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Lebanon's Shiite seminaries split between tradition, modernity

Although most Shiite seminaries in Lebanon still follow a traditional curriculum, a number of schools have begun to revise and develop their educational approaches.
Photographer Mohamed Turjuman shows what he says are pictures that he took of Imam Musa al-Sadr, at his studio in Tyre, southern Lebanon, February 23, 2011. Sadr, the founder of the Shi'ite Amal movement, disappeared with his two companions on a visit to Libya in 1978. The uprising against Muammar Gaddafi has given Sadr's family hope that they may finally find out what happened to him if the Libyan leader is toppled, Rabab al-Sadr told Reuters on February 24, 2011. Picture taken February 23, 2011. REUTERS/

Lebanon has historically been home to many Shiite religious schools, especially in the Jabal Amel area, which today comprises south Lebanon and part of the western Bekaa Valley. These schools have played an important role in preserving the Shiite Islamic identity and in enriching Twelver Shiite thought. The most prominent Shiite religious schools included the Jezzine School, the Mays al-Jabal School, the Jubaa School, the Kawthiria School, the Shaqra School and the Mashgharah School.

At the end of the 19th century, Jabal Amel experienced a scholarly renaissance that was reflected in the religious schools. The teaching methods and ways of thinking that were had languished throughout the eras of decline began to develop, and religious schools were established on modern and advanced bases, influenced by the scholarly renaissance in the Arab world. The number of new and renovated Shiite schools reached 15 in south Lebanon alone.

After completing their first phase of study, students could travel to Iraq to pursue graduate studies in the seminaries of Najaf. Senior Lebanese religious scholars graduated from the Najaf schools and gained prominence in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

After the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the Islamic awakening among the Shiites of Lebanon increased. The foundations for this awakening had been put in place by Imam Moussa al-Sadr in the 1960s, and he continued his work until he was kidnapped in Libya in 1978. Since the mid-1980s, a number of new seminaries have been established in Lebanon, most notably the Iranian-sponsored Al-Rasoul Al-Akram Seminary in Haret Hreik and the Islamic Sharia Institute, sponsored by the scholar Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, among others.

Estimates vary of the number of Shiite seminaries in Lebanon. However, Sayyed Abdul Karim Fadlallah, the chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Scholarly Seminaries in Lebanon, told Al-Monitor by telephone that there are 30 seminaries in the country, including 18 regulated schools and 12 unregulated.

Regarding the curriculum in these seminaries, Fadlallah said that most of them follow a traditional one, while a few teach the academic version. He added that he prefers the original, traditional approach to teaching, as followed in the seminaries of Najaf. According to him, this traditional approach produces innovative students in religious sciences.

Al-Monitor spoke with Sheikh Murtada al-Faqih, the son of Ayatollah Mufid al-Faqih and a professor at the University of Najaf al-Ashraf, a seminary in the town of Haris in south Lebanon. He said that the seminary his father founded in the city of Tyre, and which has a branch in Haris, still relies on the traditional approach to teaching. He noted that Sheikh Mufid still believes that the traditional approach is the most common and the most successful.

"If we wanted to change from the traditional approach to the academic approach, it could not be a sudden change." he noted. "Rather, the change should be gradual and we would develop a transition mechanism."

Sheikh Mortada supports developing curriculum, pointing out that years ago he began teaching some books that were not originally in the curriculum. He said that he has implemented developments on a gradual basis. Instead of the three educational stages that comprised the traditional curriculum, he uses six, before the "external research" stage that qualifies a student to conduct jurisprudence. He added that there are exams for each stage, and students must take them quarterly.

It is worth noting that Sheikh Mufid al-Faqih spent a long time at the Najaf seminary, and graduated with the rank of mujtahid (someone who has completed advanced training) after studying under senior scholars.

As for Ayatollah Sheikh Hassan Rmeiti, after moving to Lebanon he established the Imam Reza Seminary in the Ghubairi district of Beirut's southern suburbs in 2003. Remeiti is partial to the old curriculum, but prefers a change in the teaching methods and doesn't spend much time teaching certain topics that are not as important today. Speaking to Al-Monitor, he noted that there are oral and written exams, and after the completion of the exam period the student receives a certificate allowing him to go to the next stage. When a student completes the first two stages — introduction and topical knowledge, which typically last seven to nine years — he is qualified to begin the external research stage. Rmeiti is the only teacher of external research at the Imam Reza Seminary, because the professor for this stage should be a mujtahid. He said that his seminary does not have a regulatory system by which a student can obtain a certificate in external research, like a doctoral certificate in universities. Rather, they rely on the old traditions, and if the student is qualified and capable of analyzing religious evidence, he will become well-known and influential in the future.

As for the Islamic Sharia Institute, it is a seminary founded by the late Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, after his return from Najaf in 1967.

The institute's director of curriculum, Sheikh Khanjar Hammia, told Al-Monitor that the institute adopts an academic curriculum for the different stages of study, examinations and degrees. He noted that to study at the institute, the student is required to have a high school diploma, as is the case with universities. Meanwhile, the traditional seminaries do not adopt this requirement, and students are accepted with a middle school education, and some traditional seminaries merely require that students be able to read and write.

Hammia said that the institute's curriculum is very modern, and while it includes jurisprudence and traditional religious studies, the seminary uses books and modern teaching methods. The curriculum also includes academic religious, intellectual and philosophical studies, including Western philosophy, mathematical logic and other religions, particularly Christianity.

Hammia said that the school year is divided into two semesters, and at the end of each the student is subject to an examination, in addition to monthly exams, similar to the academic systems in universities. He added the educational period is eight years. The first stage lasts for three years, and at the end the student receives a certificate equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. He can then complete his studies in the second stage: graduate studies.

The Al-Rasoul Al-Akram Seminary, which is closely linked to Hezbollah and has ties with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, comprises two schools, one for men and the other for women. When the seminary became associated with Al-Mustafa University in Iran, it shifted from the traditional teaching approach to the academic approach. There are a specific number of years of study and the school has examinations, certificates and bachelor's, master's and doctoral stages.

There is also the faculty of Islamic studies at the Islamic University in Lebanon, which was founded by the late Imam Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din in 1996. It teaches Sharia sciences, philosophy and theology, and grants bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in Islamic studies. Many religious sciences students in Lebanon have completed their university studies and some of them obtained doctoral degrees and teach in both universities and seminaries.

It is worth pointing out that the religious seminaries — both traditional and modern — still provide financial aid to students, and students also receive monthly stipends from a number of senior clerics in Najaf and Qom. There is no doubt that the spread of religious schools in Lebanon and their development has doubled the number of Shiite clerics in the country within the last three decades. Today, many small towns have a number of religious scholars. In previous decades, the situation was different. There were few religious scholars and sometimes towns had to consult scholars from other towns or even from Iraq to meet the shortfall.

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