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HAWZAH , which comes from hawz, is an Arabic word that literally means "the place surrounded by a swelling border." Technically it is applied to the traditional religious institution in the Shīʿī world known as Hawzah-e Ilmiyyah (Islamic seminary). The hawzah seeks to attain two major missions: (1) training the clerics to preach the principles and practices of Islam, particularly that of the Shīʿah; and (2) training the experts in religious sciences, ones who can deduce Islamic rules from the related sources. In the early twenty-first century this Shīʿī institution works in the countries where the Shīʿah population is considerable, such as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India, and Lebanon. Throughout history Najaf, Hillah, Karbala, and Samirra in Iraq and Isfahan, Qom, Shiraz, and Mashhad in Iran have alternately assumed the central leadership role of the Shīʿī hawzah.

It is said that the establishment of the first hawzah goes historically back to the year 1054, when Muammad ibn asan usī, known as Shaykh-e usī, settled in Najaf, a holy city of Iraq. Shaykh-e usī began training students in various branches of Islamic studies, such as jurisprudence (fiqh), theology (kalām), tradition (adīth), and the interpretation of the Qurʾān (tafsīr). Accordingly the Iraqi cities Hillah, Karbala, and Samerra held a considerable position in the history of the hawzah after Najaf. During two periods (12021542 and 17371797) the hawzahs of Hillah and Karbala replaced Najaf in the premier position. Before the Islamic revolution in Iran (1979), Najaf was the most important center of religious sciences in the world for the Shīʿah. Nonetheless the Baʾth government attempted to weaken the authority of the hawzah and the marjiʾiyyat (supreme religious authority) in Najaf. Many senior clerics were arrested, killed or exiled. During that period the number of religious students in Najaf fell from ten thousand to two thousand. At that point the central leadership of the Shīʿah was transferred from Najaf to Qom. After addām usayn's fall from power, many Iraqi clerics hoped Najaf would regain its former status.

Hawzah in Iran

Iran has also had an extensive history regarding the Shīʿī hawzah. At the time of the Al-e Buyah dynasty (9301054) a considerable number of madrasahs (religious schools) were built in Qom and Raythe two ancient cities located near Tehranand eminent scholars, such as Shaykh-e Saduq and his father, were there at that time. The history of the hawzah in Iran as an official institution goes back to the Safavid era (15021736). Isfahan, the capital of the Safavid Empire, was the most glorious center for Islamic sciences and arts in the world. Prominent scholars, such as Mullah Sadra Shirazi, ʿAllamah Majlisi, and Muhaqqiq Karaki, had significant chairs in philosophy, tradition (adīth), and jurisprudence (fiqh).

Similarly the hawzah of Qom regained its previous position after a long time of stagnation. Madrasah-e Fayziyyah, the ancient and famous religious school of Qom, was established in 1524 by the order of Shah Tahmasb I. After the Safavid era the hawzah of Qom was inactive, except for a short period (12001231) during the time of Mirza Abul Qasim Qomi, until the twentieth century, when Grand Āyatullāh ʿAbd al-Karim Haʾiri settled in Qom in 1920 and reestablished the hawzah in Qom.

Educational Schedule in Hawzah

The major educational schedule in the hawzah is comprised of three stages: (1) the preliminary stage (muqaddamat ), which contains some courses in Arabic literature and logic and lasts two to three years; (2) the intermediate stage (sutuh ), which requires learning from textbooks in fiqh (jurisprudence), uūl (the basic principles of jurisprudence), and philosophy and lasts four to six years; and (3) the higher stage (dars-e kharij), which is devoted to fiqh and uūl. Unlike the first and second stages, education at the third level is not restricted to textbooks. Rather, instructors give analytical lectures presenting significant views on the subject matter and evaluating those positions. This stage is intended to increase the intellectual power of the students. One who wants to attain the qualification of ijtihād (expertise in fiqh ), should pass this course, which lasts from seven to ten years depending on the amount of effort displayed by the student. One who successfully completes this stage is then called a mujtahid (expert in fiqh ).

A brief look at the educational schedule of the hawzah shows that fiqh and uūl have been the main courses since the Safavid era. Thus the other branches of Islamic studies have not developed in Shiism. It should be noted that ʿAllamah Sayyid Muammad usayn Tabatabaʾi (d. 1982) revived Islamic philosophy and Qurʾanic interpretation (tafsir) in Qom, and twenty-first-century students continue to study his way. After the Iranian revolution, some institutions established departments of psychology, sociology, economics, and politics in the hawzahs of Qom believing they can teach an Islamic approach to these sciences.

Hierarchical Order in Hawzah

There are three major ranks in the hawzah: (1) talabah (religious student), (2) mujtahid (an expert in fiqh ), and (3) marja ʿ (supreme religious leader). Talabah (the one who seeks to learn knowledge) is the name for a student of a hawzah and means the one who seeks to learn Islamic sciences. Mujtahid refers to the one who can derive and deduce the laws and decrees from the authentic sources of Islam, namely the Qurʾān, the adīths, reasoning (intellect), and the consensus of ʿulamāʾ (religious scholars). Those who complete the higher education may reach this rank. A cleric before ijtihād is usually called hujjatul-Islām (the proof of Islam) and after ijtihad is called Āyatullāh (the sign of God).

Marjaʿ refers to the person who has attained the high level of piety and justice in addition to ijtihād and can attract a number of followers among laypeople. According to Shīʿī jurisprudence, everyone reaching adolescence should start following a fully qualified marjaʿ. A marjaʿ is normally called by the title Āyatullāh al-uzma (the biggest sign of God).

Marjaʾiyyat is the office of supreme religious authority in Shiism, and maraji ʾare in charge of the hawzahs, supporting the students both spiritually and financially. Shīʿah people pay them their religious tax, known as khums (one fifth of the annual income), and they manage the hawzahs financially with it. Traditionally, due to this direct contribution from the people, the Shīʿī hawzahs have rejected government financial help in order to keep their independence. Thus the history of the hawzah shows that Shīʿī scholars could freely declare their ideas against the governments in their countries. But after the Islamic revolution of Iran, with the direct involvement of clerics in ruling the state and in executive affairs and with the financial support of the government, the hawzah of Iran has somewhat lost its independence. There is a good chance that the hawzah of Najaf, in the post-addām regime, will revive its independent hawzah of the Shīʿah, especially as the Najaf school does not interpret Vilāyat-e Faqih (the guardianship of the religious jurist) as the direct intervention of religion in politics.

Qom, with many prominent scholars in various branches of religious sciences and nearly forty thousand students, holds a unique position among Shīʿī hawzahs because only two thousand students are studying in Najaf in the early twenty-first century. Nevertheless, as a consequence of addām's fall from power, Najaf has a valuable opportunity to regain its former glory.


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ʿAli Ahmad al-Bahaduli. Al-Hawzat al-Ilmiyyah fi al-Najaf. Beirut, 1993.

Rasu̱l Jafarian, ed. Howzahe Ilmieh-e Qom (History: Some papers). Tehran, 2002.

Jaʿfar al-Dujayli. Maws uʾat al-Najaf al-Ashraf, vol. 6: Jamiʿt al-Najaf al-Diniyya. Beirut, 1994.

Muammad Sharif Razi. Aathar al-Hujjah. Dar al-Kitab, Qom, Iran, 1332.

Muhammad Kazem Shaker (2005)