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Gülen’s Ideas For Tolerance And Dialogue In The Actual Context

Prof. Dr. Jon Pahl

The way human beings designate and defend “sacred space” constitutes a potent, and troubling, feature in the history of religions, including in the recent history of the Balkans. Millions participate in formal or informal pilgrimages to sacred sites, demonstrating the potential of devotion to place to create what anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner called “communitas,” or human solidarity, among otherwise diverse human beings. And yet, people also argue over, and kill and die on behalf of, sacred places. Examples of these less savory and downright frightening aspects of religious devotion to places abound across historical eras and traditions. In short, to examine how a particular group of religious devotees conceive of and relate to sacred space may be one of the most crucial markers in determining whether a cultural tradition inclines toward peacemaking or toward violence.

Islam, with the Hajj and prayer oriented toward Mecca, generally features what historian of religions Jonathan Z. Smith has called a “locative” approach to sacred space. According to Smith, a “locative” conception of sacred space identifies the sacred with a particular location, explicitly or implicitly, and orients practice to control and to patrol the ideological and institutional boundaries of that place. A “locative” conception of sacred space, Smith writes, is one concerned primarily with the cosmic and social issues of keeping one’s place and reinforcing boundaries. The vision is one of stability and confidence with respect to an essentially fragile cosmos, one that has been reorganized, with effort, out of previous modes of order and one whose ‘appropriate order’ must be maintained through acts of conscious labor.

A “locative” conception of sacred space emphasizes order, fixity, stability; what Mircea Eliade’s famously dubbed an “axis mundi.”

In contrast to locative sacred space, suggests Smith, is utopian sacred space, or a “wobbling pivot” which envisions an ideal realm of borderless and boundless potential and mobility. If locative sacred space pinpoints the sacred with precise (if not hubristic) precision, utopian sacred space emphasizes transcendence, incongruity, reversal, chaos, and creativity.  Smith writes:

A utopian map of the cosmos is developed which perceives terror and confinement in interconnection, correspondence, and repetition. The moments of disjunction become coextensive with finite existence and the world is perceived to be chaotic, reversed,  liminal.

As Smith’s name for this way of mapping sacred space implies, a “utopian” approach resists locating the divine (or other symbols of the unconditioned) in any place, although in practice (of course) utopian maps also work through quite material signs, symbols, and enactments. A utopian approach, writes Smith, emphasizes the “breaking out or breaking free of all walls . . . salvation achieved through acts of rebellion and transcendence.”

The conception of “sacred space” in the Sufi-inspired Hizmet movement associated with M. Fethullah Gülen is neither locative nor utopian but combines elements of both. In what can be depicted as an expanding series of six circles, similar to the whirling dervishes long associated with Turkish culture, sacred space as articulated in several key texts by Gülen and as expressed in practices by those in the Hizmet movement radiates outward from the individual in prayer toward a broad, democratic, and scientific set of practices that together form a secular sacrality, or what we might call a pragmatic mysticism. In the Hizmet movement, sacred space is above all moral space. Such a conception of sacred space blends the Sufi and secular histories of Turkey in ways that are negotiated in the details of everyday moral decisions.



The individual at prayer remains the bedrock of sacred space in the Hizmet movement. As Gülen puts it, “prayer straightens all ways and opens all doors.” This mixed or double metaphor conveniently identifies both the locative and utopian features of sacred space within the movement. Prayer establishes identity (“straightens all ways”), and must be done a certain way, but it also upholds an ideal vision (“opens all doors”).

The juxtaposition of locative and utopian approaches is striking in Gülen’s comments on prayer. “If worship,” he writes is the placing of a consciousness of being bound to God into one’s heart, if it is the liberation of one’s self from all types of slavery . . . — and there is no doubt that it is this and nothing else–then worship is the most immediate way to turn our face to God.

Prayer binds the individual to God (locative), but liberates the self from all slavery (utopian).

How this works, in practice, Gűlen suggests by relating an observation of Said Nursi. Nursi recalled realizing at some point that in prayer “every individual in the congregation became a kind of intercessor for me. . . . At that time I saw myself in the earthly mosque, in circular rows around the Ka’ba. I said: ‘Praise be to the Lord of the worlds. I have so many intercessors; they are saying the same thing I say in my prayer and confirming me.’” But this locative conception–emphasizing connection–extended outward in a utopian fashion. Nursi, as quoted by Gűlen, goes on to describe how in prayer “I saw that this congregation I was in [was] separated into three circles.” For our purposes, the passage deserves quoting at length:

The first circle was a large congregation of believing Muslims and those who believe in God’s existence and Unity. In the second circle, I saw all creatures [who] were performing the greatest prayer and invocation of God.  Every class or species was busy with its own unique invocation and litanies to God, and I was among that congregation. In the third circle, I saw an amazing realm that was outwardly small, but in reality, large from the perspective of the duty it performed and its quality. From the atoms of my body to the outer senses, there was a congregation busy with servitude   and   gratitude.

In prayer, the individual is connected to others, but because the binding is to a transcendent God, the individual is extended beyond self to creative and transformative acts of service . This essentially moral conception of sacred space as created through prayer is at the heart of the Hizmet movement.

Consequently, participants in the movement take a pragmatic approach to salat, or the obligation to pray five times a day. Because prayer cannot be limited to its locative functions, there is flexibility in participation, including recognizing the possibility of praying with others in “sacred spaces” not traditionally associated with Islam. I have prayed with Hizmet volunteers in a Lutheran church in Houston, Texas; in a Marriott hotel in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; in a very small mosque in a poor neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya; in a Turkish community center in Kampala, Uganda; in the chapel at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia; and in private homes from Ankara Turkey to Media, Pennsylvania.  Prayer, in short, locatively connects participants in the Hizmet movement to the ummah, to the larger community of interreligious dialogue, and extends individuals in creative acts of service and participation on behalf of a utopian vision for the entire cosmos. “When [Muslims] leave the prayer,” Gülen writes, “it is as if they have started a new life.”


The home (and family generally) constitutes in both the writings of Gülen and practices of participants in the Hizmet movement a second circle embracing ordinary life in a web of sacred significance. “Families form a society’s foundation,” writes Gülen. Yet this essentially locative conception that identifies the sacred with “home,” has within it a utopian dynamic: “the reciprocal respect of rights and obligations within a family,” Gülen continues, “results in a healthy and strong society.”

Few commentators, to date, have written about the significance of the family and home within the Hizmet movement, yet Gülen frequently lifts up family life as a crucial domain for moral discernment. About marriage, for instance, Gulen writes that “some marriages based on logic and judgment were initiated by taking refuge in God. They are so sacred that, for a life-time, they are like a school, and their ‘students’ guarantee. . . permanency and continuation.” Again, this essentially locative conception that identifies the sacred with permanency and continuation, combines with a more utopian emphasis on mutuality within the family dynamic: “In the family,” Gűlen writes, “elders should treat those younger than them with compassion, and the young should show respect for their elders. Parents should love and respect each other.” This is, needless to say, an ideal, if not a utopian, prospect. The home is, of course, the domain of private life, yet at least two practices of members of the Gűlen movement demonstrate an awareness of how the home might be a sacred space through what Fabio Vicini called in an article about the movement “the sanctification of daily life.” The first is the well-recognized Turkish tradition of hospitality. Whether for an Iftar dinner during Ramadan or for a casual meal, Hizmet movement members frequently open their homes for dialogue and for the breaking of bread. In each of those homes I have visited, secondly, whether in Turkey or the United States, I have been invited to remove my shoes. This casual practice, that undoubtedly has pragmatic as well as spiritual significance, nevertheless evokes a sense of sacred space in conjunction with the ordinary patterns of family life.

On one level, again, Gülen emphasizes that the home is a sacred space with locative significance across societies. “The soundest foundation for a nation,” he writes, “is a family in which material and spiritual happiness flows, for such a family serves as a sacred school that raises virtuous individuals.” Sacred space is virtuous space. But on another level, the family values associated with the home as sacred space are not understood by Gűlen or by Hizmet movement members in parochial terms. A true human being, Gűlen writes, can “look upon everything as belonging to the same Lord. . . so that [they] regard nothing in the universe as alien. [A true human’s] sympathy, love, and service do not remain confined to the people of any particular race, color, or ethnicity. The Prophet summed this up with the command, ‘O servants of God, be brothers (and sisters)!’” In the Hizmet movement the locative sacred space of the home extends, in utopian fashion, to a brotherhood and sisterhood with all humanity- through the sharing of common virtues.



The student homes and schools founded by individuals inspired by Gülen constitute a third circle of liminal sacred space between family and civil society. If the home is a “sacred school,” then schools themselves (and other venues for learning like the student homes–which are boarding houses similar to what YMCA’s and YWCA’s used to be for Christian youth) function as sacred places to cultivate what Gülen calls a “golden generation” of leaders committed to moral service on behalf of society. As Gülen bluntly puts it:  “a school is a kind of place of worship.”

If a school is a kind of place of worship, then it is a kind of sacred space. Many commentators–from scholars to The New York Times– have noted the importance of education to Gülen and to those inspired by him. Individuals associated with the Hizmet movement have founded schools in more than eighty countries, including in some of the most conflict-ridden and economically challenged regions of the world-Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Karachi, Pakistan; Kampala, Uganda–to mention only a few.  The schools serve students of all faith backgrounds.

In them, and in the student homes, a locative focus on discipline combines with a utopian hope to develop young people who command skills across fields of study and who are committed to serving civil society. Each of these sacred places exists, of course, in a particular locale where young people and their mentors and teachers must contend with all of the pragmatic difficulties and quotidian details of fund raising, construction projects, secular curricular development and reform, and personality conflicts.

These locative details do not detract from the utopian aspirations for sacred places of learning. According to historian Graham Fuller, The Gülen movement sees education as the preeminent means of bringing about social change and community renewal. It insists that religion can be fully understood only against backdrop of knowledge as a whole and that only through broad education is the community strengthened and able to advance.

The Mission Statement of the Pioneer Academy of Science in Clifton, NJ can serve as an example of how the Hizmet movement juxtaposes locative order and utopian aspiration in a moral conception of sacred space:

The mission of Pioneer Academy of Science is to provide a well-rounded educational experience that will prepare students to confidently pursue the journey of their lives. In fulfilling its mission, PAS seeks to inspire a love of learning and to instill a strong sense of moral behavior. We strive to nurture the students’ natural abilities while maintaining the belief that children need direction, discipline and standards of excellence to thrive.

As exemplified in hundreds of schools around the globe, Hizmet movement members seek to combine disciplined study with imaginative love of learning.

Gülen has often observed that the Enlightenment warfare between science and religion has proven harmful to both, not to mention has produced “global environmental disasters.” As an alternative, Gülen waxes in utopian fashion, yet with a realistic awareness of global problems, about:

A new style of education fusing religious and scientific knowledge with morality and spirituality [to] produce genuinely enlightened people with hearts illumined by religious sciences and spirituality, minds illuminated with positive sciences, characterized by all kinds of humane merits and moral values, and cognizant of the socioeconomic and political conditions of their time. Our old world will experience an excellent “springtime” before its demise. This springtime will see the gap between rich and poor narrow; the world’s riches distributed more justly according to one’s work, capital, and needs; the absence of discrimination based on race, color, language, and worldview; and basic human rights and freedoms protected.

The pedagogy of these sacred places combines, in short, at one and the same time the locative virtue of Muhasaba, scientific self-criticism, with the utopian religious prospect of ‘Ashq, passionate or ecstatic love, in a pragmatic mysticism, or sacred secularity.

The third circle of sacred space created by practices of learning blends into a fourth–namely the “space” of civil society–including art, poetry, music, and acts of benevolence such as building and running hospitals and providing direct relief in disaster situations. Gülen has generally been very careful to steer clear of overt political entanglements, and as Muhammad Çetin has observed “opposes the instrumentalization of religion in politics and has never advocated direct participation in party politics. He is against those who have reduced Islam to an ideology and so created a negative image of it.” Instead, the Hizmet movement seeks to build “social capital” through engagement with the full range of human practices in civil society.

Every gathering of individuals inspired by Fethullah Gülen includes some artistic, poetic, and/or musical entertainment. Water painting, traditional Turkish folk music, and the ecstatic prayer of dervishes might all be included at an Iftar or dialogue dinner. Gülen himself is a poet, and clearly builds on the tradition of Rumi in appreciating the beauties of human mastery, pleasure, and creativity. Arts and crafts are not frivolous activities, then, but signs of the doctrine of “unity of being,” or wahdat al-wujud. “Of every act, the sole and only, the absolute, Agent is God,” Gülen asserts. But far from producing a locative fatalism, this doctrine in practice produces also a yearning for God rooted in the joy of living. Even something as apparently “secular” as football can be worshipful, Gulen claims, because “the game itself will give pleasure . . . [and] a number of human virtues could be easily displayed.”

It is the moral possibility of fostering practical skill to accomplish virtuous living that produces a sense of the sacred in any space for members of the Hizmet movement. Participants are engineers, scientists, business leaders, economists, physicians, journalists and social workers. Unfortunately, little scholarly attention has been given to the movement’s initiatives in healthcare, or how bodily healing might be an expression of commitment to Hizmet. In contrast, Kimse Yok Mu–the SMO (social movement organization) founded by leaders of the movement in Turkey–has been studied in some detail. This NGO (non-governmental organization) is realist in its foundations, yet utopian in aspiration. Individuals associated with the movement intervene in conflict situations or disasters, yet aim “to build a more comfortable, serene and peaceful world while fighting poverty and attempting to eliminate social inequalities.” Any site of Hizmet thus becomes a sacred place by virtue of a reconciling encounter with another, planting “seeds of peace,” as Sister Martha Ann Kirk puts it. Through art and practical service, in short, the secular is spiritualized, and the spiritual secularized, in a pragmatic mysticism expressed in moral practices that seek to promote the beautiful, enact the good, and speak the truth.



This moral criterion and commitment to speak the truth is especially evident in a fifth circle of sacred space constituted by the movement’s emphasis on inter-religious engagement or dialogue. On the one hand, dialogue is a locative duty: it happens face to face, person to person, in a specific place. On the other hand, dialogue offers a utopian vision for society itself when infused by moral engagement as negotiated in everyday life, articulated through debate and the building of consensus, and as expressed in civic responsibilities.

“The Prophet defined true Muslims,” Gülen writes, as those who harm no one with their words and actions, and who are the most trustworthy representatives of universal peace. Muslims travel everywhere with this sublime feeling that they nourish deep in their spirits. Contrary to inflicting torment and suffering, they are remembered as symbols of safety and security. In their eyes, there is no difference between a physical and a verbal violation.

To clinch the practical point, Gülen again quotes Nursi: “Victory with civilized persons is won through persuasion.”

The movement’s emphasis on dialogue and inter-religious engagement reflects what Muslim theologian and activist Eboo Patel has dubbed an ability to affirm particularity and find common ground, or what might be called grounded pluralism. “There are as many roads to God as there are creatures,” Gülen asserts. Yet this pluralism is grounded in the verities of Islam. Gülen often quotes the Qur’an: “Say, ‘O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you.’”(3:64) Gülen is realistic about the challenges to inter-religious work. Because of a century (and more) of Christian aggression against Muslims, “the Church’s call for dialogue meets with considerable suspicion.” Yet, Gülen encourages Muslims to recognize that “power lies in truth, a repudiation of the common idea that truth relies upon power.”

In practice, as Mustafa Gurbuz and Bandana Purkayastha have contended, building on the social theories of Pierre Bourdieu, the Hizmet movement’s commitment to inter-religious engagement and dialogue toward truth produces a “habitus” of non-violence. In other words, dialogue creates a sacred space neither locative nor utopian, but rather a field in which moral practices of non-violent engagement and persuasion can flourish. Gurbuz and Purkayastha correctly link this creation of sacred space through practice with the “truth-force” or satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi. This commitment of Gülen and members of the Hizmet movement to “power residing in truth” is also a way to embody a practical mysticism, or even a democratic public theology, to address the most vexing problems of modern life.



Finally, a sixth circle of sacred space is evident in the movement’s emphasis on scientific study and appreciation for nature. Metaphors of “light” and of the rose abound in the movement, because as Gülen contends “every aspect of the universe’s mind-boggling beauty, grandeur, and splendor is an example of God’s artistry.” Even more directly, Gülen asserts that science “should be considered as holy as a temple.” This does not mean, of course, that Gülen is naïve to the damage done on behalf of what he calls a “bigoted” science: “The application of science or technology by an irresponsible, selfish minority has engendered more disasters than good.”

But there is, finally, a discernible harmony between the natural world and the spiritual world. As a poet, Gülen freely draws on nature metaphors to describe the sacred made manifest in the lives of people of faith through their practices of virtue. Believers are “roses blooming all over the world today.” They “stand like mountains and challenge storms and tempests.” “Like a river, they bring life to everything.” These metaphors make sense, Gülen explains, because:

Nature is much more than a heap of material or an accumulation of objects: it has a certain sacredness, for it is an arena in which God’s Beautiful Names are displayed. Nature is an exhibition of beauty and meaning. . .; trees taking root, flowers blossoming, the taste and aroma of fruit, the rain, streams flowing, air being inhaled and exhaled, the soil nurture innumerable creatures. Thus, a person’s mind and heart become like honeycomb; the nectar is made up of judgments and the faculty of contemplation.

Touching down with the concrete–with the locative realities of particular places, and the duty of scientific discernment– Gülen and members of the Hizmet movement also envision expanding opportunities for participation in service, closely akin to what Jewish writers have noted as tikkun olam, or repair of the world: In a succinct imperative and vision, Gülen concludes: “Opportunities to restore the world are awaiting.”

All in all, each of these circles of sacred space is evident in both the practices of movement participants and in the writings of Gülen. The conception of sacred space in the Hizmet movement suggests a distinctively Turkish hybrid of the secularism of the Republic of Turkey, along with traditional Islam as infused by Sufism. This “pragmatic

mysticism” has profound implications within Islam, and for global peacemaking, as a way to overcome static conceptions of either locative or utopian sacred space that might lead to violence, either in an effort to possess and to control such places through domination or force, or to resist the “profanation” of sacred places by “occupiers” on behalf of some nostalgic purity. There is, of course, no way to predict with certainty how history will develop; peacemakers across traditions face a perilous road. Yet, drawing on yet another nature metaphor, Gülen envisions a

Springtime [that] will rise on the foundations of love, compassion, mercy, dialogue, acceptance of others, mutual respect, justice, and rights. It will be a time in which humanity will discover its real essence. Goodness and kindness, righteousness and virtue will form the basic essence of the world. No matter what happens, the world will come to this path sooner or later. Nobody can prevent this.

We pray and beg that the Infinitely Compassionate One will not let our hopes and expectations come to nothing.

Such hope and humility is grounded in a conception of sacred space that extends in an ever-expanding series of circles, widening out from the individual in prayer, through moral engagement with civil society, to the entire cosmos in all of its scientific and historical contingency.

Jon Pahl is Professor of the History of Christianity in North America, and Director of MA Programs, at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and Adjunct Professor of Religion at Temple University. He is the author of many articles and six books, including Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place, and Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence. Dr. Pahl is working on a book with the tentative title A Coming Religious Peace that includes attention to the Hizmet movement’s peacebuilding initiatives.