The Intellectual Shaping of Fethullah Gülen

The world into which Gülen was born in 1941 was one where, in his country of birth, the Ottoman reality with a staunchly proclaimed declaration of complete religious freedom had been succeeded by a secular republic in which religion would play absolutely no role within the administration of the state and religious practice was suppressed in the public sphere.

The Intellectual Shaping of Fethullah Gülen

Ori Z. Soltes

The world into which Gülen was born in 1941 was one where, in his country of birth, the Ottoman reality with a staunchly proclaimed declaration of complete religious freedom had been succeeded by a secular republic in which religion would play absolutely no role within the administration of the state and religious practice was suppressed in the public sphere. Growing up in such an atmosphere, but training to become an imam, Gülen surely wondered whether the course taken by Atatürk was leading in the right direction. And, as we shall see, the thinking of Said Nursi would provide a starting point from which Gülen would go still further in terms of the content of his own writings, the activist direction those writings would inspire, and the far-flung nature of his influence—while, like Nursi, Gülen never opposed the laws. Indeed, Gülen’s role as an educator, from the beginning to the present, is rooted very much within a framework consistent with government policies, as we shall see.

Fethullah Gülen was born in Erzurum into a family of limited means. His father was an imam who spent much of his time reading and reflecting on the shape of the early Islamic world. He enjoyed reciting poetry and was an important early inspirer of his son, both as a lover of learning and as one impassioned with the stories and teachings of Muhammad and his Companions. So, too, Gülen’s mother, a teacher of Qur’an, instilled in him a love of recitation from that sacred text. Indeed it was she who began to teach him how to recite the Qur’an when he was four years old.

Gülen was educated along traditional Islamic lines—he became a hafiz, one who knows the entire Qur’an by heart, by age twelve; and he began to preach in local mosques as a fourteen-year-old—and also along modern lines, beginning a life-long series of intellectual and spiritual interests that extend from the Qur’an and hadith to the literatures of other religious traditions to math and the sciences. His study encompassed the history of Islam and its own unique contributions over an extended period of time to math and science—and not only to Abrahamic spirituality.

Aside from his formally obtained, government-mandated, teaching certificate in Islamic learning Gülen became part of the training circles of local Sufi sheikhs, with their focus both on deep—mystical—spirituality and on a universalist, broadly humanistic perspective with regard to faith. On the one hand, a centerpiece of such study that would emerge for him as an interest and an influence was Jalaluddin Rumi, as well as other key Sufi thinkers. On the other hand, his intellectual and spiritual reach would extend as deeply into the Western tradition as Plato and Aristotle, and as far forward as the teachings of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi.

By 1958 Gülen had taken and passed the formal examinations administered by the Turkish State’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, thus allowing him to be officially appointed as an imam, preacher and teacher. His first appointment was to a mosque in Edirne, not far from Istanbul, on the European side of Turkey. There he lived modestly—indeed ascetically—as he continued his self-directed course of diverse studies while quickly developing a reputation throughout the city as an outstanding preacher. He developed a web of friends and supporters from varied walks of life through his appealing personality and the breadth and diverse depth of his learning.

This was also the formative period, for him, of perceiving in the contours of Turkish society a diminishment of moral and spiritual values. He developed a concern for the future of youth caught in a matrix of spiritual uncertainty and lack of moral clarity and found himself driven to seek a way to redirect them away from that sense of being lost. After doing his military service he returned to Edirne. He began to reach out by way of a series of public lectures that, together with his preaching within the confines of his mosque, led to his promotion to a new post. First transferred to Kirklareli, in 1966 Gülen became the main preacher and an unpaid teacher in a boarding school in Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city.

The move to Izmir would be transformative to Gülen’s life and his career. There, as his own thinking deepened and broadened through ever more diverse self-directed reading, his charismatic influence began to spread through a wide range of preaching and teaching, delivering lectures and leading seminars. He addressed varied subjects, from religious study and practice—focused on the Qur’an and the hadith and their relationship both to Muslim jurisprudence and theology and to the modern world—to education theory and its relationship to shaping children into adults with a concern for others: a devotion to social justice and a passion for appreciating and maintaining the natural world around us.

In Izmir he began to redirect the role of the mosque toward what it had been in Islam’s golden age: the center of life, attending not only to the prayer-centered spiritual needs of its constituents, but to their psychological and intellectual needs as well. He did not merely preach Friday sermons, but conducted discussions which focused on the questions relating to everyday life—both their concerns and the issues about which they were merely curious—to which the Muslim tradition, linked to contemporary thought, offers answers. His deep learning and his psychological acuity combined to help him develop a reputation and to expand his following.

At the same time, over the next several years he began with greater and greater clarity to encircle his preaching and the discussions he led with a call to action along lines centered on the concept of serving others: hizmet (which is the Turkish term for “service”). Particularly in his devotion to the encouraging of young people to think about the future of the world and their role in shaping it toward a fuller beauty, in his pushing them to recognize the importance of interweaving intellectual awareness with both spiritually-grounded virtue and altruistic service toward others, he helped foster a generation grounded in the conviction that such service in the best of ways serves the self. For he emphasized how each “self” is connected to all “selves” and thus that helping others and helping to improve the world benefits the one helping.

Consider the era: the 1960s, when socio-cultural and political turmoil prevailed across much of the Western world. Turkey, too, was subject to a good deal of political turmoil and, as elsewhere in the world, young people were often drawn to extremist ideologies perceived as pure. In many cases extremism also meant turning to violence. Against such a backdrop, Gülen preached and discussed at a feverish pace in his desire to inspire Turkish youth to act toward shaping a peaceful world, not a violent one, fraught not with ego-centric politics but with service to society at large.

With this ambition in mind, Gülen travelled widely in the years that followed, visiting countless cities and towns and villages across Turkey, giving sermons in mosques and speeches and lectures in coffee-houses and lecture halls. Talks became dialogues, speaking never outpaced listening, as he sought both the pulse of the Turkish people and a means of influencing that pulse toward a calmer, more hizmet-driven beat. His words were recorded by volunteers and distributed on tape; by the end of the decade he was one of a handful of imams recognized throughout the country.

But his recognizability didn’t simply mean that people knew his name. It meant that his charismatic leadership of an ever-growing group of admirers could permit him to influence that group to turn their admiration for him into actions benefiting the community. Thus his encouragement toward developing more effective educational facilities and making education more accessible and available to more young people, including those without the means to pursue their education, led to the building of institutions. It led to the organizing of scholarship-granting entities directed toward economically-deprived students.

It also led, to some extent, to fear of him on the part of the secular government—echoing the condition under which Said Nursi suffered persecution more than a generation earlier. In 1971, Gülen was arrested on false charges that he had been trying to change the Turkish governmental structure toward an Islamicist regime. He remained in prison for several months, eventually released—and later acquitted of the charge. (1) He continued thereafter to teach and to preach, retiring in 1980 from his formal position as an imam.

But by then the number of people inspired by him had expanded exponentially from what it had begun as in the 1960s. Ultimately, by the 1980s, an extensive network of Gülen-inspired groups of educators and entrepreneurs began an extended program of establishing schools— by now, several hundred of them both within and beyond Turkey. Private institutions, these schools offered—and continue to offer—an incomparable opportunity for the students from all walks of life; they abide by the strictures demanded by the state but extend well beyond those strictures to offer well-balanced curricula that wed tradition to modernity and interweave a focus on the intellect with an interest in the soul and a recognition of the importance of the body for those who would become fully contributing members of society.

Indeed the most abiding theme across the panoply of Gülen-inspired schools is that of contributing to society: embrace of the diversity of humanity and hizmet on all levels. Over the past decades what might best be called the Gülen, or more correctly, Hizmet Movement has extended such an educational initiative not only horizontally outward from Turkey to Turkic countries to the farther and farther reaches of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, but vertically, from school for young children to colleges and universities.

By 1991 Fethullah Gülen decided that his role as an inspirer of the Hizmet Movement, through the mechanism of preaching in mosques and teaching in lecture halls, had gone as far as necessary, or perhaps as far as it could, as a primary mode of encouraging such actions. He retired from public life, to devote his time in a quieter way to the community: to teaching seminars of graduate students and taking part in service projects. He continued to travel in order to meet with diverse religious and political world leaders—these would range from Israel’s chief Sephardic Rabbi, Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, to Pope John Paul II—who share his vision of a better world. He became increasingly available for interviews and commentaries in the various media, in order to promote the ideas of Hizmet and of peaceful coexistence across the broad range of ethnicities and religions, races and nationalities that define the spectrum of human society.

He became particularly active in promoting interfaith dialogue— extracting the most forward-looking of features of Muslim tradition with regard to embracing non-Muslims and wedding them to contemporary reality. And above all, he expanded the range of his writing projects, thereby making his thinking on both intra-Muslim spiritual matters and on interfaith and multicultural issues available to a wide audience.

In spite of Gülen’s consistent assertion of being apolitical—he has written and spoken about diverse ideas, from human rights and humane secularism to democracy, open society and mutual tolerance—as his renown spread he found himself under fire in effect from two directions. On the one hand, the secular leadership within Turkey feared that his goal was to eliminate the even playing field among faiths that evolved during the past 80 years of Turkish history, and to reshape Turkey as a theocracy. On the other hand, extremist Islamist groups found his interest and activity in interfaith discussions and initiatives to be anti-Islamic—accusing him of heresy.

To both sides of this criticism he often repeated the idea that inter-faith dialogue and mutual religious respect were both a decisive element throughout Ottoman Turkish history and in particular in the last generations of that history; and that openness to diverse spiritual perspectives may be understood not merely as acceptable to Islam, but as a Muslim religious obligation. (2)

His ultra-secular critics managed to bring criminal charges against him in 2000—which were proven baseless and dismissed eight years later. As a practical matter within the flow of Gülen’s personal life, this episode was ultimately irrelevant: he had left Turkey for the United States in 1999 primarily for health reasons—to receive treatment for a cardiovascular condition. This culminated in a heart operation in 2004, and on the advice of his doctors that he avoid stress he has remained in the United States, away from the politically-charged world of Turkey, in a retreat in Pennsylvania where he continues to read and to write and to teach a small group of students and to receive occasional visitors from a range of disciplines and walks of life.

His profound interest in the treble weave—of love of traditional Muslim thought with a passion for contemporary scientific thought; of intra-Islamic concerns with embrace of true interfaith dialogue; and of an insistence that such love, passion, concern and embrace lead one to serve others—marks his most enduring contribution during the past two decades as a writer and activist. It is the relationship between this contribution and that of those who preceded him, particularly Jalalud-din Rumi that will occupy our discussion in the chapters that follow.


(1) Although Gülen has never opposed the government, either by actions or non-ac- tions, he has at times been misunderstood, misinterpreted and perceived as having political ambitions from diverse sides of the political/religious fence.

(2) It might be noted that the opportunities for non-Muslims to achieve high govern- mental positions have been far fewer under the secular Turkish governments of the past nine decades than was very often the case under the Ottomans during the pre- ceding more than four centuries.


Soltes, Ori Z. Embracing the World – Fethullah Gülen’s Thought and its Relationship to Jalaluddin Rumi and Others. New Jersey: Tughra Books, 2013. Pages 59-65


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