Ruth Woodhall's Review on The Statue of Our Souls: Revival in Islamic Thought and Activism

by Ruth Woodhall on . Posted in Book Reviews

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Those who have followed Gülen's world of ideas closely will see that what he wrote or preached 15-20 years ago and the ideas he puts forward today are in no way different nor do they conflict in essence; on the contrary, all of his works and speeches interpret one another and gradually lead toward a main idea. He has written a veritable library of works over the years, and all of these are focused on subjects like the tremors and collapses that the Muslim world, in particular, the Turkish nation, have gone through, the failure to represent Islam as it should be and the reasons for this, the realization of a revival in the Muslim world, the representation of Islam, once again, on a universal scale and the basic dynamics and characteristics of the generation that will carry out this duty. When viewed from this aspect, the works of Gülen all voice the same message forming a great symphony when brought together. The Statue of Our Souls is a systematic and thorough expression of the ideas the author has suggested for a revival and the efforts made to realize the same. It is oriented to revival in thought and action and provides guidelines for-in the Qur'anic term-"the inheritors of the Earth."

The book first presents us with an overall view of the condition of the Muslim world, and we see that wherever Muslims are to be found, there exists a paradox. On the one hand, there is depression, weakness, and the people are approaching the edge of the abyss through ignorance and superstition; on the other, people in general are more inclined to turn to God and they struggle for revival almost everywhere... Everywhere you can see people who are thirsty for the peace and security promised by Islam. The depression, which the author terms "days of decline," has been the constantly bleeding wound of the Muslim world for the past few centuries.

Muslims, who had once turned the world into "a dimension of Paradise," sacrificed the religion, their real source of power, to this world and lost the perfect balance they had established between the universe, humanity, and life. In this way, they rejected the heritage of a thousand years, and tried to replace it with new, but weak, building blocks incompatible with the primordial nature of humanity. However, it is a reality that in spite of all the traumas, depressions, and storms of the days of decline, the idea of a revival has always remained in wait in some remote corner for the day when it will prevail.

For the sake of a revival, in other words, for the sake of repairing the shaken Muslim logic, of compensating for deviations, and of establishing a new and healthy life, the entire Muslim world needs to go through a "resurrection." This revival is one that will protect the origin of the religion within the width and universality promised by the flexible principles of Islam, a revival that will meet the needs of all classes of people and embrace all aspects of life in every time and in every place.

Gülen points out that humanity, life, and the universe should be approached from an Islamic perspective, and that it is an obligation of the Muslim societies that have pushed aside Islamic logic, thought, and concepts to be encouraged toward a renewal in all its depths.

Those who undertake this heavy responsibility and who help to realize a universal change should be a new type of people. The author refers to them as "the inheritors of the Earth," and he describes them as people who reflect the spirit of the Prophet and Qur'anic morals.

In a way, The Statue of Our Souls describes and analyzes this renaissance that has already begun. This renaissance is a process that can be realized when an entire nation returns to its own spiritual roots. Our nation, which has experienced several revivals, can prevent sicknesses like "passion, laziness, fame-seeking, selfishness, worldliness, narrow-mindedness, the use of brute force" with exalted human values like "contentedness, courage, modesty, altruism, knowledge and virtue, and the ability to think universally"; it is then that we can say a Qur'an-oriented change back to our primordial nature will have been realized.

This resurrection, or great renaissance, is to be realized by the members of the nation who will partake of the same reviving spirit completely. In this way, our nation will take hold of its long-lost trust again, and aim to make the world a paradise-like place. The Statue of Our Souls analyzes the sociological and historical obstacles that stand before the re-construction of the Muslim world. Gülen, however, never loses trust in the nation which bears the fire of a revival deep inside and he feels connected to them through an eternal hope.

It can be seen, in fact, that the central theme of this collection of Gülen's writings is an exhortation to a determined self-improvement in his followers and amongst Muslims generally. Muslims must strive to become worthy of the promise made to us. He alludes repeatedly to God's promise to the faithful:

Before this We wrote in the Psalms, after the Message (Given to Moses): "My servants, the righteous, shall inherit the earth." (Anbiya 21:105)

Gülen echoes the great teacher Rumi in telling us not to ignore the doctrine of causes, not to sit around heedlessly waiting for God's favor, but rather to exert ourselves endlessly in order to transform this broken world into the world of peace and justice, in accordance with the Will of God. Again like Rumi, he points out that it is in this, our willing submission to the Will of God that the only true freedom is found, that paradoxically it is this submission, and only this submission which can free us from slavery to meaningless and ultimately destructive whim, fancy, folly and temptation. He indicates the path to freedom and eternal life, sometimes by giving us quite simple and direct instructions which can be applied in the worldly contexts in which we find ourselves, sometimes by ornate descriptions of the spiritual delights to be found on the path and at the destination, and he urges us again and again that we should, of our own free will, follow that straight path.

Gülen's work is a constant exhortation to greater effort, greater knowledge, greater self-control and restraint. He reminds us that these are the qualities for which God will reward us. He reminds us of the value of patience and of how many times in the pages of the Qur'an we are urged to be patient and endure. He does not advocate and has never advocated the use of violence to attain political ends. "The days of getting things done by brute force are over," he tells us. "In today's enlightened world the only way to get others to accept your ideas is by persuasion and convincing argument. Those who use brute force to reach their goals are intellectually bankrupt." He is not an "externalist," one who thinks that Islam can be imposed on others from without by the forceful application of shari'a. He wants the renewal of society to start from within the heart. While acknowledging the importance of law and order in society, he does not believe that virtue can be instilled by force nor that the virtuous society is built by repression. Far from it, he protests wherever freedom is restricted unnecessarily. Gülen adheres to the Qur'anic injunction that the different tribes and nations which were all made by God should learn from each other and hence does not reject all the technical, political and cultural aspects of Western modernity, such as democracy, parliamentarianism, and scientific education. Rather he advises giving such institutions an Islamic dimension and in this way avoiding both the negative effects of a wholly secularist ideology and the stagnation and fossilization of a religious society which cannot adapt to its environment.

In Gülen's eyes and in his life Islam is not the fragile, fossilized museum relic which modern secularists would like it to be. For him and for the many who agree with him it is not only vital and alive but our only way, our true connection with the Real, with the True, with the Source of our life. As such the injunctions of God in the Qur'an and Sunna and in the cosmos must be re-examined, rebuilt, restored in every age in the light of advancing knowledge and changing states. His jihad is not the dark sinful despair and desperate struggle of extremism which sees itself as pitted against a too mighty enemy but effort along with the calm confidence of faith, the optimism of one who believes that God has placed in human hearts the desire for goodness and wholeness, and endowed them with understanding, and the belief that the Muslim's task is to draw this out gently and bring it to bloom.

A major concept that occurs as a theme throughout the book is Gülen's understanding of "nation." Although this concept refers particularly to the Muslim world and the Turkish nation in the context of their roles in shaping human history, as major players and representatives of global peace, there is certainly more to it than just the concept of one particular nation, especially when we look with Gülen's vision and his ideal of dialogue and tolerance. In this book, Gülen addresses globally valid solutions for freedom and an honorable stand which any suppressed community could resort to. The motivating ethos behind Gülen's career as clearly manifested in numerous dialogue activities and education initiatives is one of a worldwide peace which will be accomplished by the participation of all nations. Gülen's definition of nation does not comprise one race; Anatolia throughout history has always been a land of diverse ethnic groups, which form one united nation today. Exempt from any chauvinist characteristic, he addresses the colorful mosaic of Anatolia, which is like a crucible for peoples that have come from Central Asia, the Balkans, and Mesopotamia.

Finally, as one of the most significant thinkers and activists of Turkey, indeed of the modern Muslim world, Gülen has concerned himself throughout his life's work with finding and enacting solutions for the tremendous sense of strain, alienation, weakness, defeat, and disintegration felt in the Muslim world since the fall of the Ottoman State at the beginning of the twentieth century. Unlike many other Muslim leaders, however, he neither denies reality and turns his back on modernity, nor does he fall into bitterness, incomprehension and fury, but rather he exhorts Muslims to educate themselves, control themselves and use their own resources to regain and restore their culture, their identity and the observance of their religion. His is essentially a message of peace and hope, a message that is best conveyed in The Statue of Our Souls.

The Fountain, January-March 2006, Issue 53