Fethullah Gulen was born in a small village near Turkey’s Erzurum province in 1941. Mr. Gulen’s father Ramiz Gulen, was an imam in the region and his mother, Refia Gulen, was the primary caregiver of the family and a major influence on Mr. Gulen’s spiritual and religious upbringing. Mr. Gulen attended his formal primary education in his home village, and after the family moved to a nearby village he began an informal religious education.
He was known to have an insatiable hunger for reading and knowledge of every subject on his curriculum and during this informal religious education, Fethullah Gulen maintained high interest in contemporary issues of his time. He also studied the classics such as Faust, Les Misérables, Of Mice and Man and many others to gain a better understanding of the western world; moreover, he had a keen interest in fine arts, enjoyed Turkish classical music and found painters such as Picasso and DaVinci awe inspiring. Fethullah Gulen has described the abstract style of Picasso to be in close congruence to the Islamic understanding of art.
Although he earned his preaching license at the age of 21 to deliver lectures in the western province of Edirne, Fethullah Gulen was allowed to start preaching much earlier in Erzurum due to his extraordinary achievements as a student. Mr. Gulen’s (Hodja Effendi as his followers refer to him) sermons and lectures were followed by mostly university students and intellectuals. Hodja Effendi’s artful and eloquent use of the Turkish language attracted an impressed audience and helped his reputation grow immensely throughout western Turkey.
During the late 1950s, Mr. Gulen discovered the works of another Turkish Muslim Scholar named Said Nursi. Nursi had diagnosed the key problems plaguing the Muslim world and humanity in general and labeled them as, poverty,ignorance and disunity. According to Nursi, these problems had to be tackled first if a revival of human values was to be achieved. Although they never met, Nursi became one of the few intellectuals who helped shape Fethullah Gulen’s take on contemporary issues.
Fethullah Gulen stood out among other preachers as he touched upon social, economic, educational and scientific topics in addition to normal religious issues. Gulen emphasized on importance of social activism and encouraged his fellow citizens to take on the country’s problems through volunteerism instead of expecting the government to accomplish everything. He preached a moderate version of Islam focusing on personal spiritual advancement through practice of the faith, tolerance towards others and helping fellow Muslims reach the same level of understanding.
In 1966, Mr. Fethullah Gulen was appointed to Izmir as the senior regional preacher, with permission to lecture in several provinces. Hodja Effendi’s transfer to Izmir is an important mile stone in hissocial activism. Izmir is where Mr. Gulen’s audience started to espouse his ideas around issues concerning social justice, economic recovery, educational revival and technological advancement to cure the aforementioned illnesses described by Nursi.
Hodja Effendi set the wheels of social change in motion utilizing the potential peaceful activism of Turkish people in whom Gulen has a profound trust. He described the society’s current situation clearly and showed the means through which poverty, ignorance and disunity could be overcome. The first action being to increase literacy and the quality of education in the country. He was able to mobilize the business people in his congregation to fund such educational institutions, so called “Gulen Schools”, as dormitories, college prep centers, K-12 schools and finally universities that had a great emphasis on science and human values.
Having institutions did not mean anything unless they had high quality teachers who would devote themselves to educate the youth to prepare an enlightened future for humanity. Thousands of university students who listened to Fethullah Gulen’s lectures chose to become teachers regardless of their field of study. As more and more people attended Hodja Effendi’s lectures, the number of educational institutions inspired by his ideas increased rapidly in Turkey.
In the second half of 1980s, Fethullah Gulen’s vision for a “better world through a better education” lead him to put forward a new proposal for his audience: to open schools in central Asian countries that were soon to be set free from the Soviet Union. He started with these newly democratized countries because of their ethnic closeness to Turks in Anatolia. In the coming years, Mr. Gulen urged his followers to open and fund educational institutions wherever needed in the World.
To tackle poverty and disunity, in the 1990s, Hodja Effendi encouraged members of his community to set up relief organizations that would operate around the globe and help all individuals in need regardless of their background. Also at this time, he and members of his community started a dialogue among people from all walks of life in Turkey and later carried it to a global scale to achieve a higher level of understanding between different cultures, faiths, traditions and views. Mr. Gulen believes that a sustainable world peace can never be achieved without sincere communication and dialogue.
By the mid 1990s, Hodja Effendi’s reached a large enough number to be labeled a social movement, often referred to as “The Gulen Movement” or “The Fethullah Gulen Community” in the media. The Gulen Movement funds all of its activities by donations from members of the community from the general public and does not accept any help support from governments in any form. This approach has helped the Movement stay away from corruption and politics.
Fethullah Gulen currently resides in the US state of Pennsylvania. He suffers from many physical ailments that cause him to live a very austere lifestyle. On occasions of good health, Mr. Gulen welcomes visitors and conducts lectures with members of the Movement.