Fethullah Gülen’s Perspectives on Forgiveness
The topic of forgiveness used to be almost the exclusive domain of philosophers and theologians. In the last three decades, however, considerable attention has been paid to forgiveness by a host of professionals including educators, psychologists, therapists and health practitioners.
Given the increasing interest in forgiveness, students of forgiveness have studied its religious roots. Most of the Islamic theological writings that exist about forgiveness seem to center on imploring adherents to forgive but often do not provide an integrated and comprehensive process of how to put this into practice. In his numerous writings, speeches and sermons, however, Fethullah Gülen has advanced a coherent perspective on forgiveness situated in the larger context of mercy.
The focus of this paper is on forgiveness, which is one of the major aspects of spirituality in Gülen’s teachings. There will be two parts to the presentation: (1) Gülen’s understanding of holy scriptural injunctions about forgiveness; and (2) examples of forgiveness-in-action from Gülen’s personal experience will be provided. Within the two parts, the following questions will be examined: Does Gülen advocate conditional or unconditional forgiveness? Does Gülen equate forgiveness with reconciliation? Does Gülen acknowledge that forgiveness and justice can exist side by side? Does Gülen conceive of forgiveness as an act of courage and strength of faith? Does Gülen believe that there are certain people that a human being cannot forgive? Does Gülen provide specific attributes or characteristics for those who are forgiving and those who are un-forgiving?
The paper concludes by discussing the implications of Gülen’s ideas about forgiveness for our daily practice of forgiveness which can ultimately produce a more peaceful world.
Forgiving “consists of a return to our essence and finding ourselves again.”
The word ‘forgiveness’ appears 61 times in one of Fethullah Gülen’s books, and a whole section is devoted to the topic of forgiveness (Gülen, 2006). As I read the different parts of the book that relate to forgiveness, I quickly got the sense that Gülen is offering a new renaissance – that of the heart. His efforts toward this renaissance placed him at the top of the list of ‘the World’s Top 20 Public Intellectuals’ by the magazine Foreign Policy & Prospect in 2008 (Yenilmez, 2010). The concepts of love, peace and tolerance, which are prerequisites to forgiveness, stand out as prominent qualities that define both Gülen and his movement. In the Foreword written by Michel to Gülen’s book Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance (2006, p.10), Dr Michel used the phrase “agent and witness to God’s universal mercy”. Gülen’s pronouncements and teachings about forgiveness are matched by actions which place him at the top of a list of the ‘World’s Top’ agents and witnesses to God’s universal mercy.
So, what is Gülen’s perspective on forgiveness? This paper attempts to answer this question, and is divided into two major sections. The first section provides a background or context within which Gülen’s view of forgiveness will be discussed, and will include a definition of forgiveness, what it is and is not, some philosophical objections to forgiveness, and the benefits of forgiveness. In the second section, Gülen’s view of forgiveness will be presented with an analysis of how his view fits into the existing forgiveness literature.
The concept of forgiveness is not new; it is an ancient, complex phenomenon that has been given significant attention by the world’s three major religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and other spiritual traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. It has also been a fascinating topic of study for philosophers owing to its humanizing, healthful and restorative functions. Because of its inherent theological character, the concept of forgiveness was largely ignored by social scientists, especially psychologists, until the mid-1980s. The empirical investigation of forgiveness began at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was led by Professor Robert Enright. The forgiveness process model and developmental theory that Enright and his Human Development Study Group (1991) developed and tested laid the foundation for the modern scientific exploration of forgiveness. The forgiveness literature base went from a few articles and books to hundreds of articles and books and many doctoral dissertations. Also, several conferences focusing solely on forgiveness research and applications have been convened in and outside the United States.
Definition of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a complex process which usually occurs following an injury. It is primarily concerned with psychological healing through which the injured party releases the injurer from any felt resentment and possible behavioral retaliation (Augusburger, 1970; Droll, 1984; Fitzgibbons, 1985; Smedes, 1984). The injurer is also released from inner anger and resentment, and thus has no psychological hold over the injured person (Enright, 2001). Smedes (1984) described the hurt that constitutes a crisis of forgiveness as having three aspects: it is always personal, unfair and deep. Forgiveness is personal in that it can only be directed to persons, not to nature (such as a tornado) or a system (such as an institution). It is also unfair in the sense that the injured person does not deserve the pain or that the pain was not necessary. The third aspect, depth, means that forgiveness follows a deep, long-lasting injury from the other person. The unfair, personal and deep injury may be psychological, emotional, physical or moral (Smedes, 1984). Since a precise definition of forgiveness is key to understanding Gülen’s perspective on it, it is useful to consider what forgiveness is not.
What Forgiveness Is Not
According to Enright et al. (1987), there are a number of aspects that are often conflated with forgiveness but are in fact not characteristics of it. To begin with, forgiveness is not forgetting. A deep injury leaves an indelible mark on the fabric of one’s being which is hard to dislodge. Forgiveness is not reconciliation or coming together again. Forgiveness is an inner release while reconciliation is a behavioral coming together. Someone can forgive and yet not reconcile as it may sometimes be either unsafe or impossible to reconcile. It may be unsafe because the injurer remains unchanged, or impossible to reconcile with him/her because the person is either nowhere to be found or is deceased. Forgiveness, however, includes a willingness or a waiting in the hope that the other changes. Forgiveness, of course, paves the path toward the possibility of reconciliation.
Forgiveness is not condoning the other’s action by saying, “Oh, well, he/she didn’t mean it, so I’ll excuse it.” The true forgiver recognizes the injury or injustice as serious. Forgiveness is not pardoning or letting the other person off the hook. Forgiveness is an inner release whereas pardon is usually thought of as public behavioral release, such as when a prisoner is let out of jail. Moreover, forgiveness is not indifference by thinking that the injurer’s action after all just is not important. It is important to realize deep injury as such. Forgiveness is not simply a diminishing of anger over time; it is an active process to release the other while one is still feeling angry. Furthermore, forgiveness is not manipulative, and it does not lead to one person always being ‘inferior’ to another. Instead, it allows both parties to stand on equal ground. In true forgiveness, the forgiver acknowledges the enormous pain and does not dodge or repress the problem.
Gülen’s view on this issue is relevant. In talking about evil doers, he said, “I don’t believe there is any possibility that anyone could see an act that is disrespectful to forgiveness as being acceptable (of the evil done with impunity)”. So in his view, forgiveness is neither indifference, nor condoning, nor pardon (Gülen, 2006, p.73).
Despite all the defining features of forgiveness, the literature contains writings of people who have raised philosophical objections to it. Nietszche (1887), for example, dismissed forgiveness as a practice only for the weak. His position can be challenged in two ways. First, when someone truly forgives, he or she does not condone the act by saying, “Let it go, it’s OK”. Second, a true forgiver does acknowledge the hurt. The weak person, on the other hand, does not acknowledge the hurt; the weak person does not struggle to see the other in a new light. Moreover, true forgiveness is not despair; it is release which is courageous.
Others have claimed that forgiveness can put the forgiver in a one-up position. Real forgiveness is not a power play; it allows both the forgiver and the forgiven to stand on equal ground. It is a wiping-clean of the slate, as North (1987) described it. Still others (for example, Lewis, 1980) believe that a forgiving attitude leads to letting criminals off lightly. In other words, forgiveness thwarts justice. Here, forgiveness is confused with legal pardon. A person can forgive a criminal who is still behind bars.
Another philosophical objection is that forgiveness may be dangerous. For example, a spouse forgives her abusive husband and then he abuses her again. Forgiveness is again confused with reconciliation here. Murphy (1982) stated that a too-ready tendency to forgive may show a lack of self respect. This assertion would be correct if one ignores the anger of the injured party, which is not the case in true forgiveness where a person acknowledges his/her own anger. A somewhat similar assertion to Murphy’s was given by Hunter (1978), who viewed forgiveness as a reaction formation whereby a forgiver hides his or her deep anger and resentment. This view is not consistent with true forgiveness in which a forgiver tries to cast off the anger, not hide it.
Two additional objections include Droll’s (1984) assertion that the forgiver will make the injurer feel inferior even when he/she did not intend this message of inferiority. This view conflates forgiveness with reconciliation where a forgiver simply tries to wipe the slate clean and has the right to forgive even if the other misinterprets his or her motive. The final objection is that forgiveness is considered alienating from one’s true nature (survival of the fittest). Findings (Brandsma, 1982; Hunter, 1978; Fitzgibbons, 1986; Al-Mabuk, 1990, 1996, 1998) about the impact of forgiveness on the forgiven show that deep anger, not forgiveness, can alienate from the self.
Gülen’s perspective is deeply rooted in his Islamic faith and views forgiveness as a supererogatory or merciful act. He always refers to the two primary sources of the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet to teach about or support his forgiving and peaceful stances. In one of his sermons, he cited this hadith, “Without doubt, My mercy precedes My wrath”, and the Qur’anic verses, “My mercy extends to all things (Al-Araf 7:156), and “They swallow their anger and forgive people. God loves those who do good” (Al-Imran, 3:134).
Gülen points out that the divine attribute of mercy is foundational to the concept of forgiveness. God, without showing any exception, “nurtures and protects all human beings, and He continues to give sustenance even to those who deny Him” (Gülen 2004).
A key to understanding Gülen’s perspective on forgiveness is the concept of ‘patient endurance’ which he derived from the following Qur’anic verse: “And if you have to respond to any wrong, respond to the extent of the wrong done to you; but if you endure patiently, this is indeed better for he who endures” (An-Nahl 16:126). The notion of ‘patient endurance’ by which a person buries the pain in his/her chest is synonymous with the Christian notion of absorption of pain which paradoxically frees one from pain. This pious act of the burying of pain is not to be confused with the psychological concept of repression, which is a natural response to pain. But if left unaddressed, it can grow and fester.
Another key term which Gülen uses, and sometimes interchangeably with forgiveness, is tolerance. In one of his speeches, Gülen (2006) referred to the Prophet Mohammed’s example of tolerance and forgiveness especially with the people of Mecca who were violently hostile to him. They fought him, conspired to kill him, expelled him from his homeland and did everything they could to annihilate him and his followers. When the conquest of Mecca occurred, the hostile Meccans were anxious to see what the Prophet would do to them. “As a sign of his vast compassion and mercy, the Prophet said to them, I speak as Joseph spoke to his brothers: There is no reproach for you today (because of your previous acts). God will forgive you also. He is the Most Merciful of the merciful. Go; you are free.”
A second example of kindness, forebearance and tolerance that Gülen uses as an example to promote tolerance is that when someone called Abdullah ibn Ubayy, who had been a lifelong enemy, died, the Prophet demonstrated his tolerance and compassion by giving his shirt as a burial shroud, and said, “As long as there is no revelation forbidding me, I will attend his funeral” (Gülen, 2006, p.88). For Gülen, since tolerance is rooted in the holy Qur’an and manifested in the actions of the Prophet, a Muslim’s thoughts, feelings and actions must be congruent with these sources.
In the same speech given in 2004, Gülen proposed that “platforms for tolerance should be developed in our society. Tolerance should be rewarded; it should be given precedence at every opportunity” and “tolerance must permeate all of society so much so that universities should breathe tolerance, politicians should talk about tolerance, people in the music world should write lyrics about tolerance, and the media should give support to positive developments concerning tolerance” (p.3).
In addition to the concepts of patient endurance and tolerance, Gülen also included the dynamic of compassion which provides both the willingness and the will to forgive others. As an example for compassion, Gülen turned to the Prophet Mohammed’s life for inspiration. More specifically, Gülen referred to an incident in which the Prophet was severely wounded in the Battle of Uhud, and manifested his love and compassion by raising his hands and offering the prayer “O God, forgive my people, for they do not know” (p.121). In this example, Gülen saw the compassion, love, courage and optimism that the Prophet displayed in the face of hatred, hostility and ignorance. In this way, he embraces and practices unconditional love. Gülerce (2010) quoted Gülen’s comment when speaking about unconditional love that “When you show love to people, you should not expect a favor in return. There would be no end to it. You must love people unconditionally” (p.2).
Forgiveness Heals Wounds
As to why forgiveness is so central to Gülen’s thinking, feeling and acting, he addressed this issue himself by saying, “we believe that forgiveness and tolerance will heal most of our wounds, if only this celestial instrument will be in the hands of those who understand its language” (Gülen, 2006, p.73). Gülen understands the healing power of forgiveness and discerns its potent transformative effect on the individual and on society. The precondition to reaping positive results of forgiveness depends on the accurate understanding of the language of forgiveness and the proper implementation of its process. Although not included in the quotation given above, Gülen alluded to the language of forgiveness in a recent article that appeared in Today’s Zaman (14 October 2010): Hüseyin Gülerce quoted Gülen’s remarks regarding accusations leveled at him and his movement by saying that “He would still never ask God to punish those who make such groundless claims against his movement and its members … and that the claims will not stand forever”.
In the same article, Gülerce noted that following the harsh criticism by reform opponents after the majority voted in favor of the constitutional amendment package, Gülen “called on everyone to adopt a more peaceful and tolerant language when speaking about others” He went on. “Everyone should revise their discourse. They should quit shouting at others and giving into to frantic behavior. Instead, they should adopt a softer and more loving discourse. We should never forget that screaming and a frantic attitude only trigger hatred, not love”.
Gülen displays a solid grasp of the idea that forgiveness is a process that a person goes through following a personal, unfair and deep offense. According to an interview with Gülen by Nevval Sevindi which appeared in the Yeni Yüzyıl Daily in 1997, he was asked the question “You have suffered a lot in your life. How did you overcome events that could have smothered your enthusiasm and smashed you?”
Gülen’s response was, “Once I was followed for six years as if I were a traitor. It bothered me, but I forgot it. I don’t feel hostility toward anyone. Even then I approached the matter logically, not emotionally. I’ve forgiven the people who did this. If one day I see the faith of the people secured and a peaceful atmosphere surrounding the world, then everything will have been worthwhile”.
Key words and phrases from Gülen’s answer such as “it bothered me”, “I forgot it”, “I don’t feel hostility” and “I have forgiven the people who did this” all relate to the forgiveness steps which Enright et al. (1987) elaborated and which other researchers have modeled subsequently. The first phrase ‘it bothered me’ relates to the first phase in the forgiveness journey and is called ‘Dealing with the Pain, or the Uncovering’. This phase immediately follows the injury, and depending on the intensity of pain, most people employ psychological defenses to shield themselves from the pain. The longer they deny or repress their emotions, the more likely is the pain to take its toll on the individual physically and mentally and to spill over into his or her relationships.
The second phrase, ‘I forgot it’, refers to the mitigation of pain through the passage of time, and that the enormous initial negative emotional response has diminished. If forgetting is not characterized by the cessation of hostility, resentment and anger, then it simply shows that forgetting is being used as a psychological defense mechanism. In Gülen’s case, he stated that he ‘did not feel hostility toward anyone’, which shows that he dealt with the pain which led to replacing hostile impulses with positive ones. The other critical phase of forgiveness that Gülen went through is captured by the phrase ‘then I approached the matter logically, not emotionally’. It can be concluded that Gülen conducted a cost/benefit analysis of forgiving or not forgiving and that his reason prevailed over his emotions. He managed his negative emotion very wisely as he knows about the destructive power of anger. Gülen has described anger as “a temporary madness and it results in regret”, and has advised people to not allow grudges to infect their reason. In a speech, Gülen said, “Let’s not allow our grudges to affect our style. Let’s be fair. Let’s be impartial and objective.”
The other important phase demonstrated by Gülen is his choosing to forgive those who treated him as a traitor for six years. This phase is known in the forgiveness literature as the Decision phase. One can decide to pursue a justice or a mercy route. If the person elects the justice route, he/she can either take the injurer to court and have the legal system resolve the issue, or choose to mete out the punishment him/herself. Meting out the punishment by the individual often leads to a vicious cycle of revenge. The legal route may resolve reparation issues but the injured person must still live with the emotional wounds caused by the injurer.
Gülen’s selection among strategies to deal with the people who hurt him must have considered the others’ motives, needs and reasons for acting the way they did. This cognitive appraisal must have then engendered positive attitudes and feelings of goodwill toward those who had committed the injury.
Given that Gülen’s perspective on forgiveness is rooted in and motivated by his deep and genuine faith, he chose the route of mercy in the belief of being forgiven by God, which made him and continues to make him forgive others. This kind of forgiveness, which Trainer (1981) labeled as ‘intrinsic forgiveness’, is characterized by benevolent behavior and an inner change in attitudes and feelings about the offender, and, over time, it becomes an internalized and automatic response that predisposes the individual to choose it over other options in a crisis situation.
Belief in the Individual
Gülen has a profound belief in the power of the individual to transform society for the better. Sevindi (2008) stated that Gülen believes in the individual’s central role in society, and quoted Gülen’s words that “every thing of beauty, and every value present in individuals is multiplied and reflected in society. In contrast, everything that is inappropriate, every insufficiency, is a scandal, and as a scandal blocks society’s path and inflicts deep wounds upon it” (p.4). The use of forgiveness language brings about harmony of heart and mind to the individual and to society.
The final thought on Gülen’s perspective on forgiveness is that it becomes a consistent factor in one’s life. Forgiveness has been a common thread in Gülen’s life. Gülerce has shared notes that he took on his week-long visit to Gülen related to the significance of consistency and matching one’s words with actions. The following is a relevant quotation: “No one can stop us humans when it comes to theories and words. We all become a Ferdawsi, Persian poet, when we speak. We must do our best to represent our values. Everything should be supported by representation. You should live a consistent life. If you behave this way, then people who are in quest (for truth) will find you. Then for the sake of God we will go to them” (Gülerce, 2010).
In summary, this paper has attempted to describe Fethullah Gülen’s perspective on forgiveness. First, a context about what forgiveness is and what it is not was provided and philosophical objections to it were discussed and refuted. The remainder of the paper focused on different aspects of Gülen’s view of forgiveness, including the prerequisites of faith, understanding, love and compassion, and tolerance. It is evident from both the advice and the real-life examples of Gülen that forgiveness holds the promise to transform hostility, resentment and hatred into peace, love and harmony among individuals and societies.
For this paper, the author has relied on stories, interviews, speeches and books written or made by or about Gülen to develop his perspective on forgiveness. It would be very useful to conduct an extensive interview with Gülen focusing exclusively on the subject of forgiveness. The interviewer could ask him about more personal accounts of forgiveness acts, the process which he goes through to forgive, and the benefits he has experienced by forgiving. The data acquired would inform forgiveness researchers and practitioners and would undoubtedly inspire more people to be agents and witnesses of God’s universal mercy.
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