Book Review — Fethullah Gülen: A Life of Hizmet


Date posted: August 23, 2019

Robert D. Cornwall

Several years ago I became acquainted with a Turkish-originated movement that sponsored interfaith dialogue. The members of the group, most of whom are Turkish are also Muslims. I later discovered that this group was part of a movement known as Hizmet, which is Turkish for service. I’ve come to know and respect that members of this movement, at least those whom I’ve encountered. They are faithful Muslims who embrace service to others and interfaith dialog and partnerships. Since these are core values for me as a person, it seemed appropriate to build on the relationships that were developing. Since this is a book that tells the story of the founder of Hizmet, it should not come as a surprise that what I share here will be sympathetic to the movement and its founder.

This book, which was provided to me as a gift from one of the local Hizmet leaders, tells the life-story of the Turkish spiritual leader Fethullah Gülen. Gülen, who has been deemed a terrorist by the current Turkish government and its autocratic president, is now living in exile in rural Pennsylvania. Although I’ve not met Imam Gülen, I have come to know people affiliated with the movement, and they don’t seem like terrorists to me. In fact, they are good people who embrace non-violence, tolerance, education, and service to humanity. These seem to be good qualities to have in an age of violence and hatred. While I’ve come to know members of the movement and had some knowledge of its founder, I really didn’t know too much about him. I expect I’m not alone.  Hence, the importance of this biography written by Jon Pahl, a Lutheran professor of church history.

Jon Pahl teaches at United Lutheran Seminary and holds the Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. A well-regarded historian of Christianity, Pahl writes as a sympathetic biographer. By that I mean, he, like me, was introduced to the movement by a local branch of the movement that was engaged in interfaith work. Like me, Pahl had his introduction to the movement through a Hizmet sponsored event. His was an Iftar dinner and mine was an Abrahamic dinner sponsored by the movement and held at a local Christian college. It is from that vantage point that Pahl had access to leaders of the movement and to Gülen himself. 

While sympathetic to the movement and its founder, he understands the importance of keeping some distance from the subject. Here’s a bit of wisdom concerning historians and biographers. As one who is a historian, I can say that we try to be as objective as possible, but we do have our biases. Having a positive experience with the movement will color one’s interpretation. Nevertheless, Pahl is not a direct participant, so he brings an outsider’s perspective to the conversation. That is important, especially since the founder and the movement have been tarred with the label of terrorist. I should also note that the publisher, Blue Dome Press, is affiliated with the movement. As far as I can tell this press, like many Christian denominational presses, provided the author the freedom to write what he believed was the truth about Gülen and Hizmet.

As a biographer, Pahl takes us on a journey from Gülen’s birth in a village in northeast Turkey, where his father was an imam, through his introduction to Sufism, and on toward a life of leadership within the Turkish religious community. We discover, if we didn’t already know, that when Turkey was founded as a republic, it was founded with a highly secularized constitution that required religion to be kept private. To make sure the republic remained thoroughly secular, the military used its power to enforce this vision. As one might expect, due to the country’s secular vision, Gülen, as a religious leader, he spent much of his life evading arrest or spending time in prison for his religious activities. Although there was a period in the 1980s and 1990s where there was a thaw, taking an overtly public religious role in Turkey was always dangerous. Nevertheless, Gülen remained committed to his calling as a religious teacher and leader. Over time he developed a reputation for being a powerful preacher who also lived an austere life. He became known for advocating for adherence to a form of Islam that was rooted in Sufism and was open and embracing of others. With this vision in mind, he rose to prominence in the country, serving as an imam in major communities such as Izmir and Istanbul. 

There are principles that emerge from his life and movement that are key, and the book is organized around these principles, showing how they emerged from his reading of the Quran and his adherence to the life and teachings of Muhammad. These five include:  1) nonviolence; 2) principled pluralism (which is expressed through engagement in interfaith dialogue); 3) engaged empathy (which expresses itself in service to others); 4) commitment to education and literacy, especially the sciences; and finally 5) a commitment to a model of social enterprise that Gülen believed would empower people in Turkey and elsewhere. It should be noted that his vision of social entrepreneurship is similar to the principles espoused by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus. That is, he embraced capitalism with a difference, one that is rooted in theology. Each of these emphases is illustrated at different points in Gülen’s life and as the movement expanded beyond Turkey to a global presence. All of this emerged out of Gülen’s study of the Quran and the life of Muhammad. In other words, he believes that this is what true Islam looks like. 

Gülen comes off in the book as a charismatic figure, who is defined by humility.  You can understand why some might find him troubling. He has inspired great loyalty. Yet, like the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis, he has used this charisma and loyalty for the good. A biography like this is important because it brings to life both the person, whose vision led to the creation of the movement and the nature of the movement itself. Because Gülen and his movement have been deemed dangerous by the Turkish government it is important to get the facts straight.

While this is certainly a sympathetic biography, it’s not hagiography. Pahl doesn’t focus on Gülen’s faults, but he doesn’t shy away from them either. He notes the dangers posed by a personality cult, which the imam could inspire had he so desired. Thus, Pahl notes the ways in which Gülen has tried to remain separate from any such reality. Although the book is published by a Hizmet-related entity (remember that social enterprise is part of the vision), Pahl comes to the subject as a historian of religion. He brings that sense of commitment to getting the facts straight, which one would expect of a historian.

So, why read this book? The further subtitle of the book phrases this question a bit differently, and in the form of a statement, suggesting where Pahl wants to take the reader: “why a Muslim scholar in Pennsylvania matters to the world.” As he lays out his answer to the question of why we ought to pay attention to this man, Pahl suggests that the movement offers a vision of Islam that runs counter to popular stereotypes and which offers a pathway for Islam to remain true to its core values even as it takes its place within the modern world. This is important at a time when culture wars are raging. It also reminds us that Islam is not monolithic (any more than Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism to name but a few major religions). It is also a reminder that Sufism, which is the more mystical version, may play an important role going forward in terms of interfaith conversations and partnerships. It speaks also to the importance of service, helping us understand that service to humanity is deeply rooted in Islam. It also suggests that Islam is capable of supporting democratic institutions. It is worth noting that even as the current president of Turkey turns increasingly autocratic, he has tried to solidify his power by attacking advocates of democracy who root their vision in their understanding of Islam. For those of us who value interfaith relationships, the commitment of this figure and this movement is important.

As one who is deeply engaged in interfaith work, and who has become friends with members of this movement, I can only say, please read this carefully. It may help create new opportunities for partnering in service to humanity with persons of deep faith who happen to be Muslim. It is important to read this book because there have been efforts on the part of some in this country to help extradite Fethullah Gülen back to Turkey. Considering that many in this movement who have remained in Turkey have lost their jobs (they tend to be highly educated and well-positioned in society) as well as being imprisoned for their participation in the movement, it is important to be informed so we can advocate for those who face persecution. As for Gülen, most likely he would be imprisoned or worse.  Why read the book, as the subtitle suggests, because this movement matters to the welfare of the world. So take and read. You will be rewarded by this well-written, accessible, thought-provoking, and informative biography of one of the more important religious leaders of our day.   

About Robert D. Cornwall

Robert D. Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan and Editor of Sharing the Practice (Academy of Parish Clergy). He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. While serving a church in Lompoc, CA, he was a weekly op-ed contributor to the Lompoc Record, is an active blogger, writing for his own blog — Ponderings on a Faith Journey. 

Cornwall is very active in ecumenical and interfaith work, having served as the Convener of the Troy-area Interfaith Group and was a founder of the Metropolitan Coalition of Congregations (suburban Detroit), serving as its President from 2013 to 2015. He earlier served as President of the Greater Santa Barbara Clergy Association, the UCSB University Religious Conference, and helped found the Lompoc Interfaith Group.

The author of a growing number of books on history, theology, the Bible, and more, he likes to opine on matters religious, historical, theological, cultural, and political.

Source: Ponderings on a Faith Journey , August 20, 2019


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