1. The madrasa (religious school) vs. the maktab (secular school)
Gülen is an activist who was raised in madrasas (religious schools). He first experienced the basic knowledge of life, reason, belief, and action there. Indeed, for centuries, the madrasa was an institution that constructed the intellectual, political, and legal foundations of the Ottoman Empire. Its prominence in the rise of the Ottomans and Turkic-Islamic civilization cannot be downgraded. The madrasa was the most fundamental institution that shaped the Ottoman mindset, identity, source of knowledge, and worldview, as well as its official and social organizational types. Until the Tanzimat, it was a kind of living organism that nurtured Ottoman thinking, the education system, and social life.
Madrasas were independent educational institutions that were not subject to state inspection. All of them were undertaken by various foundations (waqfs). Ottoman society was socially cohesive. Rich families were to endow their entities for the good of society, without considering any interest other than religious and moral sentiments. Nevertheless, beginning in seventeenth century, the social and economic order of the state began to decline, which paved the way for the decay of the waqf institution, and subsequently of the madrasa education and training system.
Since the madrasa was an independent institution free of state inspection and intervention, it was shaped by the dominant social and religious characteristics. That was why it was strong when the Ottoman society appeared healthy and vibrant. Society was stable because the state was powerful. Another important reason of social stability was religious and moral cohesiveness. As time passed, however, external and internal factors led to the decline of the Ottomans, and social bonds weakened. This social change caused the waqfs to destabilize. Because of economic and political instability, rich families no longer felt safe or secure. Therefore, they either did not donate their wealth or they began to form their own special foundations. In time, these families converted their foundations into a form from which they earned their living. Hence, foundations failed to retain their religious and social status. Family foundations became one of the factors that uprooted the madrasa system, as privileged classes and staff became more dominant in the madrasas. Foundation trustees began to appoint incapable people as managers and teachers, and madrasas were transformed from a center of learning where science was produced, to a place where merely the history of science was taught without analytical thinking; thus, old information was repeated. Eventually, politics penetrated the madrasa system, and it deprived the madrasa of its independence as an institution. While independent, the madrasa had reached its climax in terms of religious, social, and cultural influence.
Of course, there are other cultural, social, and cultural reasons that led to the collapse of the madrasa. Other factors included the emergence of European countries as superpowers, and the power of westernization movements influencing state policy during the Tanzimat period. This was the result of such movements importing and substituting a Western mind-set, and a goal to change social and socio-cultural life. Such developments necessitated that the madrasa and educational system be re-examined.
During the declining periods of Ottoman government, the education and training systems were not unified. There were two types of school systems:
1. Muslim schools (sibyan maktabs, madrasas, various military schools, Enderun, etc.)
2. Non-Muslim schools (schools of Bulgarian, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Serbian, and other communities).
These schools differed from each other with respect to their methodology, educational philosophy, and religio-political beliefs. Hence, they did not pursue a uniting policy in Ottoman society. We can also argue that schools opened by foreign missions further weakened the unity of Ottoman-Turkish education system, as they became political clubs that operated against the Ottoman state in the aftermath of the Tanzimat reforms. The political, military, and social impact—sometimes to the extent of colonization—of France, Britain, and Germany over the Ottoman state was only possible because of the emergence of these new schools and the locals educated therein. As the Empire was coming close to its end, foreign schools almost equaled a form of cultural imperialism.
Now, let us briefly examine our subject from the standpoint of the main actors during the Tanzimat period, the period that ushered in a new education and training system. The main actors of the Tanzimat period were aware of the disintegrated structure of the Ottoman educational system. They wanted to unite it by employing a secular, liberal, and modern project. They thought that the disintegration of the educational system was causing social disorder and diffusion and, inspired by Western cultural and political values, they dreamed of constructing a new society. Their plan was to change and reform the madrasa-maktab system, which they thought would ensure the political and social harmony of Ottoman society. Their plan was indispensable in relation to social unity and Westernization projects. While the new maktab system during the Tanzimat succeeded, the community school projects failed. New education reform created a tremendous duality in Ottoman educational culture, that is, a period of "madrasa versus maktab." First, Tanzimat reforms privileged foreigners in the development of both religious and secular schools within the Ottoman Empire. Because the leaders of the Tanzimat were confused, they did not foresee the eventual effects this new mentality. These actors did not absorb Western values, nor did they adapt them into their social projects. They merely imitated the West, and because they acted in true appreciation of their own society, they could not establish a coherent educational and social system. The secular maktab was separated from the madrasa, and the infrastructural and fiscal expenses of the new maktabs carried a heavy burden.
The duality and competition between the madrasa and the maktab divided the Turkish intelligentsia and politicians, and it led them to engage in ruthless struggles that eventually led to the utter defeat of the madrasa system in favor of a maktab system that was by and large an imitation of the educational systems of the West. This struggle lasted until 1924, when the Republic enacted the law of educational unification (Tevhid-i Tedrisat). In the Republican era, the number of schools increased along with the level of literacy, yet the extent of progress was not the same in terms of quantity.
The intellectual confusion that plagued the Tanzimat elites led to the dilemma of the "madrasa versus maktab" situation, as these elites fell victim to a poorly executed vision of higher education in the modern world. Strangely enough, the Tanzimat Declaration (1839), exaggerated by its elites, did not contain detailed provisions about learning and education. Although all of its articles carried political and social reforms, the declaration, considered as a turning point for the Empire, did not include a policy of basic educational reforms. Islahat Decrees (1856) touched upon the education system slightly. But before the Tanzimat education system was embodied in the madrasas, it was monopolized by the state under both the Tanzimat and the Republic.
2. The madrasa and change
The social impact of the madrasa was broader than that of both the maktab and the modern school. Throughout long centuries, it helped create relatively harmonious relations with the family, the neighborhood, and society. Although Tanzimat elites wished to construct a modern Westernized society via education, the maktab system accomplished little more than creating a duality between social and educational systems.
The madrasa provided a comprehensive worldview for the society, as it integrated social, religious and cultural training. But the madrasa failed to recognize the change in the social and economic environment of the time. This change was exacerbated during the Tanzimat, when Western forms of life dominated the education system, daily life, and social manners, and when it crept into both the private and the public spheres of the Empire, causing every social and individual relationship to change. The madrasa's social circle was constant; however, it could not provide an alternative social organization or lifestyle for a society that was already exposed to an imaginary mental change. Its conceptions of life could not cope with the reality of society, and it could not produce solutions to mounting social problems. Its social and cultural mobility was also weakened. This was compounded by the fact that much of the society was eager to detach itself from its own history, from its social roots; it wanted to integrate with Western life and styles. Thus, the society experienced a form of alienation from the madrasa's firm and self-respecting educational identity.
Madrasa education digressed, while the operational and instructional logic developed in the West surpassed the madrasa model in every field, from information techniques to industrial and military technology. The madrasa froze in its formal logic and left no space for renovation or improvements. Lots of useless information was memorized; minds were exhausted by knowledge and theories that were no longer practical or applicable to daily life. Looking back to that period, the discussion is no longer meaningful for us. The madrasa and maktab have lost their socio-cultural legitimacy. Nevertheless, it is important to observe the historical and social foundations of the madrasa so as to analyze the nature of a madrasa-based scholar and activist.
3. Gülen from madrasa to college
Gülen is one of the last representatives of the madrasa system. That said, he has not confined himself to the social, scientific, and mental limits of the madrasa. He has studied the hierarchy of sciences and social life in contemporary modern Western civilization, and thus, in addition to his expertise on religious sciences, he possesses a vast knowledge in humanities, and social and natural sciences.
Gülen succinctly expressed his ideas regarding education and its adventure from madrasa to college in interviews that took place in the 1990s. In these interviews, Gülen made broad and analytical criticisms of the madrasa. He specified a number of issues and problems that plagued the system in its latter days, such as the way basic Islamic sciences were studied, the insufficiency of its curriculum, its repetitive structure, and how the tradition of commentary and interpretation (hashiya and sharh) transformed into a form upon which any kind of innovation was reacted to. He compares classical studies in the madrasa to the natural and mathematical sciences that later emerged in the West. Although he stresses many problems, he relates the decline of madrasa to the keeping of natural sciences out of the agenda. He contends that classical disciplines, such as dictionary studies (lugat), rhetoric (belagat), logic (mantik), philosophical theology (kelam), Qur'anic commentary (tefsir), jurisprudence (fikih), and legal theory and methodology (usul), were all studied in a systematic way that eventually left no space for theoretical or practical improvements/reforms. To him, this separation of religious sciences from the natural sciences was the sole reason for stagnation of the madrasa system:
This separation dated earlier, back to the Nizamiya Madrasa. Therefore, some scholars partly throw the blame on Imam Ghazali. His struggle with philosophy was misconceived, since philosophy and the sciences based on research were not separated yet. Natural sciences and the sciences acquired with rationalism were negatively affected from his reaction to philosophy. Imam Ghazali mounted a reaction toward theoretical philosophic arguments that caused a tremendous destruction in the Islamic world at that time. However, his reaction was misunderstood and taken as an attitude against positive sciences. Those who opposed natural sciences took advantage of this attitude and strengthened their positions.
Referring to rhetoric and logic books deemed as fixtures in the madrasa curriculum, Gülen argues that those books were regarded only as dialectical components of systematic and disciplined thinking about entity and property, and that they alienated the education system from social and mental life:
I do not fully understand the late madrasa system of studying certain things in the name of rhetorical principles and what they are good for. I am still puzzled by fancy things in Arab literature. We studied the logic of Aristotle and Shamsiya with the same rationale. We were offered lots of things. Perhaps, they were useful in terms of providing materials for dialectic reasoning, but not to construct a modern line of thought - lest they do not mean anything in the name of Islamic sciences. I early noticed that the madrasa did not have a modern line of rationale, a mathematical foundation, or at least a root in Baconian logic.
For Gülen, the separation of religious thinking from the natural sciences ran against the Qur'an, for the Qur'an clearly recommends the marriage of religious and natural sciences. When this marriage disintegrated, an ominous process began: first, religion and science became separate within the human being/student; then, there emerged a clash between the madrasa and maktab in the education system and in social life. All other social and historical factors could be reduced to variants or products of this separation:
In Ottoman history, we observe the Kadizadeler, for instance. They removed everything from education that was not considered to be part of the religious sciences. Thus, the madrasa estranged the natural sciences and research, despite injunctions in the Qur'an and the Sunna. Sections that discuss heavens and the earth—in other words, the afaq (exoteric) and anfus (esoteric), as perfectly put—composes nearly a third of the Qur'an. Some are discussed digressively, and some are connected to worshipping and praying. The moon, the sun, the stars, celestial systems, and the sky... Within the approach of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, the Qur'an satisfies poetic inspirations as well as rational thinking and researchers. Nevertheless, the madrasa closed its doors to these statements. While God says, "We will show them Our manifest signs in the horizons of the universe and within their own selves" (Fussilat 41:53), we hardly saw research, examinations, and engagements with the nature of things. Although the Qur'an was read, the book of nature was left to the side. Nobody cared that both books should be taken as the basis of natural sciences, like physics, chemistry, mathematics, and astrophysics. Reading things and events in the universe is just like reading a book, and it consists of half of the obligations of a believer...
…When the marriage (of religious sciences and positive sciences) disintegrated, both the maktab and the madrasa went to different places. A clash emerged in the society, and the mind separated from the heart. Consequently, the book of the Universe was put in one place, and the book of the Qur'an was put in another.
When we trace Gülen's critical view of the classical madrasa system from the perspective of religious sciences versus positive sciences, we can better understand his project in college education. Even these short excerpts illustrate why and how he links contemporary education, religious sciences, and positive sciences into a living and practical frame. Gülen's college education system paved a way for a new era, remarrying the contemporary education system, whose preference is toward secular or pure science, and the classical madrasa system, whose preference is toward religion. Having said that, we do not suggest that he applies an eclectic system randomly, mixing religious sciences and natural sciences. As a matter of fact, his idea of college education does not contain a religious dimension. However, it also sees no confrontation or dialectical clash between the natural sciences and values, be they religious, ethical, social, or individual. We have experienced how those kinds of clashes can ruin a personality, and a social structure. Gülen marries the mind and the heart by focusing on a concern that considers how knowledge and education should be integrated with people and social life, rather than something addressing only the brain, an external, lifeless object. In this sense, knowledge is wisdom and love. He calls this the "culture of the heart and conscience":
One of the prominent factors that differentiates nations from others is their culture. The cuisine, code of behavior at certain occasions, traditions, and even the design of the home, take shape by recurrence and reproduction, and they become a distinguishing quality of a nation. Likewise, the heart takes shape by recurrence and repetition and reaches a level to become aware of spiritual realities, divinity, and the relation with God and with entities beyond the material world. In this regard, I think it is appropriate to call knowledge a "heart culture"…
Wisdom, a source of abstract knowledge, will transform into love. Because if one believes something and knows it to the same extent, he or she cannot help but love it. Love is relatively open to everyone, yet those with consciousness and a tender heart can easily upgrade it to the level of divine love.
Humankind is not made up of the heart and conscience. Education should target the material dimension of humanity as much as it targets the heart in order to reach unity:
This is not a matter of the heart only. Surely, the heart is important; yet, one should not neglect the body so as not to neglect the world. In fact, the human being is a microcosm of the world, and the world a reflection of the human being. Saying, "You suppose yourself a little thing, but...," Ali, may God be pleased with him, states this fact. The human being is not a mechanism of the heart, spirit, or conscience. And he or she is not wholly a mechanism of nafs, the carnal self, either. Humans should be analyzed comprehensively. Different faculties of humans are subject to sole considerations. The human being, with his spirit, feeling and cognition, is a whole universe. I think that one of the ultimate stations of Sufism (tasawwuf) is jam (union). Even greater is jam al-jam (union in the union), through which a human being reaches the climax of secrets regarding the self.
 Can, pp. 71–89. See also Gülen, The Statue of Our Souls, p. 41.
 Ibid., pp. 84–85. See also Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, Vol. 2, NJ: The Light, Inc., 2004, p. 135; Fasildan Fasila, Vol. 2, p. 75; Prizma, Vol. 3, p. 150, 167.
 Ibid., p. 83. See also Gülen, Prizma, Vol. 1, p. 74; Buhranlar Anaforunda İnsan, pp. 43, 100; Günler Bahari Soluklarken, p. 153–161; Işiğin Göründüğü Ufuk, p. 30; Fasildan Fasila, Vol. 1, Izmir: Nil Yayinlari, 1997, p. 65, Vol. 4, p. 29; Ölçü veya Yoldaki Işiklar, p. 100; "Hak Karşisindaki Konumu ve Duruşuyla İnsan," Sizinti, No. 301, February 2004.