Fethullah Gülen was born in 1941 in a small farming village near Erzurum in eastern Turkey. Ezurum was known to be culturally conservative and to have a very pious population. Although there were few opportunities for a general secular education for Turkish people at this time, Mr. Gülen’s parents sent him to the nearest state primary school for three years. When he completed his primary years, his father, an imam, was assigned by the state to a mosque in another town where there were no secondary schools. Mr. Gülen, therefore, was forced to abandon his formal schooling in the middle of his elementary school years and began receiving an informal education, primarily from his father.
As a small child, his grandmother was the greatest influence on him. He remembers her with love:
“I grasped my grandmother even before my father and mother. I know her. Her quietness and depth, like calm seas, affected me greatly. I saw faith and communication with Allah in her. Maybe she had laughed before, she was a smiling woman, but I never saw her laugh loudly”.
Mr. Gülen’s father, from whom he learned basic elements of Islam some Arabic and Persian, was a scholar as well as an imam. Mr. Gülen remembers him as a person who enjoyed reading books and constantly read the Qur’an, meditated daily on Prophet Muhammad and his Companions and recited poetry. He instilled this love of learning and love for the Prophet and his companions in his son. In Gulen’s words:
“He lived a careful life. He was very careful in observing his prayers. His eyes were teary too. He never wasted his time. When he came home from the fields, he used to open up a book and read until dinner was ready, with his moccasins on his feet… My father was a person who filled up his time with auspicious and abundant things and a person who attached importance to thinking. He was opposed to living an empty life. He was an eager man. He had learned how to read and write through his own efforts… Those times were times when Turkish culture had been forgotten and left in the wilderness in some places. There is almost no perfectly raised person from that era… My dad learned Arabic and Persian in two years and improved his knowledge. He was very interested in knowledge and his situation had a deep impact on me. Knowing what he went through in that age for the sake of knowledge has made me more mature”.
Mr. Gülen describes his early childhood home as a “guesthouse for all knowledgeable and spiritually evolved people in the region.” His father especially welcomed scholars into his home with whom he could discuss religious issues. In Mr. Gülen’s words,
“Guests, especially scholars, were frequent in our house. We paid great attention to host them. During my childhood and youth, I never sat with my peers or age group; instead, I was always with elder people and listened to them talk about things of mind and heart.”
Because of this early contact with scholars and religious thinkers, Mr. Gülen was raised in a circle of people who were constantly exploring spirituality and its place in the modernizing world.
Mr. Gülen’s mother, who secretly taught the Qur’an to the girls of the village, also instructed him as did his grandfather who was one of his early heroes. A decade earlier, Ataturk and the Kemalist government had established the six Kemalist principles, including nationalism and secularism. Although mosques and prayer were allowed by the secularist government at this time in Turkish history, other forms of religious instruction and practice had been banned. Nevertheless, Mr. Gülen’s parents, like many other Turkish people, continued in the Turkish Islamic tradition to make sure that he learned the Qur’an and basic religious practices, including prayer. Gülen talks about his mother’s impact on him as follows:
“My first Qur’an teacher was my mother. According to her, she taught me how to read the Qur’an when I was four years old. She says that I read it from cover to cover in one month; I don’t remember that I read it… Since it was illegal to teach the Qur’an at that time, my mother would wake me up at midnight and teach the Qur’an to me. My mother had taught the Qur’an to all the women and girls of the village…
I was nine or ten. I was completing my memorization of the Qur’an and, at the same time, I used to help my mother. I used to help her make dough, cook, and wash the dishes and clothes. Of course she still had a lot left to do. She also milked the sheep and cows. For this reason, my mother’s life was a hardship on the whole. Despite all this, she struggled to raise us…”
Although Gülen received no formal elementary school education in his village, he completed those grades by taking an exam in Erzurum. During this time, he lost his grandparents, whom he loved and learned from very much. Gülen recalls,
“The world collapsed over me. I was traumatized. After my classes ended, I hit the road. Of course, I couldn’t make it to their funeral. I cried for days. I prayed day and night saying ‘My God! Please kill me too, so I can return to my grandparents.’ I was totally unable to accept their deaths.
The reason I was so traumatized is because the members of our family had very strong ties to each other. This strong bond was present between siblings too. For example, from the day I left for Edirne, my brother Mesih didn’t speak a word. And this went on until I returned from the army on leave. Four years had gone by when I returned to Erzurum”.
Gülen then continued his education according to the traditions of Sufism and religion. As Gülen remembers,
“Sir Sadi was teaching at the Erzurum Kursunlu Mosque school. This school is a small one with a wooden ceiling. Five or six people stayed in a nearly two-rug-sized place. My dad had left me there for the first time. I was holding a small chest in my arms, and that was all the stuff I had.
We had a gas stove. We used to prepare and eat our dinner where we slept. Those who had the opportunity would go to the Kirik Cesme Baths and bathe when necessary. They would give tickets to some poor students there, who would use those tickets. Some rich people paid for them.
When there weren’t any tickets, there would be a lot of hardship. I am one of those people who went through these hardships. I took showers in the toilets on those cold winter days… I used to pay a lot of attention to my attire too. I used to wear clean and somewhat luxurious clothes for those days. I used to starve for days, but nobody ever saw me wearing un-ironed pants or unpolished shoes. When I couldn’t find an iron, I used to put my pants under the bed and the weight would make them look as if they had been ironed.
Sometimes my friends would find my behavior strange. They couldn’t reconcile my being so lively, so energetic, so extroverted and fussy about my attire with my being so involved in religion. One of my religious-school mates was angered by my wearing ironed pants, and once told me these words I cannot forget: ‘My friend, why don’t you be a little more religious!’ I still cannot understand the connection between wearing ironed pants and being [less] religious…”
Another influential teacher in his early years was Sheikh Muhammed Lutfi Efendi, a Sufi teacher. He was a person who had successfully combined the element of mind with straight thinking and had achieved the marriage of heart and mind, which very few people manage. It was from him and other Sufi masters that Mr. Gülen was introduced to the writings of Said Nursi (1876-1960), a preacher who taught that Muslims should not reject modernity, but find inspiration in the sacred texts to engage with it. Nursi had developed ideas of a modern Islam that insisted on the necessity of a significant role for religious beliefs in public life while embracing simultaneously scientific and technological developments. Nursi’s writings reinterpret the Qur’an in light of modern science and rationality. The goals of the Nursi movement that arose out of his teachings are:
• synthesis of Islam and science;
• an acceptance of democracy as the best form of government within the rule of law;
• raising the level of Islamic consciousness by indicating the connection between reason and revelation;
• and achieving this-worldly and other-worldly salvation within a free market and through quality education.
These Nursi-inspired ideas were very influential in Mr. Gülen’s early education and became the cornerstones of his later teachings and writings.
Along with his study of Islam, Mr. Gülen also focused on educating himself in science, philosophy, literature and history. He would stay up late at night studying the main principles of modern sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy. He also read existentialist philosophers such as Camus, Sartre and Marcuse, Western classics including Rousseau, Balzac, Dostoyevski, Pushkin, Darwin and Tolstoy and original sources in Eastern and Western philosophy, both Islamic and non-Islamic.
How he started reading Western classics is noteworthy:
“One day we were training during military service. The commander of the division called me and said ‘Are you the Hodja?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He added: ‘My wife is sick. Let me bring her here so you can pray for her!’ I said, ‘I don’t know any prayers like that. If you believe that praying will be effective, it would be appropriate for you to pray yourself.’ He was actually testing me, and I received a reward for my consistency”.
His commander insisted that he needed to read Western classics along with Sufism, and so Gülen read Western writers such as Emile Zola and Jean Jacques Rousseau. This became an important period in his intellectual life.
1- Sevindi, Nevval. 2008. Contemporary Islamic Conversations: Fethullah Gulen on Turkey, Islam, and the West. New York: SUNY Press. Pages 15-18
2- Ebaugh, Helen Rose. 2010. The Gülen Movement: A Sociological Analysis of a Civic Movement Rooted in Moderate Islam. New York: Springer. Pages 23-25
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