The Hizmet community and the Jesuits: Some points of comparison

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

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Fethullah Gülen

Te topic that I will speak about today is that of the Gülen community and the Jesuits, and I am asked to note some points of comparison. I should mention at the beginning that two scholars have already independently treated this topic.

One of these studies has already been published. It is the paper prepared by Michael David Graskemper, a young American scholar at Harvard University in the United States, and was delivered at the international conference, “Muslim World in Transition: Contributions of the Gülen Movement,” that was held in London at the London School of Economics on 25-27 October 2007. Mr. Graskemper’s paper was entitled “A Bridge to Interreligious Cooperation: The Gülen-Jesuit Educational Nexus.”

The other paper was prepared by Dr. Patrick Howell, a Jesuit professor at Seattle University in the United States. Dr. Howell’s paper has been accepted by the conference “East-West Encounters: the Hizmet Movement,” which is scheduled to be held at the University of Southern California on 4-6 December of this year. Dr. Howell’s paper is entitled “Dialogue between Jesuit and Gülen Educational and Spiritual Foundations.”

Both papers focus on the educational philosophy and activities of the two movements. Today I will aim at taking up the more general topic and being more broadly informative.

If I were giving this talk in the United States, I would feel that I should begin by introducing the audience to the background and works of the Hizmet Movement, and I could presume that the participants already knew much about the Jesuits. Here in İFethullah Gülenstanbul, the opposite is true; I believe that you are all well-informed, probably better than me, about the Hizmet Movement, but I should offer some background information on who the Jesuits are and what they do.

The Jesuits are a Catholic religious order founded about 470 years ago in 1541. The proper name of the community is “The Society of Jesus,” and the name “Jesuit,” which was originally disparaging, stuck and is today the usual name for the community. The Jesuits were inspired by the life and writings of Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish soldier who underwent a deep spiritual conversion and devoted the rest of his life to the service of God. Ignatius lived at the time of the Protestant Reformation when many people were leaving the Catholic Church to join the Protestants. The Protestant reformers believed that the Catholic Church was too corrupt and wanted to found new “reformed” Churches, but Ignatius and his companions worked to renew and reform the Catholic Church from within and to invite nominal Christians to a deeper, transformed commitment to their faith.

Ignatius proposed two main instruments of renewal: spiritual development and education. To bring about spiritual transformation, the Jesuits founded throughout Europe “retreat houses,” that is, places for prayer and spiritual renewal. All Jesuits must undergo 30 days of “spiritual exercises” twice during their lives, as well as 8 days of spiritual renewal every year.

The second instrument of renewal was education. They founded schools and universities in every major city of Europe, as well as North and South America, Asia, and Africa. In the United States, for example, there are 28 Jesuit universities and over 40 high schools, 5 universities in the Philippines, 8 in Brazil etc., and in India, there are over 100,000 students in Jesuit schools of higher education. Graskemper notes that “at the core of this project lies a determination to make education not just a commodity for the privileged, but a powerful tool for transforming society.”

In this vision that education is about more than simply communicating information, we can find an appropriate opening to a comparison with the schools of the Hizmet Movement. Fethullah Gülen, like Ignatius, has a broader vision than simply to run a school system. He wants to change the world and make it a better, more just and peaceful place. He wants to serve society by producing a new generation of students who are well prepared scientifically, and who are instilled with the ideals to use their educational preparation for the common good, rather than for their own selfish comfort.

Compare this vision of Fethullah Gülen with the mission statement of Georgetown University, the Jesuit university in Washington, D.C. This was the earliest Jesuit university in the United States, dating back to 1789, and has produced many of the academic, political, religious, and economic leaders of the United States. Georgetown’s mission statement reads as follows:

“Georgetown seeks to be a place where:

  1. understanding is joined to commitment,
  2. where the search for truth is informed by a sense of responsibility for society,
  3. where academic excellence in teaching is joined with the cultivation of virtue,
  4. and where a community is formed which sustains men and women in their education and their conviction that life is only lived well when it is lived generously in the service of others.”

Those involved in schools produced by the Hizmet will recognize the four key elements of this mission that are not foreign to their own pedagogical vision:

  1. Understanding is linked to engagement in society; knowledge is not simply for self-interest or aggrandizement, it is for serving society.
  2. Search for truth brings with it a sense of responsibility for others.
  3. Academic scholarship must go hand-in-hand with moral values and personal transformation.
  4. Finally, education seeks to create a community of people who share the view that life is lived best when people are serving others.

There is also a common conviction between those involved in Hizmet and the men and women who follow an Ignatian spirituality that God is to be encountered and served in the carrying out of their daily duties. If one is a math teacher, one serves God best by being a conscientious, well-prepared, loving math teacher. It is a this-world spirituality, emphasizing service and commitment. In both Hizmet and Jesuit schools, the notion of education is holistic. There is an awareness that much education goes on outside the classroom, and that the teachers’ role is as much that of role model as it is a provider of information. The Jesuit concept of cura personalis is mirrored in the Hizmet schools by a personal approach to the student, a concern for the family, visits to the home and colloquia with the parents and, when it is appropriate, with the extended family.

A strong point of comparison is the fact that both Ignatius and Fethullah Gülen were innovators in education. They looked at the existing possibilities of education and found them wanting. The societies in which they lived needed something new. In the time of Ignatius, the sons of pious aristocratic families were sent to monastic schools to learn a bit of Latin, philosophy, theology, rhetoric, and law. At the same time, the university tradition stemming from places like Paris, Bologna, and Salamanca offered a secular education, strong in sciences and medicine, but strongly influenced by Renaissance humanism and often strongly critical of religion and religious values. In the time of Ignatius, the views of the Protestant reformers, especially those of John Calvin, were making headway in the European universities.

Ignatius saw a need for a new kind of school, on that would be the equal of the secular universities in scientific education, but would also concentrate on character development and the ability to discern truth in arguments and debates. The goal of Jesuit education has been described as “teaching the student to think”; in other words, education goes beyond simply filling the students’ minds with information. It should make them critical and take well-founded positions in regard to truth.

Note the similarities with the educational philosophy expressed by Fethullah Gülen. Describing the educational situation in Turkey in the latter half of the 20th Century, 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 [educational] coordination was essentially not possible.” Fethullah Gülen saw that it was not simply a question of opening a new school, but that a new type of school was necessary. By integrating the insights and strengths found in the various educational currents, he held, educators must seek to bring about a “marriage of mind and heart” if they hope to form individuals of “thought, action, and inspiration.”

An important element of comparison between the Hizmet schools and those of the Jesuits are their essentially decentralized nature. In neither case can we speak accurately of a “Hizmet school system” or a “Jesuit school system.” Fethullah Gülen stated once that he is tired of repeating that he does not “have” any schools. Rather, people who have been influenced by his educational and social vision have looked at the local needs and started their own schools that are fashioned to respond to the needs of the local society.

The curriculum is to a great extent determined by national directives, but local prerogatives determine the school’s priorities. For example, in the highly conflictual environment of tensions and violence between Christian and Muslim in the southern Philippines, the Hizmet school in Zamboanga is entitled The Philippine-Turkish School of Tolerance,” and the school sees itself as a laboratory for Muslim and Christian students learning to live together in peace and harmony. I should add that the Jesuit university in the same city, the Ateneo de Zamboanga, shares the same vision of providing an atmosphere of respect and tolerance for Muslims and Christians, and cooperates with the Hizmet school in many projects. For example, prospective teachers at the Hizmet school perfect their knowledge of English at the Jesuit school.

In his paper, Howell sees three main points of convergence between Ignatius and Fethullah Gülen:

  1. their mystical and religious roots,
  2. emphasis on experience and pragmatic action, rather than retreat from daily life;
  3. and their devotion to building up community.

I have already addressed the second and third points of Howell’s observation, but the first point might need some elaboration. Fethullah Gülen in his writings draws upon the broad-minded, tolerant exponents of the Turkish Sufi tradition to be spiritual models for modern Muslims. The Sufis have, he states, “illumined the way of people to the truth and trained them in the perfection of the self…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.” He often cites Jalaluddin Rumi, Ahmad Yasawi, and Yunus Emre in order to teach elements of spirituality. Similarly, Ignatius was not simply a theoretician but a mystic who drew upon his experiential encounters with God to give direction and strength to his commitment to follow and serve Jesus Christ.

Fethullah Gülen’s approach to Islam emphasizes the moral or ethical aspect over that of dry ritual. He also sees morality as the universal aspect of the Islamic message. Fethullah Gülen states: “Morality 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.

Similarly, Ignatius consistently emphasized the importance of ethics over theological speculation. His spirituality has been described as “voluntarist,” that is, focused on the will, rather than “rationalist,” centered on the intellect. The concept of “doing God’s will in all things” is central to his understanding of the Christian message. For the past 470 years, the motto of the Jesuits has been Ad majorem Dei gloriam, that is, to do everything “for the greater glory of God. This is a spiritual ideal quite similar to Fethullah Gülen’s emphasis on ikhlas or pure intention, which means doing everything, great or small, solely with the intention of pleasing God. Thus, at the heart of Jesuit spirituality we find the deepest point of convergence with the Islamic understanding that Fethullah Gülen has sought to convey to Hizmet members. It is not surprising that this common ideal is often lived out in very similar life styles.