Gülen was born in 1941 into a traditional family of five boys and two girls in the Pasinler district of Erzurum. His father, Ramiz Efendi, was a government-employed imam who performed his duties in various regions.
Erzurum lies in the northeast of Turkey, and it is socio-culturally very conservative. It is a town that has, for long centuries, reflected the basic religious and national values in its social make-up.
Gülen spent his childhood in an atmosphere of traditional dervish orders and religious schools (madrasas) that defined and perpetuated conservative values. He had an insatiable curiosity and a love of knowledge. Thus, it was impossible for the limited surroundings of his town to satisfy his intellectual desires. At a young age, he directed his mind and attention to cultural, political, and social events in the outside world. Gülen remembers that during his first years in the madrasa, from time to time, he would focus on social problems. As he grew up, he came to discover the world of art and intellectual activities of his immediate social world. He completed his madrasa education within a short time, but he never had an opportunity to receive an official education.
Those years were the years when the Turkish Republic had just lost its founder and had yet to build its institutions and establishments. Since the Ottoman Reformation (Tanzimat) period, the country had been, and still was, witness to many political, economic, and socio-cultural problems. The country's intellectuals experienced a fall from grace; they felt they were part of a defeated and lagging Islamic civilization. There were dozens of intellectual problems that were discussed over and over again. These problems had no obvious resolution and were left to the state to solve. The country's intellectuals were too tired to speak of even the simplest of matters. Issues having to do with Islam and religious social life already seemed long buried. Turkish democracy was fragile, oscillating between a single-party and multi-party system. Political and sectarian fights, inner feuds, continuous economic crises, poverty, and numerous other problems caught hold of Gülen's young mind. He thought of the Muslim world's two-centuries-long decline and tried to find remedies that could reverse it. Gülen revisited these problems through the perspective of contemporary cultural values. He thought it was imperative to filter the most essential elements of issues that had been lost in complex detail, in order to organize them once again to form new areas of will and enthusiasm.
In the last two centuries, two lines of thought were influential in the philosophical and political viewpoints that were put forward to explain and bring solutions to the decline in the intellectual and religious circles of Turkish society, and thus to facilitate participation in the world of modern civilization. One of them was extreme conservatism, and the other was based on rejection of the historical legacy—of both traditions and social practices. The latter preferred to join the world of Western civilization without questioning the process and freed itself from its traditional social identity. The former interpreted the dynamics of progress totally within the boundaries of the tradition with a conservative mindset; the latter defined progress through the material and cultural values of Western civilization and the way of life these values produced. Naturally, there were those who proposed a third or a fourth way, and there were some who advocated a synthesis of the first two.
Fethullah Gülen Hocaefendi emerged from a traditionalist community. Accordingly, he progressed on a path defined by ready-made models and traditional norms. His close vicinity was not very likely to welcome new interpretations which would be considered "out of order." This is why his first initiatives encountered a conservative reaction. Gülen is a man devoted to traditional values. Over the years, however, he has never shied away from bringing traditional cultural values face to face with contemporary Western civilization. In that respect, his enterprise contains elements that bring new openings for the contemporary and the traditional in both theoretical and practical terms. From the first period of his religious and social activities up to his later educational activities, his mission has been to illustrate that religion and traditional cultural values, on the one hand, and scientific facts, on the other, do not contradict one another. On the contrary, they support one another and they can be put to the service of humankind in genuine harmony. Gülen has never hidden his religious identity. He has always acknowledged with self-confidence that he perceives this world to be nothing more than what he learns from his deep religious experience. He believes that religious identity and practice are not separate from humanity's social presence. In that respect, he has a worldview consistent with his beliefs. He stresses the idea that a genuinely sincere and religious character would benefit the state and the society. Contemporary thinkers have generally concentrated on the state, city, and economy. Gülen, however, has directed his attention to the human being that lies at the heart of all this. According to him, the most important problem of contemporary civilization is education. If the individual is virtuous, he or she will be virtuous in all things: the state, the city, and the economy. Gülen, however, does not consider the issue of the human being to remain a purely intellectual topic. He has transformed his considerations into a serious project of social practice.
Conservative attitudes tend to hold that in the face of new issues, following traditional precepts gives one more confidence. New ways of looking at things can be noteworthy to the extent that they are in keeping with the accepted arguments that have been formed in the past—that is, in the light of traditional values and norms. Such a perspective abstains from adding new interpretations and experiences. Gülen tried to formulate a new way of proceeding, a new way that has a firm hold on both the confidence that tradition gives and on the new social values. This was a greatly incorporative attitude.
As a young man, Gülen found himself in a position to deal with two different cultures, Islam and the West. Beginning three generations before him, people had experienced an identity crisis between these two cultures and civilizations. Gülen had a good view of the transforming cultural view of his age. Rather than falling into emotional or ethical despair in the face of social and institutional transformations occurring in Turkey and the world in general, he did not shy away from drawing on both individual and traditional experience while actively engaging with current social transformations by way of conscious participation. He developed a perspective that fed his personal, ethical, and cultural ideals with new repertoires of knowledge.
As early as the age of fifteen, Gülen entered an atmosphere thick with such thoughts, and he was a young man who had already matured in thought. Both the environment of his family and the conservative madrasa circle in which he grew up had led to this early maturation. Inside himself, he already had spiritual experiences, and his mind was rich with great enthusiasm and activity.