• Issue 116 / March - April 2017

    A Theology of Dialogue

    Al Strong

    (service, in Turkish) is a faith-inspired
    social movements with schools and cultural centers around the world. Hizmet’s
    ideological framework is based on humanism and Islamic sources, and manifests
    in the form of selfless individuals dedicated to serving humanity. The group’s humanistic
    qualities stem from universal values such as love, respect, freedom, democracy,
    and human rights; its Islamic sources are based on Turkish scholar Fethullah
    Gülen’s reinterpretation of the Qur’an and hadith (ijtihad).

    Hizmet’s activities can be classified
    into four categories: business associations, interfaith/intercultural dialogue
    activities, education,
    [1] and relief work.[2]  Its
    interfaith/intercultural dialogue activities provide safe zones where peoples
    of different backgrounds can come together and engage in friendly conversations
    in a peaceful atmosphere. Such meetings create constructive relationships and
    social capital. 

    The movement’s educational
    and relief work also engender dialogue, although indirectly. They have often
    helped communities who have historically had strained relationships come
    together under the tree of knowledge.

    Hizmet pioneered dialogue
    activities in Turkey in the 1980s. This allowed different communities to search
    for solutions to common problems. When the movement spread worldwide in the
    1990s, its dialogue activities reached beyond just the Turkish context and
    encompassed all major faiths and cultures. 

    With the growth of militant extremism
    dominating the international discourse about Muslims, Hizmet became a major moderate
    voice, condemning extremism and embodying Islam’s peaceful face.
    [3] It presents an alternative vision for Muslims, in
    stark contrast with the reactionary political Islamist movements. Hizmet
    encourages Muslims to peacefully but actively engage in all walks of life and
    with all types of people. 

    Fethullah Gülen, the key
    figure whose ideas have inspired the movement, “regards dialogue as an activity
    of forming a bond between two or more parties.” He also “specifies the
    humanitarian approach to dialogue, which manifests itself with tolerance and
    various tolerance-based concepts such as love, compassion, forgiveness, and
    humility” (Kim 2015, 35). 

    Kim has also called Gülen’s
    approach to dialogue “dialogic Sufism,” a reactivation of the Turkish Sufi
    tradition, one that has been specifically adapted for the contemporary world. “Dialogic
    Sufism opposes a dialectical approach to humanity which assumes an opposing and
    conflicting relationship between self and others,” Kim wrote (2015, 36). He
    adds that this approach is in contrast with the reactionary nature of political
    Islam: “Instead, it [Hizmet] interacts with any challenging condition and
    context to build a dialogical bridge between the past and the present, the East
    and the West, rationalism/materialism and spiritualism, and between different
    civilizations, religions and cultures, obliterating difference and distinctions
    between ‘[the] self and others’” (Kim 2015, 37).

    Gülen has traced the idea of
    dialogue back to basic Islamic themes. Accordingly, he takes the “basmala,” the
    beginning of almost every chapter of the Qur’an, as a point of departure. The basmala
    is a recitation of God’s attributes, “the Compassionate and the Merciful.”
    According to Gülen, the recurrence of this phrase in the Qur’an is an
    indication “God wanted to teach Muslims, among other things, to be
    compassionate and merciful in their relations with their fellow human beings,
    and with nature” (Saritoprak and Griffith 2005, 333). 

    Furthermore, Gülen has been
    inspired by the writings of Ahmed Faruqi Sirhindi (1564-1624), an Indian Sufi,
    who introduced the concept of loving friendship (khillah) and that each believer is to cultivate a spiritual
    friendship with all those who profess the faith of Abraham, both Muslims or non-Muslims
    (Saritoprak and Griffith 2005). Referring to love in the Sufi tradition, Gülen
    emphasizes one of the “beautiful names” of God, “al-Wadud,” or the Beloved One,
    and asserts that Muslims are expected to reflect this attribute in their lives
    by being a people of love. Gülen has found the roots of these themes in the
    teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, quoting the hadith, “Whoever is humble, God
    exalts him; whoever is haughty, God humiliates him” (Saritoprak and Griffith
    2005, 334). To Gülen, this idea is the heart of Islamic ethics. It is also the
    basis for interreligious dialogue, and he sees dialogue as the natural result
    of the practice of Islamic ethics. Humility leads to peace through dialogue,
    not violence through conflict.

    According to Gülen, the
    Qur’anic verse 3:64, revealed in the ninth year of the Hijra (629 CE),
    represents one of the greatest ecumenical calls of Prophet Muhammad’s time and clearly
    indicates that Muslims are expected to treat People of the Book with respect
    and tolerance (Webb 2015; Saritoprak and Griffith 2005):


    Tell them: ‘O
    people of the Book, let us come to an agreement on that

    which is common
    between us, that we worship no one but God, and make

    none his
    compeer, and that none of us take any others for Lord apart from

    God.’ If they
    turn away, you tell them: ‘Bear witness that we submit to

    Him’ (Al-Imran


    According to Esposito and
    Yılmaz (2010, 162), Gülen’s teachings are based on Turkish Islamic tradition
    inspired by Sufi figures like the poet and theologian Rumi (1207-1273) and the
    Ottoman Empire’s religious tolerance, as exemplified in the Empire’s community
    self-governance (also known as the millet system). In this respect, Saritoprak
    and Griffith (2005, 330) assert, “[t]he Ottoman Empire presented a great
    example of the Islamic understanding of tolerance towards non-Muslim subjects,
    in particular, the People of the Book. In our contemporary world, the issue has
    become even more relevant because of a tremendous need for interfaith dialogue
    and understanding.” 

    They argue that Gülen’s
    interfaith approach, in turn, is rooted in three Islamic principles: “a history
    of revelation and prophecy, the commonalities among faiths, and the Qur’an’s
    explicit sanction of interfaith dialogue” (Esposito and Yılmaz 2010, 162). The
    following paragraphs will present details of each of these, tracing them in Gülen’s

    First, Gülen’s commitment to
    interfaith dialogue emanates from his inclusive and singular approach to
    religion, in which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, particularly – and even the
    non-Abrahamic religions of Hinduism and Buddhism – accept the same theistic

    Accordingly, a spiral
    understanding of history and religion in Gülen’s thought generates this
    approach, in which the universal principle of God’s existence is reaffirmed by
    messengers and revelations. “The divine revelation and prophecy establish both
    an axis for religious unity and a framework for religious diversity” (Esposito
    and Yılmaz 2010, 163). Since the Qur’an declares in verse 40:78 that God sent
    many prophets and the hadith tradition specifies their number as 124,000
    messengers, Gülen is able to argue that the universality of religion is
    reflected by any religion, to a
    varying degree, and that all major religions are based on the shared divine
    revelation (Esposito and Yılmaz 2010).

                Supporting his inclusive approach to
    religion and interfaith dialogue, Gülen draws parallels between the similarity
    of different religious teachings (Esposito and Yılmaz 2010). In this regard, he
    states that religions pursue the same universal goals. He also reiterates their
    shared source and emphasizes the commonality in generally accepted values
    across different religions, indicating the divine presence in all religions

    The goal of dialogue among
    world religions is not simply to destroy scientific materialism and the
    destructive materialistic worldview; rather, the very nature of religion
    demands this dialogue. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and even Hinduism and
    other world religions accept the same source for themselves, and, including
    Buddhism, pursue the same goal. 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. A Muslim is a true follower of Abraham,
    Moses, David, Jesus, and all other Prophets. Not believing in one Prophet or
    Book means that one is not a Muslim. Thus we acknowledge the oneness and basic
    unity of religion, which is a symphony of God's blessings and mercy, and the
    universality of belief in religion. So, religion is a system of belief
    embracing all races and all beliefs, a road bringing everyone together in

    of how their adherents implement their faith in their daily lives, such
    generally accepted values as love, respect, tolerance, forgiveness, mercy,
    human rights, peace, brotherhood, and freedom [are] exalted by religion. Most
    of them are accorded the highest precedence in the messages brought by Moses,
    Jesus, and Muhammad, as well as in the messages of Buddha and even Zarathustra,
    Lao-Tzu, Confucius, and the Hindu prophets.


                Lastly, Gülen believes in the Qur’an’s universal call
    for dialogue, though it primarily targets the Abrahamic religions and forms the
    first pillar of interfaith dialogue (Esposito and Yılmaz 2010). Verse 3:64 from
    the Qur’an is one example that Gülen quotes
    [6]: “O People of the Book, come to a word common between
    us and you, that we worship none but God, and associate none as partner with
    Him, and that none of us take others for Lords, apart from God.” 

    Gülen also emphasizes verses
    2:3 and 2:4, which require Muslims to believe in scriptures that were sent to
    previous prophets as well as the Prophet of Islam (“...who believe in what is
    sent to you and what was sent before you”)
    [7]. Accordingly, by establishing the belief in earlier
    prophets and revelations, Islam lays out the foundation for interfaith
    dialogue. Further, based on verse 29:46, “And discuss you not with the People
    of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation),” Gülen contends
    that the Qur’an bases that dialogue on finding common points rather than
    disputing others’ religious beliefs.
    [8]  Yücel (2013),
    quoting Seker, asserts that “Gülen’s dialogue work is not un-Islamic or
    something new to Islam, but is rather based on the spirit of the Medina
    Charter, an agreement drawn up between the Muslims and non-Muslims (Jews and
    pagans) in Medina that granted rights and respect towards non-Muslims.” Seker
    adds that Gülen also draws from the spirit of the final sermon of Prophet
    Muhammad (Yücel 2013, 204).

    According to Webb (2015), for
    Gülen, being human is sufficient enough to earn respect.  Webb (2015, 16), in this respect, points to
    Gülen’s use of the hadith to justify his universalistic principle:


    [The Prophet]
    one day stood up as a Jewish funeral was passing by. One of the Companions at
    his side said, ‘O Messenger of God, that’s a Jew.’ Without any change in
    attitude or alteration of the lines on his face, the Prince of Prophets gave
    this answer: ‘But he is a human being!’


    this respect, by pointing to enlarging the circle of Hizmet from the Abrahamic
    faiths to include religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism on the basis
    of human-brotherhood, Erol (2012) asserts, “the Gülen movement is eager to
    create further bonds just because they are human beings regardless of their
    faith, colour, language, culture or ethnic background. It is simply
    implementing the aforementioned famous saying of Yunus Emre: ‘We love the
    created because of the Creator.’”

    According to Kim (2015, 39),
    “[i]n Gülen’s diagnosis, most of the problems that contemporary human beings
    face result from the loss of true humanism, which causes and appears with
    widespread hatred and enmity,” and “Gülen is convinced that the only way to
    disentangle the real and critical danger to human beings is to revitalize
    humanism by means of love and tolerance.” Hizmet means “service to humanity,”
    and based on Gülen’s philosophy, “the real path of Sufis is to seek their
    spiritual progress in the happiness of others by living for others.  This exemplifies what hizmet is” (Kim 2015,
    38).  Similarly, Al-Mabuk (2015, 29)
    contends that in Gülen’s thought, “forgiveness holds the promise to transform
    hostility, resentment and hatred into peace, love and harmony among individuals
    and societies.”

    Yücel (2013), on the other
    hand, links Gülen’s dialogue efforts to Said Nursi (1877-1960), an influential
    Ottoman-Kurdish Islamic scholar and activist. Gülen is an ardent follower of
    Nursi, who initiated the idea of dialogue in his Damascus sermon in 1911
    [10]: “Said Nursi proposed dialogue and collaboration
    between Muslims and Christians before a congregation of over 10,000 Muslims,
    including 100 prominent religious scholars, in the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus”
    (Yücel 2013, 197).  Nursi believed in
    this cooperation against materialism, which he saw as the source of the international
    aggression of his time; to him, greed, driven by materialism, causes the major
    conflicts that lead to destruction on a worldwide scale. Nursi suggested that
    Muslims and Christians should cooperate against common threats, including
    poverty, ignorance, and enmity between peoples. According to Valkenburg (2015,
    53), “[i]t can be found in Nursi’s Damascus sermon and in some parts of his
    Risale-i Nur as well, where Nursi showed that negative approaches to people of
    other religions in the Qur’an usually apply to specific situations only, whilst
    the more positive evaluations of others have a more universal value. Something
    similar can be said about the quotation about loving good deeds and detesting
    bad deeds, since in the same Damascus sermon from 1911, Said Nursi stated that
    ‘the thing most worthy of love is love, and that most deserving of enmity is

    According to Yücel (2013,
    200), “Gülen has two aims for interfaith and intercultural dialogue. Firstly,
    he seeks a world in which civilisations do not clash. Secondly, he pictures a
    world where religious, cultural and linguistic differences are not denied or
    repressed, but rather expressed freely in the form of a civilisation of love.
    He dreams of a world without conflict and enmity. In such a world, people avoid
    hurting or annoying each other.”




    Al-Mabuk, Radhi H. 2015. "Fethullah Gülen’s Perspectives
    on Forgiveness."
     Hizmet Studies Review. 2(2): 21-31.

    Barton, Greg. 2014. “How Hizmet Works: Islam, Dialogue
    and the Gülen Movement in Australia.” Hizmet Studies Review. 1(1): 9-25.

    Kim, Heon C. 2015.
    “Sufism and Dialogue in the Hizmet Movement.” Hizmet
    Studies Review
    . 2(2): 33-49.

    Saritoprak, Zeki, and Sidney
    Griffith. 2005. “Fethullah Gülen and the People of the Book: A Voice from
    Turkey for Interfaith Dialogue.” The
    Muslim World
    . 95(3): 329–40.

    Webb, M. O. 2015.
    “Fethullah Gülen’s Use of Philosophical and Scriptural Resources for
    Tolerance.” Hizmet Studies
    . 2(2): 9-18.

    I and Esposito JL. 2010. Islam and
    Peacebuilding: Gülen Movement Initiatives
    . New York: Blue Dome Press.

    Yücel, S. 2013. “Muslim-Christian Dialogue:
    Nostra Aetate and Fethullah Gülen’s Philosophy of Dialogue.”
     Australian e-Journal of Theology, 20(3).

    [1] http://gulenschools.org/

    [2] http://embracerelief.org/

    [3] http://rumiforum.org/gulen-condem-isis-new-york-times-washington-post/

    [9] http://www.fethullahgulenforum.org/articles/32/the-contribution-fethullah-gulen-on-christian-muslim-relations

    [10] http://www.saidnur.com/foreign/en/risaleler/sermon1.htm


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