Fethullah Gülen as educator

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

User Rating:  / 5

Fethullah Gülen

The So-called Gülen Schools

The topic that I chose for this paper is that of Fethullah Gülen as an educator. I must confess at the outset that I have arrived at the topic of my talk backwards. Rather than having studied the writings of Fethullah Gülen on education and pedagogy and then tried to see, in what might be called a deductive approach, how he has put these principles into practice, I have instead come to know first the educational institutions conducted by participants of the movement led by Mr. Gülen. This has led me in turn to study his writings to discover the rationale that lies behind the tremendous educational venture that has ensued from the educational vision of Fethullah Gülen and his colleagues.

At the outset, it is necessary to be precise about the relationship of Mr. Gülen to the schools that are often loosely called “Gülen schools,” or “schools of the Hizmet Movement.” Mr. Gülen describes himself primarily as an educator and is generally referred to by members of his movement as Hocaefendi, a title of respect given to religious teachers in Turkey.[1] However, he is careful to distinguish between education and teaching. “Most human beings can be teachers,” he states, “but the number of educators is severely limited.”[2]

He has also tried to make clear that he has no schools of his own. “I’m tired of saying that I don’t have any schools,”[3] he affirms with a bit of exasperation. The more than 1000 elementary schools, high schools, college preparatory institutions, dormitories, and universities in over 140 countries that are associated with his name stem from a circle of students, colleagues and businessmen who formed about Fethullah Gülen in the 1960s.[4] The schools have been established by individual agreements between the countries in which they are located and the educational companies founded for this purpose. Each school is an independently run institution, but most of the schools rely on the services of Turkish companies to provide educational supplies and human resources. After completing his studies in the madrasa in Erzurum, he began teaching in Edirne in 1958. Shortly thereafter, he transferred to İzmir, where a small group of like-minded educators and students became the nucleus of the movement. It is from this circle of educators, whose number has grown dramatically over the years, that the schools associated with the name of Fethullah Gülen have been founded. Operating independently, but maintaining links of coordination and training, the schools could be called a loose federation of institutions that share a common pedagogic vision, similar curriculum, and human and material resources.

My personal encounter with “Gülen Schools”

My first encounter with one of these schools dates back to 1995, in Zamboanga, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, when I learned that there was a “Turkish” school several miles outside the city. On approaching the school, the first thing that caught my attention was the large sign at the entrance to the property bearing the name: “The Philippine-Turkish School of Tolerance.” This is a startling affirmation in Zamboanga, a city almost equally 50% Christian and 50% Muslim, located in a region where for over 20 years various Moro separatist movements have been locked in an armed struggle against the military forces of the government of the Philippines.

I was well-received by the Turkish director and staff of the school, where over 1000 students study and live in dormitories. As I learned from the Turkish staff and their Filipino colleagues, both Muslim and Christian, the affirmation of their school as an institution dedicated towards formation in tolerance was no empty boast. In a region where kidnapping is a frequent occurrence, along with guerrilla warfare, summary raids, arrests, disappearances, and killings by military and para-military forces, the school is offering Muslim and Christian Filipino children, along with an educational standard of high quality, a more positive way of living and relating to each other. My Jesuit colleagues and the lay professors at the Ateneo de Zamboanga confirm that from its beginning, the Philippine-Turkish School of Tolerance has maintained a deep level of contact and cooperation with Christian institutions of the region.

Since that time I have had occasion to visit other schools in the Fethullah Gülen network and discuss educational policy with the teaching and administrative staff. In Turkey, I have visited several institutions in the İstanbul area and in the city of Urfa. In Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, I had the opportunity to examine at length about half the twelve Sebat schools, including the new Atatürk Alatoo University, all inspired and founded by the Hizmet Movement. I can state without qualification that I find these schools to be one of the most dynamic and worthwhile educational enterprises that I have encountered in the world today.

The strength of their programs in the sciences, informatics, and languages is shown in their repeated successes in academic olympiads. In a junior high school in Bishkek, I addressed a group of seventh-grade Kyrgyz children for about a half-hour. At the end of my talk, the teacher asked the students to identify those elements of pronunciation and vocabulary that showed that I was speaking an American rather than a British form of English, and to my amazement the children had no difficulty in doing so. Although English was the language of instruction in this school, as is usual in the Gülen schools outside Turkey, the students seemed equally competent in Russian and Turkish, in addition to their native Kyrgyz. The dedication and esprit d’corps of the teachers give evidence that they are conscious of being engaged in an exciting educational venture. Nowhere did I encounter any signs of the malaise and apparent confusion that so often afflicts schools in developing countries.

Aware that these schools are a manifestation of a religious commitment of Muslims, I had expected to find a more explicitly Islamic content to the curriculum and the physical environment, but this was not the case. When I asked about the surprising absence of what to me would have been an understandable part of a religiously-inspired educational project, I was told that because of the pluralist nature of the student bodies—Christian and Muslim in Zamboanga, and Buddhist and Hindu as well in Kyrgyzstan—that what they sought to communicate were universal Islamic values such as honesty, hard work, harmony, and conscientious service rather than any confessional instruction. In the Sebat International School in Bishkek, students from U.S.A., Korea, and Turkey appeared to be studying comfortably with those coming from Afghanistan and Iran.

These encounters led me to study the writings of Fethullah Gülen to ascertain the educational principles and motivation which undergird the schools and to try to find Gülen’s own techniques that have made him into an educator capable of inspiring others with his vision. These are the questions that will occupy the remainder of my paper. I will concentrate mainly on the Gülen schools as the central expression of his educational policies, and must pass over in silence the educational aspects of other ventures which he has promoted, such as the Samanyolu television network, the Zaman newspaper and other publishing projects, the scholarship program for needy students, and the efforts of the Writers and Journalists Foundation to promote interreligious dialogue and understanding.

Fethullah Gülen’s educational vision

Fethullah Gülen’s educational starting point would seem to be what he sees as a fundamental crisis in Turkish society. Analyzing the factors that have contributed to bring about this societal crisis, he concludes that an element which cannot be dismissed is the lack of coordination[5] among the various types and systems of education. He regards the development of education in Turkey throughout the 20th Century as an unhealthy competition among mutually exclusive systems of education, which has produced graduates who lack an integrated perspective towards the future and perpetuate the existing divisions in society. He states: “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 was essentially not possible.”[6]

Modern secular schools, he holds, have been unable to free themselves of the prejudices and conventions of modernist ideology, while the madrasas have shown little interest or capability to meet the challenges of technology and scientific thought. The madrasas lack the flexibility, vision, and ability to break with past, enact change, and offer the type of educational formation that is needed today. The Sufi-oriented takyas, which traditionally had fostered the development of spiritual values, have lost their dynamism and, as Gülen puts it, “console themselves with virtues and wonders of the saints who had lived in previous centuries.”[7] The educational training offered by the military, which had in previous times been the representative of religious energy and activity and a symbol of national identity, has devolved into an espousal of attitudes of self-assertion and self-preservation.

The challenge today is to find a way in which these traditional pedagogical systems can move beyond regarding each other as rivals or enemies so that they can learn from one another. By integrating the insights and strengths found in the various educational currents, educators must seek to bring about a “marriage of mind and heart” if they hope to form individuals of “thought, action, and inspiration.”[8] An integration of the interior wisdom which is the cumulative heritage built up over the centuries with the scientific tools essential for the continued progress of the nation would enable students to move beyond the societal pressures of their environment and provide them with both internal stability and direction for their actions. He states: “Until we help them through education, the young will be captives of their environment. They wander aimlessly, intensely moved by their passions, but far from knowledge and reason. They can become truly valiant young representatives of national thought and feeling, provided their education integrates them with their past, and prepares them intelligently for the future.”[9]

This last phrase is important and would appear to be Fethullah Gülen’s answer to an ongoing debate in Turkey. “Integrate them with their past, and prepare them intelligently for the future.” Many observers have noted that one of the characteristic features of the modern Republic of Turkey has been its concerted effort to break with the Ottoman past. Many of the laws enacted in the past 70 years by the Turkish government have consciously sought to break with the Ottoman past as a way of modernizing the nation. Examples could be given in the change of capital from İstanbul to Ankara, the abolition of the caliphate/sultanate, the orthographic reform of replacing Arabic script by Roman letters and the language reform of substituting Arabic and Persian terms with words of Turkish roots, the legal reform in which the Swiss civil code and Italian penal code were adopted in place of sharia regulations, the establishment of Sunday as the weekly day of rest, the enforced use of surnames and the replacement of the Persian -zadeh by the Turkish -oğlu suffix, the prescription of Western dress along with the prohibition of characteristic Ottoman clothing such as fez and turban. All these reforms were aimed at breaking with the Ottoman past in an effort to modernize.[10]

In the decades since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, many Turkish Muslims have criticized the “modernization” program undertaken by the government for blindly adopting the best and worst of European civilization. They have seen secularization as not merely an unintended by-product of the secularization process, but rather as the conscious result of an anti-religious bias. They contend that the unspoken presumption that underlay the modernizing reforms has been an ideological conviction that religion is an obstacle to progress and must be excluded from the public sphere of society, economics, and politics if the nation is to move forward. The battle lines drawn up during the decades since the establishment of the Republic, and reinforced by the mutually competitive systems of education, have made the religion-secularization debate in Turkey one in which every thinker is expected to declare their allegiance.

One of the reasons why, in my opinion, Fethullah Gülen has been often attacked by both “right” and “left,” by “secular” and “religious” in Turkey is precisely because he has refused to take sides on an issue which he regards as a dead-end. He is instead offering a future-oriented approach by which he hopes to move beyond the ongoing debate. Gülen’s solution is to affirm the intended goal of modernization enacted by the Turkish Republic, but to show that a truly effective process of modernization must include the development of the whole person. In educational terms, it must take the major concerns of the various existing streams of education and weave them into a new educational style which will respond to changing demands of today’s world.

This is very different from reactionary projects which seek to revive or restore the past. Denying that the education offered in the schools associated with his name is an attempt to restore the Ottoman system or to reinstate the caliphate, Gülen repeatedly affirms that the schools are oriented towards the future. He cites an ancient Turkish adage, “If there is no adaptation to new conditions, the result will be extinction.”[11]

Despite the necessity of modernization, he holds, there are nevertheless risks involved in any radical break with the past. Cut off from traditional values, young people are in danger of being educated with no values at all beyond those of material success. Non-material values such as profundity of ideas, clarity of thought, depth of feeling, cultural appreciation, or interest in spirituality tend to be ignored in modern educational ventures which are largely aimed at mass-producing functionaries of a globalized market system.[12]

Such students might be adequately prepared to find jobs, but they will not have the necessary interior formation to achieve true human freedom. Leaders in both economic and political fields often favor and promote job-oriented, “value-free” education because it enables those with power to control the “trained but not educated” working cadres more easily. “Gülen asserts that if you wish to keep masses under control, simply starve them in the area of knowledge. They can escape such tyranny only through education. The road to social justice is paved with adequate, universal education, for only this will give people sufficient understanding and tolerance to respect the rights of others.”[13] Thus, in Gülen’s view, it is not only the establishment of justice which is hindered by the lack of well-rounded education, but also the recognition of human rights and attitudes of acceptance and tolerance toward others. If people are properly educated to think for themselves and to espouse the positive values of social justice, human rights and tolerance, they will be able to be agents of change to implement these beneficial goals.

The crisis in modern societies arises from decades of schooling having produced “generations with no ideals.”[14] It is human ideals, aims, goals, and vision which are the source of movement, action, and creativity in society. People whose education has been limited to the acquisition of marketable skills are no longer able to produce the dynamism needed to inspire and carry out societal change. The result is social atrophy, decadence, and narcissism. He states: “When [people] are left with no ideals or aims, they become reduced to the condition of animated corpses, showing no signs of distinctively human life.... Just as an inactive organ becomes atrophied, and a tool which is not in use becomes rusty, so aimless generations will eventually waste away because they lack ideals and aims.”[15]

The societal crisis is intensified by the fact that, in his judgment, the teachers and intelligentsia, who should be the guides and movers of society, have allowed themselves to become perpetuators of a restrictive and non-integrated approach to education. Rather than raising their voices in protest against the elimination of humane values from the educational system and campaigning for a pedagogy that integrates scientific preparation with non-material values studied in the disciplines of logic, ethics, culture, and spirituality, the educators themselves too often “readily adapted to the new low standard.”[16] He finds it difficult to understand how intellectuals could prefer the spiritually impoverished and technologically obsessed modern culture to a traditional cultural foundation that had grown in sophistication and subtlety over the centuries.

It follows that if educational reform is to be accomplished, teacher training is a task that cannot be ignored. Gülen notes that “education is different from teaching. Most human beings can be teachers, but the number of educators is severely limited.”[17] The difference between the two lies in that both teachers and educators impart information and teach skills, but the educator is one who has the ability to assist the students’ personalities to emerge, who fosters thought and reflection, who builds character and enables the student to interiorize qualities of self-discipline, tolerance, and a sense of mission. He describes those who simply teach in order to receive a salary, with no interest in the character formation of the students as “the blind leading the blind.”

The lack of coordination or integration among competing and mutually antagonistic educational systems gave rise to what Gülen calls “a bitter struggle that should never have taken place: science versus religion.”[18] This false dichotomy, which during the 19-20th Centuries exercised the energies of scholars, politicians, and religious leaders on both sides of the debate, resulted in a bifurcation of educational philosophies and methods. Modern secular educators saw religion as at best a useless expenditure of time and at worst an obstacle to progress. Among religious scholars, the debate led to a rejection of modernity and religion “as a political ideology rather than a religion in its true sense and function.”[19] He feels that through an educational process in which religious scholars have a sound formation in the sciences and scientists are exposed to religious and spiritual values, that the “long religion-science conflict will come to an end, or at least its absurdity will be acknowledged.”[20]

For this to come about, he asserts that a new style of education is necessary, one “that will fuse religious and scientific knowledge together with morality and spirituality, to produce genuinely enlightened people with hearts illumined by religious sciences and spirituality, minds illuminated with positive sciences,” people dedicated to living according to humane qualities and moral values, who are also “cognizant of the socio-economic and political conditions of their time.”[21] Having as a school’s educational goal the integration of the study of science with character development, social awareness, and an active spirituality might appear to critics to be a highly idealistic, possibly quixotic, endeavor. The only adequate test of the feasibility of this educational philosophy is to examine how successful Mr. Gülen’s associates have been in establishing schools on these principles. I will return to the matter of verification later in this paper.

Several terms appear repeatedly in Gülen’s writings on education and need to be clarified lest they cause misunderstanding. The first is that of spirituality and spiritual values. Some might read this as a code word for “religion” and employed to counteract prejudices towards religiosity in modern secular societies. However, it is clear that Gülen is using the term in a broader sense. For him, spirituality includes not only specifically religious teachings, but also ethics, logic, psychological health, and affective openness. Key terms in his writings are compassion and tolerance.[22] It is the task of education to instill such “non-quantifiable” qualities in students, in addition to training in the “exact” disciplines.

Other terms used frequently by Gülen need to be examined. He often speaks of the need for cultural and traditional values. His call for the introduction of cultural[23] and traditional[24] values in education has been interpreted by critics as a reactionary call to return to pre-Republican Ottoman society. He has consequently been accused of being an irticacı, which might be translated in the Turkish context as “reactionary” or even “fundamentalist.” This is an accusation which he has always denied. In defense of his position, he states:

The word irtica means returning to the past or carrying the past to the present. I’m a person who’s taken eternity as a goal, not only tomorrow. I’m thinking about our country’s future and trying to do what I can about it. I’ve never had anything to do with taking my country backwards in any of my writings, spoken words or activities. But no one can label belief in God, worship, moral values and purporting matters unlimited by time as irtica.[25]

In proposing cultural and traditional values, he seems to regard Turkey’s past as a long, slow accumulation of wisdom which still has much to teach modern people, and much in traditional wisdom is still quite relevant to the needs of today’s societies. Because of this collected wisdom the past must not be discarded because of this collected wisdom. On the other hand, any attempts to reconstruct the past are both short-sighted and doomed to failure. One might say that while rejecting efforts to break with the Ottoman past, Gülen equally rejects efforts to reestablish or recreate pre-modern society.

The tendency among some modern reformers to “break free of the shackles of the past” he regards as a mixed blessing. Those elements of the heritage that were oppressive, stagnant, or had lost their original purpose and inspiration no doubt have to be superseded, but other, liberating and humanizing elements must be reaffirmed if new generations are going to be able to build a better future. The challenge today, he states, is “to evaluate the present conditions and make good use of the experience of past generations.” It is clear that his thinking is not limited by internal debates about political directions in Turkey, nor even the future of Islamic societies. His educational vision is one that embraces societies “throughout the world” and the role of religious believers in shaping that world. He states:

Along with the advances in science and technology, the last two or three centuries have witnessed, across the world, a break with traditional values and, in the name of renewal, attachment to different values and speculative fantasies. However, it is our hope, strengthened by promising developments all over the world, that the next century will be an age of belief and moral values, an age that will witness a renaissance and revival for believers throughout the world.[26]

His main interest in education is the future. He wants to form reformers, that is, those who, fortified with a value system that takes into account both the physical and non-materials aspects of humankind, can conceive and bring about the needed changes in society. Well-rounded education, by its very nature, must thus involve a personal transformation in the student. Students must be accompanied and encouraged to move out of restrictive, particularistic ways of thinking and to interiorize attitudes of self-control, self-discipline which will enable them to make a lasting contribution to society. He states:

Those who attempt to reform the world must first reform themselves. In order for others to follow them on the way to a better world, they must purify their inner worlds of hatred, rancor, and jealousy, and adorn their outer worlds with all kinds of virtue. The utterances of those who are far removed from self-control and self-discipline, those who have failed to refine their feelings, may seem attractive and insightful at first, but they will not be able to inspire others—or, if indeed they can, the sentiments they arouse will soon die away.[27]

To the extent that the crises in society are due to a lack of coordination among rival educational systems and philosophies, the new style of education proposed by Gülen is aimed at responding directly to the root causes of the crisis. In doing so, he claims, the new education offers a sound hope for building more stable and harmonious societies. As such, educational reform is a key to development and progress in nations. If national and private school systems are oriented solely towards the acquisition of material knowledge and mastery of technological skills, they cannot offer a way out of tensions and conflicts in society and offer a solution that can lay the basis of a better future. Calling for a type of education that seeks to develop both the material and spiritual needs of the students, Gülen sees educational reform as the key to positive societal change. He states: “The permanence of a nation depends upon the education of its people, upon their lives being guided to spiritual perfection. If nations have not been able to bring up well-rounded generations to whom they can entrust their future, then their future will be dark.”[28]

Criticisms of Fethullah Gülen’s educational philosophy

Fethullah Gülen’s proposal of a new style of education, as put into practice in the network of schools associated with his name, has not been universally accepted, particularly in his native Turkey. Some critics have regarded the educational philosophy enunciated by Gülen as an intellectual cover for forming cadres who could conceivably pose a threat to the established secular order. Gülen has continually had to defend the schools from this type of criticism. They claim that by means of the many schools erected in Russia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans, Gülen is attempting to build a “Green Belt” around secular Turkey.

Any form of education which seeks to shape the feelings, values, and attitudes of students is likely to be accused of brainwashing. Mr. Gülen has not been spared this accusation. Critics in Turkey have claimed that even though there is no direct religious training carried out in the schools, religion and politically-oriented Islamic teaching are inculcated in the students by example and informal relations between students and teachers.

Gülen has responded to these accusations by noting that the schools established by his movement employ the program and curriculum of the Turkish Ministry of Education. He notes further that the schools are continually inspected, not only by the Turkish Education Ministry but also by the intelligence agencies in those countries where they have been established. Those who have inspected the schools have never found any evidence of brainwashing nor the inculcation of politically activist or anti-government sentiments, either through formal teaching or informal contact. By now, he states, the schools have been operating long enough that graduates are working in all sectors of Turkish society. They have never raised a complaint about undue influence being exerted on students, nor have official visitors make that claim:

Two presidents of our country, premiers, ministers, members of parliament, scholars, high-ranking retired officers, journalists and thousands of others from every view and level have gone out and seen these schools and have returned. There has been no complaint of the kind referred to from the countries where the schools are found. Without exception, they mention them with praise.[29]

In the final analysis, the categories of “breaking with the past,” “defending the past,” or “restoring the past” are beside the point in attempting to understand Fethullah Gülen’s educational vision. The schools inspired by his movement are conceived rather in terms of a humanism that is rooted in a particular historical context but is always aimed at transcending that context. Because of the difference in context, the schools established in countries as diverse as Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Denmark, or Brazil are necessarily very different from one another, but are all inspired by the same humanistic vision.

Gülen states this vision succinctly: “A person is truly human who learns and teaches and inspires others. It is difficult to regard as fully human someone who is ignorant and has no desire to learn. It is also questionable whether a learned person who does not renew and reform oneself so as to set an example for others is fully human.” Into this humanistic vision fit the study of science, humanities, character development, and “spirituality” understood, as mentioned above, in the broad sense. It is thus not surprising that students of these schools have consistently scored high in university placement tests and produced champions in the International Knowledge Olympics in fields such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology.

It is the concern for human formation, however, that distinguishes these schools from the thousands of other prep schools around the world. Gülen understands the school as a laboratory where students not only acquire information and skills, but where they can begin to ask questions about life, seek to understand the meaning of things, to begin to reflect on the particular contribution to life that they would like to make, and to understand life in this world in relation to the next. In some of his writings on education, he even speaks of the school in quasi-religious terms, as a holy place where sacred activities take place. He states:

The school ... can shed light on vital ideas and events and enable its students to understand their natural and human environment. It can also quickly open the way to unveiling the meaning of things and events, which leads one to wholeness of thought and contemplation. In essence, the school is a kind of place of worship whose “holy persons” are teachers.[30]

Fethullah Gülen as a teacher of Islam

The focus of this paper has been on Fethullah Gülen as an educator. His role as religious scholar and teacher (as underscored by the traditional honorific Hocaefendi) is a topic that deserves careful examination, as does the study of his religious thought as a modern interpreter of Islam. Such questions are outside the scope of this paper. However, because many of the accusations leveled against the educational ventures inspired by Mr. Gülen are due precisely to his accepted status as a scholar and teacher of Islam, a study of his educational vision would not be complete without a brief look at his writings on Islam.[31]

Of Fethullah Gülen’s more than 30 books, the majority deal with explicitly Islamic topics. Some are compilations of talks and sermons that he delivered to students and worshipers. Others are responses to questions put to him at one time or another by students. They range from studies of the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, to a basic introduction to Sufism, to a treatment of questions traditionally raised in the science of kalam, to elaborations of essential themes of Islamic faith. These studies are directed not toward specialists but at a more general audience of educated Muslims.[32]

In seeking to present the faith and practice of Islam in a way that responds to the needs of modern believers, Gülen can be said to carry forward the tradition of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi. Gülen’s relationship to the Eastern Anatolian shaykh continues to be a matter of controversy in Turkey, where Said Nursi and his followers have remained under suspicion by the government in the decades before and after his death in 1960. Gülen has often been accused of being a Nurcu, that is, a follower of Said Nursi. Questioned about this accusation, Gülen does not deny that he has benefited from study the writings of Said Nursi, just has he has profited from reading the works of many other Muslim thinkers, but he does reject the claim that he is a follower of Nursi in any sectarian sense. He states:

The word Nurcu, although it was used a little by Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, is basically used by his antagonists to belittle Nursi’s movement and his followers and to be able to present it as a heterodox sect. In life, everyone benefits from and is influenced by many other people, writers, poets, and scholars. In my life I have read many historians and writers from the East and West, and I’ve benefitted from them. Bediüzzaman Said Nursi is only one of these. I never met him. On the other hand, I’ve never used suffixes like -ci, -cu [meaning –“ist”] that refer to a particular group. My only goal has been to live as a believer and to surrender my spirit to God as a believer.[33]

Nevertheless, some observers see the movement associated with Fethullah Gülen as being one of the transformations that have occurred as Nursi’s thought is continually reinterpreted and applied in evolving historical situations. Hakan Yavuz notes: “Some Turkish Nurcus, such as Yeni Asya of Mehmet Kutlular and the Fethullah Gülen community, reimagined the movement as a ‘Turkish Islam’ and nationalized it.” Yılmaz concurs: “Nursi’s discourse ‘has already weathered major economic, political, and educational transformations’... Today, the Hizmet Movement is a manifestation of this phenomenon. The movement spreads into daily life activities at two levels. First, it uses collective identity structures by producing meanings over time and history, reason and submission, love and worship, faith and rationale, science and revelation, divine being and natural order. At the second level the movement tries to influence major patterns of societal institutions, like high schools, foundations, university, insurance companies, finance houses, sport clubs, television and radio channels, newspapers and magazines.”

What can be said about Fethullah Gülen’s personal approach to interpreting the Islamic sources and tradition? The first thing that strikes the reader is his emphasis on morality and moral virtue, which he appears to stress as more central to the religious élan inspired by the Qur’an than ritual practice. While affirming the need for ritual, Gülen regards ethical uprightness as lying at the heart of the religious impulse. “Morality,” he states, “is the essence of religion and a most fundamental portion of the Divine Message. If being virtuous and having good morals is to be heroic—and it is—the greatest heroes are, first, the Prophets and, after them, those who follow them in sincerity and devotion. A true Muslim is one who practices a truly universal, therefore Muslim, morality.” He buttresses his point by citing a hadith from Muhammad in which he states: “Islam consists in good morals; I have been sent to perfect and complete good morals.”

The various aspects of the Islamic way of life collectively known as the sharia, such as creed (aqidah), ritual obligations (‘ibadah), economic affairs (mu’amalat), principles of government (siyasah), regulations of family file (al-ahwal al-shakhsiyya) and moral instruction (akhlaq), are all meant to work together to pro duce the honorable, ethically upright individual. In this broad sense of islam or submission of one’s life to God, it can be said that the schools established by the movement associated with the name of Fethullah Gülen have as their inspiration an ethical vision that is rooted in Islam but is not limited in its expression to members of the umma. When Gülen speaks of forming students “dedicated to living according to humane qualities and moral values,” who “adorn their outer world with all kinds of virtues,” he is proposing a kind of universal ethical code that he as a Muslim has learned from Islam. It is equally obvious that he does not consider the virtues, humane qualities and moral values to be the exclusive possession of Muslims, as non-Muslim students are welcome in the schools and no attempt is made to proselytize.

With this strong ethical sense at the heart of his understanding of Islam, Gülen’s many writings on the life of Muhammad affirm his role as Prophet who brought the Qur’anic revelation but emphasize even more strongly the figure of Muhammad as moral exemplar for Muslims, Muhammad as the first hearer of the Qur’an whose life was preeminently shaped by its message. Particularly in his two-volume work, Prophet Muhammad: The Infinite Light, Gülen’s central concern would seem to be Muhammad as role model for the Muslim of today. This leads him to concentrate on the moral qualities of Muhammad manifested in personal relationships with his companions, wives, and enemies, and the qualities of leadership shown in being Commander of the Faithful. What Gülen seems to find of special importance in the life of Muhammad are personal qualities such as piety, sincerity, generosity, modesty, determination, truthfulness, compassion, patience, and tolerance, and leadership characteristics such as realism, courage, a sense of responsibility and farsightedness, and a readiness to consult, delegate, and forgive.

The religion of Islam is thus understood as a “way leading a person to perfection or enabling one to reacquire one’s primordial angelic state.” If Islam is seen as a path to moral perfection, one must consider the development of tasawwuf as a natural and inevitable development within the Islamic tradition. Gülen suggests an ethical definition of Sufism as “the continuous striving to be rid of all kinds of bad maxims and evil conduct and acquiring virtues.” He praises the Sufis in Islamic history as being spiritual guides who have shown generations of Muslims how to follow this path to human perfection:

[They] have illumined the way of people to the truth and trained them in the perfection of the self. Being the embodiments of sincerity, Divine love and purity of intention, the Sufi masters have become the motivating factor and source of power behind the Islamic conquests and the Islamization of conquered lands and peoples. Figures like Ghazali, Imam Rabbani and Bediüzzaman Said Nursi are the “revivers” or “renewers” of the highest degree, who combined in their persons both the enlightenment of sages, knowledge of religious scholars and spirituality of the greatest saints.[34]

Such a positive reading of the mystical Sufi tradition has inevitably led to accusations of his having created within his movement a type of neo-Sufi tariqah. While denying that he has ever been a member of a tariqah, much less that he has set up his own quasi-Sufi Order, Gülen asserts that to condemn Sufism, the spiritual dimension of Islam, is to tantamount to opposing the Islamic faith itself. He states:

I have stated innumerable times that I’m not a member of a religious order. 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. But I repeat, just as I never joined a Sufi order, I have never had any relationship to one.[35]


Fethullah Gülen’s educational vision can appear to be the sort of highly idealistic “mission statement” of the type that many educational projects have been declaring for more than a century. The real test remains whether the many schools associated with his movement, which have been consciously established on the basis of this idealism, have been successful in providing the kind of education advocated by Gülen. The answers will be as various as the expectations of those who evaluate these schools.[36] Some schools are likely to be more successful than others due to differences in the individual talents of teachers and administrators, in government support or interference, in financial arrangements, and in the capabilities and backgrounds of the students.

In quantifiable aspects of the educational process, such as generalized examinations, academic Olympics, and entrance into high-quality university programs, the schools in the “Gülen network” have largely verified the expectations of Fethullah Gülen and his associates. The schools, moreover, are greatly sought after by parents. For example, I visited a secondary school in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in which 5000 applicants had sought entrance to a secondary school in which 250 places were available.

It is in the unquantifiable aspects of educational formation, precisely those which are meant to distinguish the schools in the Gülen network from the many other prep schools, that evaluation is most difficult and necessarily subjective. Have the schools been producing graduates who display “a marriage of mind and heart,” as Gülen puts it, individuals of “thought, action, and inspiration”? Do the students who emerge from these schools go on to become “valiant young representatives of national thought and feeling”? Do they give evidence of the “profundity of ideas, clarity of thought, depth of feeling, cultural appreciation, and spiritual values” the instilling of which Gülen sees as one of the primary goals of education? It is the ongoing answers to such questions, which can only be given by graduates themselves and those who know and work with such graduates, which will form the ultimate criterion of evaluation by which the success of Gülen’s educational philosophy can be judged.

[1] Gülen has had to defend his movement from accusations that the title Hocaefendi indicates a kind of sect, quasi-Sufi tariqah, or Ottoman revivalist usage. The term, he says, has no hierarchical significance or official connotation, but is simply “a respectful way of addressing someone whose knowledge on religious matters is recognized and acknowledged by the general public.” Cited in Lynne Emily Webb, Fethullah Gülen: Is There More to Him than Meets the Eye, 80.
[2] Fethullah Gülen, Criteria or Lights of the Way, I, 36.
[3] Cited in Webb, Fethullah Gülen: Is There More to Him than Meets the Eye, 106.
[4] Citing The Economist, Yılmaz estimates the number of followers and sympathizers of Gülen’s movement at somewhere between 200,000 and 4,000,000. İhsan Yılmaz, “Changing Turkish-Muslim Discourses on Modernity, West and Dialogue,” footnote 33.
[5] I believe that the term “integration” conveys Mr. Gülen’s intent better in English than “coordination.”
[6] Fethullah Gülen, Towards the Lost Paradise, 11.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 12.
[9] Gülen, Criteria or Lights of the Way, I, 59.
[10] Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, 268-289.
[11] Webb, 86.
[12] Gülen, Towards the Lost Paradise, 16.
[13] “M. Fethullah Gülen: A Voice of Compassion, Love, Understanding and Dialogue,” Introduction to M. Fethullah Gülen, “The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue: a Muslim Approach,” 4.
[14] Gülen, Towards the Lost Paradise, 51-52.
[15] Ibid., 51.
[16] Ibid., 16.
[17] Gülen, Criteria, or Lights of the Way, I, 36.
[18] Gülen, “The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue: a Muslim Approach,” 39.
[19] Ibid., 20.
[20] Ibid., 39.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Gülen’s studies of the life and mission of Muhammad focus repeatedly on the qualities of compassion and tolerance. M. Fethullah Gülen, Prophet Muhammad as Commander, 3-4, 7, 11, 87, 94, 100 et passim, and Prophet Muhammad: the Infinite Light, 3 volumes. Cf. I, 118-119-179 and II, 96, 123, 131, 150. At the 1999 Parliament of the World Religions held in Cape Town, South Africa, he stated: “The Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, defined a true Muslim as one who harms no one with his or her words and actions, and who is the most trustworthy representative of universal peace,” “The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue: A Muslim approach.”
[23] Cf., “Little attention and importance is given to the teaching of cultural values, although it is more necessary to education. If one day we are able to ensure that it is given importance, then we shall have reached a major objective.” Criteria or Lights of the Way, I, 35.
[24] Cf., “Little attention and importance is given to the teaching of cultural values, although it is more necessary to education. If one day we are able to ensure that it is given importance, then we shall have reached a major objective.” Criteria or Lights of the Way, I, 35.
[25] Cited in Webb, 95.
[26] Gülen, Towards the Lost Paradise, 103.
[27] Fethullah Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, 91.
[28] Webb, 135.
[29] Webb, 107.
[30] Fethullah Gülen, Towards the Lost Paradise, 98.
[31] Two of these works have been translated into English: M. Fethullah Gülen, Prophet Muhammad as Commander and the two-volume work, Prophet Muhammad: the Infinite Light. Relying on sound hadith reports and the early sira or biography of Muhammad by Ibn Hisham, Gülen seeks mainly to outline the qualities displayed by Muhammad as a model to be imitated by modern Muslims.
[32] His work, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, is a basic introduction to tasawwuf in which the author analyzes in turn each of the maqamat (stations) and ahwal (states) on the Sufi path. Gülen’s Asrin Getirdiği Tereddütler is a wide-ranging work of four volumes, of which the first volume has been translated into English as Questions This Modern Age Puts to Islam. The work covers theological topics such as the revealed character of the Qur’an, the nature of revelation, and an interesting treatment of the possibility of the salvation of non-Muslims (149-160.) Understanding and Belief: the Essentials of Islamic Faith takes up matters related to creation and causality, eschatology, the resurrection of the body, the unseen world of angels, jinn, and Satan, and concludes with a study of nubuwwat, the prophethood of Muhammad, and the question of science and religion in relation to the study of the Qur’an.
[33] Cited in Webb, 96.
[34] Fethullah Gülen, Prophet Muhammad as Commander, 122–123.
[35] Cited in Webb, 102–103.
[36] İhsan Yılmaz offers a very useful bibliography of recent studies on the thought of Fethullah Gülen. Please, see p. 148.