Review: ‘The Spirituality of Responsibility: Fethullah Gülen and Islamic Thought’

The first chapter of the book deals with the tragic case of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Gülen’s position was, to say the least, controversial. It is a smart move because at the outset the reader is confronted with Gülen’s conception of responsibility in the face of a highly political and religiously charged heart-rending event.

With regard to leadership and vision, the Sunni Muslim world seems to be in disarray. None of the following leaders, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Muhammad ben Salman al Saoud, Yusuf al Qaradawi, and Rached Ghannouchi, to name but the most prominent ones, offer a credible path forward in this maelstrom. Where does Fethullah Gülen stand? Prof Robinson’s book proposes a possible answer.

Fethullah Gülen is no doubt one the most influential spiritual leaders of our time and arguably the most important one in the Sunni Muslim world. His writings and sermons and above all the Hizmet movement inspired by his thought are a force to reckon with. In the words of Greg Barton, Paul Weller and Ihsan Yilmaz, “the Gülen movement is an example of an Islamically – inspired social movement that bases its philosophy on increasing religious consciousness at the individual level and making Islam an important social force in the public sphere.” Robinson’s book seconds that statement.

Robinson starts his book with these lines: “Responsibility is at the heart of what it is to be human. The challenge is to practice it, and so become human.” It is remarkable that Robinson chose Fethullah Gülen, a man at the centre of the political crisis today in Turkey, and where thousands of his followers are sacked and jailed. Not only has he chosen Gülen, the first chapter of the book deals with the tragic case of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Gülen’s position was, to say the least, controversial. It is a smart move because at the outset the reader is confronted with Gülen’s conception of responsibility in the face of a highly political and religiously charged heart-rending event.

I would agree with Robinson that Gülen’s writings contribute to a dynamic, holistic, and interactive view of responsibility which locates personal identity, agency, and freedom in plural relationships. Also, his approach provides an effective framework which bridges enterprise and social responsibility, individual rights and civic responsibility, individual and collective responsibility and the theory, practice and spirituality of responsibility.

Robinson’s book shows how Gülen’s concept of responsibility encompasses social and environmental responsibility, peacebuilding and dialogue. One would be hard pressed to find a Muslim thinker who has contributed to the debates on Islam, liberal democracy, and secularism, as Gülen has done with farsightedness. The book enriches the debate by comparing Gülen to important western scholars such as Paul Ricoeur, Jonathan Sacks, and John Paul Lederach. However, the author does not shy away from the limitations or weaknesses of Gülen’s conception of responsibility with regard to agency, universal responsibility, and social responsibility. Also, he critically evaluates what Joshua Hendricks terms “strategic ambiguity and accountability.”

Robinson believes that for Gülen, accountability to God lies at the heart of his view of responsibility because responsibility is based on the anthropology of the Quran. Humankind stands in for God, as deputy, but also stands before God, in judgment. Humanity is both responsible and accountable to God on earth and the hereafter. Hence, Gülen assigns three characteristics to responsibility: 1) agency, as personal autonomy, is a gift from God that enables the person to play the role of a deputy of God on earth; 2) teleology, that is human beings are on earth to fulfil a divine purpose and plan; 3) virtue-centred because responsibility requires the cardinal virtues of courage, wisdom, temperance, and justice; 4) creative action, embodied in the Hizmet movement. In this sense, humanity is the brightest mirror of the divine and created “upon the best of forms” Q. 4: 8. Gülen’s spirituality is grounded in relationship with God, and provides the basis for a spirituality of responsibility which is both relational, responding to God, to the needs of creation and to the needs of the society, and focused on the ongoing demands on the individual.

Finally, Gülen’s views provide not simply a spirituality of responsibility but suggest that responsibility is at the heart of spirituality. Even though Gülen does not offer a systematic philosophy of power, his approach provides a basis for a spirituality of power. Robinson begins with the idea that responsibility is at the heart of what it means to be human and concludes with these lines by Gülen, “… and if such a people can reflect this duty of service and responsibility … they will carry out all deeds of service with joy of worship and be aware of the gratitude of having reached the apex of true believers, an apex which is considered to be the highest level of existence.”

© 2017 Centre for Hizmet Studies