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The Shadow Government in Qom

By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem for Islamist Gate

Seminary Teachers in the city of Qom, known as Hawza, is becoming a shadow government in Iran as it supervises the work of the president, government, media and other institutions in the country.

The establishment makes sure that the red lines of the Shiite faith are not crossed, especially when it comes to Velayat e-Faqih (The Jurist government), the Imamate (Twelver Doctrine), intellectual and media freedoms, as well as the social behavior of citizens.

Two months ago [in early June 2014], the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom warned the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani against the backdrop of a statement in which he advocated against the imposition of religiousness on Iranians by force. “One cannot take people to heaven through force and the whip,” Rouhani said.

Conservative clerics considered that Rouhani’s statement was a call to abandon the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice, a concept which is a pillar of the Shiite faith. Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a Friday sermon preacher in Tehran, said, “They say ‘let people be and do not take them to heaven by force’ […] is this having the concern of implementing religion? […] We have to protect our Islamic system.”

The Society of Seminary Teachers” of Qom was founded in 1961 by a number of prominent clerics in Qom following the death of the prominent Marja’ Ayatollah Hussein Borujerdi. The reason behind founding this society was to regulate religious teachings in seminars.

After the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, the society took on an active role in terms of drafting the institution, passing laws, and electing the supreme guide. In fact, a number of the society’s members are also members in the council of experts who elect the supreme guide and oust him if need be.

Sheikh Haidar Hoballah, a Lebanese cleric living in Qom, told IslamistGate in a phone interview that conservative clerics usually level criticism against the president, the government, and the media in case doctrinal and religious values are violated by officials, writers, media figures or activists.

These Ulamas are influential in the state and in society because a number of them are prominent religious authorities and have millions of followers, and others are renowned Ulamas and preachers, such as Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah al-Yazidi, Ayatollah Javadi Amoli, Ayatollah Mohammad al-Yazidi, and Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami.

Sheikh Hoballah noted, however, that this does not mean that the conservatives are controlling the religious scene in Qom and in Iran, in general. As Hoballah said, statistics show that the reformist guide Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi came first in Iran in terms of number of followers.

Sheikh Muhamad Duhaini, a Lebanese cleric and professor at Al-Mustafa University of Qom, who studied in Qom’s seminar, said in an interview to Islamistgate that reform movements and some of the figures affiliated to these movements are not influential in seminars.

Their influence is most felt among university students because religious authorities (Marja’eyat) are still highly influential and in control of the seminars.

The majority of the Marja’s are traditional conservatives who do not “like to change the known and familiar. They have their own closed world that fears the new just because it is new and not because it lacks something or there is something wrong in it.”

Islamistgate asked Duhaini if curricula in Qom seminars have developed or seminars were still following the old school style as in Najaf. “In fact, diversity has found its way to curricula and teaching methods in Qom seminars.

While some schools have adopted the modern curriculum, as is the case of the al-Mustafa International University, which was recently founded and has combined old and new religious schools, the old schools are still influential in terms of specifying the nature of teachings and the teaching mechanism, as is the case in the Kalbaykani, Tabrizi, and Borujerdi schools.

Sheikh Ali Halawi, a Lebanese cleric and the director of the bureau of the late Lebanese Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah in Qom, told Islamistgate that al-Mustafa University and the like, which adopt the modern curriculum, were founded for non-Iranian students, such as Arabs, Asians, and Africans. These students are compelled to attend classes, sit for tests, and acquire degrees.

According to Duhaini, the majority of traditional seminars, if not all, are attended by Iranians at the beginning of every academic year. They choose their courses and set up their own schedules in terms of the timing, teachers, and courses. However, an important number of Iranians who wish to study according to a curriculum and acquire a degree at the end of year which allows them to work in various fields, enroll in al-Mustafa University.

On the other side, there are traditional seminars that are attended by Iranians in general and some foreign students who rebelled against the curricula of al-Mustafa University. In these seminars, the traditional system is still followed and the studying of traditional books is still the prevalent trend.

Students choose their teachers, agree on a suitable schedule and specify the days off that are abundant in these schools. According to Duhaini, in some seminars, the academic year is constituted of not more than 100 studying days. Duhaini concluded by saying, “We cannot say that Qom seminars in general have witnessed a radical change in terms of curriculum, despite the active presence of the curriculum for foreign students at al-Mustafa University. Nonetheless, some students and teachers [at al-Mustafa University] call from time to time for the adoption of the old curriculum whereby students choose their course, teacher, and schedule.”

He continued, “These usually scorn the degree given by al-Mustafa University to its student at the end of the academic year, affirming that the new educational system provides a shallow approach to knowledge and sciences and teaches deep courses that need careful and deliberate studying in a rush.” Duhaini noted, “al-Mustafa University, in all its sections, adopts the [system of] curriculum, and compels all students to abide by it. It gives, according to the said curriculum, the degrees students deserve according to various oral and written tests in Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and origins [of religion], Islamic knowledge, philosophy, Quran and Hadith sciences, and more.

At the end of each phase, the university gives a degree that resembles university degrees (a Master’s degree for the phase of Sutooh [intermediary-advanced studies], Doctorate degree for the phase of Dars Kharij [advanced-independent studies]). In each phase students graduate after presenting a scientific thesis that meets the academic and scientific requirements applicable in universities.”

However, the dominance of the hardliners and conservative clerics in Qom seminars and their great influence on the regime establishment, including the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would prevent the Islamic Shiite thought from its evolution in theology, jurisprudence, and political thought fields. The intellectual stagnation and the refusal of renewal will make the Shiite thought alike the Salafi one, despite the freedom of Ijtihad(diligence) in the Shiism and the existence of hundreds of Scholars that have the authority to be a Mujtahid or Marja’.

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