Sufi influences in Gülen’s early life

Sufi influences in Gülen’s early life

Mustafa Gökçek

Fethullah Gülen is primarily a scholar, who, while far from establishing a Sufi order, aims to revive and combine the activism of Prophet Muhammad and his companions, the asceticism of the first generation Sufis, and the Sufi terminological knowledge and consciousness of the later Sufi scholars. At a time when the gap between Sufis and their major critique salafis increase, Gülen’s main goal is to reestablish Sufism on the basis of Quran and Sunna. Gülen’s most significant contribution to the Sufi literature is his emphasis on religious activism. In Gülen’s Sufi approach the passivism, asceticism and exclusive focus on inner world under the guidance of the sheikh in many of the early Sufi works are replaced with purification of the self through continuous struggle and action within the community under the direct guidance of Quran and Sunna. This approach offers a new equilibrium within the Muslim world and promotes a peaceful and tolerant understanding of Islam coexisting peacefully with the non-Islamic communities.

An interview of Gülen published as Küçük Dünyam” (or “My Little World”) provides many examples of powerful influence of Sufism on Gülen during his early childhood. This should not be surprising considering the first Muslim presence in Anatolia took place thanks to the Sufi dervishes of Central Asia and that Sufi orders have always been influential in Asia Minor. Especially Erzurum, the birthplace of Gülen, is known for its conservative and spiritual atmosphere.

According to Gülen the leading authority figure in his family was his great grandfather, Molla Ahmed. The qualities, which make him venerable in Gülen’s memory, are all Sufi attributes: asceticism, combining knowledge and piety, living on a few olives a day throughout all his life, never sleeping in bed, and sleeping very little. Gülen mentions his strong attachment to his grandfather, Samil. Gülen reveres him for not compromising on even the smallest secondary or tertiary aspects of practice of Islam. He also emphasizes the influence of his grandmother’s spirituality. Gülen mentions his father with deep respect as having a major influence on hims and recalls his passion for knowledge, love of the companions of the Prophet, and refined manners.

While these instances indicate the reverence for Sufi qualities in Gülen’s family, a local Sufi sheikh Mehmed Lutfi or Alvarli Efe as known by the locals had the most influence on Gülen in terms of establishing Sufi qualities in his life. Lutfi paid frequent visits to their house and was highly respected in the family. Gülen memorized all the poems Lutfi read in his sermons and many of his teachings have remained strong in Gülen’s memory, as they are reflected in Gülen’s later teachings. Certainly his experiences in Sufi lodges, or tekye, in this time period of his life left a deep impression on Gülen and this impact is reflected in Gülen’s thinking.

Source: “Muslim Citizens of the Globalized World Contributions of the Gulen Movement.” 2007. Edited by Robert Hunt and Yuksel Aslandogan. The Light Inc and IID Press. Pages 166-67.

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