Date posted: July 13, 2018
Rabbi Alan Brill, Ph.D.
This week I was privileged to spend the night at the Pennsylvania compound of Fethullah Gülen, the Sufi influenced Turkish modernist. I had two sessions to ask him questions in front of his followers and was allowed to sit in on his evening meeting with followers as well as attend his two-hour class for his disciples in the morning. I am trying to formulate what people, especially my Jewish readers would want to know about the meeting, so these are first thoughts. I am writing up my observations with the eye of an observant Jewish and trying at points to explain Gulen’s ideas in Jewish terms.
Gulen is an Islamic modernist with a large following around the world and he founded the Hizmat movement whose motto is about service to others. This discussion will be limited to the religious and theological aspects. I will not be discussing the political elements of his life or dramatic events in other countries; I do not have first-hand knowledge of those. I will focus on his modern religion. If you want to compare this report to others then I recommend the reports of Prof. Mark Juergensmeyer, Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Prof Pim Valkenberg and a 2013 Atlantic Interview.
Visiting clergy-rabbis, priests, and ministers-usually only attend his evening public meeting with followers; few attend or report on his class. Therefore, I will start first with a discussion of his class. I will return to my discussions with him afterwards.
The setting is a modern style masjid on the 2nd floor inside a rustic Pennsylvania building. The room is tastefully modern, solid red and white clothes. The masjid has built- in cushioned seats around the perimeter of a room the size of half a ballroom. The central floor is open for prayer. There are nine mini cupola with modern Turkish floral patterns.
Gulen is called by his students Hocaefendi (Master Teacher), an honorary title of respect. Hocaefendi sits on one of the cushioned chairs on the perimeter. He is surrounded by about 35 disciples sitting on the floor who are spending 3-11 years studying in his compound while doing graduate degrees elsewhere, often in interfaith. (One at Seton Hall, several at Hartford Seminary, Niagara University, University of Scranton, and Moravian College.
All the disciples have small tabletop book lecterns (shtenders) on the floor, which open up in a V shape., a few have larger lecterns that require them to sit in a chair, and three of the students have laptops which they are using to search online databases for hadith and other sources that allude the rest of the group. Except for sitting on the floor, it seems like a higher Talmud shiur in its group dynamics. Gulen leans back on the cushions absorbed in listening to the person reading the designated text. He comments as needed, goes off into explanation based on talks he has given in the past, and answers questions.
Around the perimeter sits the older members of the compound, scholars, authors, and managers, as well as about 25 guests, members of the movement, mainly businessmen, who are visiting with their families to connect to their religious teacher. I sit on the perimeter with a mathematician who translates for me the Turkish discussion. Throughout, Gulen is relaxed and everyone knows his role. Much of it is public discussion like a Jewish Rosh Yeshiva sitting at a table with students. Those listening talk in his presence, but at no point did he need tell them to quiet down. People could explain things to me without whispering.
Similar to a Christian clergy person visiting an advanced Talmudic shiur, my attendance at this class is as an outside observer, more attune to generalities, atmosphere, and sensibility than to the finer points of the discussion.
The class consists of three parts, Sufism, Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), and a variable third part which today was Al-Ghazzali’s section on humility and arrogance from the Ihye Ulam al-Din. The texts were projected onto a screen for the guests to follow along. The students all had copies of the book
The first third was a selection from Said Nursi (1876-1960) was a Kurdish Islamic modernist who founded the nondenominational Nur Movement (Nurҫuluk), which advocated for a reinterpretation of Islam according to the needs of a modern society, an attempt to reconcile Islam with constitutionalism. He believed that change would only come through the cultivation of a new mindset.
In 1907 he began advocating for the creation of an academic curriculum integrating religious and secular sciences, with modern pedagogy. Nursi accepted many Sufi ideas and integrated Sufi books but did not advocate a new Sufi order or the need to be on a Sufi path. The Gülen Movement of Fethüllah Gülen emerged from this background.
The text read from Nursi dealt with not treating the Quran literally, one should know that examples are used to illustrate points and in other places they are only allegories or parabolic knowledge. Nursi is rejecting the Salafi literalists in principle and adding also a certain amount of Sufi spiritualization.
The next passage from Nursi that we read in class, discussed the principle of Islamic fiqh called “the people who came before us” (shar’u man qablana). According to this principle the laws of previous heavenly religions are also Islamic as long as they do not contradict with the essence and essentials of Islam. The text also discussed the Sunnah based on material from Judaism and Christianity, the Isra’illiyat material. Some people who were previously Jewish or Christian embraced Islam brought with them their previous concepts and beliefs, which in turn, also entered Islam and Muslim teachings. However, some of this previous information should be considered wrong and thus irreconcilable with the essentials of Islam. But the material which does not contradict Islam can be integrated into Islamic teachings. Many strict interpretations in other Islamic schools reject entirely the Jewish material as unreliable Sunnah, Nursi said to accept them. They are reliable as religious truth as long as they do not contradict the truths of Islam. Gulen did not discuss this because I was there, rather it just fell out in the material they were covering.
The second text was from a Turkish primer of Fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence with Sufi influence. Here too it bore a more modernist and more liberal orthodox style in its interpretation of Islamic law. The work presented the fact that there were many interpretations of Islamic law. One needs to go back to the Sunnah and figure out the appropriate interpretation. Rather than rely on the stringent later interpretations, one goes back to the original texts. It also rejected authoritarian reading. On the other hand, the fiqh book rejected the historical research of Ignác Goldziher (1850 -1921) who rejected the reliability of the Sunnah.
In his interpretation of this fiqh text, Gulen repeated stressed that the actions of Muhammad are more than his words. Mohammed was man of action and law is about the proper action (not unlike Gulen himself.) Gulen said that some of Mohammed’s decisions were made based on prior practice, [Jewish & Christian] and it is to be relied upon. His prophetic teachings parallels with the previous religions.
In addition, oral tradition in Judaism affected Hadith tradition in Islam. Gulen also said the uniqueness of Hadith tradition lies on its strong chains of tradition and methodology
The third text was Al Ghazzali’s Ihya Ulum Al-Din the section on arrogance. Here it was part moralism and part Sufism of not boasting, serving others, and to be humble. Preachers have to prepare and practice their sermons and not be so arrogant to just speak without preparing. Preachers much be concerned with people not self-glory. On this Gulen went off in a flourish of saying many of those out there today are arrogant and interested in self-glory. I tried asking to those sitting next to me, which preachers does he like, but did not get a response. Afterwards, I was told that Gulen mostly refers to the preachers under the influence of politicians. Such preachers talk according to the will of politicians rather that the will of God. Gulen has refers to them many times.
When Ghazzali wrote of not being proud of one’s spiritual level, one of the disciples in the room asked: What if someone cannot reach God or spiritual levels but is devoted in action, is that good? Gulen answered that it is better. Once again, he shows his interest in action as typified by the name of his movement Hizmat – service. I am told that it is likely that when they finish Ghazzali on arrogance, this third section of the lecture will be replaced with Ibn al-Arabi to compare.
Chief Rabbi of Israel Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, left, gives a vase as gift to Islamic spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen, right, during his visit to Istanbul on Feb. 25, 1998. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer)
Let me now return to the beginning of the story. I arrived at Gulen’s compound in the woods. After a brief tour of the grounds and my insisting that I do not need to be taken to my room in the guesthouse to unpack, I am taken to the masjid inside on the second floor of a four level building. Visitors and disciples fill the perimeter of the room reciting Quran as part of the pre-dusk prayer preparations. After ten minutes, they stop reciting and everyone faces Gulen, who is sitting in a chair in the back of the room directly opposite where he sits when giving class. Since I know the time of sunset for Jewish prayer, I knew it was not Muslim prayer time yet.
I see Gulen had a receiving line in front of him and he is giving out Turkish candy bars to all the children visiting with their families. He gives them a smile and a nod of a blessing. Similar to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. A few adults are also given candy.
I am ushered in to sit parallel to Gulen. I expected to meet him in his study later in the evening as described in several other accounts of clergy meeting him. Instead, I am meeting him in the masjid before the full attendance. There is a microphone and this quickly takes on protocol that is more formal. I am formally introduced to him, even though I have already been vetted. It is announced who I am, my biography as rabbi, professor, and author is recited. Everyone moves to sit in a semi-circle around Gulan and myself. I present him with copies of my books on interfaith, which I had wrapped together in a thick bright ribbon as a gift. He tells the translator, who is one of my graduate students, that he will place them in his personal library. Later that evening, I do see them in his personal study with several other books he received as gifts.
Gulen receives visiting clergy every week, so the question and answer session is someone stylized because I have already read what he answered to others and he expected my first round of questions. I ask him about creating stronger relations with the Jewish community. He has a ready mini talk that he has obviously given before. Nevertheless, it is good that he rehearses it and that the assembled audience hears it. The response touched on the Ottoman Empire accepting the Spanish exiles, historic ups and downs of Jewish-Muslim relation, he acknowledges the Holocaust, he mentions that he has met chief rabbis of Israel, of Turkey and various Jewish organizations, and regrets the unfortunate role that contemporary politics and political sides are playing in today’s relationship.
He concludes with a refrain that he used to answer many question for the two days I was there, “it is going to take time.” Whenever he was asked about creating proper Muslim schools, or committed Muslims in the US, or full cultural dialogue, he answered it will take time or he answered give it 2-3 generations.
How to improve Jewish-Muslim relations? His answer: it will take time; the same way Jewish –Christian dialogue took time.
When asked a follow-up question about greater knowledge of Judaism for his followers, he answered that there is an American Imam of Turkish background, who has been involved in Jewish-Muslim encounter and visiting Israeli Jewish institutions, who has spoken to his followers. I get a sense that this has not been done recently or often.
Now that the formal questions about the Jewish community are done, I get to the questions that let me understand his current goals. He has always wanted to engage the modern world by accepting democracy, science, Western knowledge, and cultural diversity. He wants a modernist Islam. But his method has changed from before.
In order to accomplish this for this decade, he currently sends his disciples to study interfaith for their master’s degree. Afterwards they can study psychology, social work, or a doctorate in Islamic studies. In a similar manner, in the era of 1950’s -1960’s modern Orthodoxy, there was a modernist ideal of a doctorate in philosophy, or English or history. In addition, for the Conservative movement and all three Germany Jewish seminaries, there was an ideal of academic study of Judaism to be modern. For the current disciples of Gulen the ideal is a degree in interfaith studies.
Hence, I asked Gulen: What does he want his disciples to learn in these programs? How does he want them to use the interfaith knowledge? As their teacher, what does he want them to gain from my classes? He answered that they should figure it out for themselves.
This emphasis on self-knowledge and autonomy in decision-making comes from his Sufi influences, from Said Nusri, and from various shards of Kant and Existentialism that he has picked up. But, for me this question shows his true beliefs about Judaism and Christianity. In many ways more important than directly asking him about Judaism.
There are still skeptics out there who question Gulen’s sincerity in interfaith. Maybe he is just being political and apologetic. Maybe it is just symbolic. However, if you take your best and brightest and tell them to study interfaith, the way modern Orthodox once wanted philosophic study, then you actually see a value in the synthesis. When he says that his disciples will figure things out for themselves, he is basically letting rabbis, priests, and reverends, influence how his students see the world. The interfaith is not for show but an act of modernism. On the interfaith, he is leaving it to the students to develop new theologies of other religions. Hence, I will influence those at Seton Hall and others will influence those at Hartford Seminary.
This answer of his is also the best answer to those enemies of his who dredge up his attacks of Judaism and Christianity from his former days as a preacher in Eastern Turkey. Before he immigrated to the US, Gulen spent years as a preacher in rural Eastern Turkey. When one reads those sermons, they are only mildly modern. Yes, science, democracy, the West, and interfaith are good, but these modern things are not too good and they have many bad sides. After immigrating, he became much more liberal. Some of Gulen’s entourage was expecting me ask about these early writings, and preemptively told me how much he changed.
But with my knowledge of the Jewish community and the Enlightenment, his trajectory made sense. Back in Turkey, he was rejecting Salafi influence that said men and women couldn’t be in the same room or the same car. His leniency in the old country, similar to a modern Haredi, was to allow men and women to talk to each other from separate couches. Now he allows his disciples to attend co-ed colleges. In Turkey, he had little knowledge of Jews and Christians outside of traditional texts. Then he started doing interfaith and made it an ideal for his students, as a way of opening up minds.
When he said that his disciples would figure out, it means he sincerely wants them to be open to possibilities. He is not concerned with his earlier pre-immigration views. These disciples will be the ones to determine what the future direction of the movement holds.
When I ask, what should I tell the Jewish community about my visit? He answers: “you are smart- you will figure it out.” This is a standard answer of his to many question.
When asked later in the evening about how to bring religion to his community and create a modern but religious Islam, he also answered, “It will take several generations.” At this point, he is looking to the future, behind his lifetime.
The repeated themes in his answers are (1) It will take generations, (2)Decide for yourself (3) There is wisdom from other sources outside Islam and (4) that there should be dialogue between cultures and religions, dialogue meaning personal friendships and contacts.
We broke for late supper, a light meal of fruits, yogurt and vegetables. (I had my own food in my bag in case this was a meat meal.) I had a chance to sit with the visitors and hear their stories of immigration to the US, their building their businesses, and their relations with local Jewish communities.
After dinner, Gulen has a daily 45-minute audience with his followers in his more intimate study, a room the size of a living room. I had originally expected to be introduced to him here and to converse with him here, as most visitors had.
He is, however, running late, so I am ushered into a nearby anteroom, the study of his personal physician and lifelong assistant. Here are a half dozen scholars and authors sitting on the couches waiting for the evening to start. We were there for about 20 minutes, in which time they passed around dates, water, and the obligatory Turkish perfume for men, a vestige of Ottoman culture.
During this time, one of those in the room, a sociologist involved with the movement who documents its activities, preemptively gave answers to the usual criticisms of Gulen. I already knew these answers from the web. Why does he edit his earlier book and remove whole pages? Answer: He changed his views and became more liberal when he got to America. He was speaking to backwards provincial Eastern Turkey in these earlier sermons. What about his nasty statements about Jews and Christians, why do we remove them? Answer: he did not know better then. He was coming out of a conservative and reactionary community where even saying that Western culture has merits was questioned.
One of the people in the room receives a text message that Gulen is ready and we walk down the hall to a rectangular living room with bookshelves lining the wall on both ends. He chair with side table is at one end and a big screen video is at the other. To my embarrassment, Gulen insisted that I sit in his own chair. I tried to decline saying that he needs the back support in the chair and footrest, but he persisted, so there I was in his seat before 40 of followers.
I asked him questions for about another 15 minutes, some of them related to before but with greater consultation with my graduate student who is one of his disciples, who was sitting at my feet. (Yeah, I know, the hierarchical sitting arrangements are foreign to Americans. I got more accustomed to them in India where I was treated as a Brahmin Professor).
Since the graduate student had taken my course on theology of other religions, and he himself could not place Gulen into the theological categories. We asked him: is he is an inclusivist, universalist, or pluralist. The student explaining the fuller categories in Turkish. Gulen answered that it is about meeting people on a personal level, not worked out theology.
I asked him about maintaining religion amidst the distractions of the long hours of having a well-paying career in the US, combined with distractions of popular culture, the internet, and university life. For this one, I spoke directly to the assembled, and received many knowing nods and smiles from them. Gulen quickly replied that many Christian leaders ask him this same question. Despite this, Gulen’s answer returned to an earlier era of traditionalism as opposed to modernity. He said technology, education are good, if you use them for a good purpose. Just make sure not to be fundamentalist or secular. You will figure it out.
After a bit of back and forth on these themes, I tell him that I am done with my questions. I move out of his chair to a chair next his special chair. I expected him to return to his own seat but he did not. At this point, he give me as a gift a pair of plush Ascot slippers to wear in the building. Islamic law allows slippers in cases where one must take off one’s shoes.
To continue the evening, a video is shown of a Turkish singer lamenting the strain of life as a sacrifice, just like Abraham and asking for God’s forgiveness.
Gulan gives musar (Ethical reproach in Judaism) for the next quarter hour on the need to overcome life’s struggles and sacrifices. All the Quranic figures of Abraham and Moses had to struggle. They also all had to migrate to new countries. Yet, look how much they accomplished. The migration and sacrifice was part of God’s plan. We need forgiveness, which God’s mercy and patient endurance in our lives, and in imitation of God so too you show others tolerance, forgiveness and serve them with action. Much of this talk on suffering, sacrifice, and surviving hardships and migration had a Shver tsu zayn a yid sound to it, but here is was the difficulties of being part of the Hizmat movement. The talk left those assembled with a charge and a mission to serve others as part of the hizmat movement.
Gulen opens the floor for questions and is asked by the visiting businessmen a few basic questions about the meaning of various Quranic stories. The session ends with one of his assistants, reading off from his phone the many difficulties and difficult triumphs of the Hizmet movement around the world. Finally, a closing exhortation to serve others.
A legal points of interest to Jewish readers. I asked my graduate student why could I wear slippers in the masjid, are they not shoes? Do they have a criteria for what is a shoe? I was told that the criteria is whether it is leather or not. The law comes from the Isra’iliyyat material of the Jewish law of shoes, which many consider as not binding.. I was told there are now leniencies to wear running shoes or deck shoes if not made of leather. But out of custom and tradition, everyone still takes off their shoes no matter what they are made out of. However, a learned scholar knows otherwise. Slippers are fine because they are designed never to wear outside. They are only indoor shoes, hence not considered shoes.
As stated above, Gulen is called by his students Hocaefendi (Master Teacher), an honorary title of respect. Gulen has no tariqa, no Sufi order, and he does want to be one a murshid, a leader or a Sufi leader. The movement was formed during the decades when the Turkish government banned all formal tariqa. Therefore, his movement functioned as a Romantic modern appropriation, a Neo-Sufism. It has no zhikr, no initiations, and no dance.
Our goal is to communicate what You have taught us to those whose hearts are sick as our hearts are, and whose minds are barren…. We have made mistakes, but we have made them while seeking You and trying to guide others… O Ruler of my heart. To the Ruler belongs the Royal manner that befits Him…If You forgive us, we should wish to study the book of Your universe anew so as to pay attention to the voices that tell of You. We should wish to witness the signs of Your Existence, and to be enraptured by the songs about You, so that we may reach Your holy realm. By your Graciousness, assist those in need! (Gulen)
They do tell stories of the devotion in times of old and have art work of dancing Sufis in their living rooms. They are like Heschel, or Samuel Dresner (Heschel’s early student) or the psychologist Abraham Twerski or even the Lubavitch Rebbe’s Essence of Chassidus. It is a Neo-Sufism about ethical musar, helping others, showing devotion, and working on community. The message of the Hizmat society consists of “All is based on love” so serve people. Gulen is called by his followers a Rumi for a Neo-Sufi modern age. “Love is one of the most subtle blessings that the All Merciful One has bestowed upon humanity. It exists in everyone like a seed.”
Fethullah Gulen is a liberal Hanafi imam when it comes to law, (think of Rav Uziel or Rav Nissim- a study of the relationship of Jewish pesak and Islamic modernism is a desideratum). In one of his books he has a chapter on the many early 20th century Islamic modernists who influenced him including Muhammed Hamdi Yazır, Ferit Kam, Babanzade Ahmed Naim and Ahmad Hilmi of Filibe. (This is a diverse list akin to a Jewish list that included C. N. Bialek and Rabbis Hayyim Hirschenson, Solomon Schechter, Shmuel Hayyim Landau, and Bernard Revel.) Here is an Oxford MA thesis on his Modernism.
The movement still relies heavily on ethnic immigrant identity – it is “tradition” like American Jewry circa 1930 – rather than educating them to higher levels of knowledge. They will use a few basic legal guidebooks and not worry about the details.
Members of the movement chose to keep daily worship or not. Hizmet does not intervene with personal matters. Gulen himself encourages people to pray prescribed prayers in Masjid or eat halal foods whenever possible. However, Hizmet does not reject those who do not do pray or not eat halal foods. Those are personal matters and in Gulen’s philosophy worship is expression of the relationship “between man and Allah” nobody can enter between them. The movement has those who in Jewish terms would be Modern Orthodox, it has those who would be old –time Conservative, and those who are not that observant but the observance they do not keep is traditional. Hocaefendi’s position is that he does not judge people on their devotions. He accepts everybody regardless of their level.
Are they like the Conservative movement of the 1940’s – traditionalists following accepted practices of the people? Are they a romantic modernism as their base a universal reading of Sufism as tolerance, love, and intercultural understanding? Are they Modern Orthodox for their insistence on women covering their hair and everyone only eating OU kosher as their halal– both inside and outside the home? The range of practice varies from those who will not trust airline food as being Halal to others who will eat everything out. Are they like the former European Orthodox community kehillot of Einheits gemeinde- communautés consistoriales?
The movement produces a modernized Islam that keeps the commandments but has little to do with the vast corpus of Islamic works as studied in a traditional madrassa. For the laity, the only Islamic teaching that they study are the writings of Fethelulah Gulen, who defines Islam as love, tolerance, interfaith and cultural dialogue, science, and caring for others.
They are lenient in the practical keeping of Islamic law in many aspects. For example, if you are busy with work and school, then you do not need to pray in a masjid. College students are exempt during their busy school years and it is sufficient if they pray privately. Men will shake women’s hands in a business context.
The role of women in the movement will hit them hard in the next half century. Currently, women are excluded from the classes and the evening audiences with Gulen. At the retreat center, the women eat first and then the men to avoid comingling. Surprisingly, or not, one of the few items of Islamic law they are strict about is women covering their hair. I was told “most women in the movement have conservative background thus even before embracing the movement they used to cover their heads. There are other women in the movement who stay unhijabbed as they were before any affiliation to the movement.” However, I did not see any women in the movement without a hijab either in Pennsylvania or Turkey. There is no standard code of women’s clothing. However, Gulen stresses in his sermons modesty in women’s clothing.
My colleague Prof. Pim Valkenberg, who wrote a book on the Hizmat movement, had a different experiences than mine. He has have met women in the Hizmet movement who did not wear a veil, both in Turkey and in Washington D.C. and even though they are a minority he never got the impression that they were seen as maybe less good examples. I have seen quite a few examples of veiled and non-veiled women working together. Gülen has been quoted to say that the veil is a personal matter and it does not make one a good Muslimina.
The masjid has a separate women’s gallery, what Jews would call a mechitza, with a thickly woven wooden lattice allowing women to peak through the lattices like in Hasidic Synagogues. There was also a second floor balcony women’s section with one way glass, the men only saw a mirror. This is a strict interpretation of Islamic law on the need for a separation. In some of their schools, men and women are separated, but there is no physical division.
When Gulan gave his morning lecture, there was one women with her teenage daughter in the women’s section. I sat right in front of them on the other side of the partition. Whatever the mother expected in woman’s learning, what would the daughter want for herself and her daughters in the future? Will it be enough to be allowed to quietly sit in the back of a men’s class?
The events the Hizmat organization holds for outsiders- the non-Muslims who attend Hizmat events- the diners, public forums, and trips are co-ed. They have a distinction between insiders and outsiders.
The movement is lay driven and always regionally organized. They have set up summer camps, afterschool programs, and gap year programs for their members to instill Islam in their children. Each regional center is independent and makes its own material or independently decides what to use.
Gulen is official the mujahid (posek, rabbi) of the community but that is more as honorary title of respect than reality. Therefore, what do they do for having a mujahid in each community. I emailed someone this question and he answered ” throughout the communities in different places the decisions are taken on the basis of consultation( shurah). An example would be the boards members of the cultural or dialogue centers. Thus when new issues arise they are discussed by the members of the communities” They do it by committee as a ritual committee.
In this, they seem more 1930’s Jewish immigrant community than a modern denomination. These members on the committees do not have advanced training but they have done some studying like the reverends, shamashim, and old-timers who acted as rabbis in Jewish immigrant communities. I assume that at most, they have a year of training or they went to an Islamic High School.
Gulen himself writes about consultation “There may not be always unanimity (ijma’) in consultation. However, in a case where there is no general concurrence or consensus of opinion and decision amongst those present, the decision is taken and people act according to the opinion and conviction of the majority.”
Already in 20th century secular Turkey, the traditional madrassas were abolished as part of “Atatürk’s reforms”. Instead they created an alternative, the İmam Hatip school is a secondary education institution to train government employed imams. A similar process went on in soviet central Asia. They taught skills of running a mosque and basic Arabic and laws, but without the legal structure and traditionalism Islam was from textbooks. (There were similar such schools created by the Russian Tsar and the Austro-Hungarian Empire for Jews, a way to create government employed rabbis without rabbinic authority.) Gulen schools that taught Islam in Turkey, before the recent political events, followed this model.
The textbook on fiqh that Gulen taught when I visited was a book produced by a professor for these schools. It is like studying Menachem Alon’s Mishpat Ivrialong with Mamonides’ Mishneh Torah in lieu of a traditional beit midrash. (As side points of which I do not have first-hand knowledge, Erdogan has allowed more right wing instructors into these school in Turkey. )
Right now they don’t turn outside the community, so in the future they may turn outside for legal guidance or some of their disciples will find themselves the premature gedolim of the community. What will be their religion when the ethnic identity wears off and they have to form their own American Islam?
Most of those in the US in 2018 chose the Hizmat movement as their path over secularism or more fundamentalist versions of Islam. They are successful in the broader Ottoman countries of the Balkans and Cental Asia. Now, as they set up centers all over the US and beyond, they will be the Islam in town for many others, the place to go for festivals, Islamic after school and camps for the kids, and for Islamic single sex dorm houses on college campuses.
Similar to Chabad, the very message is to go out and serve other, build institutions, build connections with people. They are both trans-national religions of the age of globalization taking over by showing up. They currently have 2 million students in 1000 schools in 40 countries including Japan, Australia, Germany, Nigeria, South Africa and Tunisia. (Salafi dawah is more about building Mosques and staffing them with Salafi preachers and Salafi books). The majority of their current publishing is, after Turkish, in English followed by German as their second language along with thirty other languages including Spanish, Urdu, Chinese, Indonesian, Polish, Thai, and Bosnian. Right now, they are mainly publishing in English and German. The next generation will definitely switch to vernaculars from Turkish
If one advocates the combining of secular studies and Islam, then what are the parameters? If the goal is to combine democracy with Islam and tolerance and Islam, then what does one do with prior texts, especially those that take a harder line? If the goal is to combine interfaith and Islam, then where are the lines?
If a college student who grew up in the Hizmat movement looks to get guidance on these question and finds it lacking, he will look to authors such as the very liberal Sunnism of UCLA Prof, Khaled M. Abou el Fadl or Emory Prof. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, who advocates a secular state for Islam. Alternately, they could like the answers of a variety of feminist or progressive Muslims. I am sure others will say we cannot go any further than Gulen did and reject change.
Since each disciple is given independence and each center is both independent and lay driven, this will naturally create greater diversity and multiple approaches in the future. It will also cause some to look for new leadership.
Disciples can question his ideas among themselves but do not do it to him. They can easily say to me, that they follow something else or don’t agree with his reading. The class had questions addressed to him but not a questioning of him. Those were left as comments among themselves. They wanted Gulen’s wisdom of how to apply this text in terms of service and modernity. They were not really looking for lamdanut or peshat (analysis or close reading) but his religious views. (No one questioned the Lubavitcher Rebbe or Rav Shlomo Carlebach about their quotes from Maimonides, it was not the purpose of the talk, which was charismatic).
He is telling them to rely on his charismatic message and to refer to his writings. They are publishing his writings and distributing them. There is no heir and no succession plan. Each community is led by its own lay board. As of now, they do not have standardized textbooks or uniform classes for summer camps and after-school programs. But his writings embrace a charge of educating the youth without a clear direction of implementation into the complexity of democracy, human rights, science, education, or interfaith. They are only now beginning to discover the lack of depth, but Gulen encourages them to be their own people and that they can differ with him
As I noted eight years ago in my blog discussions with various members of the movement. I talk to a 21-year-old economic major who describes how the movement took Islam from the folkways and tradition in his small town and made it into a religion. Now the religion of Islam that he follows is by conscious choice and he sees that it can be treated as Turkish-Islamic culture. This would sound like a religion of self-conscious Orthodoxy, the Jacob Katz thesis on Orthodoxy. Their own newspaper quoted anthropologist Ruth Benedict that “Our faith in the present dies out long before our faith in the future.” They are a transition that is still taking place in which the plausibility structure of the past has died and the Gulen movement offers the potential of a future plausibility structure that works.
Another vignette: I am speaking to an 18-year-old recent graduate of the Gulen boarding prep school in CT. He explains to me how Islam was not part of the curriculum but they have prayer and chaplains. He tells me that he is going to study Political Science and pre-law in a major Midwestern mega-university. What will his Islam be without any book knowledge?
A third vignette: I am speaking to a 50-year-old organizer in one of the centers. Someone shows him a keychain and asks: what is written on it? He says he thinks the first Surah of the Koran but that he cannot translate it and would need to look up its meaning. Since the first Surah is known to every school child who learns Koran-and even to any Jewish studies teacher who has ever taught the second Surah because of its Judaic sources- what do I make of his lack of knowledge of the Koran? it is not hard to remember.
In general, they say to trust one’s own heart in religion. Don’t be a hypocrite and try to be sincere in your practice. They have created an Islam of knowledge of the basic rules and Mosque etiquette but no real learning of Islamic sources. They say to trust the heart for matters of interpretation. Imams, kadis, and scary sources of authority do not play a role in their thinking.
How can I evaluate if the next generation will return to sources of authority and which ones they will choose? Strict ones, progressive ones, Sufi ones, legalistic ones. When asked about restrictive fatwas, salafi interpretation or about Islamic reformers, they tend to shrug it off and say: Don’t question others or engage in polemics- love all – don’t fight with the right or the left.
What happens when the kids open the books of these other trend? Is this a viable long term movement. Will the second and third generation either follow Hanson’s law and move towards Islamist or Fundamentalism or completely assimilate, or a majority becoming something like a liberal progressive Islam once they are financially established. What does our experience as American Jews (or American Catholics) show?
Dr. Alan Brill is the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair for Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, where he teaches Jewish studies in the Department of Religion and the Jewish-Christian Studies Graduate Program. He specializes in interfaith theology, Jewish mysticism, modern Jewish thought and contemporary Jewish Orthodoxy and offers courses in medieval and modern Jewish thought, Jewish mysticism, interfaith encounter and Jewish theology. Dr. Brill is also the author of Judaism and World Religions: Christianity, Islam, and Eastern Religions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and Thinking God: The Mysticism of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin (Yeshiva University Press, 2002).
Source: Kavvanah , July 10, 2018