Fethullah Gülen as a Spiritual Leader in a Global Islamic Context

Fethullah Gülen


According to The Economist, Fethullah Gülen is the most influential Muslim scholar in the world.[1] Foreign Policy places Fethullah Gülen on the list of ‘Top 100 Intellectuals in the World.’[2] An advocate of interreligious dialogue and educational opportunity, Fethullah Gülen is the author of 60 books and has inspired millions. His admirers can be found in more than a hundred countries where they have established hundreds of educational institutions. While intellectuals have named this ‘the Gülen Movement,’ the advocates call their activities hizmet, the Turkish word for ‘service.’ It can be described as a ‘faith-inspired collectivity’ with millions of followers and sympathizers who draw on Islamic spirituality and teaching, constituting one of the largest civil movements.[3]

While respected by a significant part of Turkish society for his humanitarian views and activism, his influence has raised the suspicions of secularists, including politicians, intellectuals, and military persons, who see Fethullah Gülen’s growinginfluence as a threat to the current secular system in Turkey. Radical religious groups also accused Fethullah Gülen of compromisingthe Muslim faith by interacting with non-Muslims. Amidst such suspicion, it is necessary to understand who Fethullah Gülen is and what he stands for. This article will review the (1) the spiritual lifestyle of Fethullah Gülen, (2) the major differences between Fethullah Gülen and other contemporary Islamic scholars, and (3) the critiques of Fethullah Gülen’s spiritual views and movement and Fethullah Gülen’s responses to these critiques.

Who is Fethullah Gülen?

Fethullah Gülen is a spiritual leader, religious scholar, intellectual, peace activist, author, poet, and mentor whose life is spent in pursuit of the solution for society’s spiritual needs.[4] Many of Fethullah Gülen’s ideas are influenced by the works of Said Nursi (1876–1960), who authored several volumes of Qur’anic exegesis known as Risale-i Nur Külliyatı or ‘The Epistles of Light.’ Other major figures of influence were Alvarlı Muhammed Lütfi, a Sufi sheikh, Mehmet Akif, the national poet, Necip Fazıl, a Turkish Muslim intellectual and poet and Muhammed Hamdi Yazır (1878–1942), a contemporary commentator of the Qur’an.[5] Özdalga argues that mainstream Sunni Islam, the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition and the Nurculuk, Nur Movement have shaped the thought of Fethullah Gülen.[6]

Fethullah Gülen’s education and training was comprehensive. Muhammed Lütfi guided him in matters of spirituality, Gnostic knowledge, and religious practice. Meanwhile, Fethullah Gülen was also learningArabic from Sadi Efendi, and proper Qur’anic recitation from al-Qari Haji Sidqi Efendi. By the age of seven, he had memorized the entire Qur’an. During the 1950s, he also studied the theories of modern social and physical sciences. Later, Fethullah Gülen studied hadith methodology and memorized many hadith from various authentic hadith collections. In addition, he studied rhetoric, philosophy, Islamic history, theology, jurisprudence. While gaining a deep comprehension of the main principles of modern science, he also studied the works of classical and modern philosophers such as Aristotle, Marcus, Descartes, Kant, Camus, and Sartre.[7] Suat Yıldırım, who has been a very close friend of Fethullah Gülen for a longtime, says ‘He would spend a portion of his time daily in Edirne’s library, where he would read old history books. He had and still has an ascetic life; he would eat little, sleep only a few hours, and spent a great part of his day in worship.’

One of the turning points in his life was meeting with one of Said Nursi’s disciples who guided him to read Risale-i Nur. Fethullah Gülen was inspired by the deep spiritual life of Nursi and golden rules of serving humanity and then he would apply them as principles of hizmet, serving to the community. His greatest goal and achievement was to educate the younger generation in both secular and religious sciences, in order to solve their problems of ignorance, and prevent them from spiritual diseases’.[8] Yıldırım added that Fethullah Gülen has been strongly committed to his goals as one of the major purpose of his life. İsmail Büyükçelebi, one of the close companions of Fethullah Gülen for almost forty years, observed: ‘Ihave been with Fethullah Gülen since middle school. He used to preach at İzmir and teach my peers and me at Kestane Pazarı Qur’anic boardingschool. He would not only teach us, but also mentored us. He himself would live in a closet-sized room next the school building. He lived a very simple life and spent most of his salary providing for the poor students. He would spend his efforts in worship and education and avoid meaningless or fruitless activities and politics.

Fethullah Gülen would not only speak at mosques, but he would also speak at coffee houses, universities, and other institutions. Unlike other preachers, Fethullah Gülen would focus on science and religion, social problems and intellectualism. His inspirational speeches and intellectual approach attracted many university students, middle class business community and congregations in the mosques. He used his influence to encourage individuals to open dormitories, college preparation courses, open schools, start media and publishingcompanies, and build community centers’.[9] In March 1972, soon after a military coup, Fethullah Gülen was arrested and detained for four months. It was later revealed that the military had imprisoned specific religious figures alongside many communists and leftists to demonstrate to the public that military leaders were not only against communism.

After Fethullah Gülen was released, he continued preachinguntil the second military coup in 1980, at which time he retired. Those who loved him and his teachings started the Hizmet Movement (as liberals call it), named ‘Fethullahçılar’ (Fethullah’s followers) by Turkish leftists, and ‘Nurcu’ (the Light Movement) by traditionalists and conservatives. Fethullah Gülen never approved of this Movement using his name and viewed it as a sign of disrespect to those who contributed to the Movement.

Despite pressure from his mother and close friends, Fethullah Gülen never married. When asked about marriage, he answered as Said Nursi answered, ‘The suffering of the Islamic community is more than enough. I have not found time to think of myself.’[10]

Observing Fethullah Gülen’s Spiritual Practices

Fethullah Gülen would divide his day into the followingactivities: an hour before imsak (dawn), he would get up, perform the Tahajjud Prayer, read the Qur’an, supplicate in the way of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and make awrad or adhkar, which includes reciting the Names of God. After every obligatory prayer, he would make supplication for those who requested that he pray for them. Then, he would perform the Fajr (Morning) Prayer in congregation. After the Prayer, he would again make awrad and dhikr for fifteen to twenty minutes, followed by recitation of the end of Surah al-Hashr. He would converse with visitors for few minutes before his teaching session would begin. He would ask his students to read from Said Nursi’s Risale-i-Nur (the Epistles of Light) collection and expound on the specific reading.

The study period would last approximately an hour. Followingthat, he would breakfast with those around him. After breakfast, he would return to his room to rest until mid-day. I asked those around him what does he do duringhis free time. Iwas told that Fethullah Gülen spent his time taking a short nap, performing ishraq supererogatory prayer, reading different books, writing essays about portions of his books or poetry, and contemplating the activities of his Movement. About two hours before the Zuhr (Midday) Prayer, he teaches tafsir, commentary of Qur’an, hadiths, fiqh, jurisprudence, aqidah, theology and history of Islam to a selected student group who graduated from divinity schools. The study circle is similar to traditionalists’ way, which students would sit on the ground but with usingmodern technology such as computers and projector. Fethullah Gülen’s schedule is based on the Daily Prayers, which is always performed in congregation on the time.

Around noon, he would leave his room and watch the news for fifteen to twenty minutes. He would converse with those around him for half an hour. He would prepare for the Zuhr (Noon) Prayer, and pray in congregation. After performing the Zuhr Prayer, Fethullah Gülen would make awrad and dhikr for at least twenty minutes. While having lunch with others, he would answer questions from his audience about religion, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, economics, and education. I noticed that he would hesitate to respond to political questions. Sometimes, he would ask those around him about their family or profession, and, occasionally, make comments. He would give special attention to the elderly and young children.

After conversation, he would return to his room to read books or prepare his future own publications; at times, he would invite individuals to discuss their requests further with him. He would then pray the Asr (Afternoon) Prayer in congregation and make awrad and dhikr, invocation of God’s Names. There would be another short question and answer session, lasting about half an hour. He would then walk on the treadmill in his room for forty minutes. While on the treadmill, he would make dhikr. After the congregational Maghrib (Dusk) Prayer, he might or might not eat with others. After the congregational Isha (Night) Prayer, he would return to his room and continue his usual activities of reading, writing, supplicating, and dhikr until 11:00 P.M. Sometimes, he would speak privately with visitors after the Isha Prayer.

In his religious study circles, Fethullah Gülen would focus more on the love of God, His attributes, the wisdom of the pillars of Islam, faith, and the Sunnah, practices and sayings, of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. In addition, Fethullah Gülen would explain the details of inner purification, education, and criteria and core principles for the hizmet serving the community. Key concepts of Sufism, such as love, taqwa (piety), qalb (heart), tawba (repentance) zuhd (asceticism,) muraqaba (self-supervision), ikhlas (sincerity), istiqama (straightforwardness), ibadah (worship), tawakkul (reliance upon God), tawadu (humility), shukr (thankfulness), sabr (patience), ihsan (perfect goodness), and ma’rifa (gnosis-knowledge of God) are studied within the group. These deeply spiritual talks could be intensely emotional and there were many times when Fethullah Gülen would weep, causing others to weep with him. His tears were powerful and had a huge impact on his audience.

Fethullah Gülen leads a life of seclusion. He has three illnesses: hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. Because of this, he has dietary restrictions and is under a doctor’s supervision all day. In the last twelve years, he has left his relative’s residence, located in a small town in Pennsylvania, only to go to the hospital. In an interview with a reporter from Turkey, Fethullah Gülen said that in the last five years, (now ten years) he had only stepped out onto his balcony a few times. If the weather was nice, he would sometimes go out to the trellis and have a cup of coffee or tea there.[11]

Fethullah Gülen’s decade of seclusion is not like that of a mystic in the mountains. He follows the paths of Imam Ghazali, Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, and Said Nursi who used their withdrawal as an opportunity to be intellectually productive and spiritually proactive. Fethullah Gülen chooses to place his full time, focus, and capacity on his inner life through increased worship and scholarship. Other factors, such as a large number of visitors and Fethullah Gülen’s health, necessitate seclusion. His withdrawal from worldly affairs, however, is not withdrawal from the world. He discourages complete withdrawal from the world, that he views as dar-i hizmet, or the country of service to humanity.[12] He continues to pen books and articles, and provides requested guidance and consultation for his visitors, keeping in mind the current spiritual, socio-political and economic conditions.

Fethullah Gülen’s View of Sufism

The basic sources of Fethullah Gülen’s Sufism are the Qur’an, Prophetic tradition, and various Sufi texts; in particular, Said Nursi’s seminal work. Fethullah Gülen defines Sufism in the following manner: ‘Sufism is the path followed by an individual who, having been able to free himself or herself from human vices and weaknesses in order to acquire angelic qualities and conduct pleasing to God, lives in accordance with the requirements of God’s knowledge and love, and in the resulting spiritual delight that ensues.[13]’ In his definition, Fethullah Gülen focuses on a path by which a person can overcome his weaknesses without the help of a guide. In my talks with Fethullah Gülen, he stated that ‘Sufism is a spiritual journey from one’s self to God, by the feet of the heart.’ In his book, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, he wrote:

Sufism is based on observingeven the most ‘trivial’ rules of the sharia, Islamic law, in order to penetrate their inner meaning and initiate or travel on the path that never separates the outer observance of the sharia from its inner dimension, and therefore, observes all of the requirements of both the outer and the inner dimension of Islam. On Fethullah Gülen’s official website, he explains the spiritual journey ‘That spiritual journey has different stations to reach haqiqa (the truth). A person will continue on this path until death. Persistence and effort are necessary to reach each station. During this journey, every time an individual rises to a higher station, he/she must be even more humble.’[14] Fethullah Gülen quotes the verse: ‘The servants of the All-Merciful are those who walk on the earth in modesty, and if the impudent offend them, they continue their way, saying, ‘peace’.’ (Qur’an: 25:63).[15]

Silsila, the mystical chain that reaches to Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is a principle of Sufism. In Sufism, in order for a person to mature (al-insan al-kamil) and feel Divine Presence, he or she must imitate a spiritual master. In order for this transformation to take place, ‘there must be a traditional link with the origin or a spiritual chain.’[16] However, Fethullah Gülen has argued, ‘A person can be a Sufi without a master or by becoming a member of a Sufi order.’ Fethullah Gülen gives the example of Al-Ghazali: ‘Although he was a great Jurist and a great Sufi, he did not belong to any Sufi order.’[17] Like al-Hujwiri (d. 1073)[18], a great Sufi master, Fethullah Gülen says that the first step or key concept of Sufism is tawba, repentance. In order to achieve maturity, a person must purify himself or herself of all sins. After that, like many other Sufis, Fethullah Gülen expresses a desire to gain the knowledge of sharia. He states: ‘Sharia and Sufism are like two departments of a university, each seeking to teach their students the two dimensions of Islam so that the students can practice them in their lives. These two departments are not in opposition; rather they complement each other. One teaches how to pray, how to fast, and how to give charity, while the other concentrates on what these actions really mean.’[19] Although Fethullah Gülen never proclaimed himself a sheikh or Sufi leader, the methodology he uses is similar to the methods used by individuals travelling along the Sufi path. Many great Sufis were trained in the tekke, the Sufi lodges, by serving others, cleaning latrines, and cooking.[20] During my visit, I observed Fethullah Gülen’s students doingthe same acts as Sufi students.

Like great Sufi leaders in the past, Fethullah Gülen often critiques his nafs (carnal soul) like Qushayri, weeps like al-Bistami (804–874), has tolerance towards others like Rumi, abandons the world by heart like Naqshi, and asks his followers to serve their community till death, like Al-Hujwiri (d. 1077) and Nursi. Fethullah Gülen’s criteria for acceptingstudents are unlike those of the Sufi practice. He expects that his students will demonstrate a curiosity to learn, a desire to serve people, a degree of patience, and will practice basic Islamic principles. In order to join the study circle, a person must also know advanced Arabic; but this is not essential for being one of his followers. He does not practice a master-student relationship with his students. Yet he does ask his followers to live an ascetic lifestyle, zuhd, by fasting twice a week, eating less, sleeping fewer hours, praying supererogatory prayers, readingQur’an, making dua, supplication, following a rigorous course of study, and making special dhikr, invocation of the names of God.

Fethullah Gülen also places emphasis on the heart, qalb. By this term, he does not mean the physical organ, but the spiritual one: ‘The heart that is the place of faith and the mirror of God’[21] He quotes from the hadiths of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him: ‘God does not look at your appearance, but he looks at your heart’ (Sahih Muslim). ‘There is a part in the body that when it becomes good, the whole body becomes good, and when it becomes bad, the whole body becomes bad. That part is the heart’ (Sahih al-Bukhari). As found in other Sufi teachings, it is said that if a person’s heart is not clean, that person cannot live an ascetic lifestyle. He quotes from one of the great Sufis, Ibrahim Haqqi: ‘The heart is the home of God; purify it from whatever is other than Him, so that the All-Merciful may descend into His palace at night.’[22] Fethullah Gülen further states, ‘A heart full of love of God cannot harbor enmity or hatred towards others.’[23]

While Fethullah Gülen is far from establishinga Sufi order, his aim is to revive and combine the activism of Prophet Muhammad and his companions, the asceticism of the first generation Sufis, and the Sufi terminological knowledge and consciousness of the later Sufi scholars. At a time when the gap between Sufis and their major critics (Salafis) increase, Fethullah Gülen’s main goal is to re-establish Sufism (spiritual life of Islam) on the basis of the Qur’an and Sunna.

Characteristics of the Hizmet Movement

a. Fethullah Gülen’s works create a marriage between religion and science, tradition and modernity, by combining spirituality with intellectual training, reason with revelation, and mind with heart.[24] Fethullah Gülen wanted to take the traditional form of Muslim educational discourse as practiced in the madrasah, traditional Islamic school and take it to the university format.[25] The principles of the Movement attempt not to recreate a golden past, but to revitalize modernity with traditional values. Fethullah Gülen’s aim is to educate a generation bred on spiritual wisdom, engaged in intellectual pursuits, and committed to serve the whole of humanity. For Fethullah Gülen, ‘servingpeople is servingGod.’[26] People means in this context is all human beings.

While other Muslim scholars have aimed to open more madrasahs, Fethullah Gülen has inspired and encouraged his followers to open modern schools and universities, with focus on the sciences and languages. As a result, in Turkey and around the world, his followers have established many educational projects such as child-care centers, college preparation courses, and dormitories for students as well as hundreds of schools and colleges. There are two main priorities in the educational sector in the Gülen Movement: to instruct and lead students to be successful in secular subjects, and ensure that students’ moral character reached high standards. While these moral values are based in both Islamic and humanitarian values, there are no major conflicts with modern values. In these institutions, the curriculum is secular, but the majority of teachers are chosen for their noble character. The moral aspects of education are conveyed through teachers’ behavior, rather than proselytizing. Due to the unique combination of secular education and an emphasis on moral values, these institutions are thriving and gaining prestige.

The French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique described the achievements of schools established by Fethullah Gülen’s followers in Germany, claimingthat the schools could be taken as examples by other German schools for ethnic communities.[27] New York Times wrote about Fethullah Gülen’s followers’ schools as a gentler vision of Islam and an alternative approach to education that could help reduce radicalism.[28] That these schools can gain approval with the conservative people of Pakistan by offering a different perspective from the fundamentalist madrasahs speaks volumes.

b. Another issue in relation to Hizmet activities is the finance. It is important to note that followers of the Gülen Movement contribute anywhere between 3–50% of their income to the Movement’s activities in the sectors of education, media, and community gatherings. Among these are people who contribute beyond that amount, followingthe examples set by Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. In the Movement circles, this is called himmet.[29] The followers convene annually for himmet during Ramadan, review local, national, or international projects of the Movement, and pledge chosen amounts to sponsor those good works. A second himmet gathering is held solely for scholarship funds. Most importantly, Fethullah Gülen leads this fundingthrough example. Accordingto İsmail Büyükçelebi, from the over 60 best-sellingbooks Fethullah Gülen has written, Fethullah Gülen has donated almost 90% of his earnings from book sales to scholarship funds for these institutions established by his followers or for humanitarian aid. Fethullah Gülen himself focus on generosity and so often encourages his followers to be more generous like companions of the Prophet.

c. Fethullah Gülen strongly opposes and condemns any form of violence and terrorism. To him, ‘A Muslim cannot be a terrorist and a terrorist cannot be a true Muslim because Islam forbids the killing of civilians, children, elders, women, and religious figures, even if your cause is justifiable.’[30] Fethullah Gülen’s influence can be seen in the fact that none of his followers or supporters has committed acts of terror or condoned terrorism in any form, despite oppression and provocation from opposite groups.

d. When extremists, whether they are left wing, right wing, religious or secularist, in Turkey generate conflict, Fethullah Gülen acts to decrease tensions by expressinghis respect for every law-abiding or kind-hearted person, regardless of religious and political views, and their nonviolent ideas. For example, when the issue of banningthe wearingof a headscarf in educational institutions and public sectors created tension, Fethullah Gülen encouraged opposing sides to come to a mutual agreement by insisting that the headscarf should not be a cause of conflict and division and advising people to seek their rights within the boundaries of the law. He also asks that this chronic problem not be exploited for political purposes; rather, it should be considered a human rights issue and solved accordingly. Fethullah Gülen warns that protests and any action taken to the streets will not help this cause. Protests only raise tension, especially in Turkey where democracy is still in its developing stages.

e. Being open to all faiths and traditions through dialogue is another characteristic that sets Fethullah Gülen apart from some spiritual leaders. Since 1991, despite criticism from some religious, political, and media figures, Fethullah Gülen initiated and participated in interfaith dialogue with Jewish rabbis as well as Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Assyrian patriarchs, and he has encouraged his followers to do the same. In Turkey at that time, it was taboo for religious leaders to openly dialogue with these religious leaders and minority groups. He met with Pope John Paul II in 1998 at the Vatican. Once inspired by Fethullah Gülen’s acts of buildingbridges towards other faiths, Fethullah Gülen’s followers established interfaith and intercultural organizations throughout the world, with the U.S beinghome to 42 of these organizations.[31]

f. Unlike some religious leaders, Fethullah Gülen has never opposed Turkey’s entrance into the European Union (EU). He believes that Turkey’s membership in the EU will contribute to world peace and help to prevent a ‘clash of civilizations’. He perceives the West as a rival to compete with, not as an enemy to confront. He suggested that Turkey needs to increase its economic powers by incorporating Western economic and political systems.[32] Fethullah Gülen’s views regardingEU membership has influenced mainstream Turkish Muslims’ views on that matter. According to European Union survey in July 2007, more than 54% of Turks are in favor of an EU membership.[33]

g. Since Fethullah Gülen is a well-respected and admired spiritual leader, political parties seek his support, especially during elections. A majority of religious leaders and spiritual leaders directly or indirectly support political groups. Fethullah Gülen, however, is an exception. He has never supported a specific party. However, he has praised the beneficial acts of political leaders or parties.

h. Fethullah Gülen’s important distinction as a leader is that he tries to maintain peaceful relations with the state or government, the military, media, and political, religious, and social groups. Sociologist Berna Turam, who studied the Hizmet Movement for ten years, mentions the principle of Fethullah Gülen’s followers, ‘We are not goingto fight, and we do not want conflict,’ citingit as a reason for the Movement’s success.[34] Fethullah Gülen encourages his followers to respect and accept the differing opinions and beliefs of organizations and individuals. He said, ‘Differences are a beautiful part of human nature and developed communities.’[35]

Fethullah Gülen and His Movement in a Global Islamic Context

Fethullah Gülen is a major figure in definingthe contemporary global Islamic experience. He is a spiritual leader, philosopher, poet, and a thinker, not solely a preacher. His interpretation of Islam has attracted many religious leaders, intellectuals, and politicians in Turkey.[36] Although he is not as well-known as some Muslim leaders or intellectuals in the West, his community is one of the most influential, revivalist Islamic groups in modern Turkey.[37] His influence is not limited to religion. Indeed, he has had an impact on diverse fields including education, the media, business, and the financial sector.

By establishing moral, educational, secular, and humanitarian institutions in Turkey and in other parts of the world, Fethullah Gülen exemplifies how Islam and modernity can coexist. These institutions have attracted Muslim and non-Muslim, as well as secular and liberal religious groups. The chief characteristic of Fethullah Gülen’s followers is that they do not seek to subvert modern secular states; rather, they encourage Muslims to use the opportunities offered.[38] Fethullah Gülen sees science and faith as not only compatible but also complementary. He, therefore, encourages scientific research and technological advancement for the good of all humanity.[39] His spiritual Movement is a combination of modernity and traditional values and has contributed to a ‘vernacularization of modernity,’ redefiningmodernity in Islamic terms. Fethullah Gülen’s ideas and actions introduce the possibility of being both modern and Muslim at the same time.[40]

In the last two decades, a new idea has emerged among some intellectuals in Turkey. John Voll observes that these intellectuals are neither fundamentalist nor secularist. For this group, Islam includes secularism and religion, two faces of the same coin.[41] If we have a world of increasing integration of the secular and religious, in a way parallel to the process of ‘glocalization’ (globalization and localization), the processes are creatinga significant frame that is useful to recognize the picture of Fethullah Gülen in the arenas of religion, faith, and life at the beginning of twenty-first century.

To him, modernity and the sirat al-mustaqim, the path followed by mainstream Muslims, are not two rivals, but the middle way of interpreting Islam, providing a balance between materialism and spirituality. Many scholars have commented on Fethullah Gülen’s moderate point of view. Accordingto anthropologist Nilüfer Göle, Fethullah Gülen shakes the dichotomist perception of modernity and Islam. He tries to end the Western monopoly of modernity, and aims to add an Islamic set of meanings to it. Göle emphasized that Fethullah Gülen works to domesticate excessive rationalism with Sufism and love, and to reconcile individualism and humbleness.[42]

Fethullah Gülen and Interfaith Dialogue

Fethullah Gülen has emerged as one of the most persuasive and influential voices in the Muslim community calling for dialogue as a step toward peace. Indeed, he offers ‘a way to live out Islamic values amidst the complex demands of modern societies and to engage in ongoing dialogue and cooperation with people of other religions.’[43] In his message at the Parliament of World’s Religion Fethullah Gülen wrote that dialogue with adherents of other religious traditions is an integral part of an Islamic ethic that has been long neglected. Fethullah Gülen believes that dialogue is among the duties of Muslims on earth in order to make the world a more peaceful place.[44] Michel states that Fethullah Gülen promotes a cooperation of civilizations through dialogue, mutual understanding, and gathering around shared values.[45] Fethullah Gülen’s response to the clash of civilizations thesis consists of three parts encapsulated in the words: tolerance, interfaith, dialogue, and compassionate love.[46]


Most of Fethullah Gülen’s critics include radical politico-religious groups, some secularists, and ulusalcılar, ultra-nationalists. Though few in numbers, liberal and social democrats occasionally criticize Fethullah Gülen as well. Radical religious groups claim that he compromises religion. Some secularists believe that Fethullah Gülen intends to secretly gain control of the Turkish state. Nationalists view Fethullah Gülen not as a patriot, but rather an as engineer behind the schemes of superpowers. In the followingsections, we will examine these claims.

Criticisms of politico-religious groups

Politico-religious groups criticize Fethullah Gülen on three fronts: (1) Fethullah Gülen’s not being against Turkey’s EU membership, (2) Fethullah Gülen’s denunciation of Muslim suicide bombers, and (3) Fethullah Gülen’s interfaith activities as compromising Islam. Necmettin Erbakan, a leading religious-political figure since 1969 in Turkey, criticizes Fethullah Gülen for not supportinghis political party. Erbakan’s perspectives were published and supported by a media group including Channel 5 TV, and the Milli Gazete and Vakit newspapers. After meeting with Pope John Paul IIin February 1998, Fethullah Gülen was harshly criticized by a group of Islamists who viewed this meetingas humiliatingfor goingto the extent of travellingto the Vatican and meetingwith the Pope. Furthermore, Fethullah Gülen was not a chosen representative of Islam or Turkey to engage in such dialogue.[47]

Fethullah Gülen responded to critics by statingthat humility was an attribute of Muslims. Hard-line secularists rebuked him, contending that authorization from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Turkish government was necessary.[48] He has also been criticized by radical Muslims for talkingless about an ‘Islamic State’ than he does about a fly. Referringto this criticism, Ali Ünal, one of Fethullah Gülen’s associates, says, ‘Yes, the Qur’an speaks of a fly, spider, and ant as evidences of His existence by their very creation, and names its chapters after them. Yet, it does not speak of an Islamic state.’[49]

Fethullah Gülen was accused of beingpro-American for not condemningAmerica’s biased Middle East policy. They also criticize him for condemningsuicide bombings and not openly condemning Israeli occupation and infringement of human rights. Haydar Baş, a leader of a small religious community, and politician heading the Independent Turkey Party (BTP), a small party which attracted 0.51% votes of the election in 2007, insinuated that Fethullah Gülen and his followers are ‘bad representatives’ of Islam who ‘cater’ to Jews and Christians.[50] Radical religious groups who are strongly anti-secular and some Sufi leaders claim that Fethullah Gülen does not really oppose the secular state with his ideas and actions. This means that he is compromising religion with the secular and anti-religious groups. Some radical groups even accuse him of blasphemy. They view his interfaith activities as compromising instead of promoting religion.

Some Sufi leaders find fault with Fethullah Gülen because he is not part of the silsila (a spiritual chain of a Sufi order), and, therefore, he cannot be a Sufi leader. It is traditionally known that silsila is one of the most important pillars of Sufism, according to the great Sufi leaders.[51] In response to this criticism, Fethullah Gülen clearly stated through media groups that he is not the leader of a Sufi order, nor is he trying to form a Sufi order. As for not supportingreligious parties, such as the Welfare Party (RP), and later on, the Saadet Party (SP), he states that in all parties, there are people who practice or respect their religion, and that partisanship would undermine Islam, especially in the politicized climate of Turkey. Fethullah Gülen says: ‘Religion is the relationship between people and their Creator. The feeling of religion lives in the heart’s depths and on the inner world’s emerald hills. If youturn it into a display of forms, youwill kill it. Politicizingreligion will harm religion before it harms a government’s life.’[52] As a result of his open arm political views, he and his Movement gained followers and support from a range of political, social, and religious groups.

As for not strongly opposingthe secular state or regime, Fethullah Gülen says that he follows Said Nursi’s approach. According to Nursi, since we are living in the modern age, a modern method of persuasion should be used to convince people.[53] Rebelling against the secular regime would cause the death of innocent people, especially Muslims. Nursi asserts that the worst state is better than the lack of any state because the lack of government brings about anarchy.

After the establishment of the Fethullah Gülen Chair in the Study of Islam and Muslim-Catholic Relations at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne in 2007, Paul Stenhouse, editor of Annals Australia, suggested in the Quadrant Magazine that Fethullah Gülen was usingthe chair and interreligious dialogue as Trojan horse to achieve his goal of Islamic supremacy. Monash University professor Greg Barton, who has also made a special study of Fethullah Gülen, dismissed Father Stenhouse’s objections, sayingthat the article was poorly written and ‘not particularly well-argued.’ He argued against Stenhouse’s emphasis on militant behavior of Sufi Muslims in his article, saying that ‘For the most part, Sufis are accommodationists rather than confrontational.’[54]

In the face of these severe criticisms, Fethullah Gülen continues to promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue, assertingthat ‘Civilized people solve their problems through dialogue’.[55]

Criticisms of Ulusalcılar (Ultranationalists)

Like some politico-religious groups, the ulusalcılar accuse Fethullah Gülen of unpatriotic and disloyal to Turkey due to his views regarding Turkey’s application for EU membership and lack of support towards national parties, such as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Moreover, Fethullah Gülen does not give his Turkish identity priority in his public and private speeches, sermons, and books, and his openness towards minorities in Turkey is met by skepticism by ultranationalists.

There were also claims from both politico-religious groups and ulusalcılar that the Hizmet Movement was receivingfundingfrom foreign agencies, such as the CIA, Saudi Arabia, Mossad, and the Vatican and that Fethullah Gülen was the mastermind behind a project designed by the US to destroy the Kemalist ideology of nationalism and independence of Turkey.[56] Just as some nationalists praise Fethullah Gülen for his promotion of education, others criticize his followers for the use of English as an academic language, even though most of the Movement’s schools incorporate a Turkish as a second language (TSL) program and hire Turkish-speakingteachers. In response to these views, Fethullah Gülen says that globalization has made the world into a village. Turkey is either a part of the global village or an isolated country like the communist nations. Therefore, acquiring the language of the global village is essential. As for the political claims, Fethullah Gülen states that a specific party cannot claim to be the sole representative of a nation and religiousness and that there are patriots and religious individuals in every party.[57] As for his tolerance and dialogue with minorities, Fethullah Gülen says that these minorities are citizens of Turkey and that the majority needs to respect the rights of minorities.

In terms of fundingthe educational institutions, Fethullah Gülen states that the financial source is generosity of the people of Turkey and not any abroad sources. Fuller delves into the topic of fundingfor the Hizmet Movement’s schools and other projects, pointingout the extensive network formed through the hundreds of schools of the Movement, and states that ‘funding comes from within the community, and wealthy businessman for whom building a school has become a modern pious equivalent of buildinga mosque.’[58]

Criticisms of Leftists

Those who are most critical and noticeable of Fethullah Gülen’s actions are those of the far left-wing, a mix of ex-communists, Maoists, atheists. The strength of this group comes from their active presence in the field of print and broadcast media and advertising. Representing this group in the mainstream media is the Cumhuriyet newspaper (right-wing groups in Turkey call it the Turkish Pravda). Hikmet Çetinkaya, who has compiled and published his newspaper columns in a book, has been criticizing Fethullah Gülen since the 1970s.

Radical leftists claim that Fethullah Gülen is a leader of a religious cult, something forbidden in Turkey since the establishment of the Turkish Republic. They accuse Fethullah Gülen of secretly tryingto control the state and abolish the secular regime and establish a theocracy instead. To achieve his goal, Fethullah Gülen establishes schools, dormitories, college preparation courses, and other educational institutions all over the world and gets positive coverage in the Turkish media. In addition, he is secretly encouraging his followers to penetrate the military, the judicial system, law enforcement, and the business world. Secularists claim that by opening schools in Russia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans, Fethullah Gülen is attemptingto build a ‘Green Belt’ around secular Turkey.[59] On numerous occasions, Fethullah Gülen has publicly asked his closest friends to be nonpartisans, and not to join the government or any parties. In his last interview with Mehmet Gündem for the secular newspaper Milliyet, Fethullah Gülen advised his followers: ‘As for the Movement; neither now, nor in the future should our friends have any ambition for government; they should not be engaged in politics, even if all the power and pomp of the world is laid at their feet; my friends who love me and heed my advice should not show a moment’s hesitation to push all this away with the back of their hand.’[60]

In 2000, Fethullah Gülen was sued by state prosecutors for establishingan illegal organization whose objective was to overthrow the secular government and replace it with one based on religious law. The case was finally dismissed in 2006, and further appeals were dismissed by the General Council of the Supreme Court of Appeals on January 24, 2008.[61] Furthermore, they maintain that America wants to establish a soft Islamic regime in Turkey through the Gülen Movement. In response to these accusations, Fethullah Gülen notes that the schools established by his followers employ the program and the curriculum of the Turkish Ministry of Education. He notes further that the schools are inspected continually, not only by the ministry, but also by intelligence agencies in foreign countries where the schools have been established.[62] From time to time, officials in all sectors of the state, government, law enforcement, and possibly the military, have been known to praise the schools and the perspectives of Fethullah Gülen. Despite these accusations, former Prime Minister and leader of the Democratic Left Party (DSP) Bülent Ecevit rejected the leftist claims and defended Fethullah Gülen, his Movement, and his educational institutions, openly in public. Fethullah Gülen further states that the educational institutions, media groups, businesses, and financial organizations do not belongto him as it is claimed; rather those who respect his ideas and philosophy have established them.


In the last three decades, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, religion and religious and spiritual leaders have been the focus of a great deal of public scrutiny. Fethullah Gülen and his followers are amongthe most discussed and debated because they are becoming stronger and more influential in Turkey and abroad. Accordingto Yavuz, this gradual strengthening will continue.[63] Despite the criticism and attempts by the opposition to reduce Fethullah Gülen’s influence and his followers’ activities, many supports and appreciate the activities of Fethullah Gülen and his followers by marryingsecular educational institutions with religious ethics, Fethullah Gülen has developed a model of being modern and religious at the same time.

According to the principles of Sufism, Fethullah Gülen has not formed a Sufi order. Although the spiritual network has many of the characteristics of a Sufi orders, Sufism for Fethullah Gülen is not a way of rejectingthe world; rather, it is a way of empowering the believer with spiritual tools and good character to help him or her shape and control the world. From spiritual point of view, Fethullah Gülen is a Sufi but he is unlike other Sufi leaders. As Zeki Sarıtoprak states ‘He is a Sufi in his own way’[64] Fethullah Gülen’s way is rooted in traditional Islam with Sufi interpretation in combination with modernity and contemporary intellectualism, which includes Western philosophy that is compatible with Islamic thought. Anthropologists are still asking two important questions: How is Fethullah Gülen goingto use his power and influence in the future, and what kind of transformation will happen after his death? Although there are various predictions, and often his critics express their fears, only time will give us the right answers. Fethullah Gülen may follow the destiny of al-Ghazali, Rumi or Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), three of Islam’s greatest and influential scholars or spiritual leaders, who had also been criticized in their respective times, but are now well recognized and praised for their ideas, philosophy and works.

[1] ‘A Farm Boy on the World Stage,’ The Economist, Jan 21, 2008.
[2] ‘Top 100 Intellectuals in the World,’ Foreign Policy, May/June 2008.
[3] Hakan Yavuz and John L. Esposito, Turkish Islam and the Secular State: the Gülen Movement, xiii; İhsan Yılmaz, ‘State, Law, Civil Society, and Islam in Contemporary Society,’ The Muslim World, 385–412.
[4] İhsan Yılmaz, ‘ChangingTurkish-Muslim Discourses on Modernity, West, and Dialogue’ presented at Congress of the International Association of Middle East Studies, Freie Universitat, 5–7 October, (Berlin, 2000) 1–14.
[5] Wanda Kraus, ‘Civility in Islamic Activism’ in Muslim World in Transition, confeence proceedings, 165.
[6] Elizabeth Özdalga, ‘Worldly Asceticism in Islamic Casting: Fethullah Gülen’s Inspired Piety and Activism,’ Critique, 91.
[7] Ünal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue: Fethullah Gülen, 16.
[8] S. Yücel, personal communication, April 4, 2006.
[9] S. Yücel, personal communication, August 5, 2007.
[10] Gülen, Fasıldan Fasıla, 140.
[11] Mehmet Gündem, ‘Fethullah Gülen Röportajı,’ Milliyet, January 27, 2005.
[12] Emre Demir, The emergence a neo-communitarian movement in the Turkish diaspora in Europe: the strategies of settlement and competition of Hizmet Movement in France and Germany, 226.
[13] Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, xiv.
[14] Loye Ashton Defending Religious Diversity and Tolerance in America Today: Lessons from Fethullah Gülen‘ the paper was presented at international conference entitled Islam in the Contemporary World: The Fethullah Hizmet Movement in Thought and Practice at Rice University, Houston, 12 November, 2005 accessed January 7, 2009.
[15] S. Yücel, personal communication.
[16] Zeki Sarıtoprak, ‘Fethullah Gülen: A Sufi in His Own Way,’ in Turkish Islam and the Secular State: the Gülen Movement (eds. Yavuz, M. H. Yavuz and John L. Esposito), 114.
[17] Sarıtoprak, ‘Fethullah Gülen,’ 115.
[18] Al-Hujwiri, Abd al-Hassan, a great Sufi and author of famous Kashf al-Mahjub.
[19] Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, xx.
[20] Annemaria Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, 101.
[21] Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, 69.
[22] Ibid,, 22.
[23] Gülen, İnsanın Özündeki Sevgi, 36.
[24] Yavuz and Esposito, Turkish Islam, 20.
[25] Atay, ‘Revivingthe Suffa Tradition,’ in Muslim World in Transition: Contributions of the Hizmet Movement (eds. İhsan Yılmaz et al.), 459–472.
[26] Aslandoğan 2007: 672, Y. Alp Aslandoğan, ‘Present and Potential Impact of the Spiritual Tradition of Islam on Contemporary Muslims: From Ghazali to Gülen,’ London, Leeds Metropolitan University International Conference Proceedings, 672.
[27] Wendy Kristianesen, ‘New Faces of Islam,’ July 1997.
[28] Sabrina Tavernise, ‘Turkish Schools Offer Pakistan a Gentler Vision of Islam,’ New York Times, May 4, 2008.
[29] For further details of the movement’s funding, see H.R. Ebaugh and D. Koç, ‘FundingGülen-Inspired Good Works: Demonstratingand GeneratingCommitment to the Movement,’ London, Leeds Metropolitan University Internatioanl Conference Proceedings, 2007, 539–551. Thomas Michel, ‘FightingPoverty with Kimse Yok Mu,’ Washington DC, Georgetown University Conference Proceedings, 523–533. M.N.Kirk, ‘Seeds of Peace: Solidarity, Aid, and Education Shared by the Hizmet Movement in Southeastern Turkey,’ Washington DC, Georgetown University Conference Proceedings, 407–434.
[30] Gülen, Essays, Perspectives, Opinions (2002), 95.
[31] Now it is over a hundred.
[32] Yavuz and Esposito, Turkish Islam, xxxii.
[33] Hürriyet, July 11, 2007.
[34] Ruşen Çakır ‘Gülen Cemaatin Sırları,’ Interview with Berna Turam, Vatan Gazetesi, 21 October, 2007.
[35] S. Yücel, personal communication.
[36] Ertuğrul Özkök, Hürriyet, March 17, 1993.
[37] Elizabeth Özdalga, ‘Followingin the Footsteps of Fethullah Gülen,’ in Turkish Islam and the Secular State: the Gülen Movement, (eds. M. Hakan Yavuz and Esposito, John L.), 85.
[38] Gülen Inspires Muslims Worldwide; Forbes, Jan 21, 2008.
[39] Gülen, Prophet Muhammad: The Infinite Light, 160.
[40] Yavuz and Esposito Turkish Islam, 7.
[41] John Voll, ‘Fethullah Gülen: TranscendingModernity in the New Islamic Discourse,’ in Turkish Islam and the Secular State: the Gülen Movement, (eds. M. Hakan Yavuz and Esposito, John L.), 243.
[42] Ahmet T. Kuru, ‘Fethullah Gülen’s Search for a Middle Way: Between Modernity and Muslim Tradition,’ in Turkish Islam and the Secular State: the Gülen Movement, (eds. M. Hakan Yavuz and Esposito, John L.), 117.
[43] Douglas Pratt, ‘Gülen’s Prospects for Interreligious Dialogue, Today’s Zaman, November 1, 2007.
[44] Gülen, Hoşgörü ve Diyalog İklimi (eds. Selçuk Camcı and Kudret Ünal), 17.
[45] Thomas Michel, in Towards a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, i-iv.
[46] Richard Penaskovic, ‘Fethullah Gülen’s Response to the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ Thesis,’ Today’s Zaman, October 30, 2007.
[47] Şevket Eygi, ‘Papalıkla Gizli Anlaşma,’ Milli Gazete, May 26, 2000.
[48] Necip Hablemitoğlu, ‘28 Şubat Kararları Sürecine Bir Katkı: Organize Suçlar ve Fethullahçılar,’ Yeni Hayat, 52 (1999) 3.
[49] Şevket Eygi, Milli Gazete, May 26, 2000.
[50] Loye Ashton and Tamer Balcı, Tamer, ‘A Contextual Analysis of the Supporters and Critics of the Gülen/Hizmet Movement,’ Washington DC, Georgetown University conference proceedings, 105.
[51] Sayed Hossain Nasr, Sufi Essays, 17.
[52] Ünal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue, 36.
[53] Şükran Vahide, Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, 101.
[54] Jill Rowbotham, ‘Catholic Hits Islamic Chair,’ The Australian, January 16, 2008.
[55] Gülen, ‘The Necessity of Dialogue,’ www.fgulen.org, accessed January 20, 2008.
[56] L.E. Webb, ‘Fethullah Gülen: Is there more to him than meets the eye?,’ 46–49.
[57] Ünal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue, 36.
[58] Graham Fuller, The New Turkish Republic: Turkey as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World, 57.
[59] Thomas Michel, ‘Fethullah Gülen as Educator,’ in Turkish Islam and the Secular State: the Gülen Movement, (eds. M. Hakan Yavuz and Esposito, John L.), 78.
[60] Mehmet Gündem, Milliyet, January 29, 2005.
[61] Ashton and Balcı, A Contextual Analysis, 113.
[62] Michel, ‘Fethullah Gülen as Educator,’ 69.
[63] Yavuz and Esposito, Turkish Islam, 3
[64] Sarıtoprak, ‘Fethullah Gülen,’ 169.

This article first was published in Journal of Religion and Society, Vol 12, 2010. I would like to thank the editor of the Journal for his kind permission for the republication of this article.

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