Forms of Islam: Popular Islam – Hizmet-Gülen Movement and Fethullah Gülen

As the movement has expanded it has inevitably become more decentralized. Today it embraces large numbers of independent private groups, committees, foundations, centers, and individuals; it receives major financial contributions from large numbers of businessmen who are part of the movement. Hizmet is self-sustaining; it operates loosely and spontaneously as individuals contribute to its advancement in various ways along the broad lines of action that Gülen has set out.

Forms of Islam: Popular Islam – Hizmet-Gülen Movement and Fethullah Gülen

Graham E. Fuller

Hizmet-Gülen Movement

Traditional Islamic values of piety, social commitment, tolerance, social justice and moderation in Islam find themselves overwhelmed in the current fray of international violence, war, injustice, fanaticism, and daily hardship in the Middle East—a key source of anxiety to most Muslims today. This kind of toxic environment contributes to increased insecurity, desperation, intolerance and radicalism. It is precisely these dangerous trends that the Turkey-based faith movement of Fethullah Gülen today seeks to combat. Gülen’s movement represents the largest, most powerful and influential Islamic movement in the world today that prioritizes the quest for moderation, dialog and modernity in Islam.

The Gülen movement is a powerful example of popular Islam; it is sometimes referred to in Turkey as the “community” (cemaat), or, as the movement calls itself, Hizmet (Service.) Hizmet is by far the most significant movement of any kind in Turkey today, in numbers, influence, and impact. As a unique grassroots organization, it is beginning to gain recognition and significance across much of the Muslim world and beyond through its unusual combination of qualities: modern expression of faith through voluntary works and public service to humanity; its embrace of both science and faith as complementary concepts; its program to spread education; its call for religious and ethnic tolerance; its desire to avoid confrontation with the West, and its outreach for interfaith dialog. Gülen works to counter radicalizing trends and to return to the social commitment, social justice and rational inquiry that he believes are inherent in the deepest values of Islam. Not surprisingly, Hizmet’s growing size, wealth and influence have also made it a source of some concern among secularists who oppose any strengthening of religion in public life in Turkey and have misgivings about the movement’s power, impact on governance, and longer range intentions. Recent open antagonism between Hizmet and the AKP has also emerged that has heightened the public profile of the organization.

The Gülen movement has roots in the Sufi tradition although it is not a Sufi brotherhood. And while Gülen and his ideas are a source of inspiration to his followers, he does not fall into the traditional role of guru (murshid, shaykh, pir) of most Sufi leaders. Hizmet indeed shares in many of the values of Sufi belief, particularly the goal of revitalizing Islamic consciousness and the role of spirituality in one’s personal daily life. Gülen has also been influenced by the poet Rumi, and numerous modern Turkish religious intellectuals. But Gülen chooses to direct this spiritual impulse into practical, social and organizational form rather than purely devotional directions. The movement’s approach is beginning to influence the practice of social Islam outside of Turkey as well.

Unlike Diyanet (the [State] Directorate of Religious Affairs), Hizmet has no formal association with government; it operates as a popular volunteer movement acting independently of, and outside of the state. It has no ambitions to form a political party and sees itself as an organization standing above or outside of politics. Yet its large membership includes many who work in state institutions including in the police and the judiciary, who on the personal level can and do have impact on policy on controversial issues, especially the Ergenekon investigations and corruption in government. But at a time when much of the Muslim world is wracked by turmoil, radical theologies, and even violence in the name of Islamic liberation, Hizmet is a powerful popular counterweight and a significant expression of contemporary and moderate values in Islam.

Fethullah Gülen

It was the Nur movement that laid the groundwork for the emergence of the subsequent Gülen movement. Fethullah Gülen himself is the son of an imam, born near the eastern Anatolian town of Erzurum, a stronghold of Turkish nationalism. He joined the Nur movement in his youth and began to preach independently in the İzmir region after Said Nursi’s death.

But while Nursi laid emphasis on the meaning of religion in individual personal life, Gülen began to focus more upon society itself through activism in education, service (Hizmet) to the community, and active interfaith dialog to overcome religious hostilities. Here Hizmet bears some resemblance to Christian doctrines of “good works”—faith and God’s purpose expressed through social action. The movement initially grew slowly in the long years when it was subjected to judicial harassment, show trials and detentions from the courts as a “reactionary,” hence “unconstitutional,” organization. Over the past decade and a half it has developed with remarkable rapidity as earlier anti-religious strictures in Turkey have been lifted and Gülen’s modernist understanding of faith and action, coupled with organizational skill, have attracted greater public attention.

Fethullah Gülen himself is an emotional speaker and teacher with a strong personal following. Yet at the personal level he is a private man: on the two occasions when I had opportunity to interview him, I was struck by his retiring manner, sense of personal modesty, courtliness and almost old-world mannerisms. His Turkish is studded with literary and Ottoman phraseology. His remarks on contemporary events tend to be cautious and he makes his points often by indirection. He has a scholar’s knowledge of Arabic and Persian and studied English; he appears well informed on world events. He is referred to by all those who respect him as Hoca Efendi—“respected teacher”—in an old-fashioned turn of phrase.

Like Nursi, he is concerned with the contemporary implications of religion in everyday life: the spiritual crises of modernity, and people’s concerns and anxieties. Islamic rituals do matter, but for Gülen the spirit in which they are undertaken, and the way one lives one’s life, are of the essence. It is Gülen’s emphasis on the spirit that marks his Sufi background.

Yet his vision of Islam is entirely mainstream. He does not place Shari’a at odds with Sufism as some more libertarian traditions of Sufism have done. He believes that Shari’a —literally “the Way” or “the Path”—is best understood not through legal strictures and analysis but through illumination via the spirit of Sufism, a path. He rejects the formalism and especially the literalism of fundamentalist schools but accepts the significance of orthodox ritual.

Gülen’s voluminous writings over time demonstrate a distinct process of evolution and broadening of his vision. In his early days he was more concerned about what he felt was the pernicious influence of atheism, materialism, or agnosticism that both he and Nursi felt was often enshrined in popular western culture. He shared a broad distrust of western intentions as they had affected Turkish history and traditional values. He even more strongly opposed communism whose atheistic values he perceived as a long-term threat to Turkey, to Islam and indeed to all spiritual values; both he and Nursi had observed Soviet repression of Islam in Muslim areas of the Soviet Union. Gülen too had experienced anti-religious persecution—albeit in a less brutal fashion under authoritarian forms of Kemalism—that harassed religious organizations through detentions and court trials where “reactionary activities” were punishable as “undermining the secular state.”

Reflecting Nursi, Gülen embraced the importance of science and mathematics in education—disciplines that had once been central to the intellectual life of the Muslim world in early centuries. Today these subjects play leading roles in the curriculum of the network of schools founded by Gülen. He insists that full human potential can only be achieved through combining reason and experience along with conscience and spiritual inspiration. Religion and science are not contradictory: they are but two manifestations, two different halves of the same truth, each complementing the other. To teach the laws of physics in the classroom is to teach the laws of God’s universe.

While nominally leader of a huge conglomerate of institutions that are affiliated with or funded by his movement, Gülen’s personal lifestyle is extremely modest, now nearly monastic—but his opponents have called him “shadowy.” He has been in self-exile and in poor health living on an estate in rural Pennsylvania since 1998 when he left Turkey for health reasons and in the face of yet another trial before Kemalist-dominated courts for “advocating the establishment of an Islamic state”—charges he consistently denied, but it was not the first time such charges had been leveled against him. He was fully acquitted in 2006. He has nonetheless not returned to Turkey since then, keenly aware of the distracting controversy that his presence could spark on the rough political scene there. He nonetheless remains in close touch with events in the world and is in constant contact with key leaders of the movement who visit him in a constant stream. He grants interviews infrequently, but issues periodic statements on current issues he believes to be of importance. His ideas and ideals serve as a source of inspiration to a large number of followers, much as in the earlier tradition of Sufi leader.

Gülen’s vision advocates not simply development of personal philosophy, but direct social activism, including voluntarism, that ultimately will lead to the building of new societies. As Gülen states, “these new people will unite profound spirituality, wide knowledge, sound thinking, a scientific temperament, and wise activism. Never content with what they know, they will increase continuously in knowledge—knowledge of the self, of nature, and of God.” It is indeed this voluntarism and personal commitment to an ideal that drives so many hundreds of thousands of Turks—and others—to adopt a mission, to travel abroad in order to build schools and teach, and to serve social causes inside and outside Turkey. This is far removed from the suspicious attitudes of those Muslims who view the West only with suspicion. Gülen pursues ideas of progress and modernity—not to recreate a western way of life but to create a liberated Muslim mindset that can function confidently in the modern world.

As the movement has expanded it has inevitably become more decentralized. Today it embraces large numbers of independent private groups, committees, foundations, centers, and individuals; it receives major financial contributions from large numbers of businessmen who are part of the movement. Hizmet is self-sustaining; it operates loosely and spontaneously as individuals contribute to its advancement in various ways along the broad lines of action that Gülen has set out.


Excerpt From: Graham E. Fuller. Turkey and the Arab Spring – Leadership in the Middle East.” Bozorg Press. 2014. Chapter 12.

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