For two weeks in August this year, we attend the Islamic Belief System summer course in Qom and Mashhad, hosted by the International Institute for Islamic Studies (IIIS).
This event brought together participants from all over the world, male and female, of all ages and backgrounds, each one sharing the desire to gain knowledge from some of the best teachers in the field of Islamic studies. Truly, we were not disappointed.
On arrival, we were greeted at the steps of the Yaravan-e Mahdi(atfs) conference facility by friendly faces, and this was the place we were to spend the next 11 days studying, as well as sleeping, eating and most of our general rest time.
The second day we were there, the opening ceremony took place in the presence of Sheikh Mohammad Ali Shomali. The subjects taught were centred around the course manual “Islamic Belief System”. We went through the topics of Prophethood, Imamah, Anthropology, Ahkam, Theology and the Hereafter. These were taught by extremely knowledgeable teachers in the field and were coeducational except for the Imamah classes which were separated by gender. Classes were filled with probing and often excited debate, which was encouraged and even enjoyed by some of the teachers.
Plenty of opportunities to ask questions were given during class time, and many students are still in contact with teachers, having been given email addresses and contact numbers by teachers with an invitation to question them further in the future.
Our lessons began at 9:00am daily and we had four lessons before salat al-Dhuhr, each of them lasting 45 minutes with a 15-minute break in between.
A discussion time was allocated at 4:00pm daily for student groups of 3-4 people to talk about the lessons. This was highly encouraged, however, many of us were not sure initially how to best utilise the time. But after some probing, we realised what a valuable opportunity this was to delve a little deeper into the course work.
The final lesson of the day took place at 5:10pm and was usually followed by a group Ziyarat to Lady Masoomah(a) in Qom, which was around a 15-minute coach ride away. The proximity to Lady Masoomah(a) was really the icing on the cake and many of us looked eagerly forward each day to the Ziyarat, gaining such spiritual benefit from these precious moments inside the Haram. While we were there the Haram was extremely busy as the week before the course began had been the commemoration of the birth of Lady Masoomah(a) and the birth of Imam Rida(a).
One evening while we were staying in Jamkaran, the ladies had a fun evening, consisting of games and quizzes on an Islamic theme, which really helped to build bonds between the sisters. At the same time, the brothers, whose number was about half that of the sisters, had their own merry evening with a quiz night.
Our trip was further enhanced with visits to local museums and points of interest which were very educational. Our outing to Al-Marashi al-Najafi Library in Qom was especially memorable and we were honoured to be given special time on a well-organised tour, viewing rare manuscripts and being able to watch workers rectifying old books. Some described it as the favorite of all their visits, if not the highlight of their whole journey.
We even managed to climb Mount Khidhr on one of the evenings, which was rather strenuous, but nonetheless invigorating and the achievement was highly satisfying. In addition, the team took candidates to see Golzar-e Shohada which is the martyrs’ cemetery in Qom, and Bayt al-Noor which is the place where Lady Masoomah(a) stayed before she tragically died in Qom on her way to visit her brother Imam Rida(a).
On Tuesday evening we had the blessing of reciting Dua Tawassul in Masjid Jamkaran, and on Thursday evening we went to the Haram of Lady Masoomah(a) to recite Dua Kumayl. Each of these occasions cannot be described in words…only by experience can one truly understand the uplifting surroundings and soul-moving environment of those beautiful moments.
One of the most amazing events and unforgettable evenings was the trip down to the complex basement to discover their hidden treasures. A heart-wrenching museum and exhibition of Imam al-Mahdi(atfs). Truly it was a unique masterpiece and an evening that brought many of the sisters to tears. It is hard to put into words. However, to sum the exhibition up would be to say that it was a view of the world in its present condition, showing the causes of the chaos of mankind and illustrating the only solution to the problem – Imam al-Hujjat(atfs).
Our journey to Mashhad was on the following Tuesday, where we stayed for the remainder of the course in a beautifully clean and welcoming hotel not too far from the shrine of Imam Rida(a). Needless to say that the evening Ziyarats to our beloved Imam(a) were amazing and we all tried to quench our thirst for closeness to God within his holy precinct.
Some of the lessons on the Hereafter by Sheikh Shomali took place in the hotel’s garden restaurant, which was relaxing and very enlightening. The other lesson took place within the actual shrine buildings which was a lovely experience.
Sheikh Shomali was kind enough to meet participants in their country groups on one evening, trying to get a feel for the challenges of each community with a view to attempting to work with its members on a long term basis.
Eventually, the course concluded on the last Friday morning, with candidates taking their exam. The questions themselves were based upon the lectures rather than just the course material. The results were wide ranging but all those who participated, regardless of their marks, felt like they had truly benefitted from the course overall and that the exam was merely a gauge to see how much knowledge they had retained rather than the sole aim being to come out with shining marks.
The closing ceremony took place within the lecture rooms of the shrine of Imam Rida(a), on the last Saturday morning before departure. Attendees were all presented with a certificate of attendance – even one young candidate who had been attending with her family received an honorary certificate.
It was a privilege to spend those two weeks with such wonderful teachers, mentors, workers and fellow students. It is a journey never to be forgotten and will always remain in our hearts and minds. We are looking forward to perhaps attending another similar course in the future and would definitely recommend it to anyone seeking a well-organised and knowledge filled venture.