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Language, Meaning, and Purpose: Gulen's Perspective
Jan 1, 2014

Language is not only a tool for describing facts and performing vocative functions – it also defines and constitutes our humanity. It "gives voice to our thoughts, it is the rhythm of our feelings, and the excitement of our hearts; it is the interpreter in our communication with God Almighty."

While Fethullah Gulen is revered by many for his authority as a scholar and for his achievements in education and intercultural dialogue, his views on language should earn him equal renown as a philosopher of language. Linguistics offers an analysis of a language's system – its structure, sounds, grammar, and semantics – but the philosophy of language describes the way language creates meaning. Gulen is anchored in the optimistic tradition of the philosophy of language that establishes the relationship between language, belief, truth, and the meaning of life.

Gulen draws insights on the nature of language from the Qur'an. For Gulen, God has created with a purpose; such is also true of language. He echoes the Qur'an in this sense, in which glad tidings of paradise are given to believers who, "will hear therein neither vain talk nor falsehood" (78:35). In Gulen's writings there is always a conscious effort to awaken in his audience an awareness of our relationship to God and of our duties towards humanity and the world.

He writes that his concept of "speech" is an effort to expound on the following verse in the Qur'an: "The All-Merciful. He has taught the Qur'an. He has created the human. He has taught him speech" (Rahman 55:1–4). In his book Speech and Power of Expression, Gulen writes, "In creating humankind, the Most Merciful gave us the ability to speak of the human essence, our inner depths, the entire cosmos, and the truth beyond material existence before sending us to the dimension of external existence" (p. 1)

The "Referential paradigm of language" that was an offshoot of Positivism's exclusive reliance upon rationalism and science looks at language as an empirical object of investigation only and limits meaning to the word-object relation only, reducing reality to mere physical phenomenon that can be quantitatively measured and explained (Medina, 2005:40). However, Gulen writes that language is not only a tool for describing facts and performing vocative functions – it also defines and constitutes our humanity. It "gives voice to our thoughts, it is the rhythm of our feelings, and the excitement of our hearts; it is the interpreter in our communication with God Almighty. Language is a reflection of the Divine Archetype and is the repository of divine knowledge. By virtue of the faculty of language, humankind has been elevated to the rank of vicegerent on this earth" (p. 8).

In this sense, Gulen argues that language not only reveals and expresses the Divine and the Transcendental; it can also establish a relation between the Creator and the created. Gulen writes, "It is through speech that human beings have become the addressee of God and it is thanks to this faculty that they can address Him" (p. 1).

This constructive and creative view of language is a counter to the extreme form of postmodern philosophy of language that presents a pessimistic view of language, denies the divine origin of language, and reduces language to empty signs and elusive images – turns it into chimeras unanchored in any reality or purpose or meaning. This reductive view of language that looks at texts as auto-referential only turns language into a closed system of self-referring signs that endlessly defer meaning. The result is nihilism, solipsism, and the coarsening of the values that define our humanity. Virtues like duty, love, sacrifice, and the idea of the sacred are dismissed as mere linguistic projections.

Gulen, on the other hand, presents an optimistic view of language and writes, "By means of the faculty of speech bestowed in our nature, the facility has been afforded for humans to express and interpret everything at their discretion... Speech is an instrument by way of which truth is acknowledged as the highest reality and all beings become a musical instrument as if in a symphony, thereby removing the veil over things, enabling them to express themselves" (p. 2).

The "Luciferan thrust" of Postmodernism dismisses the ideals of beauty, sacredness, duty, sacrifice, the truth of the heart, and virtue as mere flattering words that mask and hide selfish motives. Freud dismissed the idea of the sacred as "infantile fantasy," the hangover of the primitive mind, and Karl Marx described religion as the opiate for the masses. The result is a shuddering collapse of all the values that define our humanity, reducing the universe to a "Wasteland," a "Flatland" inhabited by alienated, depressed "hollow men" who can "connect nothing with nothing."

But Gulen does not look at beautiful language as mere simulacrum, as empty of meaning. In his account, language is "one of the most precious of gifts" from God, and words are underpinned by ideas and values. Language can inculcate moral values. There is a relationship between language, belief, meaning, and understanding. Language nourishes our aspirations, which arise from "our distinctive foundational essence"; language lends a wing "to our ideals" and takes "their feet off the ground to the heavens"; lifting us to "the upper reaches of a spiritual ascension and preparing for us thrones in realms beyond the material world." Gulen repeatedly highlights the higher spiritual function of language. He says, "Responding to our desire for eternity, speech enriches our feelings in an indescribable manner and gives our souls a depth that cannot be bound by the dimensions of corporeality" (p. 7-8).

The reductive and degrading views of human nature put forth by the pseudo prophets of modernity, who define the essence of humanity in terms of libido, monetary profit, or class struggle, cannot explain how good literature stirs the soul and uplifts the heart. According to Gulen, literature that wells from, and voices what is in, our hearts will always remind us of the Divinity that was breathed into human beings and forms the quintessence of humanity. The constructive use of language is like "a strong gust" of wind that lifts people up "in the sky where kites wander," "and they enjoy the freedom and ease of a bird taking wing in the spacious sky...they experience constant transformations and perceive the magnificence of transcendent life through the colorful dimensions of speech..." (p. 6).

Gulen cites the Holy Qur'an as an excellent example of the zenith of language that has an immense depth of meaning, and whose "voice is heard beyond ramparts and echoes in even the most obstinate and bigoted of hearts. There is such dazzling magic in the presentation of its themes that it is impossible not to be impressed upon hearing it."

According to Gulen, language that embeds lofty ideals and noble goals "is as expansive as the skies, as full of vigor as the earth, as lustrous as silk, and as comforting as a mother's embrace. It articulates to us the glory of our faith, the riches of our society, the purity and integrity of our fellow companions, the struggle of our ancestors, and our values that make us unique. Good speech that originates directly from, and voices what is in, our hearts will always remind us of our Divine origin. To the extent of the sacredness of its color, wealth, and goals, good speech will echo in our hearts like celestial voices providing us with proofs of its origin" (p. 8).

Western literary theory and Positivist epistemology support each other in looking at literature as auto-referential; they view literature as self-reflexive and not referring to any meaning outside it. It is parasitic and, in the words of the French poet Valery, it is like a dance that leads nowhere.

On the other hand, Gulen establishes a relationship between literature and axiology. He says that literature not only describes and creates beauty, it also tells us about our relationship to life and the purpose of life. He rejects the concept of Art for the sake of Art, which is exclusively concerned with creating elegance of form only.

Equally emphatic is his rejection of naturalism in literature that, in the name of realism, puts the emphasis on the sordid, mean, and brutal aspects of life. He advises that literary people should "put their language skills and artistic talents at the service of the right, good, and beautiful, instead of hurting the souls of the describing what is corrupt, or contaminating people's pure thoughts with dirty images, and condemning them to the slavery of materialism with descriptions of carnal desires" (p. 15-16).

Gulen exhorts artists to take the prophets and writers of Sufi literature as role models, because all of them have, "acted in cooperation and are united in building prosperous cities from speech, weaving lace from the silken threads of language, and stringing exquisite necklaces with the jewels of words" (p. 5).

Language is an instrument given exclusively to humankind. It has tremendous power and can perform diverse and contradictory functions. In this context, Gulen quotes a hadith that says that a believer must guard his speech because it can be equally used as a remedy and as a weapon. The range of its power can extend in opposite directions: it can revive and kill, establish peace and start war, disclose and hide, liberate and imprison, construct and destroy, exaggerate and downplay. It is therefore necessary to keep watch that one's language is not misused. When the use of language is yoked to an agenda of self-aggrandisement, or the acquisition of power or monetary profit, it is severed from its divine purpose of pursuing Truth and serving humanity. It degenerates into the rhetoric of hatred and misrepresentation, and generated suspicion, deception, competition and aggression. It becomes an instrument of manipulation and exploitation. Gulen emphasises that we need to use language in a constructive way. He argues for promoting interfaith and intercultural dialogue, because language has tremendous power to make people understand others and to change their perception. It can persuade people to work for peace. It is, in the words of Gulen, "the sword of humankind," and, "wherever the flag of speech waves, the most powerful armies are defeated and scattered. In the arenas in which speech shouts out, the sounds of cannon balls become like the buzzing of bees. From behind the battlements on which the banner of speech has been raised, the sound of its drums are heard. In the precincts where its march reverberates, kings shake in their boots" (p. 2).

Good speech influences people to make the best of their potential, removes misunderstandings and false consciousness, helps them expand tolerance and promote cooperation, encourages collaboration, and establishes peace. Gulen expresses the educative value of language in these words, "foxes take their leave of deception, and lions are terrified, seeking shelter in their dens." No "combatant has ever possessed a weapon mightier than speech" (p. 5).

Cognitive linguistics postulates that language is inseparable from thought, and Gulen writes, "Speech is the key that opens the locks on the doors of the treasury of thought" (p. 2). As the famous linguist Wittgenstein said, "My world ends where my language ends." In Gulen's view, since language is intertwined with thought, it should be developed and enriched to empower a nation intellectually and morally. He notes and cautions that nations which do not think and speak become dependent on others: "Societies which do not think and speak will find others speak and think on their behalf" (p. 18). Imported views estrange us from our own rich heritage. It is of supreme importance for a nation to be respectful towards the history of its language.

However, language has to go beyond historical value and respond positively to every positive new development. For, as Gulen says, "reaching out to the future at full speed requires catching up with industrialization, global commerce, and technological warehouses." If language and thought, both living phenomena, do not evolve with the times, they will become stagnant, as solidified as rock, and will lose their soul. Nations that can manage to develop their language and make it accommodating, while at the same time staying faithful to the roots of it, are the most dynamic in thought and influence.

Language can serve both genealogical and teleological functions. As a symbol making activity, language not only embodies, but also preserves, all of our core values and cognitive and intellectual reserves. It also renews our link with our origins and traditional heritage. With its new developments and transformations, language looks to the future – just as our heritage of wisdom, ethics, and ideals can give direction to future, too.

Gulen compares the teleological function of language to a "golden-winged turtledove released by our hopes to the future" (p. 8). The core values of every society are embedded in the symbols of its language. Gulen argues, "Language is not only a means of speech and thought; it is a bridge with the significant function of bringing the wealth of the past to our day and conveying today's heritage and our new compositions to the future" (p. 17).

Language is an important tool for humankind in our efforts to better understand the cosmos and events both holistically and analytically. The relationship between language and thought comprises cognitive and intellectual reflections on existence and events, transforming these reflections into sources of information, and becoming productive while forming links between the cosmos and our knowledge. The future prospects of a nation are very much dependent on evaluating these relationships. Language is one of the fundamental dynamics in the composition of a culture. We should not cast everything that is old into oblivion, nor turn our face to the past and close our doors to what is new. Let us embrace the past with the utmost sincerity and at the same time salute the coming days with their open, new developments and transformations.

I will conclude with summing up Gulen's message – Let us use language as a bridge between different cultures and religions to establish peace. Let us use language as a beacon house to illuminate minds and souls, and as a bond to bring people together on the basis of shared human values: compassion, tolerance, harmony, and peace.


  • Gulen, M. Fethullah. 2010. Speech and Power of Expression: On Language, Esthetics, and Belief, NJ: Tughra Books.
  • Medina, Jose. 2005. Language: Key Concepts in Philosophy, Continuum.