The word Ḥawzah is found in Arabic as well as Persian language. In Arabic, the word Ḥawzah means ‘to hold something firmly’. According, Ḥawzah ʿIlmīyah would means a place where the firm knowledge (of the Shia religion) is acquired. Whereas, in Persian language, Ḥawzah refers to the middle part of a place or an area. Accordingly, in Persian, Ḥawzah ʿIlmīyah means ‘the place of knowledge’. Another meaning of the word is ‘circle of knowledge’.
Several senior Grand Ayatollahs constitute the hawza. The institutions in Najaf, Iraq and Qom, Iran, are the preeminent seminary centers for the education of Shi’a scholars. However, several smaller hawzas exist in other cities around the world, such as at Karbala, Iraq, Isfahan and Mashhad in Iran, Beirut, Lebanon, Lucknow, India, Lahore, Pakistan, Europe and North America.
Hawza ‘Ilmiyya in Najaf, Iraq was established in 430 AH (the 11th century AD) by Shaykh al-Tusi (385 AH/995 CE – 460 AH/1067 CE), and continued as a center of study until the establishment of modern Iraq in 1921. At present Ayatollah Sistani heads Hawza ‘Ilmiyya Najaf, which includes three other Ayatollahs – Mohammad Ishaq Al-Fayyad, Mohammad Saeed Al-Hakim and Bashir al-Najafi. After witnessing a peak of some 20,000 students in the 60s, then around 3000 because of the State repression, since 2003, the Najaf hawza has now more than 13,000 students, while the curriculum has been updated to include many modern subjects as well as inter faith and inter sectarian initiatives.
Although large Shi’a academies existed in Qom dating back as early as 10th century CE, the hawza of the city became prominent at the time of the Safavids when Shi’a Islam became the official religion of Iran. The famous teachers of that era included Mulla Sadra and Shaykh Bahai. The modern Qom hawza was revitalized by Abdul Karim Haeri Yazdi and Grand Ayatollah Borujerdi and is barely a century old. There are nearly three hundred thousand clerics in Iran’s seminaries.