Compared to the Arab interpretation of Islam, does Fethullah Gülen offer a Turkish interpretation of Islam?

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

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Fethullah Gülen

Fethullah Gülen reminds us before answering this question that the foundation of his thought are the statements of the Prophet and his actions. He then draws attention to why and how the movement that he inspired was influenced by the way the Turks once lived and by the Turkish understanding of administration and its application historically.

For instance, he provides examples from the lives of the Prophet and his Companions:

They used every opportunity that they could to reach people; they became close to people in the meetings that they held and the banquets they threw and then, they explained their message to them. They never waited for the people to come to them; they always went to the needy themselves. Just like they did in the following periods, during the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs, they behaved in the same way. Even in conquest, the Muslims did not destroy churches or synagogues, they never touched the rights of the minorities, and they did not constrain freedom of thought. Salahuddin al-Ayyubi, Alparslan, Kılıçarslan and later, Fatih the Conqueror, Selim the Grim, and Süleyman the Magnificent all behaved in the same way. They protected everyone within their power without making distinguishing between religions, languages, or races.

… Our ancestors left us such a heritage that today we are proud of them. In Sarajevo, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, or any other place where they ruled, they did not oppress any group and did not force anyone to change religion or language. The displayed democratic sensibilities well beyond what we have today. They accessed people’s hearts and minds by using the vehicle of tolerance and understanding. Therefore, our basic texts as well as historical experience show that tolerance and dialog did not begin with our generation. It is the core of our past and the result of it. It is a duty and a task. It is no one’s product as a result of his own compassion and mercy; it is the consequence of the mercy and compassion of Islam. The virtues which cause those who meet them to say, “You are different” stem from the essence of Islam, the Book [the Qur’an], the Sunnah [deeds and saying of the Prophet], and the aspect of religion which is open to interpretation.[1]

Tolerance, according to Fethullah Gülen, is the ability to have unity in diversity and not to exclude any person or group because of religion or culture. It is not based on the Muslim ruler’s personal abilities or goodness but on “firm, solid and durable sources,” (Islamic sources) shaping his style of administration. One typical example often cited by Fethullah Gülen is the “Constitution of Medina” (622 AD). This document is a social contract in which different religious groups participated as equal partners. It is a legal text whereby the rights of all groups were under record and through which they all came together around a common administration and a system of justice. By making reference to the Constitution of Medina, Fethullah Gülen implies that Muslims today can live in peace and tolerance in a constitutional system which is based on legal equality. He views the establishment of such a system “as a duty for all Muslims.” He also sees his followers, who act as volunteer ambassadors of culture in many different countries and who according to his teachings, as the people in the position to carry out that duty.[2]

Up until this point, we see that Fethullah Gülen finds the action of carrying a dialog of tolerance and the common values of humanity to other countries and peoples in the vessel of religion. Is there any significance to be attributed to the fact that those who carry out this duty are Turks? This question leads us to another question: Is there such a thing as “Turkish Islam”?

The concept of Turkish Islam might seem to contradict the notion of the universality of Islam. However, culture is an undeniable sociological reality. Yes, Islam is a universal religion, but the Turks (as did other peoples) accepted Islam, while still retaining their own customs and traditions. Turkey has a special place in the Islamic world, as do other Muslim societies.

The Turks accepted Islam early and they became a new rising civilization in the 9th century. Samarkand, Tashkent, and Bukhara produced eminent scholars such as Bukhari and the Tirmidhi. These scholars had important roles in the spread of Islam in the Turkish world and elsewhere. When Islam reached Anatolia, it mixed with Turkish culture and a new Turkish expression of Islam was born.

After accepting Islam, the Turks elevated their culture, which was already “civilized,” to a higher level by employing, for example, Islam’s universal message of tolerance for all humanity. Many thinkers and scholars among the Asian Turks emerged as a result of this cultural overlap. Bukhari, Molla Husrev, Molla Gurani, Merginani were all raised in Asia. With the contributions and help of these people, Islam came to Anatolia. The Turkish states of the Seljuks and the Ottomans practiced Islam demonstrated by with their exercise of power, justice and their pluralistic administrations; they also made elaborate records of their practices. To an extent, Turkish Islam owes its richness and peculiarity to Asia. This history explains the place of Asia in Fethullah Gülen’s thought, as well as why the Gülen Movement has given priority to Asia. A spiritual debt is being repaid. Yes, Islam was born in Mecca and Medina but,

We owe a great deal to Central Asia, either in the field of Tafsir or Fiqh, or the renaissance which was carried out in the 4th and 5th centuries AH [11th and 12th centuries CE]. In the parts of religion open to interpretation, we have in our hands the Book, the Sunnah, the consensus of the Ummah [the global community of Muslim believers], and the analytical reasoning of the scholars. However, it cannot be denied that a society’s ethical base, its psychological structure, and the state of the socio-economic situation all have their impact on the field of qiyas [analytical reasoning]. Social structure in general has a strong influence as well. Turkish people interpreted the aspects which are open to the Book and the Sunnah in this way. They understood the “consensus” that way. For this reason, and also because it was ruled by the great empires, it has developed a style and practice of its own, different from those of other Muslim nations. In this sense, it is acceptable to talk about Turkish Islam.

Another aspect of this issue is that with us, Islam, in addition to the Book and the Sunnah, is more open to personal spiritual development. In addition to the handling of the spiritual aspect of Islam, we have a different approach to the natural sciences. All these develop together in partnership. We always retained the takyas [dervish lodges] and zawiyas [facility and retreat centers] along with the fiqh schools. This naturally brings about a distinction from other Islamic cultures.[3]

Fethullah Gülen cannot find the same respect for science and spirituality in other regions of the Islamic world, as it is observable in Turkey. Indeed, he proposes that most Muslim nations or communities are closed off to this idea:

Fanaticism is widespread in even the simplest practices of Islam. I saw it in the USA, other parts of the Western hemisphere, Australia, and the Arab world. They hold to an understanding so rigid that it will continue to provoke backlashes from other nations for as long as it is continued. They fight constantly over details. … If we are so inflexible even on matters of detail, how will we ever explain Islam to others? When I see reports of these sorts of events, I always think to myself, “I wish we could bring Islam as the Turks understand it to these places.” Though they think they are serving Islam, such fanatical people do Islam a great disservice. What’s worse is that this understanding is not what the Prophet commanded. He said: “Bring them good news. Do not scare them away.” These people scare others away. “Facilitate, do not obstruct,” the Messenger of God said. These people obstruct. They do not give good news, or facilitate. They make the way difficult and meaningless. This is another angle from which we can understand a Turkish Islamic identity from the perspective of the universality of Islam. When the expression “Turkish Islam” is used, then “Kurdish Islam,” “Persian Islam,” and “Arab Islam” also emerge. All of these together complicate the matter further.[4]

Fethullah Gülen differentiates between religion as a system of faith and its practice as a result of historical, cultural, and sociological conditions. By doing this, he calls our attention to the importance of purifying religion from ethnic differences, but at the same time understanding that it is introduced into certain periods and certain places within the context of historical and sociological conditions.

Despite this need for purification, he is content with the expression of a Turkish Islam:

This nation has represented this religion deservedly and correctly and left behind an important heritage. For this reason it could be assessed from a historical perspective, too. There are moments in history which we treat as a hump on humanity’s back. We always try to get rid of it, to free ourselves of it. There are other moments which signify honor and we wear like a medallion carried around the neck. We take pride in them.[5]

Fethullah Gülen is adamant that Turkey not become another Iran or Algeria. He also holds to a position of warning similar to that of former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit: He also recognizes that there are “secularist fanatics” in Turkey:

Every belief has fanatics, and secularism is no exception. All it takes for fanaticism to take place is for one to refuse to recognize any truth other than their own. Of course there are secular fanatics and just like any other fanatic, they are so confident that they will replace truth with brute force, and seek to enforce everything they believe simply through power.[6]

Continuing, Fethullah Gülen assesses the relationship between rights, power, and justice in the following way:

Right makes might. Might does not make right. But the tyranny of power is beyond that. It rebels even against common sense. It rebels against perfect logic. Those who are able to have power use brute force for things which could be solved with reasoning and dialog and a little patience. This is what we experienced in the 20th century. To me, this is the problem with Algeria. There is a serious conflict of values between the communities. The reference of one segment is its religion. But I wonder whether the timing is correct in some words and ideas. This will keep historians and sociologists busy in the future. But in some ways, the powerful feel that they are justified by their power. They erase their logic and reasoning and seek to beat their problems into submission. Then later, the other side will be portrayed as terrorists in order to legitimize the force that was used.[7]

Fethullah Gülen refuses every kind of fanaticism and believes absolutely in pluralism. The paradigm, which is supposed to be democratic, is transformed into a sacred enigma, then is enforced by tyranny and finally morphs into dogmatism. The society in question becomes politicized and then extremely polarized. The dialog degenerates from a competition of ideas to a brawl of dogmas. Fethullah Gülen attributes the polarization and tensions which are experienced in Turkey today to some extent to the war between these dogmas.

A dogmatic front is fighting against another one. All of them are rigid. All are coercive and unfortunately, all of them have spread to the general population.

In order for society to be freed from this polarization, the moderates who hold a majority must maintain their calm and stay out of the fight. Only they can soften the extremities and bring together the majority at the reasonable. This moderate conduct could bring Turkey back into a climate of tolerance, dialog, understanding each other, mutual respect, and accepting the differences. When this is done, Turkey could present to the world an important example of peace and democracy.[8]

Turks have been Muslims for ten centuries. As they expanded from Anatolia to Europe, they inherited the Greco-Roman civilization, which was the basis of the ancient world. They successfully ruled an empire through the synthesis of a culture brought from Asia, the spirituality and the law of Islam, and the universal values of Western civilization. The Ottoman Empire was a mosaic of races, faiths, and states. Its employment of pluralism allowed it to run this gigantic engine for centuries. What is the philosophical foundation of this practice? According to Fethullah Gülen, it is the principles and values of Islam under the circumstances of time, along with developing a system of administration that met the needs of the society.

The Qur’an states that God created humans in different genders, colors, races, talents, and languages (An-Nisa 4:1; Al-Hujurat 49:13). God has left to us the responsibility of the administration of these differences. For this, first we have to know and understand each other. It is only when people know and trust each other that cooperation can emerge. Unity and wholeness are born out of effort and understanding. Peace and civilization develop to the extent that these efforts to understand each other are successful. The Ottoman Empire understood this relationship very well and built an empire out of many races, religions, and states. Fethullah Gülen places great importance on the example of the Ottomans and sees and presents it as a bright period for Turkish Islam and indeed, the world.

Fethullah Gülen claims that it is only possible to administer such a heterogeneous state with a healthy and developing rule of law and scientific knowledge. Therefore, Turkish Islam does not shy away from science. Law is a discipline that must continually develop in order to accommodate changing circumstances. For this reason, numerous scholars in our history and teachings of fiqh have left us a rich heritage for today.

Starting from the perspective of Said Nursi, Ali Ünal (who researched Fethullah Gülen’s thoughts) adds the following comments to this assessment:

Turkish Islamic jurisprudence [fiqh] and the form of its implementation consist of different approaches, depending on people, time, and circumstances. Here what matters is not absoluteness, but relativity. Making a relative truth into an absolute one and trying to apply it to every time, person, and condition will cause quarrel and conflict among Muslims.[9]

Law is a critical element of Turkish Islam. The Ottomans, who wanted to implement Islam in every aspect of life established states in which different faiths, world-views, cultures, and races lived together peacefully. This resulted in their developing a vast and comprehensive legal system. Ottoman lawyers were helpful in developing Hanafi law as well as standard Ottoman law.

Islamic jurisprudence had shown another important opening in the Ottomans and during the reign of Kanuni [Süleyman the Magnificent], in 1537. Sultan Süleyman had permitted Abu’s Suud Efendi to utilize the interpretations of mujtahids [expounders of Islamic laws] with backgrounds in different creeds … and this resulted in the composition of laws which earned Süleyman the title “Kanuni” [the lawgiver]. In the foundations of these laws and in the code of laws lies the idea that in the works of the state one does not absolutely have to be loyal to a sect, but to be able to utilize the viewpoint of a particular mujtahid. In brief, Islamic law developed in the hands of the Turks in such a way that we do not witness in the history of other nations.[10]

Even if they belonged to the same religion, the character of every society, race, or tribe, the social, economic, political and physical conditions in which they operate, in the practice of that religion, it gave way to developing different molds and models.[11]

At this point, Ünal gives many different daily practices from the Kurdish and Bosnian groups to arrive at this judgment:

In the Turkish Islamic society it has to be recorded the existence of different traditions and lifestyles due to the geographical environment and historical courses, as much as racial factors.[12]

There are fields that Islam, without taking directly into its own field, but leaving to time, circumstances, dispositions, moods, and temperaments. For instance, Islam does not offer a form of state valid for all times; instead it establishes general principles of administration. It could be said there is not any rule for architecture; maybe it bans only wastefulness and luxury. In dressing, what parts of the body and how they have to be covered, and the main principle in this matter it lays. But it does not dwell on the form, color, design, and fabric. In the field of literature, it brings forth the abstract beauty; it admonishes loyalty to the fairness and the truth; while describing the universe, it sees it as a divine art and preaches the knowledge of the Creator.[13]

In short, every nation has its own culture and developed under its own circumstances. Just as it is possible to talk about being a Muslim of an Arab, Persian, or any other nation, Fethullah Gülen is not disturbed by the expression, “being a Muslim of Turkey” or “Turkish Muslim.” In Ünal’s words,

This is so, because Islam was born in Mecca and Medina, spread swiftly and taking under its influence the cultures and civilizations it encountered everywhere, it brought into being totally new composition of a culture and a civilization. By virtue of this fact it did not have any difficulty at all to mold the native peoples of the conquered lands in their essential and original formations. While on the one hand, it chiseled its own essential elements into the geography and the lives of nations, on the other hand, it never hesitated to borrow the elements from other cultures which are not in conflict with its own essentials. This way it spread faster and was accepted easily as well as it continually enriched its universal content, renewed it, and developed it.[14]

One of the most important successes of Turkish history is that when Turkish culture and the universality of Islam merged, the Ottoman Empire, through tolerance and inclusion, was able to unite culturally and racially distinct states and peoples, resulting in a thriving civilization that lasted for centuries.

[1] Gülen 2005b, 231–232.
[2] Ibid., 237.
[3] Can 1997, 34–35.
[4] Ibid., 35–36.
[5] Ibid., 36.
[6] Ibid., 37.
[7] Ibid., 37–38.
[8] Ibid., 40.
[9] Ünal 2002, 149.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 151.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 152.
[14] Ibid., 152–153.