The holy month of Ramadan is here, and our Muslim brethren are engaged in what is irrefutably the largest collective act of fasting and praying on the planet. It is a beautiful period of observance that has been eclipsed this year by the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the globe. Yet its intensity is not dimmed. I recently came across a profound reflection on this by a renowned US-based Sufi Islamic preacher, which rekindled the memory of my meeting with him a few years ago, and provided the impulse to write this article. But first, a few lines from his Ramadan message.
“The coronavirus has changed how Ramadan looks. But it will not change our faith in God. Each of us should take the extra time and space afforded by the pandemic’s social distancing measures as an opportunity for further examination of our connection with God, our families and our core values… This is a time to realize our interdependence as nations, as communities and as inhabitants of a global ecosystem – a time to recognize that we all are members of the human family and each have the opportunity to show the true potential of humanity. As we enter this holy month, it is crucial that we look forward with hope and not despair, which stifles people and progress. Humanity has overcome great challenges in the past, and we will find ways to overcome this challenge, too. If we focus on the opportunities this pandemic presents, we will be able to keep our spirits high and reach the end of this tunnel much quicker.”
Who is this man?
When I met him, the first thing I noticed was the round face with an outsized nose. His head was covered by the Islamic skullcap because the only crown he recognises is that of the All-Powerful Allah. His penetrating eyes looked smaller by the age-related bulge under his eyelids. At 81, he looked frail, the frailty accentuated by a fever he was running. The previous day, our appointment had been cancelled because of his high fever, and I had returned from his abode in the idyllic woods of Pennsylvania to my hostel in New Jersey. If he chose, he could have taken more rest and not met me. He had every reason to. But instead, Fethullah Gulen, one of the most enlightened scholars of Sufi Islam in the world, granted me an audience on that memorable evening in September 2018.
Denouncing terror in the name of Islam
Ever since I learnt about him in the 2000s, I had fostered a fascination for this Turkish guru, who is reverentially called Hodjaefendi (Master Teacher) by millions of his followers. My respect for him had stemmed from his stern, unambiguous denunciation of Osama bin Laden and his army of terrorists. In my article about him (An Islamic Voice of Reason and Reform in America) in The Times of India in 2005, I had said here was an influential Islamic preacher who had called bin Laden a “monster”.
“He has sullied the bright face of Islam,” Gulen had said after the 9/11 terror attacks in the US. “The reparation for the damage he has caused requires years of work. Substituting the Islamic cause for his own cravings, he is committing monstrous acts.”
My article praised him as a strong advocate of interfaith harmony, and as a firm believer in the reconcilability of Islam and secularism – understood in the Indian sense of Sarva Pantha Samabhaav or equal respect for all faiths, and not as practised by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey who tried to banish religion both from the state and society. “Religion,” according to Gulen, “is a road that brings everyone together in brotherhood.”
Regardless of how adherents of different religions follow their faith in their daily lives, all religions exalt life-sustaining values, such as peace, love, tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, human rights and justice. “Most of these values,” he affirms, “are accorded the highest precedence in the messages brought by Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, as well as in the messages of the Buddha and even Zarathustra, Lao-Tzu, Confucius and Hindu prophets. As a Muslim, I accept all prophets and books sent to different peoples throughout history, and regard belief in them as an essential principle of being Muslim.”
Gulen condemns terrorists carrying out barbaric acts in the name of Islam because of his conviction that evil means cannot justify seemingly noble religious ends. “A Muslim cannot say, ‘I will kill a person and then go to Heaven.’ God’s approval cannot be won by killing people. I regret to say that some religious leaders and immature Muslims have no other weapon than their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.”
In his book For the Sake of Allah – The Origin, Development, and Discourse of the Gulen Movement, Professor Anwar Alam, an Indian political scientist who taught for many years in a Turkish university, writes: “Like Gandhi, Gulen firmly believes [that] one cannot secure higher moral and ethical ends by immoral, unethical and illegal means. For Gulen, like Gandhi, the very selection of rightful means is an end in itself.”
A recluse in the mountains of Pennsylvania
Gulen moved from Turkey to the United States in 1999, where he still lives as a spiritual recluse, praying, writing (he has authored over 80 books) and guiding his loyal (mostly Turkish) followers. He hardly travels. He rarely gives interviews. Yet, he inspires one of the world’s biggest social movements, called Hizmet (which means service in Turkish).
Until Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan cracked down on this movement in 2016, accusing Gulen of masterminding a failed military coup, its thousands of dedicated volunteers had been running schools and other activities in more than 100 countries around the world. This, his followers believe, is retribution for Gulen’s 2013 criticism of the corruption scandal hanging over Erdogan, his family members and prominent politicians and bureaucrats. Others see it differently. They believe that Gulen “was an ally of Erdogan” who helped him “consolidate power”.
In 2013, Hizmet’s volunteers in India (who run educational and peace-building activities under the banner of the Indialogue Foundation) invited me to visit Turkey to give a series of talks on Mahatma Gandhi. There is something mystical about Turkey, a land of fabulous beauty that is the civilisational confluence between Asia and Europe and between Christianity and Islam. To me, this visit was an opportunity to see the penetration of Gulen’s followers in Turkish society. What followed was an invitation from the Journalists and Writers Foundation and Alliance for Shared Values, two of the most active organisations in Gulen’s movement, to participate in a conference on sustainable development in New York, coinciding with the UN General Assembly in 2018. I accepted the invitation with a request to the organisers to arrange my meeting with Gulen. I was overjoyed when they conceded my request.
Conference over, they took me to New Jersey, where their sister organisation runs the largest of its 100 charter schools in the US. Nestled in a forest, the school has an ideal setting for implementing Gulen’s holistic philosophy of education. (“Education through learning and leading a commendable way of life,” he writes in his book Toward a Global Civilisation of Love and Tolerance, “is a sublime duty. By fulfilling this, we are able to attain the rank of true humanity and to become a beneficial element of humanity.”)
They had arranged my stay at a hostel with frugal facilities on the top floor of the school, which is meant for Hizmet volunteers from around the world. In New Jersey alone, they were running over half a dozen organisations, among them a nice bookstore and a publishing house that brings out a bimonthly magazine called The Fountain, a disaster management training centre, a centre for promoting Turkish culture, and a centre for organising dialogue among various religious and ethnic groups in the US.
What struck me was that, despite being deeply religious, they were modern in their outlook and admirably professional in their voluntary jobs. Indeed, this is how Gulen wants Turkey – and all Muslim societies – to be: To know that “the interpretation of Islam [by others] depends on our behaviour and conduct”. And that conduct is perfected with the practice of “jihad”, which, unfortunately, is the most misunderstood Islamic concept. Professor Anwar Alam tells us in his book: “Within the Hizmet movement the notion of jihad is associated with Greater Jihad, which calls for the inner struggle to purify one’s heart and undertake positive action that is beneficial for Islam and humanity.”
Two days later, Suleyman Kaya, who used to run Indialogue Foundation’s activities in Mumbai, drove me to Gulen’s residence at the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center on Pocono Mountains, where he still teaches interpretation of the Quran, jurisprudence in Islam, among other courses. The entrance to the property was heavily guarded and the security procedures were extremely rigorous. (“Erdogan’s people…,” I was later told in hushed tones.)
As the sun had already set, I regretted that I couldn’t see how Gulen’s “ashram” looked. When we entered the main building, which includes his living quarters, we were told: “We’re sorry the meeting cannot take place. Hodjaefendi is not keeping well. The meeting may not take place tomorrow too, since the doctors have advised him complete rest.” We drove back, uncertain whether we would be lucky the following day.
‘Gandhi’s life had a deep influence on me’
We took our chances. The evening was glorious. The estate and the mountains beyond were aglow with golden sunlight. Silence and serenity filled the pure air. As we entered the main building, good news awaited me: “Even though Hodjaefendi is still unwell, he wants to meet you.” We were led to a large prayer hall, which, though full of devotees, was tranquil. Being the only non-Turk and non-Muslim among them, I sat in a far corner. But as Gulen walked into the hall, he spotted me and signalled with his hands to sit next to him. He then led the Islamic prayer, which was long and interspersed with deep spells of meditative silence.
Anwar Alam’s book tells us that “Gulen does dhikr [rhythmic repetition of the name of God and His attributes] for five hours, in addition to reading the Quran in a silent manner.” Here is yet another significant bit of information from his book: “Hizmet, unlike the Tablighi Jamaat, is not a proselytising movement.”
After the prayer, I was led to another hall, where Gulen receives his visitors. Welcoming me with a warm handshake, he surprised me again, asking me to sit in his chair. He himself took a less prominent chair and, with the help of a translator, said that he was very happy to receive a “friend” from India. He praised India as the land that cradled an ancient and rich civilisation, and one that became home to people of many religions coexisting peacefully. I said, “Thank you, Your Holiness, for giving me this rare honour to meet you, in spite of doctors’ advice to take rest. I have come here as a devout Hindu and a self-appointed representative of all the people in India who believe in the noble values you cherish – above all, the value of dialogue and mutual understanding for peace in the world.”
I then told him about my passionate conviction in, and my activities aimed at promoting, Hindu-Muslim harmonisation and India-Pakistan normalisation, the two being inter-related parts of a common historical agenda. When he heard the word Pakistan, the look in his eyes grew more intense. I therefore briefly explained the nature of the problem between our two countries, the wars we have fought, the fruitless search for a just and humane solution to the Kashmir dispute, the bloodshed due to terrorism and other types of violence, the shameful reality of poverty and socio-economic inequity in both countries, and the imperative need to find a lasting solution for peace and development in all of South Asia.
“I pray for peace between India and Pakistan,” Gulen said. “Indeed, the entire world is restless for peace.” At this point, I presented to him my book on Mahatma Gandhi and said, “Gandhi was a pious Hindu, but he had the highest regard for Islam and Prophet Mohammed. He sacrificed his life for Hindu-Muslim unity.” Gulen remarked that he had great respect for Gandhi and his philosophy of nonviolence. “It strongly resonates with Islam’s message of peace, mercy and universal brotherhood. His life, especially his insistence on peaceful resolution of conflicts and his efforts to build bridges between Muslims and Hindus, has had a deep influence on me.” I then made an appeal: “Your Holiness, 2019-’20 marks Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. May I request you to send a commemorative message to Indians?” He agreed. His tribute, sent on Gandhi Jayanti, is reproduced here.
In deference to his health condition, I took his leave sooner than I wanted. But before I left, Gulen said, “Come again, and next time stay with us here.” I was later told by his associates that I was one of the very few Indians to have met him.
Said Nursi: Gulen’s guru and his jihad of nonviolence
What explains Gulen’s deep faith in peace, nonviolence, human dignity and inter-faith tolerance and dialogue as the cornerstones of Islam? For answer, we have to know something about the ‘Guru’ who influenced him – Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1878-1960), one of the greatest Islamic theologians of the last century (Bediuzzaman, an honorific, means “the wonder of the time”.) Nursi’s Risale-i Nur (Message of Light), a 6,000-page commentary on the Quran, on which he worked for 40 years (many of them spent in Ataturk’s prisons) is regarded as a definitive treatise on Islamic modernity.
In his book Insights from the Risale-i-Nur – Said Nursi’s Advice for Modern Believers, Thomas Michel, a Catholic priest who worked under Pope John Paul II as head of the Vatican Office for Relations with Muslims, writes: “[An] aspect of Nursi’s thought I find attractive is his strong rejection of violence. He came to the conclusion that the days of the ‘jihad of the sword’ are over. The only appropriate way for Muslims to struggle for their beliefs was the ‘jihad of the word’ or the ‘jihad of the pen’, that is, through personal witness, persuasion and rational argument. Nursi was convinced of the primacy of love in Islam. The time for enmity and hostility is finished.” In particular, Nursi urged unity between Muslims and Christians for the common purpose of achieving peace and global fraternity.
Nursi gave this call in a famous Friday sermon he delivered in 1911 to over 10,000 worshippers at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. This sermon is as historic as the place where he delivered it. The Umayyad Mosque, one of the oldest and largest in the world, was built on the site of a Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist, where he was laid to rest. He is honoured as a prophet by both Christians and Muslims. I had an opportunity to see this mosque when I accompanied former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on his visit to Syria in 2003.
In his book An Islamic Jihad of Nonviolence: Said Nursi’s Model, Salid Sayligan, a scholar of inter-religious studies, puts Nursi in league with Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela. “Where Gandhi’s legacy is emblemized by the Salt March, Mandela’s by his election to presidency, and King’s by his speeches like I Have a Dream, Nursi’s resides in his magnum opus, the Risale-i-Nur, and the community that nurtured its formation, disseminated it, and continues to embody its teachings in the present. That community upholds jihad as he understood and taught it: striving on the Godward path via positive action.”
In the venerable tradition of Nursi and other great teachers of Islam, Gulen has been continuing, both individually and through his Hizmet movement, to practise and propagate the true meaning of Islamic jihad. He and his followers have encountered many hurdles and hardships along the way, the worst of all being the brutal crackdown by Turkey’s dictatorial president. Once Gulen’s admirer, Erdogan has become his sworn enemy, even branding him a terrorist. Tens of thousands of Gulen’s followers have been jailed in Turkey, and a large number of them have sought refuge abroad. Surely, the Gulen movement will learn the right lessons from this most painful experience and emerge stronger in service of humanity.
Ramadan is a month for offering prayers to the Almighty. I pray for the good health of Hodjaefendi Fethullah Gulen and for more power to his army of peacebuilders.
Sudheendra Kulkarni, who served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is the author of Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age. He is the founder of Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-China-Pakistan Cooperation. His Twitter handle is @SudheenKulkarni. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.