Gülen’s perception of humanism is at the heart of his thought, so much so that it serves as the reason for the existence and activities of the Gülen movement. My attempt here is to lay bare some constructional and distinctive characteristics of Gülen’s humanism.
As a leading contemporary Islamic theologian, Gülen proposes his own vision of humanism to the globalized humanity today. Like any other Muslim, he finds the meaning of humanity and the value of humanism in the Qur’an and the Prophet’s life. Unlike a fanatical dogmatic theology that tends to devalue humanity in favor of God’s omnipotence, Gülen regards humanity, much like the Islamic spiritual tradition known as Sufism, as the most valuable being on the planet who carries all the miraculous characteristics and the essence of creation. Most profoundly, humanity is a creature endowed with the potential to reflect the nature of Divine Existence and the attributes of the Divine Names and thus to attain its perfection. In Gülen’s words:
Humans, the greatest mirror of the names, attributes, and deeds of God, are a shining mirror, a marvelous fruit of life, a source for the whole universe, a sea that appears to be a tiny drop, a sun formed as a humble seed, a great melody in spite of their insignificant physical positions, and the source for existence all contained within a small body. Humans carry a holy secret that makes them equal to the entire universe with all their wealth of character; a wealth that can be developed to excellence. (1)
As the greatest divine mirror, Gülen asserts, “in truth and in God’s sight, humanity is greater than the universe.” This conviction is linked to his reasoning toward the equality of all human beings in terms of divinity. As it goes, God’s mercy does not discriminate. It allows every human being equally to reflect His manifestations, and therefore, all human beings, irrespective of religion, race, wealth and social status, are equal in their capacity and capability to mirror the Divine Light.
According to Gülen, love is the foremost among the human reflections of Divine Existence, and humanity is His most polished mirror and object of His own love. It is love that enables one to truly transform his/her potentiality into reality, and because it protects one from hate and other vices, only by love can humanism be truly realized. In this context, Gülen identifies love with the way of the Prophets that leads one to the hearts of people and to the ultimate goal, God’s pleasure. And on this basis, he defines humanism as a doctrine of love and humanity.
Love springs from one’s heart (kalb in Turkish and qalb in Arabic). Gülen specifically refers to the spiritual heart as an inner faculty that feels and reflects God’s compassion (Rahman) and mercy (Rahim) and emits such love akin to a ‘polished mirror.’ This heart of love has “another heart,” namely “spiritual intellect.” Spiritual intellect is an inner mechanism that enables one to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, guiding his/her reason that “can be swayed by carnal appetites, personal desires, biases and interests, and by such emotions as anger and rancor.” Love, the owner of one’s heart, encompasses, guides and directs one’s spiritual intellect toward divinity.
To actualize the moral function of spiritual intellect with regard to love, spiritual practices are essential. Particularly, Gülen points out that in spite of its sacred nature, the heart can be simultaneously “a means by which satanic and carnal temptations and vices can enter.” Just as a mirror can become blurred, so too the heart, and thus it needs to be continually cleansed and polished. In this regard, Gülen acknowledges and considers Sufism as the spiritual and practical way to cleanse one’s heart for its proper function of reflecting love.
Sufism as basis of Gülen’s Humanism
For Gülen, Sufism, understood as Islamic spirituality from the examples of the Prophet’s life, “leads people to perfection or enables them to reacquire their primordial angelic state,” and prevents them from heedlessly falling into the lowest levels from the best pattern (ahsani taqwim) that God created in order to preserve His Divine Names and Attributes. In order to acquire angelic qualities, one should be free from his/her ego (nafs), the source of human vices and weaknesses. Sufism takes the training of the ego as its primary discipline, and for this to occur, Sufi tradition has developed diverse spiritual practices. Gülen elaborately details various spiritual practices in his comprehensive study of Sufi terminology, The Emerald Hills of the Heart, to show the ways the heart is oriented toward love for humanity and divinity. Many of his writings, including The Emerald Hills of the Heart, refer to how this was accomplished by great Sufi saints like Jalal al-Din Rumi, Yunus Emre, Ahmad Sirhindi and Khalid al-Baghdadi. Gülen directs the readers to those who are appreciated not simply for their respective spiritual practices, but more as heroes or spiritual giants of love, tolerance and humanism, who demonstrate how “love is the ultimate station of the spiritual journey.” This appreciation eventually leads Gülen to define Islam as “a religion of forgiveness, pardon, and tolerance,” and convinces him:
If we can spread globally the Islamic understanding of such heroes of love as Niyazi Misri, Yunus Emre, and Mawlana Rumi, and if we can extend their messages of love, dialogue, and tolerance to people who are thirsty for this message, everyone will run toward the embrace of love, peace, and tolerance that we represent. (2)
Because Gülen appreciates the Sufis, their love-based humanism naturally dominates his spiritual consciousness, and informs his idea of humanism. However, as the above phrase illustrates, Gülen does not simply repeat the humanistic ideas of the Sufis, but goes further in attempting to retrieve it for the contemporary world.
To address the contemporary world, Gülen makes Sufi humanism pertinent to today’s problems, ones that differ markedly from those of the past. He rethinks existing Sufi ways and proposes his own “Another Way of Journeying and Initiation,” which proceeds from one’s awareness of poverty toward actualization of love. For Gülen, by being conscious of one’s poverty before God, one feels an absolute dependence on Him, thereby becoming absolutely rich and no longer feeling any need. With this degree of richness, one feels “as if he or she has found a credit card that is valid everywhere.” In Gülen’s conviction, this is the best spiritual way to realize love especially against the backdrop of the contemporary, materialist world. According to him, one’s awareness of poverty and nothingness before God leads him/her to be humble. In one’s relationship with all existence, living or non-living, he/she “is to be loving and tolerant toward everyone, to see the universe as a cradle of brotherhood/sisterhood.” Those who are in this stage “love and embrace everything, repel hostilities with love, and evil with good,” “thinking that the road that they are to follow is the road of not showing resentment, but rather that of patience and tolerance.” At last, one becomes a person of peace and spiritual vision, for whom there is no difference whether good comes from friends or evil from enemies.
Thus, love presupposes its reflection and perfection in society. Gülen stresses that the spiritual awareness and related practice of “impotence, poverty and nothingness” should not be confined within the sphere of the individual but must be extended to one’s social relationships. This sociality eventually involves taking action. From the perspective of Gülen’s ideal concept of “man of action and thought” (aksiyon ve düşünce insanı), any spiritual experience and exercise is completed by taking action in society. This action in society is in turn vitalized by love.
From Humanism to Dialogue, from Dialogue to Service for Humanity
This understanding of active love in society shapes Gülen’s humanism and provides the basis for dialogue. To Gülen, dialogue is an activity of forming a bond between two or more people. To form such a bond means to position human beings at the axis of dialogue. Therefore, dialogue in a true sense is a sublimation and pragmatic extension of humanism, which can be only accomplished by mutual respect, love and tolerance. In this sense, Gülen underlines dialogue as the solution to problems that the contemporary human beings face individually and communally.
Gülen argues that the essential problem today is the loss of true humanism. This loss has caused hatred and enmity to be widespread, closed the road leading to understanding and tolerance, and generated many “beasts who have lost their humanity.” Gülen attributes the loss of true humanism to the rise of excessive materialism. Although there are few if any material shortages in the world, there exists an inequitable distribution that sharply separates the poor from the rich, and this problem originates from the self-egoism of the material-centric mind. This diagnosis convinced Gülen that the only way to disentangle the real and critical danger to human species is to revitalize humanism of love and tolerance, and to propose dialogue as the way to recover our humanity.
In this regard, Gülen speaks of hizmet, the core value in Gülen’s thought and the identity of the Gülen movement. In his view, hizmet denotes “service for humanity,” which must be pursued as an ultimate ideal both individually and communally. As “service for humanity,” hizmet can best be performed by people indifferent to self-centered worldly success. Accordingly, to do hizmet or service to humanity is by no means an easy task. Gülen explains Suffering (chila) in this way:
Suffering in this sense becomes, beyond our own spiritual progress, the dedication of our lives to the happiness of others in both worlds and living for others. In other words, we should seek our spiritual progress in the happiness of others. This is the most advisable and the best approved kind of suffering: that is, we die and are revived a few times a day for the guidance and happiness of others, we feel any fire raging in another heart also in our own heart, and we feel the suffering of all people in our spirits. (3)
To this extent, hizmet for Gülen is to seek one’s spirituality in, with and for the happiness of others. This is part and parcel of Gülen’s humanistic approach to humanity.
(1) Fethullah Gülen, The Statue of Our Souls: Revival in Islamic Thought and Activism (New Jersey: The Light Inc., 2005), 112.
(2) Fethullah Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, 60-61.
(3) Fethullah Gülen, The Emerald Hills of the Heart 2, 235.
Borrowed from the article “Humanism in Islam and East Asia: Gülen’s Vision in Dialogue with East Asian Religious Cultures” by Heon Kim in the book “The Gulen Hizmet Movement and its Transnational Activities: Case Studies of Altruistic Activism in Contemporary Islam,” edited by Sophia Pandya and Nancy Gallagher, BrownWalker Press, 2012, pages 56-60.
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