing truth emphatically and pulling the attention to respect between God, cosmos and humanity. One could reach the biggest advantage of humanity, the model of the universal or perfect and ideal human being with that (Gulen, 2001a). However, Gulen sees, that the lack of knowledge is the problem`s most serious part, and the solution is to be searched in the education which has always been „the most important kind of service“. Besides, it is also a good way to create a „dialogue with other civilizations”, too (Gulen, 2004b :198).

Moreover, Gulen’s aim with education is to reshape society consequently creating a new „golden generation“ (Turkish: altın nesil). Equipped with the facilities of science and religion, this generation should be in the state to solve dilemmas of the future society (Vicini, 2007: 436; Akdag, 2010)

Now what are the bases and methods of his educational theory? And what is the role of Islam and his new human model as educators?

Gulen’s philosophy of education: religious or secular?

According to Gulen, “education” means formation and “teaching” means providing of knowledge. In this connection education encloses teaching as well as moral and ecclesiastical formation. Therefore, to educate and to teach are “holy” activities and the educators and teachers are the “saints” (Pahl, 2008: 14).

In his works Gulen stresses the meaning of education: “Straining for the education is a process of perfection thereby we earn the spiritual, intellectual and physical dimensions of our beings which are the highest position for our human being.” (Ünal und Williams, 2000: 34).

Of course there is a historical background of Gulen’s thoughts. During his years as a preacher in the mosques of Turkey, he stressed the relevance of education as the core of modernization and the social rise. He continually stressed that peace, social justice and consideration for different cultures and religions can be reached only by educated people (Ebaugh and Koç, 2007: 543).

The Islamic bases of Gulen’s theory of education

Gulen assumes that education is based on three basic premises: 1. education is constructed on a manifestation of the God’s name Rabb (pedagogue and supporter). 2. It is about the ability to reach the line of true humanity (al-insān al-kāmil). 3. And it is a matter of becoming a profitable element for society and this devotion leads to good actions (Atay, 2007: 205).

Besides, Gulen ascribes more than only a theoretical role to Islam. His educational project presents a new public form and a new way of life. According to many academics he would thereby like to provide an Islamic ethos which is revealed as “a basic” idea of Islam (Vicini, 2007: 436). That is the reason why he has given big value on the verses of the Koran and ḥadīṯh, which reveal and affirm learning as a religious duty and lift it on the same level such as prayers and charity, while he built his educational philosophy (Afsaruddin, 2005). Besides, the roots of Gulen’s education are to be found in the deep Islamic tradition of Rūmī and Nursi, which define dignity as an inherent quality and therefore it survives conferring to the Koran (Graskemper, 2007: 625).

In his widespread writings Gulen stresses common values such as spirituality, honesty, relief, self-discipline, correctness, compassion, patience, tolerance and the necessities of leadership like realism, responsibility and long sightedness, which should be the attributes of the prophet. These are also taught in the schools of the Hizmet Movement as ethics. The pupils could thereby be equipped with a good character and they could devote themselves to life according to these human attributes and moral values. These moral values would be: love to mother and father, respect and honesty. Gulen looks at them as generally suitable values and assumes this from the fact that Muslims, Christians and Jews share them (Michel, 2003, S. 217).

The Hizmet movement follows the convictions of Gulen who sees the education as prominent utility for social changes and a renewal of the community. However, religion is properly understood only by extensive knowledge and only by a suitable education through which the community becomes stronger and could be able to improve. Besides, science and technology are absolutely compatible with Islam in his opinion. Knowledge of physical sciences and the universe is indispensable (Fuller, 2008: 57). Agai describes this method as “Islamic ethos of the education”, which is seen as “Islamic eager education” and secular knowledge harmonizes with spiritual knowledge and Islamic ethics (Agai, 2003: 51).

In this perspective education gets in a process of mediation of religious knowledge which is not reduced to inter-mediation from a person to another. Rather, it is a matter of forming the personality of the pupils (Ünal and Williams, 2000: 312; Michel, 2003: 78). According to Gulen, education opens the way to knowledge of the universe and this knowledge indicates individuals to a perfect apprenticeship of truth (Allah-universe-human). With this he tries to attach science, religion and dialogue (Haughey, 2008).

It is noteworthy with this background that neither the Koran nor the books of Nursi and Gulen are taught in the schools of the Movement. No religious education is aimed at the facilities, although their sponsors are motivated by Islamic thoughts. This is the case, because in his early career Gulen acknowledged that a concentration on religious lessons is infertile in a secular society, and science lessons could serve religious needs and form a base for social stability. He thought that, if children were skilled by a scientific, computer-aided education, they would accept values like nonviolence and helpfulness for their country and for their community and then also accept the essential apprenticeships of Islam and those of all other religions (Bonner, 2004: 94).

In this sense, Hermansen notes that teachers devoted themselves to the moral education of students, who were presented as true mentors, i.e. as big brothers and sisters (türk. abiler and ablalar). But she emphasizes also that the accent on religious subjects and methods which was typical for the Protestant missions has never been a subject for the schools of the Hizmet movement (Hermansen, 2007: 67). Neither the teachers of these schools declare their Islamic identity, nor do they inform the sciences from a religious perspective (Krause, 2007: 170). Indeed, in the course of the years the discourse has partially reinterpreted Islamic values as universal values (Solberg, 2005).

The Sufi character of Gulen’s philosophy of education and the teacher as spiritual mentors

At the other side, Gulen suggests pursuing an ethos of self-control and self-restraint as well as a life style according to the good manners described in Islamic morality education. He describes the Sufi as the “model of the self-cultivation” (Yavuz, 2003:34). In his model spiritual education is very important, for the personal faith and “self-cultivation” indicate that there has to be an engagement to the “education of the inside”. The aim is to set up a practical method of self-realization, which is based on cleaning of the mind and searching for religious fulfilment in new secular life forms in daily life and to build up healthy relations within the whole society (Toguslu, 2007b; Ozdalga, 2003b).

Actually, this method to transmit knowledge in a fine manner and by examples, does not contradict to the classical Sufi methods of Yasawī and Naqšbandī and within the scope of a good education the schools of the movement practice this method as a principal purpose of education without any specific orientation (Özdalga, 1999; Aras and Caha, 2000; Helminski, 2000: 32; Michel, 2002; Aslandogan and Cetin, 2006).

According to Gulen, further success of education is hidden in the heart and mind of the teacher, and it is taken up by the pupils. Therefore, teachers are with their modest, tolerant, personable and intelligent behaviours at school or in their private life models for the children and in this system they take a central position. For this purpose, school administrations choose teachers who are equipped with these attributes (Boyd, 2006). For instance, the movement recruits its teachers from the circle of its graduates in Denmark.[3]

But how do these teachers lead their pupils? Do their methods deal with the Sufi Iršād (spiritual and moral education)? Furthermore, can one see the teachers as muršid (spiritual and moral masters)?

Concerning education, the key concepts for The Hizmet Movement are morality, identity and tamṯīl (acting as a model). The role of teachers consists of supporting pupils by development and forming their character. In this sense, he educates them spiritually (iršād). The concept refers normally to lead the pupils in the learning process of Islamic methods traditionally. Nevertheless, as it was mentioned above, the Movement has extended this proposal by lessons in secular schools, rather having it done according to a specific ethics. In this sense Agai even states that being an idealistic teacher (especially in schools of The Movement) is a kind of religious service (Agai, 2003: 59).

For Gulen, a school is basically a sort of holy place with the teacher as a “holy road guide” (Gülen, 1996e: 36). In this connection we can compare Gulen’s convictions about the teacher with the muršid[4] figure of the Sufism, who acts as a spiritual leader, teacher and instructor with his competence in all areas. Therefore, these leaders should be trained with spiritual and religious sciences. Besides taking care of their own perfection, the teachers have to worry about their pupils’ perfection and love them (in a metaphorical sense). However, it is not enough for a school to make the character development of pupils only dependent on a good model, because character-education is not only dependent on a good model, but also dependent on what the pupils learn in their life and lessons. From numerous perspectives learning is a process in which active knowledge is developed and methods are prescribed. Although learning mostly begins with observation, the observation should – if possible – generally be carried out by actions to confirm the learning (Nelson, 2007).

According to Gulen, education should be embedded in values, and the teachers must live these values. The reform process must start with the person itself, and who wants to reform the world, must reform himself first. This apprenticeship is based on the Sufi understanding “man ʿarafa nafsahū fa qad ʿarafa rabbahū” which has become known as ḥadīṯ and means “„Who knows himself, knows God“ (Sakhawi, 1956; al-ʿAṭṭār, 1933).[5]

Today Gulen interprets this phrase anew and stresses that education is a manner of “self-reform” and that it leads everyone to improved and changed social and cultural connections. That is why Gulen could be labelled as “socially deliberated Sufi”. Besides, that is what makes the Gulen model unique: the “inside education” which causes the social and global change. In the second step the self-reform leads to transforming and reforming the social and cultural context. And this transformation will be from an internal manner of learning to an external manner of service in the world. This agrees not only with Sufi ideals, but also with the images and lifelong efforts of Gulen himself. Accordingly Boyd stated that the Hizmet movement stands under the influence of Sufism (Boyd, 2006).In addition, Gulen introduced active contents of Sufism in modern education and interprets concepts like “yaqīn” new (Erken, 1995: 102).

Gulen’s educational philosophy and model could be entitled as ʿulamā-intellectual model too, which includes not only the internal mobilization of new social and cultural actors, but also represents a new liberal version of the action. In this sense Nelson finds similarities in his philosophy with what Russell (1967) and Hübner (1999) maintain (Nelson, 2005). Gulen claims that most people inform, but only a few can educate completely (Gülen, 2004a:208).

Under this moral code of behaviour a model function is understood, to which self-control belongs, such as in avoiding of smoking or consuming alcoholic beverages etc. (Clement, 2007: 582).

Besides Gulen’s model is stamped by moral bases such as; profound ideas, clear thoughts, intensive feelings, cultural recognition and spiritual values. These ideas should also be based on the high qualities of education and a mixture of modern secular education with traditional spiritual values. According to him, one has the biggest opportunity to become a better Muslim with this kind of education. And it contains not only religious education, but also scientific education as well as the secular arts of education. Morality and discipline exist not least of the willingness to make sacrifices, the sense of responsibility, idealism and diligence, and these global values are carried out in the educational projects of the Hizmet Movement (Krause, 2007: 171; Levinskaya, 2007; Saritoprak, 2007)

Criticism of Gulen’s education model:

Although Gulen’s model of education is seen successful by many graduates, neither his understanding of education, nor the schools and other institutions of the movement remain spared by criticism. For instance, the roots, the contents, the training period possibilities and the aims of the schools as well as their ruling, popularity and results in the state exams etc. are being criticized.

On the one hand, the compatibility of his model with modern values and systems is criticized. Because, as Yavuz and others argue, Gulen’s system in every conceivable manner is taken up in the west, until the problem of the individual is solved. Because(, since) Gulen’s model concentrates on the common aspect of education and its intention is highly municipal. In parallel, Yavuz states that Gulen’s education system is not necessarily promoting the freedom of will and individualism, but rather encouraging a collective consciousness (Yavuz, 1999: 598; Boyd, 2006).

Doubts in the view of Hizmet movement and its educational activities also exist in Turkey. For example, there is scepticism that the philosophy of the schools of the Hizmet movement would be oriented in the ideas of the Nurcu community and, therefore, be a religious philosophy. Secular observers consequently fear those movements which intend to create a religious state. However, this fear has mostly decreased upon the critics visiting one of the institutions of the movement and their closer observation (Borelli, 2008: 13).

Because of his Islamic background and his attempts to reconcile religion with science, he is sometimes seen as an Islamist and his system as an Islamic one (Bakar, 2005; Celik- Kirk- Alan, 2007: 259). Turam wants to recognize the prioritizing and politicizing of the national connection in the educational project of Gulen, and she speaks of representing a pragmatic Islam which is a product of national culture or of the culture of the nation (Turam, 2003: 190).

Another aspect of the critic is that the schools would have reached a high level of education and threatened to intervene in the politics up to the state-system (Turgut, 1998: 6). Some people criticize that Gulen and The Movement try to educate the elites of the society (Aras and Caha, 2000; Solberg, 2005; Ergil, 2010: 332-333). It is partially spoken about in Turkish media that Gulen exercises missionary activities by his schools as other European and American missionary schools do (Turgut, 1998). The last reproach against the movement concerns the financing of the constantly rising number of the schools in and beyond Turkey. Although the transparency of the institutions financial systems causes no problem for hundred thousands of donors in Turkey, many critics see a sore point in them (Ashton, 2005).

The critics and the objections, asserted by critics are firmly taken into account and treated by experts with a certain care and are sufficiently answered. They recommend general qualities of the Hizmet Movements schools’ pupils’, such as hard-working, diligence, honesty etc. and the success of educational science. But their spiritual influence is difficult to be measured. There is a loose network and primarily they are equipped with common values and methods. Although the founders and governors of these schools arise from the fissile community of the movement, they are open to all people. They work together with and/or for the government authorities and local communities in respective locations.

The institutions are competitive and stand for high academic and independent standards. Their members and teachers are highly qualified. Hence, as Fuller states, these educational institutions are the opposite of fundamentalist schools. The teachers are disciplined, the sciences and humanity are estimated, intellectual openness is promoted and character education is the only form of morality instruction (Fuller, 2008: 57).

One of the most important aspects of the schools is that they are mostly secular. In every country in which they exist they follow the local curriculum. They teach no religious topics, except good morality values, which can be found in every good school and up to a certain degree in every social conservatism. But in all cases these schools follow secular educational models. Gulen’s untiring endeavour in rising education chances for boys as well girls in Turkey, are spectacular and have caused a big rise in the number of girls in secondary and university education.


Gulen’s thought of education is designed to equip the character of the students with internal qualities like consciousness of self-control, tolerance etc.. An essential component of this moral education necessarily encloses relations with the society and as a natural conclusion a special vision of integration. Not only the academic help, but also the transmission of cultural or ethical messages are useful, and traditional Turkish moral values such as being respectful towards parents etc. are included. Gulen’s aim of education can be named as “serving to humanity”.

The educational institutions of the movement basically fight against the lack of experience by means of science lessons and create high educational standards. Besides that, it is a matter of forming the heart and the soul as well as the creation of opinions and character of individuals. By extending their competence they become able to understand the time they are living in and interpret affairs and events, and become able to provide useful services for others.

In that sense the success of education is hidden in the heart and mind of the teacher, and it is taken up by the pupils. Therefore, teachers are with their behaviours at school or in their private life, models for the children and in this system they locate in the centre. It means, tamṯīl (modelling) which is one of the key concepts of Gulen’s theory of education, effecting the role of teachers to support pupils’ developments and to form their character. In this sense, they educate them spiritually (iršād) too.

But the schools of the Movement have nevertheless extended this proposal by lessons in secular schools, rather than having it done according to a specific ethics. It is a kind of religious service for them. In comparison with the muršid figure of Sufism, teachers must act as spiritual leaders and instructors with their competence in all areas physical and metaphysical, religious and non-religious.

The reform process must start with the person itself, and who wants to reform the world, must reform himself first. Besides taking care of their own perfection, the teachers have to worry about their pupils perfection and love them in a metaphorical sense. This is a big responsibility for teachers. They must live the moral values which base on religious and global common values. Gulen’s model is stamped by moral bases such as profound ideas, clear thoughts, intensive feelings, cultural recognition and spiritual values. These ideas should also be based on high qualities of education and a mixture of modern secular education with traditional spiritual values.


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End notes

[1] Paper presented at the conference of Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences, Vilnius, Sept. 2013

[2]Muhammed M. Akdag, studied Islamic science at the University of Selcuk in Turkey and wrote his Master Thesis at the Social Science Institute of the same university on Islamic Sufism. He received his PhD. from the University of Tubingen at the faculty of philosophy in Germany on “Fethullah Gulens new human model “Hizmet Insani” compared with the “al-insan al-kamil” (perfect and universal human) concept of classical Sufism.

[3]Interview with Nejat Asanovski, the Director of International School in Copenhagen. Jan. 2011

[4]In the Sufism one calls muršid also pīr or šaiḫ. And these mean the master, teacher, spiritual leader and mentor. See: Glassé and Smith, in 2003, p. 331

[5]A similar perception is found in aphorisms of the antique philosophy like “Gnothi seauton” or “Scito (nosce) teipsum”, which concerns a much-cited demand in the antique Greek thinking. (see: Houédard, 1990; Mouraviev, 2006, 3/I, S. 295)

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