A rare look inside the 'heart of society' for Iraq's Shi'ites

NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya south of Baghdad has been one of the hearts of Shi'ite Islamic scholarship, training the clerics who lead Shi'ite communities across the Muslim world.

Thousands of students, from teenage boys to university graduates, study Islam at its schools in the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala.

Shi'ites, who are the majority in Iraq, were repressed under dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, but now lead the Iraqi government since Saddam was overthrown in 2003. Clerics trained at the Hawza have wide social and political influence, both inside Iraq and abroad.

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A rare look inside the 'heart of society' for Iraq's Shi'ites
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A rare look inside the 'heart of society' for Iraq's Shi'ites

Shi'ite clerics talk at al-sayed al-Yazdi school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in Najaf, Iraq, August 12, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics.

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite clerics walk outside the Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines in Kerbala, Iraq, August 19, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite clerics study at al-Gharawiya school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in Najaf, Iraq, August 13, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite clerics study at al-Gharawiya school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in Najaf, Iraq, August 13, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics. R

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A Shi'ite cleric holds a turban at al-sayed al-Yazdi school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in Najaf, Iraq, August 12, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Al-sayed al-Yazdi school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya is seen in Najaf, Iraq, August 12, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A Shi'ite cleric holds a turban at al-sayed al-Yazdi school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in Najaf, Iraq, August 12, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A Shi'ite cleric buys vegetables at a market in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq, August 13, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite clerics talk at al-sayed al-Yazdi school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in Najaf, Iraq, August 12, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite clerics walk out of the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq, August 13, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A Shi'ite cleric takes off his shoes as he enters Ibn al-Fahd al-Heli school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in Kerbala, Iraq, July 30, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Abdul Hussain Jassim Al Aboudi, 60, a student at al-Gharawiya school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya, holds a book, in Najaf, Iraq, August 13, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Star Jaber Al-Busaisi (C), 58, a teacher at Ibn al-Fahd al-Heli school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya, speaks to the principal of the school, in Kerbala, Iraq, August 4, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite clerics pray at Sadiq Hussaini Shirazi's office who is a top Shi'ite cleric in Kerbala, Iraq, July 30, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A Shi'ite cleric walks to a religious school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in Najaf, Iraq, August 13, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite clerics are seen at Sadiq Hussaini Shirazi's office who is a top Shi'ite cleric in Kerbala, Iraq, July 30, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A Shi'ite cleric (L) speaks to a student at Ibn al-Fahd al-Heli school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in Kerbala, Iraq, August 4, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Mohamed Hassan Abdel Hadi Baqer, 25, a student at Ibn al-Fahd al-Heli school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya, looks into a fridge at his home in Kerbala, Iraq, August 18, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A Shi'ite cleric reads a book at a library in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq, August 12, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A Shi'ite cleric makes his call to prayer at Sadiq Hussaini Shirazi's office who is a top Shi'ite cleric in Kerbala, Iraq, July 30, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Mohamed Hassan Abdel Hadi Baqer, 25, a student at Ibn al-Fahd al-Heli school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya, eats with his children at his home in Kerbala, Iraq, August 18, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A tailor checks the size of a Shi'ite cleric's clothes in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Iraq, August 13, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Students are seen at Ibn al-Fahd al-Heli school run by al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in Kerbala, Iraq, August 19, 2017. For more than 1,000 years, the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyya in southern Baghdad has been giving religious instructions to thousands of Shi'ite Muslims to help them become clerics. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

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This year, around 200 fully fledged clerics will graduate, completing a process that requires at least ten years of study.

In the Najaf school, a typical day will see clerics in flowing black robes and white turbans giving lectures to groups of students sitting on the floor of a great hall, lined with pointed arches and elaborate mosaics.

Students are given instruction in subjects including Islamic jurisprudence, philosophy, theology, logic and interpreting Islam's holy book, the Koran.

The Kerbala school teaches around 250 students each year, and in Najaf there are more than 1000. Together they are served by a faculty of around 90 teachers.

"Hawza has a high rank at the heart of the society," Wael Noor Al-Deen Murtadha, a Shi'ite cleric and lecturer at the school, told Reuters.

"What is important about Hawza is that it reduces the moral degeneration and irregularities of life. It creates a culture among people aimed at reinforcing social relationships between different sects away from any discrimination."

(Reporting by Abdullah Dhiaa Al-Deen; writing by Mark Hanrahan; editing by Peter Graff)

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