‘Gonul Dunyamizdan’ — loosely translated as ‘From the world of our hearts’ — was a 2-cassette series of sermons by Fethullah Gulen that I was given. The year was 1992. I was 21; a university student completing my computer engineering degree in my hometown Sydney. Those cassettes were given to me by a newly acquired graduate student friend. He was on an engineering scholarship from Turkey studying in Australia.
I was busy in various community-based activities from being the administrator of a university students association to being busy in a local mosque that I attended. I was an active Muslim, having interacted with various groups within the Muslim community in Sydney.
I was at that stage a fan of Said Nursi — an important Islamic scholar and thinker of Kurdish background. His magnum opus, ‘The Risale-i Nur’ (Treatise of Light), was a 6000 page exegesis on matters of the Islamic faith and theology as an antidote to the various ‘isms’ of the day, amongst them atheism.
As part of his methodology he expounded upon the compatibilty of religion (Islam) and science. He used rational parables to explain complex religious and theological concepts. As a student of quantum physics and other physical sciences, Nursi’s approach to faith was easily approachable and intellectually satisfying.
Then came those tapes and what would lead to my friend Ibrahim becoming a close friend and mentor. Those cassettes become the first step in my personal journey towards ‘insani kamil’ (human perfection) as expounded by Muslim thinker and intellectual Fethullah Gülen’s understanding of Islam in the 20th century (and now 21st century). Part of that ‘perfection’ were spiritual ideals — though in the purest sense these might be considered unreachable — were indeed the lofty principles by which Gülen encouraged others to live.
Amongst them included the concept of hizmet or service (for the pleasure of the Almighty). Within Gülen’s understanding of this term was the concept of ‘Hakka hizmet hakka hizmet’ — i.e. serve the Almighty by serving the community. And this concept stood out for me, particularly at a time when many of those pious Muslims around me emphasized personal and spiritual development but lacked experience, methodology or vision to encapsulate this important Islamic tradition of service to others.
Gülen, also inspired by Nursi’s understanding of the social ills of the Muslim world — poverty, disunity and ignorance — emphasized the importance of alleviating these in the Muslim world. Gülen didn’t stop there. He took this one important step further. It was incumbent on all Muslims, he preached, to help alleviate such social ills no matter the background of the person or the community being served. They could be Hindus in India, Buddhists in Japan, Agnostics in Europe, Baptists in the US, indigenous tribal religions in Africa or Muslims in the Middle East — all could and should be served as such ills were prevalent the world over.
It was this social consciousness that has helped people like me to ‘live’ Islam in the practical sphere — beyond whatever personal or inner gain, the living of my faith became a communal and societal gain. So no matter who it was we indeed are concerned with the difficulties of our neighbors, friends and others in society.
This ‘leap of faith’ for me and my friends has helped our movement in the establishment of and running of schools, education centers, dialogue centers, boarding homes, cultural centers, relief projects, and numerous other activities that help others throughout the world.
Forty years on we still continue to see Gülen encouraging others around the same ideals. Despite the difficulties of his home country he continues to write and speak about hizmet and insani kamil. And in those forty years he has been able to inspire two generations to traverse the globe and establish more than 2000 institutions across 6 continents and more than 150 countries.
I recently listened to those first cassettes again, ‘Gonul Dunyamizdan,’ including where Gülen recalls Yunus Emre’s oft recited poetic verse “Dovene elsiz, sovene dilsiz…” meaning “Those who strike you (react) as if without a hand, those who slander you (react) as if without a tongue.”
Under these trying times as we come to grips with the realities of trying to understand Gülen, it might be wise to recall these words, and as Gülen tells us — “Hizmete devam,” continue to serve.