Sufism and Fethullah Gülen

by Mehmet Yavuz Şeker on . Posted in Mastering knowledge in modern times Fethullah Gülen as an Islamic scholar

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Fethullah Gülen

1. Introduction

This article deals with Fethullah Gülen’s approach to tasawwuf (the spiritual life of Islam). After providing general information relating to this path, we will highlight Fethullah Gülen’s approach to and understanding of Sufism as an individual raised in contemporary Turkey with ideas and influence transcending its borders, as the subject of myriad studies and research, and as the figure after whose name university chairs have been established. Finally, detailed analysis will be provided about his unique four volume tasawwuf work Kalbin Zümrüt Tepeleri which is published in English as Emerald Hills of the Heart: Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism.

Fethullah Gülen, like many Muslims, is an individual who has chosen Sufism as a way of life. Nonetheless, we have not come across any references in his writing or speech that he identifies himself with any Sufi order or similar organizations. However, through his perception of the world as well as his profound devotion to prayer, he stands out as an individual who himself exemplifies the deep spiritual life of Islam. Providing a synthesis fusing tradition and modernity, Fethullah Gülen’s outlook and preferences with regard to Sufism are invaluable in terms of generating significant ideas for people of our modern period.

2. General overview of sufism

In this section, we elaborate the aim of Sufism, its historical development, significant phases in this development and several key concepts in its terminology. Owing to the need to restrict considerably the subject matter to a single chapter, we delineate only the Sunni strand of this exhaustive topic. Our information and approaches are those favorably received by the vast majority of Muslims.

2.1 The aim of Sufism

In Islam, the unique individual by whose example a Muslim shapes his or her life is the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. His outlook on life, his understanding and the life that he lived, have at all times—for Muslims who lived in that era and then for all those who followed—have been the key considerations that Muslims have focused on. Loving him and observing his example constitute the crucial path and primary means to attaining God’s love and forgiveness. Owing to the elevated position of the Prophet in Islam, Muslims have equated modeling their conduct on his example as drawing near to God’s pleasure, or Divine approval, and being removed from him as being removed from God’s mercy and forgiveness.

A Muslim who aspires to live their religion—in direct proportion to their effort—who trains, betters and improves himself or herself and loves and follows the Prophet of God as much as possible is, according to the expression employed in the terminology of Sufism, one who has reached the level of al-insan al-kamil (the perfected human being). When discussing a Perfected Human Being, the first figure who comes to mind is the Prophet himself:

If perfection lies in purifying the spirit and cleansing the carnal self with Divine revelation and inspiration, and in developing human faculties, overcoming bodily appetites and animal impulses, and attaining subsistence by the subsistence of His particular blessings in utmost submission and obedience to Him, so as to become thereby the most polished mirror to the Divine Names, Attributes, and Essential Qualities … then the only one who was able to achieve all these without the least imperfection … is the master of creation, upon him be the most perfect of blessings and salutations.[1]

The key elements emphasized in the citation above, including the purification of the soul, the cleansing of the self,[2] the enhancement of human faculties and realization of human potential, as well as the conquering of carnal desires, among similar considerations, constitute the subject stressed most by those who will subsequently be described using the Sufi expression “endeavoring Muslims.”[3] At this point, it is useful to note the absolute trust and reliance that aspirants have on the Sufi truth that nafs, or the self, can only attain perfection when it has annihilated its characteristic features and been freed from its yoke.

In actual fact, the Sufi considers every right step taken towards God, in ascending towards Him, as a stair for every new step taken on the path of purifying nafs. In other words, every step that he or she takes in drawing nearer to God constitutes the first movement of the next step; one step functions as the herald of subsequent steps. Spiritual ascent is the direct result of cleansing nafs, of struggle, great effort, and asceticism.[4] Concerns such as self-purification and the cleansing of nafs are mentioned first and foremost in the Qur’an and are represented as the ultimate goal: “He is indeed prosperous who has grown it (human selfhood) in purity (away from self-aggrandizing rebellion against God); and he is indeed lost who has corrupted it.”[5]

In addition to demonstrating a level of understanding greatly exceeding that of humanity by means of his heart and spiritual life, Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, also showed extraordinary capacity in overcoming bodily desires. The best behavior, conduct, words, actions and mannerisms that could possibly surface in any individual became manifest in him. The Prophet was presented by God Himself for consideration by all humanity, with the Divine call for people to try their utmost to live their lives in accordance with his example: “Say (to them, O Messenger): If you indeed love God, then follow me, so that God will love you and forgive your sins. God is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate.”[6]

This being the case, Muslims exerted themselves to bring their own lives into congruence with the life of the Prophet, aspiring to be just like him. This understanding, which would later enter Sufi terminology under the term mujahadah, or striving, revealed itself demonstrably in the lives of “endeavoring Muslims.” This is the greatest goal in the eyes of aspirants turning to God and preferring togetherness with Him to everything else, so much so that this notion has taken its place in the Sufi lexicon.[7] According to Afifi, Sufism is not contingent on deeds or actions; or on the wearing of a mantle, or sitting on a prayer mat; it depends on the action of the heart and the inclination of the soul. Sufism is challenging nafs and extinguishing the evil tendencies contained within it, refraining from pretentious claims of possession of deeds, or states and stations of the spirit and being enveloped with spiritual attributes—that is, striving in all earnestness, notwithstanding difficulty, to adorn oneself with those noble spiritual attributes—and in addition meticulously observing the example of the Prophet of God, making every effort to realize the hidden dimensions of religious knowledge.[8]

2.2. The development of Sufism

Under the development of Sufism we will provide information pertaining to the three distinct phases that represent this progression. We will first highlight the “early phase,” also known as the “zuhd period,” and will examine it as the result of an effort to emulate the Prophet. We will then consider the “Sufism” and tariqah periods respectively and highlight their unique characteristics.

2.2.1. Early phase, the zuhd (asceticism) period

During formative period of Islam the term “Sufi” was not used to describe these individuals, nor was the term “Sufism” employed to describe the path they had set out on. This era was one in which ascetics showed no material or spiritual attachment to this world. There was then no need to distinguish between Muslims on account of their worship or their level of piety. There was also no need felt to establish norms or delineate boundaries with respect to worldly attachments or to maintain a sense of balance in regard to worldly pleasures. As indicated by Ibn Khaldun, “in the second century and thereafter, when worldly inclination and attachment by Muslims became widespread, norms and boundaries and the like needed to be established. Thus the term Sufi emerged, and was particular to individuals who predisposed towards worship.”[9]

Drawing attention to this fact, Zeki Sarıtoprak points to Hujwiri’s definition: “During the time of the Companions of the Prophet and their successors, the name (Sufi) did not exist, but the reality of Sufism existed in everyone.”[10]

Sarıtoprak stresses that the reality of Sufi thought and practice is much more important than the name “Sufism.”[11] In subsequent centuries, Muslims with a stronger religious disposition, who sought to understand the meaning and purpose of life, and live their lives accordingly, came to be known as Sufis.

Their preference for coarse, woolen cloaks, representing a very austere and simple manner of dress for the time, meant that—in correspondence to the Arabic term suf, denoting wool—they were called Sufis. From another perspective, they attempted to comprehend, within the confines of their finite understanding, the “Absolutely Infinite One,” and through observing His actions in the universe, aimed to fulfill the purpose of their creation.

Thus, the word “Sufi” was in use in the second Islamic century after the generation of the Companions and their successors. At this point in time, Sufism was characterized by spiritual people seeking to follow the footsteps of the Prophet and his Companions by imitating their lifestyles.[12] It is axiomatic that the Prophet and his Companions wove the pattern of their lives in this way. As such, it can be said that the Sufi path is the path on which the Prophet and his friends travelled, and the Sufi is the “endeavoring Muslim” who undertakes the task of emulating them. As a result, the name given to the time encompassing the first two centuries of Islam is zuhd, or period of asceticism. This period, in which no rule or principle outside the ambit of the primary sources of Islam existed and wherein great importance was given to worship, action and uprightness, is thus exemplified by the likes of great ascetics like Hassan al-Basri and Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyyah.

2.2.2. The “Sufi” period

Over time, Sufism transformed from this austere understanding as zuhd to having a more complex form, having its own methodology, principles, terminology and regulations. Concerned with such subject matter as identifying illnesses plaguing nafs and treating these, conducting psychological study, developing methods of riyadah (austerity) and mujahadah (striving), and embedding these within specific rules and regulations, “Sufism” began to take shape as the systematic discipline of spiritual life.

The progression of Sufism, on the whole, encompassed other further phases succeeding the zuhd period. The first of these was named the “Sufism period.” One of the other salient characteristics of this period was, on the one hand, the increased prominence given to spiritual states of learning, knowledge of God, known as ma’rifah, and wajd, or spiritual ecstasy. On the other hand, it can also be described as the phase during which asceticism, deeds and worship were of secondary importance. Figures such as Ma’ruf al-Karkhi (d. 200/815),[13] Bishr al-Khafi (d. 227/841), Dhu al-Nun al-Misri (d. 245/859), Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d. 261/874) and Junayd al-Baghdadi (d. 297/909) are illustrious Sufis of this period.

This period gave rise to two distinct currents in relation to and their emphasis on rationality. From one point of view, there appeared distinguished figures who, in addition to assigning utmost importance to knowledge, also accepted spiritual discovery and inspiration which they placed in the same category. Harith b. Asad al-Muhasibi (d. 243/857), Abu Talib al-Makki (d. 386/996), al-Qushayri (d. 465/1072), Hujwiri (d. 470/1077) and Imam Ghazzali (d. 505/1111) were among these figures. These individuals approached Sufism as a discipline and, by means of compiling texts and generating ideas, they demarcated the boundaries of Sufism.

A number of Sufis who persistently assigned lesser importance to the mind, emphasizing yearning and spiritual ecstasy instead, also emerged in this period. Hallaj (d. 309/922), Suhrawardi al-Halabi (d. 587/1198) and Attar (d. 590/1194) among others, contemporaneous with the Sufi period also took their place in the history of Sufism.

2.2.3. The tariqah period

The third and final period in the development of Sufism is the tariqah[14] period which generally accepted to begin in the eleventh century ce when its institutionalization first took place. In this period, tariqahs, the most influential of Sufi establishments, emerged and increasingly became an important element of social life. Abd al-Qadir Jilani (d. 561/1165), Muhy al-Din ibn al-A’rabi (d. 638/1240), Ahmad Rifai (d. 578/1182), Najm al-Din al-Kubra (d. 618/1221) and Baha al-Din Naqshiband (d. 791/1388) are among the notable figures who founded these Sufi orders.[15]

An important point in relation to the chronicle of the development of Sufism, the broad outline of which is encapsulated above, is propounded by Affifi. He maintains that the Sufi path in Islam was initiated by a group of individuals who possessed their own distinctive method of practice and experience of religion and spiritual struggle, or mujahadah; that is, they had defined their own tariqah. Yet Sufis did not lead systematic lives within the milieu of Sufi lodges (zawiyah) and refuges (ribat) until the end of the second Islamic century. Nonetheless, it did not take long for those people to organize regular congregations and meetings; they gathered around shaykhs, or spiritual masters, and provided committed audiences to their sermons.

While at first the masjids, or places of worship, provided the setting for such gatherings, these thereafter ensued in dhikr[16] circles. In time, a spiritual leader emerged at the head of each of these organized gatherings. Through the establishment of their own set of guidelines, each of these groups adopted their own unique method with respect to morality and spiritual training.

As can be understood from this, one of the meanings of tariqah is the particular way of life adopted by the Sufi, through adherence to and in accordance with one of the distinguished spiritual masters within their congregation; in other words, it is the complete system of teaching, principles and practice differentiating each of these congregations from one another.

However, tariqah has another, more comprehensive meaning. The term implies the spiritual, inner life that the one who is on the path—the willing disciple (murid)—leads through any means, with or without affiliation with any particular Sufi assembly or adherence to a spiritual guide. In this sense tariqah, in the literal meaning of the term, is individualistic, as each aspirant on the path to reaching God has one’s own individual life and inner realm that is experienced by one alone. Thus, as stated by one of the Gnostics of old, “the roads leading to God are as numerous as those who are on His path.”[17]

3. Crossroads encountered on the spiritual journey of the Sufi

Once a Muslim comes to the realization that the purpose of their creation begins with reaching true belief in God, with belief developing into conviction, and conviction deepening with increasing knowledge of God, and knowledge of God flourishing in the form of love, and love turning into a deep yearning to be on the path that reaches Him—and understands the natural result of all of these to be spiritual pleasure and enlightenment—they consciously become a traveler on a path to reach God. The term used to denote this journey in Sufism is sayr wa suluk (journeying and initiation). The focal point of this journey is the human “heart.”[18] In Sufi terminology, the heart (qalb) is the source of spiritual knowledge, Divine love and manifestation, as well as being the instrument of perception, consciousness, emotion, and willpower.

Ghazzali refers to the human heart as the place where God is known, and that humanity, owing to this great distinction, is elevated to the rank of the most esteemed of all creation. According to him, the heart resembles a mirror. It becomes tarnished with sins and is accordingly polished and gains luster with good deeds. The form and image of objects are successively reflected on its face. Moreover, he likens the heart to a dome encompassed by windows. Through these windows, there is a constant influx of perceptions, feelings, and emotions. Akin to a target, arrows take aim at the heart from all sides. It also resembles a pool. All channels and pipes that lead to it are poured forth into it. Hence, by virtue of its disposition, the heart is capable of receiving both Divine inspiration and satanic whisperings.[19]

The ultimate aim of one of traveling on the road to truth is to reach God’s pleasure, or approval. The term employed to describe the Muslim who has this lofty aim and who consciously sets off on this journey is salik (initiate); the great effort the salik displays in overcoming the difficulties encountered on this demanding path is thus mujahadah. Furthermore, reaching the horizon of al-insan al-kamil, or the final level of spiritual perfection, is as much a yearning for the initiate as it is an ultimate goal. A life of suffering, or chila, awaits this traveler. Through riyadah (austerity), the Sufi employs methods of training the carnal self—as recommended throughout the ages— such as restraining the appetite, maintaining thirst, reducing sleep, speaking little, engaging in regular recitation of God’s Names, restricting company with people to a minimum and, occasionally abstaining from the consumption of animal products. The reason for such trials, the least of which is the arba’in (forty days), is to curb carnal appetites, placing these under control, in order to experience glimpses of life at the level of the heart and spirit. This “traveler to the Truth,” who allots time for virtually all forms of worship in his daily life, begins arriving at knowledge that arises in the conscience, termed ma’rifah. Also defined as knowledge of God, ma’rifah is indeed a great attainment and is intimately connected with certainty or conviction of belief in God’s existence and unity, known as yaqin.

The initiate performs acts of worship in the complete consciousness of ihsan (perfect goodness), acting as if seeing Him and endeavoring to be sensitive to the truth that “even if you do not see Him, He certainly sees you.”[20]

Muraqaba, referring to living in the consciousness that one is under God’s constant supervision, is very important for the initiate. Such a traveler to the Truth regularly evaluates his present state and engages in self-criticism (muhasaba) by analyzing his deeds and thoughts. Responding to goodness, beauty and bounty in his life with thankfulness, or shukr, he acknowledges these, through his conscience, as Divine gifts and turns toward God with feelings of gratitude. One acknowledges all evil, ugliness, and deviation as stemming from oneself and so attempts to purify oneself through sincere repentance (tawbah).

The initiate, determined to reach God, notwithstanding the challenges and trials that await him, encounters particular spiritual states ( hal) and stations ( maqam) along the way. These can be considered as terminals on the road. Hal is the more readily changeable of the two; maqam, in contrast to hal, is more enduring and remains stable. In addition, it is important to note that hal is considered as a Divine gift to the Sufi, whereas maqam depends on the Sufi’s determined effort and exertion. From time to time, the traveler on the path to God experiences particular anxieties regarding worldly life. Being unable to do justice to the performance of worship, being tainted by actions that displease God and the uncertainty concerning one’s end and the future result of all one’s deeds and actions, subjects the devout believer to the state known as khawf (fear). Overwhelming the ego, this fear, while seemingly negative, in actual fact serves important functions, such as the establishment of balance, protection against feeling secure against deviation and being deceived as a result, as well as safeguarding against shatahat which will be described below. The traveler who feels stifled by khawf catches one’s breath with raja. This state produces a stockpile of hope for him. God’s eternal Mercy and the performance one displays in aspiring to be on the path leading to Him engender rays of hope within the heart of such a “friend of God.” The ebb and flow of fear and hope throughout one’s life causes one to oscillate between happiness and apprehension.

Increasingly, the initiate awakens to sensations and perceptions which are in proportion to his inner adornments, as well as being in proportion to exertion in his spiritual life. Every so often, these sensations and sentiments produce contractions within the inner world. As a result, he feels as if his spiritual prosperity has been exhausted and as though he is left exposed and in a void. Causing the heart to feel as though it is being squeezed in the palm of one’s hand, this state is identified as qabd (contraction). There is also the spiritual state of bast (expansion) which provides spiritual solace and allows the Sufi to feel nearness to God. Overjoyed and in rapture, one feels as though one has developed wings and one “flies” toward God. Each of these signifies an intimate and secret relationship between the Sufi and God.

The Sufi, who makes progress in strengthening his willpower and patience, continues on this journey called sayr ila Allah without growing weary or losing interest. Far from experiencing weariness or languor, he more often than not feels great exuberance in his heart toward his Beloved. At times it reaches the point where one has no longing for anything beyond union with Him. While burning with such ishtiyaq as one nears the end of the journey, the Sufi, having annihilated his ego, discovers the spiritual sense of being united with God. One has, in effect, become annihilated in God’s existence. Being closed off to everything other than Him, the Sufi is at this point honored with the rank of fana fi Allah (annihilation in God). Provided that one can maintain this togetherness, one is then elevated to the rank of baqa bi Allah (subsistence with God) through which one is overwhelmed by indescribable pleasure and elation. Once Abu Yazid al-Bistami relates:

On one occasion I went to hajj. I saw the Ka‘bah, but I did not see the Owner of the Ka‘bah. When I went a second time, I saw both the Ka‘bah and the Owner of the Ka‘bah. When I went to hajj for the third time, I saw neither the Ka‘bah, nor the Owner of the Ka‘bah.[21]

Abu Yazid al-Bistami’s experience during his first hajj is that which is mirrored by most people. Like all Muslims who go to hajj—witnessing the material aspect—Bistami sees the Ka‘bah, but not God who is the Unseen. His state of mind during the second hajj represents his seeing God’s signs, and manifestations of His Names everywhere that he looks. His spiritual state during his third hajj is an expression of his having purged his heart of everything other than God. This last state represents such annihilation in God and subsistence in Him that the Ka‘bah and the Owner of the Ka‘bah can no longer be distinguished from one another; the state known as istighraq, or the state of complete immersion and ecstasy does not permit any such severance.

According to Junayd al-Baghdadi, the essence of Sufism is that the servant should be removed from one’s own self and unified with God, or experience self-annihilation in God. In other words, it is capturing the state depicted in a hadith qudsi[22] where God becomes a person’s “eyes to see with … ears to hear with … hands to grasp with and ... feet to walk on.”[23] When this state is acquired, the actual and ideal identity of the physical being is now enveloped as a result of subsistence in God. However, this state, with the traveler to the Truth being entranced and intoxicated, called sakr, is temporary. After this, the servant returns to his former normal state. This return to oneself again, denoted by the term sahw, is in contrast to sakr, more objective, safer and steadier. In time, everything begins to fall into place for the salik who moves back and forth between these states.

The end of this spiritual journey, which takes many years, is sometimes not reachable in this world. This should not be understood to mean that this person did not do justice to this journey. Such a journey is particular to each person who undertakes it and is very much based on spiritual potential. Nevertheless, the end is sometimes in sight for travelers on the path. The shoreline of the seemingly limitless ocean appears at long last. The traveler to the Truth tastes ultimate union. He is henceforth wasil, or one who has reached his destination. He has received replies to all his endeavors, is rewarded for his sincere devotion to God being conferred the rank of being a wali, or friend of God, and is bestowed the honor of a nearness to God, qurbiya, that is beyond conception. A final point in relation to the end of this journey pertains to mushahadah (observation). Mushahadah has been accepted among Sufis to be the final point of this spiritual journey. It is seeing with insight (basirah), or through the eye of the heart, beyond God’s actions and Names in order to reach the horizon of recognizing the Owner of the actions and Names. The people who have been elevated to this level see gestures, motifs and signs belonging to Him in everything they observe. They ascribe meaning concerning Him to all creation. They spend their lives on this exalted horizon. An alternative to the roads travelled in order to reach God elucidated thus far, will be expounded in the second section.

4. Fethullah Gülen and Sufism

In this section, Fethullah Gülen’s understanding and interpretation of Sufism as well as aspects of his daily life will be elucidated. It goes without saying that it is not possible to take account of the entirety of his statements on this subject. For this reason, we offer a summary of the persons and institutions that shaped his spirituality and influenced his conception of Sufism.

In turn, the understanding of Sufism that he acquired over time as well as its expression in his practical life and discourse will be examined. Finally, a concise reading of his compilation, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism I–II, will be presented.

4.1. Factors influencing Fethullah Gülen’s understanding of Sufism

Fethullah Gülen emerged from an environment in which the Sufi life was both exemplified in practice and taught in theory. Islamic scholars who took their place in the history of Sufism, appearing in its later periods, occupied his interest and attention continuously. The austere life of Said Nursi, in particular, left deep and indelible imprints on him. Under this heading, we will briefly touch on the family members, teachers and Sufi masters who had great influence on Fethullah Gülen, and highlight the particular role and distinctive contribution of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi.

4.1.1. Family

Sufism is not an understanding and path that is outside the boundary of the Qur’an and the sunnah; on the contrary, it is a way of life developed for the purposes of living Islam at a much deeper level. While there have been a number of approaches and interpretations that have not been accepted or espoused by the majority of scholars, these have not taken root in common

Islamic Sufi understanding. The situation in Turkey, and expressly in the East of Turkey, in the twentieth century has been no different. That is to say, here too people were envisioning an Islamic way of life and were endeavoring to be good Muslims. Erzurum, in which Fethullah Gülen spent his childhood in the midtwentieth century, was a very conservative city. As is the case currently, Erzurum was then a city with a strong attachment to religious values and was home to many other Sufis.

The family environment in which Fethullah Gülen was brought up was a house of learning and edification; mother, father, grandfather, and grandmother were the educators in this house. His mother’s devotion to the recitation of the Qur’an, his father’s meticulousness in observing the requirements of the lawful and unlawful and his passion for worship, his grandfather’s utmost sensitivity and commitment to religious and spiritual concerns and his grandmother’s tears were the paramount determinants that would forever shape Fethullah Gülen’s spiritual life.

Two short, but quite significant anecdotes help concretize the topic: first is the occasion when Fethullah Gülen, who has not yet reached adolescence, goes to bed with the intention of delaying the late evening prayer. He subsequently hears the supplications of his mother who was weeping while entreating God to give her child a deeper consciousness of faith because he wants to delay his prayer. By the same token, his father’s muzzling of his animals when taking them through fields belonging to someone else in order to prevent them from eating what was not rightfully theirs, and the religious conscientiousness that he displayed in all matters, undoubtedly left deepseated impressions on Fethullah Gülen. He makes the following observations regarding his family upbringing and the degree of influence of key family members:

If we are to speak about a major influence on me, then before my father and my mother I became aware of my grandmother’s presence. Her serenity and profundity, which resembled calm seas, left a great impression on me. I came to understand belief and connection with God through her. Perhaps she used to laugh in the past—she smiled often—however I never once saw her engage in laughter. She was very dignified. Secondly, my father’s influence was no less significant. He lived prudently. He paid special attention to his daily prayers. He was also very tearful. He never spent his time wastefully … my father was a person who filled each and every minute of his time doing something beneficial and productive and gave particular importance to contemplation. He was completely uninterested in living aimlessly.[24]

Fethullah Gülen also does not neglect to talk about his mother. On one occasion he says “even though I may have been unable to appreciate, with a child’s limited perception, my mother’s delicacy and passion in teaching the Qur’an, her flawlessness in worship and her spending her life in suffering and sorrow, I now completely comprehend the fact that these are among the most important influences on me.”[25] Undoubtedly, there are other family members who exerted an influence on Fethullah Gülen but dealing with every individual is beyond the scope of this chapter.

4.1.2. Social milieu

A number of noteworthy Sufis—contemporaries as well as those from the past—had an influence on Fethullah Gülen. Furthermore, Fethullah Gülen’s ideas and approach to Sufism, as a synthesis of his learning from eminent Sufi figures as well as his own experience and insight, will be presented. Muhammed Lütfi Efendi (1868/1956)

Apart from the influence of family on Fethullah Gülen, the wellknown Muhammed Lütfi Efendi, also known as Alvarlı Efe, holds a significant place. Fethullah Gülen’s mother, father, maternal aunt and uncle were individuals who lived in the ambience of this esteemed figure who represented the Naqshi order in the region. Fethullah Gülen too, from a very young age, entered his sphere of influence.

He would attend his sermons, receive his compliments and would be present at dhikr gatherings called khatmi hajaqan. When Lütfi Efendi passed away Fethullah Gülen was sixteen years old. Fethullah Gülen states that this individual was the first to appeal to his consciousness and holds that his current awareness, perception and feelings are due to the insight and understanding that he gained at that time.[26]

Over the years, Fethullah Gülen has never forgotten the depth of feeling that he experienced during his youth and remembers with appreciation the incidents that gave rise to such an awareness and perception. To this day, whenever it is appropriate, he talks about the sentiments that he experienced during these childhood years. On one occasion, when addressing a question directed to him regarding austerity, he recalled Alvarlı Efe. According to Fethullah Gülen, the influence of this individual was such that despite his very old age, his sitting in a gathering on his heels for hours on end, never displaying a change of manner or demeanor, along with not talking too much, every so often invoking the name of God, is sufficient for one’s heart to skip a beat and for the human spirit to quiver as though it has been struck by electricity.

Alvarlı Efe, who was bestowed with such qualities as austerity, intensity of gaze and such profundity of belief that it became visible on his countenance, engendered such an effect when he uttered the name “Allah,” (known as lafz al-Jalal), that this was etched in Fethullah Gülen’s memory and consciousness. Fethullah Gülen did not retain the experience merely as knowledge; on the contrary, it turned out to be a key factor in the inclinations and dynamics of his heart.

It may well be said that Fethullah Gülen, despite his young age, did not participate as a neutral observer in his environment, but was in an active position through which he could maintain a high degree of benefit. He was, in other words, a very proficient observer. It is useful to note at this point his lifetime preference for shedding tears over laughter, as an example of this subconscious accumulation of insight and life experience. Salih Efendi

Another figure who influenced Fethullah Gülen in his formative years was Salih Efendi. As mentioned by Fethullah Gülen, this individual is a person of complete tamkin, tayaqquz and tawadu’. Denoting self-possession, vigilance and humility respectively, these terms determine the sum of Salih Efendi’s character and manner. Fethullah Gülen sees the impact of such individuals, who have attained wholeness in elevated conduct, on the people around them, to be more forceful than reading a book from cover to cover.

He maintains that “dry” knowledge without action is meaningless. What is essential, even if knowledge is limited, is that it is reflected in a person’s manner and conduct and that it is translated into action.

4.1.3. Prominent Sufis

Throughout his life, Fethullah Gülen has not severed his great connection with the spiritual life of Islam. In contrast, illustrious personalities in the history of Sufism have always remained a subject of significant interest for him. He has, quite intuitively, fulfilled the task of learning about them and imparting this knowledge to others. The individuals who constitute the greatest examples for Fethullah Gülen, which he strives to follow and gain knowledge, are the Companions of the Prophet of God. Presenting them as exemplars of conduct is one of the chief aims of his discussions and written works. As to those apart from the Companions, the leading personalities within the Sunni line of thought such as Abd al-Qadir Jilani (d. 561/1165), Shah Naqshiband (d. 791/1566), Imam Ghazzali (d. 505/1111), Imam al-Rabbani (d. 1034/1624), Ahmad Badawi (d. 675/1276), Hasan Shazali (d. 656/1258) and Abu al-Hasan al-Kharaqani (d. 425/1034), have served as signposts along the way for Fethullah Gülen.

In addition to these individuals, Fethullah Gülen was influenced by the works of Sufi scholars such as Harith al-Muhasibi (d. 298/909), Kalabazi (d. 380/990), Abu Nasr Sarraj al-Tusi (d. 378/988), Abu Talib al-Makki (d. 386/1006) and Abd al-Karim al-Qushayri (d. 477/1084); and, having also been exposed to the thoughts and ideas of Bishr al-Khafi (d. 227/841), Abu Sulayman al-Darani (d. 215/830), Junayd al-Baghdadi (d. 298/911), Dhu al-Nun (d. 245/860), Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 672/1273), Muhyi al-Din ibn al-A’rabi (d. 638/1240) and Muhammed Lütfi (d. 1375/1956), he has enriched his own thought.

In actual fact, Fethullah Gülen speaks very highly of the leading Islamic scholars of the early generations of Islam, known as salaf al-salihin. His discussions about them and his portrayal of examples from their lives are all directed towards enabling current generations to lean towards a spiritual life and to establish a strong connection with God. As can be seen from the names that have been mentioned above, Fethullah Gülen possesses a rich and extensive background in Sufism. This has, moreover, prevented his being limited to any one tariqah directly and has afforded him the opportunity to benefit, in the midst of great diversity and dynamism, from this vast legacy.

4.1.4. Bediüzzaman Said Nursi ( d. 1960)

Bediüzzaman Said Nursi has a significant influence on Fethullah Gülen’s thoughts. Coming to know Bediüzzaman by means of his works and through his students, and having never seen him in person, Fethullah Gülen has profound knowledge on his ideas and philosophy.

Bediüzzaman is an Islamic scholar who succeeded in reflecting the spiritual side of Islam with extraordinary earnestness and discipline during his life. Never describing himself as a darwish or Sufi, Bediüzzaman took the Qur’an and the Prophet’s life as examples that he held in high regard and from which he received spiritual sustenance. Nevertheless, the turbulent conditions of the period in which he lived caused him to remark, “this time is not the time for tariqah.” While saying this, he was presumably referring to the institutional, structural dimension of tariqah. As for the personal, individual dimension of tariqah or Sufism, this manifested itself in Bediüzzaman’s life in a very vivid manner. Indeed before us stands a man of worship who had the Qur’an by his side, and who went through volumes of selected prayers three to four times the size of the Qur’an every two weeks, and a hero of service, who was ready at any moment to give himself up for the salvation of all humanity. In his depiction of Bediüzzaman, Fethullah Gülen makes the following comment:

His behavior was shaped by the two parts of his pure inner character: the first was a heroic person, a great soldier of conscience, a man of love and enthusiasm; the second was a farsighted thinker, leading his contemporaries from the fore, a balanced intellectual putting forward outstanding plans and projects.[27]

Bediüzzaman, undoubtedly, is an Islamic scholar who has simultaneously realized thought, practice, and action in his life; he is one of the key sources of the interplay between these elements also readily observed in Fethullah Gülen’s life and discourse.

4.2. Fethullah Gülen’s spiritual life

Fethullah Gülen has approached Sufi life from the aspect of the individual, personal domain; he has considered it to be an articulation of a person’s belief in and connection with God. Fethullah Gülen, maintaining that “Sufism is the spiritual life of Islam; while tariqah constitute this spiritual life in disciplined forms,” has himself been able to formulate the spiritual aspect of Islam in his own personal life. However, this achievement has in no way taken the shape of a tariqah. It has, instead, manifested itself through a heightened sensibility, performing worship with great fervor and dedicating life in its totality to God, that are all expressive of a complete Islamic way of life. For this reason, he has not been concerned with words or form. He has neither seen himself as, nor approved of others characterizing him as a shaykh, Sufi or darwish. Moreover, concerns such as forming a close connection with God, grasping the essence of Islam, capturing the spirit of worship and ascending to the life of the heart, have never been omitted from his agenda.

If he so wished, Fethullah Gülen could have transformed his current standing very easily to that of a tariqah shaykh, and could have enabled his environment to take on the organizational structure of the classical form of tariqah.

For example, he could have allowed people to kiss his hand,[28] and by giving those around him specified daily recitations and supplications within the framework of a specific code, he could have readily engendered a shaykhmurid, or masterdisciple relationship. However, he has not done this. Keeping Sufi considerations at the individual level, he has simply encouraged others, addressing everyone in general, to strengthen their belief in God. He advised them to be closer to their Creator and devote their lives to Him. He extols the virtues of spiritual life, but does not institutionalize this. In the position that he holds, he has always preferred to remain inspirer to a movement and guide to a community in the role of dedicated teacher and mentor.

Possessing a remarkable opportunity for worldly gain, while not displaying an inclination toward it; his success vis-à-vis modern societal relations, at the same time as preserving his traditional identity and his demonstration of willpower in living a life in accordance with pleasing only God, Fethullah Gülen can be described as an unmitigated “modern ascetic” and a “modern Sufi.” In any case, for him zuhd, or asceticism, is “forsaking the world in the heart, not in practice”[29] and the measure for this is “feeling no joy at worldly things acquired or grief over worldly things missed.”[30] As he himself emphatically maintains, worldly opportunities and wealth are not obstacles to zuhd, on condition that one does not lose command of these and provided that these do not give rise to heedlessness of God.

Along with the abovementioned, Fethullah Gülen has for many years been implementing principles which are prominent in traditional Sufi understanding and which are crucial to attaining a life of the heart. These involve the preservation of balance in eating and drinking, sleeping, speaking and in interactions with people.

4.3. Sufi manifestations in Fethullah Gülen’s practical life

Earnestness, love, sorrow, and worship are central to Fethullah Gülen’s life. His solemnity—seeing Sufism as a profession of earnestness, and maintaining that Sufism can under no circumstances harbor impudence—propels those around him constantly towards prudence and vigilance. In that matter, it is not easy to become familiar with Fethullah Gülen. Casualness, familiarity, and insolence are elements that cannot be found in his presence. The problems of the people who are inspired from him, the conditions and circumstances of the Muslim world and indeed of all humanity, are all of great concern to him; such interest and concern are revealed in the form of spiritual anguish and sorrow.

These qualities are so active and effective in Fethullah Gülen that all those in his presence unavoidably enter his field of influence and try to keep themselves constantly in check. Those who are aware of Fethullah Gülen’s life sometimes equate his experience of ghurba (separation) with the term “loneliness.” They speak of his being lonely even when in the company of people. However, in actual fact, Fethullah Gülen pursues a level of subsistence that is beyond this meaning— “living among the people, but constantly being with God.” Perhaps it is this manner of being that some construe as “loneliness.” Fethullah Gülen rarely leaves the place where he lives, and thus colors it with his presence. Such places become completely wrapped up in “otherworldliness.”

In short, just as we have described Fethullah Gülen as a modern ascetic and Sufi, we can certainly say that his personal place of residence, in terms of its purpose, serves like a modern Sufi lodge. Indeed, there is no doubt that Fethullah Gülen cultivates a Sufi culture in his immediate personal surroundings, at least, and he describes this culture as the context where “(he) first opened (his) eyes, and galvanized (his) spirit.”

4.4. Commitment to irshad (guidance) and becoming an heir of the Prophet

The era of the Prophet and his Companions has served as the ideal model for all subsequent ages to follow. All “endeavoring Muslims” from that time on have made as their greatest objective the bringing of their lives into conformity with the lives of the people of the “Age of Happiness.”[31] The most salient feature of the Age of Happiness is the manner of living a “guidancecentered life,” also referred to as the “Profession of the Companions.” Fethullah Gülen describes this as the basis for being a true Muslim; and when indicating that Divine deliverance is contingent upon the struggle and endeavor to deliver others, he reinforces the same point. This approach has prevailed in Fethullah Gülen’s way of life. Expressed differently, Fethullah Gülen has woven the fabric of his life around this belief. For this reason, in Sufi understanding the emphasis is on living a life that is on par with the Companions. That is, establishing a very close connection with God on the one hand, and striving to enable others to establish a strong connection with their Creator on the other. Such a way of life has been described as “guidancecentered,” or living as an “Heir of the Prophet.” This is the message that Fethullah Gülen epitomizes to the utmost degree and expresses to as many people as he can.

At this level of life, there is no move to reclusion and isolation from people. On the contrary, there is a “conscious association” with people. This is attempting to live with a sense of responsibility like that of the Companions, and striving to be a means to raising the level of life of others to new heights. In Fethullah Gülen’s preference for such a life is presumably the endeavor to engender a connection between modern human beings and their religion, without isolating them from the opportunities and realities of modernity.

In addition, the central requirement of this path is never severing connection from God. Fethullah Gülen’s way of putting his own Sufi understanding into practice is to maintain his “conversation with the Beloved” even when he is among people, and refuse to commit even the slightest error which could injure this personal connection with God Almighty. This is his being “among the people, but with God,” as mentioned earlier. At this juncture, it is worth mentioning Fethullah Gülen’s own words on this issue:

Indeed, the hero of the heart is, as the Qur’an and the Messenger of God have told us, the person of truth, who sees, thinks, and acts with all the faculties of such a conscience; whose sitting and standing are mercy, whose words and speech are mildness and agreement, and whose manners are politeness and refinement. They are the people of heart and truth who reveal and teach others the secret of knowing and perceiving the creation from the inside, who can express the true meaning and purpose of creation. The ultimate goal of such devout people is vast and very important, namely to carry every soul to eternal life, to offer everyone the elixir of eternity, and by escaping completely from their self, their personal interests, and their concerns for the future, they are able to be either in the depths of their self and inner world, or to be in the objective world, or to be in their world of the heart or to be in the presence of their Creator, and to observe and retain such significant and diverse relations all at the same time. Despite their own physical and material needs or poverty, they are a keen volunteer and altruist, and are always occupied and preoccupied with planning the happiness of the people around them. They are always developing for the community in which they live projects of peace, prosperity, and welfare, like beautifully expanding patterns of embroidery. In the face of the sufferings and miseries experienced by their community and the whole of humanity, with a heart similar to one of God’s messengers, they endure palpitations, exasperation, and pangs of conscience.[32]

Fethullah Gülen describes two facets of the purpose of the creation of human beings. On one hand, there is recognizing and knowing God, discerning him through the conscience and being immersed in the signs and manifestations of His existence. This constitutes the choice to live a life aimed at forming an intimate connection with God at a personal, individual level and continually striving to strengthen this bond.

Affirming God’s existence and enabling others to reach knowledge of Him constitutes the second facet of the ultimate purpose for creating humanity. Without this, God’s objective in creating humanity cannot attain complete fruition. With his forceful emphasis on this element, Fethullah Gülen rescues Sufism from passivity. In other words, through reconciling the need and constant effort to develop oneself spiritually with thinking of others and the altruistic desire to “let others live,” a complete Islamic understanding is realized and Sufism takes on a very dynamic form. In short, according to Fethullah Gülen, the purpose of humanity’s creation is to know and reveal God’s existence.

5. His book on Islamic mysticism: Key concepts in the practice of Sufism

As maintained by Fethullah Gülen, the work that he dedicated a significant portion of his time is entitled Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, the original being published in Turkish in four volumes. In this work, key concepts in the terminology of Sufism such as ikhlas (sincerity), ihsan (perfect goodness), mushahadah (observation), sayr wa suluk (journeying and initiation) and hal-maqam (statestation) are taken up in the structure of separate articles.

The topics expounded upon in this work gain a new form by means of the writer’s distinct style. In its approach to the subject matter, knowledge imparted “from the inside” holds as much importance as the information conveyed from external sources. Above and beyond a study of the myriad themes and the collation of key terms, one can say that the most pronounced characteristic of this work is the way in which the themes are directed by feeling and insight. Put differently, while Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism is a succinct explication of classical Sunni Sufism, its achievement continues beyond this.

In this compilation, Fethullah Gülen’s grasp of the Turkish language as well as his proficiency in religious and Sufi matters is axiomatic. Indeed, his use of an expansive vocabulary on the one hand, and his command of the Sufi lexicon on the other, lends great appeal to this work. In Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, lengthy, intense and even hidden matters are presented to current generations in a manner appropriate to their understanding and comprehension. Moreover, there is also no absence of topics that are difficult to fully understand, even after several readings, indicating the multilayered nature of the subject at hand and complexity of thought in its approach to the subject matter.

An important point to note at this juncture, with regard to the way in which themes are introduced in Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, is that in addition to being in conformity with the tradition of Sufism which has been transmitted through the ages, the elements conveyed between the lines ensure that aspiration and ardor emerge from the reader. And sure enough, in virtually everyone who engages in close examination of this work there is kindled the desire and enthusiasm to demonstrate the topics they read about in their own personal lives. This is what is believed to be one of the author’s most important aims, if not the most important guiding principle, in writing this text.

Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, at the same time, presents to its readership another Nursireferenced path. This path is an alternative to the paths hitherto described that pave the way to achieving a “life at the level of the heart and the spirit” and/or becoming a “perfected human being.”

One of the two topics that will be explained under this heading is the alternative path, referred to as the “path of ajz (helplessness), faqr (poverty), shawq (joyful zeal), and shukr (thankfulness). Subsequently, a small bouquet of the new interpretations, contributions, and angles brought to bear on Sufi thought by Fethullah Gülen will be presented.

5.1. The path of ajz, faqr, shawq, and shukr

The aim of Sufis has been to enter a special relationship of closeness to God. This journey, which is geared towards this objective, on one hand features the endeavor to attain spiritual knowledge of God, referred to as ma’rifah, and on the other hand, the consideration of the human being by way of which Sufis have sought to understand themselves with all their positive and negative attributes. The nature of “knowing” suggested in the aphorism featuring heavily in Sufism, “The one who knows their own self, knows their Lord too,” has been interpreted in the following two ways:

The first is the kind of knowing that has at its centre opposing forces. According to this, to the degree that a person acknowledges their own neediness, they will see God as free from and beyond all needs. One who sees oneself as insignificant and without value, will exalt and glorify God. One who perceives their transience will have no doubt about God’s Infinite nature. One who sees one’s own poverty comes to fully understand God’s absolute wealth. The second interpretation is that humanity has been created in a form that is indicative of the Divine Being with traits that are indicative of the Divine Ones, and has been bestowed the rank of God’s vicegerent. Accordingly, whoever understands form also understands the Owner of form. Ibn Arabi, by means of the al-insan al-kamil (the perfected human being) theory, appropriated this meaning.[33]

Since the early centuries of Islam, Muslims have discovered diverse paths and methods in their attempts to reach the pinnacle of what is humanly possible in closeness to God, or in rising to the consciousness of forever living under God’s power—attaining conviction of belief in God’s existence, increasing their love and respect for Him and refraining from being occupied with anything else other than Him—and they have implemented these practices in their lives. The Naqshibandi tariqah, from among these, have developed specific criteria determining a Muslimstance before God Almighty, described as an individual’s renouncing the world, renouncing the Hereafter, renouncing their own existence, and then renouncing the very act of renunciation itself—condemning it to complete oblivion. Said Nursi, however, discovered the path which he describes as being shorter, sounder and more assured; called the path of ajz, faqr, shawq, and shukr. And Fethullah Gülen, broadening this road, has continued to introduce it to others.

Like other paths leading to God, this path can also enable human beings to attain closeness to Him. Just as people who progress on other roads can glimpse the horizon of the heart and the spirit, travelers on this road can earn the elevated distinction of being a perfected human being. Ajz, or helplessness, the first principle of this path means that human beings recognize their own powerlessness. God has created humanity as dependent and needy. Human beings are innately powerless to attain the majority of their desires and expectations. The needs of their spiritual lives in particular, by nature, exceed even the bounty of the world. It is God Almighty alone who is able to fulfill these needs and wants in their entirety. As a result, helplessness is not one person’s servility with regard to another person; it is the name given to the feeling engendered as a result of a person’s effort to fully discern their own condition as well as God Almighty’s infinite power. Put differently, it is their perceiving, with respect to themselves, that they are nothing in the face of Eternity and their adjusting their stance in accordance to this.

Poverty (faqr) denotes a “lack of capital.” When individuals reflect upon what they possess in comparison with God’s power and wealth, they come to perceive their own nothingness and become fully conscious of God as everything. In short, human beings come to realize that the relationship between them and God Almighty can be described as a “nothing-everything” relationship. This realization enables them to attract and attain God’s guardianship and protection. Giving up the notion of their personal particular power and strength, they seek refuge in His absolute power and might.

Shawq, or joyful zeal, should be understood in terms of the notion of “not falling into despair, not panicking, and not living with the trepidation of taking a wrong step or erring.”[34] It is the name given to the act of continually keeping one’s inner world, or “system of self-interrogation and self-control,” alive and dynamic.[35]

Shukr, thankfulness, suggests the act of responding to the bounties bestowed by God. Being an action of the heart, shukr safeguards human beings from ingratitude and serves as the means of devotion and worship to the One who is the Bestower of these bounties. Affection and reflection have also been considered underlying principles of this path. Fethullah Gülen summarizes the essentials thus:

Helplessness, poverty, affection, reflection, zeal, and thankfulness are the basic elements of this way. Helplessness means being aware of one’s inability to do many of the things that one wants to do, and poverty denotes the awareness of the fact that it is God who is the real Owner and Master of everything. Embracing everybody and everything because of Him is affection, while reflection is thinking deeply, analytically and systematically about and meditating on the outer and inner world, with a new excitement every day. Zeal is the great, ardent desire and yearning to reach God and to serve in His way. Always thanking God for His bounties and proceeding to Him in full consciousness of all His blessings during the journey is thankfulness.[36]

Said Nursi’s belief in this path has undoubtedly played a vital role in Fethullah Gülen embracing this way of life and presenting it to others. Indeed, so reliable and secure is this path that one can say that these principles lie hidden in practically all the paths and ideas that people have thus far put forward in order to approach God. If the fundamental purpose for human beings is to recognize their insignificance in the face of God Almighty and observe the Divine Names and Attributes that are ceaselessly exhibited on the countenance of the universe, the effectiveness of the aforementioned principles in enabling one to reach this aim defies all expression.

There seem to be “outwardfacing” and “inwardlooking” dimensions in Fethullah Gülen’s understanding of Sufism. The outwardfacing aspect is directed towards preventing people from being annihilated by the modern world. There are Muslims who, being preoccupied with an outer shell and form, lose the essence of religion. The importance, therefore, of offering them a path that can prevent them from becoming peoples devoid of spirituality should not be overlooked. It appears that the opportunity for people in the modern world to attain life at the level of the heart and spirit via the tradition of seclusion, as practiced in the early period, has greatly reduced. Furthermore, Fethullah Gülen believes that this way is a compelling alternative allowing the individual in contemporary society to experience a life lived at this spiritual level. Such an emphasis can also be understood as Fethullah Gülen’s taking a precautionary measure against the negative correlation between Islam and a hollow “right/wrong” or “do/don’t” attitude, or the diminution of religious spirit and meaning.

A crucial consideration regarding the inwardlooking dimension of this topic pertains to people who are engaged in serving God’s cause, who are present in public life and are continually among people. It is essential that such people, who undertake the task of the moral and religious guidance of others, known as the profession of the Companions, shield themselves, seeking protection in a spiritual greenhouse against degeneration and corruption. As such, they will fulfill their duties in the strata of society, with God’s permission, with a more acute awareness and a greater consciousness. Consequently, this path possesses the capacity to protect and offer sanctuary to such people.

5.2. New interpretations, contributions, and angles in Sufi thought

As far as can be seen, Fethullah Gülen, by way of Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, has expressed in writing the life of the heart that he has been speaking about publicly for many years; as such, he makes tangible all that has been said thus far. He invites the people of his time, who are becoming increasingly bound with materialism, to another life beyond the limited, narrow one of their experience. He extols the merits of a life befitting the purpose of creation and inspires Muslims to live such a life, in order for them to attain an Islamic sensibility at this elevated degree. Whilst doing this, he clarifies that ordinary people can also participate in this endeavor. In the past, the task of guiding others could only be undertaken by those who had received special training and instruction. Fethullah Gülen states:

A murshid (guide) is one who pronounces his or her cause and ideals in virtually all spaces without entertaining any expectation and with a complete spirit of devotion, exerting the greatest possible effort and acting as a bridge between the one who attains and that which is attained.[37]

By this means, he conveys his conception of guidance as the task incumbent upon every discerning Muslim, as opposed to a select few. Another facet of Fethullah Gülen’s contribution to classical understanding can be seen through his thoughts on the subject of tawbah (repentance). In addition to the already recognized conditions of repentance, he introduces the notion of making amends for the past.[38] In his view, a Muslim incurs a loss and experiences spiritual descent with each sin that they commit. A person who errs should feel remorse because of his sin, resolve upon never repeating it, and turn to God in sincere repentance. Apart from fulfilling these conditions, he must compensate for that particular loss and weakness and in order to regain his position must display even a greater performance and commitment.

According to Fethullah Gülen, the sainthood ( walayah) acquired by means of the recommendations of the traditional path is “subjective” or “personal.” This is the specialized meaning of sainthood in the sense of affiliation with a spiritual master, and that which is attained through such means as spending periods of time suffering, whereby the initiate keeps to the absolute minimum in meeting carnal needs such as eating, sleeping and speaking, and is preoccupied with reaching amazement and finding God. This kind of sainthood is conferred by God and is not open to everyone. It encompasses spiritual stations upon one who strives with great devotion and rigorously pursues this path, and has, within it, its own specific degrees. There is also the sainthood accessible to all, referred to as “objective” sainthood. The preconditions of this form of sainthood are linked to belief in God and the carrying out of righteous acts.

Whilst Fethullah Gülen has broadened the road of Sufism by means of his new constructions and contributions, he has occasionally made a particular choice from among earlier interpretations and descriptions. For example, he points to the fact that khawf, which denotes fear, has two meanings, awe and reverence; in contrast to the perpetual thoughts of “fleeing” by those who choose awe, the possessors of reverence (respect for God) adopt the approach of taking refuge in Him. Subsequently, through the statement, “Despite knowing everything that could be known, the Prophet did not flee, did not wish to escape from his position and did not want a change in state.

On the contrary, he still chose to seek refuge in God Almighty,” Fethullah Gülen expresses his preference for a “refugedimensional” approach.[39]

Fethullah Gülen has also observed a distinction between the terms mutasawwif and “sufi.” After indicating that he concurs with the interpretation of Shaykh al-Islam Mustafa Sabri Efendi, he suggests that it is more correct to refer to those who undertake philosophical endeavors and remain, for the most part, in the theoretical domain of Sufism as mutasawwif, and those who personally practice and embody its principles as Sufis. As demonstrated with the examples above, Fethullah Gülen does not endorse and adopt all existing ideas within a technical context; in contrast, he examines and questions these and brings to the fore new understandings and insights.

6. Conclusion

Fethullah Gülen was raised in a family and social environment nested in Sufi spiritual life. Subsequently, he made a conscious and concerted effort to concern himself with Sufism, in the belief that this way is the essential preserve of Islam.

The Sufi masters that he follows and presents as model human beings have taken as their foundation the Qur’an and sunnah and have taken on board all the ideas that they have propounded—in line with these primary sources—within the underlying tenets of Islam. Fethullah Gülen’s approach to Sufism is no different. Given that in a Muslim’s life, no greater virtue than that of emulating the elevated example of the Prophet can be conceived, this great ideal has guided Fethullah Gülen also. He has personally exemplified a life centered on the Qur’an and sunnah and has incessantly spoken of its great merits. In short, he has never tended toward providing personal interpretations of the insights and perceptions he has experienced in his spiritual life. On the contrary, he has intensified the color of the Sunni teachings and balanced elements within Sufism and has always maintained that any idea and discourse outside this understanding constitutes deviation.

Fethullah Gülen believes that “spirituality” and “morality” lie at the essence of Islam, and that Sufism is “the path followed by an individual who (has) been able to free himself or herself from human vices and weaknesses in order to acquire angelic qualities and conduct pleasing to God.”[40] The most important facet illustrated in Fethullah Gülen’s life and discourse—what he describes as the journey of endless endeavor to the Infinite One—is a person’s trying to reach God Almighty and enabling others to reach Him also. He says that this notion is what lies at Sufism’s core.

Fethullah Gülen presents the path discovered by Said Nursi for those whose hearts and minds have become preoccupied with worldliness, and wants them to establish a close connection with the Lord. At the same time as recommending such a life to others, he has both implemented the approach of the Sufi tradition of old, and also fulfilled the norms and principles of the ajz, faqr, shawq, and shukr paths. In this way, as a modern Sufi, Fethullah Gülen sustains what we have termed the “modern Sufi lodge” as his personal living space. If the masters who rightfully assume their place in the history of Sufism were alive today, they too would adopt a way of life akin to that exemplified by Fethullah Gülen.

[1] Gülen 2004f, p. 291.
[2] The term used in Sufi terminology to describe the self is nafs.
[3] Ghayra (endeavor) literally means exerting utmost effort and concern in preserving one’s purity, honor, and esteem.
[4] Afifi 2004, p. 147.
[5] 91:9–10.
[6] 3:31
[7] For instance, according to Junayd al-Baghdadi, Sufism is “your being together with God without entertaining an interest in anything else” (Al-Qushayri 1972, p. 127). According to Ali b. Sahl al-Isfahani, Sufism is (tabarri) removing oneself from all other than God and separating from those apart from him (Mulla Jami’, p. 116). Shibli describes the Sufi as one who is always with God or in His presence, so that they see no one else and feel attachment to none other than God (Al-Hujwiri 1979, p. 39).
[8] Afifi 2004, p. 56.
[9] Ibid, p. 34.
[10] From Reynold A. Nicholson’s translation of Kashf al-Mahjub and cited in Lings, 1993, p. 34.
[11] Sarıtoprak 2003, pp. 156–69.
[12] Gülen 2000f, p. xxiv.
[13] Dates are After Hijrah (Islamic calendar) / Common Era.
[14] Term used to denote the structured Sufi orders.
[15] Selvi 1997, pp. 24–26.
[16] Dhikr refers to the recitation of God’s Names, ritualized by Sufis who conducted such wor-ship individually or in groups.
[17] Afifi 2004, p. 146.
[18] As distinct from the connotation relating to its physical quality as the human body’s most vital organ.
[19] Ghazzali 1967, p. 21.
[20] Bukhari, al- Sahih, Iman, 37; Muslim, al- Sahih, Iman, 7; Abu Dawud, Sunan, 16.
[21] Afifi 2004, p. 194.
[22] A Prophetic saying whose meaning was directly revealed by God; that is, the meaning belongs directly to God and the wording to the Prophet.
[23] Bukhari, Riqaq, p. 38.
[24] Erdoğan 1997, pp. 21–22.
[25] Ibid, p. 26.
[26] Ibid, p. 28.
[27] Gülen 2005d, p. 48.
[28] Kissing the hand is often observed among Sufis as a sign of submission to a spiritual guide.
[29] Gülen 2005e, p. 203.
[30] Gülen 2000f, p. 43.
[31] In the Islamic context, the “Age of Happiness” denotes the era in which the Prophet lived and guided his community.
[32] Gülen 2005d, p. 84.
[33] Afifi 2004, p. 166.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Gülen 2004f, p. 281.
[36] Ibid, p. 276.
[37] Gülen 2005b, p. 38.
[38] Gülen 2000f, p. 18.
[39] Gülen 2005e, p. 219.
[40] Gülen 2000f, p. xiv.