Religions that have come to provide a code of conduct and a model for living for humanity have, over the centuries, developed complex and sophisticated discursive theology with detailed compendiums of practices to guide the believers in many aspects of their lives. The accumulation of such a body of knowledge has made it necessary to train groups of dedicated individuals whose main objective is to undertake the acquisition of religious knowledge in order to assist those communities who wish to live a faith-based existence. The monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all developed recognized centers of learning to train future scholars and experts in their respective faiths.
In the Islamic context, the educational and intellectual activity of the community began during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad(s) under his supervision. Ali ibn Abi Taleb(a), who was brought up and educated directly by the Prophet, acquired a high reputation in Islamic learning. He lectured and expanded on many aspects of Islamic knowledge. Ali (a) and his cousin Abdullah ibn Abbas rose to be the greatest intellectual figures of their age. Before the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate, Makkah and Medina were the most important intellectual and educational centers in the Islamic world. The famous Mosque of the Prophet in Medina maintained its predominance for many centuries. It is in the Medina of the Prophet that consecutive descendent from his progeny - the Ahl al-Bayt (a)- established their centers of learning.
The city was graced by the presence of such intellectual giants in all fields of Islamic knowledge. Such as Imam Ali ibn Husayn(a), Imam Mohammad al-Baqir(a), and Imam Jafar al-Sadiq(a). Even during the glories of the Abbasid Caliphate, Harun al-Rashid had sent his sons Amin and Mamun to Medina to obtain education in religion, traditions and language. From the four corners of the vast Islamic world students flocked round Imam Jafar al-Sadiq(a)in Medina in order to be enlightened by his scholarly discourses.
As the political circumstances forced the Ahl al-Bayt (a) to migrate from Medina, the city lost its predominance in knowledge.
New centers of learning sprung up across the Islamic world. With time, some of these centers of learning acquired great fame and prestige becoming the first universities of the middle Ages. Some of the most famous centers for religious instruction still exist today, though not in their original form.
These are: Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fes (Morocco), Al-Zeituna University in Tunisia or the famous Bayt al-Hikmah (the House of Wisdom) in Baghdad. Gradually their curriculum of studies changed to incorporate the experimental sciences too. These institutions are considered by historians the precursors of modern universities and served as models for the European universities of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. As the body of knowledge expanded, a need for specialized centers of learning focusing explicitly on religious subjects arose, hence the emergence of various seminaries across the Islamic world.
In Shi’a Islam, such seminaries are known by the name of ‘Hawza Ilmiyya’ or simply ‘hawza’. Today the most famous hawzas are in Najaf (Iraq) and Qum (Iran). Both places have maintained a degree of continuity since their official foundation around the 10th century CE. Presently, hawzas are also found in Isfahan and Mashhad (Iran), Lucknow (India), Lahore (Pakistan), Jakarta (Indonesia), Europe (London) and North America.
Undertaking the study of Islamic subjects in the Hawza Ilmiyya is a rewarding but equally demanding task and students who intend to become religious scholars will have to successfully pass through a number of stages and levels just like in a university. It is estimated that a proficient Islamic scholar would have spent at least 12 years studying in the seminaries. During a course of study the student is expected to acquire religious knowledge as well as Islamic virtues. Material acquisitions of privileges or degrees are not considered the correct motive to undertake these type of studies.
In his ‘Introduction to the Islamic Seminaries of Qum’, Hujjatul-Islam Dr. Muhammad Ali Shomali explains, ‘Students in the seminary have a determined attitude towards learning and it is not one [which] rush [es] to finish. Students do not say: “I am going to the seminary for four years and then I want to find a job”. On the contrary, many of the students are so devoted to learning that they interrupt their studying only for such reasons as being sent somewhere to preach because of the utmost necessity’.
There is a perceptible difference between the learning in the Hawza Ilmiyya and in other secular institutions. In the system of the hawza, despite modern restructuring, the transmission of knowledge has a personal aspect, in that the student has enthusiastically submitted himself to a chosen teacher. There is a type of reverence between the teacher and student, because, for the student, the teacher is their parent and ultimate authority. In this relationship, the teacher not only guides the student through his course of study, but acts as mentor and advisor in the personal areas of the student’s life. However, as Dr Shomali explains: 'The reverence the student maintains for his teacher does not infringe on the learning process. In fact, teachers encourage students to question them and consider it essential to the learning process. Within the seminary, the barriers of censorship are virtually non-existent; students can question the arguments for the existence of God or the authority of the Qur’an because the goal of the seminary is to deliver understanding. This contrasts greatly with much of Eastern culture in which many subjects are considered taboo’.
A glance at the subjects studied at the hawza gives us an idea of the intellectual commitment required by its students. Knowledge of the Arabic language in its classical form is a must for any type of hawza study. Arabic is the language of revelation and many primary sources are originally written in Arabic, therefore intensive language courses are scheduled right from the beginning. Other subjects include jurisprudence and the study of its principles, the exegesis of the Qur’an, Islamic history, and theology, as well as intellectual sciences such as logic, philosophy and theoretical mysticism.
There is a distinctive favor towards the use of rational science in the hawza seminaries. This reflects the development within the Jafari school of thought through the teaching of the Imams of Ahl al-Bayt (a) with their distinct emphasis on the rational and intellectual approach towards the studies of Islamic disciplines.
One has to remember that the acquisition of religious knowledge can be for entirely private reasons that are to satisfy one’s own personal desire to know. The finality of such acquired knowledge would be to serve one’s own self-development and not necessarily to help the community. While the effort to obtain such knowledge is commendable, the use of it in a limited form is reproachable. As Prophet Muhammad(s) reminded us: ‘The zakat (levy) of knowledge is to teach what one knows to others’. In this spirit, the student of the ‘hawza’ knows that every step that he/she takes towards the acquisition of knowledge becomes a step towards a greater responsibility. And this responsibility is multiplied when the successful student who has completed the full cycle of study decides to wear the traditional gown of the scholar, accepting the onerous duty of becoming an official representative of Islam and of Prophet Muhammad(s).
source: Islam today magazine