What is Fethullah Gülen’s education, both official and unofficial?

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

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Fethullah Gülen

Fethullah Gülen’s only official education is elementary school. Fethullah Gülen explains some interesting episodes in the process of his own education:

In those days there was no school in our village. The school that exists there today was not opened until much later. They used the madrasah [school of religious education] next to the mosque that still stands today as a classroom. They used to teach reading and writing to the children during the day and to the older men and women at night. As I observed the state in which those old men and women found themselves, I used to laugh at them. They seemed to me funny. They did not let me into the school the first year because I was not old enough. When I attended, I still was not old enough; but I attended anyway. I attended two or three years. One of the teachers was an ardent enemy of religion. He could not even stand that I was praying during the breaks. But I used to climb up one of the desks and pray there. He named me mullah [Islamic scholar] just because I did my ritual prayers.[1]

His mother Refia Hanım had a great impact on him. It could even be said that she was his first teacher. She would teach the Qur’an to her daughters during the day and to him during the night. According to his mother, “Fethullah had finished reading the entire Qur’an at the age of four, in one month. Since then he never skipped his prayers.”[2]

Fethullah Gülen recalls some of his memories belonging to his childhood:

Sibgatullah, my brother, is three years younger than me. That means if I was 9, he had to be around 6. So, all the foot service was left to me. Shepherding our cows and sheep was my responsibility.

I used to pass my free time by reading. I do not know how I learned it, but I have been able to read Ottoman Turkish fluently for as long as I can remember. In those days I read all the books that my father owned. I inherited his admiration for the Prophet and his Companions. I had almost memorized their life-stories.

My father was also my first Arabic teacher. He taught me some portions of the classical books Amsila and Bina. But later, some people suggested to my father that he should have me memorize the Qur’an. My father hesitated at first, but later he decided to send me away for that purpose with couple of other children.

I used to do memorization whenever I had time left over from doing chores and shepherding. Despite the distractions, I put in as much extra effort as I could in those days. I could memorize as much as half a juz, that is to say 10 pages. During the summer it was difficult to find time for memorization, but I finished it during the winter.[3]

The foundation of Fethullah Gülen’s unofficial education was his education in the madrasah in Erzurum. Fethullah Gülen completed his memorization of the Qur’an at the age of fourteen. His father wanted him to go to Hasankale, a village 5 miles away, to take tajwid (refined technique of reciting the Qur’an) courses with Hacı Sıdkı Efendi. The problem was that he did not have a place to stay in Hasankale. Therefore, every morning he would have to walk five miles to participate in Hacı Sıdkı Efendi’s study circle. And every evening he would have to walk the same distance back home.

Fethullah Gülen’s father was not ready to allow him to walk this distance back and forth alone, as he was still a child. But at the same time, he did not want to deprive him of this important religious education. So, Fethullah Gülen was sent to the religious scholar Sadi Efendi in Erzurum. His madrasah education in the Molla Mosque became the foundation of the love of learning and discovery that continues to this day.

In summary, a religious family environment and parents who made efforts for their son to have a good religious education determined the future of Fethullah Gülen. Since his childhood, Fethullah Gülen looked at life through the window of faith. This outlook allowed him to dedicate his life to thinking about how the needs of the modern human could be reconciled with the requirements of faith, without breaking away from the realities and richness of life and without fear or worry. Fethullah Gülen considers every day of his life to be a continuation of his never-ending education; the world is his classroom. This perspective has become the most salient feature of his personality.

[1] Erdoğğan 2006, 35.
[2] Ibid., 28.
[3] Ibid., 36.