The Most Recent Reviver in the ‘Ulama Tradition: The Intellectual ‘Alim, Fethullah Gülen

It is necessary to build a bridge through dialogue between Civil Islam and the society supported by the state. When we examine in depth Fethullah Gülen's approach to issues such as the state, politics and governance, we realize that he is also opening a door to a dialogue between Civil Islam and state society.

The Most Recent Reviver in the ‘Ulama Tradition: The Intellectual ‘Alim, Fethullah Gülen

Ali Bulaç

In the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Islamic world underwent a deep crisis and two approaches emerged to offer potential solutions. One of these places emphasis on the state and politics and is committed to building a new society and political entity. The other is based upon social reform and intellectual transformation. The key words for the first perspective are politics and the state, whereas education and spiritual improvement are the key terms for the latter.

Fethullah Gülen is currently one of the most prominent representatives of the second line. Thus, it would be appropriate to consider him as a social reviver whose origins are in the ulama (Islamic scholars) tradition. This paper will draw attention to the features of Gülen’s perspectives on civil space and how his efforts to raise a new, educated generation differ from other reformist or revival movements.

The framework of civil society is shaped by religion in Islamic history; in other words, the most powerful civil space is implemented by Islam, through which religiously derived prescriptions protect the public from its administration. In connection with this, religious communities, Sufi orders, ahi (trade guilds with attached religious scholars), foundations, and dervish lodges have traditionally constituted the most influential, permanent, and functional civil organizations.

In many ways, the norms of these organizations continue to have a strong presence, despite radical splits.

However, contrary to what Montesquieu, Witfogel, or Marx argued, the fact that civil society has not been formulated as a concept in the Islamic world is not because there is an absolute state despotism, which effectively puts all societal life behind bars. In the historical experience, there have been a greater number of free and autonomous spaces in the Islamic world than the West has ever had. These spaces were not patriarchal or hierarchical to the exaggerated extent that has been claimed. Islamic societies never felt the need for a civil society similar to that of the West.

As far as civil society in Turkey in its simplest form is concerned, it is NGOs, which represent the space outside the official domain that first spring to mind. Modern civil society groups or associations, which operate within the secular framework and aim to be influential over decision-making mechanisms, are alienated from society, for they are based upon a different historical and social legacy. In the final analysis, they favor the state’s presumptions over the interests of society and civil initiatives, much like a trade union, which always sides with the employer. Leaders of these modern civil institutions distance themselves from the public, in a way similar to that of secular intellectuals who have a self-proclaimed mission to illuminate society in the framework of Enlightenment philosophy, as they place their allegiance with the state authority, and not with the civil space. As a result, we can argue there is a serious problem of “civil representation” in Turkey and much of the Islamic world.

In contrast, Fethullah Gülen is truly a civil leader. The community, which has gathered around him is carrying forward a profound historical legacy with a modern approach, and thus it is possible to talk about a natural representation within this formation.

If the Muslim world is to have civil spaces, then this cannot occur if they are separated from religion or from community leaders who have taken as their basis the historical and intellectual heritage of Islam. In this regard, a powerful return of a new group of scholars and thinkers whose reference is the religious sources—not those intellectuals who expect a signal or an invitation from the government—to what is social and public, is necessary, at least at an intellectual level. The example of Fethullah Gülen indicates such attempts will prove successful.

State Islam and Civil Islam

Historically speaking, the pioneer of State Islam was Jamaladdin Afghani, while the pioneer of Civil Islam was Muhammad Abduh. Not in their references but with regards to socio-political objectives there are essential differences between these two approaches. Anyone wishing to consider the various attitudes of the Muslim actor and how he has been influenced by Islam and the spirit of the time must be aware of the significant divergence between these lines of thought; for failing to be aware of this distinction will always lead to an incorrect appraisal of the matter.

  1. State Islam: Reforming society was also important, but capturing the state would necessarily involve securing control over the society and institutions too, and this would facilitate the realization of social reforms within the state organization. To achieve this, the first Islamist generation adopted a top-down policy for Islamicization. Thus, State Islam, in accordance with its nature, would be based upon an official religious ideology with obscure totalitarian tendencies. The objective was to reform the world, not by “becoming Muslim” but by “making Islamic.”
  2. Civil Islam. Civil Islam is based on a societal project, which embarks on the mental reformation of individuals. This line takes as its basis the individual’s introspection into his or her religious convictions in order to make corrections, thus freeing himself or herself in the face of tradition, and actively using reason. It lays a higher importance on the society than on the state, and it is motivated to achieve the general reformation of the society, not the state, for it is founded on the acceptance of diversity and is, therefore, at peace with variation. Its cultural and social identity is dominant over political and military identity. Thus, it seeks a bottom- up change, which advocates “becoming Muslim.” Its emphasis is on the periphery and change, rather than on the center, though it does not explicitly exclude what is political.

Civil Islam is an alternative to political or military challenges to the world, and since it emphasizes a pluralistic worldview, it is more tolerant of different lifestyles, religions and cultures. As opposed to State Islam, Civil Islam maintains democratic participation rather than the central ideology of sovereignty, and brings politics one level down.

Islam, according to the viewpoint of Civil Islam, is not just a state organization or a political movement; rather, it is an umma or community project, which surpasses politics without rejecting the political dimension of life and its positive and essential effects. God’s absolute will is not manifested simply within the state, but rather on a society comprised of individuals who are aware of their rights and responsibilities. A universal social project can be used as an alternative to the homogeneous universal-state of modernity. This project should shrink the state and strengthen society.

Civil Islam argues that social reform is so wide-reaching that it cannot be handled only by politics and state. The question, “Why did the Islamic world fall behind the West?” asked by Islamists so frequently since the previous century, needs to be replaced by the question, “What is Islam’s answer to the modern world?” Today, historical, theoretical, and practical answers need to be found to this second question. For the first question makes us think strictly in a Cartesian, progressive, and analytical way, and leads to confusion—and a right answer can never be found for an incorrect question, or one asked wrongly. Therefore, while Muslim activists are aggressive, Muslim intellectuals are apologetic.

Questions like, “How can we become a political government?” or “How can a state be taken over?” do not make any sense in the context of Civil Islam. Rather, questions about the democratic legitimacy of a government’s cultural and societal background, the democratization of the state and its institutional structure, the efficient operation of a state based on the superiority of jurisprudence, and how to make the public more influential over decision-making mechanisms are prominent today. State Islam acceded to the government from time-to-time or became a joint partner (Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Senegal, etc.), but this did not generate any serious improvement in the overall situation. This means that forming a government on its own or engaging in politics (as a nation state, on modern terms) is not sufficient for becoming a universal alternative.

Islamic rhetoric deals with the problems of humanity and the world; therefore, its agenda is not confined to certain national problems but rather concerned with what is universal. Islam demurs to classic modernity, as do Judaism and Christianity. This is an important point requiring a dialogue between religions stemming from the same source, and other holy and ancient traditions. Fethullah Gülen’s emphasis on dialogue is, therefore, not a coincidence.

Fethullah Gülen: Intellectual-‘Ulama

Having endured a difficult period in its modern history, the Muslim world now seems to be heading towards a new intellectual- ‘ulama period. Ernest Geilner and Serif Mardin try to understand the modern Muslim world by categorizing it as High Islam and Low Islam, but this conceptualization is erroneous. In fact, Islamic society is composed historically and intellectually of two main groups: when it comes to their intellectual capacity people are of the educated elite or scholars (havas) or the laypeople (avam). Belief, however, does not vary in Islamic society. In principle, there is no difference in belief between the educated elite and laypeople, but their speech, expression and exposition levels are different. Just as there is no difference in belief between Baki, the most distinguished person in diwan literature for example, and Karacaoglan, a folk poet, or between Mawlana Jalaladdin Rumi and Yunus Emre, so there is no difference in faith, deed, vision and the understanding of the meaning of life between the elite and laypeople people of the Muslim world either. Based strictly on the differences in speech, expression and exposition, it is more appropriate to call educated Muslims kitabi (lettered ones) and uneducated Muslims ummi (unlettered ones). Of course, ummi does not mean ignorant; in Muslim society, there are numerous ummi but wise (arif) people.

The concept of janahayn (the dual wing) refers to having knowledge of both Islamic sciences and western science and education. Of the very few contenders, Gülen is perhaps the foremost representative of janahayn. His outlook has several key features: a profound understanding of Islamic sciences; a deep knowledge of biography (ilm al-rijal) in Hadith narration; and a thorough understanding of Islamic methodology (usul). These features are all of almost the same weight in terms of knowledge. His book, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism  (originally published in Turkish as Kalbin Zumrut Tepeleri), is an extremely important work in terms of thought and Sufi tradition. Gülen’s most important characteristic is that he analyzes contemporary issues and brings forth solutions using the traditional methodology of Islamic jurisprudence and Hadith.

If one looks at the individual profiles of those who have participated in terrorist activities recently, one will observe that the participants have generally not had a quality Islamic education and do not follow traditional Islamic methodology while attempting to issue religious rulings (fatwa) without being eligible to do so. Generally, they participated in Marxist or Nationalist movements during their university education and joined Islamist movements later, while retaining their tendencies towards rebellion and insurrection. In stark contrast to such people, Fethullah Gülen has the great advantage of his knowledge of Islamic methodology, the ability to give references from Islamic sciences, and knowledge of the intellectual, scientific, and artistic history of Islam. This sound methodology is a protective frame.

Thus, when making an effective sociological study of modern Turkey, it is impossible now to disregard the work of Fethullah Gülen. He has proved able to unite and mobilize large numbers of people from very many diverse backgrounds to work on significant social projects. The Gülen movement schools and other associated educational activities, which he inspires around the world are also probably the most notable contribution of the nation of Turkey to global development and progress today.

Personal Profile: Civil Revivalist

In recent Turkish history, the effects of social decay and disruption have also been reflected in the crisis of social leadership. The first reason for this crisis is that those who are decided on modernization have tried to assume a kind of social and cultural leadership of others. Secondly, when leaders are needed in society, they typically come from the spheres of politics or academia. However, as we have seen, society has not recognized the leadership of such self-proclaimed scholars or of those put forward in this way by the state.

This situation has resulted in the growth of the new leadership type, which is primarily a profile that merges the intellectual and the ‘ulama. A typical example is Fethullah Gülen. While he can analyze a hadith meticulously in terms of authenticity, he is simultaneously able to manifest his interpretations on current issues. This new leader type uses the canonical sources of the Qur’an and the Sunna, and has a good knowledge of Islamic sciences and Islamic history, along with contemporary sciences and current developments. In fact, a leader’s efficacy diminishes when either of these characteristics is lacking, as in the case of the current Turkish ‘ulama, who are cut off from the contemporary world, and Turkish intellectuals, who know nothing about Islam and history.

In essence, the consciousness of Turkish society appears to have been split into two main sections. While one portion takes references from the East and the past, the other takes guidance from the West and the modern. So, Turkey is like a cart with two horses puffing it in opposite directions. Something needs to be done to prevent a devastating split. For that reason, the different segments of society need to engage in dialogue and exert effort to understand each other, and Fethullah Gülen is one of the most important leaders contributing to this effort.

There are two aspects to the dialogue efforts of Fethullah Gülen: the first of these is interfaith dialogue instead of the oft-predicted “clash of civilizations;” the other is dialogue between the two different social segments, state society and civil society. Both dialogue efforts are absolutely vital, and it is important to understand them.

It is necessary to build a bridge through dialogue between Civil Islam and the society supported by the state. When we examine in depth Fethullah Gülen’s approach to issues such as the state, politics and governance, we realize that he is also opening a door to a dialogue between Civil Islam and state society.


Summarized from the article “The Most Recent Reviver in the ‘Ulama Tradition: The Intellectual ‘Alim, Fethullah Gülen”byAli Bulaç in “Muslim Citizens of the Globalized World: Contributions of the Gulen Movement” edited by Robert A. Hunt, Yuksel A. Aslandogan. 2007. Pages 101-120.

Ali Bulaç is a prominent writer, [Islamic] thinker, and intellectual of Turkey. He is a sociologists, has written many books and published dozens of scholarly articles.

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