An essay written by a student at Imam Ali Seminary
“What a diverse group!”–That’s what I thought to myself when I arrived at the Imam Ali Seminary and began meeting my new classmates. We came from all over the country–Texas, Arizona, California, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, New Jersey–and from a broad range of cultural, ethnic, educational, and professional backgrounds. Some are young, freshly graduated from high school, while some are much older. Some are reverts, others raised Muslim. This diversity comes as a relief to those who understand that this is the way Islam in America should look. It stands in stark contrast to the racial and cultural homogeneity that, unfortunately, we see in most Islamic centers in the U.S. This is the diversity that will give Muslims in America strength and a sense of cultural legitimacy. Indeed, despite the variations of color and age, there is an instant brotherhood amongst the students, because the unifying feature, that can be seen in the face of every Imam Ali Seminary student, is love for Islam and the desire to serve the cause of truth.
In those first few days, when all the students are arriving at the hawza, there are two distinct groups, the first-year students, who are taking in everything for the first time, wide-eyed with anticipation and excitement, and the second-year students, who–although happy to see their classmates again after the summer break and meet and get acquainted with the new students–have a more focused, serious demeanor as they ready themselves for the challenges they’ve come to expect from their experiences in the first year of studies.
For the first-year students, these initial days are about absorbing the reality of their transition from their previous lives to this new life as a Taalib ul-’Ilm (seeker of knowledge). We are relishing the fact that now we can structure our lives and days around salaat and learning subjects like Arabic grammar (Sarf and Nahw), Islamic beliefs (‘Aqaid), Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh), whereas in our previous lives, our days would be structured around the secular and materialist concerns of work and school, forcing us to relegate worship and Islamic studies to our “free time.” In fact, you could say that the excitement of the first-year students is due to the fact that they are actually experiencing liberation and freedom, the same as a man just released from unjust imprisonment or a slave freed from a cruel master. Our smiling faces are actually saying in half disbelief, but dawning realization, “Can this really be true? I am free to spend my days in worship and gaining knowledge, in improving myself, in serving Islam?” This arrival at the hawza is the realization of our dreams, the answering of our prayers, alhamdulillah.
We look in awe at the library shelves packed with books and volumes of Ahadith, Qur’an Tafseer, Aqaid, Fiqh, and many other topics, straining to make out the titles written in Arabic calligraphy, asking the second-year students to decipher them for us. We are eager to start class, to receive our books, to begin our studies. We are already bombarding our teachers with questions, relishing the fact that we no longer have to compete with crowds of believers at our local center to speak with an Islamic scholar, waiting in line for just a few moments of clarification of Islamic issues that have been troubling us. Now we have teachers who are here, not to just give speeches or majalis, but to answer our questions and guide us to a deeper understanding of Islam in a systematic, rigorous way.
The second-year students, meanwhile, are already looking to the future, the next step, contemplating their plans for continuing their studies overseas, in the Hawza Ilmiyyah of Qom or Najaf. For them, this year is about continuing to develop their skills, strengthening their foundations, and deepening their knowledge. This year, all of their textbooks are in Arabic, so they will be directly applying the knowledge of Arabic word conjugation, syntax, and vocabulary that they were immersed in the previous year in order to understand Principles of Jurisprudence (Usul ul-Fiqh), Logic (Mantiq), and even deeper details of Arabic grammar (Nahw). So, for the second year students, this is also a time of transition, opportunity, and possibilities.
Once classes commence, the initial excitement levels off as we settle into a routine. The workload of class time and study time is heavy compared to college life. We have four to five classes per day, Monday through Thursday, about an hour each class. We usually have classes from about 8:00 AM to 1:00PM or until Salaatul-Zuhrain. After classes and salaat, students spend hours each day studying together and individually, reviewing the material from the day’s classes and preparing for the material to be covered the following day. As in any academic environment, the intensity of studying will increase even more when there is an impending exam in one or multiple classes, and students will engage in lengthy group review sessions, striving to master the material.
Between classes and studying, the students pass their days in fellowship with one another–eating, playing sports, having discussions, attending programs at the local Islamic center, and just generally enjoying one another’s company. There are challenges, of course, that come with living in a communal environment with people from different backgrounds and habits, but this is another means of strengthening our bonds, tolerance, and empathy for one another. The challenges of studying, dealing with personality conflicts, facing our own weaknesses and shortcomings serve as the training that we need to develop the character, faith, understanding and patience necessary to be representatives of Islamic knowledge to the wider community.
Beyond the classroom, the students are assigned projects, such as writing articles or preparing speeches. Each Tuesday, we have a speech program in the prayer room in which one or two of the students gives a 20-30 minute speech on the Islamic topic of his choice as practice for speaking to the public and community. As students become ready, they are also assigned to give speeches outside in the community, at the local Islamic center or at programs held in community members’ homes, giving the students real-world experience serving the believers. We are also responsible for organization and management of a local camp sponsored by Muslim Congress, at which second-year students serve as captains of the competing camp teams, and first-year students volunteer in whatever capacity is needed, from the dining hall to the prayer hall, to games and camp activities.
Probably the most important aspect of our life at the Imam Ali Seminary, outside of our textbook studies, is the mentorship of Sheikh Muhammad Baig and Sheikh Ali Abdur-Rasheed, who not only possess deep understanding of Islamic knowledge and ideology, but has vast experience with building and serving Muslim communities in America. The opportunity to learn from their experiences and the wisdom is truly priceless, and cannot be gained from a textbook or lecture, but only from direct mentorship and training. Those students who benefit from this opportunity at Imam Ali Seminary will be better equipped to return to the U.S. after studying in Qom or Najaf and be ready to do real work in our communities, inshaAllah.
Our teachers frequently remind us that being a hawza student is a serious and heavy responsibility, and that we should not make the mistake of viewing this opportunity in the same way we might view studying in college or pursuing a profession. Every aspect of our daily lives that make it possible for us to continue studying–from the food that we eat, to the shelter over our heads, to the books that we study, to the place in class we occupy, and more–all of these things are property and resources belonging to Imam Sahib az-Zamaan (atfs), because the development and training of ‘Ulema of Islam is the project of our Imam (as). Believers have paid their khums and made donations to support Imam Ali Seminary with the understanding that we are doing the work that is pleasing to the Imam (as) and to Allah (swt). So our responsibility as students is to exert every effort to master the knowledge, purify ourselves, and not betray the trust that has been placed in us. We are reminded that we must not view studying at the hawza as a way to pad our resumes or a means of self-promotion or career advancement. To enter hawza studies is to enter into sacrifice and service, to do that which will be beneficial not to ourselves, but only towards elevating knowledge to its rightful place and role in our communities and societies. Our task is to first replace our own ignorance with knowledge so that we can then help others do the same. In this way, the divine system as taught by the Holy Prophet (saws) and his Ahlul-Bayt (as) can be established at the level of the individual, the family, the community, and the globe, inshaAllah.