Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri was born in Karbala, Iraq, a descendant of several generations of well-known and revered spiritual leaders. Educated in Europe and America, he founded a number of companies in the Middle East and worked as a consultant in the oil industry. He travelled extensively on a spiritual quest which led to his eventual rediscovery of the pure and original Islamic heritage of his birth.
1980 he established a charitable organization with centers in the USA, Britain and the Middle East, which makes original Islamic and Sufi teachings more widely available through courses and publications,promotes the revival of traditional systems of healing and supports a variety of charitable programs.
Shaykh Fadhlalla is currently engaged in lecturing and writing books and commentaries on the Holy Qur'an and related subjects, with particular emphasis on ethics, self-development and gnosis ('irfan).
In 2004, he established the Academy of Self Knowledge, which offers online courses on self knowledge and the prophetic revealed path.
NDM: As-Salamu `Alaykum. I would like to begin this interview with a background question. Can you please tell me a little about your background and your Sufi teacher(s) and the tariqa (method) that your teacher(s) used?
Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri: Wa alaykum as-salaam. I was born and raised in Karbala, Iraq, the youngest son of a much older scion of a scholarly and religiously inclined Persian family and a perfume trader's daughter. I grew up in a sheltered, loving environment that was embedded in traditional Islamic values - people were courteous and mutually supportive. Our household could accommodate scholars, peasants and princes and frequently did. An important centre of religious pilgrimage, Karbala would receive many visitors from all over the Muslim world, and my father, being a religious guide, was always welcoming a stream of them to our home.
But things were changing and Iraq was emerging strongly as a nation. From there I was sent to Britain at 17 to study Maths and Physics when Europe was still recovering from the strictures of the post WWII phase. It opened my eyes to another world that set off in sharp relief the simple one I had left behind. And with that came a combination of culture shock and questioning. I then returned to Iraq to serve in the petroleum industry. Progress and material wealth beckoned everyone. After a few years I returned to Britain to do an MBA and then worked in the Middle East for several years. Even as worldly success came my way I found myself questing and seeking something more.
I came across my first teacher on a plane. He had nothing to do with what is overtly called 'Sufism'; however, Swami Chinmayananda became my guide and mentor on the path of self awakening and of course I read widely and was able to attend several of Krishnamurti's talks. However, Swamiji recognized that I had to be true to my tradition and sent me on, as it were, to rediscover my heritage. As that door closed another opened: I found myself with Shaykh Abdal Qadir as-Sufi, a Shadhili-Darqawi master of Scottish origin, based in Norwich. I also travelled throughout Morocco and the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, looking for the lights of the living as well as the deceased.
With fluent Arabic and Persian at my disposal, I was fortunately able to satisfy my passion for knowledge by reading voraciously and found myself sharing my discoveries with others in talks and books. I was very motivated to connect sincere seekers with arenas where they could serve and thus 'save' themselves. To that end I set up a college for the study of Qur'an in the States, an educational and philanthropic organization and a publishing house, with centres in the UK, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. I also became connected to the Rifai order from Yugoslavia through Shaykh Jamali and later Shakyh Asaf Durakovic, and to the Chishti through Sayyid Ikram Chishti, from Hyderabad, Sindh. There were other teachers who also influenced me greatly who were not affiliated with any particular Tariqah, but were highly revered in their own way, among them Shakyh Bashir Othman of Madina and Sayyid Mahdi Al-Hakim of Iraq and others.
Tariqah is usually translated as way, or path. My apprenticeship consisted of keeping company with enlightened beings, being under their tutelage, studying the seminal texts (Qur'an, exegesis, historical literature, spiritual treatises, metaphysical tracts), meditating, praying, fasting, giving zakat (in short observing all the requirements of Islamic practice), in order to groom the lower self and be at the door of the higher soul within the heart. In time I came to realize that original Islam was the 'tariqah' at the time of the Prophet. People lived the path and were transformed and enlightened. Soon, however, a way of life became a ritualistic religion that helped powerful dynastic rulers to act and behave in a manner that almost separated original Islam from government. This situation resulted in numerous political rebellions and the emergence of Sufis and tariqahs.
I think we are living at an age of 'post-tariqah' and the rediscovery of transformative worship and enlightenment through living Qur'an.
NDM: When you say that we are living in an age of post-tariqah, do you believe that aspects of the traditional Sufi path or methods are not necessary any longer? Or that they are not suitable for the younger people of this modern age for some reason or another?
Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri: The Sufi path was a culturally modified version of Islam. The tariqahs often avoided open animosity with mainstream official Islam and therefore created their own particular socio-religious boundaries. During the past 1400 years many Muslim rulers distorted aspects of the Din - pronounced Deen, often translated as religion, but the meaning encompasses how you transact your entire life - to enhance their own version of autocratic, despotic, and often brutal rule. Until very recently in most Muslim lands people regarded rulers as true guardians of the real values of Islam, although in many cases these rulers were not even nominally practicing Muslims. With the so-called Arab spring we are experiencing a new era, where the subjects in a country are vocally making their demands in the hope that they will be brought into citizenship and real participation in governance, rather than pseudo-democracy.
Sufi tariqahs provided a most valuable and unique service and may still continue to do so in certain situations. An intelligent, educated and self-disciplined seeker can discover original Islam and be transformed by it without belonging to a Sufi tariqah. That does not preclude the need for teachers, guides and spiritual coaching.
NDM: Can you please elaborate a little more on what the Sufis can provide as service that simply following the path of Islam cannot provide? What are the advantages of being a Sufi?
Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri: The Sufi provides what was intended by the original Islamic path, which was to respond appropriately to the outer world whilst being aware of one's inner intentions and attention. Sufis began to appear a few decades after the departure of the Prophet Muhammad because of deviations and distortions in institutionalised religion and the occurrence of leaders and governors whose behaviour and conduct was far from the intention of religious and natural human tendencies for morality and quality life. For centuries the Sufis provided access to original Islam through numerous communities, brotherhoods and associations and, through their teachings which was based on Quran, the way of the Prophet and the example of hundreds of enlightened teachers, masters and shaykhs. In our present day any serious seeker can live the best of the Sufi ways because of the easy access to all the teachings of the past few hundred years, as well as to the numerous levels of meaning of the Quran.
NDM: I was told that Sufism is a very ancient tradition and may have preceded even the Vedas of India?
Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri: It depends on what you define it as. The most commonly held notion is that Sufism is the heart of Islam, but the esoteric core of any religion is universal.Sufi teachings influenced many other spiritual traditions that may not have acknowledged Sufism's Islamic roots.
NDM: Can you please tell me more about this "Arab spring" What is this exactly? Is this mainly to do with the political situation in the Middle East or something deeper, an awakening of sorts?
Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri: Islam is an integrated and complete way of life so that the practitioner acts most appropriately in this world whilst being ready for another zone of consciousness after death. Thus this life is a sample of and preparation for what comes later. Rulers and the ruled are supposed to be in harmony and unison but within a few decades after the departure of Muhammad we had numerous dynastic rulers which effectively separated church from state. By the end of the first century (Islamic calendar) the general public and the mosques were supportive of the ruling class, often irrespective of their conduct even as human beings. The Sufis in a way were a safety valve to take off the spiritual pressure from thoughtful and intelligent members of the public. Reverence of their leaders irrespective of their quality and conduct continued for centuries. Then the idea of caliphate, which was entrenched again by dynasties, became deeply rooted amongst Muslim people. With the demise of the Ottoman Empire there was an enormous desire by Muslims to come up with an alternative 'glorious caliphate'. A similar tendency can be seen in today's world amongst the impoverished Catholic masses to revere the Pope, as it gives them some dignity and hope. In many Arab countries many of the people looked up to their rulers and leaders as the saviours and quick answers to their worldly miseries and impoverishment. The 'Arab Spring' is the demand of some educated young people to participate in government in the hope of having a better quality of life here and now. It is the first time that the rulers, most of whom were autocratic and despotic, are being openly questioned by their subjects regarding responsibility and good governance. They hope to become citizens where the ruler and the ruled can face each other and come up with the best collective decisions.
NDM: If one wanted to become a Sufi how would one go about doing this. What are the prerequisites?
Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri: Wanting to be a Sufi implies a spiritual quest for truth and that which is ever constant and reliable as reference in our lives. It actually means a quest for God or Reality. Where is it and how is it? The enlightened person knows by personal experience that the truth permeates the universe and that the soul within one's own heart is the full representation of that truth. To live by the truth of your soul you need to be aware of its shadows and its distractions - your self or ego. In order to awaken to your soul you need some guidance from outside. When you are enlightened you follow the authority within you. Then you know you are in the world with all its limitations but within your heart lies the essence of limitlessness and eternity.
NDM: When you say that the enlightened person knows by personal experience, what do you mean by experience exactly?
Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri: A person who is in coma or deep sleep will experience another level of consciousness upon waking up. Transcendence of normal consciousness occurs due to constant practice of meditation and periods where the mind is totally stilled, thereby favouring a change in brain chemistry. The enlightened person is fully aware of the so-called normal world and its limitations within the framework of space and time. He has, however, awakened to another level of consciousness which is ever constant and not subject to any limitations. Religious people call this liberation or god-consciousness.
NDM: When you say "favouring a change in brain chemistry". Does some kind of chemical shift or restructuring in the brain actually occur due to this liberation, god consciousness? If so can you give me an example of this?
Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri: We know that most mental functions do have a relationship to neuron firings and therefore can be said to be brain based. Many studies, especially in the US, showed that the effect of transcendental meditation relates to brain circuitry (chemistry) and also affects the behavior of the individual. The performance of school children who have practiced meditation is noticeably better than in controlled peer groups. Consciousness is conditioned and personal while it evolves and develops towards higher consciousness from where it emerged in the first place. The enlightened religious sage says: Everything has emerged from God and is making its way back to God. This is the constant truth, at all times and in every situation - One Supreme Consciousness, which is the Source and destination of all subtle and gross creations in the universe.
NDM: Can this be known without the help of a teacher?
Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri: No. But the teacher can also be, in special cases, nature and living entities within it. Empathy and resonance is easier and more common within the same species but there are always exceptions. The Sufis insist on a living teacher, yet there are those who claim to be 'Owaisi', after Owais al-Qarani. His claim was to have been loved by the Prophet although they had never met.
NDM: Why do you need some guidance and help from outside? Can you please give me an example of what can go wrong without guidance of a proper teacher?
Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri: The same way there is physical and biological growth there is also mental growth in wisdom and spirituality. Driving along in a complex city you may eventually get to your destination, but with a set of maps or GPS the task is accomplished more efficiently. Biological growth and development is from the inner towards the outer, whereas growth in consciousness starts with the outer (dependence on mother, family) and growth towards independence is towards the inner. Outer authority is necessary early on whereas inner authority later on indicates completion of maturity. At all times human beings are dependent inwardly and outwardly, materially and spiritually. In truth, the universe is God-dependent. What can go wrong without a GPS is countless wrong turns, mistakes and even falling into ravines that could be fatal. A certain amount of adventurous and mapless driving may be fun and can help to arouse intelligence as to the need for maps and guidance. We all seek comfort and ease but we need to be will-ful as to what brings about sustainable wellbeingness.
NDM: I would like to ask you some questions about the origin of the universe and God. Earlier you said, "Everything has emerged from God and is making its way back to God' Can you please tell me how everything merged from God and how this universe was created?
Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri: The origin of the universe is a mystery. As astronomers tell us, most of this event took place within a second or two of the Big Bang. The Qur'an refers to the event of creation as a 'crack' from which Time and space emerged. The original universal 'crack' seemed to repeat in different manners and is fully mirrored by the rise of human beings. The Qur'an uses the word to remember or reflect upon to go to the root and essence of memory, eg it presents the challenge that in principle human beings can recollect the state of pre-existence. The human soul at its pure consciousness level carries the imprint of the Big bang and the 'no-thingness'. In the state of conditioned consciousness, or personal awareness of life we operate at the zone of cause and effect and rationality. When self and soul are in full unison then life's purpose and journey is completed and the individual realizes both the transitory stage as well as that which is infinite and eternal. When this unified state of humanity and divinity is realized then real relief and thrill in life occur. A paradigm shift in creation will take place when a few individuals cross over to this realization, thus fulfilling what may be termed as the purpose of creation.
NDM: What is it exactly that does not allow most individuals to realize this truth?
Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri: There is nothing in creation except that it manifests in dualities or in two facets. Individual consciousness is limited, conditioned and constantly evolving towards full consciousness, or higher consciousness. Personal life and the experience of birth and death is also a sample of eternal and boundless life. All human beings have the potential of experiencing both these facets of life and consciousness. However, due to the long evolutionary process we identify much more with the lower consciousness and survival, and that is why enlightenment is rare. Spiritual practices focus on the means of curbing this lower tendency, and transcending it to the realm of the infinite and constant. He who knows himself (ie lower self or ego) can move to transcend it to the higher self or soul.
NDM: How do we make our way back to God?
Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri: As already mentioned, self realization, awakening or enlightenment, is the most persistent drive in the human quest. To go beyond the limitations of individuality and 'otherness', you enter the magnificent realm of Oneness. This is a state which some realized beings have labeled as eternal joy, bliss or paradise. It is not really a place, nor do you 'get it'. It is a state that can be entered if other distracting states are avoided. All spiritual practices require focus, attention and perseverance. Once the mind is totally still at will, then a higher aspect of consciousness becomes accessible, and when that state becomes a norm, then one realizes that paradise is already there, but one simply needs to turn away from all the shadows of hell. Universal enlightenment or truly practiced religion that brings about a shift in human conduct can occur when more people are enlightened and live amongst people, rather than as special celebrities, as has been the case. The prophetically revealed package, if truly practiced, brings about the transformation we seek, so that any notion of being near or far or of going back is eclipsed by the light of Presence.