by Trudy Conway

Conway’s book explores the origins, history, development, and modern manifestations of the Hizmet movement, inspired originally by the Turkish scholar Fethullah Gulen. It provides a detailed analysis of Gulen’s account of the virtues, asserting that tolerance, hospitality, compassion and charity serve as the basis for the movement’s unique ethical core. The increased dialogue and cross-cultural understanding that the Hizmet movement has fostered serve as testament to the efficacy of peace, love, and acceptance.

Chapter 1: Introductory Overview of the Hizmet Movement

The turn of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence of a world equipped with the tools to facilitate meaningful cross-cultural encounters. These outreach efforts, aided by the technological advances of the previous century, promised a world characterized by mutual understanding and enrichment. Regrettably, such efforts were stunted by limited and distorted coverage of the Islamic world after the events of September 11, 2001. These events, interpreted by many as the harbinger of an inevitable conflict between the contemporary Islamic and “Western” worlds, spurned the media coverage that ultimately opposed these two spheres from one another. Despite the negative attitudes targeted at the Muslim population, there still existed many who sought to bridge the gap created by the media’s inaccurate and homogenizing portraits of the Islamic world. One of the most influential and notable individuals of what later became known as the Hizmet movement was M. Fethullah Gulen. Gulen committed himself to the goals of peace and tolerance, and encouraged others to do the same through educational efforts and human development. The Hizmet movement, primarily rooted in Gulen’s teachings of tolerance and interreligious dialogue, has drawn an expansive following, both in and beyond Turkish borders. Although rooted in Islamic theology and philosophy, the movement possesses the potential to speak to those from an expansive range of religious traditions and cultures.

As the son of a renowned scholar of Islamic studies, Gulen was exposed from a young age to the teachings of spiritual leaders. His religious upbringing was complemented by the modern and physical sciences, in addition to the major Western philosophical works of the time. He was also a devoted follower of the Nursi movement, which emphasized the compatibility of spirituality with the realities of modernity. Additionally, the movement encouraged the pursuit of knowledge, trust, and peace, through social justice and increased discourse. These key features of the Nursi movement would continue to echo throughout Gulen’s life, as well as his future academic and humanitarian pursuits.

Gulen was also deeply influenced by Nursi’s philosophy of hospitality, evidenced through his establishment of hospitable houses for students dedicated to their education. This virtue of hospitality became one of the defining features of the Gulen movement, later termed the Hizmet movement. Although Nursi was later persecuted and imprisoned by the secular Turkish government for his emphasis of the importance of religion in society, his belief in the importance of intercultural dialogue and understanding continued to inspire those like Gulen.

Soon after being rewarded a state preacher’s license in 1958, Gulen soon became a charismatic religious leader and lecturer on civic morality. In his prayers, he emphasized the commitment of Islam’s earliest adherents to the prophet Muhammad, and encouraged his followers to lead similarly active lives. In 1966, he also began to teach courses on the Islamic sciences, and was appointed in 1967 as a preacher in Izmir, an event that proved to be a defining moment in his life. His sermons soon attracted thousands of devotees, deeply impressed by his unity of thought, word, and deed, and his consistent devotion to public service initiatives which focused on fostering humanity’s communal wellbeing. By the time that he had formally retired as a teacher in 1981, he had emerged in Turkey as a widely respected and influential public figure.

Following in Nursi’s footsteps, Gulen established various philanthropically funded “Light Houses,” which served as residences for university students. Along with this commitment to hospitality, the Hizmet movement became defined by its five fundamental initiatives: education, public media, business networks, dialogue centers, and charitable works. The efforts of the Hizmet movement expanded beyond the confines of its original hospitality houses to include two hundred additional residences, the successes of which eventually led to the funding of the first Gulen schools in 1982. These faculties were not restricted to the followers of Gulen; in fact, schools developed across the world particularly in areas of strife and conflict, such as Georgia, Russia, and countries in the Middle East and Africa. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, there existed over 800 Gulen schools in 120 countries. All schools have a multi-linguistic emphasis, and encourage commitment to ethical living and continued intellectual development. Known for their strong academic reputation and commitment to modernity, all schools also emphasize modern science and technology.

Over time, the Hizmet movement also developed various media initiatives, such as the Zaman newspaper. It also grew to attract various philanthropic supporters across the globe, all dedicated to the Hizmet movement’s promotion of tolerance and learning. Funded by these supporters, various dialogue centers and charitable initiatives developed both in Turkey and abroad. All of these efforts served to further the goals of the Hizmet movement by promoting human development, peaceful relations, and ethical living.

Chapter Two: The Importance of the Virtues in General and Hospitality in Particular

Unlike Christianity, which tends to emphasize orthodoxy, or correct doctrine, Islam and Judaism focus instead on orthopraxy, or correct action. In Islam, the performance of good actions and righteous belief is incorporated into the doctrine itself. The core of Islam is an ethos tied to its five pillars: shahada (proclamation of faith), salat (prayer), zakat (charity), sawm (fasting), and hajj (pilgrimage). In Islam, the unity of thought and action is prioritized, insofar as staying on the “straight path” is equated to living a virtuous life. The Hizmet movement demonstrates these principles by defining their actions in the context of these several key virtues, the most prominent of which being hospitality.

Hospitality has played a key role in the Hizmet movement from its inception. In its pursuit of reconciling the potential differences between religious traditions, the movement has emphasized religious commonalities. Through the exploration of these commonalities, Gulen’s followers have found space and appreciation for difference. One of the most prominent of these commonalities is the virtue of hospitality. The virtue of hospitality essentially functions as a hermeneutic, through which followers interpret Gulen’s practices, beliefs, and legacy.

The Hizmet movement is also deeply rooted in Sufi tradition and practice. For example, Gulen notes that the way in which we operate in the world is shaped primarily by our inward character. He describes this ethic of virtuous action as the “greater jihad,” where one continuously works to cultivate moral values and avoid vices. Virtuous living has been emphasized from its origination, and has greatly affected the movement’s education, service, media, and peace-building initiatives.

In many ways, Gulen’s reflections on virtuous living are similar to Aristotle’s. Both emphasized a conception of the virtues that acknowledged the multiplicity and diversity of the human experience, without succumbing to moral relativism, which tends to deny the existence of a deeper, common moral thread connecting all facets of humanity. In effect, he describes an account of virtuous living that is simultaneously culturally specific as well as universal.

Gulen described virtue as the center of a circle, where the vices entail movement away from the center. The further one moves away from the virtuous center, the more powerful the vice. Unlike Aristotle, who conceptualized virtue as a median point between two vices, Gulen implies a nuanced range of variations of these various vices, surrounding a central virtuous point.

Gulen’s particular ethic is grounded in this conception of virtue and vice, and multiplicity and universalism. Humans have the capability to respond to shared needs, concerns and aspirations, because of the common dimensions of human existence; simultaneously, our differences with others serve not as a hindrance to mutual understanding, but in fact, as an aide. As a result of our exchanges with other traditions, we are able to better understand our own practices, what is good and virtuous about them, and what has the potential to be improved upon. This particular ethic is now a defining characteristic of the Hizmet movement, which asserts the paramountcy of hospitality and tolerance towards others.

Chapter Three: From Tolerance to Hospitality

Tolerance, in the way that it is often understood today, is a distinctly modern value. Generally speaking, tolerance is a choice that one makes in regards to human diversity. Although ancient philosophers spoke of what could today be understood as tolerant practices, and often expressed interest in beliefs and practices other than their own, they never affirmed these practices, or asserted that tolerance was implicitly tied to moral behavior. Furthermore, primary emphasis was placed on striving towards the unwavering and discernable truth, and alienating or demonizing anything considered to be a variant. Such thinking implies a fixed, universal truth, with little room for diversity of opinion.

Tolerance first emerged as a distinctly modern tradition with Locke. He worked primarily in a Christian context, presenting a broad philosophical argument which supported religious tolerance, but only amongst other Christians. The concept of tolerance eventually expanded beyond Christianity, supporting an ethos which permitted diversity, refused suppression, and discouraged interference with others, even if one possessed the power to interfere. However, this spirit of passive acceptance implied that one could still look down upon others with disdain, so long as that disdain did not interfere with their ability to practice their own beliefs and practices. In this schema, the other is merely tolerated, not accepted, creating an unavoidable and inherent sense of inequality.

Hospitality can be best interpreted as an expanded understanding of tolerance. While traditionally tolerant behaviors often include elements of disdain and distrust, hospitality requires one to fully embrace difference. Whereas contemporary Westerners generally think of hospitality as a private response to social etiquette, in Middle Eastern society, hospitality is the most esteemed virtue, and serves as the foundation for moral and honorable behavior. It is neither codified into law, nor decreed as a formal rule of proper etiquette. Instead, it is seen rather as the humane response to another person, rendering civil society possible, and communication with others more tolerable. Hospitality demands that we recognize that they have a point of view that deserves to be heard, regardless of whether or not we agree with it. Furthermore, unlike simple tolerance, which tends to breed silence, marginalization, invisibility, and animosity, hospitality bridges this gap, and effectively cancels out misinformation and self-confirming prejudgments by drawing the other into interaction and creating a previously nonexistent dialogical space. Such practices turn away from narcissism and individualism, and allow for a mutually beneficial process, whereby we learn that our current understanding might be flawed, and that we might have something to learn from those that are different than us.

This ethic of hospitality is inherent to the Hizmet movement. It has been appropriated by many of Gulen’s followers, allowing them to open themselves up to others, while maintaining the moral commitments of their own community. Perhaps, then, in order to achieve long-lasting peace and acceptance of others in our contemporary world, we must move first form intolerance to tolerance, and then from tolerance to hospitality.

Chapter Four: The Virtue of Hospitality: Gulen’s Understanding

Gulen’s work emphasizes the virtue of striving for moral excellence and perfection. To do so is to imitate the perfect traits of the divine: for example, humans should aspire to be good, merciful, and generous, because God embodies all of those characteristics. While Gulen never formally joined a Sufi order, his moral ethic was deeply influenced by Sufi practices and beliefs. Sufis prioritize the path of virtuous living, and encourage followers to deeply penetrate the inner meaning of Islamic rituals, laws, and practices. However, they also maintain that there are many different paths toward ultimate truth and goodness, and no one path is better than another. Gulen argues that all paths which follow shari’a are proper, as they seek to enlighten human existence by emphasizing virtuous conduct and true belief.

Sufism also strives to attain knowledge and virtue through intense spiritual self-discipline. In particular, Gulen idealizes the moral fiber and resultant actions of Sufis, as they are often described as emulating the virtuous character demonstrated by the prophet Muhammad and his early followers. In Islam, Muhammad is the exemplar of proper moral behavior; as such, Muslims attempt to emulate as closely as possible his traits and actions. Since he was compassionate, generous, and merciful, so do Muslims strive to be compassionate, generous, and merciful.

Gulen’s ethic of hospitality is also modeled after Muhammad. As did Muhammad, Gulen acknowledges the humanity of all, and emphasizes that true Islam does not discriminate based on any discernable characteristic, such as race, color, or gender. The Hizmet movement, for example, is known for challenging traditional patriarchal practices and gender roles, emphasizing that all humans are worthy of the same respect. Gulen respectfully recognizes and acknowledges the other, while simultaneously allowing room for disagreement and difference.

In essence, the Hizmet movement encourages its followers to affirm their own commitments, while simultaneously recognizing those of others. For Gulen, this ethic is primarily actualized through dialogue. Through conversation, we learn to better understand others, while also learning how to better ourselves. Gulen actively seeks opportunities that foster dialogue on a worldly level; for example, he has repeatedly met with world leaders of different religious traditions, with the primary intent of establishing a moral common ground. These meetings negate distance, and build long lasting, trusting relationships. As globalization flourishes, and as we become more interconnected, there is less and less possibility for the preservation of echo chambers, where we experience only the opinions identical to our own. However, this change does not necessitate the loss of our own belief systems; rather, we should aspire to discover moral and intellectual resonance with one another.

Chapter Five: Hospitality and Related Virtues: Gulen’s Understanding

Gulen’s understanding of hospitality is theologically based, as is often the case with those who practice religion. Its origin, as well as its telos, is grounded in religious doctrine. Furthermore, virtuous attributes as states of human excellence mirror God’s attributes. Each of the virtues of hospitality, then, embody a state of human excellence. These virtues are informed by the pivotal virtue of hospitality, and are central to the Gulen movement’s primary purpose.

For Gulen, these virtues do not stand apart from one another, but rather, are closely interconnected. Stated differently, being disposed toward one virtue helps one to be disposed toward other virtues. For this reason, developing a disposition toward a single virtue or vice matters significantly, as this behavioral propensity will affect the way in which we see other virtues or vices. The virtues which Gulen focuses on most are humility, courtesy, loving-kindness, patience, hope, mildness, mercy, and restorative justice.

Gulen claims that our motivation to be virtuous arises when we become humbly aware of God’s greatness. In realizing God’s transcendent power, we begin to evoke those same qualities. Humility and hospitality are interlinked, then, because it influences how we conduct ourselves with others, and the extent to which we engage in inquiry and dialogue. In order to learn from others in a way that is mutually beneficial, we must first be open to their ideas. These humble actions build an ethos characterized primarily by courtesy. Courtesy is important in human interaction because it builds a civil comportment rooted in ethical commitments. Such a commitment builds spiritual discipline, and enhances the quality of life in local communities.

Although courteous interactions are strongly emphasized in Gulen’s writings, they are not sufficient for moral living. Instead, interactions should move beyond courtesy into loving-kindness, an approach characterized by gentleness, friendliness and loving care. Gulen stresses the importance of acting generously toward one another, noting that it is central to peaceful living. Even if this practice requires turning a blind eye to evil, we should first and foremost strive to do no harm.

Another important related Islamic virtue is patience. Patience entails an ability and willingness to listen to others, reflect on what they are saying, and respond thoughtfully. In doing so, one is able to react to a situation wisely and virtuously, and in turn, become closer to the divine. Gulen stresses that one must be especially patient in the face of adversity, and specifically in response to others’ viciousness. Instead of giving into anger, our responses must be mild, calm, and judicial. Gulen notes that forgiveness is rooted in the fundamental fact that humankind is capable of both greatness and failure. Humanity will never be perfect; as such, only forgiveness can heal the wounds inflicted by some of our worst wrongs. Even if relations have grown distant, tense, or violent, we must work proactively to repair these severed bonds through peace.

Finally, in a world replete with human suffering, we must have hope for the future. Hope, rather than simply wishing for something to come into existence, requires a proactive and dedicated effort on our part. We must personally strive to make the best and most virtuous choice possible, even when faced with extreme hardship and trauma.

Chapter 6: Education: Development of the Intellectual and Moral Virtues

From its origins, the Hizmet movement has primarily been an educational and social movement. It has focused on intellectual and moral values alike, in the context of service to community. Both values are inextricably linked, and are necessary to living a good life. Gulen notes that inquisitiveness and our desire to reflect upon our lives are two qualities that make us distinctly human, as our aspiration to grow in wisdom requires the development of both our mind and our character. All of his initiatives, whether focused on media, charity, business, or education, stem from this dual emphasis on intellectual and moral values. For Gulen, education in particular is seen as the preparation for communitarian service through personal development, both intellectually and spiritually. Furthermore, educational initiatives prevent against passive population control and encourage social justice and human development by providing people with opportunities to engage in critical judgment.

From the beginning, the Hizmet movement has dedicated itself to educational development through the funding and administering of hundreds of educational institutions, ranging from elementary schools to universities. Gulen schools contrast the technological and scientific inquiry of secular education with the spiritual dimensions of Islamic education, in order to create a curriculum aimed at improving both aspects of the human condition. Instead of claiming that science and religion were antithetical to one another, reinforcing the dichotomy between modernity and tradition, Gulen instead claimed that both faith and rational inquiry were both rooted in humanity’s desire to render intelligible lived human experiences. Science, for example, can be understood as the manifestation of the intelligible order of nature rooted in the divine wisdom of the Qur’an. For Gulen, separating science from religion only weakens its understanding of the world; furthermore, separating science from religion produces humanitarian disasters and strife. While clearly demarcated from one another, there exist between the two profound reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Instead of pitting one against the other, Gulen’s philosophy brings together science and modernity with tradition and spirituality. Through these educational programs, the movement works to foster interfaith familiarity, inclusivist dialogue and peacebuilding initiatives.

Additionally, Gulen repeatedly stresses that there is no innate theoretical tension between Islam and democracy; in fact, the increased dialogue fostered by the Hizmet movement has only worked to further democratic principles and ideals. While democracy may have not been practiced fully in specific times and places, this is a phenomenon based entirely in the context that it occurred in. Over the years, democracy has continually improved itself, and developed into a system based on righteousness and reality. This has only been aided by Islam, as the Islamic principles of equality, justice, and tolerance are consistent with the main tenets of democracy.

Chapter 7: Service to Humanity: The Virtues of Compassion and Charity

The Gulen movement, later coined a Hizmet movement in reference to its service to humanity, is rooted in the virtues of compassion and charity. Combined with hospitality, these virtues form the triadic core of the movement. Compassion, as opposed to pity, is a type of “fellow-feeling” that involves feeling the emotions and pains of others, without any element of condescension or disdain. Whereas pity invokes a more vertical dynamic, compassion has a more horizontal, leveled dynamic, whereby it is possible to share with others in their experiences. It cannot be commanded, and must be nurtured and developed from a young age. For this reason, Gulen is highly attentive to cultivating compassion in children, and breaking down the barriers which might prevent its development. For this reason, he greatly emphasizes the importance of bridging intellectual gaps and eliminating intolerance through hospitable measures.

Interpersonal encounters between members of the Hizmet movement are made possible because of their hospitable openness to one another. Through this openness, human suffering becomes recognizable, rendering compassion possible. In a similar fashion to his understanding of the other virtues, Gulen’s interpretation of compassion is theologically based. He repeatedly returns to Muhammad as the exemplar of compassion, as he was constantly revered for supporting and protecting those most in need. Like the prophet, followers of the Hizmet movement aim to mitigate human suffering through compassion. Gulen himself encourages the practice of generosity and charity; in turn, this ethic motivates followers to open schools and similarly educationally-oriented institutions. Ultimately, these initiatives help to lessen the gaps of social and economic equality, which are both common sources of human suffering.

All over the world, Muslims who may not even know each other have united in solidarity to address the needs of others. Hundreds of charitable organizations have started in this manner, and have mobilized efforts to respond to the situations of the marginalized and oppressed. Grassroots local gatherings promote the exchange of ideas, the creation of service projects, and the development of financial support networks. Although they lack any centralized, bureaucratic structure, these circles collaboratively form and direct various initiatives. In all of their programs, generous sharing and the welfare of others is prioritized.

Over time, well-funded trusts and organizations have been established to support local Hizmet service initiatives and institutions. They oftentimes reinforce the virtue of charity, as it is understood in the Islamic tradition. This generosity extends to all persons needing support, regardless of race, ethnicity, custom, or tradition.

Chapter 8: Love as the Ultimate Virtue

Although the terms “charity” and “love” are often used interchangeably to speak of the same virtue, it can be argued that charity is actually a type of love. Charity, or attending to the well-being of those who are most in need, is part of the greater ethic of love and service that pervades the Hizmet movement. The triadic core of the movement, comprised of hospitality, compassion, and charity, all flow from the more fundamental virtue of love. True charity is informed by love, works to address the needs of others, and is not concerned with personal gains. In linking together charity, justice, and love, education is emphasized as the main tool in the Hizmet movement in furthering human development. All initiatives, whether they be educational, philanthropic, or charitable, serve the end goal of human growth, and are grounded in an ethic of love.

For Gulen, the love of God and the love of human persons is one and the same. Since God’s love brought forth the human community, the love of others is the simple manifestation of this divine love. As such, their love is limitless and unconditional. Charity, then, flowing from such a love, is non-restrictive, and flows naturally and gratuitously to those who are most in need.

Furthermore, humans by nature are communal, social beings that exist in multiple networks of families, friendships, and civic, societal, and global associations. Although our ethical obligations always begin locally, in the context of our friends and families, they can also spread universally to include the human community at large. While the Hizmet movement, for example, has strong ties to the Turkish homeland, the Turkish people, and the Turkish cultural tradition, the service projects and initiatives that its members conduct are far from local. They work on a global scale and meet the needs of complete strangers. This love of humanity, for Gulen, allows people to discover their place in society. Additionally, they discover how to avoid disputes, by searching for and leading others in the way of virtue, rather than power.

Despite its impressive growth and enthusiastic support from all over the globe, the Hizmet movement has faced numerous challenges. For example, it repeatedly has had to address the suspicion that it is a political movement, seeking to amass political power. While “political” in the most classical sense of the word, in that it encourages virtuous living and flourishing communities, it eschews the quest for political control and governmental power. Secondly, the Hizmet movement has also faced the challenge of being rightly understood as a moderate Islamic movement. The movement has sought to define itself as a modernist, moderate, peaceful Islamic movement, with the end goal of contributing to contemporary life as a faith-inspired social movement, rather than a political one. Its members constantly seek to model the intellectual and moral virtues that they identify as the core of the Islamic ethos, while simultaneously resisting the proliferation of the highly distorted and inaccurate images of Islam. Lastly, the Hizmet movement has faced the third challenge of distancing itself from a singular, central figure, and more closely aligning it with a communitarian service movement. Although it was his inspiration that created and sustained the movement, Gulen has consistently sought to shift the emphasis from himself to the communitarian and service-oriented movement at large.

Despite these challenges, his followers continue to inspire and teach by modeling virtuous lives. Inspired by Gulen’s interpretation of virtuous living, they model and teach by creating spaces for peace and dialogue that simultaneously value our commonalities, as well as our differences.