The Theological Dimension of the Thought of M. Fethullah Gülen (Part 2)

Thomas Michel

2021-05-01 16:48:21

“Sincerity” in the Islamic Tradition

Ikhlas is a Qur’anic concept that is variously translated as “sincerity” or “purity of intention,” and Gülen’s understanding of this term covers both aspects of the Qur’anic concept. In ordinary parlance, “sincerity” indicates the notion of honesty or freedom from dissimulation and hypocrisy. A sincere person is one whose external words or deeds are in accord with their interior thoughts or feelings. A sincere person does not pretend to be expressing one thought or emotion while in reality his interior dispositions are to the contrary. Thus, a sincere person is not self-promoting, hypocritical, pretentious, two-faced, or devious. The sincere person neither flatters nor manipulates others. This straightforward transparency of speech and motivation is one aspect of ikhlas.

The second aspect of the Qur’anic notion of ikhlas, which brings together the notion of “purity” with that of “dedicating, devoting or consecrating oneself” to some activity, is a key virtue in Islamic practice [1], and is the aspect of ikhlas most often stressed by Gülen. Ikhlas is an eminently interior disposition by which the faithful Muslim performs all external actions in a spirit of service and directed solely toward pleasing the Divine Lord. In fact, in Islam the perfection of one’s witness to faith can be gauged by the double standard of ikhlas (purity of intention) and ihsan (goodness).

It is noteworthy that the brief expression of the Islamic creed found in the Qur’anic Sura 112, “Say: He, Allah, is One. Allah is He on Whom all depend. He begets not, nor is He begotten. And there is none like Him,” has been known in Islamic tradition as the “Surat al-Ikhlas,” that is, “The Chapter of Sincerity” or “The Chapter of Pure Religion.”

The importance of ikhlas has been commented upon down through the centuries by Muslim scholars, exegetes, and spiritual guides in every generation. The Sufi masters have been particularly fond of elaborating on this virtue, to the extent that in the minds of many Muslims, ikhlas is considered a “Sufi concept.” In commenting on ikhlas, Said Nursi distinguishes his own advice from that of the teaching of the Sufi tradition. While praising the insights of the Sufi masters, Nursi notes that “I am not a Sufi, but these principles of theirs make a good rule for our path” [2].

Because of its roots in the Qur’an and in the tradition of Islamic spiritual writing, this aspect of ikhlas can perhaps be more adequately conveyed in English by “purity of intention” or “pure religion” than simply by “sincerity.” Ikhlas indicates the interior disposition in which one practices all the acts of religion solely for God’s pleasure rather than for any personal benefit that may accrue to them, whether that be prestige, pride, or the admiration of others. When one “worships God with sincerity” one’s intention is pure and undefiled by base or irrelevant motives. The Qur’an commends those who devote their lives to seeking God’s pleasure: “And there is the type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah: And Allah is full of kindness to (His) devotees” (Qur’an 2: 207).

Ikhlas in Gülen’s theology

In his treatment of ikhlas, Gülen builds upon what was elaborated in the tradition and applies these insights to the contemporary needs of communitarian life and the broader society. ¨While interpreting the basic meaning of the term to be “upright, sincere, and pure,” Gülen indicates that ikhlas means “pursuing nothing worldly while worshiping and obeying God” [3]. At the deepest level, sincerity can only be understood in the mystery of the relationship between God and God’s faithful servant. Purity of intention is a grace or divine gift that God places in the heart of those He loves [4] in order to increase, deepen and give eternal value to the servant’s ordinary good acts.

Gülen considers purity of intention to be “the wing of the bird” of a person’s life before God. The other wing is faithfulness, and together these virtues make up the two wings of divine grace that God implants in the soul that enable a person to approach God directly without hindrance. He quotes Mevlana Jalal al-din Rumi to the effect that if good deeds were a body, purity of intention (ikhlas) would be their soul. That is, it is sincerity that makes good deeds live, be effective, and have everlasting value. Without sincerity to animate deeds spiritually, all human endeavors would remain lifeless, ephemeral, and ultimately worthless. But those who fly with the two wings of sincerity and faithfulness will fly with God’s protection and will unfailingly reach their destination, that is, “God’s approval and pleasure.”

Faithfulness, the other wing of the bird, enables God’s servant to stick to his intention to serve God even when it is inconvenient or seemingly fruitless. This kind of loyalty to God is one of the most evident qualities of God’s servants, an outstanding characteristic of all the prophets, and the source of wisdom in the believer. In the loyal, faithful servant, God will plant the seeds of wisdom that will then spring from that person’s heart and tongue.

Gülen quotes Abu Yazid Bistami (Bayazid) to say that it is through sincerity, not through human deeds, that a person goes to God. It is on the basis of a person’s sincerity that God judges acts, not on the magnitude or notoriety of the deed. The size and quantity of good deeds is unimportant. Even a small deed or one that is unknown to others, if it is done with sincerity, is judged pleasing by God. This intentionality, the conviction that a person’s intention determines the value of a deed, is in keeping with the Islamic tradition. Gülen notes that God rewards a small act done with purity of intention more highly than many more ostentatious deeds done without the sincere desire to serve God alone.

For Gülen, Muslims must learn purity of intention from the prophets, particularly from the Prophet Muhammad. He states: “God’s Messenger had one intention: to please God and worship Him sincerely, as he himself stated in a famous hadith: “Perfect goodness or virtue is to worship God as if you were seeing Him, and although you do not see Him, yet truly He sees you” [5]. Just as the prophets could not take a step without sincerity, so also those who follow in the footsteps of the prophets will not be able to do anything without a pure intention. Gülen describes this purity of intention as “the pursuit of no worldly purpose in one’s relationship with God [6]. In other words, worshiping and obeying God are the only valid reasons that a sincere person should have for performing any of their good actions.

Living with purity of intention

Like Said Nursi before him, Fethullah Gülen is not interested so much in being a theoretician of the spiritual life as in offering concrete, practical advice to those who come to him for spiritual counsel. It is in this way that Gülen, following Nursi, distinguishes himself from the great Sufi Masters like Al-Muhasibi, Al-Ghazali, and Hujwiri. Gülen is interested in continuing in the line of Nursi’s “path of reality,” that of providing effective, helpful advice to Muslims who are seeking God’s pleasure in this world. He cites Nursi to insist that purity of intention is nothing other than the basic motivation for the disciple’s personal and communitarian actions: “We worship God only because we are His servants and He has told us to do so. Said Nursi said: ‘Do what you do only for God’s sake; start for God’s sake, work for God’s sake, and act within the sphere of God’s good approval’” [7].

Gülen advises his students to maintain spiritual discretion. In practical terms, if ikhlas, or purity of intention, means that the servant does everything solely to seek God’s pleasure and for no worldly motive whatsoever, it follows that sincere believers should not be ostentatious in the good deeds they perform. One seeking God’s pleasure alone should hide any supererogatory acts from the view of others and remain silent about any edifying personal experiences, special treatment received from superiors, or special gifts with which one has been endowed by God.

The underlying supposition is that there is a universal human tendency to perform one’s good deeds in order to be seen by others and gain their approval. Moreover, human motivation is often complex, with the desire to serve God mixed with a craving for human admiration and approval. The sincere servant recognizes that it is only God’s approval, not that of other persons, that matters; thus, it is unimportant whether or not one is seen in serving God. A person who has purity of intention worries neither about being praised for his accomplishments nor censured for his failures. He does not care if others are aware or unaware of his achievements, nor is he preoccupied about receiving a reward. Such a person behaves with consistency, whether or not one is in public or in private.

According to Gülen, sincerity teaches that the true goal of acts of piety and goodness is God’s pleasure, not human recognition or respect. Moreover, in sincere worship the believer discovers that one’s human longing for Paradise is not a sufficient motivation for doing what is right. Speaking of worship, Gülen explains: “Those performing [acts of worship] can be categorized by their intention, resolution, determination, and sincerity as follows: those who desire to enter Paradise, those who hope to be rescued from Hellfire, those who love and stand in awe of God, and those who feel that they must do so as a requirement of their relationship between God as the Creator and human beings” [8]. The sincere worshiper no longer cares whether his deeds will form the basis for attaining Paradise.

In fact, sincerity should become second nature to God’s servants, not a virtue after which a person consciously needs to strive. Gülen advises disciples to be “so involved in worship or religious deeds in seeking God’s pleasure that one does not even remember whether one should be sincere or not” [9]. In other words, even the virtue of sincerity itself must not be allowed to become the final goal of religious observance. The only true objective in the performance of any good act is to serve and obey God and to thereby give God the pleasure and satisfaction that is due Him.

Only a humble person can act with true sincerity. As Gülen explains: “Humble people do not attribute fruits of work and efforts to themselves, nor do they regard their successes or efforts for God as making them superior to others. They do not care how others regard them; they do not demand a return for their services for God. They regard their being loved by others as a test of their sincerity, and do not exploit God’s favors to them by boasting” [10].

To arrive at a state of mind where one does not care whether one receives recognition for one’s good deeds, the disciple must engage in self-examination and self-supervision. Only the person who has learned to be honest with oneself will be able to know whether one’s motivation is solely to worship God or whether the true incentive that is being pursued is some worldly gain, such as self-satisfaction, human respect, or personal ambition. Thus, developing a habit of honest evaluation and reflection will enable a person to grow in purity of intention. Gülen calls this muraqaba (self-supervision), by which God’s servants are led “to maintain the purity of thoughts, actions, and intentions even when they are alone, in the consciousness of His continual observation” [11].

Communitarian dimensions of ikhlas

It is not only for the purposes of an individual’s spiritual growth that purity of intention is a key virtue among those who seek to do God’s will. Purity of intention also has communitarian effects. There is nothing that can more quickly disrupt the proper bonds of friendship among disciples than personal ambition, competition, and rivalry. When a disciple is in the habit of calling attention to his superior abilities or achievements in one or another area, or to boast about his relationship to his superiors, resentment and jealousy will inevitably arise among his confreres.

In his emphasis on sincerity as a key element in preserving the unity of the community, Gülen’s approach is very similar to that of Said Nursi, who repeatedly wrote of the necessity for sincerity to prevent disunity among the students of the Risale-i Nur. The history of many religious groups in various religions has shown repeatedly that jealousy and a sense of competition among members has been the cause of factionalism, resentment, and divisions into rival groups. It has produced a loss of dynamism and resulted in the break-up of many groups. It is only by the members carrying out their tasks with sincerity that this unhealthy rivalry can be avoided. In his long discursus on sincerity, Nursi envisioned a community in which “Each of the members completes the deficiencies of the others, veils their faults, assists their needs, and helps them out in their duties” [12]. If this type of relationship among fellow disciples is to be possible and the unity of the community is to be maintained, everyone must be sincerely striving solely to please God.

By contrast, the unity of heart and intention among those involved in the Hizmet cemaat can be traced in a large part to this emphasis on sincerity and purity of intention. It means that humble tasks – meeting guests at the airport, serving tea or coffee, feeding the poor in soup kitchens – have eternal value and ennoble the one performing them, if they are done wholly for the pleasure of God. A similar understanding underlies the readiness of intelligent, well-prepared university graduates to renounce prestigious and well-paying positions in academics or business to devote their lives to teaching students in distant and often impoverished regions. The emphasis on purity of intention has convinced industrialists, businessmen, and entrepreneurs to contribute generously to projects whose completion they will never see.

Since it is sincerity that enables God’s servants to keep focused on serving God alone, thus making their actions, great or small, acceptable to God, if Gülen has been able to instill a sense of harmony and united service (hizmet) among his followers, it is largely because of the emphasis he has put on ikhlas. He cites Mevlana to this effect: “You should be sincere in all your deeds, So that the Majestic Lord may accept them. Sincerity is the wing of the bird of the acts of obedience; without a wing, how can you fly to the abode of prosperity?” [13]


  1. L. Gardet, Encyclopaedia of Islam, Leiden: 2006, III: 1059.
  2. Risale-i Nur, The Twenty-first Flash, p. 216
  3. Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, 1999, p. 60.
  4. Ibid. p. 62.
  5. Gülen, Muhammad the Messenger of God, p. 39.
  6. Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, p. 60.
  7. Gülen, Muhammad the Messenger of God, p. 38. Gülen’s citation of the Risale-i Nur is taken from “The First Word,” p. 5.
  8. Fethullah Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, Somerset: The Light, 2004, p. 54.
  9. M.F. Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, 1999, p. 62.
  10. M. F. Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, p. 80.
  11. Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, p. 57.
  12. Said Nursi, Risale-i Nur, The Twenty-first Flash, p. 214.
  13. Jalal al-Din Rumi, cited by M.F. Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, I: 62.

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