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The Hizmet Movement and Christian-Muslim Understanding


By Rev. J.M.P. Thomas Birla

05 July, 2014

The Hizmet movement is one of the most active Muslim initiatives for, among other things, interfaith understanding, in modern times. Although he never claimed himself as its founder, this movement, now active in numerous countries, is linked to a key figure, Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, who can be rightly called as its initiator. The teachings of Gülen and the vision of the movement that he inspired can be encapsulated in the term Hizmet, which, in the Turkish language, means ‘service’—in this context, service to God and to fellow human beings.

Short Biography of Fethullah Gülen

 Fethullah Gülen was born in 1941 in eastern Turkey. His father, Ramiz Efendi, was a government-employed imam who performed his duties in various regions. He received much knowledge from his father, who was well-versed in the Quran and the life of Prophet Muhammad. Gülen also learnt Arabic and Persian from him. Gülen’s mother, Refia, had a major influence on his religious and spiritual upbringing. Outside of his family, Muhammed Lüfti Efendi, an influential Sufi master and poet, had a great influence on him. Gülen was also introduced to the teachings of the renowned Turkish Islamic scholar Said Nursi (1876-1960), who encouraged Muslims to accept constructive modernity in the light of the sacred texts.

 Gülen developed a wide and deep knowledge about religion and modern sciences through his study from various distinguished scholars. As a result, in 1958 he was awarded a state preacher’s license. His sermons and speeches did not address and answer only the religious quest of the people but also enlightened them about education, science, social justice and humanity. This enabled him to reach a wide range of audiences from different walks of life, including students, scholars, the poor, and both religious and non-religious people.  He emphasised the need for human beings to support one another and to live in harmony in the midst of their differences. He reached the conclusion that only through education, dialogue and the proper understanding of one’s own religion could there be peaceful co-existence among people in the midst of their differences. Having reached this conclusion, Gülen began to put his ideas into action, which eventually took the form of a movement.

Formation of the Hizmet Movement

Starting in the 1960s, Gülen managed to inspire a vast civic movement, called the Hizmet movement, by virtue of his thoughts and writings. In 1966, Gülen was transferred to a mosque in Izmir. There he was not only responsible for a mosque but was also a director of a Quranic school. It was there that Gülen started to implement his pragmatic ideas, which took shape as a movement in the later years. Soon after he took charge in Izmir, he began to attempt to promote a different method of education. He started encouraging people to participate in conversations, seminars and conferences in mosques and homes. He wanted to educate the youth in both secular subjects and the principles of morality. He also initiated dialogue among people representing different ideologies, cultures, nationalities and religions. By inviting these people to various meetings, he provided them opportunities to come together. He was of the opinion that this was necessary for a sincere dialogue in order to increase mutual understanding and peace.

 After noticing his sincerity and seriousness, people from all walks of life, such as students, teachers, workers, business people, men and women, joined him. He inspired them to support the noble cause he was engaged in, both financially and physically. At the same time, Gülen made sure that these initiatives had no political or ideological objectives. Within a decade, the movement became a transnational phenomenon, as its projects spread to other parts of the world. In India, this movement was started at New Delhi in 1999. Having New Delhi as the main base in India, it gradually started to spread its activities in various parts of the country. At present, there are six centres of the movement in India: in New Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.

 Aims and Objectives of the Hizmet Movement

·         To impart spiritual, metaphysical and philosophical knowledge about God, the world and the purpose of human life.

·         To avoid economic, political or cultural power, and, instead, serve humankind altruistically, without any expectation.

·         To eradicate social ills, such as illiteracy, poverty and social polarization.

·         To promote social peace and friendship by stressing the common values of humanity, such as tolerance, respect and compassion.

Major Teachings on Interfaith Relations

 The Quran and the Sunnah, the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, are the guiding principles of the Hizmet Movement. According to Gülen, religion is not simply rituals and worship. Rather, it includes according true meaning to humanity by embracing the whole of individual and collective life. True religion, according to him, never engenders conflicts among human beings on the basis of religious differences. These conflicts occur, rather, due to ignorance, personal benefits or the pursuit of the perceived interests of particular groups. Accordingly, Gülen considers that the only way to solve this problem is to properly educate human beings. Proper and meaningful education is a must for human beings in order to avoid deception and misguidance and to reach right decisions in their lives. The Hizmet movement proposes the integration of spiritual and traditional values along with modern education. Through its teachings on education, it looks forward to a religious renaissance.

The Hizmet movement firmly believes that every religion has some basic elements that are conducive to constructive interfaith activities and strongly recommends the brotherhood/sisterhood among people of faith. Our challenge is to trace out these binding values from our scriptures and traditions. This can be of great use to prove that dialoguing is one of God’s commands to us and that it is not a sin or an irreligious activity. Gülen finds the roots of interreligious dialogue in the verses of the Quran. Even every chapter in the Quran begins with the praise of God’s attributes as “the Compassionate and the Merciful.” Moreover, he quotes the famous Quranic verse:

 O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted (49:13)  

Gülen takes this Quranic statement very seriously and interprets it to mean that God expects Muslims to be compassionate and merciful to all people, irrespective of ethnicity, colour, and religion. This is what Jesus Christ, too, taught: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). This commandment can be fulfilled only through love and dialogue with other religious people.

 Perspective on Christian-Muslim Relations

 The roots of Christian-Muslim relations can be traced to the very scriptural origins of Islam. For instance, the Quran states:

 “The closest in affection to [Muslims] are those who say: ‘We are Christians’, for among them are priests and monks and they are not arrogant” (5:82) and

“Say, O People of the Book (followers of Moses and Jesus)! Come to common terms between you and us, that we will worship none but God, that we will not associate partners with Him, that we erect not from ourselves patrons other than God”  (3:64)

By interpreting such verses of the Quran, the Hizmet movement has been constantly emphasising the necessity of brotherly/sisterly relations among the ‘People of the Book’.

The contributions of the Hizmet movement in seeking to improve Christian-Muslim relations are very evident not only at the theoretical level but also at the practical level. For instance, Gülen’s meeting with the Christian leaders, like the late Pope John Paul II, the Archbishop of Constantinople and others to discuss in furthering dialogue activities between Muslims and Christians. The movement also plays a vital role during times of crisis, acting as a catalyst or a glue to restore broken relationships. Gülen was one of the first Islamic scholars to denounce the terrorist attacks of 9/11, saying that “... terror can never be used in the name of Islam or for the sake of any Islamic ends. A terrorist cannot be a true Muslim and a true Muslim cannot be a terrorist. A Muslim can only be representative and symbol of peace, welfare and prosperity.”

 In India, within a short span of time the Hizmet movement has established good relations with Indian churches and church-based organizations. There is ample scope for the movement to engage in and promote interfaith dialogue with Christian, Hindu and other religious groups in the country. The Indialogue Foundation, which is linked to the Hizmet movement, has organised several inter-faith meetings, seminars, Ramadan dinners and other activities in different parts of India in an effort to find common ground between people of different faiths and to promote friendly relations among them. Like the Indian Church, the Hizmet movement has been very active in promoting interfaith dialogue as well as educational institutions. These two parallels, in particular, can bring the Hizmet movement and the Church closer together, urging Christians and Muslims to work together as brothers and sisters.

Rev. J.M.P. Thomas Birla, a Christian priest, is presently Presbyter at All Saints’ Cathedral, Shillong, Meghalaya