Fethullah Gülen: Following in the Footsteps of Rumi

Fethullah Gülen: Following in the Footsteps of Rumi

Thomas Michel

The writings of Jalal al-Din Rumi, the thirteenth-century mystical poet and founder of the Mevlevi Sufi confraternity, have influenced the thinking and behavior of many Muslims down to our own times. One of the modern Muslims who have appropriated Rumi’s attitudes and integrated them into their own understanding of Islamic faith and practice is the Turkish scholar and religious leader, Fethullah Gülen. The correspondence of Mevlana to Gülen is that of kindred spirits who, across the centuries, share an interpretation of the Qur’anic message as well as a commitment to communicate that message effectively to people of their respective ages. In his sermons and written works, Gülen frequently cites Rumi’s behavior and attitudes to illustrate his message; in the book Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, Gülen cites Rumi over 15 times to exemplify his themes of civilizational dialogue. What does Mevlana mean for Fethullah Gülen? Where does he see the affinity between his own understanding of Islam and that expounded and exemplified by Rumi? What are the lessons that can be learned from Rumi? Why does Gülen consider Rumi a worthy exemplar for the modern Muslim? The answers to these questions can be found in four areas.

Firstly, for Gülen, Rumi is one of the great figures of tolerance and dialogue in Islamic history; modern Muslims can learn from Rumi’s ‘compass openness.’ In discussing Said Nursi’s proposal to undertake dialogue and cooperation with true Christians, Gülen states that in this Nursi is acting in a similar manner to Rumi who described himself as a compass, with one foot fixed firmly in the center while the other turns in a broad arc to complete a full circle. The foot planted resolutely in the center, which never changes position, is the faith conviction by which one is united to God as the unmoving heart and center of one’s existence, while the other foot moves in a “broad circle that embraces all believers.”

Secondly, Rumi is a model of holiness, one of the great saints produced by Islam. For Gülen, the essence of Islam, what the religion is really about, are values like peace, love, forgiveness and tolerance. Rumi’s preeminence in the Islamic tradition derives from his eloquent espousal of the primacy of love, God’s love for the believer, and the believer’s love for God. A similar emphasis is found in Gülen’s thought:

“I can and do say that peace, love, forgiveness and tolerance are fundamental to Islam; other things are accidental. Yet, it is necessary to give priority to basic Muslim issues according to their degree of importance. For example, if God gives importance to love, if He has informed us that He loves those who love Him, and if He has given to the person He loves most the name “Habibullah,” i.e., one who loves God and is loved by Him, then we have to take this as a fundamental principle. Rules like jihad against hypocrites and unbelievers are secondary matters that are necessitated by circumstances.”

Thirdly, Rumi’s longing for God makes him an instructive example for all those who thirst for a relationship of greater intimacy with God. Gülen’s point, beautifully expressed by Rumi, is that the longing to be united with God produces a sorrow and world-weariness, which to those who did not know better, would appear as unhappiness and despair. Those who have not been initiated into the mysteries of Divine love must necessarily judge by appearances rather than the deeper reality. However, for those who have arrived at the truth, like Rumi, they see that such superficial sadness masks the radiant faces of those who have come into the “garden of God,” that is, God’s loving presence.  As Gülen states:

“Our tongues speak sometimes of love and sometimes of weariness; though love and weariness cause pain to others, in them we always hear, like Rumi, the poem of longing for the realm that we have left to come here. Love and weariness to us are like a plea from the tongue of the soul, stemming from a sorrowful desire for eternity.”

The other side of the coin consists of those fleeting moments of joy by which God blesses the one who is seeking to be united with Him. Gülen notes:

“Since our beliefs and feelings take us to the magical worlds of beyond, we almost always feel sadness and joy intertwined; we hear the sounds of crying and laughing as different notes of the same melody.”

Rumi refers to these experiential states of soul (hal/ihwal) as the “wedding night,” depicting the state of grace when those on the spiritual path find themselves rushing headlong to embrace the Beloved.

Finally, Rumi is the teacher of the many virtues need by conscientious Muslims at all times. Gülen enlists Rumi’s advice at the very beginning of the spiritual path and cites Rumi’s words on the need for repentance. If one does not feel remorse and disgust for errors committed and if one is not apprehensive of falling back into one’s old ways of living, in short, if one has not made a serious act of repentance, one’s persistence in following the spiritual path will be shallow and unstable. A second virtue essential for progress in spiritual life is that of sincerity. It is so easy to fool oneself and even easier to deceive others that if one is not sincere, one may find oneself performing religious duties to be seen by others. A third virtue stressed by Rumi is humility. Rumi does not present himself as a great saint or someone who has achieved a deep spiritual level, but sees himself rather as a simple servant of God.

One can give the last word to Our Master Rumi himself to show the attraction of Rumi´s thought for modern Muslim thinkers like Fethullah Gülen. Rumi’s words unknowingly reveal why his poetry continues to be perused and reflected upon by Gülen and his disciples:

“Stay in the company of lovers. Those kinds of people, they each have something to show you.”


This is summary of the article “FETHULLAH GÜLEN: Following  in the Footsteps of Rumi” presented at the International Conference on Peaceful Coexistence: Fethullah Gülen’s initiatives for peace in the contemporary world, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, 22-23 November 2007 by Professor Thomas Michel, SJ.

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