Intellectual Tolerance and Inquiry into “Intellect vs Revelation” at the Abant Forum

Intellectual Tolerance and Inquiry into “Intellect vs Revelation” at the Abant Forum

Graham E. Fuller

One of the Gülen movement’s greatest accomplishments—and a demon­stration of its search for greater universalism—has come through a remark­able process of intellectual outreach, a series of annual roundtables called the Abant Forum. These roundtables have brought together Turks of diverse intellectual backgrounds—Muslims, secularists, traditionalists, modernists, atheists, Christians, leftists, and conservatives—to hammer out some common positions on key contemporary societal issues. The product of these forums, which have continued annually, has been remarkable and is of particular relevance to intellectual debates rag­ing across the Muslim world.

The first two roundtables, held in 1998 and 1999, hammered out pioneer­ing bulletins on a few key concepts and concluded the following:

  • There is no contradiction between intellect (akil) and divine inspiration (vahi). Both are valid as foundations for action. Thus, rational discourse and religious vision must complement each other and neither can trump the other in determining the validity of a chosen religious position.
  • In Islam, reason permits us to understand what divine inspiration has told us. Inspiration is a divine means of conveying knowledge, while reason is a human vehicle for obtaining knowledge. If we accept the idea of discordance between divine inspiration and reason, we cre­ate tension between knowledge and religion, between the state and religion, and between life and religion.
  • No individual can claim divine authority on the matter of under­standing and interpreting revelation.
  • Religion is one of the main components of life and culture; it is a basic source of common values. As long as it works within the law, efforts to organize religious life within society should not be prevented. In­deed, one of the key elements of democracy is to create a space where differences can coexist.
  • Just as there is no uniform model of modernization, there is also no absolute conflict between religion and modernization. Not all reac­tionaries are religious, and not all religious people are reactionary.
  • Muslims possess the authority to resolve their own religious issues. Thus, religious figures must not place any issues off limits for discus­sion. Ijtihad, or interpretation of religion, is essential in the resolu­tion of intellectual crises. Islam is open to rational consideration as a means of reaching solutions.
  • In the view of believers, God is the absolute sovereign of the world with His knowledge, will, mercy, justice, and power. This religious concept of sovereignty should not be confused with the political concept of sovereignty in which there is no political power higher than the national will. (Here we have reconciliation between the religious and secular view of the nature of power and sovereignty.) The conviction of most believing Muslims to acknowledge God as the supreme sovereign in no way binds anyone else to accept it.
  • The state is a human and not a sacred institution. (This statement very deftly cuts two ways. It denies to any religious group the right to view an Islamic state as a sacred goal or institution, while it weakens the tendency of the statists in Turkey to “worship” the state as an entity in itself or as an institution above the people.)
  • Islam leaves the details of operating a political regime to society. The state must remain neutral on issues of religious belief. In the end, the state must be a vehicle for facilitating and not blocking the intellec­tual and spiritual development of the individual and society.
  • Throughout history, there have always been tensions between reli­gion and the state. The essence of Ataturk’s reforms did not reflect an attitude against the essence of religion itself but against traditions, appearances, and worn-out institutions that passed as religion.
  • Under secularism, there should be no intervention on individual lifestyle. (This statement is meant to prevent the state from dictating clothing codes or banning any kind of personal dress, head covering, or expression of religious belief. It also means that religious believers cannot impose their own beliefs on nonbelievers.)
  • Women should not be restricted by traditions that are presented as religiously based or by ideologically imposed political views (such as Kemalist bans on women wearing headscarves while in public ser­vice or in educational institutions.)
  • Islam is no obstacle to the existence of a democratic state ruled by law.

These key principles drawn from early sessions demonstrate how the an­nual Abant Forum process represents a historic and remarkable reconcilia­tion and concordance to views among secular and religious segments across society. Its platform advocates a modern, democratic, pluralistic, decentral­ized, tolerant form of government based on people’s will and not on any ideological group. Its strictures fall most heavily at first upon a Kemalist elite (or any authoritarian secularist regime) that has gained dominance over the state, but the strictures have equal application to any other ideological group that seeks to impose its beliefs, whether Islamist, nationalist, or leftist.

Acceptance of these principles by Islamist parties such as Welfare, Virtue, and AK Party would represent an extremely important commitment. While the Gülen movement is known for opposing the establishment of any religious parties, its sponsorship of these principles should help dispel any belief that the movement seeks to impose an Islamic or sharia state in the long term. The Abant Forum is performing a signal service in setting forth a basic set of principles capable of directing Turkey through the shoals of internal change, religious and secular debate, and reform and democratization. These prin­ciples are of direct relevance to debates in other Muslim countries.

As the distinguished religious scholar Mehmet Aydin points out, the most striking thing about this process and its conclusions is that a religious com­munity initiated them. In fact, it is remarkable that in Turkey today such crucial theoretical and ideological discussions—about Islam, secularism, Islamist evolution, the view of the past, modern values, and relations with the Muslim world—are discussed and debated more widely by Islamists than any other political or social group. These very ideas and discussions are seen as suspect by the orthodox Kemalists, who seek to ignore this process entirely and do not even want conceptual reconciliation with Islam in any form. It is imperative that Turkey and the Muslim world as a whole engage in a broad discussion of such important themes if there is to be political evolu­tion in the future.


Fuller, Graham E. 2007. “New Turkish Republic: Turkey As a Pivotal State in the Muslim World.”Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace.

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