Clergy Corner

Living and Studying in the Holy City of Qom

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ImageImagine how my emotional state was all over the place as I had just left everything I had, everything and everyone I knew, behind. And here I was in a new country, where I didn't know the language, culture or customs and effectively was starting life in many ways all over again. Alhamdulillah, though, I was welcomed by some other Western brothers with open arms, and this made the early days much easier.

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Shaikh Yasin Devji

No matter how you look, analyze, and dissect it, living in the holy city of Qom and going to the seminary (Hawza Ilmiyyah) revolves around one thing – the holy shrine of the Blessed Lady Sayyida Fatema Ma'suma – Sister of Imam Ali Ridha (peace be them). It was for this reason that when I arrived in the holy city of Qom to settle and pursue higher Islamic studies, the first place I went to was to her blessed grave.

When I arrived at her blessed resting place, I called out to her and said the following: "Oh my Blessed Lady, it is only through your permission and invitation that I am here, and as such, I am asking you to intercede for me with Allah and that you take care of me while I am in your blessed presence." I can safely say that she did not disappoint and took very good care of me – and still does! Not once have I come to her for any reason where she didn't make sure my request from Allah would go unheeded.

We are in Qom to study, but if you come to Qom and do not make this connection with Sayyida, then you are depriving yourself of perhaps the biggest blessing of the city and your time there.

In February of 2006, after much deliberation, I left the only place I have ever lived and everything I had ever known and made the move to Qom, Iran, for the purpose of pursuing Islamic studies at the seminary there. Coming from the West and moving to the East was quite an adjustment for many reasons.

Imagine how my emotional state was all over the place as I had just left everything I had, everything and everyone I knew, behind. And here I was in a new country, where I didn't know the language, culture or customs and effectively was starting life in many ways all over again. Alhamdulillah, though, I was welcomed by some other Western brothers with open arms, and this made the early days much easier.

While there is no official support system for people settling in Qom, there is an unofficial one in that if people from the West find out someone else from the West has come, they will go out of their way to come and say hello and offer whatever help is necessary to ease the transition. I guess this is because everyone remembers what it was like when they arrived for the first time and what challenges they faced. I was very lucky as I had some wonderful people to help me through the process of getting settled and started on my studies.

When I had made the decision to go to Qom, and while I was looking at possible living options, I was determined to live like a real "Talabe", and by that I mean live at the Hawza amongst the students. It was an interesting experience. Here I was, a 30-year-old Westerner who is used to coming and going as I please, independent in my affairs, used to living on my own, and now all of a sudden I am in a situation where I have to share my room, use public toilets and public showers, and live under a curfew!

When I got to Madressa Al-Mahdi, which is the name of the Farsi school where all male foreigners go first to study Farsi before they go to the Hawza itself, I was put into a room on the fourth floor where new arrivals stayed until they got permanent rooms. It was a room that would normally fit about 4-5 comfortably, but I guess I was just unlucky, and there were about 11 of us. I was the oldest in the room and the only Westerner, so it was quite an experience. Our bedding was literally side-by-side, and I managed to squeeze in between two brothers, one from Bangladesh and the other from Rwanda.

I was especially fascinated by the brother from Rwanda, as I had just finished watching Hotel Rwanda and was curious about his background. Turns out the brother had suffered like I saw in the movie and was actually a Sunni before who had turned Shia just a few years back. This is another beauty of Qom. You get to meet and live with people from all corners of the world who are Shia just like you. I found that to be such an enriching experience, and it made me realize that I knew so little about my fellow brothers.  

Finally after about three weeks, I got my permanent room and moved in with two other people. One was an Azerbaijani brother, and the other was an Indonesian brother. They welcomed me with open arms. Bear in mind we shared no common language other than the Farsi we were learning, and this was not only a help in learning the language but also a greater help in forming a close bond with each other.  

A typical day at Al-Mahdi would begin with your written Farsi class at 8:00 a.m. until 10:00 a.m. You would then have a 15-minute break and then attend verbal Farsi until noon. At noon you would wash up and get ready for noon prayers. You'd pray in the prayer hall, and then it was downstairs to the dining hall for lunch. Coming from an Indian and Western background, the food was definitely an adjustment, but you get used to it. After lunch you would retire to your room to rest or study until an afternoon class, which usually began at 5:00 p.m. This class would last an hour and, depending on what level of Farsi you were at, the content of the classes would vary. The evening time was a chance to relax, go to the holy shrine and, of course, study.

All throughout the school, you could see little study groups scattered, with some doing Farsi, some doing Qur'an, and some doing other Islamic sciences. At 10:00 p.m., the gate to the Madressa would be locked (11:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays), and if you were out, you had to be back in the Madressa compound by then. Lights out was 11:00 p.m.. At Fajr (morning prayer) the next day, the cycle would start all over again.

My fondest memory of my time thus far in Qom and specifically my time at Madressa Al-Mahdi is the friends I made and long discussions about life, Islam, and other things we used to have on the roof of the Madressa. Many of us would sit for hours on end, sharing our stories and plans for the future. It was as though we were family, and this is what made it special. I felt at home and at peace. It is was as though we were all children living in the shadow of our Mother: the Blessed Lady Sayyida Fatema Ma'suma (peace be upon her).


This article originally appeared in a previous issue of
Islamic Insights.

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