Al-Ahlu Wal-Bayt
Interview with Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri

From: Nuradeen Magazine

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 service.

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 living.

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 childhood?

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 disagreements.

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 act significantly.

NURADEEN: What in your view is the role of the family in building a strong society?

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 family structure.

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 wisdom.

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.