Fethullah Gulen as a Preacher


In his religious study circles, Fethullah Gulen would focus more on the love and attributes of God, the wisdom of the pillars of Islam, faith, and the Sunnah (practices and sayings) of the prophet Muhammad.

Gulen’s discourse was distinguished by his depth of knowledge and eloquence. His sermons were well-structured and systematic presentations that would extend over many months.

Working in Izmir, Turkey, was the turning point in Gulen’s career, as the city would be the cradle for the movement that crystallized around his discourse and activism. He maintained his ascetic way of life. He found only a couple of hours a day to sleep because of his daily commitments of reading, preaching, teaching, giving lectures and seminars, and meeting with community members. He attracted the attention of learned citizens, including the academic community and college students, as well as common people.

Gulen’s discourse was distinguished by his depth of knowledge, sensitivity and stellar eloquence. His topics ranged from religious practices to social justice, from child education to naturalism. His sermons were well structured, and the systematic presentation of some topics would extend over many months, which was uncommon at that time. He also expanded the function of the mosque by launching a Q & A series in which he responded to people’s concerns and curiosities, including those regarding the challenges of modern times.

In his endeavors, Gulen especially aimed at urging the younger generation to harmonize intellectual enlightenment with virtuous spirituality, and to serve fellow humans altruistically. During the years of political turmoil in Turkey, he witnessed many young Turks’ attraction to extremist ideologies via the violent polarization of socialism and nationalism. He strove to inspire the Turkish youth and lead them toward an apolitical way of service to society, based on a peaceful life-style.

Gulen traveled to numerous cities and towns across Turkey to give sermons in mosques and speeches at gatherings in various places, including theatres and even coffee houses. His sermons and speeches were recorded on tape, distributed by volunteers all around the country, and enthusiastically embraced. In his thirties, Gulen was already one of the few preachers recognized nationwide.

Fethullah Gulen as a pious, dedicated Muslim

Fethullah Gulen is a dedicated, pious Muslim. What lie under his idealism and activism are his piety and personal spiritual-prayer that he has pursed since early childhood. He devoted his life to bringing peace to the world. We can only understand Gulen best, if we understand his piety and prayer life.

Dr. Salih Yucel spent eight days by his side as an observer in order to better understand Fethullah Gulen and his spiritual practices. During this period, he had a chance to observe his daily life and meet some of his students and close friends, including Professor Suat Yildirim, former Dean of the School of Divinity in Sakarya, Turkey. Below is summary of a section from Dr. Yucel’s article.

Observing Fethullah Gulen’s Spiritual Practices

Fethullah Gulen’s schedule is based on daily salat (obligatory prayer), which is always performed in congregation on time. He would divide his day into the following activities: an hour before dawn, he would get up, pray tahajjud (a supererogatory prayer performed before dawn, waking up at night), read the Qur’an, supplicate in the way of the prophet Muhammad, and make awrad and dhikr (remembrance of God), which includes reciting the Names of God.

After every obligatory prayer, he would make supplication for those who requested that he pray for them. Then, he would perform Morning Prayer in congregation. After prayer, he would again make awrad and dhikr for fifteen to twenty minutes, followed by recitation of the end of chapter Al-Hashr. He would converse with visitors for a few minutes before his teaching session would begin.

He prays, teaches, reads, writes and prays again and again

The study period would last approximately an hour. Following that, he would have breakfast with those around him. After breakfast, he would return to his room to rest until mid-day. I asked those around him what does he do during his free time. I was told that Fethullah Gulen spent his time taking a short nap, performing ishraq supererogatory prayer, reading different books, writing essays about portions of his books or poetry, and contemplating the activities of his movement. About two hours before Noon Prayer, he teaches tafsir (commentary of Qur’an), hadiths, fiqh (jurisprudence) and aqidah (theology and history of Islam) to selected students who graduated from divinity schools. The study circle is similar to the traditionalists’ way, during which students would sit on the ground, but using modern technology such as computers and projector.

Around noon, he would leave his room and watch the news for fifteen to twenty minutes. He would converse with those around him for half an hour. He would prepare for Noon Prayer and pray in congregation. After performing Noon Prayer, Fethullah Gulen would make awrad and dhikr for at least twenty minutes. While having lunch with others, he would answer questions from his audience about religion, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, economics, and education. I noticed that he would hesitate to respond to political questions. Sometimes, he would ask those around him about their family or profession and, occasionally, make comments. He would give special attention to the elderly and young children.

After conversation, he would return to his room to read books or prepare his future own publications; at times, he would invite individuals to discuss their requests further with him. He would then pray Afternoon Prayer in congregation and make awrad and dhikr. There would be another short question and answer session, lasting about half an hour. He would then walk on the treadmill in his room for forty minutes. While on the treadmill, he would make dhikr.

After the congregational Evening Prayer, he might or might not eat with others. After the congregational Night Prayer, he would return to his room and continue his usual activities of reading, writing, supplicating, and dhikr until 11:00 p.m. Sometimes, he would speak privately with visitors after Night Prayer.

What does he teach?

In his religious study circles, Fethullah Gulen would focus more on the love and attributes of God, the wisdom of the pillars of Islam, faith, and the Sunnah (practices and sayings) of the prophet Muhammad. In addition, Fethullah Gulen would explain the details of inner purification, education, and criteria and core principles for the Hizmet (serving the community). Key concepts of Sufism, such as love, taqwa (piety), qalb (heart), tawba (repentance) zuhd (asceticism,) muraqaba (self-supervision), ikhlas (sincerity), istiqama (straightforwardness), ibadah (worship), tawakkul (reliance upon God), tawadu (humility), shukr (thankfulness), sabr (patience), ihsan (perfect goodness), and ma’rifa (gnosis-knowledge of God) are studied within the group. These deeply spiritual talks could be intensely emotional and there were many times when Fethullah Gulen would weep, greatly impacting his audience and causing them to weep with him.

A seclusive life but not away from humanity’s problems

Fethullah Gulen leads a life of seclusion. He has three illnesses: hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. Because of this, he has dietary restrictions and is under a doctor’s supervision all day. In the last nine years, he has left his relative’s residence, located in a small town in Pennsylvania, only to go to the hospital. In an interview with a reporter from Turkey, Fethullah Gulen said that in the last five years, (now more than ten years) he had only stepped out onto his balcony a few times. If the weather were nice, he would sometimes go out to the trellis and have a cup of coffee or tea there.

Fethullah Gulen’s decade of seclusion is not like that of a mystic in the mountains. He follows the paths of Imam Ghazzali (1058-1111), Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), and Said Nursi (1887-1960), who used their withdrawal as an opportunity to be intellectually productive and spiritually proactive. Fethullah Gulen chooses to place his full focus and energy on his inner life through increased worship and scholarship. Other factors, such as a large number of visitors and Fethullah Gulen’s health, necessitate seclusion. His withdrawal from worldly affairs, however, is not withdrawal from the world. He discourages complete withdrawal from the world, which he views as dar al-hizmet (the country of service to humanity. He continues to author books and articles, and provides requested guidance and consultation to his visitors, keeping in mind the current spiritual, sociopolitical, and economic conditions.

Professor Yildirim provided the following information about Fethullah Gulen’s dedication:

I have known Fethullah Gulen since he was an imam in Edirne at the beginning of 1959. He is very intellectual and devoted to education. He read Eastern and Western classics. This is Fethullah Gulen’s defining characteristic that set him apart from the contemporary imams and religious leaders. With a greater part of his salary, he would buy books and journals, read them, and then give them to others to read.

He would spend a portion of his time daily in Edirne’s library, where he would read old history books. He had and still has an ascetic life; he would eat little, sleep only a few hours, and spent a great part of his day in worship.

One of the turning points in his life was meeting with one of Said Nursi’s (1877-1960) disciples who guided him to read Risal-i Nur. Fethullah Gulen was inspired by the deep spiritual life of Nursi and golden rules of serving humanity and then he would apply them as principles of hizmet, serving the community. His greatest goal and achievement was to educate the younger generation in both secular and religious sciences, in order to solve their problems of ignorance, and prevent them from spiritual diseases.

Yildirim added that Fethullah Gulen has been strongly committed to this goal as one of the major purpose of his life. Dr. Ismail Buyukcelebi, one of the close companions of Fethullah Gulen for almost forty years, observed:

I have been with Fethullah Gulen since middle school. He used to preach in Izmir and teach my peers and I at Kestane Pazari Qur’anic boarding school. He would not only teach us, but also mentored us. He himself would live in a closet-sized room next the school building. He lived a very simple life and spent most of his salary providing for the poor students. He would spend his efforts in worship and education and avoid meaningless or fruitless activities and politics.

Fethullah Gulen would not only speak at mosques, but he would also speak at coffee houses, universities, and other institutions. Unlike other preachers, Fethullah Gulen would focus on science and religion, social problems, and intellectualism. His inspirational speeches and intellectual approach attracted many university students, the middle class business community, and congregations in the mosques. He used his influence to encourage individuals to open dormitories, college preparation courses, open schools, start media and publishing companies, and build community centers.

Despite pressure from his mother and close friends, Fethullah Gulen never married. When asked about marriage, he answered as Said Nursi (1878-1960) answered, “The suffering of the Islamic community is more than enough. I haven’t found time to think of myself”.

He lives a sufi life but he is not a sufi leader

Although Fethullah Gulen never proclaimed himself a Sufi leader, the methodology he uses is similar to the methods used by individuals traveling along the Sufi path. Many great Sufis were trained in the tekke, the Sufi centers, by serving others, cleaning latrines, and cooking. During my visit, I observed Fethullah Gulen’s students doing the same acts as Sufi students.

Imitating the great Sufi leaders in the past, Fethullah Gulen often critiques his nafs (carnal soul) like Qushayri (d.1074), weeps like al-Bistami (804-874), has tolerance towards others like Rumi (1207-1273), abandons the world by heart like Naqshi, and asks his followers to serve their community till death, like Al-Hujwiri (d.1077) and Nursi (1887-1960).

Criteria to be his student

Fethullah Gulen’s criteria for accepting students are unlike those of the Sufi practice. He expects that his students will demonstrate a curiosity to learn, a desire to serve people, a degree of patience, and will practice basic Islamic principles. In order to join the study circle, a person must also know advanced Arabic; but this is not essential for being one of his followers. He does not practice a master-student relationship with his students. Yet he does ask his followers to live an ascetic lifestyle, zuhd, by fasting twice a week, eating less, sleeping fewer hours, praying supererogatory prayers, reading Qur’an, making dua (supplication), following a rigorous course of study, and making special dhikr (invocation of the names of God).

Fethullah Gulen’s Aim

Fethullah Gulen also places emphasis on the heart, qalb. By this term, he does not mean the physical organ, but the spiritual one:

“The heart that is the place of faith and the mirror of God”

He quotes from the hadiths of the prophet Muhammad: “God does not look at your appearance, but he looks at your heart” (Muslim).

“There is a part in the body that when it becomes good, the whole body becomes good, and when it becomes bad, the whole body becomes bad. That part is the heart”

As found in other Sufi teachings, it is said that if a person’s heart is not clean, that person cannot live an ascetic lifestyle. He quotes from one of the great Sufis, Ibrahim Haqqi (1703-1780): “The heart is the home of God; purify it from whatever is other than Him, so that the All-Merciful may descend into His palace at night”. Fethullah Gulen further states,

“A heart full of love of God cannot harbor enmity or hatred towards others”

While Fethullah Gulen is far from establishing a Sufi order, his aim is to revive and combine the activism of the prophet Muhammad and his companions, the asceticism of the first generation Sufis, and the Sufi terminological knowledge and consciousness of the later Sufi scholars. At a time when the gap between Sufis and their major critique salafis increase, Fethullah Gulen’s main goal is to reestablish Sufism on the basis of the Qur’an and Sunna.

Source: This article was summarized from “Fethullah Gulen: Spiritual Leader in a Global Islamic Context” by Dr. Salih Yücel of Monash University, Melbourne, Australia and original article may be found on Journal of Religion and Society’s web site at http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/toc/2010.html