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One Thousand Years of Islamic Education in Najaf:Myth and History of the Shiʿi Ḥawza

The city of Najaf is, in fact, home to a 1,000-year tradition of Islamic education, making it one of the oldest scholarly towns in world history. Throughout Islamic history Najaf has been a bastion of Shiʿism, but is not the oldest center of Twelver Shiʿi learning. Shiʿis and the Buyid dynasty had already built intellectual institutions in Baghdad.

According to Shiʿi tradition, the seminary (ḥawza) in Najaf, Iraq is 1,000 years old. The origins of the ḥawza are closely associated with the famous scholar Shaykh al-Ṭūsī (385/995‒459/1067). This paper addresses the question of whether or not there is sufficienthistorical evidence to support the tradition that the ḥawza of Najaf is indeed 1,000years old. On the basis of Arabic sources, the article argues that although Shiʿieducational institutions in Najaf were incepted a millennium ago, Najaf was rarely the locus of Shiʿi education prior to the thirteenth/nineteenth century. Based on statistical and historical analysis of Shiʿi scholars in Najaf, this paper outlines a short history of scholarly activity in one of the oldest college towns in the world. In addition to developing a working definition of the term ḥawza, the paper situates the rise of Shiʿi educational systems in the broader context of the evolution of Islamic scholarly institutions, including colleges (madrasas).

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