The hawza 'ilmiyya is centered on the personal relationship between the master and the disciple, but over time this institution has changed and has become a center of higher education

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In Shi‘a Islam, the transmission of knowledge takes place principally through the hawza. Centred on the personal relationship between master and disciple, in over ten centuries of existence, this institution has significantly transformed to the point of becoming a highly specialized centre of higher education. While Najaf, in Iraq, remains a fundamental centre for religious studies, and Qom, in Iran, can benefit from the resources made available by the Islamic Republic, today Shi‘ite education seems projected towards a marked internationalization.


In the religious universe of Shi‘ite Islam,[1] the term hawza ‘ilmiyya (literary, “circle of knowledge”) today indicates both the institution tasked with organizing and administrating higher religious education centres, and the architectural structure or single institution in which this education is provided. Hence, in the second case, it can overlap with the madrasa—more traditional, and not limited to the Shi‘ite context—still used in some cases in the Shi‘ite world albeit less frequently than the term hawza.[2] At times translated as a “seminary” or “theological college” by analogy with the Catholic world,[3] this name is not wholly correct both because Christian priesthood cannot be compared to the fundamentally teaching role of the ulama, and because of the different emphasis placed on the main study object by the two institutions, which are respectively theology and jurisprudence (fiqh). Also proving improper is the translation “Qur’anic school”, used to indicate, above all in the Western media, the religious education institutions in the Muslim world, and therefore also the Shi‘ite ones. Indeed, while it is true that Qur’anic schools dedicated above all to basic knowledge and memorizing the Qur’an exist all over the Muslim world, it must nevertheless be considered that, as a higher education institution, the madrasa offers a vast and sophisticated variety of teaching, of which the Qur’anic sciences proper constitute but a part. This is particularly true in the case of the Shi‘ite madrasa, in which the traditional corpus of authoritative sayings—hadīth, riwāyāt—occupy an equally as, and at times even more important position than the Book.


Shi‘ism and Knowledge Transmission


The contemporary Shi‘ite sources tend, with the odd exception, to anachronistically trace the idea of hawza back to early Islam. However, in time, it has significantly transformed, to the point of becoming a highly specialized and diversified higher education institution. And yet, while the assertion, frequent in the above sources, that “the first hawza was the Prophet’s mosque in Medina” does not appear very accurate from a historical point of view, it is nevertheless true that the knowledge transmission model represented by Muhammad (and by the twelve imams of Shi‘ism) has remained a paradigmatic example over the course of history of the madrasa’s evolution. In this sense, the madrasa is personal: that is, it implies direct transmission from the authoritative master to the disciple, creating as unbroken a chain as possible of “licences to transmit” (ijāza) the different religious sciences. Even in the contemporary hawza ‘ilmiyya, although the introductory levels tend to be institutionalized and subject to formal and bureaucratic control by the institute (through exams or certificates), the higher levels remain centred around the teaching of and the process of individual qualification by an authorized jurist (mujtahid).


As is known, the foundation stone of Twelver Shi‘ite doctrine is the uninterrupted presence of a living guide (the Imam), directly indicated by God and chosen from the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad through his son-in-law and cousin ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib and his daughter Fātima. This figure not only has the role of formally directing the community, but is also the holder of knowledge of the ultimate reality of all things created and its conservation and transmission. Since the twelfth and last of these figures—who according to the creed entered “occultation” (ghayba) in the year 883—is still considered living and destined to eschatologically return “at the end of time,” in Shi‘ism the transmission of knowledge is based on the presence of the hidden Imam, who guarantees the promise set out in the tradition according to which “the scholars are the heirs of the prophets.” The knowledge imparted in the hawza is therefore sacred insofar as it is guaranteed by the imam; as a consequence, despite acting in a formal context aimed at the acquisition of a very refined juridical knowledge, the scholars (the ulama) are at the same time invested with a sacred teaching mission: the aim of the jurist (faqīh) is to become a “divine scholar” (‘ālim rabbānī).[4] It must also be considered that the imam’s essentially esoteric function in Shi‘ism is inseparable from the dual nature of religious knowledge: all knowledge has an outer (zāhir) and an inner aspect (bātin). As a consequence, even an exterior, formal and exoteric science such as jurisprudence (fiqh), which is the main object of study in the hawza, influences the believer’s spiritual transformation and therefore possesses an esoteric aspect. The spiritual hermeneutics (ta’wīl) of the canonical sources indeed permeates the transmission of knowledge not only in the seemingly more obvious subjects, such as Qur’anic exegesis, but at every level. The corpus of the Imam’s sayings, which is one of the most important sources for jurisprudence, is an endless mine of esoteric teachings and spiritual doctrine.[5]


From Medieval Madrasa to Contemporary Hawza


As we have seen, the knowledge transmission model in Shi‘a Islam is mainly provided by the traditional methods attributed to the Imams, who, so long as they were active and reachable, were the ultimate authority on legal questions: for his followers, the Imam’s word was law, and legal opinions could directly or indirectly be drawn from the living guide of the time. After the occultation of the twelfth Imam, the question arose of the determination and specification of legal norms as the community gradually encountered new circumstances, not present before the end of the ninth century. Hence a class of jurist-theologians was formed organized on the basis of the tradition that emerged in Medina around the fifth and sixth Imam, respectively Muhammad al-Bāqir and Ja‘far al-Sādiq (eighth century), and that radiated out from Medina to the places where the main Shi‘ite communities were active, some of the most important being Qom in Persia and Baghdad, Kufa and Hilla in Iraq. The sources suggest that the moment when the madrasa began to specialize and become a real institution with specific spaces and buildings, including lodgings for students, its Shi‘ite version was not very different from that of the Sunni majority. Conventionally, the first Shi‘ite madrasa, in the strict sense of the word, is considered to be the one founded in Najaf by the great jurist-theologian Sheikh al-Tūsī (d. 1067). Tellingly, it operated in the cosmopolitan context of the Abbasid caliphate in the period when it was placed under the protection of the Buyid Shi‘ite dynasty, and was marked by a rationalist turn in Shi‘ite jurisprudence and theology. This was the period when most of the classic Shi‘ite juridical treatises were drawn up and the Shi‘ite creed was consolidated around the formation of an ordered and organized class of jurist-theologians, which naturally tended towards a more professional status. After this period, and before the affirmation of the Safavid dynasty in Persia at the start of the sixteenth century, the two main poles of Shi‘ite jurisprudence, and therefore the most important educational centres, became Hilla in Iraq and Jabal al-‘Āmil, in present-day Lebanon. It would be these two centres, together with the schools of Bahrein, that formed the main reserves of jurists which the Safavid sovereigns would draw from when they needed to give their kingdom a religious legitimacy and a juridical base.


With the spread of Shi‘a Islam in Persia produced by the Safavid conquest, for a large part of the seventeenth century various Iranian cities became important centres for the production, transmission and dissemination of Shi‘ite knowledge, rivalling the holy Iraqi cities and living a symbiotic relationship with the political powers, which guaranteed its prosperity. Despite the close relationship with the court, nevertheless, thanks to the “flexible, inclusive and personal” nature of Shi‘ite pedagogy—aspects which still characterize it now—the reproduction and transmission of knowledge in Safavid Persia continued to be informally perpetuated in a variety of places, from the scholars’ dwellings, to mosques and sanctuaries.[6] During this period, the cities of Esfahan, the capital of the kingdom, and Mashad, place of pilgrimage owing to the presence of the sanctuary of ‘Alī al-Ridā’, the Shi‘ite eighth Imam (transformed by the Safavid sovereigns into the main centre of Shi‘ite pilgrimage in Persia, also as a counterbalance to the canonical pilgrimage to the Mecca and Medina, which were under the control of the Ottoman rivals),[7] became important centres of religious education on a par with Najaf and Karbala in Iraq. The prestige of these centres remained unaltered, even when the balances changed for political reasons, for example with the Afghan invasion of Persia and the fall of the Safavids in the early eighteenth century with the resulting chaos that caused an intellectual migration from Iran to Iraq. The situation stabilized during the nineteenth century up to the late Qajar period (first quarter of the twentieth century), when the city of Qom, which at that point had been in intellectual decline for several centuries, in little time rose to the position of an undisputed point of reference in the Shi‘ite intellectual world after Sheikh ‘Abd al-Karīm Hā’irī Yazdī (d. 1937) had re-established the religious studies tradition in 1921 upon the invitation of some students and residents. In 15 years, under his intellectual and administrative direction, the number of students increased from tens to almost 1,000,[8] while many prominent ulama decided to move there, attracted by the enthusiasm of Hā’irī and the opportunities offered by the institution’s re-foundation. The centrality of Qom for the Shi‘ite world was consolidated during the twentieth century, for two main reasons: the presence and direction, from 1945 to 1961, of the most important Twelver religious authority alive at the time, ayatollah Sayyid Husayn Burūjirdī (d. 1961), and the role played in the 1979 revolution, since its charismatic leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, had been a student and then ayatollah of the hawza. This centrality strengthened further after the revolution, when the Islamic Republic of Iran somehow transformed Qom into the intellectual/religious capital of the state.


The Hawza ‘Ilmiyya Pedagogical System


We have seen how the pedagogical ideal of the hawza revolves around the personal relationship between teacher and pupil. Even though this imprint generated a certain level of creativity, different styles and freedom, the educational institutions of Twelver Shi‘ism share some general pedagogical traits that are the outcome of an over-ten-century-long tradition.


In most cases, the students attend full time and receive a salary and accommodation from the religious guide (marja‘ al-taqlīd) responsible for a single madrasa. Despite the tie represented by the salary, which somehow links the students to the school, they are not only free to choose their teachers, even among those from other institutes to the one they are formally linked, but are often even encouraged to do so. In effect, however, the growing bureaucratization of the hawza system has made this freedom more theoretical than real.


In the traditional system, education started at around the age of puberty, while today it tends to formally begin at the end of high school, when students would normally go to university (this is increasing as the hawza theological-legal studies are becoming more and more integrated with the universities, with mutually recognized diplomas). The initial level (muqaddamāt) lasts for approximately three to five years, mainly concentrating on linguistic subjects: Arabic morphology and grammar, rhetoric, Arabic poetry, together with logic and in some cases elements of jurisprudence and at times philosophy. Already at this level the students are encouraged to question and contradict (jadal), a habit which proves fundamental at the end of the study course when, for those who get there, they obtain the licence permitting them to interpret the sources to formulate legal opinions (ijtihād). In the second level (sath), the object of study is the more properly legal-religious subjects. Each class usually has a single classical legal text as a subject, whose “superficial” level is subject to in-depth study (the term sath indeed means “surface”). It usually lasts from four to seven years (but it depends a lot on the students, who can organize their studies in almost total freedom). The third level is that of “pure dispute:” called bahth khārij, this “external discussion”, therefore independent from specific texts, is conducted and directed by a high-ranking jurist and consists of the thorough discussion of legal topics and the principles of jurisprudence, with the aim of making the student capable of deriving religious law from its foundations (usūl). This level does not have a specific duration and lasts as long as necessary to obtain a licence (ijāza) from the teacher. Students can obtain more than one licence from different teachers and the more licences they receive, the higher their prestige as scholars.[9] Despite the growing formalization and bureaucratization of the system, as a principle, anyone, no matter what their education, can take part in these “conferences” and demonstrate that they are qualified to obtain the ijāza, without necessarily having formally followed a madrasa programme.


The necessary conditions to be formally accepted by the hawza as a student vary from case to case and it is impossible to go into them here in detail, except to point out a necessary inclination to study and the lack of a proven reputation for immorality. They are normally set out in the constitutional document of the hawza, which, in the great majority of cases, are set up thanks to a pious endowment (waqf).


The Hawza ‘Ilmiyya Today


Today Shi‘ite religious education seems to be projected towards distinct internationalization and an organizational set-up increasingly oriented towards integration with the university world. While Najaf remains a fundamental centre for Shi‘ite religious studies, the resources made available by the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose Qom-educated cadres occupy key roles in the state structure, are without doubt central in the promotion and development of the whole system. Today, in Iran, the administration of the whole country’s religious education system is centralized and placed under the control of a body called the “Centre for the Management of Religious Schools” (Markaz-i mudiriyyat-i hawza-hā-yi ‘ilmiyya), whose headquarters are in Qom. With various offices, it deals with affairs that go from devising the curricula, to student selection, research and publications, organization of relations with the public and other institutions, ethical and spiritual matters, right up to the diffusion of religious culture and international relations. Although the informality of the traditional system remains, the direction taken by the teaching is more and more standardized around a ten-level (pāya) structure. The first three levels comprise the muqaddamāt of the traditional system, and include Arab literature, logic, doctrine and ethics (‘aqā’id wa akhlāq), exegesis and history of early Islam; from the fourth to the tenth pāya, corresponding in the traditional system to the four levels of the sath, each level and relative year of study is dedicated to analysing a specific legal text, according to an increasing degree of complexity and difficulty; at the end of the ten levels students follow the khārij level for four years and write a thesis. Remaining in Iran and in Qom in particular, a series of institutes affiliated to the hawza deal with the diffusion of knowledge not traditionally pertaining to the madrasa curriculum. Among these, I should point out the comparative Institute for Religions and Doctrinal Schools (Anjuman-i adiyān wa madhāhib); the Institute for the Islamic Economy (anjuman-i Iqtisād Islāmī); the Society of Historians (Anjuman-i tārikhpajhuhān); and the Society of Hawza Psychologists (Anjuman-i rawānsināsān-i hawza). The internationalization tendency of the contemporary hawza is demonstrated by the partnership agreements that various institutes have with universities in the Muslim and Western world and by the establishment in recent decades of real hawza in non-Muslim countries. Examples are the religious studies programme offered in the hawza of the London Islamic College,[10] the Al-Mahdi Institute in Birmingham[11] and the Ahl al-Bayt Islamic Seminary, which serves the Chicago area and North America in general.[12]


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Unless specified otherwise, in this article the term “Shi‘ite” refers to Twelver Shi‘ism, that is, the majority part of the shi‘ite minority. For a general introduction to Shi‘a Islam and its branches, see Najam Haider, Shī‘ī Islam: an Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
[2] The term hawza with this meaning has been in use for around a century, see Ahmad Pākatchī, “Hawza-yi ‘ilmiyya,” Dā’irat al ma‘ārif-i buzurg-i Islāmī, edited by Kāzim Mūsawī Bujnūrdī, vol. XII (1393/2014), pp. 462–503.
[3] See on this Alessandro Cancian, “Continuity and Change in Theological Higher Education: Shī‘i Hawza and Catholic Seminaries in the 20th and 21st Centuries,” Islamochristiana, vol. 40 (2014), pp. 75–88.
[4] On this subject in general, see Alessandro Cancian, La scuola degli Imam: L’Iran e l’educazione religiosa nell’Islam sciita. Milan: Jouvence, 2016.
[5] See on this the seminal text by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le Guide divin dans le shî‘isme originel: Aux sources de l’ésotérisme en Islam. Paris: Verdier, 1992.
[6] See Maryam Moazzen, Formation of a Religious Landscape: Shi‘i Higher Learning in Safavid Iran. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
[7] See Charles Melville, “Shah ‘Abbas and the Pilgrimage to Mashad,” in Charles Melville (ed.), Safavid Persia: the History and Politics of an Islamic Society. London-New York: I.B. Tauris, 1996, pp. 191–229; Caroline Mawer, “Shah ‘Abbās and the Pligrimage to Mashad,” Iran, vol. 49 (2011), pp. 123–147; May Farhat, “Shi‘i Piety and Dynastic Legitimacy: Mashhad under the Early Safavid Shahs,” Iranian Studies, vol. 47, no. 2 (2014), pp. 201–216.
[8] Rasūl Ja‘fariyān, Barg-hā’ī az tārīkh-i hawza-yi ilmiyya-yi Qum. Tehran, 1381/2002, p. 16.
[9] Alessandro Cancian, La scuola degli Imam, pp. 236–240.
[10] See
[11] See
[12] See


To cite this article

Printed version:
Alessandro Cancian, “Past and Present in Shi‘ite Religious Schools”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 69-76.

Online version:
Alessandro Cancian, “Past and Present in Shi‘ite Religious Schools”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019, URL: /en/past-and-present-in-shiite-religious-schools