Date posted: April 19, 2016
Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) Vitaly Naumkin has made an interview with Mr. Fethullah Gülen in Pennsylvania, the US. In the interview that was published at one of Russia’s most popular newspapers, Moskovskiy Komsomolets (MK), Mr. Gülen talked about the aircraft crisis between Russia and Turkey, the divided state of the Muslim world, secularism, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and terrorism. “Certain things done [the Turkish government] in recent years were wrong. The downing of that warplane was wrong,” he said.
The article written by Vitaly Naumkin for the MK about Mr. Gülen is as follows:
In late January, when I was in the US, I had an opportunity to visit the distinguished Turkish civil society leader and cleric Fethullah Gülen, and as a scholar of Oriental studies, didn’t want to miss the opportunity. He received me at his house in a small town in the state of Pennsylvania. He has been living here in exile since 1999. Followers of Fethullah Gülen are being oppressed in Turkey, but their numbers are pretty much.
Gülen is a controversial figure. This old man has established a wide network of schools and universities around the globe and is considered as one of the most influential people in our time (ranking in the top 100 according to some statistics).
This article consists of abbreviated answers of this dissident critic to our questions. With the questions I asked Mr. Gülen during this extraordinary interview, we seek to introduce to Russian readers this man who enjoys huge popularity among Turkish people and who has unique perspectives on event and is distanced away from the official ideology.
Vitaly Naumkin: Mr. Gülen, the role of Muslim counties continues to increase despite enormous problems. What can be done to boost the role of the Muslim world and make it emerge as an effective power in the world? Why are there disagreements among Muslims? Sunnis and Shiites fight each other; Sunnis compete with each other; in my country, Salafis are trying to destroy the traditional Hanafi and Sunni understanding. How can this war be stopped?
Fethullah Gülen: This disagreement is nothing new. There was discord during the time of the Rightly Guided Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, may God be pleased with them) as well. We can say that it emerged during the time of Umar (may God be pleased with him). With the conquest of Iraq and Persia, hostility grew among Persian in these countries against Umar. This insurgency was suppressed by al-Hajjaj to a certain extent under the Umayyad rule. During the rule of Ali, the Haruri incident (the strife caused by Kharijites) occurred and Kharijites emerged; we can see them as the precursors of today’s Salafis or we refer to Salafis as neo-Kharijites. Salafis can be categorized into various groups. Today’s ISIL is the strictest of Salafis; they are linked with al-Qaida. The Taliban, too, may be placed into the same category to a certain extent. Likewise, Boko Haram falls into this category as well. There is also al-Mourabitoun, who has faded to the background for the time being. As for Salafism, they choose to rely solely on the nass (undisputed text), i.e., the Holy Qur’an and Sunna (prophetic tradition), but rejects the Prophet’s approach, the understanding of the Rightly Guided Caliphs as well as linguistic particulars of the language. They refuse to make discursive analysis of the nass. In the religious terminology, there are types of signification, such “literal meaning.” There are other terms related to the religious procedure. But they don’t take these into consideration. For instance, take the verse, “Kill them wherever you find them.” What were the circumstances when this injunction was revealed? Was self-defense involved? In “The Eternal Message of Muhammad,” Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam argues that all wars that occurred during time of the Prophet and Rightly Guided Caliphs consisted of defensive wars or wars that sought to open up to the world. This was dictated by the circumstances or the conjuncture, he says. An overall perspective about the Qur’an does not endorse any war that seeks to destroy the people who have different beliefs or ideologies and who don’t pose any threat. If we don’t adopt a holistic look on the text of the Qur’an without due consideration of the context, we may end up with distortions of the text’s message.
Systematization of Salafism was largely made possible by Ibn Taimiyyah and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, who were moderate Salafis in Hijaz. The reasoning (ijtihad) so far had been the one made by Prophet’s Companions. Some members of the generation that came after the Companions turned a blind eye to this body of reasoning and approached to the Qur’an text selectively. “Seize them and kill them wherever you find them” (Sura an-Nisa, 89). But under what conditions? What is the context? What are the verses that came before and after it? The approach by superficial people who look at the matter without taking all this into consideration has created a number of problems. As for the Shiism, some people promoted the approach, “Loving Ali impossible without hating Umar,” at that time. On a couple of TVs belonging to them, people openly say, “I am perfectly justified to hate Umar as he destroyed the Persian state.” This approach influences the matter. Some naive people have adopted this approach with sheer love for Ali and Ahl al-Bayt. The approach by Sunnis differs. In particularly, Abu Hanifa defended Imam Zayd against Abbasids. “If loving Ahl al-Bayt is Shiism, then let the world witness that I am a Shiite,” said Imam Shafi. I agree completely with Imam Shafi’s words. If loving Ahl al-Bayt, Ali, Fatima, Hasan, Husayn, Zayn al-Abidin, Jafer, and Muhammad al-Hanafi is Shiism, let the world witness that I am a Shiite. But that is not the point. What was destroyed wasn’t actually the Persian state, but Zoroastrianism. In a sense, it was a reactionary movement. Here, I would like to draw attention to a psycho-sociological that the balance couldn’t be maintained in the reactionary movement. Even, our scholars tell positive things about Wahhabism, but they keep silent after a point.
I think their silence implies: they destroyed Maqbaratul Baqi, the cemetery for the Companions near the Prophet’s Mosque in Madina. They also demolished the building the Ottoman Empire had built near the spot where our Prophet had lost his tooth during the battle of Uhud. When I went there, the house where our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, was born, was a museum which I could visit then. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the former president of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, told me that they build a lavatory in its place. Yes, they are certainly reactionary movements. What do they react to? They exhibit reactions to certain widespread traditions in our society, perhaps among Iranians, or in other nations, treating them as signs of idolatry. For instance, take the practice of paying respect to the Prophet’s beard. I’d personally sacrifice myself for a single piece of the Prophet’s beard or hair, but there is the practice of creating a religious ritual out of a specific matter by putting a piece of the Prophet’s beard and making everyone kiss it. When this is done as if it were a religious ritual or when worship-like attitudes are adopted in front of sacred trusts such a gown, mantle, sword or spear from that times, I think this is reminiscent of what people did with idols Wadd, Suwa’, Yaghuth, Ya’uq and Nasr at the time of Prophet Noah. They said these were righteous people, and they should hang their pictures to be and act like them. This initial intention was, however, forgotten over time, and people started to worship Wadd, Suwa’, Yaghuth, Ya’uq and Nas. Perhaps, the same process applied to idols like al-Lat, Manat, al-Uzza, Isaf and Naila. They might have been originally placed to represent the sacred, but they have suffered from aberration. Practices of visiting certain graves, tying clothes at the trees near them, making wishes, burning candles, etc. have emerged. Perhaps, the emergence of Salafism can be attributed to the efforts for redressing these practices according to the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet’s traditions. Indeed, Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, had asserted: “The path you should take after me is the path of my Rightly Guided Caliphs. You should stick to it with all might and main.” With this intention, they reactionarily opted to ignore all deviant practices, and even went further to turn the Prophet’s house into a lavatory… If balance cannot be maintained in reactions, then there will be deviations.
Today, there are three types of Salafism. A similar brand of reactionaryism can be seen in Shiism as well. We might choose to look for a compromise in our approach to them. I am in no position to question Selim I. But he sought to quash rebellions such as Şahkulu rebellion, and the Ottoman army went to Chaldiran. Persians took Shah Ismail, who was originally an Azeri, make him marry someone who descended from Ahl al-Bayt, and advertised him as the representatives of Ahl al-Bayt. Wasn’t there anything that could be done in the face of these developments? Didn’t we take the matter to extremes? Couldn’t we take another path? For instance, we could take the matter from a scholarly perspective and promote education instead. That is, we could send scholars to those places. We could establish schools or madrasas there. Couldn’t we adopt persuasion as a method? Couldn’t we take the people we both love as our common denominators? This is what happened in the past. I am not a historian. I didn’t witness any of those events. I don’t know the conjuncture or historical context. I am just talking about what occurs to me. Lack of moderation or compromise led to actions in extremes and vice versa. This vicious circle has continued until our time. It has spawned neo-Kharijites, neo-Haruris and neo-Salafis.
How can these annoying problems be settled? I don’t know, but there are certain things I should stress. First, education is an important matter. That is, we should be open to the entire world and take the matter seriously by adopting an education-centric approach in order to come up with a generation of people who can talk to each other and come to compromise with each other and who are strictly loyal to own values. We should accept everyone in their own position with the awareness that love for our method does not entail hostility against followers of other methods. This applies to diverse sects, races or religions. I should pay respect to my own values, but at the same time, I should pay respect to Christians as well. This is already what the Holy Qur’an ordains. The Holy Qur’an makes frequent references to Jesus (UWP) or Mary. In comparison, the Qur’an does not make explicit references to Khadija (the wife of Prophet Muhammad), Aisha (the wife of Prophet Muhammad), Fatima (the daughter of Prophet Muhammad), but to Mary. The Holy Qur’an attaches great importance to Jesus, and this should inspire us for building bridges with Christian or other groups, interacting with them and coming up with new arguments. In the past, there were causes for antagonism such as the Crusades. Wars and disputes have led to animosity which has been inherited for ages. I believe the efforts to forget about this antagonistic sentiments and approach to the matter basically through educational projects are quite important. I think they nurture the same hope.
As for the second matter, the people with great standing such as Sidney (Griffith) and Scott (Alexander) have visited this place. They, too, look for ways to build bridges and repair the past’s confrontations. At that time, I had asked Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu if the OIC could hold conferences to ensure that everyone should pay respect to values of others. In addition to discussing the very basics of the matter, we could bring together reputable scholars and academic with international prestige to take certain decisions on this matter. There would always be tiny oligarchic minorities to raise objections to these decisions. But this initiative could minimize, reduce or neutralize the effects of ongoing antagonism. This is one of the methods we could utilize, in my humble opinion. The today’s problems may be overcome by employing these methods for minimizing the agitation.
Vitaly Naumkin: Mr. Gülen, you wrote articles about how democracy can flourish in Turkey. And there are debates about where democracy and Islam can coexist around the Muslim world. Do you think Islam can coexist peacefully with democracy? A significant proportion of Muslims see ‘secularism’ as Islam’s enemy. However, they live mostly in secular states in peace and without a problem. They don’t have problems [with secularism] in my country which is a secular state as well. Can the secular state be maintained in peace with Islam? Can Muslim feel themselves secure in secular state? Does Islam need to be modernized? Mr. Gülen, you argue in your work, academic research and interviews that certain Islamic views betray individual and regional differences and they can be revised. God addressed Arabs using their own language. And there were slaves at that time. Islam urged people to free their slaves by describing the act as a great reward from God. Today, on the other hand, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) enslave women. To what extent is it possible in your opinion to revise these medieval interpretations and adapt them to our time?
Fethullah Gülen: I have previously voiced my modest description about democracy. Democracy has diverse implementations around the world. If rights and fairness entail respect for everyone’s rights and positions, democracy can hardly be imagined differently from Islam. I think people were hesitant in their approach to democracy due to it was a foreign word. Actually, they had adopted a similar approach to the republic. In comparison, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi embraced the concept of republic long before the general public. He would share his food with ants because he saw them as practicing republicanism. “I love the nation of ants for their republicanism. I give food to them for their love for republicanism,” he would say. If we examine the way the Rightly Guided Caliphs were elected to office as well as their stance in the face of truth, their just and fair administration, we can come up with much support for democracy. For this reason, it is wrong to raise straightforward objection to democracy just because of its name or origin. Such an approach is indicative of rigidity and reaction. You didn’t mention it in your question, but the republic can be treated in a similar manner.
As a matter of fact, what is essential in administration is respect for rights, justice, integrity, God and human beings. Man was created for being loved and respected. Otherwise, God wouldn’t order all angels to prostrate before Prophet Adam. Satan failed to comply with that order. Man is created in the best stature and is capable of attaining the Highest of the High. Human beings are capable of emerging as superior to angels as soon as they focus on spirituality. In authentic hadith, it was reported that our Prophet got ahead of Archangel Gabriel (UWP) during the Ascension. Mevlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi said: Sometimes, angels envy our courtesy and grace; this is indicative of attaining the Highest of the High, perfection and spiritual culmination. Sometimes devils detest our arrogance. This signifies the point of the lowest of the low.” Human beings should be treated essentially as mirrors reflecting the Divine Essence. “God is seen always on the mirror of Prophet Muhammad,” Aziz Mahmut Hudai once said. This is an important matter. It means that when you look at that mirror, you seem to see the Divine Essence. In a sense, he is a lustrous target of manifestation. He is a place of manifestation. Our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, is manifested. In this regard, respect for human beings should be the very basis of democracy, and our understanding about democracy should be revised. Any flaws in our approach to it should be rectified. It should be put into a process of review under the conditions of our time. I think it should be held in high esteem. When I voiced this fact about 20 years ago, the media outlets which are currently hostile to the Hizmet movement, attacked me, criticizing for promoting democracy, and you know it.
Secularism has diverse implementations around the world. In France, the implementation of secularism has introduced certain level of restriction on religion. But this is not the case in the US. The US, too, pays respect to the principle of secularism. Even one of our friends who is an academic wrote a book discussing the two distinct implementations of secularism. I think the second implementation of secularism does not contradict with the religion. Everyone should be free with their own beliefs or ideologies provided that they don’t do any harm to the community. Respect should be paid to beliefs, ideologies, worldviews, lifestyles, and opinions of others unless they pose threat to the community. Secularism in this sense can be reviewed as well. That is, if it needs to be reformed or rectified in some respects, this can be done. In this way, this principle may be recast as a more reasonable and perpetual concept acceptable to everyone. In this way, everyone may start to show respect for mentalities, ideologies, lifestyles or worldviews of others. Media freedoms may be included in this process so that everyone can freely express their minds. The use of insults and bad language should be carefully avoided. People may even question certain points. For example, they may say, “We have questions about this matter.” They may ask for review of a certain matter. Criticism and questioning may be acceptable, but affront, slandering, lying, forced relocation, destruction, intimidation, etc., cannot be reconciled with the very spirit of Islam and the Holy Qur’an.
As for the matter of slavery, it was widespread for some time. Islam didn’t introduce slavery; it already existed. As long as war continued, people would be enslaved. But Islam left the door ajar regarding the matter of enslaving people. A system of freed slaves came to being. Both the freed slave and the owner of that slave would be referred to as mawla. This word has etymological affinity with the wali, which means guardian or protecting friend. In some period in the past, great importance would be attached to the act of freeing slaves. During the early periods of Islam –the time of Companions or Tabi’un– Abdulmalik inquired someone. “Do you know this man in the field of hadith or Qur’an commentary?” he asked. “He is from the mawali,” was the answer he got. “What about that man?” he asked again. “He is from the mawali as well” was the reply. “What about that man?” he asked once again. “He is also from the mawali,” was the answer. Abdulmalik was coming from Banu Umayyad; so he said with a dignified and somewhat racist manner: “For God’s sake! Is there any free man?” Thus, we can say that freed people who were staying with great Companions like Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali would become like them. For instance, Nafi, a great hadith imam for the jurisprudence system established by Imam Maliki, was Ibn Umar’s mawali. A woman named Marjana was captured. Her owner remembered the following Qur’anic verse: “You will never be able to attain godliness and virtue until you spend of what you love (in God’s cause, or to provide sustenance for the needy). Whatever you spend, God has full knowledge of it” (Sura Al ‘Imran, 92). He frees Marjana because he loved him. Marjana married someone and gave birth to Nafi. And Nafi became the number one tutor of Imam Malik. Examples can be multiplied.
Even great scholar like Kayy bin ibn Wahb was Hajjaj’s mawali. Those who study the hadith scholars know him very closely. In this respect, re-establishing the slavery system by making wars and enslaving people in order to free them and get rewards in return is not a correct method. Being martyred in wars is sacred. If you die while fighting for a legitimate goal such as defending your life, honor, property, and even for your freedom, then you are a martyr. But if you kill yourself for trivial things by blowing yourself up as a suicide bomber in order to die as a martyr, No, certainly no. As I previously noted, such a person will go to Hell. Only a person who dies while fighting to promote a higher ideal within the scope of a general campaign waged by the state or defend oneself will become a martyr who deserves to go to Paradise. A suicide bomber who kills himself in order to kill others will certainly go to Hell. In this regard, revival of the slavery institution is unacceptable. However, some nations still treat certain people or groups as slaves with different designations. There are certain places where this is practiced and this is unfortunately under way in our time. In his Al-Adala al-Ijtima’iyya fi’l-Islam (Social Justice in Islam), Sayyid Qutb said, referring to slavery, “No single nation can abolish slavery if the entire humanity agrees to abolish it.” You abolish it, but others will continue to maintain it. In this field, international conferences, seminars, presentations from lecturers may help to minimize this problem. The efforts to revive this historical problem can hardly be reconciled with the very spirit of Islam and the Holy Qur’an.
Vitaly Naumkin: My last question will be about terrorism. We appreciate your stance against terrorism. You argue that Islam forbids the killing of innocent people and disapproves all those atrocities committed by terrorists. I support this position fully. Our country is utterly victimized by terrorism and combats it. But why are there such people? Why do they support terrorism? What should be our strategy to combat this evil? What are your comments about potential cooperation between Russia and Turkey despite the disagreements between the two countries following the downing of the Russian warplane?
Fethullah Gülen: Terrorism is practiced by many nations. It can be found in the Christian or Jewish nations. There are sometimes terrorist organizations like the ISIL or al-Qaida. Sometimes, there are terrorist states. Look at the Muslim world today, there are terrorist states. I cannot bring myself to utter the same thing for my country, but I am still forced to keep the door ajar in that regard. If pressures are exerted on people and if their freedoms are denied and if there is no justice or fairness, and if laws are bypassed to do certain things and pass the necessary laws afterwards, this can be considered as sort of terrorism. Terrorism that emerges from the Muslim world is attributable to failure to implement Islam in the correct manner. As we are unable to practice Islam as it was described in the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet’s traditions and understood by the prominent guides among the Companions and their followers, certain ignorant people search for another understanding of Islam. They seek ways to promote the perspicuous religion of Islam in people’s lives. If Muslims and the Muslim world had been able to practice Islam according to the Holy Qur’an, thereby showing an exemplary system, this would encourage people to adopt it. This actually happened at times in the past, including the time of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the time of Umar ibn Abdulaziz of the Umayyads, Hadi, Mihdi and Mutasim of the Abbasids, and the time of Ottomans, to a certain extent. These experiences have certainly encouraged people to adopt Islam.
French king François came to Turkey and sought refuge with Suleiman the Magnificent. The time of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror was likewise stimulating. As the world currently lacks a dazzling and satisfactory practice of Islam that would bring relief and contentment to people’s hearts, certain people start to look for something else. Certain secret services manipulate such searches both inside and outside. That it, they channelize people to terrorism. There are people all around the world who seek to join the ISIL, al-Qaida, or Boko Haram. This Taliban in Afghanistan was in office for a certain period of time, and they advertised themselves as Muslims. They were fans of Zahid Kawthari. But now they indulge in suicide attacks, killing people and various acts of violence. This is unacceptable. As the correct brand of Islam is not practiced, people end up in wrong versions. Certain younger people ignorantly indulge into false interpretations. They are not only ignorant about the religion, but also they think such a religion will dominate the world. By doing so, they commit the greatest treason to Islam unintentionally. What they do is a black stain on the bright face of Islam. In my humble opinion, they look for the correct implementation of Islam around the world, but fail to find it. Then, they let themselves in such movements. Such a mindset may emerge among Christians, Jews or Muslims. Not every attribute of a Muslim is a Muslim attribute. Likewise, not every attribute of an unbeliever is an unbeliever attribute. Some Muslims have attributes of unbelievers while some unbelievers have attributes of Muslims. God will pass His judgment according to people’s attributes. As reported by the Prophet, “God looks not at your outward appearances, nor at your wealth or belongings, but at your deeds and behaviors.”
Going back to the previous considerations, education may be the solution. If the elite classes and intellectuals focus on this matter, a solution may be found. Perhaps, an alliance may be established to counter the armed terrorist organizations. This alliance may beat the ISIL and then al-Qaida. For instance, the US and Russia, as two major powers, may come together in such an alliance.
In the past when Russia shifted toward communism, people in Turkey had disapproved the development. However, Russia is currently governed with a democratic system and democratically elected governments. It is Turkey’s neighbor. Turkey is a member of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It has to keep good neighborly relations with Russia and refrain from contention with it, but at the same time, maintain its interests with the US. Turkey’s certain moves in recent years, including the downing of the Russian warplane were wrong. Still, we should stick to common sense and find to a workable solution with moderation. Russia is a tremendous state. It is of crucial importance for Turkey to maintain close and lenient relations with Russia. Any contention with Russia will weaken Turkey. It will give put other alternatives into spotlight. For instance, Iran may come to prominence. Syria may emerge, and Turkey, a country with a population of 70-80 million, will be zeroed. Turkey will find itself engulfed in a swirl of problems. This entails foresight from the people who govern Turkey. I hope God may endow them with this foresight which is then properly used by Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev, Russian people and the elite class there to restore our relations to their previous friendly nature.
Vitaly Naumkin: Thank you very much. I wish you health, success, and peace in life.
This interview, Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Vitaly Naumkin made with Mr. Fethullah Gülen was published on Moskovskiy Komsomolets (MK) on March 10, 2016.
Source: Journalists and Writers Foundation , April 1, 2016