Women in Islam: Fethullah Gülen’s Perspective

Women in Islam: Fethullah Gülen’s Perspective

M. Sait Yavuz

The intellectual debates in Turkey on the status of women in Islam have not been different than the rest of the Islamic world. As in any Muslim intellectual circle, feminism and its critics were the topics of many debates among the Turkish intellectuals. Western feminist ideology was represented by the Turkish secular-feminists who argued that Islam, as something of an Arabic origin that repressed women by separating them as if they were secondary beings, never suited to the Turkish way of life. As Islam was considered to be the main obstacle in front of Modern Turkey, it was regarded as the main ideology that prevented Muslim Turkish women from being free individuals and expressing themselves in the public realm. In response to the secular-feminists, conservative Islamists used their conventional arguments that Islamic principles were unquestionably logical and Muslims ought to observe them fully.

Although one may consider Fethullah Gülen a proponent of ‘moderate’ Islam, Gülen opposes such a notion that there exist different Islams. He argues that there has been one true Islam, represented by the prophet Muhammad, and anything outside of that spectrum, except for scholarly interpretations that are not in open contradiction with the Qur’an and Sunnah, would fall outside the realm of authentic Islam.

Gülen’s thoughts are a fine mixture of traditionalist conservative Islam and modern interpretations. On the one hand he supports the conservative passion to preserve the core principles of Islam, but on the other he thinks that new interpretations are necessary as the conditions require. An in-depth analysis of Gülen’s thoughts would reveal that he could not be identified as only modernist, because the very term connotes a sense of lack in authenticity of the traditions. [1] For Gülen, a Muslim must question past and present; however, this should be done in a way that would contradict with neither the basic principles of Qur’an and nor Sunnah. Gülen thinks that a scholar, who intends to make certain interpretations, should have the ability to establish the necessary balance between the unchangeable (core principles) and changeable (interpretations) aspects of Islam. [2]

For Gülen, simplistic conservative approaches to Islam such as “taking the tenets of the Qur’an and Sunnah just as they are and applying them to people’s lives to solve the problems” contradicts with the core principles of Islam. He asserts that such attempts would be contrary to the universality principle of Islam which requires using certain logic to interpret the Qur’an and Sunnah with regards to the change over time: [3]

Time and conditions are important means to interpret the Qur’an. The Qur’an is like a rose that develops a new petal every passing day and continues to blossom. In order to discover its depth and obtain its jewels in its deeper layers, a new interpretation should be made at least every 25 years. [4]

Bulaç and Keleş argued that Gülen is janahayn (the dual wing), which referred to Gülen’s command on not only the Islamic sciences, sources and methodology but also the modern sciences:

Gülen is perhaps the foremost representative of janahayn…[he has 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). [5]

Gülen’s command on Western philosophies, history, literature and science is apparent through the references he draws from these disciplines. Among the authors he studied are Kant, Descartes, Sir James Jean, Shakespeare, Hugo, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Pulskin [6] who normally have never been in the reading lists of traditional Islamic scholars. His general knowledge in natural sciences allowed him to draw attention to thermo-dynamics, big-bang theory, astrophysics, astronomy, mathematics, quantum physics and biology while substantiating his arguments in his sermons. [7]

Gülen’s interpretation of Islam on certain issues is a more person-oriented way of life, which addresses the individuals rather than the community. He argues that the Qur’an teaches people to use their own judgments. This new approach does not mean that Gülen approves of the type of individualism in the liberal thought, which suggests a virtually unrestricted freedom to the individuals; rather Gülen’s person-oriented approach suggests moral restrictions on the individuals since everything, including their own bodies, are God’s sacred trusts to the people so that people are required to take good care of them. Moreover, Gülen does not approve of liberalism’s preference of the individual over the community. He regards the community as an organic body and suggests individuals regulate themselves for the well-being of the community. [8]

Gülen does not accept the argument that Muslim women should be emancipated from Islam through secularism. He argues that secularism could neither be an enlightenment project nor ‘emancipate’ the so-called suppressed people of the Muslim world since there was no place for suppression in the spirit of Islam. He describes secularism as a legal term that defines the status of the government vis-à-vis the religion; therefore, for Gülen, a state could be secular, but an individual could not. He asserts that it would be a fallacy if secularism is regarded as depriving the social and individual realm of religion; indeed, both secularism and religiosity could co-exist in a democratic setting; and the overlapped areas would be regulated through demarcating the limits of governments’ responsibilities and individual freedom. [9]

On women’s rights issues Gülen criticizes the ‘western champions of women’s rights’ although he agrees that in some parts of the Muslim world Islam has been contaminated with local customs and traditions that oppressed women. In his words “most champions of women’s rights and freedom only excite women with physical pleasure and then stab her spirit.”[10] Gulen thinks that for the sake of so-called freedom, women were used as objects of pleasure, means of entertainment, and materials for advertisement [11], which reduced ‘freedom’ to sexual liberty.

Gülen’s articulation of an ideal Muslim woman as somebody observing the religion and turning her way towards immortal values does not mean that women could not work outside their homes. He does not promote exclusion of women from the public sphere. He states that the contribution of women in certain fields is inevitable and is not banned in Islam as long as the working conditions suit women. He argues that there is no such limitation on women’s lives in Muslim communities; if so, the source of that specific practice should have been a local customary practice. [12]

Gülen discards the patriarchal judgment that men’s desire is women’s mistake. [13] To an interview question whether or not women could be administrators, Gülen responds that there is no reason why women should not be administrators; besides, in Hanafi jurisprudence, women were allowed to be judges since they would understand and make better judgments over certain matters related to female issues. [14] Gülen argues that in Islamic societies where the religion has not been contaminated with non-Islamic customs or traditions, Muslim women live a free life, and have been full participants in daily life. Using the traditional argument [15], he asserts that women engaged in businesses, led armies, prayed in the mosques together with the men, and were able to express themselves to an extend that they could even oppose the caliph in a judicial matter on women’s right to assess the value of the dowry, whereas in contemporary Europe there have been debates over whether or not women have spirits or are devils or human beings. [16]

Gülen utilizes the story of Lady Montagu, who accompanied her husband on his embassy to the Ottoman capital in early eighteenth century, as she admired the status of the Ottoman women and their roles in Muslim society:

Even the pre-modern veiled women of polygamous harems were both sexually and economically freer than their European contemporaries. When Lady Mary Wortley Montagu traveled to Turkey in the eighteenth century, she wrote that she “never saw a country where women may enjoy so much liberty, and free from all reproach as in Turkey”….. Indeed, as late as the nineteenth century, English women continued to report on the superiority of Turkish women in almost every sphere of social life, including hygiene, economics, and legal rights. [17]

None of these rights has been granted to the British women until the end of nineteenth century. It was a time when exotic images of Muslim women as depictions of harem scenes were in circulation among the British intellectuals. Lady Montagu’s admiration of the Ottoman society was an open challenge to European stereotypes of Muslim women and the English patriarchal society as the contemporary British common law denied the married women the right to own property upon marriage. [18]

On gender roles, Gülen thinks that there is no obstacle in front of women in having equal rights and responsibilities with men; however, women and men have been physically and emotionally different so that gender roles have had to suit these differences. In contrast with the conservative point of view Gülen thinks that these differences could not be used as bases for gender hierarchy. Islam does not separate men and women since both are human beings and have fundamental rights; however, in another sense, men and women are not equals, but they complement each other like two sides of a coin. Men have been physically stronger and apt to bearing hardship, while women are more compassionate, delicate and self-sacrificing. Therefore the responsibility of motherhood is given to women, so that they naturally become the first nurturers, educators, and trainers of the new generation. This makes women the first teachers of the humanity, which is a unique position bestowed upon them by God. [19]

On the issue of polygamy, Gülen thinks that although it was allowed by the Prophet Muhammad; there is no record in the Qur’an or Hadith that Islam requires Muslims to marry more than one woman as a fulfillment of a religious duty. Qur’an mentions polygamy only as permission under special circumstances, and marrying just one woman is recommended and encouraged. Therefore, Gulen does not consider marrying more than one woman as a fulfillment of a Sunnah or any religious law.[20] Instead, Gülen sees the act of ‘presenting polygamy as an Islamic way of life’ the most abominable misrepresentation of Islam since it is nothing more than a temptation to fulfill carnal desires if there is no ‘real reason’. [21] Islam, as a universal system, made polygamy possible so that no women should be left alone without protection when they are widowed, and this have helped a lot especially during the wartime, which brought misery, chaos and many hardships to the women and children. [22]

Gülen rejects the idea that Islam regarded women inferior before the law when it comes to inheritance law and testifying before the court. He argues that Muslim women had equal rights with men such as freedom of religion, expression, finance and freedom to live a decent life, and were equals before the law. The rule of two women as witnesses was issued for oral testimonies regarding the financial agreements, which was a business act usually out of most of the women’s scope in the earlier times. This rule was not effective for only the women, but also for the Bedouin, who were not accustomed to the city life and had little knowledge in financial issues. [23] The issue of inheritance was a totally different issue. It did not have anything to do with women’s inferiority; rather it was a financial decision aiming at helping male inheritors to have more means (lands etc.) to support their own families. [24]

For Gülen, veiling is compulsory for women in the Islamic tradition; however, it has never been an issue of primary importance.

There are no formal rules in Islam concerned with the way one wears one’s hair, the style of clothing or anything else related to external appearance. What is important in Islam is that followers must present an Islamic identity, interpret its spirituality, and represent in a good manner the beauty of Islam in their life. Rather than making rules on what should be worn, Islam teaches people how to be modest.

For Gulen, any kind of covering, whether it is turban, beard, or veil, are furuat, which are ‘of secondary or lower importance’, and one who did not follow the furuat does not become an infidel. [25] Veiling and wearing loose clothes [for women] are among neither the essentials of faith nor the pillars of Islam therefore; they are of secondary importance although they are compulsory for all Muslim women, and disobeying would not render anyone blasphemous. Turban, robe and beard [for men] are only details of lower importance and were not compulsory; therefore, nobody should drown into these small details. [26]


[1] Ozcan Keleş, “Promoting Human Rights Values in the Muslim World: The Case of the Gülen Movement,” Muslim World in Transition: Contributions of the Gülen Movement: International Conference Proceedings, London: Leeds Metropolitan University Press, 2007, pp. 683-708, p. 686.

[2] Ali Unal and Alphonso Williams, Advocate of Dialogue: Fethullah Gülen. Fairfax, Virginia: The Fountain, 2000, p.53

[3] Unal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue:…, p.54

[4] Unal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue:…, p.52

[5] Ali Bulaç, “The Most Recent Reviewer in the ‘Ulema Tradition: The Intellectual ‘Ali, Fethullah Gülen,” Robert A. Hunt & Yüksel A. Aslandoğan (Eds) Muslim Citizens of the Globalized World. Somerset, NJ: The Light, Inc & IID Press, 2006, pp. 145-164,p.101

[6] Keleş, “Promoting Human Rights…,” p.685

[7] Keleş, “Promoting Human Rights…,” p.686

[8] Ramazan Kılınç, “The Patterns of Interaction between Islam and Liberalism: The case if the Gülen Movement,” Muslim World in Transition: Contributions of the Gülen Movement: International Conference Proceedings, London: Leeds Metropolitan University Press, 2007, p.136

[9] Unal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue:…, p.152

[10] Unal and Williams Advocate of Dialogue:…, p.137

[11] Unal and Williams Advocate of Dialogue:…, p.137

[12] Bernadette Andrea, “Women and Their Rights: Fethullah Gülen’s Gloss On Lady Montagu’s “Embassy” to the Ottoman Empire,” Robert A. Hunt & Yüksel A. Aslandoğan (Eds) Muslim Citizens of the Globalized World. Somerset, NJ: The Light, Inc & IID Press, 2006, pp. 145-164, p. 154

[13] Andrea, “Women and Their Rights:…”p.149.

[14] Unal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue:…, p.139

[15] The traditional argument is composed of stories depicting Muslim women as commanders, businessmen, scholars and consultants. See also Majid 354, 356 & Ahmed 689

[16] Unal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue:…, p.139

[17] Anouar Majid, “The Politics of Feminism in Islam,” Signs 23, no. 2 (Winter 1998): pp. 335-6

[18] Andrea, “Women and Their Rights:..,” pp. 145 & 158

[19] Andrea, “Women and Their Rights:..,”. pp. 152., Unal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue:…, p.136-138

[20] Unal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue:…, p.144

[21] Unal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue:…, p.142

[22] Unal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue:…, p.145

[23] Zeki Saritoprak and Ali Unal, “An Interview with Fethullah Gülen” The Muslim World, Special Edition, (Hartford, Conn: Published by the Duncan Black Macdonald Center at the Hartford Seminary Foundation). p. 464

[24] Gulen’s Sermons

[25] Unal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue:…, pp. 62-63

[26] Unal and Williams, Advocate of Dialogue:…, p.140


Summary from the article “Women in Islam: Muslim Perspectives and Fethullah Gülen,” which was presented in the conference, “Islam In The Age of Global Challenges: Alternative Perspectives of The Gülen Movement” held on November 14-15, 2008 at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. Click here to read full article.

M. Sait Yavuz received a B.A. degree in Political Science from Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey, an M.A. in History from Stanford University, and is currently a PhD candidate in History at the University of Maryland, College Park. Mr. Yavuz is currently an adjunct faculty of history and religious studies at the University of Houston.

Related Articles

Fethullah Gülen on Jihad

Fethullah Gülen on Jihad

Basically the lesser jihad is to perform established religious duties while the greater one is to do them in a sincere and conscious manner. It is difficult to…

Gülen’s Holistic Approach to Education

Gülen’s Holistic Approach to Education

Yuksel A. Aslandogan, Muhammed Cetin One way to evaluate Gülen’s educational philosophy and its appeal for diverse societies from Turkey to South Africa, and from the Philippines to…