Professor Ori Z. Soltes: ‘Fethullah Gülen wants to be an altruistic servant of others’

Professor Ori Z. Soltes (Photo: Today's Zaman)
Professor Ori Z. Soltes (Photo: Today's Zaman)

Date posted: November 27, 2013


Professor Ori Z. Soltes, author of ‘Embracing the World: Fethullah Gülen’s Thought and Its Relationship to Jalaluddin Rumi and Others,’ explains how Gülen’s perception of Sufism is grounded particularly in the work of thinkers such as Jalaluddin Rumi, Ibn Arabi and Said Nursi, but is also grounded in the idea of selflessness.

Most of the studies written on Fethullah Gülen to date generally emphasize the importance of Gülen’s approach to Sufism and how Sufism has played a central role in Gülen’s way of life and thinking.

In his recent book, “Embracing the World: Fethullah Gülen’s Thought and Its Relationship to Jalaluddin Rumi and Others,” Professor Ori Z. Soltes aims to take readers on a spiritual journey seeking the inner light of Sufism through the ideas of Gülen.

Soltes believes that Gülen’s perception of Sufism is grounded particularly in the work of thinkers such as Jalaluddin Rumi, Ibn Arabi and Said Nursi, but is also grounded in the idea of selflessness.

“Hizmet means service, serving others, not myself, and he uses the word ‘altruism’ all the time. ‘My goal is to be an altruistic servant of others,’ that’s what the Hizmet movement is all about,” he notes.

Today’s Zaman interviewed Soltes about his recent book on Gülen.

We can start with the definition of Sufism. How do you think Gülen interprets Sufism? Does he think that it’s a Muslim lifestyle, or something different?

Both. He absolutely recognizes the Islamic roots of Sufism and the Sufis who he most admires, people like Rumi, like Arabi, are marked at the wrong time by an unusual vision, which is a kind of Universalist vision. The kind of vision where Rumi says, “I go into the mosque, I go into the church, I go into the synagogue, I can go into them all.” These guys are writing and teaching in the 12th and 13th centuries, they are writing when the Crusades are going on, they are writing when the Reconquista is going on across the other side of the Mediterranean. You have Islam and Christendom at each other’s throat. Within Islam you’ve got chaos with the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate. You have, in Christendom, a whole range of problems going on that are intrafaith problems.

These guys are both Muslims and Universalists at the same time, and I think that’s something that particularly inspires Gülen. In the world in which we live, which is a world where everybody is so interconnected by way of the Internet and all those other devices that I don’t use but other people do; in that sort of world, his vision of the meaning of this Universalism is endlessly expansive. His senses, as I mentioned at the end of the book, of the importance of humanity as a series of vice-regents employed, so to speak, by God to do God’s work attending to the planet, and not simply taking from the planet, is very important. I call him a neo-Sufi; he expands what is inherent, at the very least, in the Sufism of people like Arabi and Rumi as far as it’ll go.

Emphasizing Rumi

Do you think that the central figure for Gülen, as a Sufi master, is Rumi? Could you tell us how you came to this conclusion?

First of all, I would probably argue that the most important figure for Gülen is the Prophet Muhammad, there’s no question about that. But it seems to me that he sees [Rumi as important], and this I have inferred from his repeated quotes from Rumi: things that he’s written about him, things that he refers to him and because of the particular aspects of Rumi that he emphasizes, which seem connected to what he emphasizes in his broader teachings to his worldwide students about how to be in the world. So, I see Rumi as a particularly important character. Not the only one by any means, as I also mention [in the book], from Socrates to [Albert] Einstein. Also, within the Islamic tradition, not just Rumi, and within Sufism, not just Rumi, but beyond the Sufi tradition into the broader reaches of Islamic thought, which is conversant [with his philosophy]. But Rumi seems to have a particular affinity with him and I infer this based on his writings.

What about Nursi, for example, how do you think he influenced Gülen’s thought?

I think [he was] very influential. I think Gülen moves in other directions. One of the most important features of Nursi’s thought is the importance of Islam to Turkey, and he lived at the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the struggle to maintain Turkey. After that collapse, as you know, the Ottomans were on the wrong side of the fence in the respect of who’s winning and who’s losing after World War I. Those who were on the winning side of the fence were essentially three forces, the French, the British and the Americans. The Americans showed up late, not until 1917, and left the world in the hands of the British and the French, whose colonial ambitions, not to be negative about them but I’m just trying to be factual here, promptly decided how the entire Middle East would be reconfigured according to their needs.

Now it was the post-Ottoman Turkey period, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led a rather strong, strenuous and ultimately successful struggle against the French to assert a post-Ottoman Turkish identity, but along the way, of course, part of what he felt was necessary for the Turkey he was trying to create was to modernize it, which in his mind meant secularizing it. Nursi stood for the principal of “But then you’re throwing the baby out with the bath water,” you’re losing an important element of the Turkish soul if you eliminate Islam from the equation of Turkey. Of course, he had his own struggles, as you know, with Atatürk, and that in particular had a profound depth on Gülen’s speaking about the importance of Islam as an element within the Turkish soul. And to repeat what I said earlier, that doesn’t mean that he’s not, at the same time, thinking in a very Universalist sort of way and, I think, probably beyond where Nursi had gone in terms of his thinking.

Could you tell us a little about the formulation of Sufism? How do you think Gülen formulated the concepts of Sufism?

I think of Fethullah Gülen as a Sufi, or as a neo-Sufi, most particularly in the respect of the paradox of being so intensely Muslim on one hand and so distinctively Universalist on the other hand; I think of his understanding of Sufism as a mystical movement and what mysticism is all about, in any and every tradition. Well, the mystic believes that there’s a kind of hidden recess to [find] God, called the mysterion. It’s a Greek word, it comes from a verb stem which means to close or, therefore, to hide. So, it’s a hiddenness that every day practitioners don’t get to. The mystic has the sense that if I just go about my everyday business — as a Jew, as Christian, as a Muslim — and I pray with the congregation, as I do, but without really thinking about it that much, just as many people do, I’m only getting to the outer edges of God.

There’s a depth that the mystic seeks. The mystic, in seeking that depth, seeks to be filled with God. Now, I can only be filled with God if I empty myself of myself. If I’m in there, I can’t be filled with God, by definition, which also means that the mystic has to have as his or her goal not to be filled with God, because that’s still too self-centered, it’s to be filled with God so I can return from that experience and then to the community as a consequence of it. The mystic doesn’t seek enlightenment, he seeks enlightenment for the sake and safety of the community. If my goal is to seek enlightenment for myself, I’m too self-centered and, therefore, I won’t be filled with God because there’s me in the way.

So, I see Gülen grounded particularly in the work of thinkers such as Jalaluddin Rumi, Ibn Arabi and Said Nursi, but it is also grounded in the idea of selflessness.

When I achieve that, then I achieve a oneness with God and with that in mind, of course, the movement that is an outcome of his teachings directly, the Hizmet movement, is a very interesting articulation of what it means to improve a community. Hizmet means service, serving others, not myself, and he uses the word, in English, “altruism” all the time. “My goal is to be an altruistic servant of others,” that’s what the Hizmet movement is all about. What he’s been able to do, which Arabi couldn’t do, Rumi couldn’t do and Nursi couldn’t do, because they lived in a different world, was extend the theory of selflessness into a very distinct activation.

Obtaining the concept of service

Where, do you think, he obtained the concept of service? If you describe his leadership, you could say that he’s a servant leader. Where, do you think, he takes that concept — from the Quran?

I would say, from the Quran in the first place, which means it is inherent in Islam to be a servant.

Do you mean that, according to the Quran, a leader is a servant?

Yes, exactly. And then, I think, he would say that idea is further expanded here and there, in this hadith or that hadith, it may be articulated in this way or that way, in this school of jurisprudence or that, or in this theological perspective or that, but it comes to a kind of consonant articulation in the writing of people like Arabi or Rumi, who are so emphatic about it.

So, on one hand that’s where he’s coming from, on the other hand, because he’s so broad in his self-education, he would find a kind of natural articulation of the idea of doing and not just talking or thinking in the works of Plato. The word that I used at the end of the book, ergon, meaning action, is in their thinking contrasted with logos. Logos is the words I say about some idea, while ergon is when I activate it. When Socrates gives a sermon on the immortality of the soul, that’s logos. When he drinks the hemlock like he’s drinking the best drink he’s ever had in his life, going clearly happily to death, where he’s going to be conscious of the souls of others, then that’s action; not only his words show that he really believes what he’s doing.

When examining the Sufi masters, we see that not all reach out to this global network and organizations. How, do you think, this interpretation of Islam or Sufism impacts on all these organizations and the organizational model of the movement in the world? What’s the link between Gülen’s lifestyle, Sufism and these organizations?

I guess I have two responses to that. One is, if I put myself in Gülen’s shoes, I’d imagine — as far as I can tell, from everything I’ve read by him and everyone I’ve met who either knows, has met him or works within this Hizmet movement — that he must struggle every day with the realization, because he can’t be blind to it, that he is renowned and revered across the world, and not let that get to him so his head’s swollen and he can’t go through the door. He maintains a lifestyle that’s humble and a sensibility that’s humble and consistent with his principles of thinking of a leader as a servant. Thinking not in the terms of the power to govern but the power to serve.

If, from his point of view, I look out on the world and I see this array of institutions that have been inspired by me, on the one hand he must be enormously uncomfortable, which is why he was so insistent that it not be called the Gülen movement, because that implies a cult of the individual and he wants to focus away from that: “On Hizmet, not on me. On Hizmet, not on me.”

But at the same time, he must realize that these are instruments for doing what, in the best of all possible worlds, he’d like to be doing, which is helping to improve the world. He creates hundreds and hundreds, for example, of educational institutions, which train students to think not of themselves but others. If you’re inculcating them to be, and this is my own coinage, “hizmetologists,” then you’re creating a mechanism that’s going to continue to spread and expand and improve the world in the future. He writes, of course, about the importance of education, because children are the future. So, how do you train them? Do you train them to be selfish little creeps or do you train them to think of others? And what are the mechanisms of doing that?

That was the first part of my answer; the second part is not as long. The second part is: If I look at it from the outside, I understand all the people who are fearful of Gülen, who feel threatened by Gülen, who make up all kinds of interesting stories about what he’s really about, what these people are really about. Anytime you’re any kind of a revolutionary, you’re going to encounter an array of people who oppose you because you’re trying new territory. Most people are uncomfortable with new territories; they want old territories.

The perception of Sufism

When we look at the example of Gülen and the Gülen movement, we cannot separate Sufism and Islam, they’re going together. In the US, for example, when you say Sufism, how would Americans perceive that term? Do they relate that to Islam?

If one thinks of the US in a pre and post-9/11 way, before 9/11 I don’t think most Americans had even close to a clue of what Islam was about. I don’t think that words like Sufi, Sunni, Shiite or any of those basic terms would’ve been familiar. Since 9/11, because there’s been an interest in Islam, there’re probably many more Americans who at least know those terms. I don’t think most of them have a clear idea of what they mean, but if you say the word Sufi [there’ll be] either blank stares, they have no idea what you’re talking about, or if they know the word they don’t know it’s associated with Islam.

What do you think about the image of Sufism in the Muslim world?

Historically, in all three Abrahamic traditions, the mystics tended to be an object of suspicion on the part of non-mystics. For whatever reasons, the assumption seems to be, “Well, they’re not really following the rules, they’re kind of breaking them.” And mysticism is, you might say, a propitious, hopeful but also dangerous enterprise. If I empty myself of self to be filled with God, there’s the danger that I can’t get myself back. If I don’t get myself back, I’m dead, crazy, apostatized or heretical. In the Sufi case, you have someone like Mansur Al-Hallaj, who comes back from this ecstatic experience, in 922, by the Gregorian calendar, and he yells out, “Ana al haq, ana al haq — I am the truth, I am God,” and he’s executed as an heretic. What happened was that he was still so filled with God that he wasn’t able to separate himself, but he’s back in the public sphere yelling it out, and they think he’s an apostate or a heretic, but he’s simply describing a condition in which he’s so filled with God that he can’t even find himself. There’s that danger.

There’s the danger, as a practical matter, because mysticism’s so paradoxical, if all of us followed it, there’s the danger that the entire community becomes almost chaotic. There’s the practical-political danger because, let’s face it, religion and politics have always been interwoven and as often as not, people of the cloth are as much political as they are spiritual. So, as a practical matter, if you convince them all that they don’t need my spiritual leadership, I’m not going to like you very much. I’ll try to convince them that there’s something that’s just not right about what you’re telling them.

One sees that, but not uniquely in Islam, in its legalistic personality relative to Sufism, you see that in all these traditions. I suppose that’s still true to a certain extent, at least, in some places today. The mystic is an object of suspicion. It is why, in the Sufi tradition, people like Arabi, or before him, Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali are so important, because they had already established themselves as legalists before they became mystics.


Professor Ori Z. Soltes currently teaches theology, philosophy and art history at Georgetown University. He has also taught across diverse disciplines for many years at The Johns Hopkins University, Cleveland State University, Case Western Reserve University, Siegel College in Cleveland and other colleges and universities.

Source: Today's Zaman , November 26, 2013

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