“The Cry of the Nightingale” Fethullah Gülen – A Modern-Day Rumi?

Sometimes voices from long ago are so powerful and so full of life and truth
that they resonate throughout the ages, as if neither time nor distance could prevent
their arrival. They are carried down from century to century waiting to find a modern-day
figure who can understand both the message and the messenger.

In this paper I will focus on the similarities between 13th century
Sufi poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi and 20th century Turkish scholar and voice
for peace, Fethullah Gulen. I will try to show how Gulen is the perfect messenger
for Rumi’s ideas. The points of comparison will be their early background and education,
their Sufism, their message of tolerance and love. Some of the questions I hope
to address are – Have Rumi’s words found a voice in Fethullah Gulen? How is Gulen
awakening us to the truths of Rumi’s message of love and service to God and love
and service to one another? Is Gulen a modern-day Rumi?

About 700 years ago in Anatolia, present day Konya, Turkey, spiritual master
and poet Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi uttered this lament, “I want a heart that is
split, chamber by chamber by the pain of separation from God, so that I might explain
my longings and desires to it.”[1]
Rumi spent his entire life searching for those who shared similar longings, whose
love of God was as unquenchable as his, a mirror to his soul.

The opening verses of his most famous work, the Mathnawi, Rumi’s “Song of the
Reed” speaks it best of all:

Listen to the song of the Reed,
How it wails with separation:
‘Ever since I was taken from my reed bed
My woeful song has caused men and women to weep.
I seek out those whose hearts are torn by separation
For only they understand this pain of longing.
Whoever is taken away from his homeland
Yearns for the day he will return.
In every gathering among those who are happy or sad,
I cry with the same lament.
Everyone hears according to his own understanding,
None has searched for the secrets within me.
My secret is found within my lament –
But an eye or an ear without light cannot know it “[2]

Recently in an interview with Turkish journalist Nuriye Akman , Turkish spiritual
leader and poet, Fethullah Gulen said, “I am looking for a person who is troubled
on the inside; one with whom I could talk about the Islamic world, the situation
in Turkey, and share my troubles. I am searching for a troubled heart.”[3]
He goes on to say that he has many close friends yet none with whom he can share
everything. “A friend in thought needs to be like you; needs to burn inside like
a fireplace; have a strong bond with Allah, yet remain humble. I should confess
that I am lonely.” Gulen seems to echo Rumi’s plaintive cry of separation from the
Source, of being a stranger in a strange land in his poem,

“The Cry of the Nightingale:”
The moment when flowers are dancing,
The nightingale sings in gardens secluded.
Each of its tunes sounds like the whistling wind
To those seen as foreigners in their native land.
It cries like my ceaseless wails and laments,
Each resonates, high and low through slopes.
It bemoans all night until the sun rises,
Each breath comes out as a burning sigh.
On virgin trees untouched by man’s hand,
It groans unceasingly for a lifetime,
And sheds tears, full of grief; but who is there
To appreciate it, to sympathize with its pains?”[4]

There seems to be a sympathetic chord in their laments and more and more their
names are often mentioned in the same breath. If Jalal al-Din Rumi and Fethullah
Gulen were to have met face to face on the ancient streets of Konya 700 years ago,
or today on the busy streets of Philadelphia, would they recognize each other as
kindred souls that could hear and understand each other’s deepest longings?

Though both Rumi and Gulen are prolific writers and poets, this will not be a
focus in this presentation. Suffice it to say that both poets are Muslims whose
words express their deep yearning for re-union with the Eternal Beloved; their profound
gratitude for the beauty that surrounds them as reflections of their Creator; their
abject poverty and nothingness in the face of their Lord. The teachings of the Qur’an,
the Hadiths, and the Sunnah provide the basis of their lives and their works. In
his book, “Advocate of Dialogue,” Gulen states that, “Poems like entreaties,
express the ups and downs and enthusiastic and sorrowful moods in one’s inner world.
To the extent that individuals are concentrating on exalted truths, they become
like divine breaths.” [5] In
their writings Rumi and Gulen are spiritually oriented and speak the universal language
of the soul, exemplifying these “divine breaths.”


Rumi, who was descended from a long line of sultans and religious scholars, was
born in 1207 in Balk, present-day Afghanistan, during very turbulent and chaotic
times. The Seljuk Empire was suffering internally from political and religious corruption,
and externally from Crusader attacks from the west, and Mongol attacks from the
east. Rumi left his homeland as a young boy with his family and began to travel
throughout Muslim lands, finally settling in Anatolia, present-day Konya in Turkey.

Rumi’s father taught him the importance of working towards acquiring divine attributes
through self-purification by reading the Qur’an, fasting, and detaching himself
from anything that prevented knowledge of God. He learned about love and compassion
through the example of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who treated all people with kindness
and respect, regardless of race, religion, or social standing. From his father he
also learned that there are two kinds of knowledge – conventional, which is learned,
and true knowledge, which can only be obtained through grace of God. He inculcated
in Rumi a sense of Divine love, piety, abstinence, humility, generosity, service,
and remembrance of God – the basics of the Sufi path.

Throughout his life, Rumi was rarely without a teacher or a guide, and he emerged
as a highly respected spiritual leader and university professor. People came from
all over to listen to him speak, to engage in dialogue, and to seek his counsel.
Despite his grand reputation, he was dissatisfied and said, “Haven’t you heard my
name in the world? I am nothing, nothing, nothing.”[6]

Fethullah Gulen was born 700 years later in 1938 in Erzurum, eastern Turkey during
a time of radical change for his country. The decades before his birth saw the collapse
of the Ottoman Empire, the fall of both the sultanate and caliphate, the founding
of the Turkish Republic by Kemal Ataturk, the shutdown of the Sufi orders and tekkes,
the replacement of Shari’a (Islamic religious law) by Civil Code, and Arabic script
by the Latin alphabet – a convergence of monumental changes. It was to become a
violent century that suffered through two World Wars, the atomic bomb, and escalating

Like Rumi’s, Gulen’s family tree can also be traced back to a noble lineage and
long succession of religious scholars, yet he lived humbly and continues to do so.
Gulen’s earliest teachers were also the members of his family. He speaks with great
veneration of his great-grandfather Molla Ahmed and the Sufi qualities that he learned
from him such as asceticism, combining knowledge with piety, eating and sleeping
little, and service to others. From his mother, who had reportedly memorized the
Qur’an and taught it to the villagers, he learned the verses. His father taught
him Arabic, initiating him into profound love of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

He studied further under prominent Islamic scholars, receiving special training
in religious sciences from Muhammad Lufti, a famous Muslim and spiritual master.

Gulen says that “while studying religious sciences, I read other books and studied
Sufi practices. For me, impacts of the religious sciences and Sufism always produced
the same rhythms.”[8] Later
Gulen became acquainted with some of the students of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi and
the teachings in his Risale-I Nur. It was through this that Gulen began to realize
the importance of combining the positive sciences with spiritual education. In his
opinion one without the other is comparable to a bird that is trying to fly with
only one wing. Gulen was to become a teacher of both minds and hearts.

Distinguished in his education, Gulen began teaching at age 15. As a young educator,
his teaching was so highly respected that his students became an active force for
change – a generation willing to serve his ideas on the importance of combining
intellectual enlightenment with pure spirituality, and wisdom with continuous activism.
As such, they, and now their students, have opened over 500 schools both in Turkey
and abroad. Like Rumi, Gulen emerged as a highly trusted and respected spiritual
leader, intellectual, voice for social justice, and like Rumi people come from all
over to listen to him, to engage in dialogue, and to seek his counsel.

Both Rumi and Gulen were educated in the positive sciences and Islamic tradition,
deeply rooted in Sufi values.


Volumes have been written about both Rumi and Gulen as Sufis, yet it bears mentioning
here because everything they did in their lives is related to their understanding
of what Sufism is. To begin with, neither joined a Sufi Order, though Rumi is said
to have started the Mevlevi Order of the Whirling Dervishes. Gulen says, “Rumi,
the Master, was not a pupil, a dervish, a representative among traditional Sufis.
He developed a new method colored with revivalism and personal individual reasoning
by taking the Qur’an, the Sunna, and Islamic piety as his reference points.”[9]
Theirs is a Sufism founded in the truths of the Qur’an, yet with an openness and
appreciation of the spirituality of other religions that are also focused on the
absolute love of God. Each had teachers of the Sufi way – a defining addition in
their lives because from the beginning they were trained to serve others, and to
forget themselves except in the purification of their own hearts. They were each
instilled with a sense of awe and majesty of our Creator and the importance of living
their lives only to please Him and ultimately be reunited with Him.

In his book “The Secret of Secrets” Hadrat Abd-al-Qadir al Jilani says that Sufis
live humbly eating and drinking little. Both Rumi and Gulen follow this practice,
not as an end in and of itself, but as a means of getting closer to God. To many
they are the best examples of the ideal Sufi, yet neither wishes to be revered as
a saint or esteemed as someone of extraordinary spirituality. They share such Sufi
qualities as humility, piety, and their nothingness. Rumi wrote:

“I have become a servant, become a servant, become a servant;
I have bowed and doubled myself up with serving you.
Servants and slaves rejoice when they are emancipated
Whereas I rejoice when I become your servant.”[10]

Gulen never calls himself a Sufi saying that one is not a Sufi in name, but rather
in spirit and heart. He strives to be no more “than a humble servant of God and
friend to all.”[11]For Gulen,
knowing one’s “impotence, poverty, and nothingness” is the path to annihilation
in God. “Fun, games, and pleasure are not in my nature. Even when I was young I
was doing something like riyazat (esoteric self-realization) I do not want to do
something if it’s not useful that’s why I sit inside and read the Koran or say my
daily prayers and zikr.”[12]
For Gulen, Sufism is a lifelong process of spiritual development. It is ” annihilation
of the ego, will, and self-centeredness by God and the subsequent spiritual revival
with the light of His Essence.”[13]

Rumi’s son, Sultan Valad said that Rumi used to pray to meet one of God’s hidden
saints and then be transformed by him. Rumi’s prayer was answered when he met a
wandering dervish named Sham-I Tabriz, who became the perfect mirror to his soul
and transformed him from educated scholar to ecstatic mystic. Of the relationship
between Rumi and Shams, Gulen says the following, “two skillful and acute spirits
came together, like two oceans merging into one another. By sharing the Divine bounties
and gifts received from their Lord, they both reached peaks that most people would
not be able to achieve on their own accord. Through their spiritual cooperation
they established camps on the peaks of knowledge, love, compassion, and joy for
God. As much as they enlightened those of their own age, they also influenced all
centuries to follow “[14]

Without some understanding of the Islamic mystical tradition of love, most notably
the love between master and disciple, it would be difficult to describe the love
between Rumi and Shams without making it seem trivial and mundane. Kabir Helminski
quotes Murat Yagan who compared Rumi’s meeting with Shams to Abraham’s meeting Melchizidek
saying, “A Melchizidek and a Shams are messengers from the Source. They do nothing
themselves but carry enlightenment to someone who can receive it, someone who is
either too full or too empty. Mevlana was one who was too full. After receiving
it, he could apply this message for the benefit of humanity.”[15]
This proved his teacher Sayyid Burhaneddin’s prediction that one day Rumi would
“drown men’s souls in a fresh life and in the immeasurable abundance of God and
bring to life the dead of this false world with meaning and love.”[16]

Shams was able to awaken Rumi’s love of the real Beloved and so inspired him
that for 10 years after Shams’ disappearance, Rumi wrote a collection of lyrical
and mystical poems called the Divan-I Shams, telling of his love for his teachers
and friends, most especially Shams. On a much deeper level, however, we come to
understand that the love, the longing, the pain of separation he was speaking of
is none other than yearning for God. Later in the Mathnawi, which is said by many
to be among the greatest spiritual poetry ever written, he emphasized the importance
of loving one another and of being examples of love for each other. Much of what
Rumi wrote was taken from the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and other sources in Arabic and
Persian literature. His verses urge men to follow ethical, moral, and spiritual
values. For Rumi, love is the soul of the Universe, the ground of his being, but
this is not a transient, ephemeral love. He is talking about pure, absolute love
of God. Even though his writing seems to be about human situations and feelings,
the deeper significance is that it should be translated into love and yearning for
the Divine. His message is one of dissolving our own egos and surrendering completely
to God.

Rumi’s Sufi approach has captivated the hearts of spiritual seekers everywhere
not only because of its depth and beauty, but also because of its Truth. His works
capture this Truth and overflow with the message of love that has endured throughout
the ages.


Jalal al-Din Rumi, a scholar, preacher, husband, father, mystic, and poet awakens
us to the fact that not only is God the Beloved of mankind, but also that mankind
is the beloved of God. He wrote:

“Never, in sooth, does the lover seek without being sought by his beloved.
When the lightning of love has shot into this heart, know that there is
Love in that heart.
When love of God waxes in thy heart, beyond any doubt, God also
Hath love for thee.” [17]

Rumi based his view of the world on the principle of love and believed that loving
another in the name of God opened the path to the Absolute (Love). The name Rumi
has come to signify love and ecstatic flight into the infinite. His devoted students
and disciples called him “Mevlana” which means “our Master.”

As one of the best selling poets in North America, Rumi’s message of love and
tolerance, representing Islam as a religion of peace and brotherhood, is beginning
to be heard today by spiritual seekers as a positive model for interfaith dialogue
in this troubled world. His religion was Islam, yet he was an advocate of unlimited
religious tolerance, and accepted Muslims, Jews, and Christians with the same loving
eyes and heart. In return he was respected and revered by people of all faiths.
Interestingly enough Gulen’s words describing Rumi as inspiring duality of one foot
in his own faith tradition while the other roams freely to the faiths of others
can also be applied to Gulen himself.
Though many today have read about or heard about Rumi, few feel
the pain of mankind, or have a heart burning with love of God, or seek an era of
love, tolerance and peace as much as Fethullah Gulen. Few understand and exemplify
the depth of Rumi’s message as Gulen does.

This Turkish scholar, spiritual leader, teacher, author, and peace activist is
a modern day legacy bringing us Rumi’s message of a love that embraces all of humanity;
that says love of God is the essence of everything. According to Gulen, “A soul
without love cannot be elevated to the horizon of human perfection. Even if he were
to live hundreds of years, he could make no advance on the path to perfection. Those
who are deprived of love, entangled in the nets of selfishness, are unable to love
anybody else and die unaware of the love deeply implanted in the very being of existence.”

In his preaching, poetry, and teaching he hears not only the laments, but the
hopes and dreams of humanity. He bears his own sorrows, but those of others crush
him, feeling every blow delivered at humanity to be first delivered to his own heart.
His beliefs and feelings are so profound that his preaching his often accompanied
by his tears. For Gulen, there is no time to waste in trying to change the world
into a place where love and peace replace hatred and violence. Everything in his
life has been dedicated to this end. Esteemed by many as charismatic spiritual intellectual,
Gulen has shown no interest in achieving political power, personal acclaim, or sainthood.
In fact, he shuns it, preferring to remain quietly behind the scenes inspiring others
by his example. Gulen firmly believes that true religion preaches love not hatred,
tolerance not judgment, compassion not callousness, peace not war. According to
Gulen, true religion leads people to a life of virtue and perfection.

Some might wonder how this humble intellectual, this Sufi, this scholar of Islam
has been able to so effectively impel literally millions into service for humanity,
a service that is not limited to nationalistic ideals but one that extends to schools
and interfaith foundations all over the world from Turkey to Malaysia to Siberia
to South Africa to the United States. Gulen teaches that only through education
can we raise generations who will understand and practice tolerance and love of
fellow human beings. A man is truly human when he learns and teaches and inspires
others. Students who have been fortunate enough to live and study with him say he
is deeply loved and respected because he practices what he preaches, expecting much
more from himself than of others. Those who love him and follow him call him Hocaefendi,
which means “Master Teacher.” He says that a true human being has to be so completely
dedicated to serving others that he feels tiredness only when his heart stops beating.
Gulen has often stated that it is not enough to just speak of love and tolerance
without taking positive action – action that expects nothing in return.

A pioneer of interfaith dialogue for over 30 years, Gulen believes that “dialogue
is not a superfluous endeavor, but an imperative that dialogue is among the duties
of Muslims to make our world a more peaceful and safer place.”[19]
To this purpose, he has met with world spiritual and political leaders. In his meeting
with Pope John Paul II he proposed working together to build understanding between
Islam and Catholicism. He has sometimes been criticized as one who is betraying
Islam by being so accepting of other religions, but Gulen believes there is much
more that unites mankind than what separates. The bridges between cultures, religions,
races all exist – they just need to be rediscovered. Gulen has dedicated his life
to studying, writing, teaching and working tirelessly towards strengthening the
bonds between people of different cultures and religious beliefs.

In effect, Gulen has been able to take Rumi’s message of universal love and tolerance
and bring it to life by applying the mystical to the practical. Rumi and Gulen are
like “brothers” whose system of thought and philosophy are derived from the same
source. Read on the deepest level, Rumi’s poems speak of much more than just the
simple images such as a rose, a cup, a tavern, a garden, a reed, a nightingale convey
– they are a handbook for finding God. Gulen understands this handbook and exemplifies
his legacy as a way to get along not only with God but also with our fellow men.
Like Rumi, Gulen is living a life deeply rooted in love and passion for God. Through
their constant remembrance of God, they have become like shining beacons beckoning
people to true love found in Divine Presence.

Rumi became the elevated human he was in part because of the friends and guides
who accompanied him along the way. They were God’s bestowal and tremendous blessing.
Filled with the light of the Divine, they beautifully reflected it to Rumi. Yet
Rumi died still longing for his ultimate reunion with the Eternal Beloved, his return
to the “reed bed.”

Gulen claims that he has yet to meet the person who really understands his soul’s
deepest longings. In his loneliness, his nightingale asks if there is anyone to
hear his cry, to witness his tears, to feel his pain. Though it might appear that
no single nightingale has answered his call, there are thousands, maybe millions,
surrounding him who have heard his message of love and tolerance and have responded
by dedicating their lives to spreading it. One of the Hadiths states, “When I love
my servant I become his eyes, his ears, his tongue, his hands and his feet. He sees
through me, he hears through me, he speaks in my name, his hands become mine and
he walks with me.” (Hadith) Fethullah Gulen is one such beloved servant.

Fethullah Gulen is the perfect modern-day messenger, a voice for peace awakening
a sleeping humanity to Rumi’s message of compassion and love through understanding
and dialogue. Undoubtedly Rumi’s and Gulen’s legacy will live on in the voices and
actions of the inspired followers of Hocaefendi, “a humble servant and friend to
all.” It seems that the cry of Gulen’s nightingale is being heard and answered.

Catherine B. Eustis, born in New Orleans in 1948, is a teacher of English as a Second Language. She received her degree in Journalism from Loyola University in 1971, and worked for several years the Times Picayune in New Orleans. She was chairman of the Foreign Relations Association of New Orleans (currently World Affairs Council of New Orleans) Argentine High School Exchange Program for 10 years and was the recipient of the Max Barnett Goodwill Ambassador Award. Currently she is serving as president of Atlas Interfaith Foundation, a non-profit, multi-cultural faith based organization whose spiritual and educational purposes are dedicated to promoting interfaith and intercultural dialogue through its programs and community outreach. She has helped to organize such events as Peaceful Heroes Symposium, The Whirling Dervishes of Rumi, Tolerance Day, Rumi Poetry Night, Sufi Music Concert, and Infinite Light: Legacy of Prophet Muhammad.


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Can, Sefik (2004) “Fundamentals of Rumi’s Thought, A Mevlevi Sufi Perspective,” Somerset, NJ: The Light

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[1] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Jalal_al-Din_Muhammad_Rumi
[2] Jonathan Starr, “The Song of the Reed,” Rumi in the Arms of the Beloved p.21
[3] Zaman newspaper, Tuesday, March 30, 2004
[4] http://www.slife.org POEMS
[5] Gulen, Advocate of Dialogue, p. 8
[6] Zaman, Nuriye Akman interview with Sheikh Sefik Can, Jan. 31, 2005
[7] Gulen, ibid, “Introduction,” p. ii
[8] Gulen, ibid, p. 14
[9] The Fountain, “Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi,” July-Sept. 2004, issue 47
[10] ‘Ibada, ‘Ubudiya, and ‘Ubuda Sizinti, Aug. 1993, Vol. 15, Issue 175
[11] Gulen, Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism, “Author’s biography,” vol. 1, 2004
[12] Zaman interview with Nuriye Akman, March 28, 2004
[13] F.Gulen, Sufism,vol. 1 p. xiii
[14] Fethullah Gulen, “Foreward,” Fundamentals of Rumi’s Thought: A Mevlevi Perspective” p. xi
[15] Helminski, Rumi Daylight, p. 10
[16] Ibid, p. 11
[17] William Chittick, “The Sufi Path of Love – the Spiritual Teaching of Rumi,” p. 209
[18] Kurtz, “Gulen’s Paradox,” Muslim World, p. 328
[19] Saritoprak p. 336

by Dr. Ali Ünsal