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The Theological Dimension of the Thought of M. Fethullah Gülen (Part 3)

| Thomas Michel | Issue 142 (Jul - Aug 2021)

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The Theological Dimension of the Thought of M. Fethullah Gülen (Part 3)

The terms translated in English as “worship,” “servanthood,” and “devotion” are taken from Arabic and possess a long history in the Islamic tradition. In particular, they have been commented upon by Sufi teachers and theoreticians down through the ages. Fethullah Gülen has appropriated this traditional language and applied it to the practice of Islam in modern situations. A study of these concepts provides a key to understanding both the Hizmet movement’s spiritual motivation as well as the success of its undertakings.

The term ‘ibada is derived from the Arabic root meaning slave or servant and carries the idea of enslaving oneself to God or of acting as God’s servant, with the consequent connotations of obedience, submission, devotion, faithfulness, service etc. The concept is not an innovation within the Abrahamic tradition, and is well known in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament. Moses was referred to as God’s servant and the idea of Israel as God’s faithful Servant was later developed by the prophets, especially Isaiah. Christian authors of the New Testament identified Jesus with the Suffering Servant of God spoken of by Isaiah. In the Qur’anic account of the Night Journey (Qr 17:1), Muhammad is referred to simply as “His servant” (“Glory to God Who did take His servant for a journey by night…”

In many treatments of Islamic belief and practice, and in the minds of many Muslim believers, ‘ibada is simply equated with ritual acts, specifically the ritual practices such as the daily salat prayers, the Ramadan fast, the pilgrimage to Mecca etc., that are obligatory for all Muslims. Particularly in works of fiqh (jurisprudence), ‘ibada as ritual activity is treated as a separate chapter distinct from mu'amalat (business affairs and contracts), munakahat (marriage regulations), jinaya (expiation), hudud (punishment), faraid (inheritance) etc.

Worship as fulfilling God’s commands in daily life

Gülen expands upon this traditional view of ‘ibada to define it very broadly as “fulfilling God’s commands in one’s daily life, and fulfilling the obligations of being God’s servant” [1]. It is interesting to note that there is no specific reference to ritual performance in this definition. In Gülen’s view, ritual obligations are included in the concept of ‘ibada, but the notion goes far beyond ritual performance to include everything that one does to live and act according to God’s will. When Oğuz teaches physics in Kyrgyzstan, he is performing ‘ibada; he is worshiping God. When Erol donates funds so that schools, dialogue centers, well-digging projects, and publishing houses can be founded and maintained, he is doing ‘ibada. His donations are a form of divine worship.

Worship in this broad sense is the primary task of man and woman as God’s khalifa, or vice-regent on earth. Gülen holds that “Humanity’s vice-regency for the Creator takes place in an unusually broad sphere that encompasses acts ranging from believing in Him and worshiping Him to understanding the mysteries within things and the cause of natural phenomena” [2]. This insight has concrete application in the strong emphasis given to the natural sciences in the schools established and operated by the Gülen movement. The teachers and students are worshiping God when they undertake a scientific study of the earth.

Gülen’s comprehensive understanding of worship has resulted almost in a kind of sacralization of education and helps to account for the emphasis the movement has given to opening and operating schools. As an example, I offer this passage from one of Gülen’s writings on education. “A school is a place of learning, where everything related to this life and the next is taught. It can shed light on vital ideas and events, and enable students to understand their natural and human environment. A school can also open the way to unveiling the meaning of things and events, thereby leading a student to wholeness of thought and contemplation. In essence, a school is a kind of place of worship; the ‘holy leaders’ are the teachers” [3].

Worship as integrative and liberative

The broad compass that Gülen gives to ‘ibada is meant to have an integrating effect in the lives of his followers. “They first arrange their feelings and thoughts, regulating their individual and social life through various forms of worship, balancing familial and social relationships by their actions … doing what is necessary to be a genuine successor (khalifa).” The far-reaching notion of worship enables the members of the movement to bring together and maintain in equilibrium their devotional life, vocational commitment, and communitarian responsibilities.

To play this integrative role in the life of a believer, “worship” must embrace the totality of attitudes and actions of service. As Gülen notes: “Worship is not simply the performance of a set of particular movements, as some believe. It is what we call complete submission and the acceptance of a broad responsibility. Along with the title of vice-regent, it is the clearest expression of the relationship amongst humans, the universe, and God.”

Worship is seen to have not only an integrative but also a liberative role in the believer’s life. An attitude of worship enables the believer to arrive at true freedom by becoming free from the obstacles to freedom, escape from the self-imposed dungeon people have created for themselves [4] and the multifarious forms of slavery to which humans subject themselves. Gülen puts it as follows: “If worship is the placing of a consciousness of being bound to God into one’s heart, if it is the liberation of one’s self from all types of slavery, if it is the title of seeing, hearing, and feeling the beauty, order, and harmony that belong to Him in every molecule of existence – and there is no doubt that it is this and nothing else – then worship is the most immediate way to turn our face to God” [5].


Gülen distinguishes between ‘ibada and ‘ubudiyya, which can be translated as “servanthood.” For Gülen, the concept of ‘ubudiyya bears the connotation of “living in the consciousness of being God’s servant,” whereas ‘ibada means “fulfilling God’s commands in one’s daily life” [6]. In other words, ‘ibada refers to what the devout believer must do to serve and obey God in daily life, and ‘ubudiyya indicates the attitude which the believer must take towards God, the object of worship.

However, there is also a more subtle difference between the two concepts. Acts of worship (‘ibada) consist of all physical and economic duties, which may include teaching school, financing dialogue projects, or delivering meat to the poor at the Feast of the Sacrifice, as well as such ritual obligations as the daily salat prayers or Ramadan fast. Servanthood (‘ubudiyyat) recognizes that there is a deeper, inner dimension to all these activities that requires a degree of reflective awareness on the part of the believer. What is the reason for such deeds of worship, how do they fit into one’s response in faith to God’s commands, and why is it in accord with God’s plan for humankind that they act in this way? The consciousness of the role that acts of obedience and service play in responding faithfully to God is what Gülen terms “servanthood”; it indicates an attitude that one is constantly standing before God in readiness to seek the Divine Master’s pleasure by carrying out active service in accord with His will.


Gülen reaches back into the Sufi tradition to note a still deeper stage of worshipful involvement, that of “devotion,” or ‘ubuda. While being neither the member of a Sufi Order or the founder of a new tarekat, Gülen acknowledges his indebtedness to the Sufi tradition for its promoting a comprehensive understanding of worship as service of God, as well as its constant encouragement to those on the Path to worship God always and in every way. Thus, although not a Sufi himself, Gülen affirms his appreciation for the insights of the Sufis to the Islamic view of worship. He states: “Sufism enables individuals, through the constant worship of God, to deepen their awareness of themselves as devotees of God… Sufism allows individuals to develop the moral dimension of their existence, and enables the acquisition of a strong, heartfelt, and personally experienced conviction of the articles of faith that before they had only accepted superficially” [7].

Like the Sufis, going back to Al-Ghazali, Gülen views worship as a way to obtain experiential knowledge of the truths of faith that otherwise would remain only theoretical postulates. As the believer moves to deeper stages or levels of worship, new perceptions of the realities of faith present themselves. Gülen offers the following advice to his disciples: “Worship is the safest way to reach the most unshakable certainty in one’s conscience about the greatest truth, which is known only theoretically at the outset. In each station on this way, along which consciousness seeks certainty on the wings of reverence and respect, a person experiences a different taste of glimpsing the Beloved” [8].

The Sufi theoreticians spoke of ‘ibada as the service performed by ordinary believers striving to advance on the path to God, while ‘ubudiyya is the servanthood of those advanced souls whose mental and spiritual attitudes permit them to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and ‘ubuda is the deep devotion of “those whose mental and spiritual states cause them to turn to God wholeheartedly with a profound feeling of being in His company” [9].

What characterizes the level of true devotion is an enthusiastic eagerness to serve God. It occurs when the worshiper moves beyond reluctance, objections, and grumbling and performs one’s duties with joyful spontaneity. Gülen cites Ibn al-Farid to affirm the superiority of this final stage of devotion: “The acts of worship and duties of servanthood required by every station or rank that I have reached during my spiritual journey have been fulfilled by my devotion.”

For the Sufis, ‘ubuda (devotion) was a rare state of soul (hal) achieved by advanced practitioners on the Sufi path. Gülen characteristically orients even the stage of ‘ubuda toward those members of his community engaged in what he sees to be the mission of Islam in the world, that is, service of God by serving others. He affirms: “This vital mission can only be realized by the devout and godly, who never think of themselves, except insofar as they see their own salvation through the salvation of others” [10].

The stage of devotion is, in the view of Gülen, not so much a spiritual achievement of the select few who have devoted their lives to the mystical path, but an attitude that can be achieved by any pious Muslim who strives to overcome their selfish passions to serve God and others. This ideal of being one of the devout is one that Gülen has held up to countless young Muslims and has inspired many of them, like Oğuz with whom I began this paper, to devote their lives to the “The Service (Hizmet),” as those in the community refer to their activities and projects.

Gülen himself puts much hope in this “new generation” of idealistic young Muslims. “The future will be the work of these devout people who can represent such a significant mission, showing their responsibility and exhibiting their accomplishments. The existence and continuance of our nation and the nations related to us will be permeated with the thoughts, inspirations and outcomes of a new civilization and with the vast, reviving dynamism of a rich culture, carried aloft into the future on the shoulders of these devout people. They are the trustees of the sublime truths and the heirs of our historical riches” [11]. As an outside observer of the movement, I might suggest that if one wants to find in a nutshell the kind of Muslim that Gülen is trying to form, one could not do better than to read this article on the pious, altruistic Muslim who has attained and manifests the final stage of worship [12].

Worship as fulfilling ritual obligations

By giving the priority to worship as a comprehensive life of service to God, Gülen does not imply that ritual performance is unimportant or optional. ‘Ibada in the sense of ritual arises from “a deeply embedded need to acknowledge the Divine” and to be in submissive contact with the “Mysterious power that controls everything” [13]. He stresses that our worship can add nothing to God’s glory, which is infinite, but ritual worship benefits the believer in this world and the next. “It is we who need to worship God; not God who needs to be worshiped. He is free of all need” [14].

The model for worship is, as is the case with regard to other aspects of Islamic life, the Prophet Muhammad. Gülen notes: “Prophet Muhammad was the foremost practitioner of all forms of Islamic worship, and the most God-conscious Muslim. He perfectly observed all details of worship, even when in danger… In his supplications and prayers, he describes his Lord with a such a degree of Divine knowledge that no Muslim has ever attained a similar degree of knowledge and description of God” [15].

For Muslims, worship in the ritual sense centers on humility and intention. The phrase “it is You whom we worship (na’budu)” in the Fatiha implies “the eternal impotence and poverty of humankind” before the Divine presence. Gülen comments as follows on the verse: “O Lord! I am determined that I will not sacrifice my freedom to anyone but You, and I will not bow in humiliation before anyone or anything. I turn to You fully intent on servanthood and worship; my eyes are fixed upon You and no other. I am filled with a desire for submission and prayer… My intention is my greatest worship; I hope that You will accept my intention as my worship. I plead for Your favor, not in proportion to the number of things that I have done, but to those I have intended to do” [16].


Gülen’s approach to the concept of worship and servanthood is rooted in the generations of Muslim scholars who preceded him, but he gives to the concept his characteristic emphasis. After the Prophet Muhammad himself, the figure most influential upon Gülen and most frequently cited in his writings is, not surprisingly, Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi. In speaking of servanthood, Gülen notes that Rumi’s greatest boast about himself is not that he was a great saint or person of great spiritual depth, but simply that he was God’s servant. He cites as a model of Islamic humility and joyful service the words of Mevlana, with their famous triple repetition for emphasis:

“I have become a servant, become a servant, become a servant;
I have bowed and doubled myself up with serving You.
Servants or slaves rejoice when they are emancipated,
Whereas I rejoice when I become Your servant.”


  1. 1. Fethullah Gülen, Emerald Hills of the Heart: Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, Somerset, New Jersey: Tughra, 2009, I: 53.
  2. M. Fethullah Gülen, Love and Tolerance: Toward a Global Civilization of Love, Somerset, N.J., The Light, 2006, p. 208.
  3. Ibid., p. 329.
  4. Ibid., p. 322.
  5. Ibid., pp. 208-209.
  6. M.F. Gülen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, I: 53.
  7. M.F. Gülen, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance, pp. 267-268.
  8. M. Fethullah Gülen, “Understanding and Respect,” 14 June 2006,
  9. Ibid., I: 54.
  10. M. Fethullah Gülen, “The Devout: the Architect of Our Souls,” in The Statue of Our Souls, Somerset, N.J.: Tughra Books, 2009, p. 91. In his biography of Muhammad, Gülen describes the prophet in similar terms: “A Prophet is totally dedicated to his mission, and thus is an altruist who lives for the happiness and good of others.” M. Fethullah Gülen, Muhammad the Messenger of God: an Analysis of the Prophet’s Life, Tughra Books, 2010, p. 77.
  11. Ibid., pp. 95-96.
  12. “The Devout: the Architect of Our Souls, The Statue of Our Souls, pp. 91-97.
  13. M. Fethullah Gülen, Questions and Answers about Islam, Somerset, N.J.: Tughra Books, 2009, I: 33.
  14. Ibid., I: 35.
  15. M. Fethullah Gülen, The Essentials of the Islamic Faith, Somerset, N.J.: Tughra Books, 2009, p. 180.
  16. M. Fethullah Gülen, “You Alone Do We Worship,” 25 March 2008, (link updated)

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