Fethullah Gülen on Islam’s Relationship and Compatibility with Democracy

M. Fethullah Gulen
M. Fethullah Gulen


Date posted: June 1, 2013

TAUSEEF AHMAD PARRAY*

This article explores the Islam-democracy debate in the thought and writings of one of the prominent living Muslim intellectuals of Turkey, Fethullah Gülen. Born in 1941, Gülen, addresses the hotly debated issues that have gained prominence as they become highly intensified in the post 9/11 world.

Fethullah Gülen (b. 1941, Erzurum, Eastern Turkey) is a Turkish Muslim scholar, thinker, author, poet, preacher, opinion leader, peace advocate and educational activist who has articulated his views for last three decades. He presently lives in Pennsylvania, USA, where he has lived since 1998.

Gülen is considered one of the world’s most important Muslim figures and is regarded as the initiator and inspirer of the worldwide social movement of human values known as the Hizmet (Service) or the Gülen, a transnational civic society movement inspired by Gülen’s teachings. His writings about hizmet (altruistic service to the ‘common good’) have attracted a large number of supporters in Turkey, Central Asia and increasingly in other parts of the world. Students, academicians, business owners, professionals, public officials, men and women, young and old, contribute to multiple forms of service which crystallize in tutoring centers, schools, colleges, hospitals, a major relief organization, publishing houses, and media institutions, both in Turkey and in more than 100 countries of the world. The movement is mainly active in education, interfaith, and intercultural dialogue. However it also has aid initiatives and investments in media, finance, and health and is committed to education, dialogue, peace, social justice, and social harmony.

While he does not advocate a new theology but refers to classical authorities of theology and takes up their lines of argument, Gülen’s understanding of Islam tends to be mainstream. Although he has never been a member of a Sufi tarekat, he teaches that Sufism is the inner dimension of Islam and the inner and outer dimensions must never be separated.

His teachings differ in emphasis from those of other moderate Islamic scholars in two respects: duty of service (hizmet) to the “common good” and interfaith dialogue. He teaches that the Muslim community has a duty of service for the “common good” of the community and the nation and to Muslims and non-Muslims all over the world. And that the Muslim community is obliged to conduct interfaith dialogue with the ‘People of the Book’ (Jews and Christians).

Gülen has authored over 60 books and many articles on a variety of topics: social, political and religious issues, art, science and sports, and recorded thousands of audio and video cassettes. He contributes to a number of journals and magazines owned by his followers. He writes the lead article for the Fountain, Yeni Ümit, S?z?nt?, and Ya?mur, Islamic and philosophical magazines. Several of his books have been translated into English.

Some of English books are: Towards the Lost Paradise, 1998; Pearls of Wisdom, 2000 and 2005; Questions and Answers about Faith, 2000; Criteria or Lights of the Way, 2000; Essentials of the Islamic Faith, 2000, and 2006; Essays, Perspectives, Opinions, 2002; Emerald Hills of the Heart: Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, 2004; Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, 2004; The Messenger of God, Muhammad: An Analysis of the Prophet’s Life, 2005; The Statue of Our Souls: Revival in Islamic Thought and Activism, 2005.

Fethullah Gülen on Islam-Democracy Compatibility:

Regarding the Islam-democracy relation and compatibility, their co-existence and consistency, Gülen argues that Islam and democracy are compatible and he encourages greater democracy within Turkey. He also argues that democracy, in spite of its shortcomings, is now the only viable political system, and people should strive to modernize and consolidate democratic institutions in order to build a society where individual rights and freedoms are respected and protected, and where equal opportunity for all is more than a dream. According to Gülen, “mankind has not yet designed a better governing system than democracy”.[i]

In his essay “A Comparative Approach to Islam and Democracy,” he explains that in order to analyze religion, democracy, or any other system or philosophy accurately, one must focus on humanity and human life. He maintains that as a political and governing system, democracy is at present the only alternative left in the world. However, his understanding of democracy in its current shape is not an ideal that has been reached but a method and an ongoing process “that is being continually developed and revised.” He says democracy is a system that “varies according to the places and circumstances in which it is practiced.”[ii]

While describing its system of political order, he asserts that Islam does not propose a certain unchangeable (fixed or consistent) form of government or attempts to shape it. Instead, Islam establishes fundamental principles that orient a government’s general character, thereby leaving it to the people to choose the most appropriate type and form according to their own times and circumstances, a viewpoint which is shared by almost all the scholars and political theorists.

While describing democracy’s development through different stages; for him, this process will continue in the future. He powerfully states that:

“Democracy has developed over time. Just as it has gone through many different stages in the past, it will continue to evolve and to improve in the future. Along the way, it will be shaped into a more humane and just system, one based on righteousness and reality”.[iii]

And while defining Islam with reference to democratic values, he writes that the duties entrusted to a modern democratic system are those that Islam gives to society and classifies, in order of importance, as “absolutely necessary, relatively necessary, and commendable to carry out.” In other words, he does not see a contradiction between “Islamic administration” and “democracy.” The Qur’an includes the following passages: “Establish, all of you, peace” (2: 208); “spend in the way of God” (2: 267); “observe justice as witnesses respectful to God” (4: 35), and “reconcile between the two fighting parties” (49: 9).

To sum up, the holy Qur’an addresses the entire community and assigns it almost all of the duties entrusted to modern democratic systems. He regards these duties as a government’s fundamental principles, including the free elections held during the rule of Rightly Guided

Caliphs. Especially during the rule of the first four Caliphs (632-661), the fundamental principles of government mentioned above, including free election, were fully observed, he argues.

In a speech (in January, 1996), he said that tolerance and democracy as inter-dependent on each other. For him, it is not possible for democracy to take root in a place where there is no tolerance; in fact, democracy is out of question in a place where tolerance does not exist.[iv]

He also maintains that democracy could reach its peak of perfection and bring even more happiness to humanity if people would only consider the spiritual dimension of their existence without forgetting that all people have a great craving for eternity. The Islamic principles of equality, tolerance, and justice can help us realize this future.

In an interview with Zeki Saritoprak (of John Caroll University, Cleveland, Ohio)[v] for the special issue of The Muslim World on “Islam in Contemporary Turkey: The Contribution of Fethullah Gulen” (July 2005), in answering the question ‘is it possible to reconcile Islam with democracy?’ Gulen cautions that on the issue of Islam and democracy, one should remember that the former is a divine and heavenly religion, while the latter is a form of government developed by humans. For him, democracy itself is not a “unified system of government”; it is rarely presented “without an affiliation”.[vi] Furthermore, he argues that it would be much better to introduce Islam as a “complement to democracy” instead of presenting an ideology, for the reason that presenting Islamic vision as a “totalizing ideology is totally against the spirit of Islam”.[vii]

For him, the obstacles in the way of reconciliation between Islam and democracy is the misunderstanding of the phrase “Sovereignty belongs to the nation unconditionally,” which, for Gulen, does not mean that the “sovereignty has been taken from God and given to humans.” On the contrary, it means that “sovereignty is entrusted to humans by God,” in the capacity of being His Caliphs on earth; or in other words, it means it has been “taken from individual oppressors and dictators and given to the community members”.[viii] To a certain extent, on the practical grounds, he claims that the era of Rightly-Guided Caliphs of Islam illustrates the application of this “norm of democracy”.[ix]

Thus, in the present times, Gülen sees democracy, in spite of its many shortcomings, as the only “viable political system” where people should strive to modernize and consolidate democratic institutions in order to build a society where individual rights and freedoms are respected and protected. However, at the same time, he cautions that on the issue of Islam and democracy, one should remember that the former is a divine and heavenly religion, while the latter is a form of government developed by humans.

———–

*Tauseef Ahmad Parray is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Islamic Studies, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Aligarh, India. His several works, research papers and book reviews, have been published internationally in 17 reputed Journals of Islamic Studies, Social /Political Science, in 8 different countries of the world: USA, UK, Malaysia, Philippines, The Netherlands, Pakistan, Turkey, and India. He is ‘India Representative’ of ‘EC’ and is the ‘Section Editor’ of Journal of Humanity and Islam (J. Hum. & Islam), Malaysia; and ‘Book Review Member’ of Muslim world Book Review, UK. Email: [email protected]

References/Endnotes:

[i] See, Ihsan Yilmaz, Muslim laws, Politics and Society in Modern Nation-States (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), chapter 8. Also quoted by Muzaffar K Awan, “Reconciling Democracy and Islam”, Renaissance, (monthly journal from Lahore, Pakistan), available online at http://www.monthly-renaissance.com/issue/content.aspx?id=84#7 (as accessed on 10/03/2011). In this article, Awan compares the views/ideas of ‘Allama Iqbal (d. 1938) and Fethullah Gülen (b.1938) about democracy in the Islamic context, arguing that they are “very similar”. See also Ihsan Yilmaz, “State, Law, Civil Society and Islam in Contemporary Turkey”, The Muslim World, 95(3): 2005, 385-411, p. 396

[ii] Fethullah Gülen, “A Comparative Approach to Islam and Democracy”, in Fethullah Gülen, Towards a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance (New Jersey, USA: The Light, Inc., 2004), 219-224, p. 220 (hereafter cited as Gülen, Love and Tolerance). This essay, originally published in SAIS Review, 21:2 (Summer-Fall 2001):133-38, has been also reproduced in The New Voices of Islam: Reforming Politics and Modernity – A Reader (ed.) Mehran Kamrava (New York and London: I.B. Tauris, 2006) pp. 100-104; and in M. Fethullah Gülen: Essays, Perspectives, Opinions, compiled by The Fountain, (Clifton, NJ, USA: Tughra Books, 2010), pp. 13-20.

[iii] Gülen, Love and Tolerance, p. 224

[iv] Fethulleh Gülen, “Tolerance in the Life of the Individual and Society”, in Gülen, Love and Tolerance, 37-45, p. 44

[v] Zeki Saritoprak, An interview with Fethullah Gülen, The Muslim World, 95: 3, July 2005, pp. 447-67

[vi] Ibid., pp. 451-52

[vii] Ibid., p. 452

[viii] Ibid., p. 453

[ix] Ibid.

Source: Encompassing Crescent, 22 April, 2013


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