Fethullah Gülen and the Concept of Responsibility

Fethullah Gülen and the Concept of Responsibility

Simon Robinson

Responsibility is a key concept in philosophy and theology, and also in practice, not least in business and the management of the environment. It is a concept at the heart of the writings of Fethullah Gülen.


Gülen’s view of responsibility is firmly set in accountability and thus in turn is based in his creation theology. God created the world and appointed humanity to be the vicegerent (Qu’ran 2.30). Humankind is thus responsible for the management of all that creation. The relationship with God the creator also means that humanity is responsible on behalf of God. Humankind in this sense stands in for God, as deputy, but also stands before him. Hence, humanity is both responsible with God and responsible to God for the world in its fullness. This responsibility connects action to this world and the next. What we do now will have an effect on both realms and thus on our appreciation of both realms.

In order to fulfill this responsibility God has made available all possible resources.

‘If humanity is the vicegerent of God on Earth, the favorite of all His creation, the essence and substance of existence in its entirety and the brightest mirror of the Creator- and there is no doubt that this is so- then the Divine Being that has sent humanity to this realm will have given us the right, permission, and ability to discover the mysteries imbedded in the soul of the universe, to uncover the hidden power, might and potential, to use everything to its purpose, and to be the representatives of characteristics that belong to Him, such as knowledge will and might’ (Gülen 2004, 122)

The responsibility is not a simple one. Niebhur, for instance, at points simply looks to the responsibility to respond to the needs of the community and the larger world. For Gülen, this responsibility is teleological. All the resources are to be used to fulfill the divine purpose. Hence, any sense of response has to be seen in terms of overall sovereignty of God and his desire to see humanity fulfilling his plans. This level of accountability is, however, developed in significant ways. The task of the vicegerent is no simply to believe in God or to worship but also to understand ‘the mysteries within things and the cause of natural phenomena, and therefore to be able to interfere in nature’ (Gülen 2004, 122).

He takes those who do this to be ‘genuine human beings’ and argues that they exercise their free will ‘in a constructive manner, working with and developing the world, protecting the harmony between existence and humanity, reaping the bounties of the Earth and Heavens for the benefit of humanity, trying to raise the hue, from and flavor of life to a more humane level within the framework of the Creator’s orders and rules. This is the true nature of a vicegerent and at the same time this is where the meaning of what it is to be a servant and lover of God can be found’ (Gülen 2004, 124).

The breadth of this soon becomes apparent. First, we are bidden to take science seriously. This is not something that is seen to be autonomous or to be against religion. Rather does science reveal to us the laws of nature and, by implication, helps us to see the telos of creation. This clearly shows why Gulen, despite being firmly a creationist, is concerned for science as a key part of his educational work. Secondly, the free will that is key to any sense of responsibility should be used in service, and this should be used to sustain the balance between the environment and humanity, making the most of the resources given in creation, all for the benefit of humanity as a whole and all with a purpose of raising the level civilization for all. He is clear in all this that the natural world has to be manipulated for positive ends. These are quite distinctive teloi that could involve difference and conflict. Hence, from the beginning the vicegerent has to take responsibility for working through these broad teloi, within the framework of values provided by the Creator.


Imputability in Gülen emerges from the framework of accountability. Personal autonomy and agency is a gift from God that enables the person to fulfill the role of khalifa. This agency gives the person freedom to transform society, so long as the source of that freedom and agency is acknowledged. God ‘alone determines, apportions, creates, and spreads all out provisions before us’ (Gülen 1999, 94). This then is a mediated agency, a limited form of subjectivity that is, in Vahdat’s words, ‘ projected onto the attributes of monotheistic deity- attributes such as omnipotence, omniscience, and volition- and then partially reappropriated by humans. In this scheme, human subjectivity is contingent on God’s subjectivity. Thus, although human subjectivity is not denied, it is never independent of God’s subjectivity, and in this sense, it is mediated’ (Vahdat 2002, 134).

At the heart of much of this is a great stress on action. Responsibility makes action critical. Gülen contrasts passive submission with active service. At the core of this is the concept of hizmet that is about the embodying of the inner awareness of God in practice. Hence, there is no question of pietism,

‘Those who always feel themselves in the presence of God do not need to seclude themselves from people’ (Gülen 1995, 87)

Agency is then based in a holistic and dynamic anthropology, that brings together emotion, spirit, rationality and action,

‘God did not create people only to have them become passive recluses, activist without reason and spirit, or rationalists without spiritual reflection and activism’ (Gülen 1999, 46).

For Gülen hizmet is a key principle and is the ceaseless responsibility of putting values into practice. Any sense of free will then is very much in the context of the hizmet, focused on the example of the Prophet as a man of action, who ’ stressed learning trading, agriculture, action and thought. Moreover, he encouraged his people to do perfectly what he did, and condemned inaction and begging’ (Gülen 1995, 105).

Inevitably, there is the question of whether this points to conditional responsibility, i.e. whether salvation depends on response. Gülen is quite clear that there can be no promise of salvation, suggesting rather that the there should be a balance of hope and fear in response to God and that hope can rest on good deeds (Gülen 1995, 40). The focus for the believer, however, is not salvation but rather to please God, ‘thinking only of his approval in everyday speech, behavior and thought’ (Gülen 2004b, 6). This means that the person is engaged without ceasing in particular activity, always asking ‘Oh my Lord, what else can I do?’ Gülen inevitably stresses then the importance of good time management and well-planned activity. This is all part of what it means to be responsible. The more that such responsibility is practiced in all contexts, and the more that this leads to increased responsibility- ‘more blessings mean more responsibility ‘(Gülen 2000, 133).

Imputability in all this is relational, part and parcel of continued interaction, and humankind cannot stand out side that. This echoes strongly Niebuhr’s view of the existential response to the interconnected web of human and natural life. Gülen also points up the need to assert responsibility within that relational framework, precisely to avoid a lose of agency. Gülen writes,

‘By undertaking particular responsibilities through continuous acting and thinking, by facing an bearing particular difficulties, almost in a sense by sentencing ourselves to these, even though it may be at the expense of many things, we always have to act, to strive. If we do not act as we are, we are dragged into the waves caused by the thrusts and actions of others, and into the whirlpools of the plans and thoughts of others, and then we are forced to act on behalf of others. Remaining aloof from action, not interfering in the things happening around us, not being a part of the events around us and staying indifferent to them is like letting ourselves melt away, like ice turning to water’ (Gülen 2005, 96).

Gülen does not analyze the dynamics of responsibility here. However, in not responding, not acting, it could be argued that we deny or disclaim responsibility for action and give that responsibility to others. In this sense responsibility, similar to Tawney’s (1930) view of power, is social, and will be taken up in some form or other by others if we do not claim it. This resonates mightily with post-Holocaust thinkers noted below.

Developing Responsibility

This view of responsibility focused in action-centered agency naturally finds a central place in Gülen’s view of education. Gulen sees the seat of power and with that agency, in the terms of R.H. Tawney (1930), as ‘in the soul’. The soul for Gülen involves three faculties: ‘the rational, the irascible and the concupiscent’ (Mohamed 2007, 556). Handling these faculties requires the four cardinal virtues of courage, wisdom, temperance and justice. These virtues moderate lust and anger, leading to a degree of rational self- control. This does not obliterate the emotions but rather moderates them. Hence, moral character is the core to Gülen’s view of agency and responsibility. This enables the establishment of personal responsibility and from that any approach to social or civic responsibility (Toguslu 2007, 450). Any responsibility is based in universal values such as ‘devotion, simplicity, trust, loyalty, fidelity, humility modesty and connectedness’ (ibid. 455). This leads to education that is base in the development of character and which focuses on continual self-criticism and self-renewal. Such self-examination ‘enables the believer to make amends for past mistakes and be absolved in the sight of God, for it provides a constant realization of the self renewal in one’s inner world’ (Gülen 1999). The basis of Gulen’s approach to education is that it should precisely be involved in character development. It is in effect enabling the development of responsibility for ones own thinking and underlying values and how these are embodied in practice. The development of that means that teachers have to be embodying the same virtues in their practice and that the educational community as a whole embodies these virtues. The stress in education about the excellence to be attained in schooling is not per se about competing but rather about how the person can truly begin to develop all the attitudes that are at the base of this approach.

Civic Responsibility

Gülen in all this does see the importance of a civil society, and of the responsibility of the Muslim to contribute toward that civil society, not simply to focus on the Muslim community. This involves several elements. Firstly, Gulen accepts a view of the common good that all can own (Vicini 2007). Secondly, it is a short step from a view of the common good to one of human rights. As Keles (2007) argues, Gülen provides a basis for human rights in the Qur’an. Thirdly, this is reinforced in Gülen’s educational philosophy as developing universal values and virtues. In this, education becomes a critical means to the development of citizens. Education has to be founded on science, language skills and educational excellence if it is to enable the development of people who can take leadership roles in business and society. In all this, it becomes possible for Islam to take its place in a post-modern age as key for the development of society. As Ünal and Williams (2000, 308) put it,

‘Education through learning and a commendable way of life is a sublime duty that manifests the Divine Name Rabb (Upbringer and Sustainer). By fulfilling it, we attain the rank of true humanity and becomes a beneficial element to society’.

Vicini (2007, 441) notes the through the stress on action, and therefore the public nature of the Islamic responsiveness, Gülen sees Muslims as also citizens, able to share responsibility for and debate about practice and underlying world views. This stresses further in the concern for universal values and shared responsibility for society. Hence, Gulen can focus on the dar al-hizmet, with the Mulsim as part of a creative dialogue about society (Yilmaz 2002). The Mulsim’s sense of responsibility for society extends to concern for peace and even for democracy itself. In an interview quoted in Keles (2007, 701) Gülen notes

‘Again we support a renaissance that allows the questioning of dictatorship and the end of dictators, and working towards a democratic society’.

In other words the Mulsim as citizen is not to simply accept the legal framework in which he finds himself but must work towards democracy as an ideal of civil society.

However, this level of inclusive responsibility is not worked through in terms equality or of a view of state distribution of wealth, or of a questioning of the market as a means of distribution. On the contrary, Gülen accepts socioeconomic differences and social stratification, which he sees as part of God’s creation, sustaining the diversity of occupations necessary for ‘good mutual relations’.

Hence, Gülen sets the idea of society into one of mutual responsibility and the division of labor, and thus of responsibilities: ‘God Almighty created people with different dispositions and potentials so that human social life would be maintained through mutual help and division of labor’ (1996, 239).

In all this, Gülen is clear that there is need for the development of the virtues that will enable the person to develop and make good. Gülen sees idleness as a vice, comparable to Calvin’s theology. Above all idleness opens one up to the temptations of Satan. Hence, the Gulen follower Hikmet Isik argues that there is need to block ‘Satan by undertaking some duty, responsibility or service for God to acquire some intellectual of spiritual enlightenment’ (2000, 47).

Liability and Universal Responsibility

As Carroll (2007) has observed, at the base of Gulen’s view of responsibility is liability that extends to universal responsibility. Liability for others or for projects can often be focused in particular roles, which make the liability both specific and broad. Engineers, for instance can be deemed responsible for future generations, who use their bridges or are affected by their nuclear power stations. They may well share that sense of moral liability with others, not least corporations and the state. At the heart of Gulen’s view is a sense of universal responsibility for everything.

In reflecting on major Turkish figures, he writes:

‘Their responsibility is such that whatever enters an individual comprehension and conscious will power never remains outside of theirs: responsibility for the creation of events, nature and society, the past and the futures, the dead and the living, the young and the old, the literate and the illiterate, administration and security… Everybody and everything. Ant of course they feel the pain of all these responsibilities in their heart; they make themselves felt as maddening palpitations, exasperation in the soul, always competing for their attention. The pain and distress that arise from the consciousness of responsibility, if it is not temporary, is a prayer, a supplication which is not rejected, and a powerful source of further alternative projects’ (Gülen 2005, 95).

This powerful statement involves several important elements. First, Gulen shows that much of his theology is what in the West might be viewed as practical or praxis theology. He bases his points on reflection on the particular practice of others, rather than applying generalized concepts. Second, without drawing out the implications he begins to connect responsibility and consciousness. Third, the sense of responsibility is universal, everything or everybody, past present or future. It is not global responsibility in the sense of Jonas (1984).

Gülen’s universal responsibility is based rather in the Creator than the created, identifying with God’s role as Creator. Jonas tends to see liability as to do with responsibility for the consequences or potential consequences of human actions. Gülen sees liability as very much for the project of God’s creation. Coming from different worldviews and justifications both articulate the imperative to be responsible for the whole of creation.

The dialogue of responsibility

Gülen, does not work through the relationship between responsibility and dialogue. However, I would suggest that this might include several elements.

First, mutual dialogue enables the development of agency. It demands articulation of value and practice, which clarifies both what we think and do. Articulation, the development of narrative, becomes essential for reflection and learning. It will enable the person or corporation to see just how values and practice relate, leading to learning.

Second, dialogue demands the development of commitment to the self and the other. It is not possible to pursue dialogue without giving space and time for it to develop, and this in turn demands a non-judgmental attitude. Commitment to the self and others is also essential if the potential critique of values and practice is to emerge from articulation and reflection.

Third, dialogue enables listening, and with that, empathy, appreciation and responsiveness. We learn about the other as well as ourselves only if we are open to both.

Fourth, dialogue enables the development of a more realistic and truthful assessment of the data in any situation. Good examples of this are in the corporate world where businesses and NGOs often arrive at very different views of the data. In a case such as Brent Spar this led conflict and ineffective decision making that could have been avoided through more effective dialogue (Entine 2002).

Fifth, dialogue itself sets up a continued accountability with those involved. This is partly because it sets up a contract, formal or informal, that establishes expectations that are continually tested by dialogue.

Sixth, dialogue enables the development of shared liability, not simply the recognition of shared interests. This leads to the negotiation of responsibility.

Seventh, dialogue extends the imagination and develops creativity. It shows what is possible, especially where responsibility is shared, and so increases the capacity to respond.

Finally, in doing all of this it enables real partnerships and everyone involved to engage personal as well as group responsibility.


Gülen shares some of Schweiker’s position, with his stress on the primary accountability to God. It is not then a question of how one controls the power of humanity, how one is responsible for consequences per se, but rather how all power can be used respond to God and fulfill the role of vicegerent. This provides the basis for a rich conception of responsibility involving:

– universal responsibility. This is the closest that Gulen gets to establishing responsibility as a substantive principle, one that can be identified with the unconditional love of agape or hesed. It is such a limitless love that precisely sets up responsibility as a constant awareness, attentiveness and responsiveness to God and to others, one that can never be fulfilled in adherence to rules. The existential nature of this responsibility also means that one can never be sure that the response is right or sufficient.

– Responsibility as accountability to God, and liability for His creation. Humankind as vicegerent is given this responsibility by God. This sets up an ethic of endless service, set in the relationship with God, but genuinely for others.

– Responsibility as agency, involving rational reflection and self-criticism. The stress on the development of rationality is partly to do with fulfilling the role of vicegerent. Without a grasp of scientific rationality, for instance, one cannot make a difference to God’s creation. The criteria for self-criticism are also moral, not least in attention to virtues such as humility. Once more this places God at the center of action, not the person. Responsibility in all this demands response and thus action. As such, responsibility is tied to identity, and thus worked out in practice, not least through roles in business, educational or civic arena. At the heart of this is creative and critical dialogue.

These three elements of responsibility set a remarkable bridging dynamic. The first along with writers such as Sacks (2005) contributes to the public discourse on responsibility in public life by setting the bar at its highest. This challenges the limiting philosophies of

Friedman and Sternberg, and at the same time can relate to existentialist thinkers. As Carroll (2007) notes there is much overlap even between Gülen and Sartre in the existential apprehension of responsibility. Where Gülen differs from Sartre is both in a wider apprehension, based in the relationship with God, and in the stress on accountability to God. This sets up a moral framework not evident in Sartre.

Responsibility based in accountability to God sets up a further challenge and bridge, not least in the area of business and public life. At one and the same time, there can be dialogue with all parties in public life that is practice-centered, about how responsibility is fulfilled, something that all are concerned about, along with sharing about underlying belief and value systems, something that is conspicuously avoided even in applied ethics (Robinson 2007). This takes responsibility beyond the simplistic existentialist response and into reflection dialogue and planning together.

Responsibility based in accountability to God sets up a further challenge and bridge, not least in the area of business and public life. At one and the same time, there can be dialogue with all parties in public life that is practice-centered, about how responsibility is fulfilled, something that all are concerned about, along with sharing about underlying belief and value systems, something that is conspicuously avoided even in applied ethics (Robinson 2007). This takes responsibility beyond the simplistic existentialist response and into reflection dialogue and planning together.

In all this Gülen remains rooted in tradition but offers a view of responsibility that goes beyond simple adherence to codes or ethical principles. The significant principles are universal and therefore need the exercise of agency, accountability, and limitless liability if they are to find meaning in practice. Hence, for Gülen responsibility finds its base in relationships, primarily with God.


This is summary of a paper presented at the conference “Islam in the Age of Global Challenges: Alternative Perspectives of the Gülen Movement” which was held on November 14-15, 2008 at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. The conference was jointly organized by Washington-based Rumi Forum and Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

Rev. Professor Simon Robinson is professor of Applied & Professional Ethics and Applied Global Ethics at Leeds Metropolitan University, Leeds, UK.

Professor Simon Robinson specializes in the areas of applied spirituality, global responsibility and values, ethics and higher education. The first involves the development of a Centre for Applied Spirituality – the Institute of Spirituality, Religion & Public Life, of which Simon is Director; and research and books in this area.

The second involves work with the Global Responsible Leadership Foundation, and developing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) research, locally and globally. The third focuses on developing research around ethics in the curriculum, the governance and the social responsibility of higher education.


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