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A Sufi-type spirituality for modern societies

by Thomas Michel on . Posted in Peace and dialogue in a plural society

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Fethullah Gülen

The need for a modern spirituality

The emergence in Europe and North America of interest in the thought of Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen is a phenomenon that demands explanation. Several American universities, such as Rice and Georgetown, have held academic seminars to study the various aspects of his thought. In Europe, in the Netherlands, for example, at least four universities (Nijmegen, Tilburg, Erasmus in Rotterdam, and Amsterdam) have hosted seminars on “Forerunners for Peace,” which prominently feature the views of Fethullah Gülen and his movement.

In trying to understanding the reasons for this, I think that several factors can be mentioned. Firstly, people who feel oppressed by the materialist and consumerist character of modern life are looking for a spirituality that can point a way to live authentically and usefully, and many find such a spirituality in the writings and movement of Fethullah Gülen. Secondly, Muslims seeking a way to live their Islamic faith in modern situations and make a positive contribution to the transformation of society find in the movement a constructive interpretation of Qur’anic teaching that stresses good deeds and service to humanity. Thirdly, non-Muslims who are looking for Muslim partners with whom they can live and work together, share ideas, and form friendships find in the Hizmet Movement a body of ethically concerned individuals who are open to cooperate in a pluralist approach to issues of peace, justice, and human development. All these factors contribute to the interest in the ideas of Mr. Fethullah Gülen and the activities of the movement associated with his name shown in universities, community centers, churches and mosques.

In my paper, I cannot hope to treat all aspects of the thought of Fethullah Gülen or all the activities of the movement associated with his name. I intend to take up only one aspect, that is the Sufi-oriented spirituality of Fethullah Gülen’s interpretation of Islamic life and teaching.

A recent survey of people under the age of 30 in Europe showed that there is a decreasing interest in “religion,” but a corresponding increase of interest in “spirituality.” At first glance, this seems inconsistent, but it does reflect, I believe, a widespread and typical modern attitude. When people express disinterest in “religion,” I believe that they are referring to traditional ritual, which they consider, perhaps based on their own unhappy experience, to be dry, formalistic, and empty of deeper meaning. Conversely, their interest in spirituality reflects the need for some form of contact with the Divine in their lives. They are dissatisfied with a purely positivist approach to life and are seeking transcendent input, relevant insights which can help them deal with the challenges raised by post-modern living, a program of exercises that can help one progress on the path of personal interior growth and transformation.

Sufism, the generally accepted term for the Islamic mystical tradition, is seen by many as offering such food for the spirit. Sufism is not a single clearly defined movement, but an interrelated network of ideas and practices aimed at a deeper understanding and faithful pursuit of the Qur’anic message. Non-Muslim scholars,[1] as well as Sufis themselves,[2] who attempt to give a succinct definition of Sufism inevitably pull out certain elements and emphases that have been central among some Sufis at various periods of history, while disregarding or glossing over other characteristics that do not fit in and perhaps even contradict their definition.

For some, it is asceticism and simplicity of life that is the key to a true following of Islam. Others emphasize love as the central idea and understand the Sufi path as one leading to a union of love with God, the Beloved. For others, Sufism is a voluntarist path by which the believer, by concentrating on virtue and moral behavior, comes into a union of will with God, a state in which the mystic no longer has an independent will of his or her own, but seeks only to do the will of God. Many mystics see the Path as primarily one of knowledge, of becoming aware of the eternal Truth, the perennial wisdom of the heart that is the only sure font of true insight. Still others affirm the oneness of all existence, so that the mystical path is essentially a psychological movement toward awareness that the believer is simply a transient manifestation of the eternal One present in the cosmos and at the depths of one’s own personality. Some Sufis emphasize extraordinary mystical experience, expressed in states of ecstasy, inspired utterances, visions, and dreams, while for others the path is a contemplative pilgrimage to God residing in the silent cave of the heart.

Fethullah Gülen and Sufism

When one studies the writings and the actions of Fethullah Gülen in this context, the first question to be asked is whether he is a Sufi. At various times in his life, Mr. Fethullah Gülen has had to defend his movement from accusations that he has founded a new Sufi order, of which he is regarded as the shaykh.[3] In Turkey today, the charge of founding a secret tariqah (tarikat in Turkish) carries legal and political implications. Secular modernists view Sufism as part of the pre-modern past, a relic from Ottoman times, an obstacle to progress, development and prosperity. Conversely, Muslim activists of salafi tendency view Sufism as responsible for introducing unwarranted and unorthodox innovations and for promulgating a passive, pietistic religiosity.

In response, Fethullah Gülen affirms that he has not founded a tariqah and moreover, that he has never belonged to any Sufi order. He states: “The religious orders are institutions that appeared six centuries after our Prophet, upon whom be peace, in the name of representing Sufism. They have their own rules and structures. Just as I never joined a Sufi order, I have never had any relationship with one.”[4] To the question of why he is called Hoca, literally, “Teacher,” a form of address traditionally used by Sufis for their master, he answers that the title carries no hierarchical or Ottoman revivalist connotation, but is simply “a respectful way of addressing someone whose knowledge on religious matters is recognized and acknowledged by the general public.”[5]

Given that Fethullah Gülen has never belonged to a tariqah, is it still accurate to regard him as a Sufi? In a seminal work[6] on Sufi elements in Fethullah Gülen’s thought, Zeki Saritoprak calls Fethullah Gülen “a Sufi in his own way.”[7] Saritoprak affirms that many Sufis belonged to no Sufi Order. For the first six centuries of Islam, there were no Sufi Orders, yet there were many important Sufis. Even after the appearance of Sufi orders in the 13th and 14th Century, there are instances of well-known Sufis who did not belong to any tariqah.

Yet the appearance of the “independent Sufi” has usually been considered anomalous by most practitioners of the Sufi path. Saritoprak notes the problematic situation of the modern Sufi who follows no tariqah and has no spiritual guide.

“Early Sufis had neither orders nor even Sufi organizations. Rabia, Junayd, Muhasibi, Bishr, Ghazzali, Fariduddin Attar, and even Rumi did not belong to a tariqah. However, they were Sufis. From the vantage point of institutionalized Sufism, their Sufism would be problematic, because these early Sufis did not have a spiritual master. In the Sufi tradition, he who has no a shaykh, finds Satan as his shaykh.[8]

Concerning the necessity for a spiritual guide, it is true that the vast majority of Sufis have discouraged or even forbidden one from following the Sufi path without a shaykh or pir. However, a minority view has always held that the spiritual guide need not be a living person. Kharaqani, for example, was initiated into the Sufi path by the spirit of Abu Yazid al-Bistami, while ‘Attar was inspired by the spirit of Al-Hallaj. Other Sufis claimed to have as their guide Khidr, the mysterious companion of Moses whose story is recounted in the Qur’an.

Fethullah Gülen’s position is that he is guided in his spiritual development by the Qur’an and the Sunna. In Fethullah Gülen’s view, the Qur’an is not only the best guide, but is the source and font of all Sufi thought and practice. Rooted in the Qur’an and Sunna, and supplemented by the views and experiences of later Sufis down through the centuries who applied the Qur’anic teachings through their own personal efforts (ijtihad), Sufism must not be considered an “alternative” path followed by some Muslims in contradistinction or in contradiction to the sharia, but rather, Sufism should be regarded as one of the basic sciences of Islam.

[Tasawwuf] is not contradictory with any of the Islamic ways based on the Book and the Sunna. Far from being contradictory, it has its source, just like the other religious sciences, in the Book and the Sunna and the conclusions the purified scholars of the early period of Islam drawn from the Qur’an and the Sunnaijtihad.[9]

For Fethullah Gülen, tasawwuf and sharia are two aspects of the same truth or, one could say, two ways of expressing the same truth. The two forms of expression arise from differences in personality rather than from any contradictory messages. Both lead the Muslim to believe and practice the one Islamic truth, but each Muslim must find the path most suited to his disposition.

While adherence to the former [sharia] has been regarded as exotericism (self-restriction to the outward dimension of religion), following the latter [tasawwuf] has been seen as pure esotericism. Although this discrimination partly arises from the assertions that the commandments of Sharia are represented by jurisprudents or muftis, and the other by the Sufis, it should be viewed as the result of a natural human tendency, which is that everyone gives priority to the way more compatible with his temperament and for which he has aptitude.[10]

Sufism has known antinomian (bi-shara) Sufis who claimed that following the exoteric (zahir) regulations of the sharia were unnecessary for those on the esoteric (batin) path, but Fethullah Gülen’s position comes down clearly in the ba-shara camp of those who stress the importance for the Sufi to not abandon the sharia. Fethullah Gülen exemplifies the long line of sharia-oriented Sufis, represented most strongly by the Qadiri and Naqshbandi traditions, and in modern times by Said Nursi, who regard tasawwuf as an interiorized facet of the life of the sincere Muslim who seeks to live fully the message contained in the Qur’an and Sunna.

Ozdalga sees three “positive reference points” which have shaped Fethullah Gülen’s thinking: 1) orthodox Sunni Islam, 2) the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition, 3) the Nurculuk movement, that is, those Muslims influenced by the writings of Said Nursi.[11] The Naqshbandis have always insisted on the careful performance of the prescriptions of the sharia, so there is no contradiction between the first two points. Fethullah Gülen differs from the Naqshbandi Order, however, in that the Naqshbandi disciple is presented with an explicit program of spiritual development, which is closely monitored by the shaykh, whereas Fethullah Gülen’s approach is more open-ended in stressing good deeds and service to humanity (hizmet) more than spiritual exercises and devotions.

Probably the most important formative influence on the development of Fethullah Gülen’s thought, including his approach to Sufism, was Said Nursi.[12] Like Nursi, who was also formed in the Naqshbandi tradition but chose to work and teach outside the confines of an established tariqah, so also Fethullah Gülen sees the Sufi tradition more as the accumulated wisdom of the saints of Islam, rather than an institutionalized necessity for achieving the internalization of Islamic values. According to Nursi, Sufism “has been proclaimed, taught, and described in thousands of books written by the scholars among the people of illumination and those who have had unfolded to them the reality of creation, who have told the Muslim community and us of that truth.”[13]

Moreover, like Said Nursi, Fethullah Gülen is aware that not everything that historically has passed in the name of Sufism is of positive value. A critical approach to the Sufi tradition, however, must recognize the intrinsic strength of the movement as an instrument for fostering and building a sense of community and brotherhood. As Said Nursi states:

The Sufi path may not be condemned because of the evils of certain ways which have adopted practices outside the bounds of taqwa, and even of Islam, and have wrongfully given themselves the name of Sufi paths. Quite apart from the important and elevated religious and spiritual results of the Sufi path and those that look to the hereafter, it is the Sufi paths which are the first and most effective and fervent means of expanding and developing brotherhood, a sacred bond within the World of Islam.[14]

Fethullah Gülen understands Sufism as the inner dimension of the sharia, and the two dimensions must never be separated. Performance of the externals without attention to their interior transformative power results in dry ritualism. Concentration on the interior disciplines and rejecting prescribed ritual and behavior reduces spiritual striving to following one’s own preferences and proclivities. Only by activating both dimensions of Islam will the seeker be able to humbly submit (islam) one’s life fully to God.

An initiate or traveler on the path (salik) never separates the outer observance of the Sharia from its inner dimension, and therefore observes all of the requirements of both the outer and the inner dimensions of Islam. Through such observance, he or she travels toward the goal in utmost humility and submission.[15]

Just as Sufism is what “brings to life the religious sciences,” in Al-Ghazali’s phrase, so the sharia is what keeps the believer rooted in the Islamic tradition.

If the traveler has not been able to prepare his heart according to both the requirements of his spiritual journeying and the commandments of the Sharia, that is, if he does not think and reason in the light of Prophethood while his feelings fly in the boundless realm of his spiritual state, he will inevitably fall. He will be confused and bewildered, speaking and acting contrary to the spirit of the Sharia.[16]

According to Saritoprak, both the appellation, the question of whether one is called a Sufi, as well as that of membership in a tariqah are secondary. He cites Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi to the effect that it is not the external trappings that make one a Sufi but the purity of one’s interior disposition:

Fethullah Gülen never calls himself a Sufi. One is not a Sufi in name, but rather in spirit and heart. As Rumi says: “What makes the Sufi? Purity of heart, not the patched mantle and the perverse lust of those earth-bound men who steal his name. He [the true Sufi] in all things discerns the pure essence.” In short, Fethullah Gülen understands that one may annihilate himself in the rays of the existence of the Truth through knowing of his impotence, poverty and nothingness.[17]

If Fethullah Gülen is to be considered a Sufi, at least in spirit, and perhaps also in name, what does Sufism mean to him? In two works on the subject, Fethullah Gülen offers his own definition. In the earlier work he states “Tasawwuf [Sufism] means that by being freed from the vices and weaknesses particular to human nature and acquiring angelic qualities and conduct pleasing to God, one lives one’s life in accordance with the requirements of knowledge and love of God and in the spiritual delight that comes thereby.”[18] In the later work, he gives a very similar definition of the Sufi path: “Sufism is the path followed by an individual who, having been able to free himself or herself from human vices and weaknesses in order to acquire angelic qualities and whose conduct is pleasing to God, lives in accordance with the requirements of God’s knowledge and love and in the resulting spiritual delight that ensues.”[19]

Both definitions come down to the same thing. Fethullah Gülen gives priority to the will, emphasizing that Sufism means overcoming the human obstacles to God’s power and grace and acquiring the virtues and behavior that God desires in His servants.[20] The person who lives in this way is gradually growing in ma’rifa or spiritual wisdom and in love (mahabba, ‘ashq), both for God and for others. God encourages and confirms the faithful follower of this path by granting the gift of spiritual joy. This understanding is consistent with the mainstream of Sufi teaching down through the centuries, in which the Sufi exerts his or her own efforts to attain the various spiritual stations (maqamat), thereby removing one by one the obstacles to divine grace, and then waits trustfully for God to grant as gifts the spiritual states (ahwal) of knowledge, love, and delight.

What is the attraction of the Sufi tradition for Fethullah Gülen? In a telling comment, he notes that the Muslims who, down through the centuries, most reflected upon and sought to practice the interior values taught by Islam and who developed the spiritual disciplines for controlling selfish impulses, were in fact Sufis. One could almost say that Sufism is the essence or, as he states elsewhere, the spirit of Islam.

As a religion, Islam naturally emphasizes the spiritual realm. It takes the training of the ego as a basic principle. Asceticism, piety, kindness and sincerity are essential to it. In the history of Islam, the discipline that dwelt most on these matters was Sufism. Opposing this would be opposing the essence of Islam.[21]

Here Fethullah Gülen finds the importance of Sufism for a modern Islamic spirituality. He sees Sufism as offering a program of discipline by which the believer can step by step renounce consumerist tendencies and a secular heedlessness. This renunciation is not seen as an empty asceticism for its own sake, but is oriented, rather, toward the greater reward of becoming aware of spiritual realities. For Fethullah Gülen, as had previously been taught by Al-Ghazali, Sufism brings the blessing of an experiential confirmation of the truths of faith which has previously been only intellectually apprehended. Fethullah Gülen explains:

Sufism enables individuals to deepen their awareness of themselves as devotees of God. Through the renunciation of this transient, material world, as well as the desires and emotions it engenders, they awaken to the reality of the other world, which is turned toward God’s Beautiful Names. Sufism allows individuals to develop the moral dimension of one’s existence, and enables the acquisition of a strong, heartfelt, and personally experienced conviction of the articles of faith that before had only been accepted superficially.[22]

In other words, the genius of Sufism, according to Fethullah Gülen, is its ability to interiorize the message of the Qur’an and Sunna so that it influences and shapes the behavior of the Muslim. Through Sufism, the Muslim learns to move beyond obeying commands and regulations that he or she does not understand to an appreciation of Islamic teaching which becomes part and parcel of the believer’s way of life. Sufism shows how a Muslim can overcome selfish tendencies, respond to frustration and opposition, and with patience and perseverance move beyond discouragement and routine. Sufism enables the Muslim to attain the virtuous qualities and the personal disciplines required to live fully in accord with the will of God. Sufism leads the way to shawq, delight, so that religious commitment is not some onerous and unpleasant burden that a person is forced to carry, but can be conducive to a joyful, loving acceptance of life.

What is of most interest for Fethullah Gülen in Sufism is its ability to provide a practical program by which the Muslim can internalize Islamic faith so that it motivate a life of service to humankind. For Fethullah Gülen, the ecstatic or para-normal mystical experiences sometimes claimed by or for Sufi saints appear to be of relatively little interest.

Fethullah Gülen’s appreciation for the teaching of the Sufi masters does not prevent him from criticizing occasionally the way that Sufi life was often put into practice. The dynamism of the early Sufis often got dissipated in the institutional forms that took shape in the later Sufi Orders. Particularly in recent times, many Sufis divorced themselves from real life and engaged in useless metaphysical speculation. They are one of the groups, in Fethullah Gülen’s view, who have been responsible for the crisis of education in the Muslim world, including the Turkish republic.

In fact, his educational efforts can be understood as a reaction to the impoverishment of choice in educational possibilities available to Turkish students. It is the lack of integration between scientific knowledge and spiritual values which led Fethullah Gülen and his associates to conceive a new type of education. Until the inception of the educational project undertaken by Fethullah Gülen and his colleagues, Turkish students were forced to study either at schools on the secular republican model, at traditional madrasas, at the Sufi takyas, or at military academies. None of these models was able to integrate successfully scientific training with human and spiritual values. “At a time when modern schools concentrated on ideological dogmas, institutions of religious education (madrasas) broke with life, institutions of spiritual training (takyas) were immersed in sheer metaphysics, and the army restricted itself to sheer force, this coordination [of knowledge] was essentially not possible.”[23]

The Sufi takyas, although they had concerned themselves with fostering the development of spiritual values, have failed to meet the challenges of contemporary society and, in Fethullah Gülen’s word, “console themselves with virtues and wonders of the saints who had lived in previous centuries.” Even if the way that Sufism was handed down in recent decades has not been able to provide guidance for the modern Muslim, a renewed approach to the Sufi tradition can enrich still Muslim spirituality and offer direction for the future. For if a key precondition for the progress of civilization is the changing of outdated and ineffective mentalities,[24] this is only achieved when someone acknowledges his own limitations, recognizes the need for controlling his impulses, and finds motivation to strive for virtue and knowledge.

This, according to Fethullah Gülen, is what Sufism is all about. “The Islamic spiritual life based on asceticism, regular worship, abstention from all major and minor sins, sincerity and purity of intention, love and yearning, and the individual’s admission of his essential impotence and destitution became the subject-matter of Sufism.”[25]

The Sufi training, as a discipline which highlights the inner dimension of Islamic teaching, enables the Muslim to confront critically but with moderation the challenges of modernity without falling into the snares either of unreflective acceptance or angry refusal. The question all modern people face is how to develop humane qualities, good behavior, love for others, enthusiasm for self-improvement, and an active desire to serve others, make a difference in the world, and to persevere in this desire in the face of setbacks and failures. For the Muslim, according to Fethullah Gülen, it is the Sufi thinkers who, down through the centuries, have thought through these questions and have followed the experimental method of dealing with them.

If the modern Muslim wants to engage modernity critically and make necessary changes, he or she must begin each with one’s own self. Sufism offers the collected wisdom transmitted down through the centuries by which one can proceed towards a transformed mentality, deeper love, positive character traits, and courage to work for the improvement of society.

The spiritual program offered by Sufism provides a firm basis for purifying modern scientific study from its ethical inadequacies and positivist limitations. In this way, science and humanities, scientific and humane values, a scientific and a religious approach to life, can be reconciled. This is the challenge facing scholars, educators, and communicators today.

[1] Anne-Marie Schimmel, in her treatment “What is Sufism?” never attempts a comprehensive definition, but rather cites the partial description of Sufism given my many Sufis and scholars (Mystical Dimensions of Islam, 3-22).
[2] Ruwaym’s description comes perhaps the closest: “The Sufis are people who prefer God to everything and God prefers them to everything else” (Cited in Schimmel, 15).
[3] Thomas Michel, “Fethullah Gülen as Educator,” 83.
[4] Fethullah Gülen, cited in L. E. Webb, Fethullah Gülen: Is There More to Him than Meets the Eye, 103.
[5] Ibid., 80.
[6] Zeki Saritoprak, “Fethullah Gülen: A Sufi in His Own Way,” 156-169. Saritoprak’s paper is the first to study the Sufi elements in Gülen’s thought; I will try not to repeat what he has stated.
[7] Yılmaz supports this view. “Most scholars agree that ‘Gülen continues a long Sufi tradition of seeking to address the spiritual needs of people, to educate the masses, and to provide some stability in times of turmoil’.” İhsan Yılmaz, citing Ebru Altınoğlu, “Fethullah Gülen’s Perception of State and Society,” 102, in “Ijtihad and Tajdid by Conduct: The Gülen Movement,” 228.
[8] Ibid., 160.
[9] Fethullah Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, 9.
[10] Ibid., 7.
[11] Elisabeth Özdalga, “Worldly Asceticism in Islamic Casting: Fethullah Gülen’s Inspired Piety and Activism,” 91.
[12] In his commentary on Nursi’s Al-Mathnawi al-Nuriya (The Epitomes of Light), Gülen refers to Said Nursi as “the Master” and urges that his works be studied in depth.
[13] Said Nursi, The Letters (The Twenty-ninth Letter, Ninth Section, First Allusion), 518.
[14] Said Nursi, The Letters (Twenty-ninth Letter, Ninth Section, Third Allusion), 521.
[15] Fethullah Gülen, “Sufism and Its Origins,” 1999.
[16] Fethullah Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, 190.
[17] Saritoprak, 168.
[18] Fethullah Gülen, Key Concepts, 2.
[19] Fethullah Gülen, Key Concepts, xiv.
[20] “Such a transformation results in God’s directing the individual’s will in accordance with His will.” Fethullah Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, 164.
[21] Gülen, cited in Webb, 103.
[22] Fethullah Gülen, Advocate of Dialogue, 352.
[23] Fethullah Gülen, Towards the Lost Paradise, 11.
[24] Fethullah Gülen, Towards the Lost Paradise, 71.
[25] Fethullah Gülen, Criteria or Lights of the Way, I, 50.