In 23rd March, 1922, the Hawza Seminary of Qom was established by Shaykh Abd al-Karim Ha’iriYazdi, the well-known Shia scholar.
For this occasion, Ijtihadnet has interviewed Shaykh Saleem Bhimji, a graduate of the Hawza Seminary of Qom.
- Please give us a short biography of yourself and your career.
I was born in Fort Rae, North West Territories in Canada’s arctic region and grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to parents who were born and raised in Uganda, Africa – however my forefathers had migrated from India over 50 years prior – during the mid to late 1800s. After completing my post-secondary education in Edmonton at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) as an Electronic Technician, and due to many events, which had transpired in my life, I made the decision to leave my job and go towards Islamic studies.
After getting married, my wife and I moved to New York to study at the Imam al-Asr Theological Seminary, however after one year of studying there, they ended up closing and so my wife and I moved on to Qom, Iran to begin our studies in the seminary of Qom. In the year 2000, we returned to Canada and I began working in the field of Islamic activities. I started by working with a non-Profit Islamic charity in Kitchener, Ontario in various capacities including as an author and translator of Islamic articles and books; I also served as the head of their propagation work in which we helped Canadian and American Muslims in prison and was also the Editor-in-Chief of their Quarterly Newsletter, Al-Haqq Newsletter – before leaving them in 2003.I then went on to serve as the Director of Publications for a non-Profit UK based Muslim charity. In that time period, under my direction, we published original writings and translations of Islamic texts totalling over 25 books in English – including works of the late Shaheed Murtaza Mutahhari, Ayatollah Jafar Subhani, Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi and many others. I then took a turn and stepped aside from working full-time within the field of Islamic education and propagation, and for eight years I worked for a Canadian company who were the first creators of the modern-day smartphone as a Functional and Process Analyst for their Reverse Logistics.
During this period of around 15 years, I created and continue to maintain three organizations, Al-Fath Al-Mubin Publications (www.al-mubin.org), dedicated to the writing, translation and digital publishing of Islamic texts for Muslim authors around the world. I also launched the Islamic Publishing House (www.iph.ca) – a venture aimed at helping scholars, authors and translators publish their Islamic works by offering a one-stop shop for publishing requirements including consultation services, copy editing, text layout and design, cover design, printing and global distribution. Through our efforts, we have directly published almost 50 full-length books in English – all printed in Canada and have supported Muslim scholars in Canada, the USA, UK, Australia and other parts of the world in publishing their works – having worked on over 150 books in the past 20 years.
Three years ago, I launched the QAIM Institute (www.qaim.ca) – an acronym which stands for Quran and Ahlulbayt Inspired Media – a non-profit organization aimed at promoting the Quran and the teachings of the Ahlulbayt for the English audience. To date we have begun translation and publication of the commentary of Shaykh Mohsin Qara’ati, Tafseer-e Noor in four formats, ePUB, PDF, Audio Podcasts and YouTube videos.
In addition to all of this, I also deliver lectures at my local centre and I am also engaged in writing and translation of Islamic texts, creating content for my Podcast channel and YouTube as well as lecturing within Canada and other countries around the world.
- 23rd March marks the anniversary of the establishment of the Hawza Seminary of Qom. Would you please explain when and for what reasons did you join the Hawza Seminary of Qom? Did you have religious studies before that?
My wife and I journeyed to Qom in 1996 to start our religious studies in the Hawza of Qom and prior to this, we had studied in Medina, New York at the Islamic Seminary located in that small town. Prior to that, I had no other involvement with Islamic studies other than at my local centre and our weekend Islamic school; however, my wife had visited Qom many times including on a short course organized by a group in the UK.
Our goal in coming to Qom was to be able to immerse ourselves in the religious studies which were being offered in the Seminary and to be able to experience life within the Islamic Republic – to be able to better understand the teachings of the Ahlulbayt and in the process, better ourselves – and perhaps, to help in the education and propagation of Islam upon our return to Canada.
- In your viewpoint, what are the main features distinguishing the Hawza Seminary of Qom from other seminaries?
I have not had the opportunity to visit many other seminaries which exist in the world – both in Western countries such as London or the USA, or also in the East, in cities like Najaf or other parts of the Middle East and so I can not really comment directly, however Qom has many advantages going for it.
Seeing as how the Islamic Revolution of 1979 overthrew the corrupt regime of the former Shah, it allowed the scholars to breathe a breath of fresh air and gave institutes like the Seminary of Qom the ability to develop and mature organically.
It also allowed the Seminary and its scholars the ability to expand their breadth of research to include the mechanics of how to run a society – the social, political, economic and cultural aspects which are needed for a society to function – something which may not be seen in other quarters of the Muslim world – and the opportunity to implement the research carried out.
There are many other distinguishing traits of the Hawza of Qom such as having students from all over the world studying together in which you have students from Canada sitting and learning with students from Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Nigeria and other nationalities. This aids in the building of bonds amongst Shia across the globe, allow us to speak to our fellow brothers and sisters of the successes they have achieved in the field of education and propagation; learn from their failures and what things they did wrong that they learnt from and also allow us to establish networks of support for one another – whether it be financial assistance or moral support and backing.
Having such a diverse group of students from the global community of followers of the Ahlulbayt allows us to work and plan together and strategise on how to move forward and to prepare ourselves and our own communities as we prepare for the dawn of the return of Imam al-Hujjah, may Allah hasten his return.
- What are the leading Hawza seminaries in the West? What are the pros and cons of joining these seminaries instead of joining the Hawza Seminary of Qom?
As far as I know we have limited Hawza seminaries in the West. Canada does not have a full-time Hawza, however there is a program which offers the introductory classes of the Hawza after which the students are able to continue in the city of Qom. This is a recent undertaking which has so far seen many students successfully complete their introductory classes and make their way to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In the USA there are multiple full-fledged Hawza seminaries running as there are in the United Kingdom in various cities offering different levels of studies.
I would say that there are both advantages and disadvantages of having seminaries in the West. Definitely an advantage is that the students are “at home” and learning from local scholars who have been trained in the traditional seminaries and have then returned back to their own home or have migrated and established these institutes of higher learning. This allow students who, for whatever reason, cannot travel to Iran, the opportunity to delve into the world of Islamic studies and to better themselves while at the same time to be able to help their local community or themselves become teachers for the next generation of students.
Obviously living in Qom, benefiting from the sacred presence of Lady Fatima al-Masuma, peace be upon her, and the spirituality which exists in the haram; being only a few hours away from the haram of Imam Ali ibn Musa al-Ridha, peace be upon him, and being able to visit his shrine; having direct access to some of the greatest scholars of our faith of this era; seeing and benefitting from the maraji taqlid (religious authorities) and much more are all reasons why someone should come to Qom and study in the Hawza seminary.
In addition, living in the Holy City of Qom, studying along thousands of other students from all over the world has its own benefits associated with it that you cannot achieve if you are studying in Canada, USA, UK or any other country.
Thus, although there are benefits for having Seminaries in The West, however migrating to Qom and availing of the numerous opportunities is something very unique and as much as possible, is something which the next generation of youth who are planning on Islamic studies, should seriously think about and take advantage of.
- How do you compare today’s seminaries with those of the past, like 50 years ago?
Apparently from what I have read about our past scholars and their struggles in the Seminary, they had tremendous difficulties – perhaps mostly related to financial challenges.We hear and read stories of scholars having to study by the light of a candle or by sitting outside and using the street lights as they did not have enough money to purchase oil for their lamps – for this most part, this is no longer a problem.
We also hear stories of scholars eating ‘left-overs’ or having to save money by limiting their food consumption and engaging in fasting and praying for people in order just to buy one book – again today this is most likely not an issue for many of the students of the Hawza seminary. Thanks be to God that for the most part, many students are in a better position today – materialistically.
Based on observations, I would say that the some of students in Qom have good housing – much of it provided by Jamiatul Mustafa and other organizations, adequate meals with a reasonable monthly stipend (shahriyyah) being provided to them, and ease with transportation – with the Hawza providing shuttle services and the relative inexpensive public transport in Qom.
Many of the students today are also blessed to have access to modern technology – computers, mobile phones, Internet, etc. which allows them ease in conducting research, keeping in touch with their family back home and also to teach and provide instruction to their communities back home.
However, with that said, many students have argued that with all of our modern advancement and money being pumped into the Hawza system, this has diminished the spirituality and the ‘challenge’ of seeking knowledge. Sometimes when you have too many comforts, you become complacent and lethargic. Many traditions tell us that true knowledge is found in hunger and that it is with difficulties that a student of Islamic knowledge can excel, however when we are living in the lap of opulence, and our Seminary buildings look more like museums or palatial mansions than places of higher learning where we seek to get closer to the Divine, that all of these “advancements” are actually dumbing us down and are not resulting in what they intended goal may have been – to produce Godly scholars. There needs to be some balance in the Seminary and also in the lives of the students, in my opinion.
- How do you evaluate the courses held and books studied in today’s seminaries?
As I have been out of the seminary for close to 20 years now, I may not be able to provide a comprehensive answer to this question, however judging from my discussions with friends who continue to study in Qom and have been there for many, many years, they offer me an insight into the studies which they are engaged in. As with any system, courses must adapt to keep up with the current challenges; text books must be reviewed to ensure that they are meeting the needs of the current era and methods of teaching, however obviously the traditional studies of the seminary such as the Arabic language, Quran, logic, philosophy, ethics, theology, etc. remain “the same”.
Definitely the “traditional” books in these and other subjects have value; they were written by Godly scholars and they dedicated their blood, sweat and tears to producing such works which have been taught for hundreds of years with magnificent outcome. However, at the same time, with the progress of humanity, these sources of teaching also need to move forward to keep up with the needs of the students of today.
The ‘traditional’ courses also need to be maintained, however the officials of the Seminary need to realize that each country has their own unique needs and requirements and they cannot offer ‘one solution’ to every student – thinking that will be sufficient for them to go back home and engage in teaching, propagation and bringing about reformation in the society and their local community. Also, the officials of these Seminaries need to tap into the scholars of each country to gauge what the needs are of that region rather than assuming that they know it all or that they can travel to a specific country, speak to a few people and then come back thinking that they have all of the answers.
- We hear of online Hawza seminary as well. What’s your take on this?
I feel that there is a place for online learning – especially for those who have compeleted some level of studies in the Hawza in Qom and need to return back to their home. They should be provided an online system in which they can continue to take classes and progress.
However, for those who feel that the online Seminary can ‘replace’ traditional learning in which the student sits at the feet of his teacher and takes in not only the ‘facts’ but also learns from the morals and etiquette (akhlaq) of his or her teacher, they need to re-evaluate the student-teacher relationship.
There are many schools even in the West which are offering online learning and some which are mandating that schools provide their younger students with classes online, however there is push back from parents and educators in this method of instruction. Thus, such things need to be evaluated carefully before investing resources.
- How do you consider the role of Imam Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution of Iran in reviving the Hawza seminaries and developing their functions?
Definitely without a doubt, the role of Imam Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution of Iran revolutionized the Hawza seminary and has allowed them to flourish to what we see today.
Being very young when the Islamic revolution took place and not having seen Iran or the Hawza in the pre-Revolution days, I can only base my response on what I have read in the books and what friends have shared with me.
I feel that the role of the movement of Imam Khomeini was instrumental in “modernizing” the seminary – not modernization simply for the fact of it and not in the meaning of introducing technology, but more so bringing it to the forefront of society.
He was able to show that the seminary is not just some place for people to come to, study for 50 years of their life until pass away, and not leave any mark on the society.
The Revolution showed that Islamic scholarship has a place in our everyday lives and if we truly wish to live in an Islamic state, that we have to be in an Islamic state of mind – and that means that we must be ready to embrace Islamic teachings in all aspects – from politics, to societal issues to areas of enjoyment and pleasure.
Imam Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution showed us that Islam has within its teachings, the keys of how to build a functional and stable society and that the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet and his Ahlulbayt offer guidance for all spheres of life.
Had the Revolution not happened, and had it been that pure Muhammadan Islam was not given the opportunity to shine and prove its comprehensive nature, people may continue to think that Islam is merely a religion of prayer and worship.
Today we see the senior scholars offering Islamic verdicts (fatawa) on daily issues in the fields of medicine, Internet and social media usage and thousands of other areas – this is all through the blessing of having such a progressive system known as Marjaiyyah and having scholars living in Qom – living in an Islamic environment while at the same time, interacting with the world around them and modern challenges.
- Would you please share some interesting memories you like the most regarding the period you studied in Hawza?
Without a doubt, I have many sweet memories of the time I spent in Qom in the Hawza – both with new friends we made as well as interaction with scholars in various levels.
I remember when we got our first house from the Seminary which was in the area of Qom known as Zanbil Abad and our neighbors were a Sayyid family from China. This was my first-time meeting Shia Muslims from China and that too, descendants from the Prophet of Islam. Once I learnt Farsi and was able to communicate with him, he shared stories of his life in China and the struggles his family had undertaken to preserve their identity. Living in the communist state of China in which religion was and is still frowned upon, he used to tell me that as a young child, his father would take him and his siblings into a very small room in their house and under the cover of darkness would teach them how to read the Quran, how to pray and other requirements. The reason why he did so in secret was that if the neighbors found out that they were “too religious” or that they were learning about Islam from their parents, they may tell the government authorities about them – and this would have resulted in the arrest, detention and possible killing of the father. And so, they had to ‘hide’ the fact that they were ‘practicing Shia Muslims’.
When you hear such stories about how the Shia have had to preserve their faith by practicing it in secret shows us the level of mistrust and outright hatred which others have had and continue to have for us.
There are many other stories which stand out however we will leave those for another time.
This interview was conducted by Sayyid Mostafa Daryabari and Dr. Morteza Karimi.