Interview with Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri
From the Nuradeen Magazine Vol. 3, No. 3 -- Fall/Winter 1983
NURADEEN: What we would
like to do first of all is establish what the nature is of the
family in Islam. Perhaps you could tell us about your personal
upbringing, how it relates to this, then tie it in with what is
happening today in terms of Western society and the breakdown of its
social structures -- the collapse of the family in particular.
Finally, we would like to conclude the interview by talking about
the implications it holds for us today. What, then, in your view, is
the most important factor in establishing a strong deen
within the family unit?
SHAYKH FADHLALLA HAERI:
Basically, it is knowledge of leadership. The head of the family is
to lead the family, compassionately, lovingly, and knowingly. The
home and its wholesomeness is dependent, first, on the man, on the
leader of the household, who is its pivot, and second, on the
obedience, loyalty, and love that comes to him from those he is
leading. When the two elements are cemented, the leader then becomes
the servant. The man becomes an instrument of Divine Mercy and
compassion for the weaker ones -- until they, one day, assume the
leadership, and thus, the chain of human integrity moves from one
generation to the next. So a strong deen within the family is
dependent upon the man and the loyalty, love, respect and obedience
that comes to him from those to whom he is sacrificing in his outer
NURADEEN: What are the
obligations or responsibilities, and the nature of a proper
relationship between the family members, one to another; the husband
and wife, parent and child?
SHAYKH FADHLALLA HAERI:
If the father is a man of knowledge, knowledgeable in the deen,
and if he is a wholesome being, then the responsibility of his
family is to imitate him and that is, in the meaning sense, by
imitating his actions. By that, they gain his wisdom. For every
occasion he acts differently, so they will imitate him accordingly
by following in his footsteps. Whenever appropriate, and when
they do not know, they will ask. They will try to put themselves in
each other's place, to gain a wider understanding of human behavior
and reactions to situations, by preferring others to themselves,
especially in the material sense. This is how children learn to
derive joy, as a result of giving and generosity, especially when
they give what they want to keep. The elders of the family are to
acknowledge these acts of generosity and to confirm their goodness
by showing their pleasure and rewarding those who do it. Reward by
acknowledging the child's actions, by thanking him, by talking about
his good behavior. Thus, the family unit becomes a madrassah, a
school in which they all learn from each other, support each other
and help the ones who are weak. The weak ones will gain from the
strong ones, so that each one ends up being a source of correct
NURADEEN: Perhaps, at this point, you could speak regarding your childhood
and how it differed from how children are being raised today.
SHAYKH FADHLALLA HAERI: When I was growing up in Karbala, there still remained a trace
of a culture that had existed for the best of 1300 years. Obviously,
it is now in decline. But then, practically everyone in the
neighborhood still knew everyone else and there were no outsiders of
any kind whatsoever. If there were, they were visitors with a
specific link to one of the families. So everyone knew that he was
the guest of a particular family and was staying for a specific
length of time.
There were no hotels as such in Karbala. There were a few eating
places -- what are now equivalent to restaurants -- but they were
primarily for caravan drivers, horsemen, and other travelers who
were passing through, because there was no other place to stay. They
had come for a specific purpose, stayed for a day, then left.
Karbala was a city in which the member of every household knew how
to behave. That state of awareness had taken generations to reach.
As a result, there were no policemen whatsoever. There was virtually
no theft. Most of the doors of the houses were left open. There was
no fear of any outside threat. The city was enclosed by a boundary.
There were no isolated villas with gardens. There were houses next
to each other, opening to an inner courtyard with a few trees. The
city was divided into districts and each district had a certain
flavor and color, depending on its altitude and whether is was sandy
and dry or lush with vegetation. As children, we competed with other
districts in games and sports. The families within each district had
very close ties with each other.
One norm of courtesy in the neighborhood was the welcoming of a new
neighbor. It was, and still is, traditional throughout the area that
for seven days, the new household would not do any cooking. Every
day, food was provided by one of the neighbors. This courtesy had
many advantages. For one, it allowed the newcomers to settle in.
Secondly, everyone came to meet them and gave them a gift, thus,
they became integrated into that neighborhood.
If there was a death in one of the families, the neighbors would
take charge and relieve the family of their household
responsibilities. They would arrange for the burial, and see to the
daily running of the household, cooking, and other existential needs
until the family was able to manage their affairs again.
In Karbala there were no radios for miles within the area of the
shrine. One knew everything that was going on without having a radio
due to the constant visiting between houses and districts. There was
no television, and certainly no cinema anywhere within fifty miles
of the city, so people's preoccupation was with improving their
character: how to be better behaved, how to be a healthier being,
more respected in the neighborhood and in town.
Our own household was not ordinary, in that I have come from a
family of shuyukh (teachers, masters) for five generations. So there
was a heritage transmitted in my upbringing.
NURADEEN: Could you speak of the role your father played in your early
SHAYKH FADHLALLA HAERI: I was born when my father was in his sixties. But I did not
really feel the disparity of age in that I accompanied him often,
and I liked to be with him in his chores. Those are the moments I
remember very well. His chores were, for example, gardening and
building. Almost every other day, he would attend to some work in
the house which was of a building nature, fixing something or other,
and usually it was at a certain time, between four and five in the
afternoon. He would come with mortar and cement, and I would
accompany him. There were many others who would have loved to do
those tasks and would have volunteered, but he still did them, or
cleaned the sewer if it was blocked. Often, I would run away because
it stank so badly, and he would laugh.
I also accompanied him to his
majlis in the morning where he sat
every day from nine to noon and people would come and read to him. I
frequently sat there until I grew
bored if the talk did not make sense to me, as often it did not. But
quite often some of the men would bring fruits and sweets that they
would give me, so that was an inducement to be there.
During my visits to his quarters, I was completely free with him. I
would massage him, jump on his back in his bed, and ask him
questions concerning my school problems, and he would help me. From
the door of the private room where he slept next to his large
library, if I could see that he was reading or engrossed in
something, I would wait. Sometimes I would leave, but otherwise, the
door was always open. We all knew how to approach him. I had never
seen him other than courteous to anyone, to the children and grown
ups alike. I had never seen him other than smiling, other than
giving more than was asked of him.
Whenever I overstepped the limits, I could feel it by the expression
on his face, or by his silence. I learned more from my father's
silence than from anything. I do not remember him ever telling me to
not do something. I respected and loved him so much
that I almost knew what was acceptable and what was not. Although I
must have been, I really can not remember being told off by him.
Whenever we made too much noise, he would come out and say, I did
not rest today, and that was enough for us to know. But I also
learned from the other men and women in the house, my older brothers
and sister. All of these people taught me.
The home of my youth was really four interlinking houses, each with
its own courtyard. Our servants were never regarded as servants in
the orthodox sense. They were members of the family. In fact, the
old woman servant had more clout in household matters than my
mother, absolutely. Whatever she wanted, happened. She was there
long before my mother came into the household. Each member had a
certain area of responsibility and authority and they all worked
within those limits. For example, my nanny ended up being in charge
of the kitchen.
NURADEEN: And did your mother not mind, because the kitchen is such an
important arena for a woman?
SHAYKH FADHLALLA HAERI: She really did run the whole household without anyone taking
notice of it. If there were any mistakes or problems, it was my
mother who took the brunt of it, and if everything went smoothly
nobody acknowledged her. She was the last one to sleep and the first
one to rise in the morning. She sewed and mended, and clothes that
were handed down from the men were altered by her deft hand so that
they fit the younger boys. Even though these hand-me-downs fit, or
were too small for me, I felt nonetheless that they were too large.
My mother did everything. She was also regarded as a leader among
some of these people. She frequently settled quarrels between them
or would go and read Qur`an for them to lift them out of their
NURADEEN: They say that the son is the secret of the father, and in that
regard what would be the most important quality, in your view,
passed on to you by your father?
SHAYKH FADHLALLA HAERI: Outer action. Acting in the world with the qualifications to
NURADEEN: What in your view is the role of the family in building a strong
SHAYKH FADHLALLA HAERI: It is the role of the brick to a house which is made of bricks,
but these days, houses are made of aluminum. The family unit is the
building block. It is the key. The house is as strong as the units
of which it is made. If the house is strong in its unity, which is
based on knowledge and on the code of conduct and behavior, which is
the behavior of the higher self within the individual, then we have
a very indestructible unit. It is for that reason in many of the
traditional Muslim communities, the households that were strong were
believers. They were the foundation of that city and that was the
situation of Karbala.
If you had gone to Karbala in the past and asked the Governor, "Who
is Karbala?" he would give you ten family names. This is Karbala...
Meet them and you know what Karbala is, because anybody would listen
to these people. They were not only people like my father and his
household, but were also men of action who could command battles,
and ordinary households who, when the occasion demanded, would be
ready to serve selflessly. The bereavement or troubles of these
households were everybody else's troubles.
To give you an example, when my father died, for three days, every
single shop and public place was closed. It was a sign of their love
and respect for the man, nothing less, nothing more. Every day, he
was led to the Shrine of Imam Husayn, upon him be peace, and back to
the house at maghrib (sunset). As he walked, I remember as a child,
people would suddenly see him
through the shop window and would jump to greet him, to invite him
into their shops, to ask him to pray for them. It was a trail of
people coming into contact with him and not stopping.
So the family is the basis of society, and in traditional Muslim
societies it was these people who were the leaders and spokesmen.
Even after the modernization of Iraq, the governor of the city would
not act unless he first consulted with these people. Nothing of any
significance was done unless he had come to each one of these
families and consulted with them. The equivalent of that in tribal
Muslim Arab societies, is that the head, or the shaykh of that tribe
held a council on an issue and everyone would come to discuss it and
everybody had an equal say.
The governor of Karbala never did anything unless he consulted with
them, thus what he did, was then with the consent of all the people.
It was virtually a council, in the same way as the Arabic tribal
leader who did not do anything of significance unless he consulted
the best families. There were no secret sessions and that is why
whenever there was an uprising, they all moved in unison.
It says in Qur`an,
"We created you as nations and tribes, so that
you will come to know each other." The meeting point is the love of
Truth, love of Reality and humbleness in the eye of the Creator.
NURADEEN: Would you speak regarding the collapse of Western Society, how
you view it, what the main factors are, and how they relate to the
SHAYKH FADHLALLA HAERI: I certainly sense the collapse of society everywhere. It is
more apparent in the West, simply because of its excessive
materialistic orientation -- having paid too much attention to outer qualities and not to the inner.
Too much attention to the exterior paint of the house and not enough
attention to the love and harmony that should be inside the house.
This is the trend that is leading the rest of the world. It is the
trend of ignorance. The social structure is collapsing because
people are not holding to their responsibilities. Everybody is
asking for their rights, instead of asking for their duties. Life is
an obligation, it is a duty. Life ultimately hinges on the building
block of the family and the key element in the family is the man.
Meaning that he has full responsibility and has to show his
responsibility towards his people, stand up to it and guide them as
best he can. The collapse of Western society is occurring because
this man is hooked to a production mechanism that does not give him
enough time to replenish himself and increase his storehouse of
knowledge, therefore, he in his heart is undernourished. So the only
kick that he gets in life is brandishing his material achievements,
because that is all he has invested in.
This is what is happening everywhere. It is purely a question of
imbalance: over-nourishment materially, under-nourishment
spiritually. Man starts out correctly, for if the house is not
comfortable, he cannot have a blissful time in it. But that quest
can continue forever because there is no end to comfort or to luxury
-- where do you stop? The Qur`an says that if you want to destroy a
culture, We will unleash those whose quest is excess and
materialism, and as a result, it will naturally collapse.
Our cities are absolutely divisive. Everybody is on his own; there
is no neighborhood. Nobody knows anybody's name. These are the signs
of what is happening to us in our dispersion and the indication is
the way we are living.
NURADEEN: Could you
pursue that a little further and bring out the contrast between
today's society and the culture that you grew up in?
SHAYKH FADHLALLA HAERI: The primary difference, as I earlier indicated, lay in the man
who was seeking to know his perfect existence. He was seeking to
know Allah, to know the Truth. He was preparing himself for the next
life. He was being groomed for the next experience, knowing
fearlessly and joyfully, that the next experience is the one for
which he had been brought into existence.
One of the main problems with people today compared with the people
I remember in my childhood in Karbala, is the forgetfulness of the
purpose of existence, forgetfulness of Allah. People are so busy
that they can not reflect and shun what is incorrect. They have no
time. They are so tired that when they attempt to reflect or
contemplate, there is no energy left. Whereas, in the society of my
early years, a man would take time off and compromise materially in
order to gain inner equilibrium. As a result, he would then gain
enough power to achieve what was desired materially. He may even
have reached a point where he is not interested anymore in material
gain. He was so content with contentment that it did not matter to
him. As long as he had a few clean clothes, and a roof over his
head, he had the joy of life. He was drunk with it, and sober in his
We had the best food in Karbala. The average rate of mortality was
well up in the 80's. There was infant mortality, yes, but that is
how nature takes care of itself in this environment. There were no
hospitals, no doctors. I hardly remember being ill. Fresh vegetables
were brought daily to the house to be cooked because there were no
refrigerators to store food for the next day. Each day fresh meat
was cooked. The hub of the house was the kitchen. Now the hub of the
house is the refrigerator. That is an indication of the heart of the
people of the house --
cold, frozen in ice, hoarding provision. This is what is happening
everywhere. The only objective that we have nowadays is to achieve
more. We want to achieve, but what is it we want? Ultimately, we are
going to be under six feet of dust anyway, so what are we achieving?
It is a question of deciding what the values are. The liberal minded
westerner has given up values once held and that are still upheld by
the mu`min because he considers it very open-minded to be tolerant.
But how can you tolerate cancer? You do not tolerate what is bad for
you. Tolerance in the West and in the world has now come to mean
indiscrimination. We do not discriminate between what is conducive
to our well being and what is not. The breakdown of society is by
our ignorance, by our lack of discrimination, of setting boundaries
and saying no, this is not Allah. That is what is happening
everywhere, and as a result I think a reversal to positive action
can come about, because when we are truly sick, we want to be well.
Then we can say, no, we have had enough.