Fethullah Gülen’s Golden Generation: Integration of Muslim Identity with the World through Education

Fethullah Gülen’s Golden Generation: Integration of Muslim Identity with the World through Education

Yetkin Yildirim

Turkey is a crucible in which Eastern and Western civilizations, secular ideas, and Islamic tradition merge. Using ideas born in the Turkish context, Fethullah Gülen and his followers have developed and put into practice an educational system that combines the strengths of both European and Islamic cultures, cultivating students of academic achievement in the sciences who possess deep ethical grounding. Founded in universal values of honesty, hard work, harmony and conscientious service, Gülen’s model appeals to people with a wide range of beliefs. Through Gülen’s teachings, this educational system stresses the compatibility of science with Islam and aims to bring up people equipped with the moral values and knowledge to use science for the benefit of mankind.

According to Gülen, schools should pair moral models with concrete training in the sciences so that students have the capacity to bring about positive change.

“It must be the foremost duty,” writes Gülen, “of those leaders upon whom the people have set their hopes to equip the coming generations with lofty ideals, leading them to the fountain of the ‘water of life’” (Gülen 1996c).

Gülen’s followers have established educational institutions all over the world. These institutions concentrate on teaching universal values, but do not specifically teach religion. Students with different religious convictions attend these schools; in some countries there may not be a single Muslim student. Students and graduates have proven to be well-prepared in the sciences and are also known for their high moral standards.

Gülen’s educational philosophy

The contemporary world often sees science and religion as incompatible. As Michel (2003) put it, “Secular educators saw religion as at best a useless expenditure of time and at worst an obstacle to progress.” Conversely, this perception of a dichotomy between religion and science resulted in some religious scholars leading to religion being viewed as “a political ideology rather than a religion in its true sense and function” (Gülen 1996a, 20). Gülen’s writings have pointed out time and again that science and religion are perfectly compatible, and in fact must be combined for science to have meaning.

Gülen proposes an educational system that combines technical and moral training.

He sees the competition between secular and religious educational institutions as having caused a crisis in Turkish society, since graduates of such restricted schools lacked an integrated perspective on the future (Michel 2003, 72). In the early twentieth century, the Turkish education system included medreses – institutions of religious training, tarikats – Sufi orders, and secular schools. Medreses did not offer an education appropriate for the contemporary world; Michel (2003) describes them as lacking “the flexibility, vision, and ability to break with the past [and] to enact change” (Michel 2003, 72). While tarikats had been traditionally concerned with developing spiritual values, Gülen perceives them as looking backwards. Secular schools, on the other hand, exhibit an inflexibility of ideas (Gülen 1996c, 11) and are designed to provide a value-free, job-oriented education that is too short-sighted to look to the future (Michel 2003, 74).

Gülen is especially concerned with what he sees as the lack of ethical values in the world. He perceives today’s people constitute “generations with no ideals” (Gülen 1996c, 51-52). The main value taught in today’s schools is that of material success. Current educational systems have taught people to search for new ways to dominate nature and other human beings (Gülen 2003). This has resulted in the worsening of the imbalances both between humanity and nature and among individual humans. Gülen’s teachings carry the assumption that some major global problems such as weapons of mass destruction and environmental pollution are created by scientists who do not take responsibility for the consequences of their work (Agai 2003, 59). To Gülen, harmony between humans and nature and an understanding between peoples will only be achieved when “the material and spiritual realms are reconciled” in the upbringing of young generations (Gülen 2000).

Gülen envisions a “Golden Generation”, that is well-educated in the sciences and well-rounded in moral training. The prototype of the Golden Generation is the teacher of the movement who works to bring on a “Golden Age” (Agai 2003, 57). The Golden Generation has the defining characteristics of faith and strong ethical values, which drive them to apply science for the benefit of humankind (Agai 2003, 57). In stark contrast to the typical Western view of political Islam, where Islamic activism is a reaction against modernism (Yavuz and Esposito 2003), in Gülen’s vision, the Golden Generation will participate in modernity and help to shape it (Agai 2003, 58).

Gülen’s ideal person is zul-cenaheyn, “one who possesses two wings,” exhibiting a “marriage of mind and heart” (Gülen 1996c, 12). Consolidation of different educational currents should result in a holistic system that trains individuals of “thought, action and inspiration” who are able to cope with the changing demands of the world (Gülen 1996c, 12). These individuals, then, would use their knowledge and training for the service of humankind.

Foundations of Gülen’s educational philosophy

Gülen’s vision is driven by Islamic values such as love, belief and hard work, which are also universally accepted values. A value of great importance to Gülen is that of hard work and action. Love for all humanity, paired with faith and strong beliefs, will guide a person from theory toward positive actions to carry and apply his beliefs and commitments into real life. It is when action stemming from universal ethical principles becomes the norm that the Golden Age will begin.

Gülen describes action as,

Embracing the whole of creation with full sincerity and resolve, aware of journeying to an eternal realm through the corridors in creation and equipped with a power from that infinite, eternal realm; it means expending all one’s physical, intellectual and spiritual faculties in guiding the world to undertake the same journey (Gülen 1994).

To him, “action should be the most indispensable element or feature of our lives”

(Gülen 1994). He further explains that activism should not be limited to any time or space, but should aim at larger goals. Thought is described as “action in one’s inner world.” A combination of rational thought and ethical values should form activism, so that the nature of the world that is being created is understood (Gülen 1994).

This concept of action increases a Gülen student’s drive to be involved in science.

Gülen’s educational model is designed partly to instill the ethic of hard work in its students, so that they will use their understanding of science to work for the improvement of the world.

Gülen emphasizes what Özdalga (2000) calls activist pietism. Instead of living in seclusion, he believes a pious person should use his life in the best way possible to accomplish things in the service of God and his creatures. In this view, worldly activities are seen as religious duty. Humans die, but their work lives on to serve humanity and God.

The term “worldly asceticism” was coined by Max Weber in a study of Calvinist capitalism, but is equally pertinent to Gülen’s teachings. It refers to a perception of daily activity in one’s calling as a form of worship. Activism is thus both inspired and controlled by piety (Özdalga, 2000). The work ethic Gülen advocates is congregational, where believers combine their efforts to do good works. While inner piety is essential, so is externally oriented action. Gülen teaches that “the believer never rests in comfort but is always prepared to ask: ‘What else can I do?’” (Özdalga 2000).

To Gülen, the activist pietist, or the aksiyon insani (man of action) in his terminology, should possess four characteristics:

1. Criticizing and analyzing ideas: In particular, remembering the importance of self-criticism and self-control.

2. Keeping the image of death alive, since this image drives hard work to create lasting legacies.

3. Continually focusing on the works that stimulate you intellectually.

4. Maintaining close ties to people with whom you share the aspiration to do good deeds (Gülen 1997).

Unlike other religious teachers, Gülen promotes involvement in the world rather than isolated reflection. The ideal of the aksiyon insani can be partly credited with the success of students of Gülen schools, since it is this ideal, whether or not they are consciously aware of it, that pushes them to excel. The ideal of hard work is unquestionably universal, an example of the reason that Gülen’s educational model is so popular.

Gülen’s educational model: Goals

Gülen is interested in developing “contemporary Muslim” who live by the ethical values of Islam and are well-rounded when it comes to science and present-day knowledge (Agai 2003, 51). In Gülen’s conception, the whole person is composed of the body, mind and spirit (Gülen n.d., 2). He believes in developing the spirituality of the students, including those from other religions. To him, the term spirituality has a sense broader than that of religion. It includes ethics, logic, psychological health and emotional openness (Michel 2003, 76). Gülen’s educational vision is one in which “genuinely enlightened people” will be produced through a fusion of religious and scientific knowledge, morality and spirituality (Michel 2003, 76, Gülen 1996a).

Compassion and tolerance are key attributes that Gülen would like to see instilled by educators. Gülen urges his followers to “applaud the good for their goodness” and “return good for evil” (Gülen 1996a). Özdalga (2000) argues that problems in democracies are often intertwined with problems of integrating diverse components of the society and that Gülen’s teachings address these problems.  Gülen tells his followers to be themselves, not through isolation, but by “following [their] way among other ways” (Gülen 1994).

Furthermore, Gülen stresses the importance of traditional and cultural values.

Gülen’s model aims to teach young people to integrate themselves with their past to prepare them for the future (Michel 2003, 72-73, Gülen 1996a). Gülen sees Turkey’s past, for instance, as a long amassing of wisdom, much of which is still valid. At the same time, he has no interest in reconstructing the past, instead using the values that have developed to move forward (Michel 2003, 77).

At no time is the importance of science undermined. Gülen understands science as a way to comprehend the existence of God and to exalt His greatness.

Science means comprehending what things and events tell us, and what the Divine Laws prevailing over the universe reveal to us. It means striving to understand the purpose of the Creator. Man, who has been created in order that he shall rule over all things, needs to observe, read, discern and learn about what is around him. Then, he has to seek the way of exerting his influence over events and subjecting them to himself. At this point, by the decree of the Sublime Creator, everything will submit to man, who himself will submit to God (Gülen 1985).

Gülen writes that “the universe is a book written by God for us to study over and over again” (Gülen 1993). Thus, the curriculum of the movement’s schools has a special emphasis on the sciences. The students have outstanding performance in academic competitions in the natural sciences, information sciences and languages (Michel 2003, 70-71).

Gülen’s educational model combines scientific ideals with the moral ideals that come from religion. He is concerned with nurturing all aspects of young people’s characters, including an understanding and tolerance for other people, a comprehension of their obligation to the world and humanity, and the intellectual abilities to be able to fulfill that obligation. This vision may seem impractical, but one needs only to look at the Gülen schools around the world and the students who have attended to see that this goal is not unrealistic.

This paper was presented at the AMSS 33rd Annual Conference at George Mason University Arlington Campus – Virginia on Sept. 24 – 6, 2004 by Yetkin Yildirim, Ph. D. (University of Texas at Austin, TX)


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