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Fethullah Gülen’s Educational Philosophy

By Fabio Vicini*

When Gülen criticizes traditional forms of Islamic education for not having been able to adapt to modern conditions, he expresses something more than a simple dissatisfaction with old methods of teaching. Instead he blames other Islamic scholars because they had not understood that the decline of Islam was not solely due to its incompatibility with modern forms of governance, but to the hegemony of Western-inspired secularist ideology. Gülen has realized that the battle is a cultural one, and that in order to oppose Kemalist intellectuals’ hegemony it is necessary to challenge their monopoly over education. This is why he thinks the solution to society’s moral decline could be in the promotion of a particular kind of education that even if teaching secular subjects at the same time could instill in students Islamic ethics and morals.

Gülen’s commitment to educational activities started in the 1980s, when he took advantage of changing political conditions to intervene in the public sphere and in particular in the cultural industry (1). He utilized both his charisma and his religious authority to attract a wide number of people and capital in educational activities. Indeed he used his web of informal ties to get financial resources and to direct them to the opening of a great number of such ethically oriented schools.

He began to stress in his discourses that schools concentrating on non-religious subjects could serve religious needs and that Turkey needed elite secular schools rather than mosques or imam-hatip (religious) schools. He did not simply argue that religion and science were compatible between themselves, as Nurcu teachings did (2). In Gülen’s educational philosophy science accomplishes a central role not only because of its connection with revelation, but because it is considered a great instrument in the hands of men to make a better world. From this perspective Gülen shares with Western thinkers the connection between science and the idea of progress. That is why he has never rejected either science or progress, but only the assumption of them as a transcendental teleology (3).

But if Gülen considers science a useful instrument in the hands of humanity, at the same time he thinks that it alone cannot constitute a guide for society. In his opinion science is not a positive value in itself. In order to really contribute to the welfare of society it has to be possessed and used by morally-guided individuals. The scope of Gülen’s educational project is exactly this:

to form individuals with a strong inner Islamic ethics, which can guide society toward the correct use of scientific discoveries.

This is the core of the educational project of the movement. Even if in the schools of the movement teaching is conducted on state-programmed subjects and in environments responding to secular rules of appearance, it is considered a good means to instill people with Islamic ethos. Clearly Gülen has drawn from Nursi ideas about education. Yet differently from Nurcu circles, in Gülen’s schools teaching of Islamic principles and daily practices have completely disappeared. What matters is the transmission of the spiritual dimension of Islam – that is its inner ethics – adding to it the knowledge of “secular” education. This is precisely the scope of what has been called Gülen’s “Islamic ethic of education”: to give Islamic-inspired education a new meaning and function (Agai 2003:51).

In this perspective education becomes a process that is not limited to the transmission of religious knowledge from one person to another (temsil). At the same time it cannot be simply reduced to the transmission of notions from a teacher to his pupil. Instead, it must contribute to shape the student’s personality. Indeed according to Gülen the goal of education must be to built student’s character (terbiye) by enabling him to interiorize qualities of self-discipline, tolerance and sense of mission (Ünal e Williams 2000:312, Michel 2003:78).

The importance Gülen attributes to such a kind of education is intimately connected to the final scope of the movement, that is to reform society. Indeed according to him, education will permit to shape a new generation of people (the golden generation), which will be able to use scientific knowledge according to Islamic ethics and to lead society along the right path.

Armed with the tools of science and religion, this generation shall be able to solve dilemmas of present and future society. Therefore committing to both education of other people and activism in society, these people will shape other individuals’ inner ethics and will definitively transform society into a paradise.

Thus, Fethullah Gülen’s renewal of Islamic tradition is strictly dependent on his ideas about the role religion should have in the society. Indeed he thinks Islam should constitute a guide for people. But in order to accomplish this duty it has to undermine other dominant ideologies. This implies to change traditional methods of education and to adopt a new educational philosophy, which contemplate at the same time both scientific knowledge and Islamic ethics.

Yet it seems to me that here Gülen has done something more than giving Islam a new role in society. By inserting Islam into an educational project he has given it both a new public form and a new aim, and consequently a new life. The emphasis he poses on education as a way of transmitting an Islamic ethos reveals underneath an “essentialized” idea of Islam.

The Sanctification of Daily Life

As it has been observed, contemporary Islamic intellectuals often take certain legal concepts from the Islamic tradition in a selective and arbitrary way (Moosa 1999, Yılmaz 2003). Then they give these concepts new functions and values by inserting them in their personal discursive frameworks. Gülen too has adapted some Islamic traditional concept to activities related to his project. Inserting the life of a vast number of people in Turkey into the educational project of the movement, Gülen has offered them the possibility of embedding their daily work in a transcendental framework.

According to Gülen there are two main ways to take part in the movement’s project. People can directly engage in education by becoming teachers in one of the schools connected to the community, or can simply decide to finance the activities of the movement in education and media sectors. The former is the way that certainly indicates a closer engagement to the pattern asserted by Gülen. Indeed teaching is considered by Gülen a holy duty (kutsi vazife) that only people with a strong moral can adequately perform (Agai 2003:58). In achieving the aim of building a new society in which individuals will act accordingly with Islamic ethics, teachers have the most important role. In fact they have the duty to instill in students Islamic principles and to shape their character. Overall they have to accomplish this deed following a specific pedagogical pattern.

As I have already said, according to Gülen education is not a simple passage of contents from one person to another. Instead, it is a process by which the student incorporates a series of Islamic values by taking an example from his educator. In this perspective the teacher must be a model (temsil) for the student. In his daily actions he has to show his pupils how to combine an Islamic moral of action with the study and practice of science. Indeed the role of the teacher consists in assisting his students in acquiring character. In this sense he gives “guidance” (irşad). This term usually refers to guide pupils in the learning process of Islamic traditional practices. Yet Gülen has extended its meaning to include teaching in secular schools provided that it is done according to a specific ethics (4). Consequently being a dedicated teacher (in one of the schools linked to the movement) becomes a kind of religious merit (Agai 2003:59).

Instead a person who is not a teacher can take part in the movement’s project by working in other activities linked to it, such as journals, foundations, or even school dormitories. Therefore, even people with other occupations can sustain the project by financing its activities. These people participate in the movement only in an indirect way. Yet Gülen inserts their activities in the scope of the movement and make them became “Islamized” as well.

Indeed making use of Islamic concepts, Gülen inserts his followers’ activities – both teaching and working to finance the movement – into a transcendental framework. A central concept Gülen extrapolates from tradition is hizmet, which generally refers to religious service. According to his socially-oriented idea of Islam, he has extended this concept to every act of serving the benefit of others. Therefore, because the educational project of the movement is finalized at overcoming the present situation of moral decline and transforming this world into a better one, acting in order to support such a project serves the benefit of others. Consequently it becomes a kind of “religious act”. At the same time he uses other concepts like those of himmet (giving donations and protecting good work) and ihlas (seeking God’s appreciation for every action), which generally refer to Islamic traditional duties, to define respectively people financing the movement and people acting according to the ethics prescribed by the movement.

Gülen has extended the meaning of different traditional concepts in order that they can include every act that is even indirectly connected with the realization of the project of the movement. In this way he has given these actions a religious dimension. Therefore, he has strongly widened the number of people who can consider themselves part of the movement. This move can be seen as strategic. Surely it permits the institutions of the movement to obtain money from a large number of wealthy businessmen. At the same time, from Gülen’s perspective it can be read as a way of further extending the range of his message and make it accessible to the highest possible number of people. If working can enter into a transcendental framework, many people can start to think of inserting their life in a religious dimension. I suppose this can be considered another manner by which Gülen hopes that Islamic morals can spread all over society.

As I have shown, Gülen has been able to offer the chance to insert their daily life into a transcendental framework to a wide number of people. Recurring to traditional concepts he has “made Islamic” the work of different individuals. Yet I think he has done even more: he has given to religious experience a new dimension, which is not solely suitable for modern forms of governance, but also overlaps secular conceptions.

Indeed the emphasis he poses on education as a way of transmitting an Islamic ethos reveals underneath an “essentialized” idea of Islam, which is in tune with secular ideas about the space religion should occupy in society. Yet moreover, the idea this ethos should push people to act in society reveals underneath a conception of the “Muslim subject” as an ethically-guided agent, which recalls the Western concept of moral agency.

Source: Excerpted from “Gülen’s Rethinking of Islamic Pattern and Its Socio-Political Effects” by Fabio Vicini. This paper was presented at the conference titled “Muslim world in transition: Contributions of the Gulen Movement”, 25-27 October 2007, London

Click here to visit the conference web page.

* Fabio Vicini (MA in anthropology, University of Milano-Bicocca, Milan, 2006 on the Gülen movement; BA in social sciences, University of Modena e Reggio Emilia, Modena, 2003): On the editorial board of ACHAB, Rivista Italiana di Antropologia. Research interests: anthropology of Islam, with a focus on human agency, ethics and emotions; and, secondarily, anthropology of secularism in Ottoman and Turkish history.


1- Gülen’s access to public life was favored by the Özal government overture toward Islamic associations in early 1980s. In that period Islamic associations and Sufi brotherhoods could take advantage of a 1983 law which enabled the formation of new foundations (vakiflar), provided that they had not political objectives. By the foundations system Islamic groups could organize educational, religious and charitable activities around informal networks (Zubaida 1996). Yet, as aforementioned, Gülen differentiated himself from other Islamic groups by investing foundations’ money in the opening of state-like schools, rather than imam-hatip ones.

2- Effectively Gülen took from Nursi the idea that science is one of the ways that conduct to God, because by showing the complexity of nature it reveals His greatness. For an analysis of the 4 ways to understand the existence of God described in the Risale-i Nur (The epistles of Light), the collection of Said Nursi’s writings, see Mermer Ali 1997.

3- In Gülen’s words the real problem consists in the fact “we have been unable to assign a true direction to science, and thus confused revealed knowledge with scientific theories and sometimes scientific knowledge with philosophy […]. One result is that the younger generations became alienated from their society. After a while, these inexperienced generations lost their religious and moral values, and the whole nation began to decline in thought, ideals, art, and life […] and evil aspects of modern civilization were propagated.” (Ünal & Williams 2000: 97, taken from Akman, “Fethullah Hoca Anlatiyor”).

4- That is why teachers are requested to be of the utmost integrity. In Gülen’s words “those who want to reform the world must first reform themselves. In order to bring others to the path of travelling to a better world, they must purify their inner worlds of hatred, rancour, and jealousy, and adorn their outer world with all kinds of virtues” (The Necessity of Interfaith Dialogue: A Muslim Approach. Speech given at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Capetown, 1-8 December 1999, quoted in Michel 2003:78). As I have explained elsewhere (Essere Sufi nel movimento neo-Nur di Fethullah Gülen, M.A. Thesis at University of Milano-Bicocca) more devoted members of the movement follow a disciplinary pattern of practices directed to incorporate a series of virtues by which they continuously oversee their moral integrity. Yet here I am interested in the effects of Gülen’s message over a larger public.