Fethullah Gülen’s “man of action”, Islamic ethics and secular morals

Fabio Vicini*

Gülen says the ideal person taking part in his project must be aksiyon insani (man of action). This person is one who must spend most of his time working in order to turn the world into a paradise. Indeed, according to the religious leader a “good Muslim” should be continuously engaged in accomplishing good deeds. This is why he always appeals to people to hurry up in order to accomplish actions that can contribute to the common good. For example, there are statements where Gülen says that people who perform hizmet sleep three hours, reserve one or two hours for other necessities and devote the rest of the time to hizmet (Agai 2003:61).

Now consider this quotation:

Man of service must, for the sake of the cause he has given his heart to, be resolved to cross over seas of “pus and blood”. […] He knows himself first of all to be responsible and answerable for work left undone. He has to be considerate and fair-minded to everyone who comes to his aid and support the truth. He is extraordinarily resolved and hopeful even when his institutions have been destroyed, his plans upset and his forces put to rout. He is moderate and tolerant when he has taken wing anew and soared to the summits and so rational and sagacious that he admits in advance that this path is very steep. So zealous, persevering and confident that he can pass through all the pits of hell that he may encounter on his way. So faithful to the cause to which he has devoted his life that, deeply in love with it, he can sacrifice his life and all that he loves for its sake. So sincere and humble that he will never bring to mind all that he has accomplished (1).

According to these words, only people who have awareness of the problems of society and of how the world is progressing feel the need of being continuously engaged in work. The followers’ will to change the present situation must derive from such awareness. This view is perfectly in tone with Gülen’s ideals of education. Only people whose minds have been enlightened by science and whose motivation derives from faith are able to realize what problems afflict society. Only so moulded people are motivated to act in order to resolve such problems.

Surely awareness here recalls for a particular connection between reason and action. Indeed individuals are requested to rationalize their daily life in order to better accomplish the assigned duty. This is why different authors have affirmed that the activities of Gülen’s followers resemble the ideal type of Max Weber’s “inner-worldly asceticism” (Özdalga 2000, Agai 2003). According to Weber, in this typology of asceticism “the world is presented to the religious virtuoso as the assigned duty. The ascetic’s task is to transform the world in accordance with her/his ascetic ideals.” Again, “[…] the order of the world in which the ascetic is situated becomes for her/him a ‘vocation’ which s/he must ‘fulfill’ rationally” (Weber 1980:329, quoted in Agai 2003:60).

However, I argue Gülen does not simply prescribe or order the accomplishment of specific actions to his followers. That is, the believer’s task is not solely to act in order to follow a determined aim. Awareness requires something more than a simple submissiveness. Indeed Gülen asks his followers to undertake the burden of moral responsibility for the problems of contemporary society. To be a “good Muslim” does not consist simply in a rationalistic accomplishment of a prescribed path. According to him, Islamically-oriented work must be a consequence of both rational thinking and an Islamic inner sense of ethics. This is why individuals have to feel responsible for work they have left undone. Indeed to sacrifice most of one’s proper time in work and to continuously strive in action to respond to a sense of responsibility and culpability for the problems of the world.

I argue it is exactly here that Gülen links his Islamic ethics to secular morals. To explain this point better I will draw your attention to the connection Gülen usually establishes between the sense of responsibility and endless activism. Indeed I think the way Gülen conceives responsibility has a lot in common with secular theories about the subject and its agency.

In Western philosophical tradition a “moral agent” is usually defined as somebody that can be held responsible – and consequently credited or blamed – for his decisions and actions. Central to this definition is the notion of responsibility and in particular responsibility toward an authority. This concept implies not only an idea of a person as “a single subject with a continuous consciousness in a single body” (2) and modern scientific ideas about objective knowledge and causality etc., but – what interests us more – the inner capability of feeling guilty for having disobeyed the Law (Asad 2003). In this theory, morality is considered as the intellectual human ability people must have to realize if their actions agree with a specific set of outer-imposed rules and to feel guilty if they are not.

In a similar way according to Gülen, men of action must be conscious of their duties and have to accomplish them in order not to be blamed, by God in the hereafter and by their conscience immediately. Following secular conceptualization of morality Gülen argues activism is a direct consequence of an inner sense of responsibility that faithful people must interiorize in order to be “good Muslims”. This conceptualization implies that action derives from a moral choice individuals autonomously make on the basis of the awareness they have obtained through to education.

Thus activism is the outcome of choices of educated people who are conscious of the contemporary world’s evil aspects thanks to reasoned and faithful thinking. Having embodied through education such a sense of responsibility, morally-guided people are urged to take charge of the world’s moral corruption and act in order to overcome it.

By saying this I am not arguing disciplinary aspects disappear from Gülen’s view on Islam. Firstly, because Gülen is a strenuous defender of Islamic pillars and the need to accomplish them. Adherents to the movement – overall people who aim at becoming educators – perform namaz five times per day and often even perform the meritorious one during the night (3). Secondly, volunteers of the movement, by endlessly engaging in activism, really follow a very disciplined life.

At the same time I am not arguing Gülen’s proposal is essentially “secular”. Instead, the path he prescribes maintains its transcendental character at the moment it is connected to human salvation. However the assimilation of Islam to a particular ethos renders Gülen’s path something very similar to the philosophical concept of moral agency. This aspect differentiates this path from others in the Muslim World.

Source: Excerpted from Gülen’s Rethinking of Islamic Pattern and Its Socio-Political Effects by Fabio Vicini. This paper was presented at the conference titled “Muslim world in transition: Contributions of the Gulen Movement”, 25-27 October 2007, London

Click here to visit the conference web page.

Fabio Vicini (MA in anthropology, University of Milano-Bicocca, Milan, 2006 on the Gülen movement; BA in social sciences, University of Modena e Reggio Emilia, Modena, 2003): On the editorial board of ACHAB, Rivista Italiana di Antropologia. Research interests: anthropology of Islam, with a focus on human agency, ethics and emotions; and, secondarily, anthropology of secularism in Ottoman and Turkish history.


1- Gülen Fethullah, Criteria or the Lights of the Way – Vol. 1.

2- T. Asad here refers to Locke’s definition of a person as a “forensic term, appropriating actions and their merit, and so belongs only to intelligent agents, capable of law, and happiness, and misery. This personality extends itself beyond present existence to what is past, only by consciousness, whereby it becomes concerned and accountable, owns and imputes to itself past actions, just upon the same ground and for the same reason as it does the present” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book Two, Essay XXVII, Section 26) in Asad T. 2003:74:n.14.

3- See Fabio Vicini, Essere Sufi nel movimento neo-Nur di Fethullah Gülen, M.A. Thesis at University of Milano-Bicocca

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