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What are the primary teachings—religious, historical, political, and social—which have greatly impacted Fethullah Gülen’s worldview?

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

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Fethullah Gülen

In my opinion, though a person must know the importance of religious introspection and the training of the soul, he must also see the value of the sciences, literature, history, and philosophy. He should learn from physics to chemistry, from biology to astronomy, their fundamental principles at least. He may also read from the existential philosophers, and primary sources from both the East and the West, like Camus, Sartre and Marcuse. With this aim in mind, I have kept my range of reading a little bit wider than it might have been otherwise.

As for my religious development, it would be safe to say that it came mostly from the Qur’an and Islamic sources. In order to reach the depths of Islamic civilization, I have benefited from the classics, Imam Rabbani, Ghazzali, Rumi, Abu Hanifa and the other thinkers in the fields of Kalam [Islamic Philosophy] and Tafsir [Exegesis]. From among the contemporary thinkers, I read Elmalılı Muhammad Hamdi, Mustafa Sabri, Ahmet Hamdi Aksekili, Babanzade Ahmet Naim, İzmirli İsmail Hakkı, İsmail Fenni Ertuğrul, M. Şemseddin Günaltay, M. Ali Ayni. These teachers and a number of others have contributed new dimensions to my accumulation of knowledge.

Over the course of one Ramadan, with some friends, I studied the largest of the hadith [Prophetic saying] collections, 16 volumes of Kanzu’l Ummal of Muttaki’l Hindi, which contains more than 46,000 hadiths, from cover to cover. Likewise, even if not with the same intensity, I have studied some important works in the fields of Islamic Fiqh [Islamic Jurisprudence], Tafsir, Tasawwuf [Sufism], and Balaghat [Rhetoric] collections, and some of them several times. I have loved reading since I was a kid.

My love of reading began in my childhood with siyar, namely the biography of our dear Prophet, and the stories of the Companions. In later years, it continued with scholarly works of intellectual and philosophical books. Meanwhile in addition to the Eastern classics, with the advice of one of my superiors in the army, I read almost all of the Western classics. As I tried to get to know the masters of the Eastern classics like Rumi, Sadi, Hafiz, Molla Jami, Firdawsi, Anwari, I tried to know, through their works, Shakespeare, Balzac, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Zola, Goethe, Camus, Sartre. Besides those I also read Bertrand Russell, Pushkin, Tolstoy and some others. I have researched many different subjects from Bacon’s logic to Russell’s theoretical logic, from Pascal to Hegel’s dialectic from Dante’s Divine Comedy to the relationship between subject and object in Picasso.

As I read, I discovered the subtle relationships between thought and the art and I took great pleasure in it. Alongside giants of our classical literature, like Fuzuli, Baki, Sheikh Galib and Leyla Hanım, I also read with passion the most significant writers of Turkish prose and poetry, like Yahya Kemal, Necip Fazıl, Mehmet Akif Ersoy, Sezai Karakoç, and also Namık Kemal, Şinasi, Tevfik Fikret.[1]

From the explanations of Fethullah Gülen about the sources that shaped him, two ideas become clear:

The life of a human being does not consist of two separate compartments, the material and the spiritual. This is impossible. For this reason, one should have access to both of them and benefit from each. This is the path to becoming an ideal human being.

The second is that if the mental equipment of a man of religion is limited to religious sources that man cannot benefit from the fruits of all the ideas of human civilization. He will never be a true guide for the people of our time and for the complex problems of modern life.

What is Fethullah Gülen’s understanding of history? Where does he place himself in the flow of time?

For as long as I can remember, I have always felt a yearning for the Golden Age of Ottoman history which was taught to me. I imagined and felt this time not only in my mind but in my heart.

I am unable to know what role I will play in history, or at what point I am entering. When we talk about history, as the late Turkish poet Akif reminds us,

If I had seen His rose period,
I would be nightingale.
O my Lord, I wish you had brought me
to this world a little earlier!

… my heart always roams around the Golden Age and looks for him. I sincerely believe that a time such as that can be brought onto our country again. I am grateful and thankful to God that we are living on the eve of such an age.

The way I see things we are new fresh shoots of our national roots. By thinking this way, if we anchor ourselves mentally and spiritually to the better periods of our society, we could purify ourselves of our deviations and faults. We could renew ourselves. We could find in our history the goodness and kindness that we have lost. We could discover ourselves once again to be in the ocean of meaning, we could release ourselves from the loss of identity. By virtue of creating a continuity, we establish in our minds and souls, to the extent that we could comprehend the depth that our history submits to us, we could find the strength to reconstruct it, according to the needs and the new circumstances of the new world. This would make us a part of the history as well as makers of it. What a great privilege it is to feel this way![2]

Who has influenced him the most in history?

Each one of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs [Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali] with their particular merits seems very striking to me. For instance, Caliph Abu Bakr squeezed so much good work into only two years that it is difficult for me to imagine such industry. In order to understand him, I am thinking that it is necessary to investigate the time period he was living in under a microscope. Umar brings in me a feeling of deep admiration because he opened, over a larger period, many gates into different areas of life. And yet despite all of this work, the true greatness that he achieved was in his modesty, through which he nearly erased himself. He said: “Whenever I go, I will go a happy man, for I have come into this world, and that alone is good enough for me.” He had no desire for worldly wealth and temporary power, he sought only to deepen his own piety and not refused to recognize the authority of any other than God. It is often stated that Marx was also fond of him.

When I remember Umar bin Abdul-Aziz, my eyes are filled with tears. Again I admire Fatih and especially Osman Ghazi. Compared to the acts of Fatih like the conquest of İstanbul, the things Osman Ghazi accomplished might seem to be smaller, but he is the architect of a nation. While laying the foundation of a great formation, he had employed all of his intellectual, spiritual, and physical energy onto his work and using the military and political genius which he displayed during difficult times, he accomplished great things. In short, there are certain men of action and thinkers who influenced me. This is normal but I would like to explain my views about cultural transactions: Different cultures mutually influence each other. The continuity of thought is maintained this way across generations of humans. But culture, just like garments, cannot simply be taken off of someone else’s back and given to another to wear. What happens when we try to do that? New, hybrid cultures are born. They are no longer the pure form of what they were in a previous time or geographical setting, but the exchange is that they are able to come into harmony with the features of the social and political environment in which they find themselves.[3]

A culture, take Turkish culture, for example, despite its color and richness, cannot express the same meaning to another group of people that it does for us. It cannot generate the same emotions in them. This is because culture is not made of the same stuff that material products are made of. They cannot be chosen, purchased, and taken home in the same form in which they were first encountered. It is a whole which is made up of elements of the very environment in which it developed. It is a combination of all of the different times and places and people, and belongs to this context. In fact, these two things, the culture and the context in which it exists, are inseparable. They are the same thing. In order to place it in a framework, unifying all the elements which make it up, it is necessary to think of it together with all the historical, social, and economic elements behind it. When we see it from this perspective, the first thing which becomes clear is that culture is a way of living and a set of behaviors for a given nation at a given time. The first thing that we notice is the mutual influence between the philosophy of life of a nation, reflecting its culture and its style of conduct. This is exactly what distinguishes nations from each other [these varied ways of thinking and behaving].4

However, Fethullah Gülen believes that cultural differences are not capable of dividing the family of humanity into separate parts. According to him, despite all these differences there are common characteristics, which come naturally as a consequence of being human and are bestowed on humanity by the Creator as a gift. These common traits are what bring us together. Along with the satisfaction of having food to eat and a safe place to live, all humans desire justice, freedom, solidarity, spirituality, trust, protection, respect, and the opportunity to develop their personal talents. While they manifest themselves in different forms in different societies, in the abstract they represent the essence of civilization. Thus, cultures are like rivers running into an ocean called civilization. We can only in our own way, within in our own culture, retain our existence and, at the same time, become part of the civilized world. We can have contact with other cultures in the ocean of contemporary civilization and take from them contributions to enrich our own culture.

The area that this cultural exchange occurs the most is in the fields of technology and science. A society which closes its doors to the aforementioned interaction and mutual influence will have difficulty in both retaining its own existence and protecting its cultural individuality. In the end, it would be weakened because of it. In other words, we live in a world of our own, but also in a universe that we share with others. We do both of these concurrently. To the extent that we do it, we are both ourselves in our own cultural context and part of humanity at large; we are both local and global. When we deny this multi-dimensional aspect we confine ourselves within the castles of a limited identity, which is not in harmony with our character of being human. This sort of exchange also diminishes fundamentalism and brings us together with common human values. This is a very important point in Fethullah Gülen’s thinking. It is impossible to interact effectively with other cultures unless you are the bearer of a culture that will enrich the common civilization of humanity. Fethullah Gülen believes that we are at a historical crossroads: We must revive our distinctive cultural identity—which at one time attracted great admiration from all over the world—to once again produce something which will contribute to the universal human civilization. Otherwise, we will never escape from the domination of other cultures. With these ideas, Fethullah Gülen sees our age as the proper time for Turkey to become a world leader again, the writer of history and not the object of it. To this end, it is not surprising that he instructs the followers of his movement to contribute to this process with all of their talents and enthusiasm.

[1] Ünal 2002, 509.
[2] Gündem 2005, 73.
[3] Ibid., 72–74.
[4] Gülen 1998a, 2.