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Islamic Renaissance in the Contemporary World
Muzaffar K Awan

On November 12th and 13th, 2005 during a two-day international symposium at Rice University in Houston, Texas, I personally witnessed a Turkish Muslim intellectual’s contributions to the welfare of humanity being appreciated at the helm of an academic attention, and through debates of global scale. The symposium was attended by numerous scholars from around the world, from the United States and also from Turkey. Exhaustive scientific papers were presented by the prominent scholars of Islam—and several from prestigious American universities. The symposium1 was entitled “Islam in the contemporary World: Fethullah Gülen Movement in Thought and Practice”. It was sponsored by the Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University, the A. D. Bruce Religious Center University of Houston and the Institute of Interfaith Dialogue, Texas. The conference focused on the activities of Fethullah Gülen and his contributions to interfaith dialogue, tolerance, and education. It explored the appeal, meaning, and impact of Gülen and his movement on Turkish, regional, and increasingly the global societies.

Fethullah Gülen, who is presently living in the U.S., could not attend the conference due to health reasons and sent his congratulatory message in which he thanked the organizations for participating in the symposium and wished them success. He clarified that he was not after the claim of being a great contributor to the movement of volunteers working for peace in the world. Fethullah Gülen extended his appreciation for being included as a bona-fide gesture and friendly reception in the movement. The renowned scholar further expressed his hope for reaching out to each other to constitute “peace isles” for the future and for the construction of a happier world. He also asserted his hope to reach a horizon of reconciliation among civilizations and alliance of cultures.

Professor Dale Eickelman from Dartmouth College chaired the opening session on “Dialogue and Gülen Movement” Saturday November the 12th. Pim Valkenberg,2 from Radbourg University in the Netherlands, presented a paper on Gülen’s contributions to the Muslim-Christian dialogue in the context of Abrahamic Cooperation by applications of love, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness as fundamental universal values that are to be consistently promoted in all interfaith dialogues.

 From the Millsap’s College, Loye Ashton 3 focused on the topic “Defending religious diversity and tolerance in America today: Lessons from Fethullah Gülen”. In this paper the scholar talked about the goals of interfaith dialogue being two-fold with respect to education and removing ignorance. Firstly we must learn about the beliefs and spiritual identity of others, and secondly, this information helps us to learn more about our own beliefs and spiritual identity. Gülen has highlighted some of the ways in which he reasons how Islamic faith and religions in general can work to value and promote these goals. The work of Gülen demonstrates the rare combination of deep spiritual piety and generous compassion with an astute and commanding intellect. From Gülen’s work, the Christian scholar takes away again and again and rediscovers in his own faith, the real purpose of his religious quest and finds the heart of reality and learns to live in the presence of the creator.

From Central Oklahoma University, Darian De Bolt4 presented a paper on “Tolerance and Dialogue: Gülen’s thought in the light of Greek Thought and Jürgen Habermas”. Here Gülen finds a link between tolerance and dialogue in our shared humanity. He writes, “remaining respectful to others’ thoughts and feelings because they are human, we must accept all people in their own special circumstances and with their thoughts”. The notions that Gülen developed of both tolerance and dialogue fit well within the traditions of ancient Greek thought as well as more recent developments in the application of speech act theory and the conception of communication rationality. Gülen’s unity of these two notions has applications on a global scale.

 In a joint paper with Madeline Maxwell, from University of Texas, Dr. Yetkin Yildirim5 talked about “Tolerance and Dialogue in Gülen’s Writings” and concluded that tolerance affirmatively included embracing the other in “let’s get to know each others’ sense”. This sense is linked to increasing diversity. Diversity is often linked to cultural relativity. Cultural relativity often reflects the assumption that one group should not be allowed to dominate or eliminate another and that shared values of peace and equality are higher values. Disagreement with making justice and equal treatment for all humans (the highest values) is seen as resistance to modernism, and dialogue is frequently proposed as a tool for increasing tolerance, and tolerance is the stated goal of efforts to address conflicts between races, nations, religious groups around the world today.

During the second session, education was given emphasis and Bekim Agai, 6 from Bonn University Germany, talked about the organizational strategies of the Gülen Movement. His paper revealed that the success of Gülen movement in the field of education has had multiple dimensions. His movement as seen today has a history rooted in Turkish Republic. Its organizational structures and contents developed in close relationship with the political history of Turkey and were shaped by the events in world history after 1990. Gülen has managed to lead the movement into the modern world but within an Islamic framework that has a discursive and organizational side. He has been able to guide the much closed movement to new horizons, opening it and initiating new forms of Islamic engagement. The reason for the success of Gülen’s ideas is the combination of conventional and conservative reasoning couched in new methods of implementation that allow them to reach new target groups and justify the activities of movement. His concept of tajdid by conduct/example made it possible; and the movement maintained its structure and discourse at the core of the network while it expanded at the borders to become a worldwide movement.

“Education Philosophy of Fethullah Gülen” was the subject of scholar Ruth Woodhall’s 7 speech. Gülen has continually insisted that learning is an obligation on all humans and has taught this to those around him and to the wider society in both word and deed; that is indirectly by his example as one who studies ceaselessly and directly in his words: The main duty and purpose of human life is to seek understanding. The effort of doing so, known as education, is a perfecting process through which we earn in the spiritual, intellectual, and physical dimensions of our being--the rank appointed for us as the perfect pattern of creation (ashrafu’l makhlukat). By fulfilling it, we attain the rank of true humanity and become a beneficial element of society. Gülen gives special emphasis to good deeds carried out collectively, and those who cooperate in worthy projects, or join together to discuss past experiences and future plans related to such activity, render a special service as an army of God.

Education thus becomes an obligation of the community and a collective activity. The purpose of education and associated work is primarily to fulfil the individual’s and community’s duty of submission to the will of God and service to others; but like all such duties conscientiously performed have secondary beneficial effects on the individual and on the community in the world. Education is vital for both societies and individuals according to Gülen.

A nation’s future depends on its youth. Any people who want to secure their future should apply as much energy to raising their children as they devote to other issues. A nation that fails its youth, abandons them to alien and harmful influences, jeopardizes their identity and is subject to cultural and political weaknesses. Gülen’s philosophy of education is not a social and political activity which can be divorced from the rest of Gülen’s faith/philosophy, but a firmly integrated and well developed component of his world-view.

From the University of Notre Dame, Asma Afsaruddin8 compared classical approaches in the philosophy of education in Islam and the approach of Fethullah Gülen. Charles Nelson9 discussed Gülen’s “Vision of Transcendent Education” saying that we need to look as to why so many people could be inspired by Gülen to spend their money and to establish schools of excellence. The presenter believes that all this is due to the unique confluence of time, place, and context. And for the most part it is due to Gülen himself. His moral example and his teachings inspire others to take action, to sacrifice, and to serve humanity rather than themselves. The writer quotes Kevin Ryan, founder and director of the Centre for the advancement of ethics and character at Boston University: “While I’m not suggesting that teachers be saints, they should take their moral lives seriously by modelling upright behaviour.” Gülen goes even further than that in his sayings about sacrifice: “People of service prefer the sacred cause over all worldly and animal desires; being stead-fast in truth, once it has been discovered, to the degree that you sacrifice all mundane attachments for its sake; enduring all hardships so that future generations will be happier; seeking happiness, not in material or even spiritual pleasures, but in the happiness and wellbeing of others; never seeking to obtain any personal advantage or position; and preferring oneself to others in taking on work but preferring others to oneself in receiving wages – these are the essentials of this sacred way of serving the truth.”

Gülen educators have perfected their own character and love their students and transform their students into living lives worth living. These educators have learned from the character education movement. They practice the most important role of being examplers of love and knowledge. They further the reach of their modelling by guiding their students explicitly in taking action and sacrificial love that we may raise a golden generation in the world.

The third session focused on “Public Domain and Globalization”. Serif Ali Tekalan, from Istanbul Fatih University, presented a paper, “The Movement of Hearts”. The IID President, Mohammed Cetin10, described public and social attitudes against the Gülen Movement in Turkey. His presentation paid particular attention to ongoing shifts in understanding the nature of Turkish public sphere and civil society. The goal of his analysis was to examine how innovation and reform are introduced in the Turkish public sphere and the growing capacity of Turkish civil society to accept the change. This approach highlighted the importance of an open civil society and public spaces that provide an arena for peaceful political and religious encounters in Turkey. It was also intended to facilitate an understanding of the creation of consensus, providing people with new insights towards their capacity for peaceful action.

Anthropologist Maria Curtis11 concentrated on the “Woman Face of the Medallion” and the movement. Paul Weller12 of Derby University in the UK compared Gülen to Arnold Toynbee while discussing religions, globalization and dialogue in the 21st century.

During the first session of the last day titled, “Social Context of Sufism,” Zaman daily columnist Ali Bulac13 termed Gülen as a “civilian reformist” (islahati) and a “harmonizing leader” adapting a civilian Islamic approach. “Today in Turkey, it is impossible to conduct sociological issues without touching upon Gülen’s mission,” Bulac claimed, “Perhaps the best contribution of Turkey to the global advancement is the schools of excellence and educational activities inspired by Fethullah Gülen.” Ali Bulac’s focus in his presentation was on our history of modernization being a history of tension between Islamic civil society that would like to have a voice in civil arena, and the statutory society that would like to transform the rest of the society in an authoritarian manner. The relationship between the state and Islam, the distinction between the secular and sacred, the modern and conservative are expressions of this tension. Gülen’s approach to issues such as state, politics and the governance is opening a door to dialogue between civil Islam and the statutory society. The tension is not between modernization and Islam but rather between Islam and secularism, and the fact that most authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world have been suspicious of democracy, participation of individuals and civil initiatives and the progress within the civil society. There is indeed a necessity to form bridges between the civil Islam and the statutory society supported by the states.

Karen Fontenot14 from Louisiana Southern University said the Turkish Sufism Gülen represents is a “type of Islam” that could be adapted anywhere in the world. The historical contributions made by Turkey for Islam to become a “universal religion” were also voiced by Fontenot. Heon Kim, from Temple University, pursuing his doctorate degree on the Gülen Movement described Gülen’s line as “Sufism without Sect (tariqah).”

At the “Islam and Democracy” session, Alp Aslandogan,15 from the University of Texas, talked about Gülen’s ideas on improving democracy in a way to satisfy one’s spiritual needs. This reminded me of Dr. Muhammad Iqbal’s proposal of spiritual democracy to the ummah in the “Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”16. We find that many Islamic scholars have accepted the idea of democracy in Islam though under certain conditions that will be compatible with Islamic thought. Iqbal (d. 1938) was not happy with the importable democratic system because of its extreme secular stance but he suggested in his writings that there was no alternative to democracy. In his 6th lecture on “Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”, Iqbal stated that a Muslim state is to be established on the principles of freedom, equality, and the absolute principles of stability. Therefore, the principles of democratic rules are not only similar to the fundamental aspects of Islam but also the executing powers will be enhanced in the Muslim world by democratic principles.

Iqbal observed that should the foundation of democracy rest upon spiritual and moral values, it would be the best political system for the world. He wrote in the “The New Era” July 28th, 1917 issue: “democracy was born in Europe from economic renaissance that took place in most of its societies. But Islamic democracy is not developed from the idea of economic advancement alone, it is also a spiritual principle that comes from the fact that everybody is a source of power whose potentialities can be developed through virtue and character”. That means, according to Iqbal, Islam prescribes democracy under the will of people guided by the will of the creator. Gülen’s ideas on democracy are very similar to Iqbal’s.

Janse Schlubach17 of Central Oklahoma University shed light on the similarities between Imam Ghazali and Gülen in regard to tolerance. Greg Barton,18 from Deakin University, talked about Gülen’s social conservatism and profound spirituality as a civic movement, and not a “tariqah” or a religious sect; Barton also noted similar progressive Islamic social movements that existed in Indonesia as well. Also, Ian Williams, from Central England University, said the Gülen Movement was not an organization that can be defined in terms of a sect, pressure group or a grouping of hierarchy but it has traces of a social movement. Moderator Bekim Agai questioned how Islam and Democracy could be brought together in certain Muslim countries as he pointed out that the Gülen Movement became successful in the secular Central Asia but has not entered the non-secular Arab world as yet.

Marcia Hermansen,19 from Loyola University in Chicago, at the session on “Media, Dialogue and Community” placed the concepts of “community” in this movement under microscope. The Movement, which had begun as a small circle around Gülen in Izmir Turkey, appeared as a service to mankind in the fields of education, religious, and inter-cultural dialogue in particular being the basic focal point from the 1990s. Today, hundreds of schools have been opened by this group, said Hermansen, spread throughout the world in 91 countries and their dialogue activities are expanding in a way to include America’s largest cities.

Mustafa Gokcek,20 from the University of Wisconsin, emphasized that the basis of Gülen’s Sufism understanding lies in the “Qur’an and Sunnah”. Emphasis on the action is the greatest contribution of Gülen to Sufi literature according to Gokcek, who also said Gülen approaches many issues criticized by Orthodox Muslims with tolerance. Doctor of Theology Adnan Aslan on the other hand said Gülen has prepared a ground for a “new theological language” in line with modern conditions needed by today’s global society.

An academic assessment of this two-day symposium came from Professor Dale Eickelman. He pointed out that those who defend that religion has no role to play in modern society are mistaken; on the contrary, “religion plays a very strong and constructive role in society, the solidarity movement in Poland, the Christian movements in Latin America, and the Gülen movement are perfect examples”, the professor said. There are many and profound subjects regarding the Gülen Movement that require further research.

At a closing dinner, Jill Carroll of Boniuk Center at Rice University, spoke about the success of the symposium and reiterated her warm welcome for such organizations. Individuals, who most likely would not have received an education if not for the Gülen Movement, today hold responsible positions in society and that is no small thing to achieve; “it is incredible”, Carroll said.

Over the past 35 years since I have lived in the US, I never imagined that I would ever be participating in a conference entitled “Islam in the Contemporary World: The Fethullah Gülen Movement in Thought and Practice,” and listen to papers with highest scientific content presented by the distinguished American and European scholars at Rice University, Texas -- one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the US. The topics of the papers were indeed intellectually stimulating. However, this is not the first symposium on Gülen’s thought and movement. There have been many international conferences on Gülen’s movement in the US in the recent years.There are indeed ongoing debates on Gülen’s works at the major universities throughout the US, in interfaith dialogues around the world and also at the Universities in Europe. For me this was the first symposium that I personally attended and decided to share this commentary.

Islam had achieved a Renaissance in its third and fourth centuries and, to a certain extent, became a paradigm for the European Renaissance. We must sincerely support a renaissance that would consist of the rediscovery of lost human values and the rapprochement of humanity with universal human morals. We must support a renaissance that allows the questioning of dictatorship and the end of dictators, and working towards a democratic global civic society. A renaissance that fosters great achievements in the fine arts and promotes a careful reading of the book of the universe, which has been lost for a long time, and will be greatly applauded. We must support a renaissance that promotes a longing for research, a passion for knowledge, and the articulation of Islam in accordance with the understanding of our century in a new style and new manner.

Turkey is a progressive country today, and is progressing towards the European Union. Turkey has evolving democracy, and is an increasingly confident and stable Muslim country. Over decades of consistent attempts and by analyzing the world-view of Islam from a civilizational perspective, the Turkish intellectuals have laid the foundations for a renaissance of moderate islamically enlightened thought and practice in Turkey. Civil Islam has been firmly reinstituted in Turkey by the Nursi-Gülen movement.

Turkey can help facilitate renaissance of the Islamic World. Nusrsi-Gülen movement I discussed in a recent writing is a continuum of Iqbal’s thought in my opinion and has evolved into a practical model over the decades. What I witnessed in Houston and the wealth of information being accumulated from Nursi-Gülen translated works, and ongoing debates in the Western and Muslim world are the indications that Muslim renaissance may actually take place in the future. Other groups in Indonesia, the USA (Progressive Muslims) and in the UK are also working on this; and hopefully all this can contribute to Muslim renaissance. Egypt’s Wassateyya or mainstream movement with its emphasis on gradualism and absolutely peaceful approach to civic transformation has similar goals. This school of thought and practice in Egypt has also been called “civilizational Islam” or “centrist intellectual school”.

We, in the Muslim world, are in search of a reawakening of reason, as well as of heart, spirit, and mind. Perhaps it may not yet be possible to predict a harvest from our efforts and works in the near future. However, there will be an appropriate time for this insha Allah in the future. We will wait and see, and dawn will arrive out of the darkest night.

It was the last wish of Iqbal who was fascinated with yoking of modern science and philosophy to Islam, to create bridges of understanding at the social and highest intellectual levels. He expressed this thought thus:


In the West, the Intellect is the source of life,

In the East, Love is the basis of life,

Through Love, Intellect grows acquainted with Reality,

And Intellect gives stability to the work of Love,

Arise and lay the foundations of a new world,

By wedding Intellect to Love.





1. Rice University, Houston, TX Conference Proceedings November 12-13, 2005. Islam in the contemporary World: Fethullah Gülen Movement in Thought and Practice.

2. Pim Valkenberg, Radbourg University in the Netherlands; Gülen’s Contributions to the Muslim-Christian Dialogue in the Context of Abrahamic Cooperation. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 18-27.

3. Loye Ashton, Millsap’s College; Defending Religious Diversity and Tolerance in America Today: Lessons from Fethullah Gülen. Confrence Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 28-37.

4. Darian De Bolt, Central Oklahoma University; Tolerance and Dialogue: Gülen’s Thought in the Light of Greek Thought and Jürgen Habermas. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 38-52.

5.Yetkin Yildirim & Madeline Maxwell, University of Texas; Tolerance and Dialogue in Gülen’s Writings. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 53-67.

6. Bekim Agai, Bonn University, Germany; Organizational Strategies of the Gülen Movement. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 68-80.

7. Ruth Woodhall’s, University of London England; Educational Philosophy of Fethullah Gülen. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 81-100.

8. Asma Afsaruddin, University of Notre Dame; Classical Approaches in the Philosophy of Education in Islam and the Approach of Fethullah Gülen. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 101-119.

9. Charles Nelson, Kean University; Gülen’s Vision of Transcendent Education. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 120-132.

10. Mohammed Cetin, University of Houston and IID President; Mobilization and Counter Mobilization: The Gülen movement in Turkey. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 133-166.

11. Maria Curtis, University of Texas at Austin; Woman Face of the Medallion and the Gülen Movement. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 166-172.

12. Paul Weller, Derby University UK; Religions, Globalization and Dialogue in the 21st Century; Gülen and Arnold J Toynbee. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 172-192.

13. Ali Bulac, Zaman daily founder and columnist; Fethullah Gülen: An intellectual & religious Profile. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 193-204.

14. Karen Fontenot, Louisiana Southern University; Gülen’s Neo-Sufism. (Confrence Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 205-220.

15. Alp Aslandogan, the University of Texas; Visions and Future of Democracy. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 244-253.

16. Dr Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam 6th Lecture, (1962).

17. Janse Schlubach, Central Oklahoma University; Gülen and Al-Ghazali on Tolerance. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 254-262.

18. Greg Barton, Deakin University; Parallels with Indonesia. (Confrence Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 263-316.

19. Marcia Hermansen, Loyola University Chicago; Understanding of Community within Gülen Movement. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 330-348.

20.Mustafa Gokcek, the University of Wisconsin; Gülen’s Sufism. (Conference Proceedings, Rice University, Houston, TX November 12-13, 2005) 357-364.

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