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Following in the footsteps of Rumi

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

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Fethullah Gülen

The greatness of Rumi

Among the medieval mystical poets, the one who speaks most clearly and directly to the modern world is Jalaluddin Rumi. In the Muslim world, he is simply known as Mawlana, “Our Master.” Just like in St. Louis if you say “Stan the Man” or “El Hombre,” everyone knows who you are talking about, so too in the Middle East if you speak of Mawlana, “Our Master,” everyone recognizes that you are referring to Rumi. The depth of his spiritual experience, his original and arresting poetic images, his obvious sincerity and openheartedness, and his ability to transcend cultures, time periods, and religions, all go together to make Rumi one of the most accessible and influential of Muslim thinkers who speak to us from the past.

The number of internet web pages devoted to translations of Rumi’s poetry is evidence of the extent to which Mawlana is known and loved even in the West, but this is nothing compared to his influence on modern thinkers and scholars in the Muslim world, and his place in the heart of ordinary Muslim worshiper. Rumi’s poetry is known through recitations and classical performances of the poems in their musical settings; his verses are quoted in the text of popular songs and novels. I have seen verses of Rumi’s poetry decorating dishes and wood panels in homes. I have even seen his verses bedecking horse carts and their modern equivalent, minibuses.

In their whirling meditation, the dervishes of the Mawlawi Sufi Order founded by Rumi communicate in a non-verbal way Rumi’s message of tolerance, peace, and deep absorption in the Divine. Accompanied by hymns of praise to God and to the prophet Muhammad, the dervishes whirl like the earth turning on its axis and they focus on the God who is at the heart and center of all. One of the most popular festivals in Turkey is the Shab Arus, literally, “The Wedding Night.” Held every year for the past 738 years, the two-week celebration in Konya commemorates Rumi’s earthly departure on 17 December 1273 and celebrates the reunion of his soul with the Divine Beloved.

In a beautiful image, Rumi invites you, the reader, to imagine yourself as a stranger in a foreign land. The night is dark and cold and you feel very much alone in this unfamiliar place. As you walk along, you eventually come to a house. Looking through the open door, you can see a well-lighted room, with people sitting in a circle on the floor around a hearth. They are eating and drinking and talking and singing, when one of the friends looks up and notices you, a stranger, at the door. He calls out Rumi’s famous words of welcome:

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.

The message is clear: true religion is about love, it extends an invitation to anyone who is lost, searching, uprooted, or with a history of failure or betrayal to come to the light, the warmth, and the joy of a loving, welcoming community. It is ultimately about hope, the antidote to aimless drifting or anguished desperation.

Rumi’s message of faith as an abode of peace and joyful fellowship has inspired many modern Muslims and others down through the centuries by means of the beautiful poetic imagery with which he expressed his spirituality. In a way similar to that of Christian mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, Rumi described the soul’s relation to God in the imagery of human love. God is both the Beloved for whom one longs and pines and the Lover who patiently awaits the moment of our reunion.

Rumi’s influence on Fethullah Gülen

Even after eight centuries, Rumi’s writings continue to influence both Muslim scholars and ordinary believers. One modern Muslim who has appropriated Rumi’s insights and integrated them into his own understanding of Islamic faith and life is the Turkish scholar, Fethullah Gülen. The correspondence of Rumi to Gülen is that of kindred spirits who, across the centuries, share an interpretation of the Qur’anic message as well as a commitment to communicate that message to their contemporaries. In his sermons and written works, Fethullah Gülen frequently cites Rumi’s behavior and attitudes to illustrate his message; in his four-volume work on Islamic spirituality, Fethullah Gülen refers to Rumi more often than to any other spiritual writer as he seeks to initiate the seeker into the mysteries of God’s love.

What does Mawlana mean for Fethullah Gülen? Where does he see the affinity between his own understanding of Islam and that expounded and exemplified by Rumi? What are the lessons that can be learned from Rumi? Why does Fethullah Gülen consider Rumi a worthy exemplar for the modern Muslim?

Firstly, he sees Rumi as the model of tolerance and dialogue in Islam. Almost a century ago, Said Nursi, one of the most influential Muslim scholars in modern Turkey, proposed that Muslims should be united with true Christians in bearing witness to divine values in the face of a world in which aggressive materialism was on the rise. To this end, Nursi proposed that Muslims should avoid entering into controversy with Christians. “The old way of acting is impossible. Controversial subjects should not be discussed with Christians.” In commenting on this proposal, Fethullah Gülen states that in this Nursi is acting in a similar manner to that of Rumi, who described himself as a compass, one foot fixed firmly in the center while the other turns in a broad arc to complete a full circle. The foot planted in the center that never changes position is the faith conviction by which one is united to God as the unmoving heart and center of one’s existence, while the other foot moves freely “to embrace all believers.” In other words, Fethullah Gülen is proposing that his disciples be deeply rooted in their Islamic faith and at the same time reach out in dialogue in all directions to people of good will.

Fethullah Gülen took Said Nursi’s encouragement of Muslim-Christian unity and extended it to Jews and to the followers of other religions. In a message to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town in 1999, Fethullah Gülen presented an optimistic vision of interreligious harmony: “It is my conviction that in the future years, the new millennium will witness unprecedented religious blooming and the followers of world religions, such as Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and others, will walk hand-in-hand to build a promised bright future of the world.” According to Fethullah Gülen, dialogue is not merely a strategic alliance among religions to combat a materialistic world-view but, at least for Muslims, it is demanded by the nature of religion itself. As he stated in the same message: “The very nature of religion demands this dialogue. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and even Hinduism and Buddhism pursue the same goal. As a Muslim, I accept all Prophets and books sent to different peoples throughout history, and regard belief in them as an essential principle of being Muslim.”[1]

Fethullah Gülen endorses Nursi’s view that the days of the use of force are over; today’s methods of persuasion are those of peaceful dialogue, scientific argumentation and rational debate. In place of the “jihad of the sword” he calls for “jihad of the word.” The “jihad of the word” focuses on attracting others by one’s example and seeking to convince others of the truth of one’s position by reasonable argumentation, never imposing one’s views by force. For Fethullah Gülen, this mode of discussion is the only manner of confrontation suited to the true nature of Islam.

Understanding Islam to be a religion consisting of peace and tolerance, Gülen holds up the example of Rumi as foremost among those figures in Islamic history who best embody these values. Gülen calls Rumi “one of the people of love.” He writes: “If one were to seek the true face of Islam in its own sources, history, and true representatives, one would discover that it is a religion of forgiveness, pardon, and tolerance, as saints and teachers of love and tolerance like Rumi, and many others have so beautifully expressed.”

Fethullah Gülen envisions conscientious people of faith today as facing three universal enemies. These are not the enemies of Muslims alone. They are equally the enemies of Jews, Christians, and the followers of other religions. They are enemies that we must face together if we ever hope to overcome them. These enemies are ignorance, poverty, and disunity.

To fight ignorance, Fethullah Gülen has inspired his followers to open and operate schools in more than 100 countries. They have published newspapers, popular magazines, and professional journals, started television networks, and opened twelve universities. In Turkey, where I used to live, I taught English, along with many well-trained Turkish volunteers, at several of the 45 free schools for children in poor slum areas of Ankara that are run by members of their movement.

To fight poverty, those inspired by Fethullah Gülen’s teachings have founded a relief and development agency that now works in over 55 countries. Operating with an annual budget of $300 million dollars for the last three years,[2] they provide daily meals for 65,000 hungry people and this past Ramadan they fed over a quarter million people in soup kitchens in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. They have been digging fresh-water wells in Niger, Somalia, and Sudan’s Darfur region.

To fight disunity, Fethullah Gülen’s followers have started dialogue and friendship centers all over the world. In the United States alone, there are about 200 of these centers. Disunity arises from people not knowing one another; consequently, they are suspicious, afraid, and think the worst of the other. To overcome this disunity, the Niagara Foundation and its sister organizations elsewhere hold friendship dinners; they organize visits to Turkey so that others can enjoy and appreciate the culture of their native land; they organize speakers’ series, luncheon forums, picnics, art and food festivals, and give awards for outstanding achievements in promoting dialogue.

When we gather at a Friendship Dinner, we are like the guests invited into Rumi’s community of warmth and light. We have accepted the invitation and let ourselves be part of that circle of those who long for unity and harmony, who strive to break the bonds of disunity among humankind. And we are grateful to Fethullah Gülen and his community for having extended this invitation to us. According to Gülen, Rumi and those like him are not marginal or eccentric Muslims, but they represent the mainstream of Islamic thought and practice down through the centuries. Fethullah Gülen invites his followers to look to “the lovers—the people of love,” as Rumi calls them, to discover and follow the example of those who have come to understand Islam as a message of love. He invites them to share with us Rumi’s famous invitation:

Come, come and join us; we are the people of love devoted to God!
Come, come through the door of love; join us and sit with us.
Come, let us speak one to another through our hearts.
Let us speak secretly, without ears and eyes.
Let us laugh together without lips or sound, let us laugh like the roses.
Since we are all the same, let us call each other from our hearts,
But we won’t use our lips or tongue.

[1] Fethullah Gülen, Capetown, 1999, p. 14.
[2] Savaş Metin, Secretary General Kimse Yok Mu, “Turkish Biggest NGOChief Discloses Plans to Extend to Gambia,” Daily Observer, 28 February 2014.