The wing of the bird: Fethullah Gülen on sincerity

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

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Fethullah Gülen

Fethullah Gülen as spiritual master

Much has been written about the thought of Fethullah Gülen in terms of the social programs and institutions inspired by his ideas. Some have studied his theory of education as the pedagogical basis for the schools and other educational ventures founded and administered by members of the community associated with Fethullah Gülen’s name. Others have focused on Fethullah Gülen’s vision as the philosophical motor behind a social movement working to produce social change and renewal, whether it be in Turkey, in the worldwide Islamic umma, or in the modern world in general. Still others have underlined Fethullah Gülen’s call for universal love, fellowship, and tolerance and consequently his encouragement of interreligious dialogue as an essentially Islamic obligation.

In this paper, I want to concentrate on another aspect of the thought of Fethullah Gülen, one that may prove, in the long run, to be the area of his greatest influence. This is his role as spiritual director and teacher of internalized Islamic virtue. It is the function Fethullah Gülen plays as spiritual master whose counsel has guided individual Muslims and formed a coherent and workable community life among his disciples. Thousands of Turks, Central Asians, and others, ranging from students to businessmen to young professionals, look to Fethullah Gülen as their spiritual teacher whose advice and wisdom, rooted in the Islamic tradition, has shaped their understanding of the religion of Islam and has had a formative influence on their lives as Muslims in the modern world. This acknowledgement is manifest in the honorific title by which Fethullah Gülen’s disciples refer to him as “Hocaefendi,” that is, “Respected Teacher.”

This aspect of the teaching and counsel of Fethullah Gülen has been often referred to as the “Sufi element” in his thought. The question of Fethullah Gülen’s relationship to the Sufi tradition has been much discussed by scholars and need be no more than noted here. According to Zeki Saritoprak, Fethullah Gülen is “a Sufi in his own way.”[1] Employing a term coined by Fazlur Rahman, I have referred to Fethullah Gülen, and to Said Nursi before him, as “neo-Sufis,” to describe their role as scholars who propose and explain Sufi concepts, but have not belonged to a tariqah or taken a pir.[2] Heon Kim terms Fethullah Gülen’s methodological principle “dialogic Sufism” or “humanitarian Sufism,”[3] while Rıfat Atay views Fethullah Gülen as reviving the proto-Sufi suffa Tradition of studious piety which arose in Medina in the first centuries after Muhammad.[4]

Mustafa Gökçek notes that Fethullah Gülen did not begin to write about Sufism until the 1990s, when he was over 50 years old.[5] His earlier sermons and writings focused mainly on basic elements of Islamic faith and moral prescriptions, although he often included examples from the lives of earlier Muslim mystics and ascetics. However, in 1990, Fethullah Gülen began to include a brief insert in the magazine Sızıntı (The Fountain) that in each monthly issue elaborated a different concept of Sufi terminology. These were collected and became the basis for Fethullah Gülen’s masterwork, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, which was published as two series or volumes in English.[6]

“Sincerity” in the Islamic tradition

I do not intend to treat the whole gamut of the spiritual advice offered by Fethullah Gülen to his disciples, but instead I will focus on one central concept and try to show its role in maintaining a cohesive, Islamically-motivated community life. This is the Qur’anic concept of ikhlas, which is usually translated into English either as “purity of intention” or “sincerity.” Both these translations touch on an essential aspect of the Qur’anic notion of ikhlas.

“Sincerity” usually indicates the notion of “honesty of mind” or “freedom from dissimulation or hypocrisy.” A sincere person is one whose external words or deeds are in accord with their interior thoughts or feelings. A sincere person does not dissimulate or pretend to be expressing one thought or emotion while in reality his interior dispositions are to the contrary. Thus, a sincere person is not self-promoting, hypocritical, pretentious, two-faced, or devious. The sincere person neither flatters nor manipulates others. It is to this aspect of sincerity that Jesus exhorted his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount when he taught his disciples to say “yes” when they mean yes and “no” when they mean no (Matthew 5: 37).

However, there is another aspect of the Qur’anic notion of ikhlas. This notion, which brings together the notion of “purity” with that of “dedicating, devoting or consecrating oneself” to something, is a key virtue in Islamic practice.[7] Ikhlas is an eminently interior disposition by which the faithful Muslim should perform all external actions a spirit of service and directed solely toward pleasing the Divine Lord. In Islam, the perfection of one’s witness to faith can be gauged by the double standard of ikhlas (purity of intention) and ihsan (goodness).

It is noteworthy that the brief expression of the Islamic creed found in the Qur’anic chapter 116, “Say: He, Allah, is One. Allah is He on whom all depend. He begets not, nor is He begotten. And none is like Him,” has been known in Islamic tradition as the Surah al-Ikhlas, that is, “The Chapter of Sincerity” or “The Chapter of Pure Religion.”

The importance of ikhlas has been commented upon down through the centuries by Muslim scholars, exegetes, and spiritual guides in every generation. The Sufi masters have been particularly fond of elaborating on this virtue, to the extent that in the minds of many Muslims, ikhlas is considered a “Sufi concept.” In commenting on ikhlas, Said Nursi must repeatedly distinguish his own advice from that of the teaching of the Sufis. While acknowledging the beneficial value of the instruction of the Sufi masters, he notes that “I am not a Sufi, but these principles of theirs make a good rule for our path.”[8]

Nursi’s approach differs from that of the Sufis because of his praxis-oriented approach, what he calls the “way of reality,” in which he eschews contemplative speculation in favor of practical guidance for his disciples’ life together. He states: “However, since our way is not the Sufi path but the way of reality, we are not compelled to perform this contemplation [of death] in an imaginary and hypothetical form like the Sufis.”[9]

Because of its roots in the Qur’an and in the tradition of Islamic spiritual writing, Nursi’s use of ikhlas can perhaps be more adequately conveyed in English by “purity of intention” or “pure religion” than simply by “sincerity.” Ikhlas is when one practices all the acts of religion solely for God’s pleasure rather than for any personal benefit that may accrue to them, whether that be prestige, pride, or the admiration of others. When one “worships God with sincerity” one’s intention is pure and undefiled by base or irrelevant motives. As the Qur’an states, “There is the type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah: And Allah is full of kindness to (His) devotees” (Qur’an 2: 207).

The wing of the bird

While interpreting the basic meaning of the term to be “upright, sincere, and pure,” Fethullah Gülen indicates that ikhlas means “pursuing nothing worldly while worshiping and obeying God.”[10] At the deepest level, sincerity can only be understood in the mystery of the relationship between God and God’s faithful servant. Purity of intention is a grace or divine gift that God places in the heart of those He loves[11] in order to increase, deepen and give eternal value to the servant’s ordinary good acts.

Fethullah Gülen considers purity of intention to be one wing of a person’s spiritual life before God. The other is faithfulness, and together the two virtues make up the pair of wings of divine grace that God implants in the soul, which enable a person to approach God directly without hindrance. He quotes Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi to the effect that if good deeds were a body, purity of intention would be their soul. That is, it is a sincere intention that makes good deeds live, be effective, and have everlasting value. Without sincerity to animate deeds spiritually, all human endeavors would remain lifeless, ephemeral, and ultimately worthless. But those who fly with the two wings of sincerity and faithfulness will travel with God’s protection and will unfailingly reach their destination, that is, “God’s pleasure and approval.”

Faithfulness, the other wing of the bird, enables God’s servant to stick to his intention to serve God even when it is inconvenient or seemingly fruitless. This kind of loyalty to God is one of the most evident qualities of God’s servants, an outstanding characteristic of all the prophets, and the source of wisdom in the believer. In the loyal, faithful servant, God will plant the seeds of wisdom that will then spring from that person’s heart and tongue.

Fethullah Gülen quotes Abu Yazid Bistami (Bayazid) to say that it is through sincere intention, not through human deeds, that a person goes to God. It is on the basis of a person’s sincerity that God judges acts, not on the magnitude or notoriety of the deed. The size and quantity of good deeds is unimportant. Even a small deed or one that is unknown to others, if it is done with sincerity, is judged pleasing by God. Fethullah Gülen notes that God rewards a small act done with purity of intention more highly than many more ostentatious deeds done without the sincere desire to serve God alone.

Just as the prophets could not take a step without sincerity, so also those who follow in the footsteps of the prophets will not be able to do anything without a pure intention. Fethullah Gülen describes this purity of intention as “the pursuit of no worldly purpose in one’s relationship with God.”[12] In other words, worshiping and obeying God are the only reasons that a sincere person should have for performing any of their good actions.

Living with purity of intention

Like Said Nursi before him, Fethullah Gülen is not interested so much in being a theoretician of the spiritual life as in offering concrete, practical advice to those who come to him for spiritual counsel. In this way, Fethullah Gülen, following Nursi, distinguishes himself from the great Sufi Masters like Al-Muhasibi, Al-Ghazali, and Hujwiri. Fethullah Gülen is interested in continuing in the line of Nursi’s “path of reality,” that of providing effective, helpful advice to Muslims who are seeking God’s pleasure in this world.

Fethullah Gülen advises his disciples to maintain spiritual discretion. In practical terms, if purity of intention means that the servant does everything solely to seek God’s pleasure and for no worldly motive whatsoever, it follows that sincere believers should not be ostentatious in the good deeds they perform. One seeking God’s pleasure alone should hide supererogatory acts from the view of others and remain silent about any edifying personal experiences, special treatment received from superiors, or special gifts with which one has been endowed by God.

There is much wisdom in this advice, given the universal human tendency to perform one’s good deeds in order to be seen by others and gain their approval. Moreover, human motivation is often complex, with the desire to serve God mixed with a craving for human admiration and approval. The sincere servant recognizes that it is only God’s approval, not that of other persons, that matters; thus it is unimportant whether or not one is seen to be serving God.

A person who does everything with purity of intention worries neither about being praised for his accomplishments nor censured for his failures. He does not care if others are aware or unaware of his achievements, nor is he preoccupied about receiving a reward. Such a person behaves with consistency, whether or not one is in public or in private.

Sincerity not only keeps one’s intention pure, but also guards against pursuing one’s goals with unworthy methods. Only purity of intention can insure that “the ends justify the means” will not become an Islamic principle. Fethullah Gülen explains: “An Islamic goal can be achieved only through Islamic means and methods… Just as it is impossible to secure God’s approval without sincerity and purity of intention, so, too, neither can Islam be served nor Muslims directed toward their real targets through diabolic means and methods.”[13]

As a Christian, I am impressed how similar is this teaching on purity of intention to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount that his disciples should do their good deeds only to please and obey God. He said, “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret…And when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen...When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

According to Fethullah Gülen, sincerity teaches us that God’s pleasure, not human recognition or respect, is the true goal of our acts of piety and goodness. Moreover, in sincere worship we discover that our human longing for Paradise is not a sufficient motivation for doing what is right. Speaking of worship, Fethullah Gülen teaches: “Those performing [acts of worship] can be categorized by their intention, resolution, determination, and sincerity as follows: those who desire to enter Paradise, those who hope to be rescued from Hellfire, those who love and stand in awe of God, and those who feel that they must do so as a requirement of their relationship between God as the Creator and human beings.”[14] The sincere worshiper no longer cares whether his deeds will form the basis for attaining Paradise, for he performs his duties with the sole intention of loving and serving God. Fethullah Gülen cites the Second Century mystic Rabia bint al-Adawiyya, who stated: “O Lord, I swear by the beauty of nearness to You that I have not worshipped You either because of fear of Hell or out of the desire for Paradise. I have worshipped You because of You.”[15]

In fact, sincerity should become second nature to God’s servants, not a virtue after which a person consciously needs to strive. Fethullah Gülen advises disciples to be “so involved in worship or religious deeds in seeking God’s pleasure that one does not even remember whether one should be sincere or not.”[16] In other words, even the virtue of sincerity itself must not be allowed to get in the way of pure service of God and become the final goal of religious observance. The only true objective in the performance of any good act is to serve and obey God and to thereby give God the pleasure and satisfaction that is due Him. For this reason, Fethullah Gülen describes purity of intention as the first essential characteristic of Islamic piety.[17]

It is only the humble individual who can act with true sincerity. As Fethullah Gülen explains: “Humble persons do not attribute fruits of work and efforts to themselves, nor do they regard their successes or efforts for God as making them superior to others. They do not care how others regard them; they do not demand a return for their services for God. They regard their being loved by others as a test of their sincerity, and do not exploit God’s favors to them by boasting.”[18]

To achieve this, the disciple must engage in self-examination and self-supervision. Only the person who has learned to be honest with oneself will be able to know whether one’s motivation is solely to worship God or whether the true incentive that is being pursued is some worldly gain, such as self-satisfaction, human respect, or personal ambition. Thus, developing a habit of honest evaluation and reflection will enable a person to grow in purity of intention. Fethullah Gülen calls this muraqaba (self-supervision), by which God’s servants are led “to maintain the purity of thoughts, actions, and intentions even when they are alone, in the consciousness of His continual observation.”[19]

It is not only for the purposes of an individual’s spiritual growth that purity of intention is a key virtue among those who seek to do God’s will. Purity of intention also has communitarian effects. There is nothing that can more quickly disrupt the proper bonds of friendship among disciples than personal ambition, competition, and rivalry. When a disciple is in the habit of calling attention to his superior abilities or achievements in one or another area, or to boast about his relationship to his superiors, resentment and jealousy will inevitably arise among his confreres.

In his emphasis on sincerity as a key element in preserving the unity of the community, Fethullah Gülen’s approach is very similar to that of Said Nursi, who repeatedly wrote of the necessity for sincerity to prevent disunity among the students of the Risale-i Nur. In his long discourses on sincerity, Nursi envisioned a community in which “Each of the members completes the deficiencies of the others, veils their faults, assists their needs, and helps them out in their duties.”[20] If this type of relationship among fellow disciples is to be possible and the unity of the community is to be maintained, everyone must be sincerely striving solely to please God.

The history of many religious groups in various religions has shown repeatedly that it is jealousy, judgmentalness, and competition among members that is the cause of factionalism, resentment, and divisions into rival groups. The virtue of sincerity can combat these tendencies in two ways. Firstly, it is sincerity that enables God’s servants to keep focused on serving God alone, thus making their actions, whether great or small, acceptable to God. Secondly, recognizing a fellow believer’s sincerity can help a person to avoid carping criticism and summary condemnation of a companion. Fethullah Gülen teaches that those who seek God’s blessing and strive to be true must cast no doubt on others’ sincerity, but should “value all servants of God as the greatest of people, and appreciate each one as their peer. In their hearts, they dissolve any harshness or bad feelings coming from others, thus showing how kindness defeats wrong.”[21]

If Fethullah Gülen has been able to instill a sense of harmony and united service (hizmet) among his followers, it is largely because of the emphasis he has put on purity of intention. He cites Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi to this effect:

“You should be sincere in all your deeds,So that the Majestic Lord may accept themSincerity is the wing of the bird of the acts of obedienceWithout a wing, how can you fly to the abode of prosperity?”

[1] Zeki Saritoprak, “Fethullah Fethullah Gülen: A Sufi in His Own Way,” 156-169.
[2] Thomas Michel, “Der türkische Islam im Dialog mit der modernen Gesellschaft. Die neo-sufistische Spiritualität der Fethullah Gülen-Bewegung.” See also, “Sufism and Modernity in the Thought of Fethullah Fethullah Gülen,” 341-353.
[3] Heon Kim, “Fethullah Gülen’s Dialogic Sufism: A Constructional and Constructive Factor of Dialogue,” 374.
[4] Rıfat Atay, “Reviving the Suffa Tradition,” 459-472.
[5] Mustafa Gökçek, “Fethullah Fethullah Gülen and Sufism: a Historical Perspective.”
[6] Fethullah Fethullah Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism I-II.
[7] L. Gardet, Encyclopaedia of Islam, III: 1059.
[8] Said Nursi, Risale-i Nur, The Twenty-first Flash, 216.
[9] Ibid., 217.
[10] Fethullah Fethullah Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, 60.
[11] Ibid., 62.
[12] Ibid., 60.
[13] Fethullah Fethullah Gülen, “Towards the World of the Righteous Servants.”
[14] Fethullah Fethullah Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, 54.
[15] Fethullah Fethullah Gülen, “Ibada, Ubudiya, and Ubuda (Worship, Servanthood, and Deep Devotion).”
[16] Fethullah Fethullah Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, 62.
[17] Fethullah Fethullah Gülen, “Taqwa (Piety).”
[18] Fethullah Fethullah Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, 80.
[19] Fethullah Fethullah Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, 57.
[20] Said Nursi, Risale-i Nur, The Twenty-first Flash, 214.
[21] Fethullah Fethullah Gülen, “An Ideal Society.”