What kinds of altruisms are embodied by Fethullah Gulen?

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What kinds of altruisms are embodied by Fethullah Gulen?

On June 29th, 2021, CRC Book Talks program hosted Dr. Jon Pahl, where he discussed different kinds of altruism embodied by the U.S based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen. 


The first kind of altruism discussed by Pahl is the altruism of learning. He explains that this form of altruism seen in Gulen stems from his growing up in the village of Korucuk, in Erzurum, and being raised by a family who greatly cherished education. Gulen’s mother was his first Quran teacher and his father was an imam at a nearby mosque. At a very young age, Pahl explains, Gulen learned how to read, and eventually memorized the Quran entirely. Though, it is important to note that this love of knowledge wasn’t only limited to the spiritual, but also the scientific. Pahl highlights the importance that Gulen places on receiving an education through multiple mediums — not only the study of theology and the Quran but also studies like music and the sciences. Pahl mentions that a common metaphor used by the Hizmet community to describe this type of education is “flying with two wings.” In other words, embracing the spiritual and scientific realms of knowledge. Pahl states that omitting the spiritualistic could cause traits that are mechanistic or materialistic, and that omitting the scientific could lead to fanaticism and ignorance.


The second type of altruism is the altruism of non-violence. Despite being slandered as a terrorist, Fethullah Gulen has been an avid advocate of non-violence (peace) throughout his life. Though, this isn’t an absolute pacifism, explains Pahl, considering that there have been followers of his who’ve served in the police department and military. The type of non-violence one can notice Gulen surrounds the idea of not hitting back when being hit and not speaking harshly when spoken harshly to. Pahl notes that this aspect of Gulen has become clearer in recent years, mostly due to the false allegations made against his person and organization. 

According to Pahl, Gulen’s teachings of non-violence date back to how he used to teach his students to pray. This was through summer camps, which were held in the wilderness and away from the city. Such camps provided students the opportunity to pray more consciously, without the distractions of life in the city. The camps also provided students with both the knowledge of prayer, as well as its practice. The act of praying then becomes an act of non-violence, because it involves one attending to God, as well as dropping their ego. Pahl refers to a scientific study which discovered that during prayer, the cerebral cortex forest, and the amygdala calms. With this, the fight-flight response then drops, and the capacity for attention — especially to others — increases. Hence, the altruism of non-violence is present in spiritual activities like prayer. 


The third type of altruism is the altruism of engaged empathy. Pahl mentions how during the research for his book, he was surprised to learn that Gulen cried regularly while preaching and that he would often move his audience to tears as well. After interviewing a number of people, Pahl discovered that the reason for Gulen’s tears was the widespread and unnecessary suffering of Muslims, as well as others, around the world. To explain this in better detail, Pahl once again refers to Gulen’s summer camps and mentions something Gulen once wrote: “nature is much more than a heap of materiality or an accumulation of objects. Nature has a certain sacredness, for it is an arena in which God’s beautiful names are displayed. This display, even more, can motivate people to action, even to the extent of foregoing the passion of life to enable others to live and service to all creation” (Gulen). Thus, these camps served Hizmet’s goal, by connecting the heart and the head — learning and loving through collective labor. Returning to the notion of flying with two wings, when both science and the spiritual are embraced, the scientific is rescued from materialism and from being a lethal weapon, and religion is rescued from being cut off from intelligence and life. So, these camps sought to give students two wings, in a sense. 


The fourth type of altruism is the altruism of hosgoru. Pahl explains this word as the ability for one to “see nicely,” or to be tolerant. He talks about how this concept is central to the Hizmet movement, and that by attending to others with the eyes of mercy and compassion, Gulen established a remarkable range of initiatives in interreligious dialogue. Pahl explains that this particular altruism of hosgoru is one of the most important factors that contributed to the dramatic growth of hizmet throughout the globe.

Istisare (Consultation)

The fifth type of altruism is the altruism of istisare, or mutual consultation. Pahl explains that istisare has the capacity of fostering internal debate about tasks and ideas moving forward. During the interview, Pahl quotes a passage from his book regarding this — “Learning in a consultation could go two ways, Gulen didn’t only give directions to people’s activities through istisare, he could also be aware of potential new directions through the activities of who he met” (Pahl). In Gulen’s mind, istisare wasn’t an option for Muslims, but rather a requirement as an important prayer.

Riza (Living for God’s pleasure)

The sixth and final altruism is the altruism of riza, or living for God’s pleasure. To explain this aspect, Pahl quotes Gulen, “one can have no greater reward or higher rank than God’s being pleased with him or her, which is only attainable by personal resignation to what God has decreed. As the greatest rank in God’s sight, resignation or God’s pleasure is the greatest target that has been sought by the greatest members of humanity from the glory of creation to all the other prophets, saints, and purified scholars who’ve passed the final test thorough certainty, reliance, surrender, and confidence they have surmounted many difficulties and obstacles, and bore many unendurable sufferings and torments” (Gulen). Pahl finishes by stating that such torments have also been the case in recent years.