Iqra Companion to Seminary Studies (1): Intentions & Goals

Many seminary students get constantly bombarded with messages regarding how to move to the seminary, how to financially budget and plan for the move to a seminary, whether one should move to the seminary married or single, should they even move to the seminary to begin with etc. Around a decade ago I would publish articles addressing some of these questions on Iqra Online, but after a mere few months in Qom, I realized the ever-changing responses to some of these questions. Rules and policies in the seminary would change overnight, the economy of Iran was rather unstable, people’s personal circumstances were very different and unique, and thus answers to these questions needed to be updated far too often than what time permitted.

However, after almost a decade in the seminary, there was one question amongst these questions that I believe is of utmost importance and should be addressed at length for anyone interested in pursuing Islamic studies in the seminary. That question is, “what should we be studying in the seminary and how?”

Now there is definitely no absolute single answer to this question, as different students and teachers will have their own unique experiences, styles, and approaches to this. Nevertheless, perhaps sharing my own personal experiences and recommendations can assist some students looking for some extent of guidance. In this process, I have taken some inspiration from a number of Christian and Sunni websites and their resource guides for seminary students and have attempted to offer some insight on approaching seminary studies.

Intentions and Goals

The first and foremost question you need to answer yourself is, why are you moving or why do you want to move to the seminary? This is a very serious and thought-provoking question, though the response is not the same for everyone, and in fact, it is a very difficult question to respond to. Coming to Qom entails a lot of consequences. Most students typically leave their family and friends behind when they make the move. Depending on how long some students plan to stay, they invest a lot of money in their move. Above all that, moving to Qom entails a huge investment of one’s time and efforts which are spent trying to achieve their goals. Being unsure of one’s goal is not rare. Many times one’s goals and intentions change as they spend more time in Qom. However, it is important and very helpful to constantly have some sort of objective in order to give purpose to one’s studies. Before moving on to the study guide and explaining some of the subjects that are studied and how they should be studied, I will mention – based on my own inductive experience – the different reasons, very briefly, why people may move to the seminary. These are all reasons I observed through experience, and others may have had very different experiences to myself:

1. To Develop an Understanding of Islam

This is a goal many people possess, although the reason why they may have this goal could be very different. Some want to develop an understanding of Islam so as to preach, while others wish to develop an understanding of Islam so as to convince themselves of their faith.

In any case, this is not an easy goal. At first, it is very vague. Someone with this goal needs to narrow it down as they spend more time in the seminary. Islam is a massive and gigantic tradition, with thousands of scholars over the course of centuries who have shed blood and ink for the preservation and development of this tradition. To develop an understanding of Islam can mean learning Usūl and Fiqh. It can mean learning the Qurānic sciences or Ḥadīth sciences. It can mean specializing in philosophy and mysticism. Evidently, this goal is, upon inception, vague and one will eventually have to figure out what exactly is it that they want to develop an understanding of.

Apart from this, it is often very hard to pursue this goal because of one’s personal biases. Many students come to Qom with preconceived notions about Islam, often those who grew up learning about Islam only at their local mosques through preachers on the pulpits or through the Sunday School system will have very different ambitions and approaches to their seminary studies as opposed to someone who was already engaging in polemics, or was well-versed with the history of the development of different schools of thoughts, or had familiarity with intellectual history. For the former group, a lot of times, their seminary experience involves molding everything they read and learn into the shape of their preconceived notions. Anything that does not fit, they throw away. This mentality is far more prevalent than one may presume, many become victims to it without knowing. One of the first steps to developing an understanding of Islam is keeping an open mind and giving an ear to ideas that may challenge what you conceived Islam to be.

One has to realize that the seminary does not “teach” Islam. You may study subjects for years without any teacher ever mentioning how that science developed, why its discussions are important etc. Hence, it was not surprising at times to find some students literally dozing off and falling asleep in dry and boring classes like logic, because such students were not informed about the place and significance of such a subject, or what its role was within the Islamic civilization. The seminary instead focuses on teaching the tools needed to access the Islamic tradition and develop an understanding of Islam. As such, it is on the student to take the tools and implement them in order to develop an understanding – this appears to be the ultimate direction one’s seminary studies lead towards. There are so many students who may study Arabic grammar for years but are unable to use what they have learned and apply it to the Quran so as to develop their understanding of the Quran. Thus, even once one has narrowed their goal and attempted to eliminate bias, one must still invest a vast amount of time to take what they learn in school and use it to understand the Islamic tradition. It is best to develop a close relationship with a strong teacher who can personally guide you in even this implementation process during the early years.

Approaches to Understanding Islam

One should also be aware that there are different approaches to understanding Islam. Some will go to the seminary simply to learn what scholars have said about different issues. They want to be able to access Islamic resources and learn what certain or different interpretations of Islam have to say about such issues. Such students may be very well versed in the Islamic sciences but will often choose to follow (do taqlīd) the opinions of other scholars. Others may approach the Islamic sciences with a very critical approach. That is, they will attempt to study the Islamic tradition and develop their own views and thoughts about the tradition. Some of these students may question very basic tenets of Islam and will largely develop their own views and opinions about different matters. They pursue an ijtihādī approach.

The purpose of this dichotomy is not to say one approach is better than the other, especially because the approaches are not black and white. Both have their own value. It should however be noted that those pursuing the second approach will have a harder time in the seminary. Suffice it to say, questioning certain beliefs or challenging certain ideas can at times be taken the wrong way. Thus, anyone taking such an approach should be ready to face challenges and should be smart about what they say and where they say it.

2. To Help People with Islam

With the dawn of modernity, all religions have faced serious challenges, and Muslims are no exception to this rule. In this context, many people come to Qom with the goal of guiding and saving others. They have seen people within their communities struggling. People may be struggling theologically, or they may be in need of learning the laws of Islam. This is a noble goal, however, one should also ask themselves why they believe they are worthy to further God’s religion. Some scholars suggest one cannot decide for themselves to assist God’s religion, God must choose them.

Apart from the above, this goal still involves a lot of practical considerations. If one wants to help people with Islam, they need to develop an understanding of Islam first. As mentioned above, that is not an easy goal, and not being to fulfill this objective after a few years of spending time in the seminary can lead some to become charlatans in the communities to save face, who cause severe stagnation to the spiritual and intellectual progress of the community. Of course, knowing that one wants to help a certain group of people with specific problems helps narrow one’s goal of what they hope to gain from the Islamic tradition. However, taking the next step and aiding others can be very difficult. In many cases, this stage can require one to practice what they preach. It is often very easy to theoretically study and understand Islam. However, if one does not practice what they preach, they may have a hard time convincing people to take them seriously. As such, their actions may end up being detrimental to their initial purpose.

One more thing to consider is the method of aiding others. Anyone can get on a pulpit and tell people to have taqwā (piety). Anyone can sit on a pulpit and spend an hour going over why backbiting is not a good deed – in fact, we have ample examples in our communities of people sitting on the pulpits with no or very little official studies in the seminary. We have spent enough time in the mosque as children to quickly become bored with such talks. There has generally been a huge focus on preaching ethics in the West and a lot of people who come to the seminary deem this as their primary topic to preach. Are there other things that can or should be preached? How effective is it to sit on a pulpit and preach this without having personal relationships with the people being preached to? Even if the content is going to be the same, are there other more innovative methods to get one’s point across?

Furthermore, one should realize that the seminary does not teach one how to preach. As mentioned before, the seminary teaches the tools to access the Islamic tradition. Upon learning these tools, one has to apply them to learn about the Islamic tradition. Once one has done that, one can finally go forth and preach. Tablīgh (preaching) is not an easy task and one will have to set out on their own to find methods to accomplish this endearing task.

These are all questions that I think anyone who wants to preach (do tablīgh) needs to think about and consider. There are many more important points and questions, but of course, anyone who thinks critically will ask those questions as they develop their goals and intentions.

3. To Develop: Ethically and Spiritually

Many students may feel that they may develop themselves ethically in the seminary. Others come here to develop themselves spiritually. Many come here, buy books full of stories of famous gnostics like Ayatullah Behjat or Ayatullah Shahabadi and begin to read them. To even suggest that some stories may involve exaggerations or unestablished claims may be taken akin to blasphemy. In terms of developing ethically, this is also a noble goal. However, anyone with this goal must answer some questions. Firstly, is ethical development something limited to the seminary? Can one not develop ethically in other countries and cities? Moreover, how much can the seminary really facilitate ethical development?

There have been cases of people who left the seminaries because they found a complete lack of what they were looking for or they found that the environment had a negative impact on their ethical development. The cities in which the seminaries exist are often just like any other cities on the planet, at times worse. Taxi drivers lie and cheat. Many teachers may be knowledgeable but may not be good at teaching. School principals may have their own plans for you and may not consider your goals and reasons for coming to the seminary. Dorms can become very messy and dirty. Some dorms, particularly in larger schools can have cases of theft. Housing for married couples comes with its own set of problems. In summary, not every student is a pious angel.

This does not mean everything is bad. Many scholars in Qom are gems and ethical role models for all. Such ethical role models are either non-existent or hard to find in other places around the world. At the same time, the most basic advice most of them give is for one to practice the basic laws of Islam. If one’s goal is to develop ethically and then spiritually, it may behoove them to be at this level before they enter the seminary. To discuss the goal of spiritual development here would entail a host of new questions. There are many claims made about spiritual development in the seminary and there are perhaps many paths that are offered for such development. For anyone to traverse this path, perhaps the best self-check they can use to ensure they are pursuing something legitimate is the Islamic tradition itself. Thus, this, at least, involves developing an understanding of Islam, at first.

In any case, there are definitely ample resources within the seminary for one to develop ethically and spiritually. There is a tradition of dars e akhaq (ethical lectures), at least once a week, that are delivered by scholars. In terms of schools, ethical advice and lectures vary from school to school. Some schools may put a lot of emphasis on these but others may not focus on ethics at all. Just like many other subjects, a student must be willing to put in a lot of their own time and effort to pursue their ethical and spiritual goals.

4. Coming to the Seminary to Learn about the Seminary

Some may be discouraged to come to the seminary for a short period of time, but once you arrive in the seminary, you will find that perhaps this is not a bad idea for some. There are some people who just want to get an idea of what the seminary is or someone who just wants to learn Persian and basic Arabic. Some may decide to do this only to see whether they can survive and last in a seminary environment. Coming to the seminary for as little as 6 months to a year can be very beneficial. You will be able to learn Persian which will allow you to access many more resources pertaining to the Islamic sciences. Staying for a year will allow you to develop a basic understanding of the Islamic sciences and get a better idea of what the seminary is about.

Generally speaking, coming to the seminary for the short term may be a great opportunity. It might even be a good idea for students who want to take a leap year. Making a short-term commitment can help a student explore the seminary and then decide if they want to fully commit to it for a longer-term.

5. Political Reasons

There are students who come to the seminary strictly for political reasons or reasons related to their activist engagements in their respective countries. People who come to the seminary with this goal should understand they will have to attend typical seminary classes regardless. It is not as such that they will spend their days studying the Iranian Revolution in class, however, being in the seminary environment does give them ample opportunity and time to study and learn about these matters outside.

In my personal and limited experience, a lot of Western students who make political ambitions their priority are often the weakest in their studies and understanding of the Islamic sciences. For many, the Islamic Revolution marks the end of all issues, and there is a subconscious understanding that we are now merely waiting for the Mahdi (a) to return so we can hand over the flag to him – a trope that developed during the Safavid dynasty, and an idea that many prominent revolutionary scholars, such as Shahid Beheshti, themselves had to openly speak against. There were times where I had gotten into disputes with certain students over whether Sayyid Khamenei is infallible, and this was due to their extremely poor – or non-existent – understanding of Shi’i theology. With such an understanding, it is only expected for such students to not be very committed to their studies; after all, there is no reason to study dry grammar in-depth, nor legal theory, and not even philosophy, if the answers to all the problems have already been resolved by the giants of our school of thought such as Imam Khumayni, ‘Allamah Tabataba’i, Shaykh Misbah Yazdi and others, and the fruition of their knowledge was the Islamic Revolution. Such students generally perceive no issues to start off with, for them to then be concerned about solving anything. The only problem that exists – in their perspective – is that the message of the revolution has not been exported nor spread, and once that happens, apparently most global issues will be resolved. At the same time, someone who wishes to actually investigate the revolution, they may find that they will run into problems if they develop an understanding of the revolution that is different than what the orthodoxy maintains. A critical approach involves asking critical questions that can often backfire if they go against popular mainstream views.

6. Schooling for Kids

There are some elders who simply applied for student visas and joined the seminary so they could ensure that their children are educated in an Islamic country. It should be noted that many parents have struggled with issues like racism within schools amongst others. Furthermore, private schooling can be expensive and schooling at times may be sub-par to what they have been expecting. Often children who move to Iran after already having grown up for a while in the West find it very difficult to adjust and parents should be ready to deal with such issues. In any case, if one is planning to come to the seminary for their kids to be educated, they should definitely ask themselves what they are expecting from the schooling system or the overall environment and more importantly, parents should also realize that they will have to study full time in the seminary in order to maintain their visa. If the objective of these parents was not the seminary to begin with, rather that was just a means to stay in Qom, then they should also be realistic with what will be able to offer the community eventually and if they should even be taking on responsibilities of preaching and propagation.

7. To Answer the Call of Imam Husayn (a) / I am the Chosen One

Some students feel like they need to come to the seminary because they think this is the way to answer the call of Imam Husayn (a). Others may feel that they have been chosen by God to pursue this path. Anyone considering coming to the seminary should definitely ask themselves if there are other ways to answer Imam Husayn’s (a) call. Students who come to the seminary because they feel as if they are answering Imam Husayn’s (a) call may find that Fiqh and Uṣūl, which are the bread and butter of the seminary, are not what they really expected them to be and will be bored very quickly.

This is reflected in some students as they end up making their education a secondary matter, while their extra-curricular activities are made a priority. There are students who do not understand the purpose or importance of subjects like Uṣūl, logic, and Arabic grammar because they cannot reconcile those subjects with their goal of answering the call of the Imam (a). The same goes for others who feel that it is their divine mission to pursue the time in seminary or that they have been chosen to come to seminary. Once again, such students should ask themselves what exactly they are looking to gain from the seminary and how that will help their mission.

8. Due to Parents

There are students who come to the seminary because their parents pressured them to. Perhaps their parents were scholars themselves and felt that their children should be as such as well. It should be noted that Islam does accord a high amount of respect for one’s parents. At the same time, it may behoove one to come to the seminary out of their own volition rather than someone else’s. As mentioned before, the seminary can be tough, and if one does not come due to their own volition they may easily lose the motivation to continue. Furthermore, the seminary requires one to be independent and capable of making critical decisions, someone who generally relies on their parents too much may face problems making such critical decisions.

9. To Escape the Pressures of the World

There are many students who enroll in the seminary because they may want to take the easy way out of life’s struggles. Others may have been unsuccessful in their education or careers back home. It is true that the seminary provides some assistance to students to a certain extent, but this should by no means be seen as an easy way out. There are many trials and tribulations that come with joining the seminary, and anyone coming here just to get away from other problems will encounter further problems in the city of Qom as well.

10. To be Guided on the Straight Path

There are students who come to the seminary because they feel as if they will be guided here. Someone with such intentions should once again ask themselves what type of guidance they are looking for. If someone is looking for guidance because they have questions about the Islamic tradition and want to solve them, then perhaps they can ask a scholar back home. If someone has found that scholars cannot answer their questions, and they want to further investigate the Islamic tradition, perhaps looking into the numerous institutions that have recently opened up in North America and Europe may be beneficial, otherwise perhaps the seminary may be beneficial for them. Then again, one cannot take a passive approach to the seminary and expect for their hand to be taken and for all their questions to be solved. In fact, one should not expect many of their questions to be solved right away – rather only over the course of time.

In my experience, these were some of the main reasons why students had come to the seminary and the output produced by the seminaries is also often correlated with these initial reasons and objectives students had.

Study Guide

What will follow in the next post of this series is a study guide for students who enter the seminaries with the intention of getting a better understanding of the Islamic tradition. Once again, this is not a foolproof guide, rather it should be taken as an advisory guide which I have written based on my own limited experiences.