Lola Elniaj sits down with an interview with Virginia Gray Henry, founder of Fons Vitae publishing house and Ghazali Project for Children.
Lola: It is obvious your work is infused with a spiritual sense of purpose but how did it come about?
Virginia: I majored in World Religions in university in New York. This was in the early 60’s. And Islam was not even included back then. And we all had the idea it was 1001 Nights, camels and harems and Baghdad! We all had read 1001 Nights. But it wasn’t taught among the world’s religions. And I majored in Hinduism. And when I got out of university I was looking for a way, because every faith tradition is both a doctrine and a methodology.
In that, you finally come to realize that the aim of all faith traditions, every single one of them, is…(and we have the prophets and messengers and each one of them exemplifies humility and service and emptiness of ego. You empty of all that comes along with your nafs in order to be fully present when you meet God at the end of your life. And so you realize that you can’t really do that from just reading books)…that you actually need a spiritual direction; you need to see that alive.
So at the time, I was married to a Venezuelan film director and we became Muslim through reading Al-Ghazali and other books but at that time either they were crummy books, you know, like horrible paper, awful print, you know really embarrassingly crummy books or really academic books done by scholars at Cambridge and Oxford. But those were done by what we call the Mustashriqeen or Orientalists translating some of the great books like the Mutanabee but the problem was that back in their minds, at least in our estimate, they were really serving the British and the people who needed to feel comfortable about colonizing all these Muslim countries. So there was always the element of sneering at Islam, the Prophet’s wives, whatever you have it. And I really felt this was really unfortunate.
So in the summer of ’68 we sailed over to Morocco on a freighter with 8 people and bought a Citroen car in Paris, and drove to Cairo which took about year because we saw all of Morocco. And then I got pregnant and we had a baby born in Libya, Hajar, and we lived in Baydha. And then we came into Egypt in the spring of ’69 and we met some of the most beautiful and saintly beings you can imagine! They were there, living in Cairo. There were three of them, in fact.
So we began meeting with people our own age from Japan, and from France, and from England,and many countries, who were also looking for spiritual direction and guidance. And so we spent ten years studying in Al-Azhar in special studies in Arabic, Fiqh, Tajweed. And our son Mustafa was born there. And after ten years of that we thought ghasb ‘anna– it’s our responsibility to give back. We now see what it really is. By that time we had worked with the Saudis and made a film about Muslims making the Hajj, (featuring)Muslims from as far as Taipei, Kyoto, Kuala Lampur, Indonesia.
So we have come to understand the beautiful nature and quality of the Muslim people, which is really magnificent-never mind in the desert how a mechanic would take us in when our car broke in the Algerian desert and make sleep in their only bed. You know that’s really touching you know.
Then, after all those years of study, we move to England in ‘79 and opened Jam’iyat Alnusoos Alislamiya (Islamic Text Society). The idea would be to start getting really amazing scholars from japan to California and translate all the great Islamic classics. Beautifully translated but also produce it beautiful and highest form of publishing and typesetting because we saw a need and started to fill the gap.
So it began at Cambridge.The children grew up there, and I did a Master’s in Education started a doctorate. We had a beautiful building on Green Street. We had some wonderful Saudi friends who made it possible for us to have a whole building with a book store. And we started with Abdul-Hakim Murad (Tim Winters). He was just coming out of Pembroke. He was in his early twenties and he was already brilliant in Arabic. And so he translated the first of our Ghazali series which is book 40, which is on death and what comes after, from the ‘Ihaya’ Uloom Ideen. And we knew him and we’ve been close to him all the way through. I mean I just went with him to Bosnia this past August and I actually worked in the war with him in the ‘90’s and he is the one who actually has named my publishing company, the new one – Fons Vitae. So anyway we started this publishing in England and began doing Al-Ghazali and we were trying to do things in the “ahsani taqweem” (in the best form) and it worked. I am very happy to say I can’t tell you how many Islamic publishers copy us. And I am so glad they are because the amount of beautiful books are being produced by Muslims is really wonderful
Lola: What would you say is your role as Muslim publisher?
Virginia: Well, you see there are two kinds of things going on. If you look at the publishing lists of Oxford and Cambridge universities (press or slash?) Yale. Most of the books by modern day scholars and academics are really about the changing scene, ISIS or politics, or history. And I am not interested in any of that. Because life is extremely quick. I mean this last 25 years since I’ve been back in America has gone in a flash. Like Omar Alkhayam said: Life is like the snow on the desert’s ((breast)). It’s that fast. The reason I was interested in religion to start with even as a child, is that friends of mine, even at 15 and 16 years, died and I wanted to know where are they, what happened, what is death. And everyone wonders about that and that’s why I focused on religion, but I’ve always thought that I’m about to die. And I’m right. I am. In a way, you and I, we think we’ve got all this time but time is very fast and in a certain sense we both are already dead and we’ve got just a few minutes left in our mind. If you think about the past 10 years in your mind, it’s just a few ideas. And it’s going faster all the time.
So we focused on the inner life and how to prepare and cleanse the soul in order to meet God. So that’s been our thrust. I have zero interest in the refined little things that people do their doctoral thesis on. That’s well…they’re all talking to each other. But they aren’t giving anything that will address the real question at hand that we are going to die very quickly and you know we really never had any time. If you devoted your whole life to your inner life, you would barely have time, much less to go off in a thousand different directions.
So anyway, the one thing that I did think (of how others view our role as publishers) was just a couple of years ago, might be 3 or 4, in Marrakesh.There was a huge festival done in honor of Fons Vitae and it was very touching. It was organized under the auspices of the king.Scholars came from all over Europe and everywhere to talk about our books, and I presented the Ghazali (for Children project) as well. And they said the reason they were doing it because (and this is very touching) because Fons Vitae has devoted itself for keeping the magnificence of the Islamic spiritual heritage in print for the West. Because you see it’s in Arabic and French, and many languages but at least Fons vitae is the foremost Sufi publisher in the world.
Islam is a beautiful religion. It has everything, it is wonderful, it has inner dimensions. There’s something for everybody, every moment of their lives. And I had met people who can’t stand Ghazali, who can’t stand Sufism, who’ve led lives of perfect service, perfect humility,who honestly were sanctified at death. So it’s not Sufism or literalism, but it’s really doing the thing which is at the core of the whole thing which is finally being humble and putting everything else aside to serve
Lola: How did the Ghazali for children project come about and what was the process of turning this magnum opus into a children’s series like?
Virginia: What got me off on to this whole path was when I was about 22 and read in the New York public library Ghazali’s “almunqith Min aldhalal”, (Deliverance from Error). His spiritual autobiography which he wrote towards the end of his life, after he wrote the “Ihya’. In it, he describes his crisis where he was teaching in Baghdad and he was the equivalent of the president of Oxford and Harvard today and everyone looked up to him, and he knew everything and he won every argument and then he really looked, he realized, “I know the truth but I am not able to do it”. And that’s a crisis I feel I am going through in my life. And I am trying to go inward now at the lasts second but the Ghazali children’s project has been a God sent. But anyway, then when Ghazali had written in his autobiography: “My soul is on a crumbling bank. Up, up, and away. If not now, when?!”
And you know when I read that and I was only 22 and I mean by the time you are 22 you already know it all. You know what the deal is. You (don’t) have to read about it over and over and over again. It’s clear in all faith traditions and the essence of human life. I was so scared by that that I fell in love and wanted to know more about Alghazali. With his quotations from the Qur’an and Hadith and quotations from the Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din.’”, I was in a state like very high but I was like clinging to the pages with my fingernails. I could read it. I could go high with it. But when I shut the book I was still me and I didn’t know how you could incorporate those great teachings into your own daily outlook.
About 8 years ago Hamza Yusuf called up and he was very sad because he said his children were going to an Islamic school and it wasn’t working out. Probably because it was so dry and rote and not fun. So we hatched the idea for the Ghazali children’s project. Everyone said, how can you do Ghazali for children? But what it was that it was my own salvation in a certain sense, the beginning of my own spiritual life, because I sat with the Book of Knowledge, the first book of the forty of the Ihya. And that particular book is said to be a summation, the essence of the entire ‘Ihya’ Uloom Ideen, in this book 1. And everyone said don’t start with it. It’s really hard. But how could you not start with book 1?
I sat right here behind on this couch. So I sat there for 4 yrs.
Four years read it very slowly. First I printed it all out. We had all of these books translated. Hamza Yusuf picked the latest critical edition of Alghazli, the Arabic edition by the Darul Manhaj press in Jeddah. We would print out, let’s say, book 1 and send it to a scholar. So in the case of book 1 it would be Ken Honerkamp (Abdulhadi) You have to be very careful when you choose a translator, because it is their (level of viewing the world) that will flavor the entire book, and if the person themselves is not seeking the inner life they are not going to be able to translate it right. And a lot of them were done by Abdurrahman Fitzgerald who lives in Marrakesh who is a saintly being. And they are wonderful.
And then after they put them into English, they go to editors; Muhammad Huzein who has Gazali.org the greatest Ghazali website, most complete in the world and his wife who is a top editor for every publisher in the world. They then very carefully put these translations into English that could be read by parents and teachers as well as scholars. It’s totally scholarly but it just doesn’t use words that are just too high all the way through. And then I take a print out of this and would go through this and circle every key idea because you can’t leave anything out because Ghazali builds. You can outline what he says. And each thing is based on what comes before. It is utterly brilliant.
And Hamza Yusuf I think said to me once “the Ihya is the Qur’an in a usable order and if you did everything that Ghazali said, you would have arrived as it were at true being.”
So I was sitting with the book of knowledge and imaging how I would say it to my granddaughter who was 5 or 6 at the time, and so I sort of whispered it. How I would really get it across to her?
So the Book of Knowledge is forty stories which deal with all those essential points about the nature of the heart.
Lola: What were your deepest aims and purposes of this project? How did you go about turning a private prayer into a public work?
Virgina: A man is putting the whole project into Swedish. It is now going into 12 languages the Urdu one is already being used in Pakistan, and Al-Azhar University did the Book of Creed children’s book in Arabic for their school system.
But the Swedish translator had said honestly until he had this system he had no way to talk to his children about such profound concepts .
Think about it, how do you start to tell your children about the deeper realities? Well why figure it out when Ghazali already did it?
We have a huge pilot school program with over 180 schools all over the world
Some people don’t have the money to buy the books and if they sign up for our pilot school, we can send them the pdf’s and they can use them in their classes. But the pity is that the books are so beautiful; big and hard-back and exquisite illustrations. Such a shame that Muslims parents who don’t buy books, wouldn’t buy this because when the children see the beauty of the books they realize the importance of the subject. The subject is the only subject (purification) the Prophet of God, Allah bless him and give him peace, said “I only came to teach good character”.
What it is that we are doing here, is the inner Sunnah. It’s easy to be told do ten of these, three of these, use siwak, etc. the outer Sunnahs. But what about the inner state of mind? The literal inner state the inner Sunnah? And this is what’s been left out (from mainstream teachings of Islam to children)
In the stories we have a motif. There are some children walking home from school in an anonymous Muslim town somewhere in the world. and they are discussing how their parents are upset with them about being late to prayers but we don’t know the meaning behind why we have to do it.
So they find a forgotten garden (quite a symbol) and they go and find a beautiful clearing with flowering trees and rabbits and they agree we’ll meet here and talk about our concerns. And then they think but who will answer our questions? And then they recall sitting in the park everyday this beautiful old man with birds all over him feeding squirrels etc. named hajj Abdullah. Hajj meaning he has made THE pilgrimage to his heart, right?! And Abd Allah servant of God. And so they go to him and he says yes I will come and answer your questions but not from myself. it will be through the great writing of imam Alghazali.
So that’s how it’s done. Right from the start even the book on wudu and prayer.
Allahu akbar” is it just moving your lips? Or shouldn’t we also be in mode of being that is for that.
And he (Alghazali) said when you open your prayer and do the takbeer you should gather yourself into your heart, and be totally attentive and present with God. When you say Subhan Allah you should be in a state of awe. When you say: “ihdina alsirata” should inspire a state of lowliness and seeking guidance.
With each aya there is a different way to be. And this state of being when you do it in prayer, the prayers become full of light. It’s even fun doing it in this way.
Being awake to the inner dimensions of it and learning over time to be present and awake and not just mouthing words and doing postures without understanding.
Hamza Yusuf says Islamic education has ta’leem, the learning of everything, which we need to do. And tarbiya which is the character change.
In terms of our methodology, each book comes with a work book, and a teacher’s manual and a full curriculum, chapter by chapter. And each chapter in the curricula has a Qur’anic or a Hadeeth passage to which the whole core teaching relates and then of course the workbook has fun things to do and then the curricula has play acting as its major thing.
I have to say it saved my life. I can work on myself because I have the tools to do it. Now I have the meanings. I didn’t see the meanings. I didn’t see what was really going on. I was just taught the five pillars and “do this” and “don’t do that”.
Lola: Can you tell me about your Interfaith work?
Virginia: I have always been an interfaith person because of the passage in the first book I read on Islam in 1966 was called “Focus on Islam” and on the opening page it said: “We have sent at all times prophets to people in their own language”. And I thought that’s wonderful because I majored in world religions, and of course God is merciful and He doesn’t leave somebody out. He doesn’t. So I’ve always been interested in, not just faiths tolerating one another, but learning to admire one another because each faith has some very special beautiful things that we can learn from each other. So I’ve done a lot of interfaith work and publishing. We did a book with Prince Ghazi of Jordan called “The Common Ground Between Buddhism and Islam”
Because Buddhism is focused on emptiness and mindfulness. Being empty of all but God and being mindful. And if you think of the essence of Islam is faqr (holy poverty) and humility and the remembrance of la ilaha illa Allah so they are not very different.
I’ve worked on something international that is based here (Kentucky) called the Festival of Faiths board for 25 years.
(As for) the local network of interfaith work, the Muslims here in Louisville Kentucky (Let’s just say the Pakistani doctors) are doing amazing things and they are loved by our community and our mayor. For example, there’s a Christian group that has created something that’s called a Water Step which is a device that can be taken by/into interior land and it’s like a car batteryIt is taken by land and it can purify like fifty gallons of water in a minute. And when Haiti had those terrible devastating floods, these Muslim doctors paid for that to be put in Haiti and then when there were floods in Pakistan they gave the Christian group $200,000 and went with them and trained their Pakistani brothers and worked on the water. And it’s that kind of thing that should be going on between all faiths.
Somebody had gone just this past week (Feb 2019) here in Louisville into a Hindu temple and desecrated it and the Muslims were there first. Everyone was there standing with the mayor and there to help clean it off. And that’s the way we should be. We are a human family. There’s no point in disliking another group because of a religion they’ve been raised. Ghazali said: I noticed the Jews raise their children as Jews and Christian children of course taught Christianity by their parents etc etc and Ghazali says: “I wonder who we were before our parents said, ‘here’s the package’”.
These are our human brothers and we should just have nothing but mercy and love and compassion and respect for everyone. I can’t imagine being taught anything less than that.
All religions have a form, and because Islam has a form that is copying the Sunnah it is beautiful that no matter where you go in the world because people are practicing the Sunnah you can find yourself at home no matter where you go. It’s all beautiful.