Community and the Concept of Collective Personality

Above already stated, Sufism is present in the Gülen movement, not in the form of a tariqa, but in individual practices, and their emphasis is more on the collective personality, or şahs-i manevi. This emphasis acknowledges the community to be a corporate body that shares spiritual unity and personality. This body is a collective representation of a unified system of will power, idea, beliefs, and behaviors. Communal principles emerge as concrete forms of these unifying wills and efforts. Like a piece of ice melting in the ocean and thus becoming the ocean, every person degrades his ego to become one with the collective spiritual personality. Partaking in this spiritual unity means that one should leave behind, or at least not give priority to, his or her personal interests, pleasures, and engagements. This happens primarily in areas where the community expects action from its participants.

The formation of a collective personality shapes around the principle of spreading the word of God. All communal activities, rituals, values, principles, and goals intend for this aim. The ideal of spreading the word of God to all of humankind require the efforts of both single individuals and the collective body of the community. In all cooperative forms, even in ideological and political organizations, parties are believed to have a metaphysical and/or a mystical essence. Followers or members are expected to be respectful to this essence and to disregard their personal interests. Yet these types of entities are shaped upon concrete benefits, expectations, and worldly ideals. They do not seek God's approval, nor do they focus on the idea of eternity and the hereafter. They exist on the foundations of attaining power, seeking a post, or searching for fame in a direction that would enable them to apply political or social pressure on societal balance. One should not confuse the spiritual personality of the community with organizations shaped around worldly, material aims.

On the other hand, it is believed that collective personality is naturally blessed with God's benevolence and favor. In the Sufi tradition, initiates receive divine favors through spiritual experience and practice. In the case of the collective spiritual personality of a community, divine favors are always greater when compared to favors to persons and personal experiences. The Prophet says that God's consent and good pleasure is always with the community manifested in the form of favors and blessings.[1] At this point, I would like to mention a traditional Sufi view, which is considered to be in the realm of subjective knowledge, in order to make a contribution to the comprehension of collective spiritual personality. In Sufi literature, prominent spiritual people are known as qutb, qutbal-aktab, ghaws etc. They are imagined as central power transformers who transfer divine favors and spiritual prosperity to followers. Divine favors and divine benevolence is first directed to these people, and then they re-distribute and transport this revenue to others in accordance to their closeness with God. This phenomenon in the Sufi tradition is represented by the collective spiritual personality in the context of the community. These historical spiritual personalities exist today in the form of communities. The unity and corporate body of community, and its spiritual presence hold a spiritual and metaphysical meaning:

Devotion to a collective personality means dissolving in the community and unifying with it. Community is a group of people who gathered around same thought and ideal... Being a community can only be attained by reaching collective consciousness. The collective consciousness dissolves the individual in its multidimensional composition, making it yet another of its dimensions; then no absolute individual remains. The individual is communalized, and the community turns to a single individual... Prayers observed in this community entirely flow to the same pool. Collective personality of the community rapidly soars to higher spiritual ranks... This rise continues, as long as the community preserves its qualitative essence, to such pinnacles that sometimes a community represents the highest spiritual rank... When a community ascends to this rank the capacity of spiritual fulfillment both in this world and the hereafter widens in the same proportion and sometimes comprises al members of the community.[2]

As we have seen, Gülen attaches importance to the collective personality of the community. For him, the collective personality serves as a means that makes communal activities bountiful, and adds to their spiritual value. Further, he stresses that spiritual ascension and journey through collective personality is more reliable, less risky, and away from arrogance than by way of other methods. This journey is toward sainthood, or walaya as it is called in Sufism, but in this case it is the sainthood of the collective personality:

Representation of walaya by the "collective personality" is the most straight and guaranteed path. For, there is no circumstance that may lead the initiate to feel conceited. The post attained belongs to the collective personality; the individual is protected from any obstacles and handicaps that may drag that person to arrogance. … On the other hand, today no one can attain such spiritual ranks relying on one's own efforts. Yet we can attain peaks only by affiliating to the collective personality...[3]

Gülen talks about three pre-conditions a community needs to meet in order to represent the highest spiritual rank:

1. Community members should be tightly linked to each other,
2. Everybody must fully share the same feelings,
3. They must pay utmost care about observing prayers, remembrance, and all types of servanthood.[4]

Sharing the same feelings, spiritual fellowship, observing prayers, being watchful of divine decrees and prohibitions are all introduced as components that form and reinforce the collective personality of a community. Unity of feelings, thoughts, and ideals lays the foundation of a community, and it is essential for its existence. As with all communities, common principles shared by everybody comprise the tangible foundations of a community. The formation of a collective personality, however, requires a sort of glue that takes its form in a spiritual lifestyle based on sincere belief practiced by its participants. Without this paste, the collective personality of the community may be exposed to weakening, disintegration, and dispersion. Every single person should comprehend that being attached to the community means also being a member of a spiritual cooperation: "Every person attached to a Muslim community is also accepted as a member of a spiritual cooperation. Thus his or her every action possesses all advantages of being a member to this kind of cooperation. An individual, by his or her position, shares all rewards granted to the community…"[5]

Here the concept of "collective personality" appears as a Sufi-based concept. Although there are people in the Sufi tradition that underline this concept, this is not a common situation. The concept achieved generality and profundity in the modern period, at the time when modern communities emerged. In fact, we have enough social material to engage in an intellectual analysis of the concept as it might be viewed within the parameters of a modern paradigm. The framework of definition referred by terms like "corporate body" and "institutional identity" is useful to understand "collective personality." We relate a corporate body to a social rule or a legal concept, and thus we reach a conceptualization about it. Collective personality represents roughly the same thing. In modern law, the concept of "legal personality" falls into the field of personal rights.

The concept of the collective personality has become more relevant today with the formation of communities in modern times. It is also one of the most central concepts of Sufism, for one of the main aims of Sufism is to elevate people to the rank of walaya by training and purifying the self. This rank can be attained in the widest sense through the collective personality of communities. The journey of the collective personality toward walaya is relevant with the collective presence of the community as much as it is with each and every individual member. By engaging in collective personality, members in a community can obtain spiritual revenue with more intensity and greater velocity than can be obtained by individual practices as in traditional Sufism. Therefore, in the context of the modern community, the concepts of "collective personality" and "walaya" are wide and deep enough to encapsulate the entire lexicon of traditional Sufi terminology.

Community is regarded as the recipient of every kind of blessing. In a community, each word, practice, and feeling of service are made bountiful, and it serves as the transporter of people's spiritual journey and walaya. Community functions like a spiritual cooperation. As well as increasing feelings of partnership, company, and devotion, it functions as a moral paste that bonds society.

The term "collective personality" is not an imaginative concept used solely to express the institutional structure of community. The Earth, heaven, the stars, the mountains etc. are all believed in Sufi terminology to have spiritual personalities. One interpretation of Islamic cosmology contends that the basis for this reality is rooted in the Qur'anic verse, "whatever is in the heavens and the earth glorifies God through their disposition."[6] Some prophetic sayings mention angels with forty thousand (or even a hundred thousand) heads and mouths that are all used to praise God. Such angels carry all remembrances and praises of the stars, the moon, the mountains etc. to God. A mountain and a tree have a spiritual personality that is watched by an appointed angel (malak-i muakkal). If a mountain with hundred thousand trees has a spiritual personality, then certainly a community with hundred thousand members would have a spiritual personality. This matter is not only epistemological and interpretational; it connects directly to the Muslim perception of humanity, existence, and the universe.

The aforementioned Prophetic saying reads, "God's hand (of might), power, favor and benevolence are on the community." On Earth, the point that the God looks upon is the perfect person, insan al-kamil. The most comprehensive manifestation of God's favor and benevolence is directed towards the perfect person. The "perfect person" represents the ideal model of humanity, sought by Sufi throughout the history of Islam. The purpose of all spiritual and moral struggles is to become a "perfect person." That said, when compared to a community, a "perfect person" can not reach the same level of God's favors and benevolence. A genius person can not match the performance and accuracy of a committee of scientists; likewise a person's spiritual performance can not reach that of a community. The most abundant and comprehensive manifestation of God's mercy, favor, and abundance are gifted to the collective spiritual personality of the community. Therefore, the community and collective personality have become two of the most important elements in the Muslim tradition and in activities of spreading the message of Islam in modern times.

Footnote[1] Tirmidhi, Fitan, 7.

[2] Gülen, Fasildan Fasila, Vol. 1, p. 171–2.

[3] Ibid., p. 172.

[4] Ibid., p. 173.

[5] Ibid., p. 174.

[6] See the Qur'an, Isra 17:44; Juma 62:1; Taghabun 64:1; Hadid 57:1; Hashr 59:1, 24; Saf 61:1. "...since the globe utters Divine glorifications to the number of its realms of beings, with tongues to the number of the members of those species, and the parts, leaves, and fruits of those members, surely there will be an appointed angel with forty thousand heads and forty thousand tongues in each head, each of which will utter forty thousand Divine glorifications, which will know that splendid, unconscious, innate worship, represent it consciously, and offer it to the Divine Court, as the Bringer of Sure News informed us absolutely correctly" (Nursi, Rays, Eleventh Topic, Istanbul: Sözler Publications, 2002, p. 283).
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