The Islamic concept of himmah, as many Gülen scholars have noted, is central to the operation and growth of the Fethullah Gulen movement. This is the name for the regular local fundraising activities to finance its wide educational network or other cultural activities within Turkey or abroad. The concept of himmah (himmet in Turkish), a spiritual virtue in the Islamic Sufi tradition, also holds a key role in Fethullah Gülen‘s understanding of Islam and teaching on the moral education of an ideal Muslim. The Sufi connection should not be surprising as it is well recorded that Gülen’s understanding of Islam has been deeply shaped by the Sufi tradition, which has been an undercurrent of Turkish Islam since its beginning.Despite its significance for Gülen’s teaching, the conceptual meaning of himmah has been given little attention by Gülen scholars. A quick survey of the works conducted on Fethullah Gülen‘s thought or the movement he inspired delivers few results. This is understandable as apart from scholars studying the Sufi tradition, the conceptual meaning and significance of himmah is not well known even among students of Islamic thought. Compounding its relative obscurity among scholars is the challenge of translation. Frequently rendered as spiritual “aspiration,” “yearning,” or “resolve,” this richly suggestive concept is difficult to translate into English with one single word.
This paper attempts to clarify the conceptual meaning of himmah in the context of Gülen’s thought through a cross-cultural comparison with the more familiar Christian virtue of “charity.” This paper begins with a discussion of the contemporary meaning of himmah within the Gülen movement, and moves on to discuss its meaning within the Sufi tradition in the second section. The third section examines the Christian virtue of charity, and the fourth compares charity with himmah. The last and concluding part will raise some questions about the practice of the inter-faith dialogue in relation to this comparison of the two key concepts of Islam and Christianity.
I. The Role of Himmet in the Gülen Movement
It is widely known that the Gülen movement identifies itself as hizmet (hizmāt in Arabic), which means “service” in Turkish. Hizmet is the generic name for all the disinterested public activities conducted by the members of this community to fulfill their duties to religion and nation. Specific examples of hizmet are inter-faith dialogue initiatives and the educational network set up in Turkey and abroad. The term is also used more broadly for self-identification by the community members. Hence, a member of the Gülen movement often identifies himself or herself as a member of hizmet.Related to this concept and less known to the outsiders but perhaps more important in terms of Islamic history is the concept of himmet. It has been noted that the twin concepts of hizmet and himmet provide a general conceptual framework for all the economic, cultural, and religious activities of the Gülen community both inside and outside Turkey. Himmet, as another student of this movement notes, is the technical name used for the fundraising gatherings of the community: “The meetings organized by the Gülen community to obtain financial support for its activities, especially its educational activities, are called himmet meetings.”The organizers of these meetings present the past achievements and future goals or projects of the community, and appeal to the religious sentiments of the participants to collect funds for their activities. The participants, mostly local affluent business owners, pledge to make donations for the cause.
The Turkish word himmet derives from the Arabic word al-himmah (in Persian himmat). The original Arabic word denotes several interrelated meanings. More commonly it is translated as spiritual “aspiration” or “resolve.” Its other renderings by contemporary translators and commentators include “diligence,” “power,” “will,” “yearning,” “desire,” “purpose,” “ambition,” “intention,” “concentration,” and “determination,” all of which are used with a spiritual connotation. Common to all these translations of himmah is the connotation of spiritual or mystical quest for the divine. This quest requires turning one’s attention and efforts from worldly business toward more noble and urgent matters.There are numerous phrases in the Islamic literature in which himmah appears with this connotation of rising above the affairs of the world. The phrase uluww-i himmat (lofty aspiration) was used by the Persian Sufi poet Farid al-Din Attar to mean “setting oneself high goals and not being satisfied with trivial things.”Another phrase in which himmat appears in relation to rulers is himmat-i buland which can be compared to the virtue known as high-mindedness or magnanimity in the Western tradition. For the first moralist of Islam, Miskawaih, izam alhimmah (composure) stands for “a virtue of the soul which causes it to sustain calmly both the happiness of good fortune and its opposites, including the distress which accompanies death.” Miskawaih defines himmah as a kind of courage.
In a short article entitled “Himmet: Teveccüh, İnfak ve Gayret,” (“Aspiration: Orientation, Charity, and Perseverance”), Gülen appeals to the theological roots of himmet in the Islamic tradition.Gülen puts great emphasis here on the fact that there is a deeper spiritual aspect of himmet beyond its popular aspect associated with spending one’s wealth in God’s path. Gülen particularly notes that himmet must be understood first and foremost in its tasawwufi sense. The common practical usage among public as charity (infak) and perseverance (gayret) is subordinate to this older theological meaning. Gülen further points out the connection between himmet and another tasawwufi term teveccüh (tawajjuh in Arabic). Translated as spiritual “concentration,” “orientation,” or “attentiveness,” tawajjuh literally means turning the face toward something.Tawajjuh is often used in the context of turning one’s face toward God or God’s disclosing itself to the Sufi wayfarer (salik) in return.It is also used in relation to the very personal relationship between the Sheikh (master) and the murid (disciple) in the Sufi orders. In both senses it means the spiritual concentration or attention of the salik through which he hopes to receive the grace of God (either directly or indirectly through the sheikh). In relation to tawajjuh, himmet means orientation toward God with all one’s powers by opening one’s heart to God, and purifying oneself from all material or even spiritual interests and pleasures. One must even put aside the thought of heavenly rewards or spiritual powers, and commit his every deed for the sake of gaining Allah’s pleasure.Gülen also notes a second related sense of himmet in the context of social relationships. Himmet means doing a favor, helping one another, coming to the rescue of another, or reaching out to the needy. This social sense of himmet refers to committing oneself to benevolent action with sincerity on the one hand and God’s reciprocating the tawajjuh and sincerity (ikhlās) of his servant (kul) on the other. The servant’s inaba (turning to God with repentance) is reciprocated by God’s merciful tawajjuh toward the servant. God’s favors and care depends on servant’s constant orientation toward God (tawajjuh) as well as God’s reciprocal tawajjuh in mercy. It is this sense of himmet which bridges over the public meaning of doing good deeds through financial means and the tasawwufi sense conceived by sufis as “spiritual power,” which will be explored in the next section.Gülen stresses that contrary to the popular opinion that equates himmet merely with infaq (spending in the service of God) the latter must be understood only as one aspect of the former.Reminding us of the fact that himmet did not have this specific meaning in the past, Gülen points out that both the public calls for assistance and people’s response to these calls have come to be called himmet through time. The theological aspect of himmet, according to Gülen, subsumes the more practical religious virtues and duties of beneficence such as “infaq,” (charity) “sadaqa” (voluntary almsgiving), and “zakat” (obligatory almsgiving).
Gülen also notes that himmet (in the second restricted sense of beneficence) can be conducted not only through wealth but also knowledge, deeds, health, and intelligence. Combining its spiritual and practical sense, himmet can be construed to mean making efforts in the service of one’s religion and nation. Himmet in this sense carries the connotation of striving toward God through serving one’s fellow compatriots, co-religionists, and even all humanity. Gülen concludes his discussion of himmet by remembering Bediüzzaman Said Nursî’s words in the “The Damascus Sermon.” Here Nursî discusses the notion of himmet in the context of national solidarity or fraternity and laments how this notion was successfully applied at his time in the West and almost forgotten in the Islamic world. To quote the important passage on himmet from his sermon in full:
[B]ecause of the idea of nationhood which those foreigners obtained from us, an individual becomes as valuable as a nation. For a person’s value is relative to his endeavour [himmet]. If a person’s endeavour is his nation, that person forms a miniature nation on his own. Because of the heedlessness of some of us and the foreigners’ damaging characteristics that we have acquired, and, despite our strong and sacred Islamic nationhood, through everyone saying: “Me! Me!” and considering personal benefits and not the nation’s benefits, a thousand men have become like one man.Said Nursî goes on to emphasize the Aristotelian notion (incorporated later by Aquinas into the Catholic tradition) that man is a political or social being by nature and must act accordingly to become fully human:If a man’s endeavour is limited to himself, he is not a human being, for human beings are by nature social. Man is compelled to consider his fellow humans. His personal life continues through social life.
It can safely be claimed that Gülen is in agreement with the importance of the virtue of putting the service to others before oneself in the name of God. This virtue indeed constitutes the heart of Gülen’s teaching on the moral education of an ideal Muslim.
II. Himmah in the Sufi Tradition
As Gülen implies in his article, the concept of himmah holds a significant place in the Sufi tradition within Islam. Scholars of Sufism have noted that this is a technical term employed by greatest Sufis of history. Various late medieval Sufi masters such as Ibn Arabi, Suhrawardi, Najm al-Din Kubra, and Abdul-Karim al-Jili or Sufi poets such as Farid al-Din Attar employed this concept in their works.The spiritual powers of earlier mystics such as Hasan al-Basri and Rabi’a al-Adawiyya are also referred to as himmah in the hagiographical literature.This crucial term was often used by Sufis to signify the “determination of the heart to incline itself entirely to God.” Himmah in this sense is an essential quality to possess to be able to follow the arduous Sufi path. A contemporary scholar draws our attention to the significance of himmah to Sufism: “He who has no spiritual aspiration [himmah] or sincere will in seeking God in gratitude or in love cannot have an ambition to follow the path of Sufi walâya [authority].”
Various definitions of the term agree in their emphasis on the fact that himmah involves the spiritual quest for God, and this quest demands first and foremost the further qualities of purity, sincerity, and concentration. According to a contemporary scholar of Islam, himmah implies “total commitment to the goal of achieving spiritual perfection and closeness to God.” In a classic work of Sufism Istilahat al-Sufiya (A Glossary of Sufi Technical Terms), himmah was defined as a term “applied to the freeing of the heart for the desired objects . . .; to the primal sincerity of the aspirant…; and to the concentration of the spiritual aspirations to insure the purity of inspirations.” According to still another scholarly source, himmah is “the quality of perseverance or striving towards God” and “its opposite is al-hiss,” which means “distraction or inattention from concentration upon God.”
For the famous thirteenth century Andalusian Sufi Ibn al-Arabi, who exerted great influence on the course of Sufism after him, himmah is a pure force peculiar to the human being, which is either natural or acquired later in life.As an Ibn Arabi scholar notes, “The phenomenon of himmah is . . . something of much more than marginal significance in Ibn al-Arabi’s thought.”Ibn Arabi held that “it was only possible for human beings to come to a true understanding of the relationship that exists and should exist between creature and Creator if they were to become endowed with this power of himmah themselves.”
Ibn Arabi uses himmah in his major work al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya (The Meccan Illuminations) especially in reference to the ideal of perfect man (al-insan al-kamil), which is characterized by “the inner condition of sidq [truthfulness] or pure spiritual intention (himma).” Himmah, according to Arabi, is the preserve of the spiritual elite as it is “one of the distinguishing signs of the highest forms of true faith in God” and the “natural effect of divine ‘victorious support’ (nasr).” Nasr is a term that combines “the notions of divine assistance and the ‘victory’ resulting from that support.”Ibn Arabi’s coupling of himmah and nasr is especially important for the purposes of this paper as this relationship between the two roughly corresponds to the close connection between charity and grace in the Christian tradition.In Futuhat Ibn Arabi uses the phrase al-fi’l bi’l-himma to refer to the act of “producing effects . . . in the outside world through concentration.” This somewhat supernatural ability is closely related to the development of the faculty of imagination. The 20th century French orientalist Henry Corbin highlights this active (poetic) sense of himmah in Ibn Arabi’s work and uses the phrase “the creative power of the heart” to capture its richly suggestive meaning. According to Corbin, this creative power is essentially “the very power with which God creates and sustains the cosmos, the power by means of which God brought all the cosmic domains, subtle, physical, and intellectual into existence,” but is also something that human beings can partake of. The difference between the mystic’s himmah and the divine himmah is that “God exercises this creative power with perfect attentiveness and concentration whereas the mystic always exercises it with some admixture of inattentiveness.”
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