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Sufism and Modernity in the Thought of Fethullah Gülen

by Thomas Michel, S.J. on . Posted in Islam in Contemporary Turkey: The Contributions of F. Gülen

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A Clash or a Dialogue of Values?

In trying to bring together two such disparate concepts as "Sufism" and "modernity" in the thought of Fethullah Gülen, I realize that I have undertaken a slippery task. On the one hand, Sufism, the generally accepted term for the Islamic mystical tradition, is not one clearly defined religious movement, but an interrelated network of ideas and practices, all aimed at a deeper understanding and faithful pursuit of the Qur'anic message. Non-Muslim scholars,[1] as well as Sufis themselves,[2] who attempt to give a succinct definition of Sufism inevitably pull out certain elements and emphases that have been central among some Sufis at various periods of history, while disregarding or glossing over other characteristics that do not fit in and perhaps even contradict their definition.

For many early Sufis, it was asceticism and simplicity of life that was the key to a true following of Islam. Others have emphasized love as the central idea and understand the Sufi path as one leading to a union of love with God, the Beloved. For others, Sufism is a voluntarist path by which the believer, by concentrating on virtue and moral behavior, comes into a union of will with God, a state in which the mystic no longer has an independent will of his or her own, but seeks only to do the will of God. Many mystics see the Path as one of knowledge, of becoming aware of the eternal Truth, the perennial wisdom of the heart that is the only sure font of true insight. Still others affirm the oneness of all existence, so that the mystical path becomes primarily a psychological movement toward awareness that one is simply a transient manifestation of the one eternal Being present in the cosmos and at the depths of one's own personality. Some Sufis emphasize extraordinary mystical experience, expressed in states of ecstasy, inspired utterances, visions, and dreams, while for others the path is a contemplative pilgrimage to God residing in the silent cave of the heart.

Trying to define Sufism is thus like the parable of the elephant in the dark room related by Mevlana, Jalal al-Din Rumi, in the Mathnavi.

An elephant was in a dark building.
Some people from India had brought it for exhibition.
Many people kept going into that dark place in order to see it.
Each one was stroking it with his hands in the dark,
since seeing it with the eyes was not possible.
In the case of one person,
whose hand landed on the trunk,
he said, "This being is like a drain pipe."
For another, whose hand reached its ear,
to him it seemed like a kind of fan.
As for another person,
whose hand was upon its leg,
he said, "I perceive the shape of the elephant to be like a pillar."
In the case of another one, who placed his hand upon its back,
he said, "Indeed, this elephant is like a throne."
In the same way as this, any one who reached a part of the elephant
used his understanding in regard to any particular place he perceived[3] .

The idea of modernity is similarly difficult to pin down. For some "modernity" implies cultural behavior that takes advantage of technological advances in order to live and relate to others in "new," rather than "pre-modern" or "traditional" ways.[4] Bruce Lawrence defines modernity as "a new index of human life shaped, above all, by increasing bureaucratization and rationalization as well as technical capacities and global exchange unthinkable in the premodern era."[5] For some, modernity always implies, in one way or another, Westernization, for which it has often become a code word. Certainly, for thinkers like Samuel Huntington, whose article and book on "the class of civilizations" reflects the thinking of many Western policy makers, Western civilization rests on the principles of "individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, rule of law, democracy, free markets, separation of church and state."[6] Those convinced of these principles often see themselves as having a mission to bring an enlightened understanding of life to those still trapped in backwardness, superstition, and obscurantism.

These principles, deriving from the views of 18th-19th Century European philosophers, together comprise an ideology or belief system sometimes called "modernism." The way of life proposed in modernism challenges the absolute claims of religious authority and the public expression of creedal and ethical principles that derive from the religions and offers in their place "the search for individual autonomy driven by a set of socially encoded values emphasizing change over continuity; quantity over quality; efficient production, power, and profit over sympathy for traditional values or vocations, in both the public and private spheres. At its utopian extreme, it enthrones one economic strategy, consumer-oriented capitalism, as the surest means to technological progress that will also eliminate social unrest and physical discomfort."[7]

Bringing together the concepts of Sufism and modernity, therefore, means bringing into discussion the set of values enshrined, on the one hand, in the concepts of asceticism or simplicity of life, love for God, striving to do God's will, searching for a kind of knowledge (ma'rifah) unattainable by the methods of scientific positivism, and an awareness of the inner presence of the Divine and, on the other, an approach to life that exalts the rights the individual, the duty of every person to achieve self-fulfillment, a faith in science as the solution of many of life's problems, a skeptical attitude toward the claims of religion, and a commitment to the exclusion of religious convictions from the autonomous realms of politics and economy.

When the above-mentioned sets of beliefs are conceived as in conflict or incompatible, the result is a clash of civilizational values. However, if these approaches to life are considered as reconcilable, what ensues is a dialogue of the principles on which civilized life is to be built. In either case, the debate between an internalized religious outlook, represented by Sufism as one spiritual approach to life, and a modernist conception of the individual in secular society, is the great debate of our time, one by which religious thinker's views will inevitably be defined and categorized and on which that thinker's credibility and relevance will be determined.

Fethullah Gülen and Sufism

If the writings and the actions of Gülen are studied in this context, the first question to be asked is whether "Hojaefendi," or the master, as he is affectionately called by his followers and associates, is a Sufi. At various times in his life, Gülen has had to defend his movement from accusations that he has founded a new Sufi order, of which he is regarded as the shaykh.[8] In Turkey today, the charge of founding a secret tarekat (tariqa) carries a double denunciation and carries legal and political implications. Secular modernists view Sufism as part of the pre-modern past, a relic from Ottoman times, an obstacle to progress, development and prosperity. Conversely, Muslim activists of Wahhabi inspiration view Sufism as responsible for turning the Islamic ummah away from its God-given task of building a society in accord with the ideals of the Qur'an and Sunnahh; they accuse the Sufis of encouraging unwarranted and unorthodox innovations and of promulgating a passive, pietistic religiosity. Moreover, since Sufi orders are still prohibited by law in Turkey, founding a new tarekat could be regarded as engaging in illegal activity.

In response to this accusation, Gülen affirms that he has not founded a tarekat and moreover, that he has personally never belonged to any Sufi order. He states: "The religious orders are institutions that appeared in the name of representing Sufism six centuries after our Prophet, upon whom be peace. They have their own rules and structures. Just as I never joined a Sufi order, I have never had any relationship with one."[9] To the question of why he is called Khoja, traditionally used by Sufis for their master, he answers that the carries no hierarchical or Ottoman revivalist connotation, but is simply "a respectful way of addressing someone whose knowledge on religious matters is recognized and acknowledged by the general public."[10]

Given that Gülen has never belonged to a tarekat, is it still accurate to regard him as a Sufi? In his seminal work on Gülen's Sufi tendencies, Zeki Saritoprak calls Gülen "a Sufi in his own way."[11] Saritoprak affirms that many Sufis belonged to no Sufi Order. For the first six centuries of Islam, there were no Sufi Orders, yet there were many important Sufis. Even since the appearance of Sufi orders in the Islamic ummah in the 13th-14th Century, there are instances of well-known Sufis who have not belonged to a tarekat. Yet Saritoprak recognizes the problematic situation of the modern Sufi who follows no tarekat and has no spiritual guide.

Early Sufis had neither orders nor even Sufi organizations. Rabia, Junayd, Muhasibi, Bishr, Ghazzali, Feriduddin Attar, and even Rumi did not belong to a tariqah. However, they were Sufis. From the vantage point of institutionalized Sufism, their Sufism would be problematic, because these early Sufis did not have a spiritual master. In the Sufi tradition, he who has no a shaykh, finds Satan as his shaykh.[12]

Concerning the necessity for a spiritual guide, it is true that the vast majority of Sufis have discouraged or even forbidden one from following the Sufi path without a shaykh or pir. However, a minority view has always held that the spiritual guide need not be a living person. Kharaqani, for example, was initiated into the Sufi path by the spirit of Abu Yazid al-Bistami, while 'Attar was inspired by the spirit of al-Hallaj.[13] Other Sufis claimed to have as their guide Khidr, the mysterious companion of Moses mentioned in Surat al-Kahf of the Qur'an.

Gülen's position is that he is guided in his spiritual development by the Qur'an and the Sunnah. In Gülen's view, the Qur'an is not only the best guide, but is the source and font of all Sufi thought and practice. Rooted in the Qur'an and Sunnah, and supplemented by the views and experiences of later Sufis down through the centuries who applied the Qur'anic teachings through their own personal efforts (ijtihad), Sufism must be considered not an "alternative" path followed by some Muslims in contradistinction or in contradiction to the Shari'ah h but rather, one of the basic sciences of Islam.

[Tasawwuf] is not contradictory with any of the Islamic ways based on the Book and the Sunnah. Far from being contradictory, it has its source, just like the other religious sciences, in the Book and the Sunnah and the conclusions the purified scholars of the early period of Islam drawn from the Qur'an and the Sunnah - ijtihad.[14]

For Gülen, tasawwuf and Shari'ah are two aspects of the same truth or, one could say, two ways of expressing the same truth. The two forms of expression arise from differences in personality rather than from any contradictory messages. Both lead the Muslim to believe and practice the one Islamic truth, but each Muslim must find the path most compatible with his disposition.

While adherence to the former [Shari'ah ] has been regarded as exotericism (self-restriction to the outward dimension of religion), following the latter [tasawwuf] has been seen as pure esotericism. Although this discrimination partly arises from the assertions that the commandments of Shari'ah are represented by jurisprudents or muftis, and the other by the Sufis, it should be viewed as the result of a natural human tendency, which is that everyone gives priority to the way more compatible with his temperament and for which he has aptitude.[15]

Sufism has known antinomian (bi-shara) Sufis who claimed that following the exoteric (zahir) regulations of the Shari'ah were unnecessary for those on the esoteric (batin) path, but Gülen's position comes down clearly in the ba-shara camp of those who stress the importance for the Sufi to not abandon the Shari'ah . Gülen would appear to be in continuation with the long line of Shari'ah -oriented Sufis, represented most strongly by the Qadiri and Naqshbandi traditions, and in modern times by Said Nursi, who regard tasawwuf as one facet of the life of the sincere Muslim who seeks to live fully the message contained in the Qur'an and Sunnah.

In fact, Ozdalga sees three "positive reference points" which have shaped the thought of Fethullah Gülen: 1) orthodox Sunni Islam, 2) the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition, 3) the Nurculuk movement, that is, those Muslims influenced by the writings of Said Nursi.[16] The Naqshbandis have always insisted on the careful performance of the prescriptions of the Shari'ah , so there is no contradiction between the first two points. Gülen differs from the Naqshbandi Order, however, in that the Naqshbandi disciple is presented with an explicit program of spiritual development, which is closely monitored by the shaykh, whereas Gülen's program is more open-ended and stresses good deeds or service to humanity (hizmet) more than spiritual exercises and devotions.[17]

Probably the most important formative influence on the development of Gülen's thought, including his approach to Sufism, was Said Nursi.[18] Like Nursi, who was also formed in the Naqshbandi tradition but chose to work and teach outside the confines of an established tarekat, so also Gülen sees the Sufi tradition more as the accumulated wisdom of the saints of Islam, rather than an institutionalized necessity for achieving the internalization of Islamic values. According to Nursi, Sufism "has been proclaimed, taught, and described in thousands of books written by the scholars among the people of illumination and those who have had unfolded to them the reality of creation, who have told the Muslim community and us of that truth."[19]

Moreover, like Said Nursi, Gülen is aware that not everything that historically has passed in the name of Sufism is of positive value. A critical approach to the Sufi tradition, however, must recognize the intrinsic strength of the movement as an instrument for fostering and building a sense of community and brotherhood. As Said Nursi states:

The Sufi path may not be condemned because of the evils of certain ways which have adopted practices outside the bounds of taqwa, and even of Islam, and have wrongfully given themselves the name of Sufi paths. Quite apart from the important and elevated religious and spiritual results of the Sufi path and those that look to the hereafter, it is the Sufi paths which are the first and most effective and fervent means of expanding and developing brotherhood, a sacred bond within the World of Islam.[20]

Gülen understands Sufism as the inner dimension of the Shari'ah , and the two dimensions must never be separated. Performance of the externals without attention to their interior transformative power results in dry ritualism. Concentration on the interior disciplines and rejecting prescribed ritual and behavior reduces spiritual striving to following one's own preferences and proclivities. Only by activating both dimensions of Islam will the seeker be able to humbly submit (islam) one's life fully to God.

An initiate or traveler on the path (salik) never separates the outer observance of the Shari'ah from its inner dimension, and therefore observes all of the requirements of both the outer and the inner dimensions of Islam. Through such observance, he or she travels toward the goal in utmost humility and submission.[21]

Just as Sufism is what "brings to life the religious sciences," in Al-Ghazali's phrase, so the Shari'ah is what keeps the believer rooted in the Islamic tradition. "If the traveler has not been able to prepare his heart according to both the requirements of his spiritual journeying and the commandments of the Shari'ah , that is, if he does not think and reason in the light of Prophethood while his feelings fly in the boundless realm of his spiritual state, he will inevitably fall. He will be confused and bewildered, speaking and acting contrary to the spirit of the Shari'ah ."[22]

According to Saritoprak, both the appellation, the question of whether one is called a Sufi, as well as that of membership in a tarekat are secondary. He cites Mevlana to the effect that it is not the external trappings that make one a Sufi but the purity of one's interior disposition:

Gülen never calls himself a Sufi. One is not a Sufi in name, but rather in spirit and heart. As Rumi says: "What makes the Sufi? Purity of heart, not the patched mantle and the perverse lust of those earth-bound men who steal his name. He [the true Sufi] in all things discerns the pure essence." In short, Gülen understands that one may annihilate himself in the rays of the existence of the Truth through knowing of his impotence, poverty and nothingness.[23]

So if Gülen is to be considered a Sufi, at least in spirit, if not also in name, what is Sufism to him? In two works on the subject, Gülen offers his own definition. In the earlier work he states:

Tasawwuf [Sufism] means that by being freed from the vices and weaknesses particular to human nature and acquiring angelic qualities and conduct pleasing to God, one lives one's life in accordance with the requirements of knowledge and love of God and in the spiritual delight that comes thereby.[24]

In the later work, he gives a very similar definition of the Sufi path:

Sufism is the path followed by an individual who, having been able to free himself or herself from human vices and weaknesses in order to acquire angelic qualities and whose conduct is pleasing to God, lives in accordance with the requirements of God's knowledge and love and in the resulting spiritual delight that ensues."[25]

Both definitions come down to the same thing. Gülen appears to give priority to the will, emphasizing that Sufism means overcoming the human obstacles to God's power and grace and acquiring the virtues and behavior that God desires in His servants. The person who lives in this way is gradually growing in ma'rifah or spiritual wisdom and in love (mahabbah, 'ashq), both for God and for others. For the faithful follower of this path, God grants the spiritual delight that both encourages and confirms the believer. This understanding is consistent with the mainstream of Sufi teaching down through the centuries, in which the Sufi exerts his or her own efforts to attain the various spiritual stations (maqamat) in which the obstacles to divine grace are removed one by one, and then must wait trustfully for God to grant as gifts the spiritual states (ahwal) of knowledge, love, and delight.

Why is Gülen interested in Sufism? What is the attraction of the Sufi tradition for him? In a telling comment, he notes that the Muslims who, down through the centuries, most reflected upon and sought to practice the interior values taught by Islam and who developed the spiritual disciplines for controlling selfish impulses, were in fact Sufis. One could almost say that Sufism is the essence or, as he states elsewhere, the spirit of Islam.

As a religion, Islam naturally emphasizes the spiritual realm. It takes the training of the ego as a basic principle. Asceticism, piety, kindness and sincerity are essential to it. In the history of Islam, the discipline that dwelt most on these matters was Sufism. Opposing this would be opposing the essence of Islam.[26]

In other words, the genius of Sufism, according to Gülen, is its ability to interiorize the message of the Qur'an and Sunnah so that it influences and shapes the behavior of the Muslim. Through Sufism, the Muslim learns to move beyond obeying commands and regulations that he or she does not understand to an appreciation of Islamic teaching, which becomes part and parcel of the believer's way of life. Sufism shows how a Muslim can overcome selfish tendencies, respond to frustration and opposition, and with patience and perseverance move beyond discouragement and routine. Sufism enables the Muslim to attain the virtuous qualities and the personal disciplines required to live fully in accord with the will of God. Sufism leads the way to shawq, delight, so that the practice of religious commitment is not some onerous and unpleasant burden that a person is forced to carry, but can rather be conducive to a joyful, loving acceptance of life. It is this ability of Sufism to provide a practical program by which the Muslim can internalize Islamic faith and practice which is of most interest to Gülen, rather than the ecstatic or para-normal mystical experiences sometimes claimed by or for Sufi saints.

Gülen's appreciation for the teaching of the Sufi masters does not prevent him from criticizing occasionally the way that Sufi life was often put into practice. The dynamism of the early Sufis often got dissipated in the institutional forms that took shape in the later Sufi Orders. Particularly in recent times, many Sufis divorced themselves from real life and engaged in useless metaphysical speculation. They are one of the groups, in Gülen's view, who have been responsible for the crisis of education in contemporary Turkey. In fact, his educational efforts can be understood as a reaction to the impoverishment of choice in educational programs offered to Turkish students. It is the lack of integration between scientific knowledge and spiritual values which led Gülen and his associates to conceive a new type of education.

Until the inception of the educational project undertaken by Gülen and his colleagues, Turkish students were forced to study either at schools on the secular republican model, at traditional madrasas, at the Sufi takyas, or at military academies. None of these models was able to achieve a true integration of scientific training with human and spiritual values.

At a time when modern schools concentrated on ideological dogmas, institutions of religious education (madrasas) broke with life, institutions of spiritual training (takyas) were immersed in sheer metaphysics, and the army restricted itself to sheer force, this coordination [of knowledge] was essentially not possible.[27]

Secular school systems, he maintains, have been unable to free themselves of the prejudices and conventions of modernist ideology, while the madrasas have shown little interest or ability to meet the challenges of technology and scientific thought; they lack the flexibility and vision to break with past, enact change, and offer the kind of educational formation that students need today. The Sufi takyas, although they had concerned themselves with fostering the development of spiritual values, have failed to meet the challenges of contemporary society and, in Gülen's word, "console themselves with virtues and wonders of the saints who had lived in previous centuries."[28]

Gülen and Modernity

Gülen's criticism of educational systems available in contemporary Turkey shows, on the one hand, that he is not proposing a sweeping rejection of modern values, a rigid traditionalism, nor a nostalgic return to Ottoman patterns. His criticisms of the madrasas and the takyas rest precisely on the grounds that they are not meeting the demands of modern life. They are not preparing students who can make an active and positive contribution in the modern world, because their pedagogic methods have not integrated advances in science and technology into the traditional disciplines taught in the schools. Students may emerge with a good knowledge of religious sciences or with good moral principles, but they cannot rise to positions of influence in contemporary society in which their knowledge and ethical codes can make a difference.

On the other hand, in his critique of secular state schools and military academies, Gülen acknowledges that modern scientific knowledge and technical skills are being imparted, but he holds that the schools have not succeeded in conveying "spiritual" and ethical values enshrined in and transmitted by the Islamic tradition. The students who emerge from such schools may be able to find work in technical and professional fields, but they lack a sense of what they are working for, a vision of the kind of world they might build, and the inner discipline that will enable them to refuse creatively the inevitable temptations of power, greed, and selfishness.

In both cases, that of the madrasas and takyas and that of the state schools and military academies, the root problem is the same, the lack of integration - integration of the new and the old, of modernity and tradition, of scientific and religious knowledge, of technical skills and character formation. The result of this lack of integration is a society in crisis. Nilüfer Göle expresses well this crisis:

We who have lived in Turkey during the last 20 years have been in a state of shock. We have been swinging back and forth between the desire to catch up with the new age and to know ourselves; wavering among ambition, anger, and excitement; and trying to open a path by hand between our spirit and the world. We are fighting over our unofficial identity and unclear design. As long as Turkey does not connect its past and future, tradition and modernity, and itself and the world, it will remain destabilized. Violence and anarchy are manifestations of this.[29]

Göle finds the key to integration in the thought of Gülen. According to Göle, Gülen's "culture of the heart" drawn from his study of Sufism, provides Turkish society with the self-confidence that had been lacking due to the unintegrated, partial, and prejudicial nature of the various educational systems. Whereas the earlier systems had been divisive and had resulted in the polarization of society into "secular" and "Islamic" "modern" and "traditional," "scientific" and "religious," Gülen's integrated approach to life enables Turkish people to preserve what is best and still valuable from the past and to accept and make use of scientific and technological advances. The result, she hopes, is a truly modern and tolerant society.

Gülen's thought favors individual modesty, social conservatism, and Islam in the founding of civilization. It gives examples of modest and tolerant people who have not lost their connection with God, and of the individual worn down by traditional suppression and modern excess. The affection that unites faith and knowledge in the "heart culture" gives us the good tidings of a new door of self-confidence being opened. For the first time in Turkey, we are witnessing a deep mixture of conservative thought and liberal tolerance.[30]

The challenges of education are simply reflections of the challenges faced by society as a whole. The failure of educational systems to reconcile disparate elements into an integrated whole is an indication that the broader society has not been able to do so. Gülen points out the shallowness of claiming to have achieved "modern civilization" when the attitudes and values of the present remain unreconciled with the wisdom of the past. The result is a surface modernity, but one which has left the underlying human savagery untouched and unaffected. As Gülen puts it:

If the masses in a community are devoid of belief, love, zeal and the feeling of responsibility, if they live an aimless life unconscious of their true identity and unaware of the age and environment they live in, that community cannot be regarded as civilized even if it has changed thoroughly with all its institutions, living standards have risen considerably, and the people have all been "modernized" in their life-style. Civilization is an intellectual and spiritual phenomenon, nothing to do with technology, dress and finery, furniture and luxuries. The bloodshed, the continuance of colonialism under different names, unending massacres and conflicts, unchanging human attitudes, crudity of manners, unenlightenment of intellectual life, the dominance of materialism in science and world views, all these, together with many other signs of savagery prevailing world-wide, show decisively that the "developed" peoples of the world have not founded a true civilization, nor have their "developing" imitators been able to do so.[31]

He criticizes those social and political planners for whom the ultimate goal is "modernity." In their struggle to achieve modernization, they settle on introducing superficial novelties in mores and life-styles, while ignoring the real challenge, which is to change mentalities. This commitment to bring about a modern society at all costs, Gülen calls "modernism." In contrast to modernist social planners, Gülen holds that the true goal of nations must be civilization, a renewal of individuals and society in terms of ethical conduct and mentality. Concentrating on providing new consumer objects and pleasures without devoting attention to a transformation of attitude and behavior is a "cultural crime" in that it misleads people by providing a false remedy for a misunderstood problem.

Civilization is different from modernism. While the former means the changing and renewal of man with respect to his views, way of thinking and human aspects, the latter consists in the changing of his life-style and bodily pleasures and the development of living facilities...The new generations, who have been confused through misuse of concepts, have first been misled in their way of thinking and then made to degenerate in belief, language, national thoughts, morals and culture. Apart from this, those Western peoples enjoying technical facilities more than others, and the so-called "intellectuals" who have emerged among Eastern peoples, and who consider themselves civilized and the others as savage, have committed, through such mislabeling, a grave, unforgivable sin against civilization and culture.[32]

The ones responsible for this misdeed are those who, identifying modernity with Westernization, seek uncritically to adopt, and force others to accept, everything Western as superior, progressive, and advanced, with a corresponding devaluation of native or national values. True civilization is not attained by blind imitation of others' achievements (and defects), but rather by growth in critical thinking, decent behavior, humane values, personal integrity. To concentrate solely on material prosperity without striving for spiritual qualities is the contemporary face of materialism.

Modern facilities can help to "modernize" the outward appearance of life, but that does not amount to being civilized. Civilization is an atmosphere propitious for the development of man's potentialities. A civilized person is one who has put himself at the service of his community in particular, and humanity in general, along with the thoughts, feelings and abilities he has developed and refined in that atmosphere. Thus, civilization is not to be sought in riches, luxury and a comfortable life in large, richly-furnished houses, nor in techniques and quantities of production and consumption...It is to be found rather in purity of thoughts, refinement of manners and feelings, and soundness of views and judgments. Civilization lies in the spiritual evolution of man and his continuous self-renewal towards true humanity and personal integrity...Civilization is not, as it is unfortunately understood by blind imitators of the West, a garment to buy from some shop and put on, but rather a final destination reached along a rational way going through time and circumstances.[33]

The unexamined presumption that modernization equals Westernization, which leads some intellectuals in Turkey and elsewhere in the Muslim world to try to achieve their objective by aping all things European, arises, according to Gülen, from a selective reading of history. Since modernization was usually introduced and promoted in Muslim regions by colonial powers, and sustained by Western superiority in military technology, it was natural for Muslim thinkers to identify modernization with Westernization. Faced with unchallenged Western dominance in economy and geo-politics, Muslims reacted in two opposed ways.

1) The "modernizers" viewed Western dominance as the inevitable result of the efficiency of its social structures. If Muslim nations hoped to reach a parity with their Western counterparts, this meant revising their own thinking and behavior to make it similar to that of the West. However, they were basing their understanding of civilization on the actual situation of the time and forgetting that the movement of history was not always that way, nor did history need to have developed in the way it did. The scientific superiority of the West was not the result of an inevitable process of history, nor was it always the case at all historical periods.

This partial reading of history led many intellectuals to view Islam as the obstacle to progress which permitted Western nations to dominate and opened the path to thinking that imitation of the West in its world-view, social patterns, and political systems would also inevitably lead to the prosperity and power attained by Western nations. In Gülen's words:

For many years, swayed by Western dominion over their lands, a dominion attributed to superior science and technology, some Muslim intellectuals accused Islam itself of being the cause of the backwardness of Muslim peoples. Having forgotten the eleven centuries or more of Islamic supremacy, they thought and wrote as if the history of Islam had only begun in the eighteenth century...They did not bother to make even a superficial study of Islam and its long history.[34]

2) Other Muslim intellectuals, working from the same assumption that modernization equals Westernization, focused on the problems, defects, and evil effects of Western culture. They decried the atheistic underpinnings of Western secular society, its moral relativism, its proneness to engage in mass destruction to achieve its ends, and concluded that modernity was destructive and opposed to religious faith. They viewed the West as the enemy and reacted with anger and even violence. Gülen holds that both these reactions, that of uncritical emulation and that of angry reaction, are misplaced and that neither is soundly rooted in Islamic teaching.

Other contemporary Muslim intellectuals, after seeing such as things as atomic bombs, mass murder, environmental pollution, and loss of moral and spiritual values, blamed these disasters on science and technology. They proclaimed the shortcomings and mistakes of the purely scientific approach in seeking the truth, as well as the failure of science and technology to bring happiness. Following the lead of their Western counterparts, they condemned science and technology outright and adopted an almost purely idealistic attitude. However, Islam is the middle way. While it does not reject or condemn the modern scientific approach, neither does it deify it. [35]

Critical Engagement with Modernity

This "middle" Islamic path which Gülen proposes is one of critical engagement with modernity. Ahmet Kuru stresses that we must be clear about what Gülen means about this "middle way." Gülen does not search a middle way between Islam and modernity, because he accepts Islam itself as the middle way: "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." In this regard, Gülen is searching for an interpretation of Islam that is compatible with and at the same time critical of modernity and tradition.[36]

We should, and it is here that his study of Sufism provides him with the tools of discernment. If a key element in the progress of civilization is the changing of people's mentalities,[37] this is only achieved when a person acknowledges his own limitations, recognizes the need for controlling his impulses, and finds motivation to strive for virtue and knowledge. This, according to Gülen, is what Sufism is all about. "The Islamic spiritual life based on asceticism, regular worship, abstention from all major and minor sins, sincerity and purity of intention, love and yearning, and the individual's admission of his essential impotence and destitution became the subject-matter of Sufism."[38]

The Sufi training, as a discipline which highlights the inner dimension of Islamic teaching, enables the Muslim to confront critically but with moderation the challenges of modernity without falling into the snares either of unreflective acceptance or angry refusal. The question all modern people face is how to develop humane qualities, good behavior, love for others, enthusiasm for self-improvement, and an active desire to serve others, make a difference in the world, and to persevere in this desire in the face of setbacks and failures. For the Muslim, according to Gülen, it is the Sufi thinkers who, down through the centuries, have thought through these questions and have followed the experimental method of dealing with them.

If the modern Muslim wants to engage modernity critically and make necessary changes, he or she must begin each with one's own self. Sufism offers the collected wisdom transmitted down through the centuries by which one can proceed towards a transformed mentality, deeper love, positive character traits, and courage to work for the improvement of society.

The spiritual program offered by Sufism provides a firm basis for purifying modern scientific study from its ethical inadequacies and positivist limitations. In this way, science and humanities, scientific and humane values, a scientific and a religious approach to life, "Western sciences and Eastern faith and morality"[39] can be reconciled. This is the challenge facing scholars, educators, and communicators today.

If intellectuals, educational institutions and mass-media have a vital task to undertake for the good of humanity, it is to deliver modern scientific studies from the lethally polluted atmosphere of materialistic aspirations and ideological fanaticism, and to direct scientists toward true human values. The first condition of directing scientific studies in that way is to free minds from ideological superstitions and fanaticism and to purify souls of the filth of aiming at worldly gains and advantages. This is also the first condition of securing true freedom of thought and doing good science.[40]

The Effectiveness of Gülen's Approach

Skeptics might ask, "but is this advice really effective? Does it work? Does it form a modern individual of good character and morals who is actively working to change society and make a better world?" Turkish scholars Bülent Aras and Omer Caha note that the effort to integrate Western science with traditional and religious Turkish values is not something invented by Gülen, but part of an ongoing movement in Turkish intellectual life for more than a century. Its appeal is to those who sense an imbalance in Turkey's official policy of secular modernization.

Gülen's movement seeks integration with the modern world by reconciling modern and traditional values. This attempt to create a synthesis of ideas resembles the efforts of the last nationalist thinkers of the Ottoman Empire. For example, Ziya Gökalp emphasized the necessity of creating a synthesis based on combining elements taken from Turkish culture (hars) and from Western science and technology. Gülen and his devotees go a step further accepting Western civilization as a suitable foundation for material life while considering Islamic civilization suitable for spiritual life. It should be noted that given the movement's conservative character it does appeal to those who find that the Turkish political system is over-emphasizing secularism and modernization.[41]

In the evaluation of Aras and Caha, Gülen's movement has been successful in forming the kind of individuals who can reconcile these previously disparate elements.

The unique character of Gülen's movement lies in its attempt to revitalize traditional values as part of modernizing efforts such as the Turkish state's official modernization program. Thus far, it has had some success as it attempts to harmonize and integrate the historically diverse lands of Turkey and reconcile hundreds of years of tradition with the demands of modernity, not easy tasks. In brief, Gülen seeks to construct a Turkish-style Islam, remember the Ottoman past, Islamicize Turkish nationalism, re-create a legitimate link between the state and religion, emphasize democracy and tolerance, and encourage links with the Turkic republics.[42]

Gülen's movement is one that is to be characterized by conscientious effort and tolerance for others. Hasan Horkuc cites Gülen's advice as follows:

It should be such a broad tolerance, that we can close our eyes to others' faults, show respect for different ideas, and forgive everything that is forgivable. In fact, even when our inalienable rights are violated, we should respect human values and try to establish justice. Even before the coarsest thoughts and crudest ideas, with the caution of a Prophet and without boiling over we should respond with a mildness that the Qur'an presents as "gentle words."[43]

One can also find an embodiment of the ideals enunciated by Gülen in the Mission Statement of the Journalists' and Writers' Foundation, an organization created by associates of Fethullah Gülen to promote interreligious dialogue and cooperation. The statement reads (in part):

The modern world will be shaped by systems and approaches which cherish universal values which consider affection, tolerance, understanding and unity as basics...which prefer to overcome all hostilities, hatred and wrath by friendship, tolerance and reconciliation; which undertake the mission of delivering culture and knowledge for the benefit of humanity; which can create a balance between the individual and the society without sacrificing one for the other; which have a great vision without falling into the trap of utopias and without leaving realities aside; which believe in the merit of keeping determinant factors such as religion, language, race free from any compulsory pressure.[44]

The obvious places to look for results of Gülen's thought are in the schools established by the movement associated with his name. I have elaborated the philosophy and achievements of these schools elsewhere,[45] so I need not repeat myself here. However, the telling remark of Elizabeth Özdalga shows that the "Gülen schools" are not concerned with proselytizing or brain-washing, but rather "teaching values by example." She states: "The main objective [of the education provided in these schools] is to give the students a good education, without prompting any specific ideological orientation. One basic idea of Gülen's followers is that ethical values are not transmitted openly through persuasion and lessons but through providing good examples in daily conduct."[46]

I will close with a personal testimony. I am not a member of the "Gülen movement," nor am I a Muslim, but I have had the opportunity to visit many of these schools in various countries and to interview extensively the administrative and teaching staffs, as well as Muslim and non-Muslim students, their parents and non-Muslim educators in those locales. When I read the ideals expressed in the writings of Gülen, I do find them effectively practiced in the lives of those in the movement. These are clearly modern people, well-trained in the secular sciences, but with a genuine concern for spiritual and humane values. These values they seek to communicate to students by their own comportment. They offer a first-rate education that brings together the latest technological advances with character formation and high ideals. The Gülen schools, in my opinion, are the most effective proof of the validity of Gülen's effort to reconcile modernity with spiritual values. They are one of the most fascinating and promising educational efforts going on in the world at the present time.

(Thomas Michel, S.J., The Vatican, Rome)


[1] Anne-Marie Schimmel, in her treatment "What is Sufism?" never attempts a comprehensive definition, but rather cites the partial description of Sufism given by many Sufis and scholars. Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 1975), 3-22.

[2] Ruwaym's description comes perhaps the closest: "The Sufis are people who prefer God to everything and God prefers them to everything else." Cited in Schimmel, p. 15.

[3] Jalal al-Din Rumi, The Mathnawi-ye Ma'nawi, III: 1259-1266, trans. Ibrahim Gamard, http://www.dar_al_masnavi.org/n.a_III_1259.html

[4] Asghar Ali Engineer, "Islamic World and Crisis of Modernism." Islam and the Modern Age, January, 2002,

[5] Bruce Lawrence, The Defenders of God (London: Tauris, 1990), 27.

[6] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 40.

[7] Lawrence, p. 27.

[8] Thomas Michel, "Fethullah Gülen as Educator," cited in M. Hakan Yavuz and John L. Esposito (editors), Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003, p. 69.

[9] Fethullah Gülen, cited in L.E. Webb, Fethullah Gülen: Is There More to Him than Meets the Eye? (Patterson, N.J.: Zinnur Books, 1983), 103.

[10]Ibid. p. 80.

[11] Ihsan Yilmaz agrees with this view, saying that most scholars who write on Gülen agree that he continues a long Sufi tradition of endeavoring to address people's spiritual needs, the education of the masses, and the pursuit of stability in tumultuous times (see Ihsan Yilmaz, "Ijtihad and Tajdid by conduct: The Gülen Movement," cited in M. Hakan Yavuz and John L. Esposito (editors), Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003, pp 208-237.

[12] Zeki Saritoprak, "Fethullah Gülen: A Sufi in His Own Way," paper delivered at the seminar "Islamic Modernities: Fethullah Gülen and Contemporary Islam," Georgetown University, 26-27 April 2001, awaiting publication, p. 7. Saritoprak's paper is really the first to study the Sufi elements in Gülen's thought. I will try not to repeat what he has already elaborated.

[13] Schimmel, p. 105.

[14] Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Islam, p. 9.

[15] Ibid., p. 7.

[16] Elisabeth Özdalga, "Worldly Asceticism in Islamic Casting: Fethullah Gülen's Inspired Piety and Activism," Critique, 17 (Fall 2000), p. 91.

[17] Ibid., p. 93.

[18] In his commentary on Nursi's Mathnawi al-Nuriya (The Epitomes of Light), Gülen refers to Said Nursi as "the Master" and urges that his works be studied in depth.

[19] Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, The Letters, The Twenty-ninth Letter, Ninth Section, First Allusion, Istanbul: Sozler, 1997, p. 518.

[20] Said Nursi, The Letters, Twenty-ninth Letter, Ninth Section, Third Allusion, p. 521.

[21] Fethullah Gülen, "Sufism and Its Origins," The Fountain, July-September, 1999.

[22] Fethullah Gülen, "Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism," p. 190.

[23] Saritoprak, pp. 18-19.

[24] Fethullah Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, Izmir: Kaynak, 1997, p. 2.

[25] Fethullah Gülen, Sufism, trans. Ali Unal, (Istanbul: Fountain, 1999), p. xiv.

[26] Fethullah Gülen, cited in Webb, p. 103.

[27] Fethullah Gülen, Towards the Lost Paradise (London: Truestar, 1996), 11.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Nilüfer Göle, Ufuk Turu (Istanbul, 1996).

[30] Ibid.

[31] Fethullah Gülen, Towards the Lost Paradise, 72-73.

[32]Ibid., p. 71.

[33]Ibid., p. 70.

[34] Fethullah Gülen, Understanding and Belief: the Essentials of Islamic Faith (Izmir: Kaynak, 1997), 309.

[35] Fethullah Gülen, "The Relationship of Islam and Science and the Concept of Science, The Fountain, October-December, 1999

[36] Ahmet Kuru, "Searching for a Middle Way between Modernity and Tradition: The Case of Fethullah Gülen," cited in M. Hakan Yavuz and John L. Esposito (editors), Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003, p.117. Kuru's citation of Gülen is taken from Fethullah Gülen, Prophet Muhammad: The Infinite Light, London: Truestar, 1995, pp. 200-201.

[37] Fethullah Gülen, Towards the Lost Paradise, 71.

[38] Fethullah Gülen, "Sufism and Its Origins," The Fountain, July-September, 1999.

[39] Fethullah Gülen, Criteria or Lights of the Way I (Izmir: Kaynak, 1998), 50.

[40] Fethullah Gülen, "The Concept of Science,"

[41] Bülent Aras and Omer Caha, "Fethullah Gülen and His Liberal "Turkish Islam" Movement," Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal, Vol. 4, no. 4 (December 2000)

[42] Ibid.

[43] Hasan Horkuc, "New Muslim Discourses on Pluralism in the Postmodern Age: Nursi on Religious Pluralism and Tolerance," American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Spring 2002, 19 (2), footnote 62.

[44] Cited in Mucahit Bilici, "Context, Identity and Representational Politics of the Fethullah Gülen Movement in Turkey," paper delivered at the seminar "Islamic Modernities: Fethullah Gülen and Contemporary Islam," Georgetown University, 26-27 April 2001, unpublished article, p. 1.

[45] Thomas Michel, "Fethullah Gülen as Educator," pp. 1-6

[46] Elisabeth Özdalga, "Entrepreneurs with a Mission: Turkish Islamists Building Schools along the Silk Road," unpublished paper delivered at the Annual Conference of the North American Middle East Studies Association, Washington, D. C., November 19-22, 1999.

Thomas Michel, S.J., The Muslim World, Special Issue, July 2005 - Vol. 95 Issue 3 Page 325-471