The Quintessential Community – Interview with Shaikh Shuja Ali Mirza

This interview was first published in the Times of Wali, Volume 3, Issue 4, August 2013/Ramadhan 1434.

Think seven kids and 20 years of Islamic seminary knowledge is good enough to ask Shaikh Shuja for some parenting advice? We thought so.

Times of Wali sat with Shaikh Shuja Ali Mirza, over tea, to get his insight on how to raise good Muslim kids.

Sheikh Shuja2Born in Pakistan, a young Shuja came to Canada when he was only six-years-old. After going through the public education system, graduating from the University of Toronto with degrees in Physics, Computer Science and Math and then working as an engineer, he left Canada to pursue seminary studies in Qum in 1990.

“And I’m still there,” he says. “The marja I study with is Ayatullah Jawad Amoli and most of my specialty is what they call the intellectual sciences, meaning philosophy, gnosticism, spirituality.”

Intellectual, no doubt. It is no wonder his speech is so captivating, just as it is deep and insightful.

One of the largest influences in the upbringing of a child is his/her educational environment. Having gone through the education system here, he says it has not gotten better since he was in school.

“It’s not so much a moral decadence and issues and decline that’s the problem but it’s actually the foundation of what we call the world view that is implicitly-between the lines and behind the scenes-put forth as the only perspective on reality in these schools and in the modern world which is truly secular and liberal. That is truly a disservice to the reality of what man is.

Man is from Allah and is to go back to Allah. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon (Quran, Surah al-Baqarah, 156). Essentially man was made for God. He is a spiritual being. He is inspired by something of Allah’s spirit and he has to live his life with that reality in mind. So the secular paradigm of reality, which has become a mantra really, is quite the antithesis-the opposite.

Hence, at any means necessary and at all costs, until obviously the paradigm has changed-and it wont happen in the near future- the parents who see reality in this spiritual, religious way try to find the environment for their child that is better and more conducive for the spiritual growth of the child.”

His suggestion is Islamic schools, homeschooling or even other faith-based schools over public education. But then again, that there is more than just schooling that is important in the growth of a child, he says. There is the community.

“A school is only a function of something else-something larger-a community. Or, in the Islamic terminology, the jama’.

Why is the jama’ important?

“The jama’ is important because it helps the individual. Integrating, connecting and making the individual feel connected [therefore contributing to] a larger form of individuality.

He explains identity using his knowledge of the classical or practical sciences: ethics, domestics, civics and politics.

“Ethics has to do with an individual’s soul and how it is balanced,” he says. Extended to a greater identity, it includes your family, immediate, extended and beyond forming a tribe “and that has to do with what they call domestics, in the olden days, or the balancing of the management of the family.”

Beyond that is civics which would be the community at large meaning the city or village and hence enters politics.

“These are the layers from which the identity is formed of any soul. Certainly you can’t just be a family, it has to include the community. And the community is defined not by any building or institution or membership. It is organic. It grows.

It grows around the word and the spirit. The spirit as it is lived, meaning a living spirituality and the word as it is spoken. The word as it is understood is based on knowledge in its whole sense and that knowledge is what a community is nurtured by and grows around and with.”

Moving on to his second cup of honey lemon tea, he answers what to do with families today consisting of non-Muslims, new Muslims, etc.

Whatever you do, “you do it in a nice and natural and positive way,” he says, “where you encourage association with those people who are like-minded and who see reality the way you do-or similarly” acknowledging that not all people see it in the same way. He advises encouraging or discouraging social interactions with people depending on what direction you see them headed towards and where you want to be, even if it be your immediate family, citing the example of the Prophet (s) and Imam Ali (a) and their interactions with family members who had not all embraced Islam or were among the enemies of Islam.

The bonds of wilayah  and who you choose to be your wali, those are based on faith, iman and taqwa. Naturally, like the hadith from the Prophet (s) and seventh Imam (a) says, ‘a person is with him whom he loves.’

We have to basically look at who our circle of contacts is and know that by being with a certain group, we will also be like that group and end up liking things that they like, loving things that they love and basically when we move, the heart will also be moved in that direction.  We consciously use this hadith as a way to move ourselves closer to Allah and trying to consciously be with those people who love what we love and are trying to consciously move towards Allah. Encourage them. Alhamdolillah, they exist. They may not be very many, but they exist and we try to increase that social circle until our children feel comfortable.

Actually one of the precursors and one of the methods of forming a community is by meeting with and forming with people who have their religion as their main concern. It increases you, in mind and heart.”

Quoting another tradition of the seventh Imam (a), he said, ‘The meeting of the brothers (people who are bound in faith) is an expansion of the hearts and is impregnation for the intellect even if they be a small insignificant number.’ Certainly, this is a way that families here can try to maintain their identity and keep that fire going.”

We have to be careful when we use the word family, not to see it in the modern Western term as just the nuclear family, he says. “A family in Islam includes many other levels and layers of extended family and eventually includes people who have the same vision as you. They are your true family.”

For example, the Holy Porphet (s) said Salman (al-Farsi) is from his Ahlulbayt.  “At the end of the day, that tells us, it is Allah. Ahl Allah. The family of Allah. The people that are going towards Him. The people that are on the same path. This is what forms a family. It transforms the biological family in to something that is much more noble.

The parenting advice had only begun and Times of Wali had run out of time and tea.  InshaAllah, we will catch the good shaykh on another occasion.