This was a brief overview written by Sheikh Shuja, published in a document titled Islamic Education: Towards a Generation of North American Ulama in December of 2003. It seeks to briefly answer the question of what it means to study in the hawzah.
There is much soul searching to be done before a person knows whether he is up to the great task and responsibility of becoming a Talib al-Ilm.
The first general but exact statement that can be made is that the Hawza – and hence studying in it – is not a profession; it is rather, a Calling. As such, 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 the 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.
Firstly, 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. The example usually given by my teachers 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 an ‘Alim 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 Talib al-Ilm 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 Talib al-Ilm should always know that he is just that, a ±¡lib (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 Hadith 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. After having gained knowledge and embarked upon self-change, it is in the calling of the Hawzah student to serve others and to serve the Din. But the saying, “Many are called and few are chosen”, rings true and it must be remembered that it is extremely presumptuous to think that now that one has gained knowledge, God should use one in His work and divine plan. It is Allah who chooses who to use and in what capacity 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 Talib al-‘Ilm 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.
A prospective Hawza student ought to do many months of painstaking soul-searching and think about some of the things mentioned above, before even considering coming to study. If after doing this, and doing it properly, you come to the conclusion that the Hawza is not for you, then at that point you can think of other ways in which you can serve Din – such as getting University qualifications so as to be able to effect the system from within and try to provide an alternative perspective for those few University students who would be serious seekers of truth.