A classical scholar with a modern outlook: Fethullah Gülen and his legal thought

Fethullah Gülen

1. Introduction

In this chapter, I attempt to situate the legal methodology of Fethullah Gülen within contemporary Islamic legal and intellectual discourse. In doing so, I will seek to answer questions about how he engages with Islamic teachings and texts to produce his juristic interpretation of the modern human condition and social circumstances. Thus, I argue that Fethullah Gülen transforms contemporary Islamic thinking intellectually through his active engagement with Islamic learning and the current questions that Muslim societies face; he produces responses (fatwa) and independent juristic interpretations (ijtihad) by examining primary sources of Islamic law and current circumstances.

Why does Fethullah Gülen create his juristic interpretation about current problems of Muslim communities within a classical scholar’s (‘ālim) perspective? Is he a qualified jurist, mujtahid, who has the competence to form his own judgments through the usage of juristic interpretation?[1] Or, is he only a regular pious Muslim who affects millions by piety? This chapter seeks to answer these questions through examining his educational background, his qualifications for ijtihad, his methodology, and sample examples from his responses and juristic interpretations.

2. Educational background and experience

While Fethullah Gülen was thoroughly educated in Islamic institutions of the Ottoman tradition, the madrasah, a school for theological studies, he also studied modern thought and literature privately. He lived in an instructive environment and obtained essential knowledge in the core sources of Islam beginning from a very young age in his hometown, Erzurum, Turkey. He memorized the Qur’an, and became a hāfiz, when he was twelve. As well as being exposed to an intellectual environment, he experienced the Naqshībandī order, one of the major Sufi paths in Anatolia, through the Naqshī Sufi master Muhammed Lütfi Efendi, aka Alvarlı Efe, (d. 1954), in his early teenage years. Nourished from the organized Sufi path in his early years, he later on established his independent ascetic style by adopting the classical observances of a Muslim scholar, but without rejecting the benefits of modernity, in complete devotion to prayer, noticeably much more than an ordinary Muslim would do, but wearing ironed pants.[2]

Although he was attending local circles to learn classical Islamic texts in Arabic, he was struggling to read French texts with the help of a dictionary on his own. Learning French was not expected from a student in his situation. He was looking for something different from the circumstances that he lived in. This enthusiastic approach led Fethullah Gülen to receive classes in Islamic law and jurisprudence from one of the last Hanafī scholars of the classical Ottoman tradition, Mufti Osman Bektaş (d. 1986).

During this core education in Islamic studies, Fethullah Gülen developed some initial experience in critical thinking. Based on his careful observation of the surrounding scholarly environment, meticulous study of his assigned texts in study circles, and individual readings, he began scholarly and critical thought at an early period in his education. One of his classmates in those years, Sadi Kayhan, states, “He was criticizing false convictions even though these were widely accepted by people.”[3] We will touch more on the details of his educational milieu in the next section, his qualifications for ijtihad.

By the end of his teenage years he had completed his education and had departed from a classical environment to a modern milieu; moving from Erzurum to Edirne, one of the European provinces of Turkey. In his new surroundings he was exposed to Western and modern ways of life inside Turkey. Not only has he experienced the relatively Western life of Turkey, but also that of the United States of America as he moved there in 1999. Fethullah Gülen currently lives in a retreat centre in the state of Pennsylvania.

All these experiences from traditional institutions to modern societies equipped him as a scholar with a thorough knowledge of centuries-long legacy of Islamic disciplines who at the same time is familiar with modern needs and can provide new interpretations without deviating from core values of Islamic tradition.[4] He continues to study major classical Islamic texts pageby- page with his students or alone. He has achieved a balanced level of classical and modern perceptions for carrying out his juristic interpretation at a point of moderation, a well-known term for the middle way, in Islamic tradition.[5] He produced his juristic views within this perspective.

3. Fethullah Gülen’s qualification as a mujtahid

The required qualifications for ijtihad are not mentioned in the Qur’an and the sunnah. Muslim scholars do not have a consensus, ijma’, on these requirements. Jurists and scholars throughout the history of Islamic jurisprudence regulated their own ijtihad rules and requirements. Therefore, Muslim scholars who were interested in juristic interpretation created accounts on the required qualifications for mujtahid. The earliest complete published account for qualifications of a mujtahid was found in al-Mu’tamad fi usul alfiqh by Abu Husayn Ali al-Basri (d. 436/1044).[6] The most detailed one is an account by Ghazzali (d. 505/1111) in his usul book, al-Mustasfā.[7] Later jurists’ writings on this issue did not differ significantly from the established Sunni legal doctrine pronounced by Ghazzali:

  1. Knowing 500 verses needed in law; committing them to memory is not a prerequisite.
  2. Knowing the way to relevant hadith literature; he needs only to maintain a reliable copy of Abu Dawud’s or Bayhaqi’s collection rather than memorize their contents.
  3. Knowing the substance of furu‘ works (peripheral subjects) and the points subject to ijma’, so that he does not deviate from the established laws.
  4. Knowing the methods by which legal evidence is derived from the texts.
  5. Knowing the Arabic language; complete mastery of its principles is not a prerequisite.
  6. Knowing the rules governing the doctrine of abrogation.
  7. Investigating the authenticity of hadith.[8]

Fethullah Gülen’s writings and speeches show that he has higher qualifications to make ijtihad than the regularly required credentials listed above. I will examine his qualifications according to Ghazzali’s treaty:

  1. He knows more than the required 500 Qur’anic verses needed in law; he knows all the Qur’an by heart, hāfiz, with their meanings related to abrogation, naskh and occasions of revelation, asbāb al-nuzūl. Moreover, he has examined the major classical commentaries on the Qur’an page-bypage with his students, or alone.[9]
  2. He has almost memorized hadith narratives in six major hadith collections, kutub al-sitta. He states, “I can understand hadith texts whether it is in the six major hadith collections or not.” Apart from the body of a hadith text, he knows chain of the transmitters, isnad, and hadith narrators, rijal,[10] and can quote their biographies one by one. He frequently gives references from the history of the Prophet and his Companions in his speeches and writing. He knows the names of the Companions, their relationship with each other, their contribution, and any weakness in the branch of hadith.[11]
  3. As has been mentioned above, Fethullah Gülen studied Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic law beginning from his teenage years and examined the majority of classical Islamic legal texts. In addition, since 1985 Fethullah Gülen began re-reading classical Islamic literature in Arabic with divinity school graduates. He examined the furu‘, from fiqh literature: Abu al-Husayn al-Quduri (d. 428/1037) al-Mukhtasar; Abu al-Hasan Burhan al-Dīn al-Marghinani (d. 593/1197) al-Hidaya Sharh al-Bidaya; Abu al-Fadl Majd al-Din al-Mawsili (d. 683/1284) al-Ikhtiyar li ta‘lil al-Mukhtar; Muhammad b. Ibrāhīm al-Halabī (d. 956/1594) Multaqa al-Abhur; Wahba Mustafa al-Zuhaylī (1932–) al-Fiqh al-Islami wa Adillatuhu; in Islamic jurisprudence, usul: Abu Ishaq Shatibi (d. 790/1388) al-Muwafaqāt; Muhammad b. Farāmuz b ‘Ali, known as Mullah Husraw (d. 885/1480) Mir’āt al-Usul; Mehmed Seyyid Bey (d. 1873–1925) al-Madkhal.[12] What he has engaged in is a classical type of reading and examining of whole books with a new perspective: analytical and critical reading of classical texts. Students read the portion that they have prepared before, and Fethullah Gülen comments on the subject when necessary. Apart from examining Islamic law texts in group study, he re-reads early Islamic legal texts individually. The last one that he examined is Abu Zayd ‘Isa al-Dabbusi (d. 430/1039) Ta’sīs al-Nazar.[13]
  4. Fethullah Gülen also began Arabic lessons in his teenage years and memorized Arabic grammar in classical Ottoman style, from Amthila to Izhār and Molla Jāmī. Later he used Mustafa Ghalayani’s Jami‘ al-Durus al-Arabiyya, the commentary on Ibn Mālik’s Alfiya, Ibn Aqil’s commentary as a medium of instruction in his Arabic language teaching. He feels more confident in Arabic letters and prefers using them in writing and reading, an Ottoman tradition. He reads classical Islamic texts fluently observing grammatical rules of classical Arabic. He has the capacity to interpret verses from the Qur’an, the hadith, and legal or any classical texts in their original languages without a dictionary.[14] Fethullah Gülen also knows Persian at an academic level. He interprets major disciplines of classical Islamic literature, tafsīr, hadith, fiqh, kalam, sīrah within their authentic languages and produces new interpretations via sermons, speeches, books and articles.

With all these qualifications, Fethullah Gülen has the capacity to be a mujtahid, but he deliberately regards himself as a regular pious Muslim because of his humility. Moreover, Fethullah Gülen has conceded that he is not a mujtahid as Faruk Beşer mentions in his book, Fethullah Gülen Hocaefendi’nin Fıkhını Anlamak. This is a humble response and should not be understood as an absolute rejection by Fethullah Gülen, for such an humility is inherently found in the nature of Islam, and perhaps is best represented by Sufis. In Islamic tradition, especially among religious scholars who were trained in Sufi tradition, it is common not to declare their scholarly qualifications. In the history of Islamic law, very few jurists declared that they were mujtahid. Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 911/1505), an Egyptian jurist, was one of the few. Therefore, Fethullah Gülen’s reply should be considered within this tradition, and his rejection does not prevent him from juristic interpretation when needed.

Since the 1970s he has responded to people’s inquiries in “question and answer” sessions before late evening prayer. At the time, people were coming to the mosque to ask him various questions. They sat in the mosque in the same way they did in formal Friday sermons and wrote down their questions before the sessions started. These questions were placed on the table before Fethullah Gülen’s arrival. When the congregation took their place in the mosque and the questions were placed on his desk Fethullah Gülen read the questions out aloud and answered them in order. It was like an organized lecture.

This question and answer method still goes on with limited audiences in the retreat centre in Pennsylvania following afternoon prayers. His students record these conversations in audio or video formats and transform them into written materials, books, and articles. Some of his speeches in question-answer format have been translated into English and published as Questions & Answers about Islam, III. These two volumes are mostly related to theological, social, and moral issues. Fethullah Gülen’s legal responses are being edited by Ahmet Kurucan, one of his earliest students, who has a PhD in Islamic law.[15] Because of this ongoing editing and translation of legal issues, we depend mostly on this unpublished work and a few other published books on legal matters.

4. Fethullah Gülen’s methodology in fatwa and ijtihad

In ijtihad methodology, Fethullah Gülen mainly holds the Hanafi- Maturidi traditional line. It is obvious that the Hanafi legal school uses reason more than other Sunni counterparts. The Maturidiyya School of theology follows a line of thought which is between the Ash’ariyya and the Mu’tazilite schools by defending theological orthodoxy with rational methods, a moderate position.[16] Fethullah Gülen stays within this perspective as much as he can while he is responding to questions about the contemporary issues of Muslims. Moreover, Fethullah Gülen firmly emphasizes the need to follow a particular tradition in his juristic interpretation. Jerome D. Maryon states that Fethullah Gülen builds on foundations from Abu Mansur al- Maturidi (d. 333/944) to Said Nursi (d. 1960), affording ample exegesis of Qur’anic prescriptions for moral duty: following the straight path, al-sirat al-mustaqim.[17]

Although Nursi was coming from a Shafi‘i–Ash’ari traditional background, he offered unconventional responses to the problems of modern society that appeared to be in tune with the conditions of modern society. He re-interpreted some current issues using reason rather than following the classical way, provided by earlier Shafi‘i scholars. For example, Nursi gives an opinion on discussion around verse 5:51, “O you who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors!” and comments, in particular, on the term awliya (friends and protectors) with an analogy. He asks first, “Can a Muslim love a Christian or Jew?” and then answers his question with an example of a man married to a woman of the People of the Book: “Of course, he should love her.” This indicates how Nursi combined reality and sacred texts with reason in his interpretation.

Similarly, while Fethullah Gülen considers contemporary circumstances and reads current situations very carefully in his interpretations, he emphasizes the relevance of the times and the era of the Prophet and considers that time as providing concise examples for Muslims up to the Day of Judgment. “Since everything up to the Day of Judgment—not in macro plan, but in micro plan—has been exercised as signs during the Golden Era, and we can find something for our time.”[18] For example, if a Muslim would like to extract blood from his body for health reasons, as in blood donation, knowing that the Prophet also did so, it is not required that he follow the historical method of the Prophet. It can be done by modern techniques and follow the Prophetic sunnah.[19] I think this re-interpretation could be extended to using a toothbrush instead of a miswāk, a stick of wood made into fibers at one end, used as a toothbrush by the Prophet. However, Fethullah Gülen states that “there could be some extra benefits of using the miswāk” beyond the currently used toothbrush and toothpaste method.

Since the eighteenth century, Muslim scholars have talked about new interpretations and understandings. Beginning with Shah Wali Allah of Delhi (d. 1762) to Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988); from Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905) to Hasan Hanafi (1935–) Islamic law has been examined to produce new solutions for responding to current circumstances and needs. Rahman was a critical figure, who stated that “formative period jurists had missed a crucial characteristic of Islamic revelation, and the development of the Islamic worldview [was] to be made possible only by reexamining Islamic tradition in light of the overall spirit of the Qur’an.”[20] However, Fethullah Gülen does not go further than the last three (sometimes five) centuries of Islamic history, and does not criticize the jurists from the period of formation as Rahman does. Fethullah Gülen is full of respect to the classical period of juristic formulations and its institutions.

Furthermore, Fethullah Gülen defends a new type of revivalism in Islamic jurisprudence. He emphasizes that all juristic interpretation based on custom and tradition should be re-examined again to create new alternatives to current issues. This action requires examining whole juristic formulations based on juristic opinions, ijtihad with a new perspective. I categorize his conditions for this revision in three subtitles: (i) a new text on Islamic jurisprudence should be created by examining all legal literature (ii) existing juristic opinions based on customs and traditions should be criticized or at least rechecked bearing in mind contemporary circumstances (iii) all these should be done by a qualified committee, shura.[21]

While Fethullah Gülen encourages the creation of new juristic opinions according to contemporary circumstances and conditions within certain respects, he insists on a qualified committee or shura to do this task. He considers a qualified committee can work in the current political system.[22] Although Abul A’la Mawdūdī (d. 1979) states Western democracy is incompatible with Islam because the Islamic concept of shura cannot allow for a “ general election,”[23] Fethullah Gülen states “it is wrong to see Islam and democracy as opposites.”[24] However, Fethullah Gülen stays away from the political arena as much as he can and seeks renewal beyond it:

Islam does not propose a certain unchangeable form of government or attempt to shape it. Islam has never offered nor established a theocracy in its name. Instead, Islam establishes fundamental principles that orient a government’s general character. So, politics can be a factor neither in shaping Islam nor directing Muslims’ acts and attitudes in Islam’s name.[25]

Fethullah Gülen focuses on basic Islamic principles, i.e., belief, worship, morality, and behavior rather than politics to create his juristic interpretation for urgent and inevitable problems based on public interest, maslahah. For example, if a person receives interest through a salary payment by the state and this is not within his control and free will to reject, he can use this money to make tax re-payments to the state.[26] Fethullah Gülen responds to these kinds of questions with new juristic interpretations.

Fethullah Gülen does his ijtihad without criticizing other juristic interpretations and indulging in the debate of “closing the gate of ijtihad,” (insidad bab alijtihad) among Hanafi scholars.[27] Mostly, he keeps silent and argues that the saying “the gate of ijtihad is closed” is an extreme point of view. However, he mentions a number of obstacles standing in ijtihad for current jurists, especially Turkish ones: inadequate education in Islamic studies, lack of linguistic ability to understand the primary sources, and other terminological barriers.[28] On this point his views are very similar to those of Nursi who states, “The door to ijtihad is open, but six obstacles block it.”[29] For Nursi, issues concerning the detailed subjects of law were not an immediate concern in a twentieth-century context. And, also there is a lack of devoted Muslim scholars who can cope with contemporary major challenges and so legal interpretations are postponed.

Likewise, according to Fethullah Gülen, if a contemporary scholar is able to eliminate all these obstacles he should do what is necessary for contemporary needs. If a qualified scholar tries to adopt previous ideas regardless of current circumstances, he cannot enlighten the community and inevitably makes mistakes. Fethullah Gülen is against blind imitation, taqlīd, and considers it a catastrophe: “Examine the imitators’ books and you can find eighty mistakes in thirty pages. This is a catastrophe on behalf of knowledge, ilm .[30] A parallel approach to his idea is found in one of the late-Ottoman Hanafi jurist’s writing, Ibn ‘Abidin (d. 1262/1836). He quotes from another Hanafi jurist Ibn Nujaym (d. 970/1562), who says that later imitators repeated some early small mistakes and so compounded the error. For example, the issue of “hiring for Qur’anic teaching” is mentioned in one of the commentaries of al-Quduri, al-Siraj al-Wahhaj wa al-Jawhara by Abu Bakr al-Haddad (d. 800/1397) as a preferred opinion, al-mufta bih, against “hiring for Qur’anic recitation,” and the former was extended to “hiring for worship, tā‘ah.” Concerning this point, hiring for pilgrimage, hajj, is derived from this understanding. However, there is a consensus on the falsehood of hiring for worship from the three founder imams of the Hanafi School, Abu Hanifa (d. 150/767), Abu Yusuf (d. 181/798), and Imam Muhammad (d. 189/805). In reality, “hiring for Qur’anic teaching was issued in a certain situation,” and it should be considered within this framework. But, imitators could not see the reasoning, illah, and they combined it with “hiring for worship,” ibādah, and that is repeatedly stated in later legal texts.[31]

Fethullah Gülen gives an example of a small mistake which became widespread among Turkish Muslims because of blind imitation. Ottoman Muslims were very respectful of Islamic values but they produced their own versions of some customs. One of them concerns the width of space between the legs of a Muslim during worship service. Later Ottoman scholars stated that it should be four fingers while standing for regular worship, salah. All legal text and hadith collections mention the importance of standing side by side neatly aligned with others through shoulders, knees, and legs in a line of congregational prayer. There should be no gap between one person’s leg and the leg of the person standing next to him in the congregation. This can only be done by a person standing with legs at shoulder-width, so that there is no gap between his leg and the leg of the person who is standing beside him. However, out of their customary respectful interpretation, Ottoman Muslims decided that the width of two legs during worship should be four fingers. But this distance between two legs is narrower than the distance described in legal texts and hadith narratives. Also, the persons who are praying cannot bring their legs close to each other if the customs insist on a four finger space between their feet. This false custom became a norm in later Turkish legal texts. Ömer Nasuhi Bilmen (d. 1971), in his Büyük İslam İlmihali, mentions this four-finger distance as a Prophetic sunnah. However, there is no hadith narrative and legal interpretation from the formative period of Islamic law about it. In this point, Fethullah Gülen personally follows the hadith narratives and earlier Hanafi legal texts, and many Turkish Muslims who respect Fethullah Gülen’s fatwa and ijtihad follow him on this issue.[32]

In Fethullah Gülen’s writings and speeches it is obvious that he avoids open and disrespectful criticism of scholars of Islam, even if he does not agree with them. In critical analysis, he only mentions the name of a scholar when and if it is necessary. For example, he makes a comparison between Imam Shafi‘i (d.204/820) and Imam Abu Hanifa on the subject of “halal meat” consumption. He prefers Abu Hanifa’s opinion of not allowing the eating of meat of unlawfully slaughtered animals. He insists on legitimate slaughtering, dhabiha.[33] However, Shafi‘i allows eating any allowable and edible animal products by saying “in the name of God” when beginning to eat, irrespective of how the animal is slaughtered. Fethullah Gülen examines both Abu Hanifa’s and Shafi‘i’s evidence and finally states, “I like Imam Shafi‘i, but he is in error on this point.”[34]

Fethullah Gülen would like to follow Abu Hanifa’s methodology, but he pays more attention to public interest, maslahah than being a Hanafi. For the sake of supporting a community, sometimes in debated points, he may prefer Shafi‘i’s interpretation on a peripheral subject, furu‘, by following the logic of the Hanafī School. Performing two consecutive prayers in immediate succession, jam‘u salatayn – noon and afternoon or evening and night together – is mentioned in hadith collections, but Hanafi jurists do not allow such combinations of prayers with the exception of combining prayers during pilgrimage, hajj. Fethullah Gülen firmly follows this rule, but seems to allow for people who really cannot find the time to perform their prayers because of their job circumstances. Again he emphasizes that one should perform the regular prayer each time, and only allows performing two consecutive prayers in immediate succession in very strict conditions.[35]

Fethullah Gülen also formulates juristic interpretations according to his understanding of ethical and legal issues. While he deliberately tries to stay within Hanafī jurisprudence; he combines ethics and law together, and creates his own juristic opinions regarding these two concepts. Ethics and law were not considered together for some time in the Hanafī legal school; therefore, it led to some dry legal formulations without any consideration of ethics, which was condemned by other legal schools. Fethullah Gülen is clearly against this type of legal interpretation which is called hiyal or legal devices. Legal devices are acceptable according to the founder of Hanafi jurists, Abu Hanifa and Imam Muhammad al-Shaybani: “Among Sunni schools of law, only the Hanafis are known for their systematic use of hiyal, which they developed into a special field of jurisprudence, called “makharij (sin. makhraj),” i.e. “exits, to escape from unlawful to the lawful.”[36] Fethullah Gülen criticizes these kinds of legal devices and states as an example, “It is not lawful to give charity, zakat, to a debtor and take it back counting it towards the debt. This would be lawful in the strict sense, but it is not ethical behavior.”[37] He does not mention Abu Hanifa or Muhammad al-Shaybani, but he creates his new juristic interpretation alongside their counter-statement through legal devices.[38] Fethullah Gülen approaches the issue more from ethical perspectives than legal ones, or at least he combines the two.

In relation to his views on ethics, Fethullah Gülen adds one more qualification to the requirement for ijtihad: sincerity and spiritual depth in the jurist and “togetherness of the heart and mind (kalp-kafa bütünlüğü).” This is a subjective parameter and not possible to measure by objective criteria, but it is still a totally new requirement which comes from his mystical background.

Generally speaking, Fethullah Gülen examines the sacred text carefully in creating his fatwa and ijtihad within a modern context. “Fethullah Gülen has reinterpreted Islamic understanding in tune with contemporary times and has developed and put into practice a new Muslim discourse with respect to some traditionally sensitive issues.”[39] He has developed a personal critical perspective that targets problems, not individuals. He criticizes wrong action, not the person; blind imitation, not imitators.

5. Examples from Fethullah Gülen’s fatwa and ijtihad

As mentioned, Fethullah Gülen has responded to many questions about new issues concerning the Muslim community in public lectures and sermons. He did not write a separate book on his responses and juristic interpretations. His ijtihad and fatwā are mainly found in his generic book Fasıldan Fasıla.

We cannot examine all of his fatwa and ijtihad, rather we will choose examples from three major branches of Islamic law: transactions, mu‘amalah; worship, ibādah and punishments, ‘ uqabah. Although he does not consider himself a pure jurist, he has the required qualifications, more than enough as I have explained above. Therefore, he feels a responsibility to make juristic interpretations.

5.1. Transactions

His approach is clearly apparent in his contribution to the religious and public debate of Turkey regarding the headscarf. While the issue still haunts public and religious discourse in Turkey, Fethullah Gülen’s approach offers alternative readings of Islamic dress code regarding the headscarf. Yet, he avoids sanctioning his opinion as the only possible alternative to the issue. In the heyday of the debate in 1995, a journalist asked Fethullah Gülen for his opinion regarding the headscarf issue in one of his interviews. “How important is it for a Muslim woman to cover her head?” Fethullah Gülen’s response to this question is as follows:

This issue is not as important as the essentials of faith and the pillars of Islam. It is a matter of secondary importance ( furu‘) in fiqh. Faith in God was revealed to our Prophet in Mecca, and then came the daily prescribed prayers. Such command as giving alms, fasting, and pilgrimage came in Medina. In the sixteenth or seventeenth year of Muhammad’s Prophethood (peace be upon him), Muslim women’s heads were still not covered (in the prescribed way). It was not included in the pillars of Islam or the essentials of faith. Those issues to which Islam gives priority should, out of our own devotion, be given priority while becoming a Muslim and communicating Islam to others.[40]

As seen above, Fethullah Gülen approaches legal issues from a wide and holistic perspective. In this conversation, Fethullah Gülen used the term tafarru’at which means secondary or peripheral, to explain the place of the veil in Islam in comparison to the pillars and principles of Islam. He itemized and created a category regarding requirements for worship and belief for Muslims alongside other requirements to make clearer the level of the requirement to wear the veil. At that time in Turkey (and currently) the veil was not allowed in universities and female students were compelled either to interrupt their education or to stop wearing the veil. Fethullah Gülen examined the topic in all circumstances and provided his response to help female students at universities: “This issue is not as important as the essentials of faith and the pillars of Islam. It’s a matter of secondary importance.” He intended to emphasize by this response that steadfast worship performed daily and dignified belief in one’s life comes first when one is a Muslim, then comes the veil. With this timely interpretation from an ijtihad insider, Fethullah Gülen implied that attending their classes under such conditions would not make them unbelievers. With this implication, Fethullah Gülen did not give a fatwa allowing female students to remove their headscarves; but he urged female students to think over their situation one’s again when choosing their own way: education without wearing the veil or wearing the veil and interruption of their education. However, some conservative Muslims did not pay attention to Fethullah Gülen’s comparison and his holistic approach, and just focused on the term “secondary importance,” tafarru’at. They took it out of its context and interpreted it as “unimportant details,” teferruat, a term used in the Turkish language.[41] This misunderstanding fuelled debates about Fethullah Gülen and his juristic opinions. However, this did not stop him from generating new interpretations in his classical, yet modern approach.

New technological inventions in modern times create new issues to be addressed. Artificial fertilization is one of the contemporary solutions for couples who cannot have a baby through natural conception. However, it is a new issue and should be examined by Muslim jurists who should create an ijtihad on it. Fethullah Gülen emphasizes the importance of the lineage and its legitimacy in Islam and then issues his ijtihad for couples who have no chance of conception naturally. “In this circumstance, only the insemination of sperm from a husband to his wife’s egg is legal. However, it is open to misuse.”[42] Moreover, he adds that spouses who are involved in this medical treatment and the medical team who applies this method should be very careful not to make any mistakes. Permission for artificial fertilization was provided by many scholars in Turkey; Fethullah Gülen was one of the first to declare it permissible.

Fethullah Gülen states that marriage is one of the most important foundations of the Muslim community, and healthy generations depend on the careful maintenance of marriage and related issues. With the help of technological developments candidates who intend to marry should enquire as to whether they are likely to have difficulties in their relationship because of their partners. If there is likely to be a major health problem in a new marriage that leads to mortal disease in the offspring, these candidates are not allowed to marry even if all other requirements are met according to Islamic law. He provides a new interpretation based on public health and the health of later generations.[43] This is a new ijtihad. Thus, Islamic values can be upheld through application of contemporary medical developments about family genes.

Fethullah Gülen interprets the issue of polygamy in Islamic family law as allowing permission in extreme situations only, not a right for men in all circumstances. It is just permission, not an order, and not a sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Therefore, taking one spouse only would be the best choice for men, and it fits humanity:

There is no record in the Qur’an or the hadith that it is sunnah to marry more than one woman by means of a religious ceremony. In the Chapter of Women (Surah Nisa), permission to marry more than one woman under special circumstances is mentioned only as a license or a special permission. However, marrying just one woman is encouraged to the degree of being mandatory. Thus, no one can consider marrying four women a matter of fulfilling a sunnah; they cannot claim to have fulfilled any religious law by doing so.[44]

Apart from the issue of marriage, in consideration of public interest, the maslahah principle, Fethullah Gülen allows the study of a dead body for medical and educational purposes. He highlights the importance of human dignity first, and then allows such study on condition that if there is no alternative way and it is necessary, then “working on dead bodies” would be permitted.[45] Within this perspective, he also permits the performance of an autopsy for similar reasons. Again, he mentions that normally an autopsy is not allowed in Islam because of hadith narratives about the dead body and its dignity.[46] However, he makes a comparison between public interest and the dignity of a dead body, then states, “to find out the killer is more important than disturbing the dead body,” therefore, an autopsy is allowed in a case where doing so allows us to find a killer.[47] This is a new ijtihad on a contemporary issue with a classical perspective. This approach shows that Fethullah Gülen examines a text and context seriously to formulate his juristic interpretation.

Fethullah Gülen is watchful in assessing current circumstances and pays regard to public opinion on new issues. He makes a comparison between the Prophet’s opinion about the extension of the Ka‘bah to include the open part of it, hijr, and current issues of public interest. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, did not want to include the open part of the Ka‘bah for the sake of public concern over the traditional Ka‘bah. As a Prophet he could do that, but for the sake of public interest he did not build a new construction of the Ka‘bah, which would be included in the open space. Fethullah Gülen focuses on the real reason, illah, behind this action and declares that Muslim scholars need to learn a lesson from this incident. In neutral subjects, it is not lawful to do a permissible thing that would not be accepted by the community.[48]

Fethullah Gülen uses reason rather than juristic interpretations of others in his ijtihad about feeding fish with pig products. One of the worms used in fish farms, among others, is produced from pigs, which raised question for Muslims. Fethullah Gülen replied to this question with a new interpretation. “Using pig products in worm for fish, to feed fish in farms, does not make the fish unlawful, haram, since fish change the nature of pig products in their digestive systems.”[49] This is a new issue and needed to be understood by contemporary scholars, so Fethullah Gülen addressed it because of its urgency.

5.2. Worship

Apart from technological improvements, globalization produces new issues for Muslims in every corner of the globe. Muslims in the northern part of Europe, Sweden and Norway, get confused over their night prayer time because of the length of the night in this region. The five daily prayers should be performed according to a certain position of the sun. As is obvious, the sun does not have the same position in all parts of the earth. Through proximity to the Arctic poles in Europe, the length of nights and days changes drastically. Muslims in this region cannot find a suitable time for their night prayer because night time is reduced. Therefore, it is a current question for Muslims of that region. What should they do to perform their night prayer? Fethullah Gülen addressed this issue and created his ijtihad to respond to a question about the subject. In his answer to this question Fethullah Gülen is basically saying that Islamic jurisprudence has answers for such questions and in this specific situation he suggests to adopt the timetable of the nearest residential area where five daily prayers are performed properly.[50]

Fethullah Gülen does not have a beard, and he accepts having a beard as the sunnah of the Prophet not an obligation, fard. He interprets having a beard as a personal choice and no one should be blamed if they do not conform, especially in the secular state of Turkey. He believes that there are many more important subjects than these details for Muslims:

I see the robe, turban, beard, and loose trousers as details. Muslims should not drown in detail. Today many Muslims may be doing this. Choosing not to wear a turban, robe, or loose trousers should not be construed as weakening Muslim Turkish identity. From imams in mosques to members of Parliament, from governors to district officials, no one should be categorized as a sinner because of such things.[51]

The last two examples may sound strange for many Muslims, but Fethullah Gülen is trying to remind us what is primary and secondary in Islam, thus setting priorities in its practice and representation. Fethullah Gülen is very rigorous in his religious life but provides details on adaptations and arrangements which are not related to the core values of Islam. He creates an acceptable vision for living in peace and harmony in a modern society while maintaining an individual’s own identity and beliefs. He pays utmost attention not to confine the perception of Islam to peripheral issues, thus he draws attentions to Islam’s core values that are universally appealing.

5.3. Punishments

Fethullah Gülen is mostly silent on the last part of the legal literature, punishments. Generally speaking, he does not want to contradict sacred texts on this issue. He postpones new interpretations of the subject and leaves them to the qualified committee, the shura, believing that they are not urgent. However, if there is an urgent issue related to the subject he produces a juristic opinion on it. At the beginning of the 1980s, the Turkish community faced a chaotic and anarchic situation which it had not seen before. In those days as Muhammed Çetin states, “The racketeers had already murdered a number of their victims. In his sermons, Fethullah Gülen spoke out and urged those being threatened by the rackets neither to yield to threats and violence, nor to react with violence and exacerbate the situation. He urged them, instead, to report the crimes to the police and have the racketeers dealt with through the proper channels.”[52]

He encourages Muslims to follow established rules and regulations and avoid any chaos and anarchy in their community in the name of Islam. Only legal authorities should have the right to punish wrongdoers, not individuals.[53] A famous hadith about preventing wrong actions by hand first, awwalan bi yadika, could be misinterpreted by some Muslims. They may try to punish wrongdoers individually on behalf of Islam and think, according to this hadith, that it is necessary.[54] Fethullah Gülen emphasizes the stability of the community and asks Muslims to avoid such kinds of anarchy.

In addition, Fethullah Gülen is against violence on behalf of Islam, and believes that “suicide bombing, whatever, wherever, whenever is absolutely forbidden in Islam and for those that commit such crimes, the logical prospect is eternal banishment.”[55] It is a violation of basic Islamic principles and norms, humanity and sacredness of life. To stress this critical subject in the 1990s, he stated that children who were killed in suicide attacks in Israel or the recent military bombing in Gaza cannot be justified by Islamic law. These children are totally innocent regardless of their nationality and religious identity. He stated the same view in one of his latest interviews with Foreign Policy Magazine:

Islam abhors and absolutely condemns terrorism and any terrorist activity. I have repeatedly declared that it is impossible for a true Muslim to be a terrorist, nor can a terrorist be regarded as a true Muslim. Terrorism is one of the cardinal sins that the Qur’an threatens with hellfire.[56]

6. Conclusion

Fethullah Gülen has dedicated his life to deal with the current problems of Muslim communities. He has combined in his reading and teaching, classic and modern, old and new, east and west. He has kept the balance between being a Muslim scholar, ‘ālim, and living in modern circumstances when he migrated from Eastern Anatolia to the United States of America. This wideranging experience provides him with knowledge and understanding of both Islamic principles and the needs of contemporary society, and enables him to make new juristic interpretations.

Fethullah Gülen has all of the required qualifications for ijtihad and fatwa, moreover, he can reply to the legal questions of Muslim communities. In his legal conversations, he demonstrates his expertise in classical texts and their modern formulations successfully. He has been in this position for more than three decades and has not had serious opposition about his fatwa and ijtihad from Muslim jurists and scholars, except for the headscarf issue at a critical period in the debate. However, his was a contextual response to help female students in colleges and universities, and it worked well.

Fethullah Gülen comes from the Hanafi- Maturidi school, which uses reason relatively more than other Sunni counterparts within an orthodox approach. Moreover, he came to adopt a more tolerant view of society through his interaction with major Sufi orders of his time. The latter makes him a pious and humble Muslim who is full of respect for previous scholars and their formulations. However, this modesty does not prevent him from developing his juristic interpretations and critical thoughts.

Fethullah Gülen defends a new type of revivalism in Islamic law by creating a new Islamic jurisprudence through re-examining all juristic formulations of Islam. To accomplish this huge project he suggests that a qualified committee, a shura, should deal with it. Although Fethullah Gülen encourages a qualified committee, a shura, to reach a better solution, he produces his juristic interpretations and responses when he feels a new explanation is indispensable. Sometimes he prefers the interpretations of other legal schools, for example, the Shafi‘i’s, or he may form a new one free from his tradition like the interpretation on legal devices, hiyal.

He does not have a separate legal text, and does not form his fatwa and ijtihad in all areas of Islamic law. He replies to questions in circle discussions and sermons which are recorded and transformed into books. His purpose is not to create juristic opinions, but to answer the questions of Muslim communities. His ideas and interpretations are followed by many Muslims.

[1] According to Faruk Beşer, a professor of Islamic law at Sakarya University, Gülen is a mujtahid. For further details see Beşer 2006, pp. 15–22.
[2] Wearing ironed pants was considered a sign of modernity – in the sense of an assumed rejection of local Sufi tradition – at that time. Very few people, officers and high level administrators – who represented the secular way of life – were wearing such kinds of pants. Moreover Sufis, at that time, were wearing crushed pants and they considered this a part of ascetic life, in a way denying what is worldly. One of his Sufi friends asked Gülen to wear crushed pants instead of ironed ones. Gülen mentions this anecdote and adds “I have not understood yet, why they considered wearing crushed pants as ascetic behavior”
[3] In one of his interviews Gülen stated, “In later years, around the age of eighteen to twenty, I inclined more toward books on jurisprudence and philosophy. I also read about Darwinism and relevant subjects. Some books led me to other books, and it continued like this. When I was in the army for my obligatory service, I had a very wise commander. He had a deep knowledge of Sufism. He had read both Eastern Islamic and Western classics. He advised me to read Western classics. This caused me to read many famous Western writers such as Rousseau, Balzac, Dostoyevski, Pushkin, Tolstoy, the Existentialists, and others” (Can 1995). “Meanwhile, he continued his ‘modern’ education in science and philosophy, literature and history. While gaining a deep comprehension of the main principles of modern sciences from physics to chemistry, biology, and astronomy, he read the works of such existentialist philosophers as Camus, Sartre, and Marcuse. He also was introduced to other Eastern, Islamic and non-Islamic, and Western philosophies.”
[4] Beşer 2006, pp. 26–30.
[5] Kuru 2003, p. 117.
[6] Dates are After Hijrah (Islamic calendar) / Common Era.
[7] For more information on ijtihad and its requirements see Hallaq 1984, pp. 5–7.
[8] I have made arrangements by combining some points of the requirements. For the original translation from Ghazzali see Hallaq 1984, p. 6.
[9] For further details see Albayrak’s chapter in this volume.
[10] Hikmet 2008, pp. 133–34.
[11] For further details see Çalış’s chapter in this volume.
[12] Interview with Ergün Çapan, one of the students who participated in one of Gülen’s circles for almost a decade and who contributes to this volume with an article.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ahmet Kurucan checked all of Gülen’s answers to questions from the 1970s up to the present and selected legal responses and legal interpretations. He is still working on the project.
[16] Madelung 2008.
[17] According to Maryon, Gülen was influenced by Said Nursi in spirituality and theology. For further information see Maryon 2007, p. 68; Nursi 1996, p. 1944.
[18] Gülen 1995a, p. 234.
[19] Gülen 1995b, p. 298.
[20] Sonn 1991, pp. 214–15.
[21] Gülen 2004c, p. 140; Gülen expands the meaning of shura from the political advisory group whom the Muslim ruler consults to a qualified committee – and I prefer this one to “consultation” in a political context – “Clearly consultation does not take priority over Divine Commands as a source of legislation. It is itself enabled by Divine Commands, and though it may be the basis for some laws and principles; consultation is restricted as it depends on true legislative sources. Those matters on which there is a clear divine decree remain outside the intervention of human beings and people may only turn to consultation in order to ascertain its full meaning” (Gülen 2005d, p. 49).
[22] Gülen 2005d, p. 49.
[23] Rahman 1981, p. 292.
[24] Sarıtoprak and Ünal 2005, p. 451.
[25] http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4408.
[26] Kurucan, unpublished book, pp. 88, 101, 325.
[27] For further debates about closing the gate of ijtihad see Hallaq 1984; Karamali and Dunne 1994, pp. 238–57; al-Alwani 1991, pp. 129–42; Kamali 1996, pp. 3–33.
[28] Gülen 1995a, p. 293.
[29] Nursi 2010, pp. 499–504.
[30] Gülen 1995a, pp. 226–27.
[31] Ibn Abidin, pp. 14–15.
[32] Kurucan, unpublished book, pp. 446–47.
[33] Gülen 1995a, p. 292.
[34] Beşer 2006, p. 80.
[35] Ibid, p. 43; Kurucan, unpublished book, p. 113.
[36] Horii 2002, p. 315.
[37] Beşer 2006, pp. 30, 59.
[38] al-Shaybani 1930, p. 78.
[39] Yılmaz 2003, p. 209.
[40] Özkök 1995.
[41] Hakikat: Aylık İslām Dergisi, March, 1995.
[42] Gülen 1995a, p. 214; Beşer 2006, pp. 63–64.
[43] Gülen 1995b, p. 202.
[44] http://fgulen.com/en/fethullah-gulens-life/1305-gulens-thoughts/25062-polygamy
[45] Gülen 1995a, p. 289.
[46] Abu Dawud, Sunan, al-Janāiz, p. 64: The Messenger of Allah said: “Breaking a dead man’s bone is like breaking it when he is alive.”
[47] Gülen 1995a, p. 290.
[48] Ibid, p. 218.
[49] Ibid, p. 227.
[50] Gülen 1998b, pp. 134–35.
[51] Akman 1995.
[52] Çetin 2010, p. 35.
[53] Kurucan, unpublished book, p. 50.
[54] “He who amongst you sees something abominable should modify it with the help of his hand; and if he has not strength enough to do it, then he should do it with his tongue, and if he has not strength enough to do it (even) then he should (abhor it) from his heart, and that is the least of faith.’ (Muslim, Sahih, Kitab al-Iman, 1, p. 79). See also “Gülen as a Commentator on Hadith” in Halim Çalış’s article in this volume.
[55] Wright 2007, p. 440.
[56] http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4408.

Pin It
  • Created on .
Copyright © 2020 Fethullah Gülen's Official Web Site. Blue Dome Press. All Rights Reserved.
fgulen.com is the offical source on the renowned Turkish scholar and intellectual Fethullah Gülen.