Fethullah Gülen’s Use of Scriptural Resources for Tolerance

... And while some have thought differently, most interpreters of the Gospels do not take it to be a universal rule that we should sell all we have and give to the poor. This is the significance of Gülen’s identification of the rule of tolerance as a ‘basic principle’ or a ‘universal principle’.

Fethullah Gülen’s Use of Scriptural Resources for Tolerance

Mark O. Webb*

Of the many passages from the Qur’an that Gülen has cited as proof that tolerance is a religious duty, I have selected a few illustrative examples. First:

Tell them: ‘O people of the Book, let us come to an agreement on that which is common between us, that we worship no one but God, and make none his compeer, and that none of us take any others for lord apart from God’. If they turn away, you tell them: ‘Bear witness that we submit to Him’. [1]

Gülen calls this passage “history’s greatest ecumenical call”. [2] It clearly indicates that Muslims are required to treat the people of the Book (Christians and Jews) with respect and tolerance, and the history of Islam in the Middle Ages bears witness that the Qur’an has been understood this way. It is a commonplace that Christians and Jews in Muslim lands certainly fared better than Jews did in Christian lands at the same time.

Here is another Qur’anic verse cited by Gülen:

Tell the believers to forgive those who do not fear the visitations of God, so that He may requite the people for their deeds. [3]

This echoes the requirement that Jesus laid on his followers to leave judgment in God’s hands, when he said,

“Judge not, that ye be not judged”. [4]

Gülen understands this verse to impose a religious duty on Muslims, saying

… [T]hose who have declared their faith and thereby become Muslims and perform the mandated religious duties must behave with tolerance and forbearance and expect nothing from the other party. [5]

In Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, he discussed that verse along with two others:

Yet if you forbear, overlook, and forgive, God is indeed forgiving and kind. [6]

God does not forbid you from being kind and acting justly towards those who did not fight over faith with you, nor expelled you from your homes. God indeed loves those who are just. [7]

He cited all three of these passages to show that

… [R]eal Muslims never injure anyone … . It cannot be any other way; in the Qur’an, the Sunna, and in the pure and learned interpretations of the Great Scholars there is no trace of a decree or an attitude that is contrary to love, tolerance or dialogue … . We cannot conceive of a religion that wills the good of all, and who calls all – with no exceptions – to be otherwise. [8]

In the same work, he wrote that “… [t]he Qur’an always accepts forgiveness and tolerance as basic principles”, [9] citing this verse as evidence:

Devotees of Ar-Rahman (the Merciful) are those who walk with humility on the earth, and when they are addressed by the ignorant, say: ‘Peace’. [10]

Again, the point is that true Islam requires us to be humble and tolerant, as any other attitude is inconsistent with the nature of the very God a Muslim aims to serve. He is Mercy itself, so we must be merciful. Of course, it is well known that Islam does not require pacifism; in fact, Muslims are expected to fight in self-defense. But there are strict limits on when and how force is to be used. The presumption should always be in favor of peace. In particular, a Muslim must be at peace with the peaceful, no matter who they are. In that connection, Gülen cited this verse:

But if they are inclined to peace, make peace with them, and have trust in God, for He hears all and knows every thing. [11]

To fail to live in peace is a failure of faith in the omniscient God. As Gülen explained,

Even in an atmosphere in which two armies have fought against each other and blood has been spilled, if the enemy forgoes fighting and wants to make a treaty, then the Muslims are commanded not to react emotionally, but to make a treaty, putting their trust in God. Thus, a universal principle regarding this subject has been established. [12]

The reference to a ‘universal principle’ reveals something important about how Gülen interprets the Qur’an. Before I turn to the general question of interpretation, though, let me address one hadith that Gülen cited for the same conclusion. He wrote

As I have mentioned at other times in different contexts, the Pride of Humanity, the reason for creation and the Prince of Prophets one day stood up as a Jewish funeral was passing by. One of the Companions at his side said, “O Messenger of God, that’s a Jew”. Without any change in attitude or alteration of the lines on his face, the Prince of Prophets gave this answer:

‘But he is a human being!’ [13]

The implication is clear (in fact Gülen wrote, “There is nothing I can add to these words”); that someone is a human being is sufficient reason for that person to be treated with respect. Jews and Christians speak of human beings as being created in the ‘image of God’, not meaning that human beings look like God, since God has no physical form, but rather that they are endowed with mind and heart, intellect and moral conscience, as nothing else in creation is. It is this heart and mind that we all share that gives us our obligation to treat one another with respect, tolerance and love.

It might be objected that although this is one way to interpret the Qur’an and the Sunna, and one that sits nicely with our Western, modernist, conciliatory frame of mind, there is no reason to take it to be the best way to understand the Qur’an and the Sunna. After all, there are a great many other schools of thought on this matter, many of them understanding Islam as requiring all-out war with Europe and America, and endorsing horrendous acts of violence as necessary for the defense of Islam. Is there some principled reason – not just a preference for the results – to take Gülen’s way of understanding the requirements of Islam as better? I offer this principle of interpretation as one more consideration in favor of Gülen’s interpretation.

Scriptural interpretation is always a matter of harmonizing many different utterances, delivered at different times on different kinds of occasion, sometimes to different people. The trick is to distinguish what is intended only for the particular occasion of utterance from what is intended as a ‘universal principle’. Particular commands are always given in the light of basic principles, and the principles are more important than the commands. [14] Interpreters of the Qur’an have been making these distinctions for a long time. Interpreters of the Bible, both Torah and Gospel, are faced with a similar problem, and have similarly had no difficulty making the distinction. No one takes God’s commandment to the Israelites to kill all the Amalekites to be an eternal principle, but rather an expedient that was necessary at that given time, under those conditions, peculiar to the exigencies of the conquest of Canaan. And while some have thought differently, most interpreters of the Gospels do not take it to be a universal rule that we should sell all we have and give to the poor. This is the significance of Gülen’s identification of the rule of tolerance as a ‘basic principle’ or a ‘universal principle’.


Excerpt from: Mark O. Webb. Fethullah Gülen’s Use of Philosophical and Scriptural Resources for Tolerance. Hizmet Studies Review
Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 2015, Pages: 9-18


[1] Al-‘Imran 3:64.

[2] ‘The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue’, Turkish Daily News, 11-12 January 2000, reprinted in M. Fethullah Gülen: Essays, Perspective, Opinions (Rutherford, NJ: The Light, 2002), p.37.

[3] Al-Jathiya 45:14.

[4] Matthew 7:1.

[5] Quoted in Ali Ünal and Alphonse Williams (eds), Advocate of Dialogue (Fairfax, VA: The Fountain, 2000), pp.257-258.

[6] Al-Taghabun 64:14.

[7] Al-Mumtahana 60:8.

[8] Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance (Somerset, NJ: The Light, 2004), pp.51-52.

[9] Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, p.69.

[10] Al-Furqan 25:63.

[11] Al-Anfal 8:61.

[12] Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, p.176.

[13] Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, p.44. The hadith cited can be found in Bukhari, Janaiz, 50, as well as Muslim, Janaiz, 81 and Nasai, Janaiz, 46.

[14] This rule of interpretation is recommended by several prominent scholars today. See Daniel Brown, A New Introduction to Islam (Malden, MA :Blackwell Publishing, 2004), pp.231-232.

* Philosophy Department, Texas Tech University

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