Who is Fethullah Gülen? A sociological analysis

Who is Fethullah Gülen? A sociological analysis

Doğu Ergil

Fethullah Gülen (b. 1938), known as Hocaefendi (pronounced as “Hodjaefendi”) to those who respect him, was born to Ramiz Efendi and Refia Hanim in Korucuk village, Pasinler town, Erzurum province, Turkey. Due to the slow pace of village life, he was registered later in the official ledger. The official ledger entry lists his birthday as April 27, 1941. Encouraged by his family and pious acquaintances, he read the Qur’an and became a hafiz (one who has memorized the Qur’an). His parents, who detected a tendency toward the religious disciplines in him, made sure that he obtained a solid religious education from Erzurum’s renowned scholars. Beginning with Osman Bektaş Hoca, he continued to pursue religious knowledge by participating in the teaching circles of leading Sufis. After finishing his studies, Gülen began his official career as an imam, a civil service position, at Edirne’s Üç Şerefeli Mosque.

He served this congregation as an associate imam and preacher for four years after fulfilling his mandatory military service in Mamak, Ankara, and İskenderun. Other appointments soon followed: as an imam in a mosque in Kırklareli province for one year and in İzmir as a preacher (1966), first at Kestanepazari mosque and later at Bornova mosque. In addition to giving sermons, he supervised the government-owned and operated Kestanepazari Boarding Qur’anic Course. He was soon on his way to becoming a respected opinion leader to whom others deferred due to his public and private teaching circles. From about 1969 to 1971, he visited many cities and towns to give religious sermons and provide religious education. His activities were not limited to Izmir province. Until 1980, he served in Edremit, Balıkesir, and the province of Manisa. By this time, however, his reputation had transcended the country’s Aegean Sea region and reached İstanbul, Turkey’s largest metropolitan center. In 1989, at the insistence of its citizens, he began preaching voluntarily in its largest mosques. He continued this work until 1992.

The Aegean and Marmara regions, especially İzmir and İstanbul, respectively, had received a massive wave of immigrants from the interior recent years. These immigrants, coming from traditional backgrounds in Anatolia, had difficulty adapting to an urban lifestyle. Feeling an acute need to reinterpret their lifestyle in order to reconcile their traditional values with the expectations of this new urban environment, they began to search for a classically trained religious scholar whose learning and character they could trust. They found this person in Fethullah Gülen. In addition to waiting for the sacred texts to be purified of past social residues, namely, from the experiences of other nations and societies, they had been seeking an authentic understanding, one that was loyal to the core of the Islamic message and answered the real needs of the day. In fact, this need was felt by all Muslim nations. Gülen’s ability to meet it made him a sought-after opinion leader, and soon a title of popular respect – “Hocaefendi” (respected scholar) – was bestowed upon him.

Learning circles started to form around him, consisting of those who sought his leadership and who saw his interpretation of Islam as a compass by which they could orient their lives. As he began to draw larger and larger crowds, Gülen had to make a critical decision: Would he be a leader and govern the daily lives of people by playing a political role, even it were indirect, or would he limit himself to preaching a message of spirituality and thereby inspire others to make their own religious and ethical choices? Gülen chose the second option, and ever since sought to explain to people how they can establish a direct relationship with their Creator. Basing his philosophy on that foundation, he teaches that true faith is the key to discovering one’s true self in interpersonal relationships. When he says that loving one’s fellow human being is the other meaning of loving the Creator, he is suggesting that one can reach others through the bridge of love. He emphasizes that one can bring the “other” closer through tolerance and dialogue based on his belief that anyone who achieves this is a beloved servant of God.

In his teachings and suggestions, he always reiterates that the local and global do not contradict each other. As neither one of them can be abandoned, they therefore have to be in harmony and non-exclusive. His ideas, which are fully compatible with modern life, resonated with those urban middle-class Turks who considered themselves part of the modern world. But even though they led respectful lives and professions and had no problem making a living for themselves, they were nevertheless acutely aware that their spiritual lives were not rich enough to give their lives meaning. They wanted to see moral and ethical degeneration eradicated; they wanted the sense of trust and solidarity strengthened instead of weakened even further. In addition, they were looking for a way to connect with other people who felt the same way. Much of the urban middle class began to gather around Gülen’s teachings to enrich their spiritual lives and contribute more to society.

What is Gülen’s formal and informal education?

Gülen’s only formal education is elementary school. He explains some interesting episodes regarding his own education:

“There was no school in our village in those days. They used the madrasah (school of religious education) next to the mosque as a classroom. They used to teach reading and writing to the children during the day and to the older men and women at night. They did not let me into the school the first year because I was not old enough. When I attended I still was not old enough, but I attended anyway. I attended for two or three years. One of the teachers, an ardent enemy of religion, could not stand the fact that I was praying during the breaks. So I used to climb up on one of the desks and pray there. He called me ‘mullah’ (an Islamic scholar) just because I observed my daily prayers.”

His mother Refia Hanım had a great impact upon him. It could even be said that she was his first teacher. She taught the Qur’an to the village girls during the day and to Fethullah at night. According to her, “Fethullah finished reading the entire Qur’an at the age of four, in two months. Since then he never skipped his prayers.”

Gülen recalls some of his own childhood memories:

“Sibgatullah, my brother, is three years younger than me. That means that if I was 9, he had to be around 6. So, all of the footwork was left to me. Shepherding our cows and sheep was my responsibility. I used to spend my free time reading. I do not know how I learned it, but I was able to read Ottoman Turkish fluently. I read all of my father’s books. I inherited his admiration for the Prophet and his Companions. I had almost memorized their biographies. My father, my first Arabic-language teacher, taught me some portions of the classical books Amsila and Bina. Later on, some people suggested that he should have me memorize the Qur’an. At first he hesitated, but later on he decided to send me away for that purpose with a couple of other children. I used to memorize the Qur’an whenever I had time left over from performing my chores and shepherding. Despite these distractions, I put in as much extra effort as I could. I could memorize as much as half a chapter, that is to say ten pages a day. During the summer it was difficult to find time for memorization, but I finished memorizing the entire text during the winter.”

The foundation of Gülen’s informal education was his education in Erzurum’s madrasah. At the age of fourteen and having memorized the Qur’an, His father wanted him to go to Hasankale, a nearby village, to take tajweed (refined Qur’an recitation techniques) courses with Hadji Sidki Efendi. But he had no place to stay there, and so had to walk five miles every morning to participate in the study circle. He then walked the same distance back home.

Gülen’s father was uncomfortable with this arrangement, since his son was still a child, but at the same time he did not want to deprive him of this important religious education. He therefore sent him to the religious scholar Sadi Efendi in Erzurum. His madrasah education in the Molla Mosque became the foundation of his love of learning and discovery that continues to this day.

In summary, a religious family environment and parents who did their best to provide their son with a solid religious education determined his future. Since his childhood, Gülen has looked at life through the window of faith. This perspective enabled him to dedicate his life to thinking about how the needs of modern people could be reconciled with the requirements of faith, and how this could be accomplished without breaking away from the realities and diversity of life and without fear or worry. Gülen considers every day of his life to be a continuation of his never-ending education; the world is his classroom. This perspective has become the most salient feature of his personality.

What are the primary teachings – religious, historical, political, and social – that have greatly impacted Gülen’s worldview?

“In my opinion, although a person must realize the importance of religious introspection and training one’s soul, he must also see the value of the physical sciences, literature, history, and philosophy. He should learn everything from physics to chemistry, from biology to astronomy – at least their fundamental principles. He should also read the existential philosophers and primary texts from both the East and the West, like Camus, Sartre, and Marcuse. With this aim in mind, I have kept my range of reading a little bit wider than it might have been otherwise.

“It is safe to say that my religious development came mostly from the Qur’an and Islamic sources. In order to reach the depths of Islamic civilization, I have benefited from the classics of Imam Rabbani, Ghazzali, Rumi, Abu Hanifa, and other thinkers in the fields of kalam (Islamic philosophy) and tafsir (exegesis). As for contemporary thinkers, I read Elmalili Muhammad Hamdi, Mustafa Sabri, Ahmet Hamdi Aksekili, Babanzade Ahmet Naim, İzmirli İsmail Hakkı, İsmail Fenni Ertuğrul, M. Şemseddin Günaltay, and M. Ali Ayni. These teachers and a number of others have contributed new dimensions to my accumulated knowledge.

“During one Ramadan, I and some friends studied the largest hadith (prophetic sayings) collection – the sixteen-volume Kenzu’l Ummal of Muttaki’l Hindi – from cover to cover. These volumes contain more than 46,000 hadiths. Likewise, even if not with the same intensity, I studied some important works in the fields of Islamic fiqh [jurisprudence], tafsir, tasawwuf [Sufism], and balaghat [rhetoric]. I even read some of them several times. I have loved reading since I was a kid.

“My love of reading began during my childhood with the siyar (biography) of our dear Prophet and the stories of the Companions. In later years I pursued scholarly works dealing with various intellectual and philosophical topics. In addition to the Eastern classics, on the advice of one of my superiors in the army, I read almost all of the Western classics. As I tried to get to know such Eastern masters as Rumi, Sadi, Hafiz, Molla Jami, Firdawsi, and Anwari, I also familiarized myself with the works of Shakespeare, Balzac, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Zola, Goethe, Camus, and Sartre. I also read Russell, Pushkin, Tolstoy, and some others. I researched many different subjects – from Bacon’s logic to Russell’s theoretical logic, from Pascal to Hegel’s dialectic, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to the relationship between subject and object in Picasso.

“As I read, I discovered the subtle relationships between thought and art, something in which I took great pleasure. Alongside the giants of our classical literature, like Fuzuli, Baki, Sheikh Galib and Leyla Hanım, I also read repeatedly – and with passion – the most significant writers of Turkish prose and poetry: Yahya Kemal, Necip Fazıl, Mehmet Akif Ersoy, Sezai Karakoç, Namık Kemal, Şinasi, and Tevfik Fikret.”

From his own words about the sources that shaped him, two ideas become clear:

– A person’s life does not consist of two separate compartments: the material and the spiritual. Therefore, one should have access to and benefit from both of them. This is the path to becoming aninsan-i kamil (an ideal human being).

– If a man of religion’s mental framework is limited only to religious sources, he cannot benefit from the fruits of universal thought. As a result of this deficiency, he can never be a true guide for modern people who have to deal with the complex problems of modern life.

What makes Gülen the leader of an expanding movement of modernity rather than just another religious scholar?

Gülen does not accept the title of “a opinion leader” in any form and does not apply it to himself. However, in sociological terminology, he does fit the description of a “leader of a civic society.” When asked why people gather around him and expect to be guided, Gülen replies that reasonable projects embrace all of humanity, that people consider religious rewards and seek the pleasure of God. He categorically rejects the attribute of being “a religious leader,” for:

“I am someone who tries as best as he can to practice his religion; not someone who is able to practice, but someone who is trying to practice. Because I am unable to perfectly represent the religion, I cannot be considered a cleric. Secondly, a cleric’s status as an intermediary between the people and the Creator contradicts Islamic precepts. In Islam there are no clergymen. Everyone can be pious, and from this perspective all are equal in status. Some people might be better than others only in terms of practicing the religion and in the eyes of God. But people are definitely looking for a leader or an organization in the activities to be carried out or the services performed [in order to make them sustainable and reliable], just as millions of people gather together to perform the pilgrimage, as God commands, and as many people join a congregational Friday or festival prayer. Today, some services that are falsely attributed to me are, in fact, no more than services rendered to humanity according to the circumstances of our times. These are carried out by those who comprehend the value of serving humanity. Nevertheless, they might have been inspired by me. But somehow people are looking for a leader behind this, as they do in every other case.”

Gulen, who sees himself as only the bearer of a message, states that there are tens and even hundreds of individuals who are well aware of what needs to be done for humanity. He means to say that he only caused such people to come together and develop projects. He adds:

“There are many valuable, prominent scholars. I am not fit to hold a candle to them. Despite this fact, those who seek a leader for the activities and services directed toward the people, who are pulled together by the religion and the circumstances, have assigned a role to me. Otherwise, there is neither a considerable clergyman nor a leadership displayed.”

Gulen views his fame as:

I consider fame like a poisonous honey that kills one’s soul. I hope that my Lord allows me to serve. But I do not want my service to be known, because I fear that I will apportion a share of it for my own carnal soul. This is the consequence of my special relationship with my Lord. This might not be understood by everyone, for in order to understand it one has to believe firmly in God.

How does he understand hizmet (service)?

“Ever since I was a child I have believed that the greatest service to humanity has to go through education, that all of humanity has to be embraced, that pursuing tolerance and dialog are critical, and that everyone must be accepted just as they are. I believe in being tolerant and approving of everyone, as these are necessary ingredients for preventing internal social divisions and strong barriers against the outbreak of conflict. Many people who share the same beliefs have set out to serve others in this vein.”

Gülen is believed to have thought that his beliefs and goals would engender widespread approval for the work he wanted to undertake. In his own words:

“The services accomplished have caused some people to acquire groundless fears. As those who look at the world and events through their own viewpoints tend to see everyone in their own image, they became worried. Despots, those who seek to capture power or influence for themselves, began to regard those whose activities and intentions have nothing to do with this world as a threat. These latter people do not seek power; in fact, they actually run away from it. They think only of the pleasure of God and believe the only way to attain it is by ‘serving humanity.’ Even though they are presented as a threat to the state, in fact, they really are a threat only to those who pursue their own agendas. At least they should have realized that both groups would use their power in different ways. One would use it to bring about justice, mercy, compassion, love, and serving others; the other would use it to oppress, cause trouble, divide, exploit, and hate others. However, we have nothing to do with power, for we believe that the real power in faith, worship, ethics, living for others, and serving God. Those who perceive us in other ways are making our lives, as well as the lives of others, miserable because of their own fears and worries. Since they fear that which has no reason to be feared, they worry about that which has no reason to give rise to worry. They see things that have not occurred as if they had occurred and as if they could occur. They are making their own lives miserable.”

A new social leadership typology, one that has been observed in the leadership perspective of the Gülen movement, can be understood as an effort to present a new alternative to society; to what is often called “the world, which has lost its conscience”; and to the individual who lost his capability to understand and establish relationships with others that are not based on personal interests.

According to Gülen, we need people who will combine consciousness and mind, faith and science. Societal leaders will guide these people.


Ergil, Doğu. 2012. Fethullah Gülen & The Gülen Movement in 100 Questions. New York: Blue Dome Press

Prof. Dr. Dogu Ergil has received his BA degree in Psychology and Sociology at Ankara University to be followed by an MA degree at Oklahoma University in Sociology (Social Psychology minor) and a Ph D in Development Studies, an interdisciplinary program composed of Political Science, Political Economy and Sociology, at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

He returned to Turkey to teach first at the Middle East Technical University and later at the Ankara University. He became a full professor and the chairperson of the Department of Political Behavior at the Faculty of Political Science of the latter University.

Dr. Ergil wrote twenty-two books, many of which in Turkish. He has contributed many book chapters and articles in many countries and prestigious international journals.

He has been awarded with British Council Fellowship that enabled him to be a visiting Professor at the London School of Economics, the Fulbright Fellowship that gave him the chance of being a visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies (Washington DC). Additionally he was awarded with research fellowships by the Winston Foundation for World Peace and later twice (1999-2000 and 2005-2006) by the National Endowment for Democracy (Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship). The New School for Social Research University in New York has also honored him with the renowned “University in Exile” democracy and human rights award in 2000.

Prof. Dr. Doğu Ergil is currently teaching at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Fatih University in Istanbul. Ergil has worked with several NGOs on developing more effective leadership, conflict management, and creative problem solving.

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