Nestled in the lush green woods of south-west Birmingham lies what is probably Britain’s most inconspicuous Muslim seminary.
The Al-Mahdi Institute (AMI) is spread over four acres of land in what used to be known as the Collage of Ascension, a Christian theological seminary established in 1929 which was once affiliated with Birmingham University. Now it has become one of the largest hawzas, or Islamic seminaries, in the UK to formally study classic Islamic texts in their original language – including subjects like philosophy, mysticism and ethics.
While the existence of hawzas, or madaris, is not necessarily a new one in the West, the practise of undergoing the training required to become an Imam, or Sheikh, is a more recent phenomenon. While the chief centres of Islamic learning have traditionally been in Cairo, Madinah, Najaf or Qum, increasing numbers of Muslim students are choosing to study advanced training in Islamic Studies and Arabic closer to home.
AMI contends that their four-year ‘Hawza Program’, which offers students a grounding in reading, analysing and contextualising classical Arabic texts, with emphasis placed on the use of modern theories in the study of religion, theology and language, equates to eight years of education in Iran or Iraq. “We offer a hawza program that is offered in the seminaries of Qum and Najaf with an emphasis on modern methods of learning and a critical approach,” says Dr Hashim Bata, a lecturer and former Hawza program graduate at AMI.
The Institute’s emphasis on scholarly and academic rigour combined with an open and non-dogmatic approach to learning make it unique amongst other Islamic seminaries, and an attractive option for international students. The Institute’s current Outreach Officer, Farhana Kapasi, chose to study the Hawza program after completing an MA in English Language and Literature in Mumbai.
“I came here to study Islamic sciences and to understand other religions in a more in-depth way,” she says. “It was wonderful and eye-opening. We did a course on Comparative Religions, and as you know India is a diverse country; we’ve been brought up among people from different religions so there were always questions I had. Studying different sciences like theology, philosophy and mysticism gave me an insight into this religious pluralism.”
More recently, the Al Mahdi Institute has extended its outreach by opening up its campus to other faith groups. One of its biggest initiatives includes the One Faith project, aimed at promoting greater tolerance of all faiths by encouraging local places of worship to open their doors to anyone, irrespective of their religious inclination.
“The idea has been extrapolated from one of the habits of the Prophet,” says Riaz Walji, a lecturer and member of the education and research board.
“The Prophet would also allow Christians and Jews to utilize the mosque for their own use. We are also open to Sikhs, Buddhists, or those from no religion – anyone who wants to contemplate,” he adds. “They can do their own ceremonies in our centre, and we want them to do the same for us. Our aim right now is to find other religious centres to subscribe to this ethos as well.”
AMI also stresses its efforts to bridge the gap between Muslim schools of thought. The faculty includes lecturers from both the Sunni and Shi’a schools of thought and guest speakers from other communities are regularly invited. “After Jum’a prayer we welcome clergy and clerics [from other Muslim traditions] to recite the Jum’a sermons and we sometimes have a discussion afterwards,” says Dr Bata.
This approach extends to the Institute’s research of classical and contemporary Islamic Studies, says Ali-Reza Bhojani, a post-doctoral research fellow and lecturer. Academic contributions come from a range of scholars with diverse backgrounds and recent research activities have included contemporary fiqhi [jurisprudential] issues workshops (focusing on the age of maturity, marriage, age of consent and mental health issues), public seminars and research bursaries.
AMI is a great opportunity for scholars to present cutting edge research, says Bhojani. “The idea is to bring people in from different backgrounds. We’re equally learning from the Sunni scholar as well as the Shi’a. There’s a genuine belief in the value of diverse perspectives.”
[Al-Mahdi Institute’s Musallah (Chapel). The Christian community has used it to host their Sunday Service and Sunni brothers have led Jum’ah [Friday] prayers and recited Khutbah (sermon) in this Chapel.