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Islamic education in Qom: contemporary developments.

"Qom is the heart of Iran. The real capital is Qom, not Tehran" (Qom professor). (2)


Qom's importance as a centre for the study of Shi'a Islam has been on the rise since the 1979 Islamic revolution and the establishment of an Islamic state. The dusty desert city south of Tehran, which is home to the shrine of Imam Reza's sister, Lady Fatemeh Ma'sumeh, has developed considerably in political importance as well as in terms of a growing student population. Its main theological establishment, the Houze-ye 'elmiye (Shi'a Islamic seminaries), has been transformed from an oppositional focal point to an important resource for government and state bureaucracy. In this article we aim to explore the impact this has had on both male and female religious education in Qom. We examine the historical and structural developments within the institutional sector of Islamic learning over the past decades, and discuss how the 'traditional' houze system has accommodated the 'modern' version of the Islamic academic institution.

Since Michael Fischer's comprehensive study of 1980, little has been published in Western languages exploring the meaning of the institutional development within the Islamic education sector in Qom, as well as the impact of possible changes in recruitment of students of theology. (3) Books and articles have been published in Arabic and Persian, but none of these has been translated into English or other Western languages. (4) Very little has been published about the entrance of women into the field of Islamic studies in Iran.

This study is based largely on data collected during two field trips to Qom, in 2006 and 2007, during which we visited educational institutions, interviewed scholars and students, collected brochures depicting the various educational programs, aims and objectives of the institutions; and explored the web pages of the most important of them. Among a total of 47 informants, 13 were female and 34 male. All worked or studied within the sector of higher education--in universities, research institutes or houze--42 in Qom, and the remaining 5 in Tehran. The 13 women interviewed were all based in Qom. (5)

The field work was challenging, the topic sensitive, and it was sometimes hard to establish direct contact with informants. (6) Upon the cancellation of a meeting with a houze scholar, we were informed that:
 Mr. A. really wanted to meet with you, but the head of the seminary
 said no. People in the houze are afraid of the reactions they may
 face, especially because of meetings with foreign scholars. They
 are all the time afraid that foreign scholars are spies and work
 for the Americans. (7)

Consequently, we have been all the more dependent on assistance from trusted friends in Qom, who could introduce us to informants within the various educational institutions. (8) We are extremely grateful for the help we have received, and for the welcoming attitude with which we were met at the educational institutions visited.

A brief history of the houze in Qom

The word houze is often translated as 'Shi'a Islamic seminaries.' (9) It was referred to by informants as "a cluster of schools, organizations, and institutes which are more or less officially and unofficially related to each other." (10) The houze system can be traced back to the late thirteenth century, when institutionalized Shi'a Islamic learning centres were established both in Iraq and Persia. (11) It is this inherited system of learning that is implied when we speak of 'traditional' as opposed to 'modern' Islamic education. A well respected cleric and university professor in Qom presented it as follows:
 The system of education in the houze is a continuation of an
 ancient system--a system of face to face education. The students
 directly select their professors, and the professors read the
 classical texts, from introductory level to the level of kharij
 [graduation level; the highest level of the houze system]. We have
 three levels in the houze, and the number of years at each level
 depends on the student's capacity. The traditional books are about
 jurisprudence, ethics, theology and usul al-fiqh (the sources of
 jurisprudence), tafsir (Koranic exegesis), and the interpretation
 of science [versus theology]. The two levels which are introductory
 take ten or eleven years: mugaddima (introductory) is five years,
 and Bath (middle level) is between four and five years. The kharij
 level is endless. At the kharij level, the ayatollah examines the

 students and gives them the 'authorization' (ijaza) of ijtihad
 (individual reasoning). This means that the students are mojtaheds
 (capable of individual reasoning) in their fields and that they may
 go to other places and gather circles of students (halqa) around
 them. The student then becomes a representative (nemayande) of the
 marja'. The representative receives khums (religious tax, lit, "one
 fifth") and zakat (religious tax); he interprets the Koran, and
 educates in ahkam (ruling, law) and fiqh (jurisprudence), and in
 the political position of the marja', (12) both at the individual
 and the public level. (13)

The houze schools (madrasa, pl. madaris) which were established in Qom during the late thirteenth century did not survive, and the institutions found in the city at present are therefore of much newer date. The establishment of today's Houze-ye 'elmiye is usually traced back to the year 1920, when the well-known scholar, shaykh Abdul karim Ha'iri Yazdi (d. 1937), was invited by colleagues to settle in Qom. When the shaykh finally accepted to leave the city of Arak, in which he was based, he brought several of his best students with him. The event was to have far-reaching consequences, as it marked the beginning of a renaissance of Qom and its madaris. (14) In the years that followed, many Iranian students preferred Qom to the Iraqi houze city of Najaf. Students from the Arab countries and South Asia still travelled to Iraq, but when Saddam Hussein came to power, his suppressive policy towards Shi'a Islam and the Shi'a population dealt a severe blow to Najaf as an Islamic study centre. (15)

The transformation of Qom into a main centre for Shi'a studies was thus linked both to changes in the recruitment of teachers and students, and to political events outside Iran. In the context of the former, the administrative and political skills of the highly respected scholar, Grand Ayatollah Burujirdi (1875-1961), deserve specific mention. He was vigorously engaged in Sunni-Shi'i rapprochement (tagrib), sent his representatives to Europe for missionary work (tabligh), and perhaps more importantly, brought order to the marja's affairs-with the introduction of accurate bookkeeping and a complete register of the maraji's representatives. The network of communication that was set up by Burujirdi served to disseminate guidance in political as well as religious matters, even after he passed away. (16) Hamid Dabashi evaluates his and Ayatollah Yazdi's achievements in these words: "The two Grand Ayatollahs Ha'iri and Burujirdi were thus the moral and intellectual pillars turning Qom into 'The Vatican' of Shi'ism. That was indeed a remarkable achievement given the fact that it materialized during the reign of two successive autocrats determined to 'modernize' Iran on the model of Mustafa

Kemal's model in Turkey." (17)

A new period of growth started in the early 1970s. Fischer made note of fourteen madaris in Qom in 1975, four of which had been established during the Safavid era (1501-1722), and were abandoned before being reopened in the Qajar period (1779-1925). The remain ing ten were established during Pahlavi rule (1925-79), at least seven of them between 1973 and 1975. (18)

Certain aspects of the old houze system were heavily criticised already during the pre-revolutionary period, notably by a number of high-ranking clerics: (19) The lack of matriculation examinations, inadequate guidance and counselling, a weak financial basis, the lack of methods for teaching language, and the failure to update the fiqh education, were topics frequently and fiercely debated. As a consequence, the grand ayatollahs founded a number of new schools in the 1960s and 1970s. Madrasa Haqqani (Montazeriyya), which was established in 1964, Dar al Tabligh and Madrasa Golpayegani, established in 1974, and Imam Amir al-Mu'minin in 1975, are the most important. These schools were all set up to serve the needs unmet by the traditional system, accommodating a changing student body as well as a changing society. Disciplines such as sociology, psychology, English and spoken Arabic were introduced in a number of institutions, and emphasis was placed on recruiting well-trained and motivated students. (20) The 'modern' education thus included many of the disciplines commonly associated with Western academia, but following an Islamic ideological rather than critical approach. (21)

Today, the Haqqani, the al-Hady, the Ma 'sumiyye and the Saduq madaris are mentioned by informants as some of the most influential new houze schools in Qom. The Haqqani School, established by three grand ayatollahs, is known for having fostered famous activists for the revolution: "People who studied there entered the new revolutionary regime directly," a Haqqani cleric claimed. (22) Whereas Western media invariably characterize the school as one of the most militant madaris, it is simply ranged as one of the many conservative schools by Qom informants. (23)

Number and social background of students

From a small town of approximately 200,000 inhabitants in 1975, Qom has become a town of around one million people today. (24) The influx of students of theology (tollab) has been a natural part of this growth. Turning to the first half of the twentieth century, available data suggest that Iran had about 5,000 tollab at the beginning of the Pahlavi regime. The government's anticlerical policy made the figures drop considerably during the reign of Reza Shah (1925-1941), but during the course of the next four decades, the number of religious students rose again. Compared with the general population growth, however, the number of tollab was still lagging behind: while the Persian population tripled between 1920 and 1979, enrollment in madaris only doubled. During the 1980s, on the other hand, the number of tollab again rose considerably. At this time, both public and private funding was channelled into religious educational development, making the city of Qom a centre for Islamic learning for the entire region. (25) A new influx thus started in the pre-revolutionary years and reached a peak during the decade after the Islamic revolution in 1979.

From around 6,500 tollab in 1975, the estimated number for 1990 was 30,000. (26) The registered number of tollab in today's Qom is not considered public information, and only known to a limited number of trusted persons at the Statistics Office (Edare-ye Amar or Mo'avenat amar va barresi) located in the Madrasa Dar al-Shifa-building in the centre of Qom. According to one Qom informant, this office meticulously registers the names, achievements and activities of all theology students. (27) Although these data remain inaccessible to outsiders, it seems plausible that the tollab population has risen considerably during the last decades--the veritable explosion of grand new institutional complexes is a visible indication of this. The director of international relations at Zahra University (Jami'at al-Zahra) informed us in 2006 that Qom has more than 200 registered study and research institutions, accommodating approximately 40,000 Iranians and at least 10,000 foreign tollab. These numbers correspond well with other estimates, such as those presented in 2004 by B. Samu, who quotes the administrative director of the Houze-ye 'elmiye, Hossein Boucheiri, as stating that there are 50,000 tollab in Qom originating from seventy different countries. (28) Exactly the same numbers are given by Vali Nasr. (29)

According to Fischer, Qom's houze students of 1975 were largely sons of farmers or clerics (ruhani, collective term for cleric). (30) As reliable statistics for today's situation are unavailable, statements made by Qom informants are our only source for assuming that much of the same is valid today: A majority of Iranian tollab have village background; high-ranking clerics prefer to send their sons to good universities rather than to the houze, but ruhani families occupying more modest levels are still likely to encourage their children to study at the traditional institutions. Unemployment may also motivate young men (and women) to approach institutions where boarding and financial support is secured. Additionally,
 Iranians in big business [outside the bazaar circles] are now
 familiar with the idea that it can be profitable to have a son with
 houze background. Insight into the Islamic rules and regulations is
 an asset, but [even] more important are the efforts to strengthen
 the links to powerful religious-political networks and to give a
 sign of political correctness. (31)

Although foreign students constituted only a small percentage of the student body in Qom in 1975, they represented many different parts of the Shi'a world. In order of numbers, they came from Iraq, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Lebanon, Tanzania, Turkey, Nigeria, Kashmir, and Indonesia. (32) New generations of students come from the same countries, although not in the same numerical order. The Iraqis and Afghans are now likely to constitute a more significant percentage of the total student body, and active recruitment of students from Africa and South Asia as well as from Europe and Central Asia is also taking place. (33)

The growth in number of Iranian tollab in the country as a whole must of course be seen in relation to Iran's growing population, as well as to the general increase in the number of students involved in other fields of study. In 2002 there were more than one million students enrolled in Iranian universities altogether, (34) and compared to this, 50,000 tollab in Qom may seem rather modest. In this context, it is rather the influence of Qom graduates in society--on social, cultural and political affairs--that needs to be explored. (35)

"From oligarchy to bureaucracy" (36)

Traditionally, the notion of the marja'-e taglid (lit. 'source of imitation'--often rendered 'Grand Ayatollah') has been central for understanding the role of religion in society. "The marja' is at the centre of the houze--the whole system converges on him," a Qom informant claimed. And indeed, most of Qom's madaris were founded by maraji; they are the scholars around whom most religious students gather, and are not only considered authorities in legal interpretations, but also function as providers of stipends and practical support. Both students and teachers are active in promoting their marja', and a Qom cleric pointed out that:
 The religious schools in Qom and other cities exercise massive
 propaganda to support certain maraji', in the villages, cities and
 in other countries. The students play an important role in this. If
 an influential student of one [particular] marja' goes to
 Afghanistan, all the Afghan Shiites may start to support this marja'.
 We have two kinds of tabligh (propagation; proselytising;
 mission): the moral and religious propagation, [the teaching of]
 history, tafsir, and akhlaq is one kind of tabligh. Another kind of
 tabligh is for the marja', by publishing and disseminating his
 books and distributing them among Shiites, both the educated and
 uneducated; for example to promote his fiqh view points on zakat.
 These students and the message they convey can be in conflict with
 Iranian politics. (37)

These statements reflect both the traditional tabligh activities of the marja' and a possible conflict not only with Iranian politics at large, but with the official policy of tabligh in particular. Today, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promotes tabligh as an independent discipline at the houze, and the houze activities are "themselves geared, at least in part, towards proselytizing ends". (38)

In 1975, the following six maraji' dominated the houze scenery, both as scholars and as founders of schools: Ayatollah Khu'i and Khomeini in Najaf, Golpaygani, Shari'atmadari and Mar'ashi-Najafi in Qom, and finally Khunsari in Tehran. (39) Today, the number of maraji' is considerably larger--according to one informant, at least seventeen. He provided us with a list of names, and spontaneously classified the maraji' as being either "governmental" or "non-governmental", which indicates how he and many fellow Iranians understand the relationship between the marja' and Iranian political authorities. (40) In the words of another Qom scholar, we are urged to:
 ... separate between those [maraji'] who are more influential in
 religious matters, and those who are more influential in politics.
 The latter is Khamenei. I think in religious matters, Sistani is
 the most influential. There are differences between some [Iranian]
 provinces. In Qom, it is Sistani. People have different opinions.
 But Sistani is great, and his influence covers the whole world.

Ayatollah Ali Sistani, of Iranian origin but based in the Iraqi city of Najaf, is named as the most popular marja' by our Qom in formants. He is deeply involved in cultural life (according to his representative he even reads novels) and has established study programmes, libraries and schools all over the world. Qom is no exception. In the years following the fall of Saddam Husain (2003), Sistani has set up a great number of institutions, and according to his powerful representative (nemayande), Sayyed Javad Shahrastani, twenty-seven of these are based in Qom alone. (42) Shahrastani carefully chose his words when asked to explain Sistani's popularity: "You have to ask the people. One possibility is that Sistani is a religious man who distances himself from political activities. And he is a divine person. All people in the world like Sistani."

Ayatollah Sistani's presence is Iran is manifold, and among other things linked to major investments in infrastructures and student welfare. One cleric pointed out that:
 Sistani supports important institutions in Iran, like pharmacies
 and sanitation ... He also supports religious students, making
 homes in the student cities--like Mahdiyye city [in Qom]--which is
 for religious students only. He influences the whole houze because
 his financial support is important. It is the same as Khamenei's
 support to the houze. Sistani supports the houze in two ways: by
 giving money [directly] to the houze, and through his other
 institutions. Some of his students also have high academic
 positions; Ayatollah Vahid Khorasani is influenced by Sistani, and
 Golpaygani too. (43)

The funding of each madrasa has largely come from the sahm-e imam--the 'imam's part', meaning half of the khums. The faithful usually pays his khums directly to his or her selected marja', and according to one informant:
 Every marja' has an office, so when I want to pay the khums, I go
 to the office of my marja', Ayatollah Behjat; I go to one of his
 secretaries, and say that I want to pay, and they give me a
 receipt. Then they give the money to the ayatollah. I don't know
 how many people who do this, but maybe 50-60 per cent. In the
 bazaar most people believe that if they don't pay their khums,
 maybe something will go wrong with the business, the baraka
 (blessing) will leave them, and they will not get more miracles
 from God. (44)

Both students and clerics benefit from this system, as the marja's secretary comes to the school to distribute fixed amounts of money among students and clerics.

This is at least the traditional arrangement--a system that witnessed a number of changes during the 1990s. The decade became a turning point for the role of the marja' in the administration and to some extent also the funding of the Qom seminaries. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, had emphasized the need for a fundamental reform in the seminary structure and educational programmes, and after a visit to Qom in 1995, a number of adjustments were introduced. (45) The Management Council of the Seminaries (shura-ye modiriyat-e houze-ye 'elmiye-ye Qom), was the main focus. It was renamed the Management Centre of the Seminaries (markaz-e modiriyat-e houze-ye 'elmiye), and directly placed under the leadership of the High Council of the Qom Houze (Shura-ye'ali-ye houze ye 'elmiye-ye Qom), in which all members are approved by the Supreme Leader. (46) The latter council is among other things responsible for appointing the administrative head of the houze system (modir-e markaz-e modiriyat), who in turn is responsible for selecting the leaders of each particular madrasa. (47)

In the writings of Mehdi Khalaji, the changes that were introduced in the 1990s were both bureaucratic and political, and the economic balance of the houze came into absolute favour of the Supreme Leader: (48) As each marja' distributes monthly payments to his own students according to his income and how much he receives in khums from followers, it is now the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who tops the list. He is able to distribute more generous funding than other maraji', and is therefore the most influential marja' in the Qom houze. According to Khalaji these changes have transformed the houze from a "previously amorphous and unstructured seminary into a manageable center.... " (49) The web pages of the International Center for Islamic Studies in Qom may be interpreted as support for Khalaji's argument. According to its own presentation, "The center's management system was a traditional one until 1993, during which Ayatollah Khamenei designated the center's president, with whom the management system was organized, and the center from then on is supervised by the office of the Supreme Leader himself." The board is headed by "the leader of Islamic revolution," who is also responsible for selecting the Centre's president as well as four of the board members. (50)

Khalaji strongly argues that the maraji' have lost much of their previous authority over the houze. There are, however, a number of clerics who argue differently, and maintain that the marja' still plays an instrumental role in the seminaries. According to these sources, the Council is mainly an administrative unit, taking care of matters out side the interest of the maraji'. (51) One cleric asserted that: "When you have a scientific community like the houze, it is understood that the most knowledgeable should be the leader of the houze. The people who obtain this recognition ... become maraji', and everyone tries to support them. It is the kind of leadership that comes from the grass roots." (52) Grand Ayatollah Sistani's representative, Shahrastani, under lined that the High Council of the Houze in Qom (shura ye modiriyat e houze) was established as a result of the expansion of the houze and the huge influx of students in the aftermath of the revolution " ... to make more order, and to give structure to the system." (53)

With the establishment of an Islamic republic based on the principle of velayat-e faqih--the rule of the jurisprudent-the content of what was taught in the Islamic seminaries became a direct concern for the national government. One of Shahrastani's employees in Qom maintained, however, that the houze has its own system, and that it does not belong to the state as such. He nevertheless underlined that "because the state is now Islamic, the houze is the official voice of the state (al-natiq al-rasmi), supporting the velayat-e faqih. The state consults the houze-it is the think tank of the state." (54) In addition, he claimed that "the houze sends its students around the country and abroad to spread the religion and propagate for the policies of the state". (55)

The marja' institution (marja'iyat) is, of course, still debated in Qom, and the current situation was summed up by a Qom professor who stated that: "Maraji' who are not supported by the government have increased their popularity." (56) Whatever Ayatollah Sistani's position towards the Iranian government's interpretation of velayat-e faqih might be, it seems plausible that his large following in Qom is linked among other things to the conviction that he does not support the idea of the ruling jurisprudent. (57) As one informant explained, "Persons like Sistani do not accept the system that we have-the system that Imam Khomeini accepted and that Khamenei now accepts--Sistani and some other maraji' think differently". (58)

Something old, something new

Qom's importance as a centre for Islamic learning no longer bases itself on the classical Islamic madaris alone. As mentioned earlier, there may be more than 200 registered Islamic study and research institutions in Qom today. (59) There is a private and a governmental sector, and the differences between new universities and old madaris are considerable when it comes to both curriculum and teaching. The houze has thus received competition from a number of educational institutions--some of which are emancipated from the houze itself, some that are closely affiliated with it and others which have largely emerged as independent and different from it. In many cases the new institutions may just as well be understood as modern extensions of the houze, as many of them are strongly connected to the seminaries and have scholars who teach at both places.

The establishment of an Islamic republic speeded up the process of educational reform. This included efforts to Islamize or "rejuvenate" modern science. The aim was to uproot what was seen as "colonial education," as explained by Ayatollah Khomeini: "Our universities are foreign dependent. Our universities are of the colonial type. Our university students are Westoxicated ... The university must become Islamic." (60)

After the Cultural Revolution which hit Iranian universities at the beginning of the 1980s, "the Islamic rejuvenation of the universities" was to include a review of the social sciences, such as economics, sociology, law, political science and psychology. (61) Ayatollah Muham mad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi is identified by several informants as being instrumental in this work. Among other things, he has headed the Centre for Cooperation of Seminaries and Universities (Daftar-e hamkari-ye houze va daneshgah), an institution which was to encourage cooperation between the houze and the universities.

Although controversial in many circles, Mesbah Yazdi was frequently referred to by informants as one of the most influential clerics of Qom. He is not a marja', but nevertheless retains a powerful position through his political skills and his role in establishing academic learning centres. The Imam Khomeini Institute for Education and Research is probably the most important of these. (62) Although an institute in its own right, it is closely affiliated with the houze; only male tollab are admitted, and as one of the professors underlined, all students
 ... must have done at least five to six years of houze. The
 institute puts as a condition that our students also study at the
 houze at the same time. They study at houze in the morning and at
 the institute in the afternoon. This is a requirement. The student
 must continue his traditional studies, and these studies must go on
 in parallel. Our curriculum is different from most curricula. Here,
 our courses have additions to what is taught in other
 universities.... Our institute is thus very much in coordination
 with the houze, our deputy of research is a member of the high
 council of the houze. We are not founded by the houze, we do not
 need approval from them, but we have their blessing. Our institute
 wanted to give accredited degrees to the students, so all our
 studies are finally approved by the ministry of higher education.
 What we offer is recognized by the houze and also by the ministry.
 Our certificates are signed by Mezbah Yazdi. We are not part of a
 government establishment, like universities are, but we are
 something in the middle--well connected with houze, but also
 independent. We may receive funds from the government, but they
 don't dictate the way we work. (63)

The institute aims at giving the student a thorough basis in Islamic studies before plunging into the topics of humanities and other, often Western-based sciences. Christianity and Western philosophy are among the courses taught here, and a number of trusted and talented students are sent abroad to Western universities to complete their studies. The main objective is to educate people for governmental and state related jobs, as well as for propagation of Islam:
 Our specialty is to provide the seminary students with subjects
 that were missing there [in the houze system]. Whoever joins the
 institute first undergoes a more general training. This includes
 Islamic philosophy, Koranic teachings, English language, and some
 other issues, like logic, but mostly the first three. Then they
 choose one of twelve departments, like the department of religious
 studies, economics, psychology or English.... But if you ask what
 the most popular subject is, it is law studies. At this institute,
 the students focus on constitutional law and the Jafari law as it
 is applied by the Iranian state. They can specialize in
 constitutional law or international law for example. Traditional
 figh studies have a different orientation. (64)

Whereas a professor at the Baqer al-Ulum University argued that it was representatives of the houze itself that strongly felt the need for introducing modern methods and sciences to their students, (65) a professor at the Research Centre for Houze and University Studies (Markaz-e pazhuhesh-e houze va daneshgah) explained that the establishment of his workplace was a direct product of the new Islamic state: "This institute is a result of the revolution. After a while we realized that the new system needed a bridge between the houze and the university." (66) A professor at the centre explained that the main challenges revolve around combining academic theories with religious values:
 I have studied law, and in my field of studies, the challenges
 between Islam and the West are mainly that the West pays more
 attention to material issues. We believe in Judgement Day, and
 therefore man has to observe Islamic regulations and moral
 values.... In all our regulations and enactments we pay attention
 to God and Islam.... In the West the authorities pay attention to
 the material needs of society. (67)

Although the process of reforming education and Islamizing the modern sciences had started some time before the revolution, the establishment of the Islamic government can clearly be seen as a major pull factor for the founding of new institutions. According to informants, there was a need for people with religious knowledge to fill positions within state bureaucracy and administration:
 This university [Bager al-Ulum] and others have been established
 to elevate the knowledge of the religious students and make them
 familiar with the needs of the Islamic society, and to give them
 some new methods--new knowledge about the modern sciences.
 In the long term to educate and train people so that they can act
 later on as officials of the state, become the president of the
 Islamic assembly, the president of the university, etc. We need
 different people to act in the different layers of government. In
 the traditional system they are not able to do so. (68)

The former head of the judicial system in Iran, Ayatollah Mousavi Ardabili, established the Mofid University in 1989. (69) The university is private, but like all Iranian learning institutions, it follows the governmental guidelines developed by the Ministry for higher education. According to one of its professors, it was established in order to provide "a link between the houze and the modern university". (70) This and the other institutes mentioned are often based on the same fundamentals of introducing the houze student to modern sciences, but clearly differ with reference to how tight their bonds to the houze are. They require varying levels of houze education in order to accept students for modern studies at the B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. levels, ranging from Mofid University which has moved away from requiring houze studies, to the Pazhuhesh-e houze va daneshgah which demands that their students and researchers reach the kharij level of houze prior to starting a modern degree study. (71)

At the Baqer al-Ulum, they ask the student to document that he or she has reached the Bath level in their houze studies prior to starting work to obtain academic degrees: "Only those who have graduated from a certain level of the houze can study at this university. All our students, both male and female, are religious students.... Those who want to study M.A. here should have finished the Bath." (72) The requirement of documentation has pushed the houze into commencing a new practice of issuing certificates confirming the students' institutional belonging, an entirely new development in a system based on informal (and paperless) recognition from fellow students and scholars. The students of Baqer al-Ulum University are thus checked for their houze knowledge prior to starting their academic degree studies. When matriculated, on the other hand, they are encouraged to bring their houze studies to a temporary halt:
 If they [the students] want to study seriously in the university,
 maybe they cannot be as active ... in the houze, because one
 cannot study the M.A. and Ph.D. at the same time as being a
 serious houze student. So in reality, for some time the students'
 houze studies will be affected. We think that the students already
 have enough knowledge from the houze when they are admitted
 here, and they can compensate afterwards. We think that when
 they are admitted here, they should be devoted to the M.A. and
 Ph.D. (73)

Even though the students are encouraged to take a break from their houze studies, our informant believed that many students retain their seminary contacts, particularly the males. While the Baqer al-Ulum university is only open to female students in the morning, the male students have ample opportunities to continue their studies with high ranking scholars in the houze before noon.

Regardless of the changes that have taken place in the educational system, the houze itself remains true to the traditional system of face to-face education, with students gathering around the scholars of their choice. This is at least what the representative of Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Qom, Javad Shahrastani, claims. He acknowledged that some universities, like Mofid, the Imam Khomeini Institute and Baqer al-Ulum, have combined new and old ways of learning, but maintained that this had not affected the houze. (74) However, it is evident that the huge increase in the number of students as well as the immense institutional development that has amalgamated the 'traditional' with the 'modern' has had some impact on the houze as well. As shown above, there have been amendments with reference to administration and supervision of the seminaries, as well as with the number of students and scholars relating to both old and new systems. Therefore, many of these new institutions are not seen as alternatives to the houze, but rather as extensions meeting the needs of society.

Students who choose to fulfil their houze education without supplementing it with academic degrees have different work options than those who study at the new 'combination institutes'. Houze students of some talent may take up positions and become researchers, writers, teachers or preachers at important mosques. "Bad students end up as ordinary preachers," one informant claimed. (75) Students who combine the houze education with modern science, on the other hand, have wider options: They may become employees within the state apparatus, work in national teaching institutions, or in the media. (76) Law is invariably mentioned as the most job-giving study subject: "Maybe some students have theology as a first choice, but because people consider employment [opportunities], it is law that becomes the first choice." (77)

The Sisters

Little academic work has been done on madaris for women, and Iran is no exception. (78) Yet a few general points seem well established: The old madrasa system excluded women, and scholars were only able to teach girls in informal settings, such as through study circles in mosques and private homes. (79) Some Mama taught their daughters and female relatives, and the most capable of these occasionally carried the knowledge on to other students, women as well as men. (80) In the 1960s, Qom had at least one highly respected female scholar who was institutionally independent, namely Banu Amin Isfahani (d. 1977). (81) Today, Mrs. Monir Gorji and Mrs. Sefati seem to be the most renowned female clerics, the former being one of the founders of Zahra University. (82)

The ideological foundation for establishing madaris for women was laid in the 1960s and 1970s, following Ayatollah Motahhari's line of ideas. Published five years prior to the revolution, his book The System of Women's Rights in Islam (nezam-e hoquq-e zan dar Islam), is still valuable for understanding central aspects of the Islamic Republic's official view on women's rights and duties today. (83) In these pre-revolutionary years, a new trend emerged: Studying Islam was considered as preparation for the needs of a future Islamic state. An Islamic society required knowledgeable mothers, female preachers and missionaries, and to accommodate this, madaris for girls had to be established. Dar al-tabligh built a school for girls in 1973, and two years later 150 female students communicated with their male teachers through a curtain; (84) Dar al-shifa established the Centre for Female Students (Markaz motala'at- e zanan); and as Fischer notes, even the Haqqani School had a girls' madrasa associated with it, which in 1975 had thirty students and five female teachers. (85) Ever since these early developments, the recruitment of sisters (khaharan) to Islamic education has accelerated in an unprecedented way. According to the official website of the Houze 'elmiye-ye khaharan, Iran had more than 100 such schools in 2007, (86) all of them working under the authority and direct control of the administrative centre for the Houze (Markaz e modiriyat-e houze-ye 'elmiye) in Qom. (87)

Doctor E. is one of an increasing number of women who have chosen Qom for religious studies. She has finished a Ph.D. degree abroad, and argues that women who want to study in order to find work are better off going to a modern university. This will give the student an opportunity to be employed in schools and official offices, in the army or in the media. "Only if you don't have an idea about work, should you go to houze," she says. (88) And this is what a number of women are doing. According to a professor at the Baqer al-Ulum institute, women are now invited to study Islam in order to become clerical leaders, lecturers in the universities, as well as propagators: "I was for some time a leader of a hajj (pilgrimage) caravan, and [observed that] before there were just a few female leaders, but now they try to invite more and more female clerics to handle the affairs of the women," the professor tells. (89)

A brochure published by Zahra University, the most important Islamic learning institution for women in Qom, states that:
 Women play a unique and vital role in society. The late Imam
 Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, maintained
 that women form half of our society and they are the trainers of
 the other half. So important is the education of women that Jami'at
 al-Zahra was established in 1984 by the sanction of Imam Khomeini
 to provide the highest quality of learning and education solely for
 Muslim women. (90)

Zahra University regards itself as "the largest Islamic university and seminary dedicated to education for women from all over the world." (91) The school is governed by a board of trustees, which includes house scholars and the Director General of the Houze in Qom. The University has a number of branches around the country, and at the Qom department, there are approximately 5,000 students (in 2006), 900 of whom are foreign nationals from 40 different countries (92) --"from China to Canada, from the U.S.A. to Argentina." (93)

The Department for International Affairs was established in 1986, following increasing interest from women around the world, (94) and as one of the (male) directors explained:
 ... after the revolution there was great interest and also many
 people from outside Iran wanted to study here, so Khomeini decided
 to have a unified institution for women. Many people thought it was
 too ambitious, but the fact was that it was not enough. The
 director and board then decided to find a much bigger [plot of]
 land. We moved to this new campus two and a half years ago, and now
 we have 2,000 places in the boarding school. There is one
 dormitory, but two more will be built--to house 7,000 people. We
 have better facilities than for men even--the best in Qom. (95)

The director also underlined that the students are not taught to "become anything in particular." Piety, knowledge and sincerity are at the centre of attention, and the institution aims at giving their graduates an opportunity to be "instrumental in delivering the universal message of mercy, justice and peace." (96) The women are not particularly trained to become preachers, but every graduate is important, because she can influence her brothers, family, and children. (97) Nevertheless, the students are encouraged to be active in society: "Some write books, some start preaching, and others teach," we were told. (98) The important aim is to provide high quality Islamic learning, "helping them [the female students] to become knowledge able individuals and educators in society." (99)

The houze students are in fact engaging in a number of activities, and a former student of Zahra University, now a university teacher in Qom, drew a vivid picture of the ritual and missionary contribution of female houze students:
 Women are very interested in tabligh. The houze sends them out
 during Ramadan, gives them money and lets them practice
 tabligh. During particular times of the year, they spend their time
 in jalasat (lit. Beatings, study circles). Now there are very good
 opportunities for women for doing this. Sometimes they go to the
 homes of people, for example during the days around Ashura and
 in Muharram. They recite some religious matters, and people
 repeat after them. They do not necessarily go to schools. The
 families sometimes give them money, and sometimes they may be
 part of a program. In Mashhad they have a special program, to
 which they invite people from the houze. (100)

A student with Western background at Zahra University told us that her studies were motivated by an urge to become familiar with her own religion: "I decided that I wanted to be a kind of Muslim who knew why I was a Muslim, and I thought the best place to get my answers would be in Qom." In Qom she has found friends from all over the world, from countries such as Tanzania, Pakistan, Kashmir, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The majority of the Zahra students come from Asia and the neighbouring countries in the region-such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, but there are also students from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon. Some Arab countries have, however, been restrictive in letting their young travel to Iran: "In the past some of the governments were suspicious, because we are Shiite and they are Sunni," but according to the director at Zahra University this has changed in recent years. (101)

Zahra University takes good care of its 900 foreign students, 250 of whom are boarding students:
 We pick them up at the airport, and we are like a family. We have
 women who are here, and they are like their mothers. Every single
 student is important.... People are concerned about their daughters
 when they send them abroad. We have a good reputation.... Iran is
 also a safe place. In Lebanon and Iraq you don't have security.

In the dormitories the students seem to share everything. According to one Zahra student, six girls share a sleeping room, twelve share a reading room, and approximately thirty share a kitchen. They learn about Iranian language and culture, but live separately from their Iranian sisters: "Our dorms are separated and our classes are separated, because teachers talk more slowly to us. The Iranians can move faster in Arabic, because they have studied it at school. Their culture is different from ours. We try to live side by side, but mostly we are separated." (103)

There are many different options for the foreign student who enrols at Zahra University. There are short courses stretching over weeks or months, and there are possibilities to stay for years on end. "Every course is different. Some come for just learning Farsi. We have also designed a one-year course. They learn six months' Farsi and after that they have basic Islamic studies. But our main course is five years. One year for studying Farsi and foundations (usul), and four years for the B.A." (104)

The Western student introduced above is an M.A. student. She described her study program in the following words:
 They put you into Farsi right away. After that there is a four
 years' obligatory program: two and half years' Arabic, history of
 the prophet and imams, theology, philosophy, and usul al-fiqh.
 After four years (eight terms) you can stay on for your M.A., and
 choose between tashayyu' (Shi'a-studies), akhlaq, or tafsir. I
 chose tafsir.... In this term we study Mulla Sadra, al-Tusi, al
 Bayad, Fakhr al-Razi, and Zamakshari.... My class has 13-15 girls.
 In the other classes at the B.A. level there are between 15-20
 students, so we get a lot of attention; we have both male and
 female teachers.... This term I have seven units, and have to
 deliver seven papers.... A lot of our students are students of
 Jawadi Amoli, and one is a student of Rahbar (the Supreme Leader).
 Rahbar has a circle of women, and these have the privilege to study
 directly with him.... I have to study a lot. I am using money
 provided by the government, so I feel obliged to study. I left my
 family, my country, and feel I have to spend the time studying not
 to waste it.... The houze is free; we don't pay, and we are given
 allowances--food and necessities--from the houze. We can get these
 allowances all the way to the mojtahed level.

Despite the sacrifices this student has made, being away from family, and the large efforts put into studies, she does not plan to look for a job after graduation:
 I don't have to worry about income, because my future husband will
 have to provide for us both. I can do what I want. I like to
 travel, and I would like to see Palestine and Iraq and see
 firsthand what they are going through. I have time because I don't
 have to work. This is my future husband's responsibility. (105)

She adds that teaching in schools and universities is among the most popular job for women, "but anything they do to teach their children right, that is important too." (106)

This corresponds to the objectives of the Women's Research Centre (Daftar-e zanan) in Qom. The centre was established in 1997 as part of the houze, and represents the first organized research institute for women in the holy city. The research staff has its education from the houze, and the institute's aim is to explore what the Islamic teachings say about issues related to women: (107)
 We want to find an Islamic basis for women and family.... We have
 started researching, and we try to obtain the basic theories, but
 we have a problem, and that is the combination of modern theories
 and Islamic programs. We have modern methods and modern theories,
 but we want to create an Islamic approach. For example, we studied
 English books from European countries and America, and in these
 books it says that we should accept different types of families,
 for example unclear and abnormal families.... We don't believe in
 these families. We don't accept them. (108)

The researcher explained that by 'unclear' and 'abnormal' families she meant lesbian marriages, cohabiting (but unmarried) couples and the like. She claimed that these families were both non-existent and unacceptable in Iran. As researchers in an Islamic institute they therefore have to develop their own theories, adequate for studying the Islamic family in accordance with the process of Islamic rejuvenation and reform.

As shown above, both Iranian and foreign women study in these schools, but little is known about the students' social background. One Qom informant claimed that many of the Iranian khaharan come from villages and from ruhani families, thus sharing the same social background as their male colleagues. He added that some rich families in the big cities today also prefer to send their daughters to the houze. When asked why they choose religious schooling instead of secular, he explained that "families with daughters think that the houze is a good and safe place, and that a girl with houze education will attract a good husband. Marriage is very important. Education is also considered very important in Iran." (109)

When it comes to the choice of courses, the duration, and level of study, on the other hand, our informants immediately pointed out differences between male and female students. A professor at the Baqer al-Ulum University confirmed that there is a gap between what is expected of women and men:
 For the M.A., the second level of houze is enough. But the second
 level for male is different from the female. For male it is much
 higher. But the females are more serious and more motivated for
 religious studies than men. They are so dedicated and study so hard
 that in the future they will swallow up the men's part. (10)

Having entered the field of traditional houze education, women are nevertheless allowed to follow the same study path as men. This, at least, is the opinion of several of our informants in Qom, both male and female. However, the scholars differ when it comes to which clerical status a woman can achieve. Dr. E, who studied at Zahra University and has her Ph.D. from a European country, argues that:
 As a woman you cannot become a mojtahed, because you need a
 following (mogalledin). Women can only be mojtaheds for themselves.
 It is very limited for women, maybe because the women that reach
 kharij level are very few. There is a long way to become a
 mojtahed, and the woman has family and children. I was very
 interested in reaching that level, but I got interrupted, so I
 haven't had the opportunity to continue. (111)

A professor of the Research Centre for Houze and University answers an unambiguous "yes" when asked if women can complete the level of kharij to become a mojtahed. When asked if they can have followers, which is generally regarded as a major requirement for utilizing the title of ayatollah, he is less certain: "There is a discussion among the ulama on this, and some believe that women can have followers. But they cannot become the leader of the country." (112)

There are certain limitations as to how far a female cleric can reach, and a researcher at the Daftar-e zanan institute concurs with the argument that it is possible for women to obtain the level of mojtahed, at least in theory. She is less convinced, however, that female scholars would be interested: "Any person who becomes a mojtahed has a big responsibility for society. And women see this responsibility as difficult for them [to handle]. The test is very difficult, and you must practice for many years. Society doesn't let us focus for so many years," she explained. (113)

Segregating the genders

There are a number of different models for gender segregation of students in Qom, and according to the Research Centre for Houze and University, Markaz pazhuhesh-e houze va daneshgah, there are two separate views on this:
 In our universities we have coeducation systems, but here [at the
 Centre] we have no female students. There is physical segregation.
 Coeducation is mostly criticized by Islamic thinkers, and also by
 some feminists. Some feminist thinkers believe that it is a
 disadvantage to have coeducation, as they believe that
 coeducation gives disadvantages to women, and that men get
 priority over women. But Islam also values coeducation. There is
 no priority of men over women in Islam, and in some cases
 coeducation can be good for the women. (114)

If there are two views on gender segregation among clerics, there is definitely more variation as to how the gender segregation is practiced in universities and study institutions in Qom. The norm for the houze is full segregation, with women and men at different institutions or in different buildings. (115) These rules are upheld in all situations: when we visited Qom in 2006, two scholars from the Haqqani School agreed to meet us and answer our questions. As women are not admitted at the madrasa itself, the meeting took place at a Qom hotel of their choice.

Another way to practice the rules of gender segregation is to split the day in two, and allow women to study in the morning and men in the afternoon. The latter is the model practiced at the Baqer al-ulum University. Exempted from this however is the Ph.D. level, at which men and women can be part of the same classes. (116) At Mofid University, men and women study together in the same classrooms. There is no compulsory segregation, but according to one of Mofid's lecturers, the girls often prefer to sit on one side of the room. "But they enter from the same doors and they talk with each other," he added. (117)

There are also study institutions where female and male students are kept apart by separate buildings on the same campus, as practiced among other places at Qom University. In the words of one of its heads: "We are close to the houze, and for this reason we try to separate women and men. In the small seminars we cannot always separate, but in the classes this is the rule. The faculty is one, but it has two branches, one for women and one for men." (118) When asked why they choose segregation, he explained that it is based on the Islamic teachings: "According to some understanding of Islam, this is best for the health of men and for the security of women. Some students oppose the system, and we have received complaints, but when they start studying here, they know that we have this policy." (119)

Talking to some of the female students and teachers of Qom University, we learned that the motivations for studying in a segregated university could be mixed. According to one of the female lecturers, some parents choose to send their children to Qom University simply because it has a clear segregation policy. Other students have chosen to come there themselves, because they feel that it is safer and that they can focus more on studies. (120) A Ph.D. student claimed that statistics had proven that learning in a segregated environment gives better results: "Sometimes the students tell me that if they are with boys, the girls stand back and boys take over for them. With segregation you can develop a safer society," she concluded. (121)

Discussing segregation policies made us wonder how men and women got the chance to get to know each other in a segregated university, and we thus asked if they had any chance to meet after classes. The answer was explicit: "Yes, last year we had 200 weddings," one of the teachers said. "The students have a special centre where they can meet--where they register their names, family, and other details. And when they marry, they receive gifts from Ayatollah Khamenei, and the university makes a big wedding party." (122) The teacher added that the establishment of centres like this were encouraged by the Supreme Leader, and thus existed in many universities. They are called Daftar-e zawaj daneshju'i: " ... they emphasize family, and want to encourage marriage. If you are a new student and want to marry, you register and say what kind of man [or wife] you want." (123)


The 20th Century witnessed the establishment of Qom as a fast growing international centre of Shiite learning. Nearly three decades after the Islamic Revolution the city has strengthened its position in the competition with Najaf. A large number of theological institutions receive consistent and substantial support from the Iranian government, and the upheaval in Iraq (and other neighbouring states) indirectly allows Qom to maintain its supremacy, and secures a constant influx of new tollab from all parts of the world.

This does not mean that the official institutions of Qom are always the most authoritative in religious matters, and that its maraji' easily gather new crowds of followers. "The Iranian attempt to strengthen the marja'iya by combining religious with temporary authority has actually weakened the role of the marja' in Iran," L. Walbridge claims. (124) What seems to be Ayatollah Sistani's fast growing popularity and influence, not only in the Shi'a world at large, but in Qom in particular, supports this analysis and calls for further studies. The scale of investments and number of institutions established in Sistani's name after 2003 in Qom are impressive, and his affairs seem skilfully conducted.

The establishment of an Islamic government and a religiously founded state bureaucracy unquestionably speeded up the institution building process in Qom. It increased the capacity to receive tollab, strengthened and renewed the organization of Islamic education, formalized the contact between houze and other Islamic education institutions, and institutionalized modern academic degrees. This allowed a greater flow of students through the system, and shaped a work force capable of filling positions within the Islamic bureaucracy, judiciary, media and education.

The structural changes also include registration of all students, revised curricula, and formal examinations, and seem to be combined with an increased supervision of the educational institutions as well as of the individuals working or studying within them. This may have influenced, and possibly diminished, the position of the individual marja ; which nevertheless remains at the core of clerical education.

Tabligh is clearly a part of the educational focus in Qom, and the training of students to gain preaching skills can easily be seen as a gain for the Islamic state. As theology students spend much time preaching around the country and abroad, they propagate the visions of the different maraji', including that of Ayatollah Khamenei. Propagation abroad can thus easily provide the Islamic government with ambassadors for its Islamic vision, be it through students, professional preachers, publications or the Internet.

Iranian women constitute 60 per cent of the student population in Iran today, and this is without doubt a success for the state's politics of education. (125) Exact numbers are not available, but it seems beyond doubt that the percentage of the 'sisters' (female students of theology) is nowhere near the share found in the educational sector as a whole. The houze seminaries are still mainly open to male students only, and our data show some of the inconsistencies regarding the level of competence attainable for women. It is also clear that very few women study at the kharij level and their opportunities to obtain the title of mojtahed are debated. Women who wish to follow the traditional path of houze studies have in reality few places to choose among, although the opportunities are much wider today than they were a few decades ago.

An Islamic government will obviously have an impact on the institutions that provide religious education, and observers may easily recall Muhammad Qasim Zaman's pertinent remark that the question of Islamic education "reveals the contours of a debate that is as much about religious authority in contemporary Islam as it is about the nature and scope of Islamic learning." (126) A city that many saw as an oppositional hub to the Pahlavi regime has thus become a valuable resource for the Islamic government, in terms of ideological as well as academic production. The diversity of interpretation within Qom's Islamic seminaries and teaching institutions nevertheless remains.


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Frida A. Nome and Kari Vogt (1)


(1) The article is equally authored by the two researchers. The work has been financed by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We wish to thank Greg Reichberg (PRIG), Berit Thorbjornsrud (University of Oslo) and Stein Tonnesson (PRIG) for commenting on a draft version of this article. The responsibility for any faults or misconceptions solely rest on the authors.

Researcher Frida A. Nome, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIG), P.O. Box 9229 Gronland, NO-0134 Oslo, Norway, Associate Professor Kari Vogt, Institutt for kulturstudier og orientalske sprak, P.O. Box 1010 Blindern, NO-0315 Oslo, Norway.

(2) Informant no. 27 (18-x-07).

(3) See Roy Mottahedeh's classical work, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985). Mottahedeh does not, however, mention the development of theological institutions for women and the recruitment of female students. See Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999), p. 11. See Sabrina Mervin (ed.), Les Mondes Chutes et l'Iran (Paris: Karthala IFPO, 2007). See also Roswitha Badry: "Zum Profil weiblicher Ulama in Iran: Neue Rollenmodelle fur 'Islamische Feministinnen'," in: Die Welt des Islams 40 (2000): 7-40.

(4) See Ali Shirkhani and Abbas Zareh, Tahawolat-e Houze-ye 'Elmiye-ye Qom pas az Piruzi-ye Enghelab-e Eslami (The Development of the Qom Seminary after the Victory of the Islamic Revolution), (Tehran: Entesharat-e Markaz-e Asnad-e Enghelab-e Eslami, 2005); and Farhad Mudarresi, "Az Nokhbe-garayi to Divan-salari" (From oligarchy to bureaucracy), in Shahrvand-e Emruz 18, (Mehr 1386 [2007]): 65-67.

(5) The interviews were conducted in English, Arabic or in Persian (in Persian with an interpreter).

(6) See Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender, p. 17. The author was denied access to Zahra University.

(7) Informant no. 6 (22-x-07).

(8) We have chosen not to name our informants except for in the few cases in which official spokesmen of various institutions made statements.

(9) Informant no. 21 (20-x-07).

(10) Informant no. 38 (20-x-07). See also Rula Jurdi Abisaab, "The Cleric as Organic Intellectual: Revolutionary Shi'ism in the Lebanese hawzas," in Distant Relations: Iran and Lebanon in the Last 500 Years, ed. H. E. Chehabi (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006), 231-251. The author explains the word houze in Iraq and Iran as "the ensemble of madrasas in one city. One thus speaks of the Najaf houze or the Qom houze (in Persian: houze-ye 'elmiyeh)" (ibid. p. 231).

(11) Ehsan Yarshater ed., "Education," Encyclopaedia Iranica VIII: 184. Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publications, 1998. For 'institutionalized madrasa' in contrast to informal learning circles, see Jonathan P. Berkely, "Women and Islamic Education in the Mameluk Period," in Women in the Middle Eastern History, Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender, ed. Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), 146.

(12) Marja', pl. maraji', 'source of imitation', highest ranking authority (on the law) in Twelver Shi'a Islam.

(13) Informant no. 9 (27-x-07). For more on the classical houze system, see Michael M. J. Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 63, 247-248; Mottahedeh, The Mantle, pp. 71-78, 89-91, and 103-09; and Chibli Mallat, The Renewal of Islamic Law: Muhammad Baqer as-Sadr, Najaf and the Shi'i International (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), with particular reference to Najaf, pp. 35-45. (Cf. also Sabrina Mervin: "La quete du savoir a Nagaf. Les etudes religieuses chez les chi'ites imamites de la Ini du XIXe siecle a 1960," Studia Islamica 81 (1995): 165-85.

(14) Fischer, Iran, p. 109. An exodus of students and teachers from Najaf to Qom was already a fact after the rebellion of the shaykhs in Najaf in 1918 and the 1920 revolt, both against the British authority. See Yitzhak Nakash, The Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 75-77; see also p. 10: "The establishment of modern Iraq under Sunni minority rule in 1921 ... dealt a blow to Najaf's semiautonomous status and its welfare and academic standing. Najaf spiralled into a socioeconomic and intellectual decline, and in the middle of the twentieth century was superseded by Qum in Iran as the major academic centre."

(15) Juan Cole, Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shiite Islam (London: I. B. Tauris, 2002), p. 180.

(16) Hamid Algar, "The Oppositional Role of the Ulama in Twentieth-Century Iran," in Scholars, Saints, and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions since 1500, ed. Nikki R. Keddie (Berkeley: University of California Press 1972), 243 p.

(17) Hamid Dabashi, "Introduction" to Morteza Motahari's "The Fundamental Problem in the Clerical Establishment," in The Most Learned of the Shi'a: The Institution of the Marja' Taqlid, ed. Linda S. Walbridge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 162 p.

(18) Fischer mentions the following institutions: Faydiyya; Dar al-Shafa; Mehdi Goli Khan; Hojjatiyya; Razaviyya; Mu'miniyya; Mar'ashi; Mahdiyya; Jani Khan; Fatima, Vahid, Amoli; and S. Sadeq; Kirmani. See Fischer, Iran, p. 82.

(19) See the translation of Morteza Motahari, "The Fundamental Problem in the Clerical Establishment," in Walbridge, The Most Learned, pp. 161-182. Ayatollah Motahari's article, published in 1962, can be seen as "a crucial document of the Shi'i clerical establishment trying to reinvent the medieval institutions of religious leadership (marja'iyat) in a revolutionary realignment with modernity" (Dabashi, 'Introduction', p. 163.)

(20) Fischer, Iran, p. 81.

(21) The term 'ideological' here refers to the well known Islamic religio-political discourse in which Islam is presented as an all-encompassing ideology and guiding principle for society and culture.

(22) Informant no. 41 (21-v-06).

(23) See for example "Tehran Commemorates Americans' Death," in Iran Report, Number 17, 30 April 2001 (accessed 27 March 2008 from "The Haqqani School is noteworthy because it serves as a connection between so many individuals, but nowadays it also denotes an extremist school of thought advocating violence against one's enemies and strict clerical control over social and governmental affairs."

(24) For 1975 numbers, see Fischer, Iran, p. 76; and for 2006 numbers, see "Qom", Encyclopaedia Britannica Online: article-9062128) (accessed 27 March 2008).

(25) Yarshater (ed.), Encyclopaedia Iranica, "Education," vol. 8, p. 185.

(26) To compare, there were 1,800 students of theology in Mashhad, 1,000 in Isfahan, 500 in Tabriz, 250 in Shiraz, and 300 in Yazd in the year 1975 (Fischer, Iran, p. 77). For the 1990 estimates, see Yarshater, ed., "Education," Encyclopaedia Iranica 8, p. 185.

(27) Informant no. 33.

(28) Samu also refers to Boucheiri's statement that in the entire country there are around 3,000 seminaries. See Bill Samu, "Analysis: Iran's Theological Community Contends with Changing World," in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 16 September 2004, -27F04DB8AE7E.html) (accessed 27 March 2008). In 1989, Nikola B. Schahgaldian gave slightly different estimates, indicating that among Iran's 40,000 theology students, at least 25,000 were living in Qom. See Nikola B. Schahgaldian, The Clerical Establishment in Iran (Santa Monica, California: The Rand Corporation, 1989), p. 23.

(29) Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2006), p. 217.

(30) Fischer, Iran, p. 78.

(31) Informant no. 33.

(32) Fischer, Iran, p. 78.

(33) An Afghan alumnus from Madrasa Faydiyya claimed that more than 10,000 Afghan students are pursuing their studies in Qom today (Conversation, 08.u.08). The numbers may be exaggerated, but considering the number of Afghan refugees who are Shi'a in Iran, it seems likely that a number of them find their way to religious institutions, the more so as most Iranian universities are closed to them. Many of the foreign students are organized according to language, home town and ideology: "Apart from various cities in Iran, clerical students of Qom seminaries hail from various countries including Arab states, Pakistan and Afghanistan ... Most clerical students have formed assemblies which are named after their respective cities ... Such assemblies play two important roles: firstly they bring other clerics who come from the same city under their control and, secondly, they bring clerical students to support the Islamic government and Supreme Leader Khamenei in various ways." See The Echo of Iran, no. 216 (1. Dec. 2007-15. Jan. 2008), p. 18.

(34) Cole, Sacred Space, p. 206.

(35) According to J.P. Digard, B. Hourcade and Y. Richard, eds., L'Iran au XXe Siecle, (Paris: Fayard, 1996), p. 13, 15 per cent of the Iranian population are Sunni; and according to Nikki R. Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 332, 9 per cent are Sunni. In this context it could be noted that Iranian Sunni Muslims have no comparable madaris or Islamic research centres. Their only option to study theology is at the section for jurisprudence in the Faculty of Theology at Tehran University, where the Shafi'i madhhab (one of the four Sunni schools of law) is taught. Consequently, Sunni students go to countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to study theology. The cleric who gave us this information underlined that he thought it better for the state to establish Sunni madaris within Iran, rather than having students indoctrinated at madaris in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan with an ideology that could pose a security risk for Iran. See also Wilfried Buchta: Die iranische Schia and die islamische Einheit, 1979-1996 (Hamburg: Deutsches Orient-Institut, 1997), 171ff.

(36) In Persian: 'Az Nokhbe-garayi to Divan-salari', title of an article on the traditional houze by Mudaressi (see above).

(37) Informant no. 9 (27-x-07).

(38) Muhammad Qasim Zaman, "Epilogue: Competing Conceptions of Religious Education," in Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education, ed. Robert Hefner and Muhammad Qasim Zaman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 251-52. Iranian authorities have strongly invested in religious propaganda and propagation (tabligh), and a number of tabligh institutions were established after 1979. Two (of the most important) are based in Tehran, two in Qom. Daftar-e tablighat-e eslami in Qom has a direct link to the houze, and Markaz-e jahani-ye 'olum-e eslami is based at the Madrasa Imam Khomeini where foreign students are studying. Sazman-e ertebatat eslami, a governmental institution linked to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, has its centre in Tehran, and specializes in propagation abroad; Sazman-e tablighat-e eslami, headed by Ayatollah Sobhani, disseminates the message within Iran and has its offices in every Iranian city. For more on Iranian tabligh activities abroad, see also Christoph Marcinkowski, "Aspects of Shi'ism in Contemporary Southeast Asia," The Muslim World 98 (Jan. 2008): 36-71; and Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr, "Iran, the Vatican of Shi'ism?" Middle East Report, No. 233 (Winter 2004), pp. 40-43.

(39) Fischer, Iran, p. 88.

(40) The "non-governmental maraji'" mentioned were Hossein Ali Montazeri, Ali Sistani (in Najafj, Vahid Khorasani, Yosuf Sane'i, Musa Shobari Zanjani, Mohammad Sadeq Ruhani, Mohammad Ali Gerami, Abdolkarim Musavi Ardabili, Mohammad Sadeghi Tehrani, Mohammad Hosein Fazlollah, and Mohammad Hosein Shahrudi. "Governmental maraji'" are the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei; Mohammad Taqi Behjat; Naser Makarem Shirazi, Safl Golpaygani and Hosein Nuri Hamadani. The informant also added that "only Ayatollah Montazeri has expressed a clear and unambiguous critique of the regime." The system of appointing a maraa' is, however, quite flexible, and there are a number of persons who claim the title and who also may have small circles of followers.

(41) Informant no. 24 (21-x-07).

(42) Information given by Shahrastani and other informants. We visited five of Ayatollah Sistani's institutions in Qom: two libraries, a centre for Astronomy, The Islamic Data Bank, and Aal al-bayt Global Information Centre; we were also given the opportunity to conduct interviews with employees.

(43) Informant no. 9 (27-x-07).

(44) Informant no. 40 (18-x-07).

(45) Mehdi Khalaji, The Last Marja': Sistani and the end of Traditional Religious Authority in Shusm. Policy Focus 59 (Washington: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2006), p. 28; and Informant no. 33.

(46) Islamic Development Organization, a=1385051409) (accessed 4 February 2008).

(47) The administrative leader of the High Council today is Hossein Boucheiri.

(48)Khalaji, The Last Marja', p. 29. Khalaji's report was published by the neo-conservative think tank, Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy.

(49)Ibid, p. 30.

(50) "International Center for Islamic Studies, Qum, Iran," (accessed 29 February 2008).

(51) Informants no. 9 (27-x-07) and 38 (20-x-07).

(52) Informant no. 38 (20-x-07).

(53) Shahrastani (24-x-07).

(54) Informant no. 34 (22-x-07).

(55) Informant no. 34 (22-x-07).

(56) Informant no. 27 (18-x-07). For an outline of the debate on velayat-e faqih, see Keddie, Modern Iran, pp. 307-310; see also Saskia Gieling, "The marja'iya in Iran and the nomination of Khamenei in December 1994", in Middle Eastern Studies 33, no. 4 (1997), pp. 777-787. See also Mariella Ourghi: "Shiite Criticism of the Welayat-e faqih", Asiatische Studien/Etudes Asiatiques 59 (2005), pp. 831-44.

(57) For a discussion on Sistani's views on the concept and Iranian practice of velayat-e faqih, see Reidar Visser, Sistani, the United States and Politics in Iraq: From Quietism to Machiavellianism? (Oslo: NUPI, 2006), pp. 13-15; for Kalaji's objections to certaiYi aspects of Visser's interpretation, see Khalaji, The Last Marja', p. 15-16.

(58) Informant no. 43 (22-x-07).

(59) Informant no. 38.

(60) Cited in Sohrab Behdad, "Islamization of Economics in Iranian Universities," International Journal of Middle East Studies 27, no. 2 (May 1995), p. 194. (On "Westoxication," cf. Brad Hanson: "The 'Westoxication' of Iran: Depictions and Reactions of Behrangi, Al-e Ahmad, and Shari'ati," International Journal of Middle East Studies 15 (1983), pp. 1-23.

(61) See ibid., p. 194.

(62) Yazdi has also had a central position at the Haqqani School, and according to Informant no. 21, he is also behind the Dar-e Haqq Institute, which was established prior to the revolution, as well as Dar-e 'Glum. On Mesbah-Yazdi's view of the velayat-e faqih see Katajun Amirpur, "A Doctrine in the Making? Velayat-e Faqih in Post-Revolutionary Iran," in Speaking for Islam. Religious Authority in Muslim Societies, ed. Gudrun Kramer and Sabine Schmidtke (Leiden: Brill, 2006), pp. 218-40, esp. 228ff.

(63) Informant no. 38 (20-x-07).

(64) Informant no. 38 (20-x-07).

(65) Informant no. 28 (22-x-07).

(66) Informant no. 12 (25-x-07).

(67) Informant no. 12 (25-x-07).

(68) Informant no. 12 (25-x-07).

(69) Mofid University, brochure published by Public Relations and International affairs, 2005, p. 1.

(70) Informant no. 23 (21-x-07).

(71)Informants no. 43 (22-x-07); 38 (20-x-07) and 12 (25-x-07), accordingly.

(72) Informant no. 28 (22-x-07).

(73) Informant no. 28 (22-x-07).

(74) Shahrastani (24-x-07).

(75) Informant no. 33.

(76) Informants no. 41 (21-v-06); 28 (22-x-07); and 21 (22-v-06).

(77) Informant no. 8 (18-x-07).

(78) See Mareike Jule Winkelmann, From behind the Curtain: A Study of a Girls' Madrasa in India (ISIM dissertation, Amsterdam University, 2005), p. 20 and Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender, p. 17. For a short account of the Hizbullah women's seminary in Lebanon, see Abisaab, "The Cleric," in Distant Relations, ed. H. E. Chehabi, pp. 252-254. See also Mariam Abou Zahab, "Madrasas de femmes entre Pakistan et Qom," in Mervin, Les Mondes Chutes, pp. 287-299.

(79) Berkely, "Women and Islamic," p. 146; See also Joyce Wiley, "Alima bint al-Huda: Women's Advocate," in Walbridge, The Most Learned, p. 152.

(80) The French-Iranian sociologist, Ehsan Naraghi, told one of the authors (Vogt) that his grandmother was counselling and instructing people in her home in Kashan; personal communication, Paris 1998. See also Ehsan Naraghi, Enseignement et Changement Sociaux en Iran du VIIe au XXe Siecle (Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1992), pp. vii-xi.

(81) Informant no. 1 (21-x-07). See also Fischer, Iran, p. 163: Banu Amin was informally called a mojtahede, and claimed to have ijaza (license) from Ayatollah Mar'ashi-Najaii. Her book Kanz al-irfan served as a textbook at courses in houze on rules of conduct and law in the Qur'an. Fischer, Iran, p. 250.

(82) Mrs. Gorji was mentioned by several informants in Qom; for Gorji's work and positions see Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender, p. 84. Mrs. Sefati was mentioned as a respected religious teacher; she has her own website where she names herself "Banu mojtahede Sefati". Her claim to be a mojtahede seems to be accepted by a number of people; she has female students and teaches at Zahra University (informant no. 33). Mrs. Sefati's website:

(83) See Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender, p. 25: "Motahhari's arguments remain the most eloquent and refined among those who hold the concept of gender equality to be contrary to the shari'a.... The bulk of the vast post-revolutionary literature on women, especially that produced by the official Islamic Propaganda Organization, not only follows Motahhari but reproduces his arguments." Motahhari's book was the summing up of his numerous lectures in the 1960s, and his ideas were widely disseminated.

(84) Fischer, Iran, p. 83.

(85) Fischer, Iran, p. 83; for developments in the Sunni world, see for example Azyumardi Azra, Dina Afrinaty, and Robert Hefner, "Pesantren and Madrasa: Muslim Schools and National Ideals in Indonesia," in Hefner and Zaman (eds.), Schooling Islam, p. 180-181.


(87) One informant pointed out that all schools for women are strictly controlled by the Markaz-e modiriat. He argued that some of the schools for men, like Madrasa Vahid Khorasani and the Madrasa Golpaygani, have some degree of independence when it comes to setting up a curriculum-a privilege that cannot be found within women's madaris (informant no. 33).

(88) Informant no. 8 (18-x-07).

(89) Informant no. 28 (22-x-07).

(90) "Prospectus for full and part-time entry for overseas students 2006-2007," brochure (Qom: Deputy of International Affairs, Jami'at al-Zahra, 2006), p. 5 (not paginated). See also Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender, p. 17: "The College [Zahra University] had its origin in the activities of a small group of women in the 1960s who lobbied the Qom seminaries for teachers and courses in religious sciences. By the mid-1970s, the group and their classes became a conduit for religio-political awareness of the young generation of women who were increasingly drawn to Islam."

(91) "Prospectus", p. 4.

(92) Interview (21-v-06) and "'Prospectus", p. 4.

(93) Interview (21-v-06).

(94) "Prospectus", p. 6

(95) Interview (21-v-06).

(96) "Prospectus", p. 4.

(97) Interview (21-v-06).

(98) Interview (21-v-06).

(99) "Prospectus", p. 5.

(100) Informant no. 8 (18-x-07).

(101) Interview (21-v-06).

(102) Interview (21-v-06).

(103) Informant no. 32 (24-x-07).

(104) Interview (21-v-06).

(105) Informant no. 32 (24-x-07).

(106) Informant no. 32 (24-x-07).

(107) Informant no. 19 (21-x-07).

(108) Informant no. 1 (21-x-07).

(109) Informant no. 33.

(110) On the Lebanese houze for women, see Abisaab, "The Cleric," p. 253: "Their curriculum differs most from that of the men in that advanced legal studies are not open to them, even though a woman can in theory attain the rank of mojtaheda (but not that of marja')."

(111) Informant no. 8 (18-x-07).

(112) Informant no. 28 (22-x-07).

(113) Informant no. 1 (21-x-07). Alima Bint al-Huda (1937-80), the sister of the Iraqi Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr, announced herself as mojtaheda in a religious treatise she wrote before she was twenty years old; see Wiley, "Alima bint al Huda", p. 149.

(114) Informant no. 5 (25-x-07).

(115) Informant no. 43.

(116) Informant no. 28 (22-x-07).

(117) Informant no. 43.

(118) Informant no. 17 (23-x-07).

(119) Informant no. 17 (23-x-07).

(120) Informant no. 14 (23-x-07).

(121) Informant no. 10 (23-x-07).

(122) Teacher at Qom University.

(123) Teacher at Qom University.

(124) Linda S. Walbridge, "The Counterreformation: Becoming a Marja' in the Modern World," in Walbridge, The Most Learned, p. 244.

(125) Cole, Sacred Space, p. 207.

(126) Zaman, "Epilogue," in Hefner and Zaman (eds.), Schooling Islam, p. 242.
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Author:Nome, Frida A.; Vogt, Kari
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Date:Jan 1, 2008
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