A Fethullah Gülen Reader: So That Others May Live; Erkan Kurt; 2013, Bludome Press; Pages xv + 199 pp.; Price $18.95; ISBN-13: 978-1935295204
In So That Others May Live, Erkan Kurt brings together forty essays written by Fethullah Gülen, one of the most important and influential Muslim thinkers and activists of our time. As the author indicates, these essays were chosen in order to present the most characteristic aspects of Gülen’s worldview. The stated purpose is not an easy task to achieve because Gülen has a very large corpus with more than 80 books and thousands of audio recordings which have not yet been published in book form. Generally, his ideas are spread over this large corpus in a quite un-systematized manner and it is often necessary to collect bits and pieces from a variety of sources to explore Gülen’s position on a given issue. His tendency to express himself in symbolic and poetic language adds further difficulty to the systematization of his thinking. This style is understandable from the perspective of Gülen’s primary purpose, which is to inspire spiritual awakening and social activism. The global Hizmet movement which he inspired shows how efficient his discursive strategy is at inspiring the participants and supporters of the movement. There does seem, however, to be an underlying systematic intellectual content behind the unsystematic stylistic structure. Kurt attempts to penetrate this stylistic structure and wants to present the reader with the unifying themes of Gülen’s thought. To achieve this, he has chosen and grouped the articles in a way that might allow the reader to conceive that Gülen’s writing aims not only to inspire people but also to construct, in a highly systematic and intellectual fashion, the principles that can guide the activities of the global Hizmet Movement in the midst of the complexities of the modern world.
The book consists of six chapters. The first chapter offers some of Gülen’s most definitive writings on an ideal society and civilization. Here, Gülen sees a chasm between the current realities and the textual ideals of Muslim individuals and societies and attempts to draw a road map to bridge the gap between the unfortunate reality and the ideal. The second chapter focuses on how the articles of Islamic faith, if understood correctly, can transform a believing individual and, eventually, society. In the third chapter, Gülen shares the essentials of his ambitious moral project which revolves around such lofty concepts as love, mercy and forgiveness. In the fourth chapter, Gülen presents a practical and tangible project to substantiate these abstract ideas; namely, education. Gülen’s educational project aims to raise individuals who can reconcile religion and science, or in other words reason and heart, since both are indispensable. The fifth chapter includes articles that discuss the characteristics of what Gülen calls “people of service”, who are pious, devoted to their cause, socially active and religious humanists. The final chapter brings together articles which present Gülen as a Muslim scholar dealing with the essentials of the Islamic tradition. The very last article in the book is particularly important for the reader to get a glimpse of Gülen’s perception of and passionate attachment to the Prophet.
The articles are organized by concept rather than chronology. The book provides short but useful footnotes which include year of publication and relevant historical information. We also learn that Gülen himself participated in the process of the production of this book in that he approved the table of contents, helped with the translation and even selected the title of the book. Some of the essays are translated into English from Turkish for the first time; others were already available but Kurt has re-translated them in order to clear some of the linguistic obstacles between the text and the reader which existed in the previous translations.
In this book, Gülen appears primarily as a moral thinker who concerns himself not with theoretical speculations on moral questions but with the practical applicability of moral principles. Like a ‘wise teacher’, he motivates his reader toward the pursuit of transformative virtue. His moral project is comprehensive and ambitious in that it starts with the individual, aims to transform society, and hopes to cause a civilizational awakening. Accordingly, for Gülen piety is not only about establishing a vertical relationship between the individual and God but is also about maintaining a horizontal relationship between the individual and society. This horizontal relationship strengthens our vertical relationship with the divine to the extent that “social action is an indispensable dimension of piety”. Gülen’s moralistic vision is optimistic in that he perceives human beings as essentially good, and evil appears as an accidental reality. This view is holistic in that it addresses all aspects of the human condition from spiritual life to social activism for “Islam does not limit man to any of the particularities of his existence”. It also bases itself on an “embracive and all-inclusive Islam” that accentuates the commonalities rather than the differences between religious traditions and human collectivities and sees no absolute other.
The book offers some of the best available English translations of Gülen’s articles. This is a particularly significant achievement since Gülen’s symbolic language could be barrier for the reader. Some passages in Gülen’s writings make sense only in the linguistic milieu of Turkish and the meaning could easily get lost in translation as a result of the inescapable semantic shifts. To transcend this predicament, Kurt favors a literary translation to a literal one and offers stylistic alterations in some places in order to preserve the poetic quality of the original essays with minimum damage to the nuances. Another difficulty of reading Gülen is that he usually assumes that his reader comes to his writings with a prior knowledge of Islam. This is obviously not the case because his writings now reach a global audience with many different backgrounds. With this in mind, Kurt has added helpful footnotes to facilitate the reader’s understanding.
At times, however, one feels that the articles are repetitious. This is probably because Kurt sees Gülen primarily as a moral teacher and social activist, so he seems to have leaned towards those articles that accentuate these particular aspects of Gülen’s thinking. Although I agree with Kurt that Gülen’s is first and foremost a moral project, he also seems to have an intellectual project, namely that Gülen wants to offer an intellectually tenable synthesis of reason and heart, tradition and modernity, and religion and science. This, actually, runs through the selected articles as an underlying theme and a lofty ideal but is never discussed in detail. Inclusion of some of the articles in which Gülen deals with not only the promises but also the challenges of this grand project in a more detailed manner would strengthen the book and shed some light on Gülen’s reconciliatory attempt to ease the tension between these apparently conflicting poles. It would also be helpful for the reader to have more information about the historical context in which the articles were written: Kurt’s sometimes very short footnotes could, I believe, benefit from the addition of a bit more detail.
Overall this book is a valuable contribution for understanding some of the most definitive characteristic of Gülen’s thought and activism. The articles have been wisely chosen, the translations are well-done, and the organization of the articles alludes to Kurt’s holistic view of Gülen’s corpus. Despite a few shortcomings, the book is a very helpful guide for further exploration of not only one of the most influential Muslim scholars of our times but also the guiding principles and ambitions of the global Hizmet movement which he continues to inspire.