Love of God that leads to tolerance and compassion in Gülen’s Thought

Gülen defines “Muslim” as someone who conforms to his description of being tolerant. His view of Islam, simply put, is of a faith that exemplifies the principles which he embeds in the word “tolerance.”

Love of God that leads to tolerance and compassion in Gülen’s Thought

Ori Soltez

An obvious starting point for this discussion is love—which, we have observed, enters Sufism as an important principle largely through the efforts of Rabi’a al-‘Adawiya in the late 8th century. Like Rabi’a, Gülen has never married; his spiritual and psychological pre-occupation has been with God and with how to enact God’s edifying will with regard to his “family”: his students, his community and society, the world at large. There is a number of times and places where Gülen specifically refers to Rabi’a, as when he notes:

“As Rabi’a al-‘Adawiya put it, “I swear on Your Holy Being that I have not worshipped You demanding Your Paradise. Rather, I loved You and connected my slavery to my love.”… With their hearts they constantly endeavor to stay close to Him, and with their reason and intellect, they observe phenomena in the mirrors of the Divine Names.”

He refers to Rabi’a again in an essay focused on the subject, “What It Takes to be a Believer,” in which he observes that,

“…In the footsteps of Rabi’a al-‘Adawiya they accept everyone and everything as a sweet syrup, even though it may be poison… God loves these people, and they love God… Their wings of humility always rest on the ground…”

The theme of love that is adumbrated by Rabi’a is pursued again and again by Gülen, both when he does and when he does not overtly allude to her thought or for that matter to the thought of Rumi, who carried that theme to its apogee as a thinker within the Sufi tradition and who also embraced a world much wider than Sufism or even than Islam in general, as we have seen. Gülen observes:

“Love is the most essential element in every being; a most radiant light, a great power that can resist and overcome every force. It elevates every soul that absorbs it…”

And again he asserts:

“Love of the Creator and yearning for return to Him is the clearest sign of one’s being loved by God.”

Gülen further observes that:

“Love makes one forget his own existence and annihilates his existence in the existence of the beloved. So, it requires the lover to always want his beloved and dedicate himself, without expecting any return, completely to the desires of his beloved. This is, according to my way of thinking, the essence of humanity.”

But Gülen also writes with the goal of redirecting our love focus from the mysterion within God back to the world created by God, in every corner of which the manifestations of God’s Names and Attributes are present. In other words, he articulates the goal of the mystic as not that of gaining access to the mysterion, but of gaining access in order to return from that experience and help improve the world of which we are all part.

On the one hand, this panthenotheistic sensibility—of God’s Presence as manifest throughout His creation—and this “fix the world” purpose are shared with important figures within the other Abrahamic mystical traditions, as we have in part noted in the introduction to this narrative. It is particularly emphatic in the work of St. Francis of Assisi within Christian mysticism and of the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Hassidic movement, within Jewish mysticism. On the other hand, Gülen, like they, speaks from within his own tradition; his emphasis turns specifically toward Islam with regard to the issue of understanding and misunderstanding God’s presence within and beyond the world in which we live:

“Love is the reason for existence and its essence, and it is the strongest tie that binds creatures together. Everything in the universe is the handiwork of God. Thus, if you do not approach humanity, a creation of God, with love, then you will have hurt those who love God and those whom God loves… …[O]ur approach to creation and other human beings should be based on loving them for the sake of their Creator. If Muslims talk about weapons, armories, killing and the butchering of others and if by doing so they put vast distances between people, then this means that in fact we have been far removed from our essence.”

This perspective—of loving the creation because of its Creator— is articulated again and again by Gülen, citing love as the connecting thread between God and the entire world and not only between God and human beings. It is important to note, however, that Gülen’s understanding of God’s presence in the world is extremely subtle: he follows an orthodox Sufi understanding of the universe as comprised of the manifestations of Divine Names.

Put simply, Gülen views creation as the manifestation of the Names and Attributes of the Creator—tajalli al-Asma—rather than as simply seeing the creation as a part of the Creator or seeing both the Creator and the creation as one (wahdat al-wujud).

We are further reminded in a number of passages from Gülen’s essays that love is a theme among other figures whom he distinctly recognizes as important and as intellectually and spiritually influential— such as his older Turkish contemporary, Bediüzzaman Said Nursi. Thus:

“God created the universe as a manifestation of His love for His creatures, in particular humanity, and Islam became the fabric woven out of this love. In the words of Bediüzzaman, love is the essence of creation.”

In the same passage, Gülen further argues that

“‘[d]isliking on the way of God’ applies only to feelings, thought and attributes. Thus, we should dislike such things as immorality, unbelief, and polytheism, not the people who engage in such activities.”

Thus even in recognizing the human reality of an incapacity for loving everyone, and in particular of negative feelings toward those whose actions are odious, he emphasizes distinguishing the action from the actor—who is implicitly misguided, not odious. If God is with us and within us all the time, then to dislike someone may be construed as disliking that manifestation of God reflected in that person.

Moreover, under Gülen’s pen the emphasis on love also directs itself beyond abstract theory, yielding guidance for actions that serve others. Foundational expressions of this idea may be found throughout his work. Thus, for instance, in Love and Tolerance, in the first essay (entitled “Love”), he argues that

“[a]ltruism is an exalted human feeling, and its course is love. Whoever has the greatest share in this love is the greatest hero of humanity, these people have been able to uproot any feelings of hatred and rancor in themselves. Such heroes of love continue to live even after their death…”

Love as a behavioral goal quite naturally leads to and intersects compassion. The one is cognate with the other, for to feel love for others should engender a sense of oneness that bespeaks both being conjoined in their happiness and sharing their feelings, both those that are exhilarating and those that induce suffering. In his essay, “Compassion,” in Towards the Lost Paradise, Gülen not surprisingly emphasizes the importance of this feeling:

“Compassion is the beginning of being; without it everything is chaos. Everything has come into existence through compassion and by compassion it continues to exist in harmony… Everything speaks of compassion and promises compassion. Because of this, the universe can be considered a symphony of compassion.”

But it is not simply that the universe, as a universe of order, is a universe wherein we show compassion to fellow humans, but, resonating from within the tradition of Rumi’s all-inclusive emphases, Gülen continues in the same essay to assert:

“Man has a responsibility to show compassion to all living beings as a requirement of being human…”

Indeed, he goes on to remind us, based on a hadith, that

“[w]e hear from the Prophet of Truth that a prostitute went to Paradise because, out of compassion, she gave water to a poor dog dying of thirst, whilst another woman was condemned to the torments of Hell because she left a cat to die of hunger.”

Thus his sense of human responsibility for all of creation could not be more emphatic.

His assertion that feeling compassion and allowing such feeling to lead to compassionate actions must be a broadly based process is clear when he writes:

“There is no limit to doing others good. One who has dedicated himself to the good of humanity, can be so altruistic as to sacrifice even his life for others. However, such altruism can be a great virtue only so long as it originates in sincerity and purity of intention and the ‘others’ are not defined by racial preferences.”

Moreover, the tone for altruistic behavior could not be more unequivocal: that it originates out of sincerity; and thus that the level of any sort of ulterior motive for such behavior is, as it were, lower than zero (it is both altruistic and sincerely altruistic)—and the direction of such behavior is toward all of humanity: “others” means potentially anyone and everyone, not only those defined by some ethnic, religious or other sub-category of our species.

Compassion for others leads to what Gülen calls “tolerance.” Early on, in a selection from his teachings and preachings published in 1996, he commented:

“Be so tolerant that your bosom becomes wide like the ocean. Become inspired with faith and love of human beings. Let there be no troubled souls to whom you do not offer a hand.”

As with love and compassion, Gülen returns again and again to the theme of tolerance (1):

“Judge your worth in the sight of your Creator by the space you have allotted to Him in your heart; and your worth in the eyes of people by the worth of your treatment of them…”

And again:

“… We should have such tolerance that we are able to close our eyes to the faults of others, to have respect for different ideas, and to forgive everything that is forgivable. In fact, even when faced with violations of our inalienable rights, we should remain respectful to human values and try to establish justice…”

And yet again elsewhere—repeating the last sentence, with its emphasis on respecting human values even vis-a-vis those who perform acts that violate those values, and on never ceasing to ally one’s self with justice:

“Our tolerance should be so broad that we can close our eyes to others’ faults, show respect for different ideas, and forgive everything that is forgivable. Even when our inalienable rights are violated, we should respect human values and try to establish justice…”

His ultimate source for such a statement he finds in the Qur’an itself, from which he quotes:
If you behave tolerantly, overlook, and forgive (their faults)… (At-Taghabun 64:14)

For Gülen,

“Tolerance, a term which we sometimes use in place of the words respect, mercy, generosity, or forbearance, is the most essential element of moral systems; it is a very important source of spiritual discipline and a celestial virtue of perfected people.”

Indeed, (to repeat), Gülen demands from those who follow him that they be tolerant of all of humanity—to have hearts “wide like the ocean” and to seek to become more perfect human beings (for “[t]he most perfect among human beings are those who are at ease and intimate in the company of other human beings [ie, all human beings]”). Conversely,

“Those who do not embrace all of humankind with tolerance and forgiveness have lost their worthiness to receive forgiveness and pardon… Those who curse will be cursed and those who beat will be beaten. If true Muslims observe such Qur’anic principles as the following and were to go on their way and tolerate curses deep in their breasts, then others would appear in order to implement the justice of Destiny on those who cursed us.”

He thus defines “Muslim” as someone who conforms to his description of being tolerant. His view of Islam, simply put, is of a faith that exemplifies the principles which he embeds in the word “tolerance.”

Source: Ori Z. Soltes. Embracing the world: Fethullah Gülen’s Thought and Its Relationship to Jalaluddin Rumi and Others. New Jersey:Tughra Books, 2013, Excerpts from chapter 4.


(1) We might note two issues with regard to this universalist perspective. The first is the use of the word “tolerant/tolerance.” In gen-eral, that word, in English, suggests an unequal nuance: of one party speaking from a higher level regarding a second party, as opposed to referring to an even surface in which equals embrace equals. But in the context in which Gülen uses the term, first of all its Turkish equiva- lent (and after all, Gülen writes in Turkish), offers a more positive nuance, so that we are in fact dealing with a level-field intention, more equivalent to embrace. He is referring to the full acceptance—and love— of diversely-configured humanity. This full-hearted embrace that his contexts make clear is what he finds in the Qur’an as a guide and what he follows as the path forged by many scholars, such as Ibn al-‘Arabi and Rumi, following the Prophet. (The same book, page 77)



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