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The Tradition of Public Oration

by Enes Ergene on . Posted in An Analysis of the Gülen Movement

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A better understanding of the Gülen movement and its mission is very much dependent on comprehending the oratory tradition in the Muslim world. Since the advent of Islam, the oral tradition has been one of the most significant means for cultural nourishment and communication of traditional values. While the madrasa has been the means for systematizing religious thought, public speaking and oratory have served as channels to convey it to the public. The pulpit in the mosque has been the natural channel for this; the pulpit was the center for the production of popular Islamic culture and the stage where the Islamic art of oratory came into being in its original form and style. The mosque has been the most pivotal element of Islamic civilization and urban culture. It was a center of interaction for the town dwellers and huge urban crowds who went out for business, shopping, or for other purposes. The mosque has taken a central place in the shaping and molding of Islamic culture. The cultural environment from which Gülen originated was situated at these traditional crossroads. He is primarily a member of the madrasa. He has pursued a life that is very much interconnected with the mosque and the masses. The social manifestation of experiencing religious thought and the form of belief orbited around this centre. The madrasa was very much related to the mosque and to the social life of the community. When he first climbed the stairs to the pulpit in his early madrasa years, he was "not tall enough to reach over the pulpit," in his own words. From his early childhood, Gülen was a very sensitive and enthusiastic person. This enthusiasm later helped him develop a special oratory style of his own. His initial experience in his first sermons led him to realize how effective the oratory tradition had been across centuries, as well as its positive and substantial influence upon the masses. This art of oratory would shape his entire commitment and lifestyle. He devoted himself to the use of this art as an instrument for communicating faith (tabligh and irshad) and encouraging charity (himma) as an endeavor toward mobilizing the full potential of the society, religion, state, and nation. He seems to have adopted the Qur'anic verse, "Urge on the believers (to take their responsibility)" (Nisa 4:84) as a mission and symbol. In the historical sense, the "power of the word" would manifest itself once again in his elevated and spiritually powerful oratory.

His public speaking is probably the most outstanding of his many aspects. In fact, many people have come to know him only through his fervent oratory. His knowledge and scholarly interests in Islamic studies and modern Western sciences have been overshadowed for years by his mastery of oratory although his articles and poetry were being published in various magazines. For long years, he studied not only religious fields but also history, philosophy, sociology, literature, and art. However, all aspects of this absorbed knowledge would come to the surface either in molding the masses and transforming them into "teachers" (muballigh), or in other instances when they could be put into practice.

His official post commenced in 1959 after he passed an examination by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, and it lasted for about thirty years during which he served as an imam, a preacher, a teacher at Qur'anic schools, and in various management positions. He preached in many cities, including Edirne, Kirklareli, İzmir, Edremit, Manisa, and Çanakkale. During his professional career as an official preacher, he had close contact with the masses. In the true sense of the word, the art of oratory, which had been dead and forgotten for almost two centuries, was granted a revival thanks to his high enthusiasm, profound soulful and spiritual experience, vast knowledge, and comprehensive cultural grounding. In a most sincere fashion, and by virtue of his willingness, he has activated the religious, patriotic, and benevolent emotions of the masses by making use of all the delicate aspects of this skill. Hopes and enthusiasms have found a safe ground upon which to be rejuvenated with his sermons. Thousands, even tens of thousands of people, have rediscovered themselves in his addresses, and they have developed a feeling of confidence in themselves as well as in their societal values.

Gülen's first activity was characterized by his services as a traveling preacher moving from one city to another. Therefore, his preaching and his engagement with crowds have always been most observable. His style was shaped in accordance with the socio-psychological demeanor of the society he was addressing. He would filter all his actions and words through the most sensitive screens before he revealed them. He observed a most careful life, as if he were always under scrutiny. This alertness was a consequence not only of a concern for deserving the goodwill of the faithful community, but more due to his firm commitment to the dervish tradition in which it is observed, with a strong conviction and utmost sensitivity, that every word and action is under divine supervision. He has been a real modern servant (abid), ascetic (zahid), and dervish, and this accounts for the major motivation behind the sensitivity in his words, conduct, and personality, and in his acute alertness. The prudence, insightful character, stillness, and calmness which suffuse even the most insignificant of his actions, and perhaps even his inner soulful experience, are based upon his profound and conscious understanding of servanthood. Through years-long observance of spiritual practices under strict discipline and training, he has been subdued, purified, and calmed of any possible inclinations toward the indulgences which are prevalent in human nature. All his emotions are revealed only after they have undergone this discipline. While delivering a sermon, even at a peak level of emotionalism, he seems to possess a prudent mechanism and a form of consciousness which controls his conduct and inner excitement.

He establishes such a level of consciousness with his speech that his life before and after the sermon takes form accordingly. Appearing before an audience is like a birth pang for him. He is very attentive to not exposing any statement, thought, or even a breath, if it is not the right time for its birth. It is necessary to digest his oratory power and the delicate life he has threaded around it in order to get a complete picture of the influence of oratory culture upon the essential dynamics of the Gülen community. This movement has produced and developed its own cultural traditions, in both religious and socio-cultural terms, while remaining very much tied with the traditional system of values.

As Gülen extended his social contacts with the masses, he became more familiar with their social and cultural problems. This close contact placed him in a position where he had to encounter these problems and seek solutions.

As a result of this intellectual journey, he reached the conclusion that the major problem for Turkey, or perhaps even for the whole of human civilization, is the education of humanity. Having reached this conclusion in the early 1970s, when he became a director of a Qur'anic school, he began to attempt to practice a different method of education.

He was officially a preacher, on the one hand, but on the other, he organized classes and summer camps for students. In his sermons, he taught that, in our time, it was more important to establish schools than mosques, and he channeled the spiritual enthusiasm of the public. However, this policy was soon to be opposed by some conservative elements in his environment who were unable to calculate the long-term social results of educational projects and opening schools. For many years, from the pulpits or by other means, Gülen strove to motivate the people around him for accomplishing educational projects, mostly in the form of opening private secondary schools. At the same time, he made sure that these were conceived as civil initiatives by the government officials as a product of the societal and national spirit, with no political or ideological objectives. The institutionalization process for these projects has been a totally civil activity, indeed. It has never taken the form of ideological or political opposition.

During the 1970s, the ideological fights that shook the whole world affected Turkey deeply as well. Turkey became a battlefield of intellectual, political, and ideological currents. In such conflicts, tens of thousands of young people had lost their lives. In those years, Gülen managed to keep many people around him and the great masses that he addressed away from all these fights with great care and patience. In the 1970s and 1980s, Gülen was probably one of the rare preachers whose sermons were attended by an educated audience in large numbers, and of a wide diversity. By the beginning of the 1990s, the first educational establishments (primary schools and high schools) started to show their capacities, accruing successes in science competition Olympiads in Turkey and throughout the world. This was proof that these establishments solidified their bases and that they had become institutions practicing scientific truths. In other words, they had become the manifestation of the necessity and consistency of Gülen's education mobilization. As a result, Gülen became the focus of attention for politicians who were free of state bureaucracy, of people involved in fields ranging from academia to the art world and from the media to intellectual circles. The 1990s were the years of opening up to the outside world, and years that triggered a wide process of dialogue with people who are in the limelight in various fields. This effort started a process of dialogue the like of which had not been seen in the recent history of Turkey.