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Introduction for the Muslim World July 2005 Special Issue by Dr. Zeki Saritoprak

by Zeki Saritoprak on . Posted in Islam in Contemporary Turkey: The Contributions of F. Gülen

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Turkey has become increasingly interesting to Scholars of Middle East and Islamic studies as the only Muslim nation in NATO and now will be starting full membership negotiations with the European Union, where it can bridge Islamic and Western civilizations. There is no doubt that Islam constitutes one of the most essential elements of Turkish culture---ninety-nine percent of the Turkish population is Muslim. The subject of this special issue, Fethullah Gülen (1941-) is a very influential Islamic personality in modern day Turkey. His influence not only comes from his charismatic religious personality but also from the large array of educational and social institutions that have been established by his many admirers who take his advice and recommendations very seriously. The Muslim World journal, by dedicating this special issue to a prominent figure like Gülen and religiously motivated civic movement he initiated, would contribute greatly to the understanding of Turkish Islamic modernities.

Although Gülen is a religious figure, his accomplishments and interests have gone beyond the field of theology. He is proficient on Islamic sciences and at the same time is also knowledgeable of Western thought. Gülen has read Hafiz as well as Goethe. He has knowledge of both Peyami Safa, a well-known Turkish novelist, and Dostoyevsky. Having studied Islamic sciences in his youth, he has a great talent for memorization as well as synthesis. Even today, at the age of sixty-four, he is able to recite the whole Qur'an by heart. He is also highly versed in the field of hadith, the sayings of the prophet. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Gülen has more than ten thousand hadiths memorized in the original Arabic.

Fethullah Gülen managed to instigate a vast civic movement through his inspirational speeches and writings. Since late 1960's, his movement has gradually evolved and grown in various areas of social life. Avoiding partisan politics, the movement developed an enlightenment project to fight with the social ills. That includes the establishment of hundreds of modern schools and several universities inside and outside of Turkey, a media network (such as STV national channel, Aksiyon weekly news magazine, and Zaman, a leading daily newspaper), business organizations like ISHAD. Influenced by Sufi traditions, the Gülen movement's precepts of Turkish culture of tolerance have been criticized by both extreme secularists and Islamists. Journalists and Writers Foundation, honorary chairman of which is Fethullah Gülen, is Turkey's first and foremost NGO which effectively deals with interfaith dialogue and search for common ground.

The articles for this special issue elaborate various aspects of Gülen's personality and endeavors from different perspectives. Additionally, I thought that it would be important to present Gülen's views in his own words through an interview. For this, I offer my thanks to Gülen for answering my questions on various contemporary topics. Since Gülen originally wrote his answers in Turkish, Mr. Ali Unal and I have translated these responses into English.

In the first article featured in this special issue, Osman Bakar focuses on Gülen's approach to the relationship between science and religion, examining Gülen's understanding of the nature of religious and scientific truths in a comparative way. He argues that in contemporary Muslim discourse it is rare to find serious scholars among theologians who reflect on issues of religion and science. He contends that Gülen belongs to this small group of committed theologians.

Mucahit Bilici approaches the Gülen movement and its politics of representation more critically. His article examines the activities of a Turkish institution called The Journalists and Writers Foundation, of which Gülen is known as its honorary president, as well as other fields of interest in the Gülen movement. Bilici finds that this organization is working to prevent the fulfillment of Huntington's prophecy of a "clash of civilizations." Also, he maintains that Gülen owes a great deal of his intellectual background to the teachings of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, although he differentiates between these men. Bilici presents Gülen as a modern Ottoman, and expounds on several terms that are popular within the Gülen movement, such as hizmet (service), and himmet (support).

Lester Kurtz's article examines Gülen's paradox of combining personal commitment to Islamic religious principles with a strong engagement with pluralism. He argues that Gülen has managed to fuse theory and practice. Referring to certain theological foundations on which Gülen has grounded his ideas of tolerance, Kurtz cites Gülen: "One cannot be a Muslim unless one believes in the pre-Islamic prophets."

Thomas Michel's article explores the relationship between Sufism and Modernity in the teachings of Gülen. He also explores how Gülen successfully followed the teachings of Sufism without being caught by the legal regulations of the state which banned the Sufi institution of Tariqah. Michel speaks of three main influences that shaped the thought of Gülen: Orthodox Sunni Islam, the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition, and the Nur movement. A great portion of this article examines Gülen's approach to modernity and his influence on contemporary Turkish thought.

Using Norbert Elias's works as a template for discussion, Elizabeth Özdalga analyzes the Gülen community from a sociological perspective. She suggests that when public institutions fail to integrate citizens, the demand on other organizations and communities to fill this void increases. The Gülen community plays a significant role at this juncture. She mentions the experiences of several female members of the Gülen movement and emphatically suggests that the Gülen community is not a Tariqah (Sufi order), but rather a civic community. Referring to Elias's analytic framework, Özdalga examines the relationship between the Turkish establishment and the Gülen movement.

Sidney Griffith and I explore Gülen's idea of interfaith dialogue. The article attempts to find the roots of Gülen's approach by referring to early Islamic figures such as Jalal ad-Din al-Rumi (d. 1273) and Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1625). The article argues that "Basmala," the first verse of the first Qur'anic chapter, constitutes the departure point for Gülen's understanding of interreligious dialogue. Furthermore, the article elaborates on Gülen's meeting with Pope John Paul II and the reactions of various Muslims to this meeting as well.

Finally, Ihsan Yilmaz's paper examines the transformation of Islam in modern Turkish history, especially after the establishment of the modern Turkish state. Within this context, he differentiates between civil Islam, represented by Gülen, and state Islam, for which Yilmaz coins the term "Lausannian Islam." Yilmaz also focuses on the influence of Gülen's discourse on the Turkish public sphere, and compares the movement to other Islamic political parties established in Turkey.

I hope that this special issue of The Muslim World provides a better understanding of Fethullah Gülen and his endeavors which increasingly receive the attention of academic scholarship. With such a charismatic personality, his great number of admirers, and his tremendous openness, Gülen and his movement can contribute to the development of positive relationships between Islam and the West.

Zeki Saritoprak, The Muslim World, Special Issue, July 2005 - Vol. 95 Issue 3 Page 325-471