Born in Qom, Iran, as the son of an ayatollah, Mehdi Khalaji knows what the long path to Shiite scholarship looks like. His father dreamed that he might someday join the ranks of these high scholars as an ayatollah, and from 1986 to 2000, Khalaji studied theology and jurisprudence in the traditional city center. Almost a decade after a difficult decision to leave and pursue his work in journalism independent scholarly research, Khalaji, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spoke with Foreign Policy's Elizabeth Dickinson about what life in the seminary is like, and why ayatollahs are not made; they are born. Excerpts:
On growing up and entering seminary:
I was sent to the seminary when I was very young -- when I was 11 years old. My father was hoping that someday I would become a grand ayatollah. But I betrayed my father's dreams and I got out of seminary, finally. I studied until the highest level, when you attend courses of the important ayatollahs. I studied Shiite theology, jurisprudence and Islamic philosophy.
Since my father was an ayatollah, I'd been familiar with a clerical life. When [former Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini came to Iran in February 1979, after two months he came to Qom, my father was the one who welcomed him publicly. My father was well-known, and he had a good relationship with other revolutionaries. Actually my father was in prison before the revolution.
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On daily life in seminary:
The daily life of a religious student in my time was much different from what it used to be before the revolution, and from what it is now.
Life was traditional. You get up early morning because you have to pray. Many good clerics even get up at two or three o'clock in the early morning to pray. After the morning prayer, for example at 5 o'clock, 6 o'clock, they start to read. And at 7 o'clock, the courses start. Usually the courses are 45 minutes. Each student chooses a fellow [student] to discuss each course with him each day. Sometimes I play the role of teacher for you; I teach you the same thing I was taught yesterday. If I say anything wrong, you correct me. Tomorrow you're going to be my teacher. In this way, [students] repeat the courses and correct each others' possible misunderstandings. Usually, you take three or four courses per day.
At noon, you go back to your home or, if you live in a traditional school, you go to the school. You eat something, and you get some rest. At four o'clock, you start your classes until sunset. At sunset, you pray your sunset prayer. After that, you go home and you start to read. You go to bed early because you have to get up early.
That was the typical life at that time. But now, everything is mistaught, after [current Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei injected lots of money into the clerical establishments. They destroyed the traditional structure and the educational program. They created some schools that are more like a military base rather than a traditional, clerical school. And every morning, [the students] do something like a parade, which is a military practice, not a clerical practice.
On reasons for entering seminary:
In my time, nobody went to the seminary to gain money or credits, because in the society it wasn't one of the favorite jobs you could have. Before the revolution, [attendance] was based on religious convictions and your own personal decision -- the feeling of religious responsibility. After revolution, people were agreeing to go to seminary because they had been revolutionary idealists. They were looking at the seminary as a place for ideological training.
But gradually, clerics were put in charge of sensitive positions. Being a cleric meant that you could gain lots of political power and economic advantages. So now, people are not going to the seminary for the study of religion; people are going because the seminary became a place for training employees for the government. They are going to become wealthy and to become close to the political circles. After 30 years, the new generation of the seminary is intellectually very poor but economically very rich -- just the opposite of what it used to be.