Shia theological schools
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Studying in the Hawza – Realities and Challenges
*A write-up on a session regarding pursuing Hawza studies, with Ayatullah Mahmood Madani, one of the representatives of the Supreme Leader.” There exists not progression, but that it requires knowledge and recognition. In our daily lives, we are in desperate need of knowledge, and without learning, man cannot progress. Ahadith of the AhlulBayt are abundant on the subject of seeking knowledge, and one such tradition states that he, who carries out acts of worship without knowledge, is a donkey working in a mill; finishing in the same spot even after years of strenuous effort…! Having established that, practically speaking, the likelihood of an entire community rushing towards the hawza – centres of religious learning and self-building – to train even just a few terms, is nil. The only logical option is that a select-few from every community select this field. Hence, jurisprudence too states that becoming a religious scholar, for the guidance of a community, is Wajib e Kifayi – obligatory upon all the people, and if sufficient individuals do not take upon themselves the responsibility, the entire community has sinned. The Holy Quran also addresses this issue: Yet it is not for the faithful to go forth en masse. But why should not there a group from each of their sections go forth to become learned in religion, and to warn their people when they return to them, so that they may beware? [9:122] Quite fascinating it is, that this verse in fact, tells a community going for war, that religious education is another equal priority, and hence, a group of capable individuals must remain behind, so that the community is not void of teachers upon the people’s return. Humanity’s need for guidance is ever increasing, what with the world’s state today, the cyberspace, the presence of thousands of ideologies and theologies, good and bad, mixed in a deceiving manner, and their availability to all. Consequently, the responsibilities of Hawza-trained intellectuals (and all those who feel responsible of course) in spreading the real Islam, and teachings of the AhlulBayt are magnificent! The ideology is what allows the people to hold on to it, else, say the ISIL were to attack sanctuaries in Iraq, we would become sensitive and do our utmost best to defend them, but is that not minor damage (they can be re-constructed) when compared to the ideological attack against the religion? Turning to the youths who are passionate about the Hawza, but the many doubts lingering within, become a barrier between the two (the youth and the hawza), ask yourselves this: Is the Imam of the Time more pleased with a successful doctor, engineer, etc. (successful according to the worldly definition), or a successful scholar? What is the station of our giants, even of the recent era, close to Imam, the likes of Mutahhari, Sadr, and Khomeini? Once again, this does not seek to discourage those of us in the many important educational fields, and hopefully, are studying and struggling Qurbatan Ilallah, but it seeks to encourage and push those who have the capabilities, and more importantly perhaps, the passion! Clear as it can be, we need scholars, the enemies need to be fought, and the Imam is pleased! What more can one ask for? On the other hand, how easy is this journey? Answer: extremely difficult! For starters, students are expected to be fearful of their economic and financial outcomes; an obvious worry, but often ungrounded. Primarily, it is absurd to look at this field as one with a completely bleak future, what with massive needs in today’s world for teachers, leaders, professors, thinkers, writers, translators, counsellors and so on… And their numbers are so few, that teachers of Islamic history, Gnosticism, and others, in renowned places in Christian regions are such that there is doubt if they’re still Muslims! The books of giants such as the martyr Mutahhari are still being translated and published, while those alive such as Ayatollah Jawadi Amoli and Misbah Yazdi are no behind! And from a more calming and satisfying perspective, is not the sustainer of a PhD doctor, engineer, and religious scholar one and the same? Whoever is wary of Allah, He shall make for him a way out [of the adversities of the world and the Hereafter] and provide for him from whence he does not count upon. And whoever puts his trust in Allah, He will suffice him. Indeed Allah carries through His commands. Certainly, Allah has ordained a measure [and extent] for everything. [65:2-3] When we appoint someone for a task, we take guarantee of providing him with that which he deserves, if not more; would Imam not do the same if individuals set out to work for him? The famous Sayyid Abul Hasan Isfahani wished to join the Hawza, but his dad, though very religious, well aware of their financial conditions discouraged him from leaving; he would not be able to sustain him. His son however, persisted, and left. Three years later, his dad set out to meet and enquire about his son. He entered upon his son on a cold, snowy night, coincidentally, a night when Sayyid Hasan neither had oil, nor bread. Much to his grief, he began reprimanding his son again. Moments passed, when there was a knock on the door. Sayyid opened the door and was handed a cloth full of warm breads, with a message by the deliverer, "This has been sent for your father, by him who controls the state of things in this world. Ask him never to reprimand you again for joining the hawza.” They do not forget us, not even for the blink of an eye. But if there’s any misery, it’s because of our own shortcomings. At the same time, these trials and tribulations are in order to purify this line, so that only the most sincere remain. Ayatollah Mujtahidi, every year, would ask his students to go off to the markets and work for three months in summer. When asked why, he’d say by doing so, the students would be able to see a good amount of money before themselves, and then decide if they wished to continue the Hawza where they’d face poverty, or abandon it! In the Hawza, even with complete ‘worldly’ failure, the Imam smiles upon you as you breathe your last, but elsewhere, there is no absolute guarantee… Another question is whether youths seeking to pursue Hawza studies should first complete their secular education, with at least a bachelor’s degree, or rush to the Hawza immediately after their secondary education. While Ayatollah Madani said he was not greatly aware of the conditions outside Iran, it seems that scholars in the Islamic Republic generally prefer the second option; a good, Hawza education extends between ten to fifteen years, and a youth who has lost a few of his golden years, might fall short of this mark, unless of course, he has enough energy to keep him going. In addition, as some scholars would say, a lot can be achieved within four years of Hawza, compared to that in a secular university. Furthermore, ridicule, isolation and similar social reactions may be another considerable problem. Many find themselves wavering when met with such reactions from close friends and family, and questioning their decisions; many others consider scholars as abject individuals of society, and hence, youths often find it increasingly difficult to turn towards the Hawza. The question however is, who defines what is wretched and humiliating? Imam Khomeini was exiled to Najaf, Turkey and France, had he considered that humiliating, he’d have withdrawn from his stance. Similarly, Takfiris and Salafists insult Shias for their beliefs, perhaps then even being a Shia should be humiliating. And yet, do you find anyone more honorable than a true scholar of the religion when in a gathering of other noble professions? How many millions today, for instance, would, be praying for Mutahhari in their night prayers? How often do we not see a line of worshippers wanting to meet even a junior scholar, just for seeking his prayers, for an ill relative or minor problem at work? Let us not forget that, "Do not grieve at their remarks; indeed all might belongs to Allah; He is the All-hearing, the All-knowing.” (10: 65) Agreed that some scholars end up making a mockery of themselves by various means that we all know of, but by such actions, they have only ridiculed themselves, and no harm or insult touches a scholar’s divine duty. When we come across immoral doctors or teachers, we do not abuse their noble professions, why then not treat students of the hawza in the same fashion? Besides this, another worrisome thought is that of the family; should I stay behind and opt for a career of personal interest but also one that would help me sustain all those in the family, or join the family business, or, despite being the first son, go off to the Hawza, perhaps promising difficulties for both, myself and family, in the future? Briefly speaking, such cases often differ person to person, and it may not be wise to make an absolute ruling. Many, such as Ayatollah Madani’s father, left for the Hawza at the tender age of 11, despite his dad’s requests to go on a bit later. The political conditions of the pre-revolution Islamic Republic, as well as the state of the Hawza were not very friendly, especially for an eleven year old, who started reciting the night prayer regularly for receiving divine help and making it to the Hawza. Hence, many a time, when one desperately seeks to attain something, especially something as noble as joining the Hawza, and finds all doors closed, rest assured that there is one door that never closes! In conclusion, let those who find themselves zealous, venture ahead for serving the religion, and the Imam of the Time, while those who, for all the right reasons, are incapable of making it to the Hawza, must spread the word, and encourage and support the others.