NAJAF, Iraq — Most of the religious schools in Najaf are characterized by a traditional teaching method that differs from the methods used in Iraqi schools and universities. These religious schools have not seen drastic developments in teaching methods and curricula throughout their history, unlike some of their counterparts in Iran and Lebanon. In Najaf's seminaries, there are no lectures or courses that students are required to attend. Rather, a student selects the professor he wishes to work with. A student may choose to attend classes with a professor in a small group, or he may request that the professor teach him alone. If a student feels he does not benefit from the class, he can stop taking it or stop working with the professor and look for another professor.
Sheikh Jihad al-Asadi, a religious scholar in Najaf, said that the common conceptions of schooling do not strictly apply to religious schools in Najaf — in terms of age requirements, mental capacity, scholarly level, the course system, attendance and absence, choosing courses and granting degrees after the completion of a certain stage.
"Although these characteristics apply to some schools in the Najaf seminary, the predominant educational method does not adopt these mechanisms. The school system revolves around the professor. This means that the student is accountable to the professor, and the latter, in turn, is committed to work with the students who attend his classes, through a set of norms that determine the level of the material presented and how it is presented. The professor also follows up with the students in terms of attendance and absence," Asadi told Al-Monitor.
There are no designated places for teaching, lessons and discussions or reviewing the lessons together. The professor and his student or students meet in the mosque at an agreed time, or in a room or cellar of the religious school, depending on the weather. Sometimes they meet in the house of a cleric or mujtahid (someone who has completed advanced training in the seminary) when the student is completing the external research stage.
Asadi explains that professors can be found throughout Najaf's mosques. Meanwhile, the buildings in Najaf that are referred to as "schools" are usually residences for students coming from outside the city.
Seminary study is divided into three stages: introduction, topical knowledge and external research. The final stage allows the student to understand the process of issuing fatwas (religious rulings) and examining jurisprudential evidence. It trains him to discuss evidence and either support or refute it to arrive at a legitimate ruling. Thus, he is able to deduce a fatwa from evidence, so that one day he may become a mujtahid or cleric, if he acquires sufficient knowledge and meets the required conditions.
There is also no specific time for study at Najaf's seminaries. The class schedule is determined by an agreement between the professor and the student. They may meet after the morning prayer, after sunset or any other time. In the introduction stage, the language of study is linked to the nationality of the student. Thus, an Arab will work with an Arab professor, an Indian will work with an Indian professor and so on. During the topical knowledge stage, the lessons are either in Arabic or Farsi. In the final stage, the lessons are usually in Arabic.
Seminaries in Najaf do not conduct final exams for students and do not provide diplomas, unless the student reaches the final level of ijtihad and requests that the professor provide a certificate verifying to others that he has reached this high level of knowledge. However, there are other ways to determine the scholarly level of a student. Whenever a student completes a level, he teaches students in the lower level and studies with a professor in the higher level. Based on his discussions and teachings as well as his writings, religious scholars determine the scholarly level that the student has reached. Many times, a student reaches the level of mujtahid, despite the student not having received an attestation from one of the major clerics.
Asadi said that there are exams in the first and second stages, but none in the final stage. He added that the extent to which a professor has proven his ability to explain, evaluate and compare material to his students is what helps to determine his scholarly position and uniqueness among his peers.
If a seminary student wants to travel to his home country after finishing his studies, he can request the clerics to provide him with a certificate of good behavior and a recommendation affording him the religious rights to hold the position of imam in a mosque anywhere. The seminary provides him with a certificate that confirms his scholarly level and knowledge, and notes that he has been referred by the clerics of the seminary he attended.
As for the development of the seminary's curricula, cleric Mohammed Ishaq al-Fayyad told Al-Monitor that the curricula has evolved over the centuries. It is not reasonable to keep curricula and instruction books unchanged, given developments in religious science and lifestyle, he said.
Asadi explained that there is no party in Najaf that enforces obligatory curricula; rather the student may study whatever scholarly topic he is interested in. However, there are agreed-upon scientific methods, and if the student does not abide by them it will affect his access to the final stage of study — i.e., ijtihad. Asadi said that religious sciences by nature are not subject to rapid development, but scholarly developments have occurred in the seminary's curricula during different stages. The task of the curricula is producing specialists in the field of jurisprudence, who are able to issue a fatwa on emerging issues in various fields.
The clerics' role in the seminary is to manage the educational process and contribute to supporting and stimulating this process financially and spiritually. From the scholarly perspective, the clerics are mujtahids with a high degree of specialization in developing religious rulings. Thus, they represent a part of the educational process and have a scholarly influence just like any other scholarly figure.
The Najaf seminaries do not require students to wear a particular type of clothing. However, it is customary that students wear the turban and robe used by Shiite clerics after they advance in their studies and complete the introductory stage, and progress to the stage of topical knowledge. Those who can trace their paternal lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad and his family wear a black turban, while others wear a white turban.
There are titles used in the seminary for religious scholars that indicate the scholarly stage the student has reached. These are: fadhil, someone who is on the verge of completing the introduction stage; alama, someone who has finished the "topical knowledge" stage; and hujjah or hujjat al-Islam, someone who has completed a course in religious jurisprudence and performed remarkably in the external research stage. Meanwhile, the title "ayatollah" is given to an outstanding mujtahid, while the title "supreme ayatollah" is given to an outstanding mujtahid who has issued his fatwas in a book of "scholarly messages" and who has followers. Meanwhile, "marja" (authority) is the title given to an outstanding mujtahid who has some followers, while "supreme marja" is the title given to those who have many followers from around the world.
Seminary holidays are observed on Thursdays and Fridays, during the month of Ramadan, the first two weeks of the month of Muharram and the last two weeks of the month of Safar. These holidays allow students to participate in gatherings in remembrance of the killing of Imam Hussein Ibn Ali that are carried out on the occasion of Ashoura, as well as other religious occasions such as the Prophet Muhammad's birthday and the anniversary of his death. There is also a 45-day summer vacation.