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The ethical considerations of Fethullah Gülen and his movement are made up of what components?

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

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Fethullah Gülen

There are several components that make up Fethullah Gülen’s ethical considerations:

a. An appropriated and internalized ethics

Fethullah Gülen accepts the concept of internalized ethics and morality. The Gülen Movement sees ethics as a social phenomenon based on the individual. In the basis of this conception of ethics lies appropriated and internalized ethics.

As a man of religion Fethullah Gülen finds this conception in Islam but suggests that, in practice, religion is not the only source of ethics, as the decisions that people make also have some voice in the matter. For Fethullah Gülen, the conscience is a bridge between faith and action. It has to be.

Ethical principles and good conduct are acquired through education; and therefore, he places great importance on education. For Fethullah Gülen, being educated and pious are together, neither independently, the key to pious living. Part of piety includes self-control and the process of trimming and training one’s carnal soul. In this training, a teacher can show the way, but it is the individual who must walk on this road. Whether he or she will be successful or not depends upon the will of the individual, and his or her efforts will finally be evaluated at the end of a lifelong struggle. Because of this, ethics, namely the vastness of conscience, is a bond which unites the individual with society, and makes the two parts of a single whole.

At this point, we are confronted with a seemingly perplexing concept in the Fethullah Gülen philosophy: the notion of a modern Turkish Renaissance. As he developed his teachings, he stressed that an ethical, tolerant and just society would not waste its energy quarrelling or exhausting its resources through corruption. It would be a place where citizens could trust each other, where they would give no attention to their differences, and therefore progress and advance in their business and in their work.

The idea that a renaissance like the one which heralded the birth of Western civilization could be achieved in Turkey is very attractive to the movement’s followers. Fethullah Gülen’s courage in submitting such a possibility is part of what distinguishes him from the other leaders and intellectuals of modern Turkish society.

What is the source of this great enthusiasm? For Fethullah Gülen the matter is clear: the love of God and obeying his commandments. To the extent that one obeys God’s commandments and purifies his heart, a kind of spiritual energy will come pouring out of him. This energy sooner or later will spread and a positive result will be obtained. The name of this spiritual energy is tabligh (communication of the message).

b. Tabligh

Tabligh first starts with enlightenment (irshad). Enlightenment starts within the individual and continues until the person feels the presence of God in this world in the entirety of his own soul–body–action. The human who can achieve this mental state is now both himself and all humanity. He is the person God created him to be. At this stage, the wholeness of the Creator–created has been achieved. The one who is enlightened can also enlighten others. To accomplish this, he has to find those who also are searching for the straight path. As much as this invitation is delivered to the larger masses, tabligh is spread. The individual quest for meaning is the struggle of the modern age. This struggle is not something which can be achieved by violence or weapons. Indeed, the call of the Gülen Movement in this regard is: Individuals should build a just, ethical and mutually supportive society without deceiving or exploiting each other; they should always help those in need, including with their education; and as a community, they should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone else.

Just like the message of the movement, the method to achieve it is also peaceful and nonviolent. The method starts with an invitation and continues with irshad. The meaning of the invitation is this: If you want to be an upright and ethical person in the way of God, to be vast enough in conscience as to accommodate all of humanity, then “Come!” In statements such as this an echo of Rumi’s call can be heard in our era through the voice of the Gülen Movement.

c. Tabligh and tamsil (representation)

For Fethullah Gülen, the practices which represent the tabligh are just as important as the inspiration. Otherwise, even the most valuable ideals and the most beneficial thoughts could not go beyond abstract advices. Who can establish this bridge between thought and action? This question is about a phenomenon related to worldly talents and realities, as much as it is related to the organic wholeness between the one who offers his hands and the one who takes those hands (this refers to a famous Sufi practice in which the initiate holds the hands of the guide in order to initiate the process of a spiritual journey in Sufism). Every process of tabligh has an aspect related to tamsil (representation). The one who makes the tabligh should be able to represent in his own life the values and the knowledge he propagates at the same time. This means that the one who makes the tabligh should be able to practice it, to live according to the values he preaches, and to execute in his life the ethical rules he defends. The carrier, if he cannot represent the value and the measure he carries, cannot impart them to others. Fethullah Gülen finds this relationship in the sincere, emotional, and trustworthy bonds of the Prophets, the Companions, and the Apostles. Otherwise, he believes, an ideal cannot turn into a movement, a movement into a cause, and a cause into an organizational activity. According to Fethullah Gülen, tabligh and tamsil are the complementary parts of the same whole. He explains this relationship thus:

Those who want to reform the world must first reform themselves. If they want to lead others to a better world, they must purify their inner worlds of hatred, rancor, and jealousy, and adorn their outer worlds with virtue. The words of those who cannot control and discipline themselves, and who have not refined their feelings, may seem attractive and insightful at first. However, even if they somehow manage to inspire others, which they sometimes do, the sentiments they arouse will soon wither.[1]

Fethullah Gülen believes that the cause of all the chronic problems that we witness in the Islamic world is the lack of the representation aspects of the rulers and leaders. It soon becomes obvious that those who claim to be saviors cannot save anyone, other than themselves. Those who follow them are heartbroken and lose trust. According to Fethullah Gülen,

What is lacking in the Islamic world is not science, technology, or wealth. … All of these have influences of their own; but the most important aspect of all is the image that we give out as a believer.

The interpretation of Islam [by others] depends on our behavior and conduct. …

… Further, just as we need the Qur’an, the Qur’an also needs us. It needs sincere people whose hearts have become the Qur’an in order to express it. For all of its awe-inspiring glory, if there is no one to represent it, it can do little more than sit on a shelf. The Qur’an has always served as a guide for people in the form of a concrete and unchanging soul, but there were times when its voice reverberated. It echoed across the four corners of the world.

There were other times when it kept quiet, as if its lips were sealed, and it was locked in a drawer in the bedrooms, kept in velvet covers.[2]

Fethullah Gülen expresses a social message through religious discourse. He is a man of religion and this is the language which comes naturally to him. He uses this discourse to communicate effectively the idea that those who receive the commandment of God and apply it in their lives can elevate our global community to a higher level. He states that the Qur’an is too often hidden in a remote place, like expensive jewelry, divorced from daily life by those who do not appreciate its importance. The aim of this correct and courageous ascertainment is to stress the fact that it is because of the ignorance of humans that this sacred text has not yet wielded the influence of directing life to a greater degree in society. The light is there, but it is the human who must accept the light or not. The human must be brought to maturity to choose the light; this is precisely the aim of enlightenment and tabligh. Fethullah Gülen explains as follows:

In brief, each one of us should work to provoke those who see us to say: “There could be no deceit behind this face.” We must inspire those to whom we are speaking to say that “If the force that is motivating these esteemed people of great moral character is their religion, then their religion cannot be a lie.”[3]

d. Social unity and the ideal of coming together as a community

When we examined the development of human social groups, we noted that we see groups forming by three different lines: the first by blood relations, the second by faith and the third, and historically the last one, by nationalism or faith in the existence of an “imagined group.” The success of nationalism depends on two conditions. First, the state, before everything else, must meet the needs of justice, security, equality, and welfare. And second, social differences should be reconciled through equality, freedom, and participation, and the law should reflect this social reconciliation. These are no small achievements, and they determine the difference between the developed and underdeveloped, between democratic and authoritarian, nations. Fethullah Gülen has never accepted arrested development or authoritarianism for his country and society.

Ultimately, the success of nationalism depends on the comprehensiveness and satisfying success of the nation state. Otherwise, nationalism, as it is seen in many examples, could become a source of compulsion and unrest. The turmoil and polarization (as a result of nationalism in this sense) could cause irreparable wounds in the soul of the society’s spirit and its life, and these wounds could easily be transferred from generation to generation. Fethullah Gülen had seen this danger. Instead of watching the events hopelessly, like the majority of society, he has taken the responsibility of action onto his own shoulders.

The period during which his teachings took shape and began to spread was during the dark years of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was a period during which the integrity of the state diminished and when nationalism lost its unifying character. Fethullah Gülen recognized the need for a call to bring people together. He saw the practical value in the unifying effect of religion during such a trying time.

This is a collective mission, one which does not exclude anyone and invites everyone to hear the call. Its success will be everyone’s and no one will earn anything by exploiting others. There is no other call like it in Turkey. The implementation of it does not exist at all. The success of the movement to convert this call from potentiality into reality is there for anyone to see. It is not surprising for the movement to increase the number of its adherents and its effectiveness. What is surprising is that nationalism and the nationalists do not derive any lesson from this success.

Fethullah Gülen finds the social mobilization that he calls for in religion, which he believes to be more comprehensive than any other ideology. For this reason, he has interpreted Islam anew to address the circumstances of our time. He seeks to find in Islam the most soul-stirring rhetoric in order to generate enthusiasm in virtue and ethics. It should be no secret why Fethullah Gülen’s teachings attract people who have lost hope and trust, as they believe that such a call would make them acceptable before God.

He expresses the importance of his call as such:

The Exalted Creator and seeking His approval must have the first and foremost place in every activist’s perspective. … As for works undertaken to seek the Almighty’s approval—a particle can have the worth of the sun, a drop the worth of the sea, a second the worth of eternity. … If parents are educating their children properly, if a place of worship is rousing its community with thoughts of eternity, if a school is awakening hope and faith in its pupils, we can say that they are serving their purpose and are therefore sacred. If this is not the case, they are no more than devilish traps that divert us from the truth.[4]

This philosophy provides a channel for those seeking meaning in their lives. It gives them direction that is both fulfilling and sincere.

e. Supporting each other

For Fethullah Gülen, this principle is among the central values of his philosophy. It is so important to him that if a Turkish renaissance does begin, it will be with this virtue. This is the principle around which his movement has been formed, both in theory and in practice. This principle and its implementation make the Gülen Movement both more effective and more tightly connected inside the movement than other religious movements. The members of the group are can always rely on help from other members, in all facets of life, from their education to owning businesses.

f. Sacrifice

In order for these principles to be more than an expression of good will, Fethullah Gülen attaches great importance to the virtue of self-sacrifice. According to him, there are many kinds of sacrifice, such as saving money and bringing expenses and consumption down to a minimum level so that children can receive a good education. Those who have lifejackets are still food for sharks. It is better to focus on keeping the ship floating than surviving in the water. This is accomplished by protecting the freedom, honor, security, and wellbeing of others, as much as we protect these for ourselves. The true salvation is that of the whole society. To achieve this, every individual must sacrifice. Sacrifice releases us from selfishness, greed, and jealousy. Indeed, what is the meaning of civilization, anyway? Shouldn’t we desire for everyone what we desire for ourselves and to share our acquisition with other members of society? Our individual and communal knowledge, wealth, security, respect, good manners, and faith can all be augmented in this way.

The understanding of solidarity and sharing requires a mefkure (an ideal) in the words of Fethullah Gülen, or a “utopia” in the language of the social sciences. Societies lacking this ideal are like a ship with a broken rudder. They lose their direction in the vast ocean of history and, in the end, become shipwrecked. The critical question here is whether it is possible to perceive and portray this sense of sacrifice as a humanist responsibility? According to Fethullah Gülen, such a sacrifice can be made only by altruistic people who seek nothing other than the pleasure of God and who bring their worldly expectations and pleasures to a minimum level.[5]

The participants of the movement consider Fethullah Gülen to embody this virtue. Their admiration for him not only stems from the fact that he satisfies them spiritually, but also because he encourages them to be act positively on society. To the extent that they are successful, individually or collectively, their commitment to him increases. They also express that these sentiments find a mutual response in expressions of Fethullah Gülen:

Today, we do not need just anybody. We need those who can say, “I am ready to be in the flames of Hellfire for the material and spiritual happiness of my people.” They delight in setting aside personal interests and selfishness, in destroying their carnal souls in the path of God and the nation, by holding fire in their hands, lighting torches everywhere in order to struggle against ignorance and injustice, equipped only with their faith and their determination, to help those who have been left behind, by forgetting the desire for living, pushing forward with the pleasure of enabling others to live.[6]

He often stresses the role of the ideal in inspiring others to good work. Leaders must not only vocalize an ideal but also orient people to that ideal. He explains it like this:

In my opinion, nowadays our society needs the heroes of ideals at this scale. The heroes of ideals who first extended the hands of mercy to our own nation, but then every time they open their hands to their Lord, praying for the goodness and well-being of others. Since others are incapable of meeting such a need, as a necessary consequence of where we are standing, expressing it, first starting form we are again left to us.[7]

In order to deserve this trait, the leaders have to sacrifice and exhibit modesty. Again in his words: “The bearer of an ideal burns like a lone candle in the darkness and illuminates and enlightens the others around him.”[8] And, “A true friend, even at the exit of Hell or at the entrance of Heaven, would know how to say, ‘Please, after you!’”[9] Fethullah Gülen calls the people who are equipped with these merits as the “architects of souls.” If these people are not in majority or are not effective, there is no hope for salvation or societal revival.

g. The incredible resemblance of serving God and the people

A person takes refuge in God for personal salvation. He is a citizen of a country and a member of a society as much as a servant of God. He is a social creature. Social salvation is possible only with the help of other citizens. A global problem that endangers life on earth, such as global warming or the pollution of our natural resources, requires the cooperation of all humans and their sacrifices. The traditions of Rumi and Yunus Emre that exist in our culture point directly to this idea. The notion of loving the created for the sake of the Creator and that every service we provide to others is actually serving God has a central importance in the philosophy of Fethullah Gülen. The one who is dedicated to God should prove this dedication by serving others. In Islam, the source of every kind of love is the Creator Almighty. For this reason, the spirit of devotion to God is the strongest motivation for the service to humanity. The spirit of devotion reminds us of respect, modesty, and embracing of all of God’s creatures, without discrimination. In the eyes of Fethullah Gülen, the one who is under the impact of this sentiment is:

They are completely outside of the divisive, quarrelsome considerations like “us,” “them,” “ours” and do not have an implicit or explicit, overt or covert problems. Without these petty distractions, they could spend all their days thinking of ways to be helpful to the people around them. They would be extraordinarily careful not to generate any friction with the society in which they are living. When they encounter the problems in society, they act not as a warrior but as a guide. They act virtuously in order to call people back to their virtues. They stay away from the thoughts of politics or domination, or rule in any form or shape.

Knowledge, the persistent use of knowledge, a firm ethical foundation, and its employment in every sphere of life and a virtuous faith are their fundamental characteristics.[10]

In Fethullah Gülen’s teachings, individual salvation and communal salvation are two inseparable components of the same process. What is the motivational source of this “metaphysical tension” as he refers to it? Without any hesitation, Fethullah Gülen says “the love of God.”[11] But this love does not make one to face his mind and soul only on the hereafter. It calls the individual to engage the world through his intelligence, his willpower, and his internal compass. This is how, for Fethullah Gülen, the love of God accommodates both the worldly and the other worldly. He does not give priority to one over the other. This approach conceives the human together with God and the individual together with society.

The reason that the “Fethullah Gülen Thought” appears meaningful and realistic to his followers is that, to a great extent, his inspirations and encouragements guiding e their lives overlap with their life experiences. The idea that the individual can develop himself and become wealthy by using his intelligence and free will and at the same time please the Creator is very attractive to modern social segments.

These characteristics make the Gülen Movement distinctive from other faith-based movements, which are in conflict with modernity and some of which, even express their rejection of modernity through violence. What makes the Gülen Movement effective is its link with the rising classes of Turkey and the importance it places on science and knowledge, which are among the most powerful agents of change in the world. Ironically, many movements directly oppose science for exactly this reason. For him, however, science is the external manifestation of the intelligence and creativity given to man by God. As long as it is respectful to the Divine Order, science is an expansion of Divine Knowledge.

Fethullah Gülen’s thoughts on the subject can be summarized as follows: God has given each of his servants a different face, voice, genetic structure, intelligence and set of talents. This is evidence that He intended for us to be different from each other. Thus, individual differences do not contradict Divine Order, as long as the individual is not selfish and arrogant. When an individual is selfish, harmony—which can be referred to in the seemingly contradictory phrase of “unity through diversity”—is threatened. The deeds of this type of individual turn into a futile, fruitless, and selfish materialism. This is also a part of his understanding of morality.

True sacrifice is not an ordinary sacrifice. It is the devotion of his entire being to the realization of the ideal that he has chosen. He also sees this as a yardstick of his piety. The efforts of the faithful and their generosity in sharing their acquisitions should not be without a defined purpose. It must be guided by intelligent aims. One end extends to the divine and the well-being of the soul and the other to the establishment of a better world and the well-being of all people. If an ideal is not shared by the community at large, it will never be realized. It must be spread. This is where tabligh comes into play.

Sacrifice, too, is one of the most important traits of the men of tabligh. Those who do not accept and internalize “sacrifice” from the outset can never become the leader of a cause. The leader of a cause must be ready to abandon his property, his position, his fame … at the drop of a hat. All of the things that most people are greatly attached to and accept as the purpose of their lives, he has no use for. With this degree of commitment, there is no doubt that the cause can be realized.[12]

When one sees the “Fethullah Gülen schools and universities” that have been established in various countries or meets one of the hundreds of teachers and administrators who have dedicated their lives to the values of solidarity, knowledge, and respect of other people no matter what their color, religion, ethnicity or nationality, one cannot help but to be impressed. Why else would these people travel into the remote corners of Asia or the jungles of Africa? With what kind of devotion and faith do they go there and offer a service on behalf of humanity? The question then arises: Is there another civic organization that can carry the influence and culture of Turkey beyond its borders, as effectively and on such a large scale as this one? There is not. How does the Gülen Movement achieve this? By believing in their cause and knowing that they are fulfilling their obligation to worship their Creator and serve His creatures at the same time.

[1] Gülen 2005a, 105.
[2] Gülen 2009a, 88–89
[3] Ibid., 92.
[4] Gülen 2005a, 78–79.
[5] cf. Gülen 2006a, 37.
[6] Gülen 1985, 4.
[7] Gülen 1998b, 389.
[8] Gülen 2007a, 121.
[9] Ibid., 136.
[10] Gülen 2006a, 38.
[11] Ibid., 37.
[12] Gülen 2008a, 226.