Said Nursi & the Gulen Movement

20 07 2016
Said Nursi

Said Nursi


Fethullah Gulen

Last year, I got a journal article published in the Air and Space Power Journal, entitled “The Post-secular Republic:  Turkey’s Experiments with Islamism”:

ASPJ Africa & Francophonie – 2nd Quarter 2015

In this article, I present details about the background, evolution, and “founding father” of the contemporary Gulen Movement.  The source of inspiration for this Islamic ideology is a man named Said Nursi.

I’m posting an excerpt of this article here, and please go the URL link provided above to read the whole article.  This is NOT meant to promote/support any ideology, but it’s purely intended as background information and knowledge about the Gulen Movement that we see so much in today’s headlines.  All views expressed are personal.


Despite Atatürk’s legacy and deeply entrenched and enforced secularization of the Turkish republic, elements of Islamism—or Islamist ambitions—have persisted since the post-Ottoman era. Stephen Dale describes this seemingly paradoxical reality in Turkey:

“Yet in spite of the juggernaut of Kemalist secularism, not only did Islam survive but some Turkish Muslims dedicated themselves to its revitalization. One of the most influential of those who sought to revivify Turkish Islam was Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, a precocious Muslim autodidact from Turkish Kurdistan. Nursi established an organization known as the Risale-I Nur (The Prophecy of Light), dedicated to renewing Islamic piety and individual spiritual perfection at the grassroots level, avoiding religious political activism in an era of state secularism.  Nursi’s program had a certain general resemblance to the Deoband Madrasa in late nineteenth-century India, to the extent that both movements operated within secular environments, emphasized individual spiritual revival, and abstained from political activism.  In the early twenty-first century the democratic election of a religious political party demonstrates that in Turkey, as well as in Pakistan, the question of the relationship between religion and the state is still unresolved, and in fact may never be definitively settled, even to the limited degree it has been in the world’s two largest secular democracies, India and the United States.”7

Turkish secularists—especially the protectors of Turkish secularism in the military—  viewed Said Nursi as an “anti-Kemalist” threat. Nursi’s popularity grew throughout Turkey, and he became increasingly revered as an Islamic scholar and mullah. In fact, many people cite Nursi as the “most influential theologian of the Turkish Republic.”8

The Turkish military became so alarmed at Nursi’s magnetism, even after his death as mourners in the thousands paid homage to his shrine in Urfa, that on 12 July 1960, “soldiers forced their way into the shrine, smashed open a marble tomb with sledgehammers and removed a shrouded body. The body was lifted onto an army truck, driven along heavily guarded streets to an airfield outside town, loaded onto a military plane and never seen again.”9  It is believed that the military reburied him in a secret grave. This military maneuver marked the first coup d’état in the republic’s modern history, exemplifying the military rulers’ fears that “Nursi would become a symbol of dissent, his grave a shrine to anti-Kemalism.”10 Demolishing Nursi’s shrine proved ineffective. Even today, Nursi is revered and respected, and recently the Turkish parliament set up a special commission for investigating military coups in Turkey and for revealing the location of Nursi’s secret tomb.11  His following is alive and vibrant, and with the military subjugated at the hands of the AKP and Erdoğan, his followers are emboldened.

Those followers still visit the empty tomb in Urfa and his house in Isparta; they “even [flock] to the Urfa hotel room he died in, piously preserved in its original state by the hotel owner right down to the light bulb.”12  Nursi followers are called “Nurcu” or “followers of the light,” and some people estimate their numbers in the millions. This fact is important because the threads of the religious fabric of Turkish public, political, and religious leaders increasingly strengthen. Consider what Mustafa Akyol, an expert on Turkish Islam, says about the Nurcu: “About half the Islamic movement in Turkey, meaning the pious, conservative segment of society, are literally direct followers of Nursi, while the other half also respects him.”13

Additionally, “the Nurcu community includes the sizable Gulen movement, named after the currently U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, as well as several other movements and a separate Kurdish following, all of them distinct, but united in their allegiance to Mr. Nursi’s teachings.  Modernity, science and rationalism play key roles in his teachings, as does the individual, distinguishing the Nurcu movement from other currents of Islam.”14

While the concept of “Islamic democracy” is endlessly debated since the puzzle of the compatibility between Islam and (liberal) democracy has never been completely solved, Islam in Turkey has not only survived over the decades but also thrived. The Fethullah Gülen movement offers yet another snapshot of the power and influence of “Islamism” although this is a more subtle, grassroots-based brand of Turkish Islam. The movement’s power is growing, some say to the extent of establishing “a state within a state” although Turkish people, analysts, pundits, and scholars repeatedly point out that such growth is extremely hard to prove. The certainty lies in the fact that it is a lucrative and popular global movement, with Gülenist schools proliferating in numerous countries, and it has an eccentric, elderly spiritual leader at its helm.

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All views expressed are personal