Fethullah Gülen’s Views on Jihad, Peacemaking, and Violence

Fethullah Gülen’s Views on Jihad, Peacemaking, and Violence

Asma Afsaruddin

Fethullah Gülen’s views on jihad and peaceful co-existence of different faith and cultural communities are strongly grounded in Qur’anic and Sunnaic perspectives and represent a mimetic continuity with them. As a practitioner of tasawwuf (Sufism), he emphasizes the importance of the greater internal jihad without disavowing the necessity of the lesser external jihad in specific situations. Thus in his explication of the distinction between these two forms of struggling in the path of God, Gülen says:

The internal struggle (the greater jihad) is the effort to attain one’s essence; the external struggle (the lesser jihad) is the process of enabling someone else to attain his or her essence. The first is based on overcoming obstacles between oneself and one’s essence, and the soul’s reaching knowledge, and eventually divine knowledge, divine love, and spiritual bliss. The second is based on removing obstacles between people and faith so that people can choose freely between belief and unbelief.

The effort to attain one’s essence, as Gülen puts it, is therefore a perennial one and the greater jihad is waged daily by the individual to fight against one’s carnal self (nafs) which, unchecked, prompts to wrongdoing. The acquisition of knowledge, which leads to love for God and one’s fellow beings is an important part of this process of self-realization, as Gülen emphasizes. As we recall, the Qur’an andHadith stress the pursuit of knowledge as part of the overall human struggle to achieve their full potential on earth.

Gülen’s definition of the lesser or external jihad as “the process of enabling someone else to attain his or her essence” is rather unique and worthy of note. As he explains further:

The lesser jihad is not restricted to battlefronts, for this would narrow its horizon considerably. In fact, the lesser jihad has such a broad meaning and application that sometimes a word or silence, a frown, or a smile, leaving or entering an assembly – in short, everything done for God’s sake – and regulating love and anger according to His approval is included. In this way, all efforts made to reform society and people are part of jihad, as is every effort made for your family, relatives, neighbors, and region.

The lesser jihad, in Gülen’s understanding, has important social and, one may add, global dimensions and challenges those who would primarily construe it as a military endeavor in defense of Islam. Every human act undertaken with noble intentions, which redounds to the benefit of society and promotes the common good, leading to a genuine transformation of society, is part of the external jihad. The external jihad must therefore be waged alongside the internal jihad to achieve a desired balance, for Gülen says, “If one is missing, the balance is destroyed.”

Gülen’s understanding of jihad as also including the struggle to ensure the religious freedom of people to believe as they please is particularly noteworthy. Such a view seems less unexpected when compared to the Qur’anic perspective on religious freedom and the freedom of human choice in this critical matter. The facile translation of jihad into English as “holy war,” as is common in some scholarly and non-scholarly discourses today, has conveyed to many that jihad is the instrument for achieving the religious and political hegemony of Muslims over others. Such an understanding constitutes in fact a gross misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the term’s Qur’anic usage. The term “holy war” primarily implies a battle waged in the name of God to effect the forcible conversion of non-believers, and often a “total, no-holds barred war” intended to annihilate the enemy, both of which objectives are doctrinally unacceptable in Islam. Qur’an 2:256 states categorically that “There is no compulsion in religion;” while another verse (10:99) asks, “As for you, will you force men to become believers?” With regard to righteous conduct during war (jus in bello), the Qur’an prohibits initiation of aggression against the enemy (2:190) and resorting to unjust behavior prompted by anger and desire for revenge (5:8). There is no scriptural warrant, therefore, for waging war (or employing other means) to compel non-Muslims to accept Islam.

Furthermore, an important constellation of verses in the Qur’an indicate that the combative or lesser jihad may be undertaken in the defense of all peoples, Muslim and non-Muslim, who face injustice and especially on behalf of those who are persecuted for their religious belief. These verses (Qur’an 22:39-40), which have formed the basis for the formulation of an Islamic ethics on war and peace, state:

Permission is given to those who fight because they have been oppressed, and God is able to help them. These are they who have been wrongfully expelled from their homes merely for saying ‘God is our Lord.’ If God had not restrained some people by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which God’s name is mentioned frequently would have been destroyed. Indeed God comes to the aid of those who come to His aid; verily He is powerful and mighty.

There is widespread consensus among the exegetes that these were the first verses to be revealed granting Muslims permission to fight in the Medinan period. The specific historical reason given for resorting to physical combat at this specific juncture is the wrongful expulsion of Meccan Muslims from their homes by the pagan Meccans for no other reason than their avowal of belief in one God. Furthermore, the Qur’an asserts, if people were not allowed to defend themselves against aggressive wrongdoers, all houses of worship – it is worthy of note that Islam is not the only religion indicated here – would be destroyed and thus the word of God extinguished. These verses therefore clearly suggest that Muslims may resort to defensive combat even on behalf of non-Muslims who are persecuted for their faith, reminding Muslims that their fellowship extends to righteous people of all faith communities, not just their own.

Given this interpretive trajectory, Gülen’s understanding of the external jihad to include the struggle to guarantee an individual’s freedom to believe as he or she pleases is reflective of the Qur’an’s own concern for the protection of this basic human right.

The high valuation in the Qur’an and hadith of sabr or patient forbearance as an important component of jihad, as we stressed earlier, also finds strong reflection in Gülen’s writings. Gülen identifies five categories of patience, which are:

enduring difficulties associated with being a true servant of God or steadfastness in performing regular acts of worship; resisting temptations of the carnal self and Satan to commit sins; enduring heavenly or earthly calamities, which includes resignation to Divine decrees; being steadfast in following the right path and not allowing worldly attractions to cause deviation; and showing no haste in realizing hopes or plans that require a certain length of time to achieve.

According to this comprehensive definition of patience, it is clearly the single most important component of the internal or greater jihad whose inculcation transforms ordinary human beings into God’s true friends and worshipers. As a Sufi, he invokes the concept of the final station (maqam) or point in one’s life to which only “those believers who are the most advanced in belief, spirituality, nearness to God, and who guide others to the truth” attain. “Patience,” Gülen affirms, “is an essential characteristic” of these believers during their journey towards God.

Through the patient endurance of all the setbacks and misfortunes in one’s life, the individual achieves knowledge of his or her true essence, which as we recall, was described by Gülen as the primary purpose of the greater jihad. Each individual must be repeatedly “sieved” or “distilled,” he says, in order to develop one’s fullest human potential. He borrows evocative imagery from the well-known Sufi poet Jalaleddin Rumi (d. 1273) to describe this process of evolution and maturation. In reference to the growth of a grain of wheat from a seed into a loaf of bread, which humans may consume for their sustenance, Rumi remarked, “it must be kneaded, baked in an oven, and, finally, chewed by teeth, sent into the stomach, and digested.” The process of moral maturity is a long and arduous one and only the patient successfully endure it through the constant waging of the spiritual jihad against “one’s carnal desires and the impulses of one’s temperament.”

Finally, Gülen warns against the phenomenon of arbitrary violence and aggression against civilians, that is terrorism, which has no place in Islam and which militates against its very foundational tenets of reverence for human life and for all of God’s creation. In an article that he wrote for the Turkish Daily News a few days after the horrific events of September 11, 2001 titled “Real Muslims Cannot Be Terrorists,” Gülen lamented the deplorable hijacking of Islam by terrorists who claimed to be Muslims and acting out of religious conviction. He counseled, “One should seek Islam through its own sources and in its own representatives throughout history; not through the actions of a tiny minority that misrepresent it.”

Gülen is outraged by the current nihilistic disregard of terrorists for the strict rules in classical Islamic jurisprudence, which mandate, for example, the formal declaration of a legitimate jihad by the state or government and humane conduct during its undertaking. He attributes this alarming state of affairs to a general breakdown in moral, holistic education in Muslim majority societies today and the rise of a self-serving attitude even among, he says, “ordinary Muslims who live Islam as it suits them.” He sorrowfully remarks further that “in the countries [where] Muslims live, some religious leaders and immature Muslims have no other weapon to hand than their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam; they use this to engage people in struggles that serve their own purposes.” The violence that such unscrupulous and unselfish behavior may eventually induce may be combated by reforming and strengthening educational systems in the Islamic world so as to emphasize Qur’anic values of compassion and mercy for others.

The antidote to hatemongering and exclusion, Gülen stresses, is the cultivation of the qualities of forgiveness and tolerance enjoined in the Qur’an. He focuses our attention on Qur’an 3:134, which describes righteous people as, “Those who spend benevolently during ease and straitened circumstances, and those who restrain their anger and pardon people; and God loves those who do good to others.” Gülen comments that this verse clearly counsels believers to behave with restraint and civility and forgive their adversaries, even in the face of great provocation, and not to resort to hostile behavior. The Prophet Muhammad exemplified such behavior in his daily interactions with people. The external jihad that he carried out in his life, Gülen comments, was “an armed struggle … tied to special conditions,” and “was the kind of struggle that is sometimes necessary to carry out in order to protect such values as life, property, religion, children, homeland, and honor.” Fighting in the path of God under such highly restricted conditions can never degenerate into the unprincipled and relentlessly hostile acts of terrorism perpetrated by today’s extremists.


Even this brief survey cogently demonstrates that Fethullah Gülen’s views of jihad and its role in our lives is fundamentally shaped by the Qur’anic and Sunnaic definitions of this critical term. Jihad in the path of God is the perennial human struggle against internal and external enemies in order to be fully human, and as such, defines the very essence of human life and experience. Against the debasement of this concept by militants in the name of Islam, Gülen and many others like him, have steadfastly held to the Qur’anic vision of striving with our selves and our resources, material and spiritual, to constantly better ourselves and the world around us as exemplifying jihad. Such views deserve greater amplification and need to be more widely disseminated.


Excerpted from Striving in the Path of God: Fethullah Gülen’s views on Jihad presented at the conference titled “Muslim world in transition: Contributions of the Gulen Movement”, 25-27 October 2007, London.

Asma Afsaruddin is a professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University in Bloomington. She was an associate professor in Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.She has previously taught at Harvard University and the Johns Hopkins University, from which she received her PhD in 1993. Her fields of specialization include the religious and political thought of Islam, study of the primary Islamic texts (Qur’an and hadith), as well as gender studies.

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