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The Gülen Movement: Its Nature and Identity

Muhammed Cetin, PhD

The Gülen movement is increasingly visible through the work of a range of institutions across the world. Its visibility has led to the beginning of formal academic inquiry into the nature and identity of the movement and its activities. Such academic study is necessary before one can offer to evaluate the short- and long-term outcomes of the movement and their desirability. While little of an academic nature has been published so far, there have been a number of politicised or journalistic accounts of the movement, characterising it variously as a sect, cult or order. This paper scrutinises a number of those accounts as a way into a more accurate, evidence-based description of the teachings of Fethullah Gülen and of the conduct of the members of the movement inspired by him.

This paper aims to examine the identity and nature of the Gülen Movement. To do this I consider some questions which have been raised about the movement in the academic and political arenas. Specifically, I address whether the movement comprises a sect, cult or religious order by examining the discourse and action of Gülen and the Gülen Movement.

What is a ‘Sect’ in Islamic Thought?
As a preliminary, it must be highlighted that in the use of this term, ‘sect’1, lies a potential cross-cultural communication problem with significant consequences in the academic and the political world. It is common for academics and journalists commenting on the Muslim world to use such terms with the same import as they have in a European or American context.

I shall not compare definitions because for the purposes of this paper how the Western experience is defined is irrelevant. Instead, I will state what comprises a sect within Islamic thinking. One important science in Islamic is aqida, that is, the statement of belief, or the creed. At its simplest, this is the shahadah, the statement of witness that there is only one God and Muhammad is His Messenger (pbuH). The aqida outlines in more detail the elements of the seen and unseen that Muslims believe in, and is derived from the Qur’an in a quite straightforward manner. A sect arises because the aqida of a group differs from that of the majority, either by addition or subtraction. In the history of Islam, Muslims have generally concurred that there are two sects in Islam, the majority Sunni and the minority Shi’a. It is safe to say that most Muslims feel that this division is regrettable but few would go so far as to say those in the other sect are not Muslims, since Sunni and Shi’a are united by the shahadah and, contrary to current belief in the western media, have lived side by side in peace for centuries. Also, Shi’a Muslims receive permits to visit the holy sites of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula.

Within Sunni Islam, there are then four main madhabs. This word is translated in different ways, sometimes as ‘schools of thought’, or as ‘schools of law’. These are not sects; there is mutual recognition between them. They are traditions which interpret the application of Islamic law to all aspects of life, and while it is necessary to choose one madhab to follow, it is legal and morally acceptable to follow a particular ruling from a different madhab under certain conditions.

The important thing to note is that the division of the Muslim community into sects or sectarian groupings is anathema to canonical Islam. There are warnings against this in the sayings of the Messenger of God (pbuH), and he (pbuH) welcomed differences of opinion in the umma as ‘a mercy’. Consequently, Islamic culture is very varied and has made a great contribution to world legal culture (Sykiainen 2007). For these reasons, Muslims avoid breaking off from the main body of Islam into sectarian groupings and are well able to avoid breaking off.

Thus, asking if the Gülen Movement is a sect, means asking if it is enacting a new or deviant form of Islam. If this is not so, it is interesting to ask why the accusation is used, who makes it and what is their purpose.

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