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The Spiritual Heart in the Thought of Fethullah Gulen
Mar 1, 2016

If a person is to realize the true meaning intended by the creation of the human, they must come under the command of the heart and listen to the spirit, in spite of the body (humanity’s animal side) and worldly reason. It is possible to evaluate Fethullah Gülen’s approach and considerations about the heart and its spiritual life within the frame of two main facts. The first relates to his views about the Spiritual Intellect(latifa al-rabbaniya), or, which, in his own words, is an “expression of the spiritual existence of the human.” He essentially states his opinions about the matter in the four-volume series Emerald Hills of the Heart, and we will discuss this work in later chapters.

The second fact is that Gülen views spiritual life as the sole alternative for solving the problems of people in our time. This is one of the dominant themes in Gülen’s world of thought. The Statue of Our Souls, one of his most significant works, is a collection of his essays in which he attempts to establish the guidelines for a revival of Muslim life, in both action and thought, to attain the level of true humanity on a societal scale.

Gülen is one of the most prominent representatives of sunni school of thought, with a balanced understanding of the tradition, and he is recognized for his proficiency of Islamic scholarly heritage. His scholarship is based on almost every relevant discipline and many outstanding scholars ranging from Kushayri to Ghazzali, from Rumi to Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, and from there to Imam Rabbani and Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. He benefits from poetry as well as prose when making his points.

Particularly in Emerald Hills of the Heart, he sets the main guidelines for the “life” of the spiritual heart. Imam Ghazzali explained the nature of the heart and its functions from his own perspective in The Revival of Religious Sciences; in his Flourishing of Hearts, he elaborated on deeds of the heart such as sincerity, patience, and reflection (tafakkur). Similarly, in different works, Gülen also describes the heart from a broad perspective. In the Emerald Hills of the Heart, however, Gülen does not only present the basic concepts of spiritual journeying, he also elaborates on the deeds of the heart and shed light on these deeds for people in our time.

The heart from a personal perspective

Gülen points out that the heart serves as a bridge for all goodness and grace to reach a person, though it also leaves the person potentially open to all devilish and carnal urges and recollections. As far as the heart can be oriented to God, it becomes a projector lighting up the entire body, down to its darkest points. The heart is the essential home of faith, worship, and a spirit of perfect goodness, as well as being a lively river of the finely flowing feelings between humans, the universe, and God.

If, however, a person remains stuck in the realm of physicality, the heart becomes a target for the poisonous arrows of Satan. There are countless enemies seeking to deviate the heart from its course, shifting the bed of that river. Lots of enemies, from gloom to unbelief, from long-term worldly ambitions to greed, from lust to heedlessness, and from selfish interests to love for status, lie in wait, hoping to take advantage of the heart’s weaknesses.

The heart is the center of human abilities such as understanding, feeling, sensing, reasoning, wishing, and inclining; it perceives and understands things as far as it can use these traits. Thus, as the center of the mind’s functioning and perception, the heart is constantly monitored by God Almighty. From this aspect, it is “the perceived.” On account of this quality, the heart is referred to as, “the focal point of God’s sight.”
Gülen derived this fact from the saying of God’s Messenger that, “God does not look at your bodies nor your forms, but He looks at your hearts.”

According to Gülen, God Almighty takes individuals as His addresses to the level of their heart’s respective spiritual progress. Accordingly, God Almighty’s relationship with a person who has attained a higher level of divine knowledge (marifa) is more profound and mysterious in comparison to a person with a lower spiritual level. If the heart is atrophied in its abilities due to the person committing grave sins, then the faculties mentioned above will also be affected negatively, and the person will struggle to fulfill their duty.

The heart, according to Gülen, is born from the coming together of divine favor and human essence, and it bears a stamp of the Almighty Sovereign. In this respect, it is closely interrelated with both the spiritual and material realms. This approach is important in terms of the fact that it stresses the significance of the heart’s role between a person and God, as well as stressing the value of a spiritual faculty, which is a crucial means for a person to know God. As a matter of fact, it is a great favor of God to the humankind that He has endowed us the heart, for while bearing responsibilities as faith, worship, and morality, the human is not left helpless, but is supported with the mechanism of the heart, which has the capacity to fulfill these responsibilities in the best way.

Gülen uses a metaphorical description for the heart and refers to it as “a stairway leading to human perfection, a projection of the realms beyond in the corporeal world, the largest door within the human body open to spirituality, the sole laboratory where our selfhood is formed, and the most important criterion of telling right from wrong.”

In the same context, he explains the wisdom of the heart’s existence as, “establishing intimate friendship with God Almighty.” The meaning of the heart’s friendship with God refers to matters of deep faith, as well as to knowledge, love, and fear of God, as well as nearness and familiarity with Him. A heart that realizes these will have fulfilled the purpose of its creation.

While portraying the prototype of an ideal individual, Gülen uses the term “man of the heart.” With this and similar phrases, he evaluates humans in a context of the heart. The people of the heart have merits such as a sound heart, a strong willpower, perseverance, insight, and active patience. Only by means of these will believers attain their due character, qualities, and purity. To quote his own words, “Indeed, the hero of the heart is, as the Qur'an and the Messenger of God have told us, the person of truth, who sees, thinks, and acts with all the faculties of such a conscience; whose sitting and standing are mercy, whose words and speech are mildness and agreement, and whose manners are politeness and refinement. They are the people of heart and truth who reveal and teach others the secret of knowing and perceiving the Creation from the inside, who can express the true meaning and purpose of the Creation.”

Extracting the essence of Qur’anic verses and the Prophet’s sayings, Gülen paints the portrait of an ideal believer, and again refers to the heart as an attribute. According to this approach, people of the heart are merciful, clement, and kind; they listen to their consciences about every idea and behavior. They are the ones who can realize the true meaning and purpose of this life. While writing about depths of the heart, Gülen frequently refers to the faculties known as the secret (sir), hidden (khafi), and the most hidden (akhfa), and he uses metaphors like observation, observatory, beholding, witnessing, binoculars, and telescope to describe various functions of the heart.

The heart from a social perspective

In Gülen’s world of thought, the issue of attaining the level of being human in the true sense is of central importance. He believes that the development of the heart and spirit is crucial in terms of both a person’s relationship with the Almighty Creator and of being a successful individual, beneficial to society. In other words, Gülen believes that the solution for the troubled state of the people of our time lies in the flourishing of their heart and spirit. He expresses this point as follows:

“Although some people today disdain moral values, the inner depths of the human being, and the importance of the life of the heart and spirit, there is no doubt that the route to true humanity passes through them. No matter what some people may think, the successful practice of these dynamics in life offers the only solution that can save the person of the present. People today must be relieved from the social, political, cultural, economic, and various other depressions that are bending them over double, forcing their back into a misshapen twisted form.”

These words reflect both his diagnosis of the disease and ways of curing it.

Accordingly, bringing the heart and the spirit to life is the “sole” dynamic and cure to solve modern people’s depressions. It is a strikingly significant fact that even while referring to the worldly underdevelopment of Muslims and others, Gülen directly comes to the issue of spirituality first and saw it as the starting point for material progress, too. In his opinion, humanity is misguided in its pursuit of physical or material satisfaction when what it truly needs is to fulfill its spiritual hunger. Correcting such an error depends on a holistic approach to the human, by evaluating them with their spiritual aspect.

Another relevant concept Gülen expounds on is a “marriage of the heart and mind.” This is like an initial and indispensable condition to be met. Gülen makes a concise explanation of this concept with the following words:

“The first and concise purpose of our creation is obvious: realizing the meaning of being human in the context of humanity, the universe, and God, and thus reaching the horizons of faith, knowledge of God, and true delight of the spirit. Fulfillment of such a large-scale and succinct plan is only possible with systematic thinking and disciplined action. Such a basic first plan and first action, yet unsuitable for elaborated thought, forms the initial ring in the chain of a virtuous cycle of thought and action. Later, the person begins to experience so many virtuous cycles between the transcendental horizons of the heart and reason’s dawnings of wisdom. In time, actions gain greater perspective toward more complicated thoughts, and thoughts continue by transforming into greater projects.”

In conclusion, we can say that Gülen resembles earlier spiritual teachers in that he evaluates the human as a whole; he is concerned with human’s not only spiritual but also material well-being. This holds true not only on a personal, but also societal level. Gülen sets a spiritual map that begins with faith, leavens with knowledge and love of God, preserves its right state with enthusiasm and loyalty, and attains consistency with delights of the spirit.

It is also possible to refer to this as a civilization of gnosis, or knowledge of the divine (marifa), which can be reached after a long and tiring journey by letting the heart, which has the position of a commander, fully function with all of its faculties. While making particular reference to this issue in The Emerald Hills of the Heart, he puts emphasis on the same issue in many other articles. He envisions a universal civilization of people who attains a revival with their hearts and spirituality. There should be nothing wrong in referring to his as a “civilization of the heart.”