The Calling of Islam

  • Should I give everything up and go study religion?
  • Do I have what it takes?
  • What is at stake?

These are difficult questions. They don’t have easy and simple answers. There is much soul searching to be done before a person can know whether he is up to the great task and responsibility of becoming a student in the traditional religious seminary (i.e. a ‘seeker of knowledge’—ṭālib al-ʿilm—in the Hawzah).

A number of things have to be considered during this process of self-reflection. To begin, it must be clearly understood that the Hawzah, and hence studying in it, is not a profession; rather, it is a calling.  As a “calling”, it is for life, in all the different meanings of the word.  It is not something you do for a short period of time (though be it many years), or in a certain stage of your life.  And it is not something you do for a livelihood, as it is there to give life, spiritual and otherwise, to people, not to take from them.  It is something that you do for the Ever-Living, and something that you do to attain eternal life for yourself.  It is a labour of love and something that is done out of an inner passion, and not for any worldly considerations.

Now the ostensible goal of those studying in the Hawzah is: To gain knowledge and to apply it on themselves and then on the world at large, all for the sake of Allah and His cause.

The above statement calls for a few comments.  First, the knowledge that is studied is the knowledge of Allah and His Way.  Now as Allah is the Highest possible Being, knowledge of Him and His Word is also of a very exalted nature.  The stakes are high.  For knowledge is power, and power if misused is destruction of self and others.  To illustrate the magnitude of the responsibility at play here, the example usually given is that of a doctor.  If a doctor makes a mistake he causes, at most, the death of a person.  The death in question is the non-existence of the physical body of the person—something that was destined to happen anyway.  But if a scholar or minister of religion, an ʿālim, makes a mistake, he could cause the spiritual death of the soul of a person—something that lasts for eternity.  Second, the knowledge is to be applied first and foremost on oneself.  That is to say, the immediate and most important goal for a ṭālib al-ʿilm is self-change. He should not be happy with the way that he is and should never be complacent.  He should always want to perfect himself, to be able to reach the All-Perfect.  As the road to the All-Perfect is infinite, the ṭālib al-ʿilm should always know that he is just that, a ṭālib or ‘seeker’ of knowledge and perfection at every stage, and that he is always poor and in need in comparison to Allah and his Friends.  This gives him the needed modesty.  Modesty and humility being the quintessential conditions for true knowledge.  As one ḥadīth says, “He who cannot humble himself (at the feet of a teacher) for an hour in seeking knowledge, will remain in the servility of ignorance for eternity.”  Third, the calling is just that, “a call” from above.  Even after having gained knowledge and embarked upon self-change, it is a part of the calling of the Hawzah student to serve others and to serve the religion. But “many are called, but few are chosen”, stands true and it is extremely presumptuous to think that now that one has gained knowledge, Allah should use one in His work and divine plan.  It is Allah who chooses who to use and how to use them for His cause. It is up to us to prepare the ground, only.

Contemplation on the above three points should lead to fear.  A fear which can only be overcome with sincerity.  But the fear must be there.  One should be afraid of becoming a ṭālib al-ʿilm and should pray, night and day, for Allah to help him in becoming one, if that is what He wills, and to help him in fulfilling the great responsibility that it would entail if he became one.

Hence, a prospective Hawzah student, or ṭālib al-ʿilm, should do many months of painstaking soul-searching before even considering taking up the calling.  To help him in doing this, the School of Islamic and Occidental Studies is offering an Intensive Language and Maʿārif (ILM) Program (a six-month introductory course in Islamic sciences offered in English, and a six-month course in Classical and Spoken Farsi). The ILM Program is conducted in Qum and is taught by people who are immersed and well-versed in the thousand-year-old tradition of the Hawzah. Hence the participant will have exposure to the environment and will also have the sufficient time to make this important decision. If he succeeds in the ILM Program and decides to take up the calling of becoming a formal ṭālib al-ʿilm, the School will facilitate his admission process. On the other hand, if he decides to return home after the completion of these introductory courses, two things will have happened: First, he will have gained a good grounding in the basic Islamic sciences, such as will help to guide him through the confusions that the modern world is bringing upon believers; second, he will have made the necessary contacts to continue the process of seeking knowledge for long as he lives, inshā Allāh.