Moral Theology of Hizmet – Positive action, service, piety, sincerity and interreligious dialogue

Hizmet institutions in contemporary Turkey achieve creative commensuration of liberal and Islamic discourses and practices. This commensuration is evident on two levels: moral-theological and institutional-sociological. Ethical concepts such as “positive action” (müspet hareket), “service” (hizmet) and “piety” (taqwa), and institutional forms such as the charitable foundation/pious endowment (vakıf) each constitute moments of synthesis between liberal and Islamic discursive traditions.

Moral Theology of Hizmet – Positive action, service, piety, sincerity and interreligious dialogue

Jeremy F. Walton

In Turkey and across the globe, Hizmet (Gülen Movement) institutions defy simple categorization. As other contributors to this special issue show, they include a variety of NGOs and charities, private businesses, primary, secondary and post-secondary schools, publishing houses and mass media outlets. Clearly, a key unifying aspect of these distinct institutions is their shared dedication to Fethullah Gülen’s theology and moral philosophy. A fitting approach to the distinctive institutional and religious culture of the Hizmet Movement, therefore, is to examine the principles of ethical action that orient Gülen’s theology and that animate actors in Hizmet institutions. In this section, I take up an ensemble of interrelated concepts and practices—“positive action” (müspet hareket), “service” (hizmet), “piety” (Arabic: taqwa; Turkish: takva), and “sincerity” (samimiyet, ihlas), as well as the cardinal Hizmet activity of interreligious dialogue (dinler arası diyalog)—that together form the moral theology of the Hizmet Movement. (1) Above all, this moral theology—presented gradually over Gülen’s oeuvre and expressed through the actions and aspirations of Hizmet institutions—represents a commensuration of Islamic piety and liberal values of religious tolerance and the flourishing of socio-religious diversity.

To begin, we can turn to the biography and works of Fethullah Gülen’s principal forbearer, “Bediüzzaman” Said Nursi (CE 1878-1960). (2) More specifically, we might well consider Nursi’s concept and ethical tenet of müspet hareket, or positive action, which maintains pride of place among Turkey’s Nur Community (3) in particular. Throughout my ethnographic research, I was struck by the ubiquity of the principle of positive action within the institutional cultures of both the Nur Community and Hizmet. In the most general sense, a moral life for devotees of Nursi and Gülen consists of a compilation of positive, altruistic actions. Immorality, by contrast, is exemplified by self-interested, negative actions (menfi hareketler). Nursi clearly distinguishes between positive and negative actions as follows:

“Our duty is to act positively; it is not to act negatively. It is only to serve belief in accordance with Divine pleasure; it is not to meddle in God’s business. We are charged with responding with patience and thanks to all the difficulties we may encounter in this positive service of belief which results in the preservation of public order and security” (Nursi 1996: 241).

For followers of Fethullah Gülen, the principle of müspet is a means to, and a form of, hizmet (service). Müspet hareket and hizmet necessarily imply each other because they both presuppose and entail the absence of self-interest. For an action to be positive, not only its end or object, but also its means and the intention must be just. Justice, in this context, lacks any self-interested motivation. Nursi emphasizes that positive action is a means to living “in accordance with Divine pleasure” and to assuring a harmonious and stable social order. In its relation to one’s duty to God, müspet hareket is understood to be a cardinal theological and ethical principle, as well as a preeminent social imperative. For Hizmet, service to God and to other human beings encompasses both the theological and the social aspects of müspet.

Abdullah (2010) has analyzed the concept of hizmet (which, in the Senegalese language of Wolof, is transliterated from the Arabic as khidma) among the followers of the Muridiyya Sufi Order. Although the Murids, as followers of the Senegalese Cheik Amadou Bamba are known, have no direct connection to the Hizmet Movement, the rendering of khidma that Abdullah offers is equally appropriate to Gülen’s enthusiasts: “Khidma encompasses the total round of one’s activities, both secular and religious, blurring any distinctions between them, since its focus is to transform all actions into divine service” (2010: 190, my emphasis). Echoes of the principle of positive action are strong in this quotation: Hizmet (khidma) as an ethical maxim demands the coordination and integration of all worldly action within an altruistic piety oriented toward the fulfillment of divine service in this world. In this respect, we can also perceive of the affinity between hizmet and Fethullah Gülen’s own reflections on the key Islamic principle of taqwa (mindfulness or piety). As Gülen writes, “a servant (of God) must… ascribe all material and spiritual accomplishments to God; not consider himself or herself as superior to anyone else; not pursue anything other than God and His pleasure” (2006: 48). In summary, then, the principles of müspet hareket, hizmet, and taqwa form a constellation of interrelated ethical imperatives that demand human action to be oriented toward the service of both God and humankind. Importantly, the focus on one’s own motivations also inculcates an open attitude toward religious and social difference. Rather than criticizing the actions or beliefs of another—a prescription for self-interested action—positive action demands a suspension of judgment, an ethical tactic that is commensurable with liberal values of tolerance and pluralism.

Several summers ago, during a research trip to Turkey, I had an illuminating conversation with several members of the Journalists and Writers Foundation (Gazeteciler ve Yazarlar Vakfı), a prominent Hizmet NGO based in Istanbul. Over lunch in the foundation offices, I prompted my friends to evaluate the events surrounding the Mavi Marmara and the I.H.H. (Humanitarian Relief Foundation) flotilla to the Gaza Strip. (4) One of my fellow diners immediately pointed out that regardless of the motivations of the individual activists on the flotilla or the administration of the I.H.H., the Mavi Marmara event resulted in the opening of the Rafah Border Crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which was undeniably good. In response, a senior member of the foundation offered an assertion of the principle of müspet hareket: “Of course good has come from the Mavi Marmara, but I still question the intentions of the activists. If they wanted to help the Gazans, there were better ways to do so. They were more interested in self-promotion than in actually offering service (hizmet).” In essence, he argued that the ends of an action do not alone determine its ethical status. In order to determine this, one must also examine the intentions of the actor as well. By this standard, the Mavi Marmara event was not clearly an instance of müspet hareket; it might even qualify as an instance of self-interested action, a menfi hareket (negative action). And if an action is self-interested, it also fails the criteria of service, hizmet.

More recently, Fethullah Gülen articulated the principle of positive action in praise of a contemporary development in Istanbul. Upon the opening of the Marmaray metro tunnel connecting the European and Asian halves of Istanbul in October 2013, Gülen made the following statement of commendation:

Half of religion is reason (insaf); reason is half of religion. It is crucial to be fair-minded and reasonable (insaflı). We must agree that right is right, and applaud it. Furthermore, it is crucial to support and encourage those who realize righteousness…. We must applaud even the smallest positive (pozitif) things, and encourage those who achieve them (Zaman Gazetesi 2013; author’s translation).

We can perceive the pervasiveness of müspet hareket in Gülen’s comments here. His praise for the Marmaray Tunnel hinges on its quality as an instance of positive action for the benefit of humanity. Furthermore, the positive quality of the act itself is sufficient to demand further encouragement and support.

Interreligious dialogue (dinler arası diyalog), one of the definitive practices and initiatives of Hizmet, illustrates the logic of both müspet hareket and hizmet. Hizmet actors conceptualize dialogue as an ethical practice that entails the displacement and temporary suspension of one’s own interests, ideals, and desires in order to comprehend those of another. As a movement away from oneself, dialogue conforms to the definition of positive, altruistic action. In this conceptual sense, dialogue is not merely a political project or gesture towards religious pluralism—it is an ethical practice that performs a double sort of service (hizmet), both to one’s specific partner in dialogue and toward the abstract ideal of pious altruism that Gülen’s writings and the activities of the Hizmet Movement incessantly stress. Of course, Hizmet’s glorification of dialogue also has tangible institutional and political benefits. For instance, many of the conferences organized Hizmet institutions in Turkey—notably, the Abant Meetings that the Journalists and Writers Foundation sponsors on a yearly basis—choreograph “interreligious dialogue” by gathering a variety of representatives from different religious communities, who are expected to articulate their communities’ various positions on contemporary issues. By announcing itself as a champion of dialogue, Hizmet seizes upon the authority and legitimacy that a liberal discourse maintains, even as it remains partially counter-hegemonic within Turkey.

On the whole, the ensemble of concepts formed by müspet hareket, hizmet, taqwa and interreligious dialogue defines the distinctive moral theology of Hizmet.

Over the many hours and days that I spent at Hizmet institutions, I came to recognize a sense of distinctive respect and sincerity (samimiyet; ihlas) that mediates the more hierarchical, vertical relationships within these organizations— this sincerity is itself a reflection of müspet hareket and the denigration of self-interest (see also Yavuz 2013: 30-31). A particularly noteworthy detail of the symposium room of the Journalists and Writers Foundation is the ring of divan-style sofas that line the walls. These divan sofas serve as a spatial metaphor for Hizmet’s ethic of sincerity: Individuals seated on divans can only address one another in an intimate, face-to-face manner, and the conversation among them is necessarily a conversation among equal positions, as everyone sits at the same low level.

Hizmet institutions in contemporary Turkey achieve creative commensuration of liberal and Islamic discourses and practices. This commensuration is evident on two levels: moral-theological and institutional-sociological. Ethical concepts such as “positive action” (müspet hareket), “service” (hizmet) and “piety” (taqwa), and institutional forms such as the charitable foundation/pious endowment (vakıf) each constitute moments of synthesis between liberal and Islamic discursive traditions. Above all, the distinctive Hizmet initiative of interreligious dialogue exemplifies this process of mediation. By drawing simultaneously on Islamic and Ottoman precedents to articulate a proper relationship between Muslims and the “Peoples of the Book”—especially the Ottoman millet system11—and liberal values of respect and tolerance for the other, Hizmet has forged a liberal-Islamic mode of nongovernmental politics, rooted in the sphere of civil society (see also Hendrick 2013: 200-217, 236-242).


(1) This approach draws inspiration from Turkish sociologist Şerif Mardin’s pioneering attention to the “root paradigms,” such as the concept of the gazi (veteran, warrior), that undergirded the theological project of Said Nursi, Fethullah Gülen’s intellectual forebear (1989: 3). As Mardin argues, such foundational social concepts both “shape social relations and at the same time enable these to be transformed” (1989: 5). In a parallel sense, theologi- cal-moral principles such as “positive action” and sincerity shape the social field that Hizmet occupies and constitute arguments for transformations within this field itself.

(2) Nursi, who spent most of his adult life in prison, was a prolific theological writer—his largest and most influential text is the compendium Risale-i Nur (Epistles of Light). The Risale-i Nur remains the object of study and devotion on the part of a large, loose knit com- munity in Turkey (and elsewhere), whose members gather on a weekly basis, if not more often, to read and learn from it. Gülen’s writings and teachings bear the distinctive stamp of Nursi’s influence (Yavuz 2013). For thorough biographies of Nursi, see Vahide 2005 and Mardin 1989.

(3) The question of the relationship between devotees of the Risale-i Nur and Hizmet is both fraught and difficult (Yavuz 2013: 30). In addition to Hizmet institutions, I conducted much of my research in Turkey with followers of Nursi. Hizmet actors tend to distinguish themselves from the “Nur Community” (Nur Cemaatı) proper, but, in spite of this distinc- tion, relations between the two groups are quite close.

(4) The Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), an Istanbul-based organization, coordi- nated an international coalition of activists determined to run the Israeli naval blockade on the Gaza Strip in order to provide medicine, foodstuffs and other humanitarian aid to Gaza; Israeli Naval forces boarded the flotilla on May 30, 2010, resulting in the deaths of nine Turkish activists and precipitating a major diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel.


Excerpted from the article “Is Hizmet Liberal?” Mediations and Disciplines of Islam and Liberalism among Gülen Organizations in Istanbul in Sociology of Islam 1 (2013) 145–164

Jeremy F. Walton, Ph.D., CETREN Project for the Study of New Religiosities and Secularism, Georg August University of Göttingen, Germany

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