August 3, 2017

A theology of dialogue

Al Strong

Hizmet (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 3:64).
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 writings.

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 source.[4]

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[5]:

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 brotherhood.

Regardless 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!’

In 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.’”[9]

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 enmity.’”

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.”

Published on Fountain Magazine, #116, Mar-Apr 2017


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 Review. 2(2): 9-18.

Yilmaz 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).

[4] (Accessed July 5, 2015).
[5] (Accessed July 5, 2015).
[6] (Accessed July 5, 2015).
[7] (Accessed July 5, 2015).
[8] (Accessed July 5, 2015).