Fethullah Gülen's Search for a Middle Way between Modernity and Muslim Tradition

by Ahmet T. Kuru on . Posted in Review

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Are the constant and allegedly transcendental principles of religion compatible with ever changing human experiences? This question has been at the center of the debates about the relationship between religion and modernity, in general, Islam and modernity, in particular. The answer of many modernists has been negative. Modernization and secularization theorists had claimed that religion was a traditional phenomenon which would eventually wither away (Inkeles and Smith 1976, 27-28). According to these theorists, there was a dichotomy between modernity and Muslim tradition (Stark and Finke 2000, 1-82). Therefore, Muslims should choose "Mecca or mechanization" (Lerner 1958, 405).

Recently, two developments challenged modernization theory. Empirically, religion emerged as an important public issue in many modern/modernizing countries (Casanova 1994; Kepel 1991). Theoretically, a group of social scientists launched a debate on "multiple modernities,"[1] rejecting modernism (Heffner 1998, 83-104; Heffner 2000, 22).[2] The supporters of the idea of multiple modernities, despite their influential challenge to the modernists, have not specified yet what they actually mean by multiple modernities, in general, and Islamic modernity, in particular. Their arguments have remained by and large speculative.

Nilüfer Göle, the leading scholar on this issue in Turkey, has tried to overcome this problem by examining social examples as "snapshots of Islamic modernities" (2000a, 91-117; 2000b). Göle has made a significant and insightful contribution by collecting individual and social stories that combine modern and Islamic life styles to show the existence of Islamic modernities. Her cases, however, are ad hoc examples that do not explain how agents synthesize Islamic and modern values on a coherent basis.

In this paper, I investigate the idea of Islamic modernity in an empirical example that has a coherent theoretical basis. I explore how a Muslim thinker, Fethullah Gülen, searches for a middle way between modernity and Muslim tradition. Gülen is worth analyzing since his ideas have inspired a movement that has opened more than 300 schools and 6 universities in almost 50 countries, in addition to a media and a business network.[3] I begin with the analysis of Gülen's understanding of the "middle way." Then, I examine Gülen's ideas about the relationship between the four features of modernity and the Muslim tradition: a) modern science and Islamic knowledge; b) reason and revelation; c) the idea of progress and conservation of tradition, and d) free will of modern man and Muslim understanding of destiny.

A Middle Way?

Scholars long have debated the meaning, origin, causes, and results of modernity. The words "modernity" and "modern" represent relative evaluations rather than absolute meanings. The term 'modern' was first used in the late fifth century to define the Christian present vis-à-vis the pagan and Roman past (Habermas 1997, 39). Modernity may be defined as "a form of civilization characteristic of our current historical epoch" (Inkeles and Smith 1976, 15). We can view some historical trajectories, such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French and American revolutions, the Industrial Revolution, and globalization, as way stations in the long march of modernity. The West is the main place in which modernity originated and still is associated with it, because "In every era of human history, modernity has meant the ways, norms, and standards of the dominant and expanding civilization" (Lewis 1997, 129). Modernity has various definitions. For Marx, the essence of modernity is capitalism; for Durkheim it is industrialization and division of labor; and for Weber it is rationalization and bureaucracy (Giddens 1990, 10-12).

In this paper, I will exclusively focus on four features of modernity-modern science, rationalism, the idea of progress, and individual free will. Extreme modernists and fundamentalists would paradoxically agree that these four features of modernity are incompatible with four aspects of Muslim tradition-Islamic knowledge, revelation, conservative understanding of time, and the belief in destiny. Gülen refuses such an incompatibility between modernity and tradition as a false dichotomy. He tries to take a moderate position.

Many scholars have pointed out Gülen's moderate point of view. According to Göle, Gülen shakes the dichotomist perception of modernity and Islam. He tries to end the Western monopoly on modernity and aims to add an Islamic set of meanings to it. Göle emphasizes that Gülen tries to domesticate excessive rationalism with Sufism and love, and to reconcile individualism and humbleness (1996b, 206). Similarly, Hakan Yavuz stresses that Gülen seeks "to synthesize reason and revelation, religion and science, individuals and community, stability and change, and globalization and nationalism" (2000b, 32). Ahmet T. Alkan notes that the summary of Gülen's ideas is seeking for the middle way. He claims that Gülen's emphasis on the middle way is the reason for his public popularity. Alkan also adds that Gülen's understanding of the middle way is not an instrumental strategy: "To follow the middle way, in an intellectual environment like Turkey that is full of the obsession of dichotomies, is not 'compromising,' but, a honorable and reasonable way of 'arguing.' Despite the general expectation, today, 'the middle way' is amazingly empty" (1996, 203).

Although these comments on Gülen are insightful, they are not detailed analyses. The contribution of this paper is two-fold. One is the detailed and analytical exploration of Gülen's ideas. The other is the specific analysis of the debates on modernity and Islam by focusing on the four features of modernity and Muslim tradition.

According to Gülen, an extremist understanding of modernity may have a tension with an extremist understanding of Muslim tradition. The moderate understandings of these two concepts, however, are compatible, and, furthermore, complementary. Gülen's idea of middle way does not depend on a necessity of compromise, but on his understanding of Islam. He argues, "Islam, being the 'middle way' of absolute balance -balance between materialism and spiritualism, between rationalism and mysticism, between worldliness and excessive asceticism, between this world and the next--and inclusive of the ways of all the previous prophets, makes a choice according to the situation" (1995d, 200-201).

Gülen's understanding of the middle way is to a great extent similar to that of Aristotle. Aristotle criticized the Platonic virtue versus vice categorization and classified phenomena in three groups, two of which are vices (excess and deficiency) and one of which is virtue (the mean or the middle way). In this perspective, the appetite's excess is licentiousness, its deficiency is frigidity, and its middle way is moderation. The anger's excess is rage, its deficiency is cowardice, and its middle way is courage. The reason's excess is demagogy, its deficiency is ignorance, and its middle way is wisdom (Aristotle 1996, 268-271 and 437).

The middle way is also an important concept in Islam. The Qur'an defines the Muslim community as the ummeten vasatan [the community of the middle way] (2: 143). Alija Izzetbegovic, for example, wrote a book to reveal that Islam is the middle way between materialism and spiritualism (1994). By the same token, Gülen interprets the important Islamic concept of sirat-i müstakim [the straight path], which is recited in a Muslim's prayers 40 times a day, as the middle way between ifrat [excesses] and tefrit [deficiency].[4]

Gülen's understanding of the middle way has been mainly affected by Bediüzzaman Said Nursi (1876-1960), the author of Risale-i Nur Külliyat (The Epistles of Light) (1994).[5] Nursi, in addition to being a prolific writer, was the founder of the faith-based Nur movement. He tried to reconcile science and Islamic faith and employed a modern scientific perspective to prove the existence and the names of God from the universe and the nature. He was eager to establish a university that would combine modern sciences and Islamic knowledge. Similar to Gülen, the understanding of the middle way was crucial in Nursi's ideas. In the words of John Voll: "In [Nursi's] writings and teachings, there is repetition of the term that Islam is a middle way, a path of moderation, rather than extremism Nursi frequently would discuss two opposing positions and then define the truly Islamic way as the middle way between the two " (1999, 254).

Gülen's middle way arguments may face harder times while being applied in practice than when they were ideational articulations. Gülen tries to solve this problem by emphasizing two factors. First, the context, including time and space, is crucial to the interplay between ideas and actions. He stresses that Islam is not only an abstract set of ideas but also includes deliberated and systematic behaviors (1998l, 22). Gülen emphasizes that his own ideas, after being constructed briefly in the abstract form, evolve in-depth through action. He attaches importance to the realities that bind ideals, instead of utopian projects. In other words, he sees theory and practice as indispensable and mutually constitutive (Can 1996, 14-15).

Second, Gülen attaches importance to the human agency that has eminent impact on theory and practice, as well as the interplay between them. For that reason, he has focused on the education of a "golden generation" that will learn the theoretical aspects of the middle way and will bring it in to practice. This generation is supposed to absorb and represent both modern and Muslim identities through its mind and its behaviors.

Since the 1960s, Gülen has tried to educate an idealist, activist, disciplined, and tolerant youth (Erdoğan 1995, 124). He has described the eight characteristics of this new generation as being: faith; love; a balanced view of science; a re-evaluated view of man, life, and the universe; free thinking and respect for freedom of thought; a habit to counsel and collective consciousness; mathematical logic; and appreciation for art (Gülen 1996c, 4-12). The new generation is expected to reconcile four fragmented, and even polarized, institutions in Muslim societies: modern science of school, Islamic knowledge of medrese, spiritual life and feeling of tekke, and the discipline of the barrack (Can 1996, 77). It is natural to ask about the extent the schools of Gülen movement have been successful in educating such a "golden generation." Further research is necessary to answer this question.

The relationship between modern science and Islamic knowledge constitutes the crucial pillar of Gülen's understanding of education of the "golden generation." That is what I analyze in the next part of the paper. Subsequently, I will examine three other features of modernity and Muslim tradition.

Modern Science and Islamic Knowledge

Although postmodernists have challenged the meta-narratives of science, as well as its monopoly on knowledge (Lyotard 1997, xxiii), science still dominates the modern worldview. The rise of modern science created a duality in the late Ottoman society between the graduates of the Western (ized) schools and those of the traditional institutions, medreses (the Islamic schools) and tekkes (the Sufi lodges) (Mardin 1991a, 124; Rahman 1982,43-83). In modern Turkey, although this duality ended to a great extent, the debate on the status of Islamic schools (i.e., Imam-Hatip high schools and Theology Departments in universities) and the education of the Qur'an are still passionately debated.

Gülen avoids taking a clear position in this debate. He sees scientific and Islamic education as compatible and complementary. Although Gülen was educated in traditional institutions, he has urged his sympathizers to open modern schools, rather than traditional medreses. He even has advised opening schools instead of mosques. Gülen tries to educate the young generation in Islamic knowledge through informal publications and sermons, rather than official curriculums at schools. He attaches specific importance to the statement of Nursi on the interdependency of modern science and Islamic knowledge in an ideal education:

The light of the intellect is scientific knowledge while the heart of the spirit derives its light from religious [knowledge]. Scientific knowledge without religion usually causes atheism or agnosticism while religious knowledge without intellectual enlightenment gives rise to bigotry. When combined, they urge a student to research further and further research, deepening in both belief and knowledge (Gülen 1997i,320).

The schools opened with Gülen's encouragement have become the elite high schools in Turkey. Their students have won several medals in the International Science Olympics and the top rankings in the nationwide University Entrance Examinations. The Gülen movement also has opened schools and universities in many countries, especially in the former Soviet Republics and in the Balkans.

For Gülen, the reason of the so-called dichotomy between scientific and Islamic education is twofold. The first historical and institutional reason is the exclusion of natural sciences from the medreses. Between the ninth and eleventh centuries, when science was part of the curricula, Muslims accomplished significant scientific developments (Gülen 1998l, 40-45). However, in the era of the Seljuk Empire (1040-1194), philosophy and natural sciences were expelled from the medreses,namely Nizamiye, resulting in the decline of scientific research in the Muslim world. The opposition of Gazali (1058-1111), the influential Islamic scholar, to some Muslim philosophers in some of their views opposed to the Islamic creed also was misunderstood and used to legitimize this expulsion (Can 1996, 75).

Second, the historical tension between science and the medieval Catholic Church was mistakenly attributed to science and Islam, although Islam's attitude toward science has been different. Muslim modernists, because they have completely emulated the Western model, brought the dualities between modern and Catholic values to the Muslim world, ignoring the peculiarities of Islam (Gülen 1997i, 23).

In Turkey, the debate between faith and scientific understanding of causality has occurred frequently. After the 1999 earthquake, for instance, the media discussed whether God created the earthquake or it was a natural accidental event. Gülen does not accept such a dichotomy. On the one hand, he attaches importance to the laws of causality functioning in the universe, even in social events (Ünal 2001, 23-24). His interpretation of the Qur'anic verse, "But no change will you find in Allah's way of dealing, no turning off will you find in Allah's way of dealing" (35: 43), emphasizes the principle of continuity in natural events and the regularity of natural laws (Gülen 1998l, 42). On the other hand, however, he stresses that God is omnipotent and nature has no efficacy independent of Him (Gülen 1997i, 310). Gülen quotes Nursi to stress that people call God's creation "natural laws." According to Nursi, "God manifests His Names through veils, although His absolute Unity demands that we attribute the effects directly to His creative Power. His Transcendence, Grandeur and Majesty require 'natural' causes to veil His acts, so that people not ascribe to Him the things and events that seem unacceptable to them" (Gülen 1995d, 128). In this perspective, one may attribute the reason for a death, for example, to a material cause (e.g., an illness), to the Angel of death, and directly to God, simultaneously and without any contradiction (Nursi 1994, 121-122).

Gülen wrote a long foreword to a book, Science and Religion from a New Point of View (in Turkish), which some of his sympathizers wrote to emphasize the compatibility of science and religion (Yilmaz, et. al. 1998). Two magazines of the Gülen movement, Sizinti and The Fountain, also frequently publish articles on this issue. It is possible to see Gülen's middle way in his interpretation of the Muslim concept of takva (taqwa in Arabic). This term is crucial in Muslim life as this verse stresses: "Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most advanced in taqwa among you." (41:13) In Gülen's interpretation, taqwa gains a second meaning in addition to the traditional first one:

Derived from wiqaya, meaning protection, taqwa means to be in safe-keeping or protection of God. This has two aspects. The first is that a man fears God and obeys Him by performing His commands and refraining from His prohibitions. The second aspect of taqwa is that, by studying nature and life and discovering God's laws controlling them, people find scientific knowledge and order their lives. The establishment of sciences depends upon the discovery of these laws. In order to be under the safe-keeping of God, the true religion and sciences should be combined, for they are two faces or two expressions of a single truth (1995d, 160).

The twentieth century was an era of science for Gülen, and he believes that science also will be dominant in the twenty-first century. The weak interest of Muslims toward science is a source of regret for Gülen who claims that to read the universe as a book constitutes half of a Muslim's responsibilities (Gülen 1995d, 76). In his own words, "[T]he universe, where God's laws issuing from His attributes of Will, Destiny and Power are operative, is 'the created Qur'an', and the Qur'an, which is the collection of the Divine laws issuing from God's Attribute of Speech, is 'the composed universe' or the universe in the words" (1995d, 160). Although many Muslim intellectuals accept the significance of natural science, they generally are suspicious of the social sciences because of the influence of Western paradigms. Gülen, however, emphasizes the importance of social sciences, arguing that they will be much more important in the future.

Given the hegemony of positivist science, some Muslim modernists have tried to explain miracles through the lens of science or have denied them since they seem contradictory to natural laws.[6] Gülen, however, differs from positivist modernists by recognizing the limitations of science and its inability to explore religious and metaphysical issues, including miracles. He argues that science and technology cannot explain the meaning and the purpose of life, and they may be harmful for mankind if unjust and irresponsible people manipulate them. Science can neither provide the true happiness nor replace the role of religion. Moreover, he emphasizes that the development of physics in the twentieth century shook positivist science:

It is true that science has been the most revered 'fetish' or 'idol' of modern man for nearly two hundreds years. Scientists once believed that they could explain every phenomenon with the findings of science and the law of causality. However, modern physics destroyed the theoretical foundations of mechanical physics and revealed that the universe is not a clockwork of certain parts working according to strict, unchanging laws of causality and absolute determinism Experts in atomic physics say that no one be sure that the universe will be in the same state a moment later as it is in now (1997i, 309-310).

Ontologically, Gülen accepts that there is an absolute truth, therefore he opposes extreme social-constructivism: "Truth is not something the human mind produces. Truth exists independently of man and man's task is to seek it" (1997i, 308-309). Therefore, in the search for the truth, science can address the question "how?" while religion addresses "why?" The true civilization may emerge as a result of the cooperation between science and religion (Gülen 1996a, 49).

Reason and Revelation

Scientific development and mass education encouraged rationalization of individuals and societies; therefore, rationalization of social structure became an important pillar of modernity (Lichbach 1997, 268). Rationality implies, on the one hand, coherence and consistency, which results in regularity and orderliness in social life, and on the other hand, efficiency based on the rational selection of the best available means to clearly formulated ends (Gellner 1994c, 22). Although there is no clear emphasis on rationalization in Gülen's works, his attention to this concept is implicit in his speeches and writings. His emphasis on efficiency and division of labor, for example, is one of the sources of success for the Gülen movement. Gülen accepts the ability of systematic thinking as a feature of an ideal Muslim: "Every attempt to make progress which has not been authorized by reason and science is condemned to futility" (1996a, 44). Elizabeth Özdalga explains his activism as a rationalization process:

The perspective taught by Gülen is based on activism, stirred up, as well as controlled, by pietism. This "activist pietism" (or Weber's "in-worldly asceticism") describes, I argue, a new feature in Turkish religious life [T]he general effect of Gülen's similar "activist pietism" has been the direction of a rationalization of social relationships (2000, 87).

Gülen is against a kind of rationalism that focuses on egoistic self-interest and pure materialistic cost-benefit analysis. Rational choice should take into account the Day of Judgment. Gülen criticizes the Enlightenment movement for being based on only the enlightenment of reason. Ethics and moral principles, however, are crucial for the real enlightenment of humans. To maintain harmony, peace, and happiness in human life requires the realization of both mental/rational and heart-based/spiritual enlightenment. Therefore, rationalism should not negate the spiritual aspects of humans:

Neglect of the intellect would result in a community of poor, docile mystics. Negligence of the heart or spirit, on the other hand, would result in crude rationalism devoid of any spiritual dimension It is only when the intellect, spirit and body are harmonized, and man is motivated toward activity in the illuminated way of the Divine message, that he can become a complete being and attain true humanity (Gülen 1995d, 105-106).

Rationalization of a Muslim society generally has been accepted as difficult because of the perceived tension between reason and revelation. Orientalist and fundamentalist essentialisms have claimed a dichotomy between reason and revelation in the Muslim world (Al-Azmeh 1996, 179). Gülen argues that reason and Islamic revelation not only are compatible but also complementary: "All principles of Islam, being a revealed religion originating in an All-Encompassing Knowledge, certainly can be confirmed by reason" (1995d, 128).

Gülen pioneered the creation of the Foundation of Journalists and Writers, which has organized Abant Workshops to discuss the relationship between reason and revelation, in addition to some other related issues (Gazeteciler ve Yazarlar Vakfi, 1998 and 2000). According to Gülen, one of the historical bases of the false dichotomy between reason and revelation is the degeneration of the Muslim medreses. Gülen is critical of medreses because of their weaknesses in science and logic, even on the eve of the twenty-first century (Can 1996, 72-73).

On the issue of dogmatism, Gülen stresses that the Islamic understanding of revelation, which seeks a balance between spiritualism and materialism, is far from dogmatic (Can 1996, 50-51). He stresses that the Qur'an clearly opposes scholasticism, rumor, and irrational imitation while attaching great importance to reason, thinking, and interpretation. To have the ability of reasoning is the main requirement to be a Muslim (Gülen 1998l, 43-44,46). Gülen seeks a middle way between reason and revelation. He accepts the Qur'an as the eternal and perfect words of God while recognizing the role of reason to understand and interpret the Qur'an.

The Idea of Progress and Conservation of the Tradition

The traditional conceptualization of time, in many European and Muslim societies throughout the Middle Ages, was based on a static and passive mentality (Pattaro 1976, 169-195). This understanding aimed to preserve the status quo (generally justified by religions) while accepting change as a deviation from the stable natural condition. One of the reasons for this passivity in Europe, according to Benedict Anderson, was the understanding of Messianic time--the waiting for Christ's second coming, or the end of the world, an event that could occur at any time (Anderson 1998, 23-25).

With the rise of the capitalist market economy and secularization, this mentality experienced a transformation. Change and progress became glorified vis-à-vis the status quo (Gellner 1994c, 22). The idea of progress resulted in competition and development, as well as an "insatiable desire for growth" (Bermann 1988, 35). The linear, evolutionary understanding of history maintains the legitimacy of modernism and claims to downplay the tradition. Although the postmodernists challenge this understanding through a relativistic perspective (Inglehart 1997, 23), the idea of progress is still the source of motivation for the modern life.

Essentially and historically, "the idea of progress is not entirely alien to Muslim thought" (Hasnaoui 1977, 52). Nevertheless, the reconceptualization of time inspired a debate between the idea of progress and the conservation of the tradition in many Muslim countries. Turkish modernists accepted the idea of progress as one of their three main objectives, akil, bilim, ilerleme (reason, science, and progress). The major modernist party in the late Ottoman era, for example, is named as the Committee of Union and Progress.

Gülen on the one hand appreciates the importance of cultural and scientific progress throughout the history. On the other hand, he emphasizes that this development did not make religion obsolete since the essential pillars of man's character, needs, and desires did not change. In other words, he accepts change in conjunction with continuity throughout history. He argues that history pursues cyclical ways although it results in progress, and thereby it has a kind of spiral path (Kömecoğlu 2000, 174).

Gülen criticizes passivity and the conceptualization of Messianic time in medieval Europe (1998l, 29-31). In some of his speeches, he reminds Muslims that submissively waiting for a Mehdi or a Messiah is against Islamic mentality. Instead, he tells them to be dynamic and spend their time efficiently by disciplining their lives with daily schedules and long term projects. According to Gülen, even if the conditions are not conducive to action, Muslims should wait actively. For example, a holiday means a shift from one work to another, not the cessation of work (2000b, 397). Up until death, activity has to continue because no one has a guarantee of salvation and the good deeds are the only capital for the hereafter. This perception provides a religious motivation for worldly activism. In the words of Özdalga,

According to Gülen, everyone has only one life, one opportunity, to accomplish anything in the service [hizmet] of God Gülen's urgent nervousness is caused by his desire to get people to choose between seizing this opportunity and gaining eternal life, or else being deprived of everything.

To serve God is without limits . One never can sit down, satisfied he or she has done enough or finished what is expected; as soon as one work is done, one has to rush to the next project. The question "Oh, my Lord, what else can I do"?...summarizes this understanding of a never-ending urge to work and to serve others.

Gülen calls this ideal aksiyon insani [man of action]. The human being identified with this ideal is one who is never satisfied with existing conditions. Such an insan is one who is inclined to work his or her best until this world is turned into a paradise; and also is one who in the struggle for a better world is stopped by nothing except death itself (2000, 88-89).

Gülen believes that the opportunities provided for a particular period of time should be seized immediately. Every event has its own time of scattering seeds, cultivation, and harvest. If a person misses even one of these steps, he cannot reap the final result. Gülen claims that Muslims must be proactive. If they remain reactive and passive decision-takers(as they were in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries), then they cannot make a contribution to and play a key role in the era of globalization (2000a, 7-8). It may be because of this emphasis on dynamism and activism that a prestigious news magazine in Turkey linked with Gülen movement is named Aksiyon (action).

The role of time and the linear progress of the history in the interpretation of Islamic principles have been contentious issues among Muslims. Some scholars stress the importance of time while interpreting Islam,[7] although others reject this idea. Gülen, on the one hand, stresses that the Qur'an is the eternal and perfect words of God. On the other hand, he points out that time makes one of the best interpretations of the Qur'an, helping people to understand better its multi-dimensional meanings (1993, 100-101).

For Gülen, it is not necessary either to discredit the past or to glorify it. A critical evaluation of tradition is crucial to purify the real core of religion from heresies. The previous ictihads (interpretations of Islamic principles), based on the custom and convention of preceding societies, require revision to accord with the customs and conventions of contemporary societies. Not only Muslim theologians but also Muslim academics and experts in other fields have to contribute to the new ictihads (2001b, 141). Gülen emphasizes the necessity of seeking a "balance between the constant and changing aspects of Islam" (quoted in Williams and Ünal 2001, 53). Because of his middle way understanding, he appreciates both Muslim tradition, especially based on the "Time of Happiness" of the Prophet Muhammad, and the ongoing progress of civilization.

Individual Free Will and Destiny

Modern mass education, which has provided--to some extent--equal access to resources and social mobility, has liberated the modern individual from traditional ties and enabled him to reach for self-awareness (Taylor 1999, 55-56). The role of individualism in modernity is a controversial issue. For example, Alain Touraine points out that modernity depends on the interaction and tension between reason--which is connected to rationalization, collectivism, and the system--and the Subject, which is associated with subjectivism, individualism, and the agent (1992). In this regard, throughout the modern era, the pendulum of history has been swinging between collectivism and individualism (Touraine 1992, 410).

Individualism generally has been defined as the opposite of collectivism. Ali Bulac, a Turkish pro-Islamic writer, for example, criticizes modern individualism for demolishing communal ties and making the atomized individuals weak vis-à-vis the state.[8] Individualism defined as oppose to collectivism is the most alien feature of modernity to Gülen. His ideas on this issue seem an eclectic collection of individualism and collectivism rather than a middle way.

Gülen often stresses the necessity and importance for individuals to be members of a collective and social group. According to him, collectivity needs to be based on the individual's voluntary participation. After the participation, however, the role of the free will is not so clear. Despite his overemphasis on community, Gülen also attaches importance to the individual by emphasizing that man, being the main addressee of God, is the most honorable and perfect of creatures and an individual is equal to a whole species. Therefore, the rights of individuals cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the society (2000a,8).

Nevertheless, Gülen has been criticized for supporting community at the expense of individuals. Yavuz, for example, defines the Gülen movement as a "beehive," which is based on action-oriented obedience, in Milliyet, 11 August 1997. He adds, "Gülen's educational system does not necessarily promote free will and individualism, but rather promotes a collective consciousness" (Yavuz 1999d, 598). Given those kinds of criticisms, Gülen stressed the necessity of encouraging the development and flowering of Turkish individuals despite the communitarian Turkish culture, in an interview in Yeni Yüzyil, 6 Ağustos 1997.

Another aspect of modern individualism is based on the individual's productive power and efficacy in shaping the course of social and historical events (Taylor 1985, 275-276). This aspect of modern individualism also relates to the dynamic conceptualization of time, because it challenges the passive submission to destiny (Sadri and Sadri 2000, 56). "[T]he modern man's sense of efficacy would express his confidence in his ability to organize his life so as to master the challenges it presents " (Inkeles and Smith 1976, 22). Some Muslim scholars oppose such an individualism, which depends on the capability of man to determine his social and natural environments (Tibi 1995, 8), arguing that this contradicts the Islamic belief in destiny and the humility of Muslims toward God. They claim that modern man andhomo Islamicus are incompatible. The former is the complete master of his own destiny and the earth, living in a profane historical time, lacking a sense of the sacred, and being responsible to no one but himself. The latter, on the contrary, is both the slave of God and God's vicegerent on the earth (Nasr 1980). Some other scholars, however, reject the changeless definition of the homo Islamicus and his opposition to modern man. Those scholars attach importance to the context rather than the text while interpreting Islam (Al-Azmeh 1996, 178).

Gülen does not deal with the discussion about the contradiction between the so-called modern man and homo Islamicus. He attaches importance to individual free will, saying that, even if a good thing happens but without deliberated and willed action, the individual cannot gain sevap (the pleasure and rewards of Allah) (Özsoy 1998, 55). He quotes the Qur'anic verse, "A man has only that for which he makes effort" (53: 39). In this regard, success in worldly affairs is based on endeavor and in harmony with natural laws, which are neutral to individuals whether they are Muslim or not. Since God orders the natural laws, to respect those laws is to respect to God. On the one hand, Muslims should be successful in worldly affairs (Gülen 2001b, 159), but on the other hand, their success should not prevent them from having humility vis-à-vis God.

Individual efficacy is very important for Gülen who was born in a small village in eastern Anatolia and lacked any political, economic, or social sources of power. He has become influential by his own individual efforts. In other words, he represents the success of the human agency despite the inconvenient socio-economic and political conditions. In this perspective, Gülen describes his ideal generation as the "new people" who "will never be reactionary. They will not go after events, for they will be the motors of history that initiate and shape events" (quoted in Williams and Ünal 2001, 105).

Gülen claims that the middle way in the relationship between free will and destiny in Islamic creed is provided by Maturidi School of faith. There have been three main Schools of faith in Islam: Mutezile, Es'ari, and Maturidi. The Mutezile has argued that man creates his own deeds independent of God, and has placed an excessive emphasis on rationality. The Es'ari emerged as a reaction to the Mutezile and has emphasized destiny at the expense of free will and causality. The third school, the Maturidi, has sought balance between free will and destiny. According to Gülen, the Islamic universities in the Seljuk Empire (NizamiyeMedreses) tended to embrace the Es'ari as a reaction against the Mutezile. The Es'ari has preserved its influence on the Muslim societies throughout the Ottoman era and even today. Although Turks have overwhelmingly claimed loyalty to the Maturidi, they have been under the subconscious influence of the Es'ari. Gülen stresses the necessity to revitalize the Maturidi point of view, which pursues the middle way (Ünal 2001, 207; Gülen 1995c).

Gülen sees individual free will and the belief in destiny as compatible, because "God Almighty has endowed man with the power of choice -free will--and, taking into account his choices in life, (pre-)determined his life down to its smallest details" (1997i, 131). In other words, "man wills and God creates" (1997i, 136). Since man is the halife (vicegerent) of God upon the earth, he has the right to intervene in nature for good reasons. In this perspective, a person who believes in God and her destiny can gain an infinite power and challenge to the whole universe on behalf of her Lord without any fear or worry. Therefore, optimism, self-confidence, and dynamic understanding of tevekkül (submission and trusting in God) should be the main pillars of Muslim worldview. By the same token, Gülen emphasizes the role of human agency in the determination of social and historical events:

Islam sees humanity as the "motor" of history, contrary to fatalistic approaches of some of the nineteenth century Western philosophies of history such as dialectical materialism and historicism. Just as every individual's will and behavior determine the outcome of his or her life in this world and in the hereafter, a society's progress or decline is determined by the will, worldview, and lifestyle of its inhabitants. The Quran (13:11) says: "God will not change the state of a people unless they change themselves [with respect to their beliefs, worldview, and lifestyle]." In other words, each society holds the reins of its fate in its own hands (2001a, 135).

Gülen points out that the particular role of destiny or free will in a specific event cannot be exactly clarified and known. He quotes Nursi to show the middle way on this issue by referring to destiny for the past and disasters, and to free will for the future and sins: "[W]hatever is (including misfortunes) should be considered in the light of Destiny, and what is to come and sins should be attributed to human's free will" (Gülen 1997i, 124). Gülen's understanding of the middle way opposes both fatalism and denying destiny. For him, a Muslim can possess self-confidence about her own individual efficacy and productive power, while believing in destiny and preserving her humility toward God.


The essay promised to analyze the idea of "Islamic modernities" through an empirical example that has a coherent theoretical basis. I have fulfilled that through a textual analysis of Gülen's ideas. I did not prefer a contextual analysis since other chapters of the volume maintain sufficient knowledge about Gülen's biography and the activities of his movement.

I disagree with the essentialist claim that modernity and Islam have inherent incompatibilities. The analysis of Gülen's ideas is helpful to disprove this essentialist argument for two reasons. First, Gülen pursues an inclusive middle way between fundamental features of modernity and the Muslim tradition: science and Islamic knowledge, reason and revelation, progress and conservation, and free will and destiny, accepting them as two faces of the same reality. Second, Gülen provides historical-institutional reasons (e.g., the degeneration of medreses and tekkes) to explain the alleged problems of modernity and Islam, rather than essential dichotomies.

Gülen does not try to create an eclectic or hybrid synthesis of modernity and Islam or to accommodate to the hegemony of modernity by changing Islamic principles. What he does is to reveal a dynamic interpretation of Islam that is compatible with and critical of modernity and Muslim tradition. Gülen's understanding of the middle way is not a purely abstract set of ideas but a conception that interacts with practice. He generally pursues a practical commonsense avoiding too abstract discussions and polarities, and focuses on what one should keep in mind as principles to operate in a certain time and space. Gülen particularly attaches importance to human agency to bridge theory and practice. Therefore, he aims to educate an ideal youth.

Actually, neither Gülen's nor anyone else's search for a middle way can provide a fixed and stable guideline for the future generations. The middle way is not something to be found out perpetually. It might change with regard to the new conditions of life. Today's "middle way" may turn into an extreme (either excess or deficiency) in tomorrow's conditions.

(Ahmet T. Kuru, Department of Political Science, University of Washington)

This paper has been presented in a conference entitled "Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement" andpublished together with other titles in a book edited by M. Hakan Yavuz and John L. Esposito (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003), pp. 115-130.

"It can also be reached as a Word document at"

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[1] See the special issue on Multiple Modernities, Daedalus, 129, no. 1 (2000).

[2] On reconciling modernity and various religions, see Heft 1999, and Yu and Lu 2000.

[3] Gülen frequently emphasizes that his own position is more like an inspirational and guiding thinker rather than a formal leader of a social movement.

[4] Gülen's taped series of sermons Ahlaki Mülahazalar 1-14 (1980) (Nil AŞ).

[5] For Nursi's perception of the middle way, see Nursi 1994, 613.

[6] Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Husayn Ahmad Amin are examples of this modernist group. See Majeed 2000 and Abu-Zahra 2000.

[7] Abd al-Karim Soroush, for instance, encourages "dynamic fiqh," which is forward-looking; see Cooper 2000, 43.

[8] See for Bulac's critique of modern individualism Çinar and Kadioğlu 1999, 62.

Ahmet T. Kuru, "Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement", Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003, pp. 115-130