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The True Middle Road: The Islamic Ethics of Fethullah Gülen

Prof. Em. Karel Steenbrink and Dr. Gürkan Çelik

In the modern debate about the position of Islam in Western countries, there are some circles of Islamic thinkers who perceive a true Islamic society from a rather stretched hard-line rhetoric based on literal interpretation. However, since the classical period of Islam there has been a second system of virtue-oriented Islamic ethics, which also resonated with the early Greek philosophical thinking of virtues. Ibn Miskawayh is perhaps the best known thinker representing Islamic Humanism as a basic morality striving for virtues, based on human self-development. Al-Ghazali used this system in his Ihya Ulumud-Din in true harmony with the common rulings of shari’a. An analysis of the writings of Fethullah Gülen shows that for ritual rulings (ibadat) the traditional prescriptions have to be followed, as contained in the shari’a law, but for social ethics (mu’amalat) Gülen leaves much space for personal interpretation and stresses a more humanistic ethics of virtues rather than the ethics based on strict literal interpretations of detailed commands. Especially for the debate of Islam in the Western world this is a very important issue, because we see that anti-Islamism is mostly directed towards this program of strict or even fundamentalist interpretation of shari’a. This paper concentrates on the historical roots of Gülen’s Sufism in the ethical- philosophical tradition of Islam. Besides, it wants to delineate how the differentiation between ibadat and mu’amalat can be formulated without confining religion into a form of spirituality solely based on absolute denial of the world.

Fethullah Gülen has been compared to respectable, liberal, creative, and independent non-Muslim thinkers like Confucius, Plato, Immanuel Kant, Stuart Mill, Jean-Paul Sartre,  and Spinoza  (Carroll 2007; Kirk  and Çelik  2010). In this article, we will discuss the renowned preacher and sage against the background of mainstream Muslim philosophical writers of the classical period. Intellectual leaders like Ibn Miskawayh and al-Ghazali, incorporated Greek ethical thinking into the pure monotheistic ideals of Islam and made a synthesis between revelation and rational discourse. They were guides on the road of dialogue between civilizations and found many successors in later times. We will describe how Fethullah Gülen, during the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, reformulated their ethical messages with an even more open spirit, as a universal call for human development, which may be understood in both a liberal humanistic context, or a stricter monotheistic sense.

In the history of Islamic ethics, from the very beginnings of the Muslim faith, the Qur’ān has remained an unsurpassed source of inspiration. It was supplemented by an astonishing number of detailed prescriptions from the large collection of prophetic traditions, hadīth. From the early beginnings of the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad, the young Arab empire felt the need for translations from the older Greek civilization. Caliph Al-Mansur (754-775) hired his medical doctor Georgius Bokhtishu of the Christian Nestorian town of Gunde-Shapur, about 150 km Northeast of present-day Basra. The medical doctor brought Greek philosophy to the Palace of Baghdad, and this tradition quickly developed. Caliph Al-Mamun (813-833) established the House of Wisdom or Bayt al-hikmah as a library, a centre for translation and publishing, in order to duplicate the translations. Arab speaking Muslims, next to Persian Nestorians, produced new translations in all fields of science. The best known translator is Hunayn ibn Ishaq (808-873) who was the first to translate the Ethica Nicomachea, the great classical work of Aristotle. The medical connection continued with the later great philosophers Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) who also worked as medical doctors.
Ibn Miskawayh, the “Father of Islamic Humanistic Tradition”

A prominent scholar in this scientific tradition is Ibn Miskawayh (932-1030), born in Ray, close to present-day Teheran. He had a successful career as a Clerk at the court of Baghdad, and in several smaller localities. Ibn Miskawayh wrote a great historical work, but he is better known for his substantial work in the field of ethics. Modern scholars like Arkoun (1982) and Goodman (2003) accept him as a great example of Islamic Humanism. His great work in the field of ethics is Tahdhīb al-akhlāq, “The Refinement of Character”. It is a comprehensive summary of the major themes of ethical ideas of Plato and Aristotle, presented in the context of the Muslim world view. It emphasizes ethics as a guideline for the development of human nature, drawing conclusions aspiration for the of meeting the Deity (Walzer 1962, 236, 240).

The origins of harmony and cooperation among religions are quite striking in the intellectual heritage of Ibn Miskawayh. His most direct teacher was the Muslim Ibn al-Khammār, a student of the Jacobite Christian Yahya ibn Wadi, himself a pupil of the Muslim al-Farabi and the Nestorian Christian Abu Bishr Mattā (see Goodman 2003, 105, for this network of intellectual relations between Muslim and Christian scholars).

In his description of a human being, Ibn Miskawayh places man among living beings, making a sharp distinction between the body and the soul (nafs). The human soul is divided in three parts or aspects. The rational faculty is located in the brain, the emotions of the irascible faculty in the liver, and the passion for food, sexual intercourse and various sensual enjoyments in the heart (Ibn Miskawayh 2002, 15). Ibn Miskawayh is not clear if these should be considered as three distinct souls or rather three aspects or activities of one soul. The three qualities of the soul are related to four cardinal virtues: first, the central virtue of knowledge and wisdom; second, the virtues of  temperance and liberality; and third, the virtue of magnanimity, connected to courage. Once these three virtues are accomplished fully and properly, the fourth, cardinal virtue of justice will result in human development. In the beginning of his major work, Ibn Miskawayh describes a strict theoretical model, which is later defined by virtue, with specific and concrete examples. In the next table we show a quite general schedule of each section describing the major virtues.

Knowledge- Wisdom

Temperance- Liberality

Magnanimity- Courage Justice
Intelligence Modesty Greatness of spirit



Seriousness Intrepidity Concord




Composure/ Endurance



Quickness of








Soundness of







Clarity of mind



Self-possession/ Calmness Obedience to


Capacity for

learning easily








This is just a small part of the quite complex overview of the virtues. It is important to note that a virtue holds the middle in between two vices, which are extreme attitudes, while it is virtuous to attain a position in the middle. For the cardinal virtue of wisdom, Ibn Miskawayh gives a long list of vices which are related to this virtue. Wisdom holds the middle between slyness (a person who is clever but uses false tricks) and stupidity. Retention is a “mean between forgetfulness, which is neglecting what should be remembered, and attentiveness, to what should not be remembered” (Ibn Miskawayh 2002, 23). The idea of virtue as the middle between two extremes is connected to geographical ideas of this period: just like the earth is at equal distance to several bodies of the universe (sun, moon, planets), and is therefore located in the centre, virtues must also be sought in the centre. However, it is much easier to miss this central point than to achieve it, and in actual life it is quite difficult to attain the ideal of living according to all virtues. Hence, we all need the help of other people, since man is a social animal, according to the general wisdom proclaimed by the philosophers.

From the previous discussion, clearly Ibn Miskawayh does not proclaim an absolute division between good and evil. Life is a long process of learning. He wrote his ethical handbook at the age of 80, and expresses his struggle to refrain from various vices. He criticizes pre-Islamic poets like Imru’l Qays and Al-Nabighah for their warrior ideals and pride of their own tribe, love for food, ornaments, good horses and handsome slaves: “I have only gradually succeeded in weaning myself from these vices.” (Ibn Miskawayh 2002, 45).

The goal of reaching the right midpoint is at the heart of his ethics. There is not much focus on other discourses in Islamic thinking, the detailed prescripts of the shari’a. In the opening lines is a quote from the Qur’ an, praise to God and the Prophet Muhammad, but we do not find a lot of specific Islamic legal thinking in

the rest of the otherwise secular ethics. We recognize the Shi’a background of Ibn Miskawayh, when he mentions Ali ibn Abi Talib as a major example of courage. In a commentary on the battle of Kerbela, he states that “a thousand strokes of the sword on one’s head are indeed preferable to a death in bed.” (Ibn Miskawayh 2002, 97). This seems to contradict his ideal of courage, which should be a midpoint between cowardice and recklessness. One could argue that it is thoughtless to fight against an enemy who is too strong to hope for a victory. In a somewhat pious mood, Ibn Miskawayh adds that we always have to remember that life is short and has an end, and that religion, women and a town always need to be defended. Running away from danger may give the wrong signal to an enemy, when we know that the end of our life is near. It is not necessary to postpone death as long as possible.

The ethical system of Ibn Miskawayh is deeply embedded in a sound and realistic psychology, which is still distantly connected to the medical origin of the Islamic tradition of philosophy, as can be found in the following quote:

Recklessness and cowardice are the two extremes of courage, itself a virtue of the soul and a constituent of its health. So we say: Their cause and origin is the irascible soul. Thus, all three of them [recklessness, courage, and cowardice] are related to anger. Anger is, in reality, an agitation of the soul as a result of which the blood of the heart boils in a passion for vengeance. If this agitation is violent, it kindles and inflames the fire of anger, the heart’s blood boils more intensively, and the arteries and the brain become filled with a dark and turbulent smoke which impairs the state of mind and weakens its activity (Ibn Miskawayh 2002, 172).

At the end of his great work, Ibn Miskawayh discusses the problem of how to prepare for the death of the body. In this section he turns much more theological than in the rest of his study. Here we meet the one and personal God, the judge on the last day who is also the merciful and forgiving Deity. The general theme here is that grief may lead us to the right decisions. This section ends with one of the very few quotes from the Qur’ān in this classical book: “Verily, God’s friends, no fear shall be on them, nor shall they be put to grief.” (Qur’ān 10:62)


The Middle Way of al-Ghazali

Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali was, like Ibn Miskawayh, born in 1058 in a small provincial town, Tus, in the north of Iran. After a period of thorough classical studies, he moved to the capital Baghdad, the court of the actual ruler of the caliphate, Nizam al Mulk, in 1085. At the great university, the Nizamiyah, he became familiar with the mostly secular philosophical tradition, and he began his first writings by summarizing the philosophical thinking of his time. His teaching career soon blossomed, but came to an abrupt end in 1095 due to the climate of killings and violence related to the radical Shiites (Assassins of Al-Alamut) who killed the Nizam, and many prominent politicians and people of culture. During this time, he lived in small, remote towns, removed from the purity of rationalism in philosophical society. This is best seen is his great work, the Tahafut al Falasifa or “Incoherence of the Philosophers”. In the field of ethics however, al-Ghazali had already published a handbook. Written in the style of Ibn Miskawayh and the Greek doctrine of virtues, he created a long list categorized by the four cardinal virtues, with happiness being the ultimate goal for human beings. In this early work, Mizān al-amal, “The Scales of Deeds”, he refers to God more frequently as creator, lawgiver and final judge. He accepts, more so than Ibn Miskawayh, that not only the soul, but also the body will be part of the final resurrection of man (Elschalī 2006).

Gulen Symposium-The True Middle Road the Islamic Ethics of Fethullah Gülen, Karel Steenbrink-Gurkan CelikGulen Symposium-The True Middle Road the Islamic Ethics of Fethullah Gülen, Karel Steenbrink-Gurkan CelikIn his later years, al-Ghazali wrote a colossal work which has been preserved in shorter and longer versions (totalling about 10,000 pages), and is known as the best handbook on Islam for mature students. The title of this work, Ihyā ulūm al- Dīn, can be translated as “Revival of the Religious Sciences”. Its 40 volumes start with an extensive summary of shari’a rulings, beginning with ritual obligations (ibādāt), followed by social duties including sexual ethics, economy, food, music and entertainment, and relations to non-Muslims, (mu’amalāt). The third section is an overview of vices, not in the strict order of the four cardinal virtues and vices, but in a looser format. Quite surprisingly, there are many sayings attributed to the Prophet Isa/Jesus, which are not found in Christian sources (Khalidi 2001). Volumes 31 to 40 of the Ihyā discuss the virtues of repentance, patience, fear and hope, trust in God, love and attachment, truthfulness, and introspection. It concludes, like the work of Ibn Miskawayh with a long meditation on death the fear of death and the hope for eternal life.

Al-Ghazali places emphasis on the dynamics of human life. He popularized a structure of four degrees: beginning with, the implementation of divine law, shari’a, then deeper consciousness and personal growth through mystical initiation or tarīqa. The third degree is a phase of intellectual and emotional knowledge of God, haqīqa, while the fourth and final stage is direct awareness of the Divinity as ma’rifa or true knowledge.

The virtue of trust in God, tawakkul, is part of the last phase in the spiritual journey of man. This is the one reality at its highest level, unlike a businessman who entrusts his company to a manager after intense scrutiny of his whereabouts. Trust in God must be even deeper than the reliance of a baby on its mother. Al-Ghazali uses the strong analogy for this sacred and absolute trust: “as a dead man is kept before one who washes him”. This is, however, only one perspective. Al-Ghazali remains a practical spiritual advisor. He discusses at length the question of whether

people should take medicine or trust that God will cure Disease? “To take medicine is not opposed to reliance on God. This appears in the teachings and practices of the Prophet.” He said: “O servants of God, take medicine as God created disease and also spells its cure.” (Al-Ghazali 1982, IV, 284).

Al-Ghazali defines the ultimate goal of human life as does Ibn Miskawayh, as sa’adah, happiness, however, in more religious terminology, also as (re)unification with God, seeing no difference between the two. In the same vein, we find a mostly secular ethical reasoning, concentrating on virtues, along with the often modest and rational discussion of the rules of shari’a. The great masters of Islamic mysticism do not use one-liners or easy solutions, they do not propagate the blind implementation of fixed prescription, but in the end leave a lot of room for personal interpretation to individuals, while describing a more general, a global pattern of right purposes, virtues  and  ideals.

Fethullah Gülen’s Islamic ethic of the middle road

In 1941, Fethullah Gülen was born as the second child in a family of eight in Korucuk, a small village in the province or Erzurum, Eastern Turkey. In his youth, Gülen was taught by local Islamic scholars. After completing his training as an imam and state preacher, he moved to Edirne, a city in the European part of Turkey’s historic Thrace to work as an imam, until he was appointed as a preacher at the Diyanet (Turkish state office for Islamic affairs) in the cosmopolitan Aegean city Izmir after four years. He preached in many of the largest mosques in Izmir and Istanbul. From this time on, Gülen gradually grew to become one of Turkey’s most popular Muslim preachers and scholars. One of the most powerful aspects of his presentation is that he not only discusses Islamic principles within the context of actualities, but also makes connections with society and science. Altruism, tolerance, dialogue, acceptance and respect for others are frequent themes in his sermons, conversations and publications. What demarcates him from other Muslim scholars are his regular references to non- Islamic thinkers, philosophers, and literary figures, such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Spinoza. He is not an academic who writes for other scholars. Rather, he preaches and holds lectures for interested laymen, based on a profound knowledge of the entirety of intellectual history of Islam. These texts, usually not more than five to seven pages long, have been collected in a series of books, in Turkish, while the most important texts have been, or are now being translated into English.

Gülen always stresses the importance of ethics in education, the media, business, and in public and personal life. Encouraged by the influence of socio-political factors on Islamic issues, Gülen shifts his attention from the private rules of Islam to public ethics, and from identity to education, with the ideal of a disciplined, well-ordered society as a coherent consequence. He regards education and media as key instruments in the formation of ethics and consciousness. In education, the teachers embody ethical values, and are role models for their students. They are the main representatives for the practice of moral values.

Gülen’s middle way and the nature of human beings

Gülen considers the human person as a sample or a model of the universe. Gülen (2000, 7–8) symbolizes human beings as mirrors for God’s names and attributes, and he confidently argues that human beings are distinguished from the rest of creation with the honor of being responsible for making the Earth prosperous in God’s name. He explains that individual and collective happiness lies in disciplining three innate faculties (reason, anger, and lust) to produce a young golden generation, which will learn theoretical aspects of the middle way—between materialism and metaphysics, between modernity and tradition—and will put it into practice. This generation is supposed to absorb and represent both modern realities and Muslim morality and to constitute its identities through its mind, its behaviors, and its spirituality.

Gülen lays out a broad vision for a society and a world led by individuals of spiritual, moral, and intellectual excellence. He calls these people “ideal humans.” They exemplify eight character traits and attributes: perfect faith; love; a balanced view of science with the trio of reasoning, logic, and consciousness; a reevaluated view of humans, life, and the universe; free thinking and respect for freedom of thought; a habit of consultative and collective consciousness; mathematical thinking; and appreciation for art or artistic sensitivity. (Gülen 2005a, 5–10, 31–42).

The middle way is an important concept in Gülen’s understanding. It is, to a great extent, similar to Aristotle’s conceptualization (Kuru 2003, 117). Aristotle criticized the Platonic “virtue-versus-vice” categorization and classified phenomena in three groups: two of which are vices (excess and deficiency) and one of which is virtue (the mean or the middle way). Gülen (2009, 73-102) interprets and repeats the important Islamic concept of sırat-ı müstakim (the middle way), which is recited in a Muslim’s prayers forty times a day, as the middle way between ifrat (excess) and tefrit (deficiency).

From this perspective, and since the time of Ibn Miskawayh, human faculties or drives have been dealt with in three categories—intellect, zeal, and lust (Gülen 2008, 69–80; Ünal 2006, 30; Nursi 1994, 22–23)). The first category of intellect or reason enables the human person to make the right decision, and encompasses all human powers such as conception, imagination, calculation, memory, learning, and so on. The second category of zeal or anger covers the power of self-defense, which according to Islamic jurisprudence is defined as that needed to defend the faith and religion, sanity, possessions, life and family, and other sacred values. Thirdly, each man and woman desire or lust after the opposite sex and love their children and worldly possessions. In other words, lust or desire is the name for the driving force of one’s animal appetites. These three drives or faculties of a human being, and its each virtue and its two extremes (levels) are visualized in the following figure (Çelik 2010, 107):

Islamic Ethic and a “Golden” Generation

Islamic ethics (akhlāq) is defined as proper moral conduct. It implies positive traits of character, especially those noble qualities, which were perfected and modeled by Muhammad, the prophet of Islam (Helminski 2006, 36). Akhlāq, the plural form of khuluq, refers to the virtues that comprise good character in Islamic moral teachings. It was generally shaped as an amalgamation of the teachings of the Qur’ān and the sunnah (the prophetic tradition), and the fiqh (the precedents of Islamic jurists) embedded in an Islamic tradition of the Sunnis and Shites—two major denominations of Islam.

Islamic ethics are based on the following general principle of the Qur ’ān: “commanding good and forbidding evil” (amr bi al-ma’ruf wa nahiy ‘an al-munkar). For many Muslims, the ethical values—such as justice, modesty, equality, patience, humility, magnanimity, respect for rights, truthfulness, and responsibility—are derived from the Qur’ān and developed in the sunnah.

Gülen expresses that in the Qur’ān, besides verses related to human relationship with God, there are many other verses regulating the relationship of human beings with one another. To him, these verses are reminding people of their responsibilities and principles concerning their social, economic, political, and cultural life. In this regard, he stated in an interview:

Although one cannot ignore the effects of ruling and administration in regulating communal relationships between individuals, families and societies, yet these, within the framework of Qur’ānic values, are considered secondary issues. That is because the values that we call major principles (ümmühat), such as faith (iman), submission (Islam), doing what is beautiful (ihsan), and the acceptance of divine morals by the community, are references that form the essence of administrative, economic, and political issues. (Gülen, in Saritoprak 2005, 455).

The worldwide movement following his thoughts has set out to produce, what Gülen calls “the golden generation” (altın nesil), a virtuous generation that can integrate modern realities with Islamic values. Gülen seeks to demonstrate that it is possible to be modern by practicing Islamic values. To this end, he has developed a model for human life in which social principles and ethical values have been brought to the fore. According to the movement’s philosophy, it is impossible for someone who has not acquired an independent character to make a positive contribution to the social sphere.

Morality is the knowledge, behavior, and feelings which comprises what, where, how and why a person does something. A human’s personality and his inborn properties are neutral; this personality and qualities can be diverted to good or bad. What causes this to happen is morality. Character training, and education about morels are important ways to discover ethical values. In general, there are two types of morality: morality that is inborn from birth and morality that is acquired afterwards by an individual. These two types of morality are interrelated and illuminate each other. While the first one is more idiosyncratic and is a part of a person’s natural constitution, the second type of morality reflects a person’s personality qualities acquired after birth.

Gülen’s firm opinion is that the initial step of every action and every kind of work is ethics and self-knowledge. Self-knowledge and being aware of one’s own helplessness, deficiency, and poorness are considered as necessary in order to be a mature human with appropriate morals. Self-knowledge is closely related to obtaining one’s inner and outer completeness. According to Gülen (2004a, 167):

Self-knowledge of mankind never means to know his anatomy, his sexual desire, angers, devaluation and wrath. Nor it means to know the mechanism of conscience, God given beauties (soul, heart, conscious, arcanum etc.) within the soul system, conscious, sense and willpower. Along all these self-knowledge of mankind means undergoing a different observation every other day by rereading himself, getting to know himself again. Because human being is not a creature that could be obtained by a single shot, like a photo. It is like a growing tree, every moment gets into a new shape. Therefore, from the context of his soul, willpower and conscious horizon, it is necessary for man to observe and comment the occurrences that are related to his own self. “I have seen such an incident today, its reason was probably my mistake, I guess. Or because of my behavior, I was awarded with divine generosity of God today. Even though that I don’t deserve it, probably God Almighty is pleased with me.

Gülen emphasizes that inner control is very important for a human being. He explains that the most difficult thing a man will discover are deviations and constant changes that occur in his inner world. When a person’s inner world changes, the direction where he or she will go, changes as well. Gülen (2004a, 169–70) states that… the reality is the reading of both the inner and the outer, and this means self-knowledge—which is a path to know God—and this comes to opening up to multi-dimensions, as said in the oracle of Einstein. The ones who can open themselves to multi-dimensions in other words go beyond the narrow frames with their images and construct according to their moral personality. Moral personality is human’s manners, behaviors, persuasions, evaluations, comments, views and interpretations. In this case every man has an image according to his moral     personality.

Gülen argues that the harmony of the inner and outer makes a human balanced and whole. These are parts of a whole structure, and in order for this wholeness to be useful at all, the existence of both parts are essential. His position is that when both parts come together, then human’s spirituality, thinking and behavior is completely functional and balanced. He maintains that if inner and outer harmony does not exist, it is not possible to speak of a human who is really mature and moral.
Principles recalling ethical values

In an audio cassette series of his sermons dating back to 1980, Gülen introduced several principles about ethical values. His firm opinion is that the initial step of every action and work is ethics and self-knowledge. Based on a Qur’ānic verse, Gülen explains that “Everyone acts according to his or her own disposition” (Qur’ān 17:84) and, thus, displays his or her own character. It is an important step in acquiring good moral values when a person knows, feels, and perceives his or her own mistakes. Without seeing one’s fallacies and faults, it is not possible for a person to get rid of all these, and to find the right path. Therefore, everyone is in need of binoculars that will allow them to know their own shame and their bad character traits. In this regard, Gülen (1980) posits the following four suggestions:

  1. The first principle is to find a guide; an educator, a teacher who will enlighten and inspire the individual to organize his or her life, who will redirect him or her to right path.
  2. The second suggestion is to select a good friend or a coach, a magnanimously brave ally, who reminds one of ethical values and points out one’s fallacies and mistakes.
  3. The third suggestion is to get rid of fallacies and faults and to adopt a good moral point of view; this will allow a person to value what has been said, negatively or positively, about oneself and to question oneself effectively. In this respect, a critically reflective attitude always offers a learning opportunity.
  4. The fourth suggestion for gaining good moral values and eliminating bad habits and immorality is to be among people and to be involved in human society. This interaction enables each person to learn human values and to discover feelings and emotions about him- or herself.

In his teaching, Gülen states that among the living creatures in the cosmos, the human being is the most valuable. He symbolizes human beings as mirrors for God’s names and attributes (Gülen 2000b, 7–8). Humans are, therefore, distinguished from the rest of creation, because they have the honor of being responsible for making the earth prosperous in God’s name. In his teaching, Gülen (2005c, 5–10, 31–42) lays out a broad vision for a society and a world led by individuals of spiritual, moral, and intellectual excellence. He calls these people “ideal humans.” They exemplify eight character traits: perfect faith; love; a balanced view of science with the trio of reasoning, logic, and consciousness; a thoughtful view of humans, life, and the universe; free thinking and respect for freedom of thought; a habit of consultative and collective consciousness; mathematical thinking; and appreciation for art or artistic sensitivity (cf. Carroll 2007, 53). Gülen’s (2009, 289–302) entire endeavor is to emphasize that, by virtue of drawing attention to the relationship between God and humankind, humanity’s greatest achievement will be the attainment of a station of the ideal human (al-insan al-kamil). In his teaching, this is a prelude to one’s “superlative person,” who sacrifices his or her own life’s pleasures and who lives for others (altruism). He claims that such a person will only take positive action in a social arena (Hermansen 2007, 75).

Examples of such persons include Hacı Kemal Erimez (d. 1997), or Hacı Ata as he was known by those closest to him. He was Gülen’s dearest friend until he died while working to establish schools in Tajikistan. Another example is Adem Tatlı, a teacher and the general director of Gülen schools in Mongolia, who died in a car accident on his way to visit family in Turkey, aged just thirty-nine. One respondent said that his last request, which was respected, was to be buried near his school in Mongolia. (See also the book by H. Tokak 2007, with a foreword by Fethullah Gülen). The book eulogized various Turkish teachers who had gone to far-flung reaches of the world to work in Gülen schools. Also, a special DVD has been developed about Adem Tatlı and his altruism and activism in the movement.
Sufism as a method for a virtuous life

In his book Basic Concepts of Sufism, Gülen (2004b) sketches the road towards a ‘perfect man’. This is a four part series, and is already considered one of the classics on Sufism (tasawwuf). In this series, Gülen discusses the methodology of the concepts of Sufism and shows its place in the foundations of Islam. Islam without Sufism is, according to him, a cold, didactic and cumbersome set of rules. He, therefore, explores the mystical side of Islam, and in his essays elucidates his findings about the inner values and meanings of Islam in modern time (Gülen 2004b, xiii-xxvi).

Sufism is defined in different ways. Some see it as a destruction of the ego, will and selfishness of the individual, in order to let him or her spiritually revive in God’s being. Such a transformation results in God directing the will of the individual according to His Will. Others see Sufism as an ongoing effort the purify oneself of all that is bad and  evil,  and  learn  virtues  instead.

Junayd al-Baghdadi, a famous Sufi master (d. 910), describes Sufism as the “self- annihilation in God” and “the dwelling or endurance with God”. Shibli (d. 946), a disciple of al-Baghdadi, sums it up as always being with God, as living in His Presence, so as not to strive for any worldly or other-worldly objectives. Mohammed Abou Jarir al-Tabari (d. 923) describes it as resisting the temptations of bad characteristics and the sensual self, and of obtaining commendable moral qualities.


Still others describe Sufism as seeing behind outer dimensions or appearances of things and events, and as interpreting happenings in the world as related to God. This means that someone perceives every occurrence as an act of God, a window through which God can be ‘seen’. He or she lives life as an ongoing effort to realize this ‘seeing’, indescribable in physical terms, and is aware that God always sees him or her.

Gülen summarizes these definitions of Sufism as follows: Sufism is the path which allows one to free him or herself from human weaknesses and faults in order to acquire the angelic characteristics and behaviors pleasing to God. By living in accordance with these requirements for the knowledge and the love of God, one experiences the spiritual joy that flows from It.

Sufism is based on following the minutest rules of the shari’a in order to come to understand their deeper meaning. An initiate or traveler on the road (salik), makes no distinction between the outward observance of the shari’a and the inner significance, and therefore, adheres to all requirements of both the outer and inner dimensions of Islam. He or she travels in compliance, utter humility and devotion to the goal.

Sufism, according to Gülen, implies a strict observance of all religious obligations, a sober lifestyle, and the renunciation of carnal desires. Through this method of spiritual self-discipline, the hearts of men are purified, and their senses and gifts used in a way God wants, which means that travelers can start to live a spiritual existence.

As a demanding path leading to knowledge of God, Sufism does not allow for thoughtlessness and frivolity. It requires that the initiate sustain efforts to acquire knowledge, like a bee flies back and forth between hive and flower. The initiate is to purify his heart of all attachments, to resist all carnal inclinations and desires, and is to live in a manner that reflects the knowledge with which God has lit and revived his heart. Because he is convinced that the connectedness with, and loyalty to God is the greatest honor and achievement, the initiate has to abandon his own desires in favor of the demands of God, the Truth (Gülen 2004b, xiv). For Gülen, Sufism enables man to develop the moral dimension of his life. It enables a strong, deep conviction and personal experiencing of religious elements, which were hitherto only superficially accepted.

A non-political focus on Islamic ethical issues

In addition to the positive “ethical commandments” of the shari’a, the Islamic tradition has given increasing attention to teaching virtues that are more philosophically based and expanded, in which the freedom of choice and human development are considered important.

By providing the reader with a few important examples in this article, we include the current thinker and activist Fethullah Gülen as a prominent example of the classical school of medieval giants like Ibn Miskawayh and al-Ghazali. He focuses more on the development of the individual, and adaption to our modern era, for Gülen explicitly seeks harmony with non-Muslims, and to contribute to a universal morality that transcends Islam.

Some secular Turks in Turkey fear that Fethullah Gülen is not an apolitical leader in the pietistic tradition, but that he is actually preparing for a political revolution. The movement is religiously oriented on an individual basis. It is intended to be an apolitical movement. We present several arguments about its apolitical characterization. First,

the movement does not own any political party. The philosophy of the movement is to take a critical distance from politics, among other things in order to make sure the independence and sustainability of the initiatives of the movement participants is protected. Gülen holds the movement to be far above politics simply because when politics fails and goes awry people may blame the movement. Second, the movement is very careful not to be involved in party politics. So, there is no training within the movement about politics in order to gain influence in political parties, either in Turkey or abroad. Third, the movement endorses no support or participation in a political party. Although the movement does not specifically belong to a particular political ideology, the movement supports the state—and, thus, the successive governments irrespective of political affiliation—in support and advice in regard to social and economic programs. According to the participants in the movement, their political choice in elections is left to themselves (Çelik 2010, 179).

There are also non-political themes that should be addressed to this authoritative scholar. We observe that the Gülen movement is open with respect to a number of issues. For example, while many women who consider themselves followers wear scarves, there are also many without scarves, who are also followers. Gülen states that this is an individual decision. He gives several examples in an interview of the role of women in Islam. A’isha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, ruled over an army during the early period of Islam. She was also a spiritual scholar, whose opinions were respected by many. Women prayed together with men in the mosque. An old woman was allowed to contradict a caliph in the mosque on a legal matter. Even in the Ottoman period, during the 18th century, the wife of a British ambassador praised women, and admired their role in Muslim families and society. Gülen considers the issue of the head scarf to be a detail (furuat) which ranks among the muamelat (religious activities which are outside of compulsory religious exercises). They are to be distinguished from the terms of amentu—the basic principles of the faith. (Akman 2004).

For Gülen, key themes such as democracy, individual development, free thinking, and acquiring one’s own identity are inherent to Islam and its ethics. In his world view, he subscribes to the western value of democracy. He specifically supports democracy, arguing that it is the most appropriate form of government in modern times, and fully consistent with Islam. However, he believes that the current practice of Islamic shari’a, including Islamic morality, has suppressed and destroyed the freedom of the individual (Sevindi 2008, 44).

No alcohol is served during activities of the movement. However, outside of the organizations people are free to serve beer and wine to those who want. Furthermore, there is no interference by the movement about the decision of man to be gay. Gays are not deprived of their rights, although Gülen is silent when it comes to honoring equal rights for them.

Another much debated issue is Alevism, a somewhat free and popular movement within Turkish Islam. Gülen, who is a Turkish Sunni, supported Alevis in an interview, and advises his supporters to enter into dialogue with them. He is a strong supporter of cemevis, the Alevis community buildings for prayer and cultural activities. He has suggested that Alevis, within this framework, should adopt the written word rather than continuing their oral culture, and that libraries and cultural centers should be established within cemevis (Gülen 2008, 68–80).

Is the movement consistently positive about radical feminism and about Alevis? Why are Alevis and a group seculars quite negative about it? Would it be wise for Gülen to leave this all up to his individual followers, or should he take a stronger position and provide an unambiguous, modern explanation of the shari’a? So far, he stays within the general area of universal virtues in which the commonalities with non-Muslims are indeed greater.



To conclude, Gülen strongly supports the primacy of the development of the self, personal choice and freedom, which makes him, as a leader of a large transnational movement with an estimate of several million followers, a key figure in the contemporary debate on ethical issues in the Islamic world. It is noteworthy that the philosophical perspective of Ibn Miskawayh and al-Ghazali is absent in Gülen’s Sufism. Instead we see a strong psychological drive to discuss various human experiences such as grief (huzn), hope (raja), dislike of crowds (wara’), sincerity (ikhlas), and drive (istiqama). His realistic and down-to-earth reflection on tawakkul (the virtue of trust in God), is similar to al-Ghazali’s approach—first secure your camel, then trust God that it will work out just fine with the thieves. Recognizing the paradox in our daily lives as Europeans, we continue to be confronted about the shari’a and hard line, conservative Islam. Yet, in Gülen’s teachings we recognize a form of Islam that demonstrates a rigorous ethical compass in the context of our European culture and social life.



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