Who is Fethullah Gülen?

by Doğu Ergil on . Posted in Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen Movement in 100 questions

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Fethullah Gülen

Fethullah Gülen, “Hocaefendi” (pronounced as “Hodjaefendi”) in the words of those who respect and love him, was born in the village of Korucuk, Pasinler, Erzurum in Turkey, in 1938. Due to the slow pace of life in villages, he was registered later in the official ledger. For this reason, the official entry in the ledger states 27th of April 1941. His father was Ramiz Efendi and his mother Refia Hanım. With the encouragement of the family and pious acquaintances, he read the Qur’an and became a hafiz (a person who knows the entire Qur’an from memory). His family, who detected a tendency toward the religious disciplines in him, made sure that he obtained good religious education from renowned scholars in Erzurum, beginning with Osman Bektaş Hoca after completing the Qur’an memorization. He enriched his knowledge by participating in the teaching circles of leading Sufis. After finishing his studies, Fethullah Gülen began his official career (being a civil servant of the Republic of Turkey) as an imam (prayer leader) at Edirne Üç Şerefeli Mosque.

Before and after mandatory military service (he served in Mamak, Ankara, and İskenderun), he worked in this mosque as an imam and preacher for a total of four years. After Edirne, he was appointed to a mosque in Kırklareli province, where he served as imam for one year. He was transferred to İzmir in 1966 as a preacher. He served first at Kestanepazarı mosque and later at Bornova mosque. In addition to giving religious sermons, he also governed the Kestanepazarı Boarding Qur’anic Course (which is also owned and operated by the Turkish government). He was already on his way to becoming an opinion leader who was deferred to and respected through his public and private teaching circles. From about 1969 to 1971, he traveled to different cities and towns, giving religious sermons and providing religious education. His activities were not limited to only the province of İzmir. Until 1980, he provided his services in Edremit, Balıkesir and the province of Manisa. By this time, his reputation went beyond the Aegean Sea region of the country and reached the largest metropolitan center in Turkey, İstanbul. In 1989, at the insistence of the citizens of İstanbul, he began acting as a volunteer imam in the largest mosques of İstanbul. He maintained this work until 1992.

It was during this time that he improved on the Arabic and Persian languages he had learned during his childhood, and he became capable of reading religious documents firsthand. The Aegean and Marmara regions and especially İzmir and İstanbul had received a massive wave of immigrants from the interior of Turkey. These immigrants came from traditional backgrounds in Anatolia and had difficulty adapting to an urban lifestyle. They acutely felt the need for a new interpretation of lifestyle to reconcile their traditional values with the expectations of this new urban environment. But this interpretation had to be provided by an alim, a religious scholar who was trained in classical learning, whose learning and character they trusted. They found this person in Fethullah Gülen. They had been waiting to see sacred texts purified of the past social residues—namely, from the experiences of other nations and societies. They sought an authentic understanding, loyal to the core of the Islamic message and able to answer the real needs of the day. In fact, this need was felt by Muslims throughout Turkey. Fethullah Gülen’s ability to meet this need made him a sought-after opinion leader and “Hocaefendi,” a respectful title, which means “a man of high education” or “scholar” (out of extreme modesty, Fethullah Gülen feels embarrassed to be subject to such a respect).

Learning circles started around him, consisting of those who sought his leadership and who saw his interpretation of Islam as a compass by which they could orient their lives. Fethullah Gülen, who was drawing larger and larger crowds, was forced to make a critical decision. Would he be a civic leader? Was he going to govern daily lives of people? And probably most important of all, was he going to play a political role in his community? Or, would he take another path and preach solely a message of spirituality and inspire others to make their own choices in the religious and ethical fields of daily life? Fethullah Gülen chose the second option. He committed his life to addressing the problem of how people were to establish a direct relationship with their Creator and based his philosophy on that foundation. He taught that true faith was the key to discovering one’s true self in interpersonal relationships. When he said that loving your fellow human being was the other side of the coin of loving the Creator, he was suggesting that through the bridge of love, it is possible to reach other human beings. He emphasized that by using tolerance and dialog it was possible to make the “other” closer. He believed that anyone who could achieve this was the beloved servant of God.

In his teachings and suggestions he always reiterated that the local and the global did not contradict each other, neither could be dispensed with. Rather than they being in opposition and exclusive of each other, they had to be in harmony. His ideas, which are compatible with the modern life, resonated with the urban middle class. They used to see themselves as part of the modern world. They had respectful lives and professions; they had no problems earning their livelihoods. Nevertheless, they were acutely aware that their spiritual lives were not rich enough to make their lives meaningful. They wanted to see moral and ethical degeneration eradicated; they wanted the sense of trust and solidarity strengthened, which had been increasingly weakened. They also were looking for a way to connect with other people who felt the same way that they did. Much of the urban middle class was gathering around Fethullah Gülen to have these needs fulfilled.