Is this the Muslim Martin Luther?

Fethullah Gulen

The below was first posted in March of 2014. Thought it would have new interest given events in Turkey.

The photograph above is of Fethullah Gulen who Victor Gaetan writing in Foreign Affairs compared to the Muslim Martin Luther. Interestingly, I have been writing a little bit about Gulen recently in a book that I’m finishing up and during my research I had become a little intrigued with Gulen. You can find the article in Foreign Affairs here.

A typical descriptive statement about Islam over the last decade is that it never experienced a Reformation. It is true enough that Sufi-ism and scholars such as Said Nursi inspired new more humane schools of thought but they remain marginalized. Much of Islam, not all, is harsh and rooted in the political and military conditions of the ancient world and there has never been a moderation of these tenets by a Muslim Martin Luther. There has never been a Muslim Reformation. Martin Luther was an influential and controversial figure in the Christian Reformation movement. He was responsible for entire new lines of thinking in Christianity and set in motion a sort of enlightenment. Luther had a desire for people to feel closer to God and this led him to translate the Bible into the language of the people, radically changing the relationship between church leaders and their followers. Martin Luther is generally associated with rooting out corruption, preventing religion from being used as a tool for political power, and humanizing the church his anti-Semitism notwithstanding.

Even at the risk of exaggeration, many feel the contemporary version of the Muslim Martin Luther is Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is a Turk who has been in the United States since 1999. He has worked to promote a modern school of Islam and is an Islamic intellectual committed to secular education, economic development, democracy, and acceptance of scientific knowledge.

Gulen has taught that Islam should devote more energy to public service and be separated from politics as much as possible. His emphasis on helping others and doing good deeds in the community is consistent with much Koranic teaching and directs attention away from political organization. This is in sharp contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood whose ascendancy in the last half-century has argued that the state should be Islamic and armed struggle is a moral and spiritual obligation. Moreover, Gulen is committed to education, including science and math, and has over 1000 schools around the world with video and instructional material made easily available to students.

As you might imagine, Gulen is not popular with modern-day Islamists. He has been exiled in the United States for many years and clashed with Erdogan over foreign-policy and authoritarian politics. Gulen is a strong supporter of democratic dialogue and he has chastised Turkey and other Islamic countries for poor treatment of journalists and a failure to engage sufficient constituencies over issues such as the Gezi Park protests.

The Gulen movement upholds numerous liberal conditions such as the belief in the intellect and the fact that individuals are characterized by free will and responsibility to others. Not all of Islam divides the world up into categories such as dar al-harb (the house of war) and dar al-Islam (the house of peace) but understands humans as more coherent and integrated. A verse in the Koran states that “there is no compulsion in religion” which emphasizes the individual intellect and freedom of choice.

Gulen is both careful and brave. He will not be intimidated and continues to speak up even in the face of the easy violence that could confront him. While Erdogan continues to clamp down on Turkey with Internet censorship and control of the judiciary, Gulen continues to infuse Islam with the teachings of tolerance and democratic sensibility.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on July 25, 2016, in Democracy, Political Conflict and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. The million dollar question is, can there be an Islamic reformation? The Bible and Koran are nothing alike other then they are both books. Christianity and Islam are nothing alike other then they are both monotheistic religions. Christianity changed because the Bible was translated into language people could understand, not to mention rising literacy rates. The Koran has always been written in Arabic. It comes from one source at a single time in history. The peacful verses such as the one you mentioned have been abrogated. For these reasons, I must remain skeptical that orthodox Islam will ever reform. I do wish the Muslim Martin Luther luck though. I would love to be proven wrong on this one.

  2. Your point is well taken. There are numerous sociopolitical differences and aclose analysis would shed some light on why such a reformation has not taken place.. Still, in the general sense, it remains possible that orthodox Islam will broaden its interpretative framework.. But we will not be here to see it.

  3. “Much of Islam, not all, is harsh and rooted in the political and military conditions of the ancient world and there has never [???] been a moderation of these tenets by a Muslim Martin Luther.”
    Don Ellis

    While I like Mr. Gulen’s views, this view of “Islam” seems to be rooted (perhaps) in Mr. Don Ellis’ apparenly shallow knowledge (and unconsciously “orientalist” ? — influenced by the biased views of Bernard Lewis ?) of what he calls “Islam.”
    Moji Agha

  4. I’m surprised at how intemperate your comment is. Other than a few debatable descriptions I made no biased view that is “Orientalist.” And if you consider Bernard Lewis so thoroughly biased then there probably is not much room to talk. I respect the Mossadegh organization and people like yourself and Gulen for their commitment to dialogue. We should try it sometime rather than name calling.
    Don Ellis

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