New Iraqi school spans chasms between religions

Just outside the sprawling mosque that used to be known as the Saddam Hussein Mosque in Hilla, a somber memorial recalls the city's dark history. On one end, an outstretched hand rises towards the sky, steel rods jutting from it to signify lost souls rising to heaven.

Just below it lie the 76 graves of unidentified victims of Mr. Hussein's regime found in a mass grave in Hilla last May, separated by a stream from a fountain. Around the statue, scriptures from the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran offer prayers for the victim's souls.

For the Hilla School of Religion, which took over the mosque and requisitioned the memorial, it's meant as a dramatic statement in a town that prefers not to discuss the issue of the mass graves. Indeed, in the most unlikely of places, an unlikely school has begun raising critical questions about faith, humanity, and religion.

Founded six months ago by a Shiite scholar, the institution bills itself as the Arab world's only school of theology, teaching Muslim, Christian, and Judaic texts. In a town full of deep-seated sorrow, the statue may best embody the school's credo of breaking down barriers and asking dangerous questions.

"This is a school of theology, not of Islam," said Sheikh Faris al-Shareef, professor of Islamic law and philosophy at the school. "There is one thing that unites all of us: God and his prophets. With that realization, you can teach all theologies." And by discussing all theologies, many of the school's largely Muslim leadership insist, Islam itself can be reinterpreted and rethought.

About 250 students of all ages have descended on the experimental school in search of a broader understanding of faith. The school's scholars have broken from the traditions of Islamic teaching and the Shiite orthodoxy, sprinkled in some concepts of secularism and social justice, and cobbled together a new curriculum for studying theology in the broadest sense.

The school's 180 or so full-time students and 50 or so part timers now study the teachings of the Bible and the Torah; they may learn a few things about religions like Hinduism and Buddhism as well. All the while, they are sent searching for religious insights into everything from medicine to astronomy. Computers are taught as a religious tool; philosophy becomes a theological discipline.

The ultimate goal, says Sheikh Farqad al-Quzwini, the school's founder and dean of its 25 or so faculty members, is to get at answers to the vexing religious problems that left Iraq, and perhaps much of the Muslim world, in its current state.

"For 35 years, Iraqis have feared nothing but Saddam," says Mr. Quzwini, a giant man who wears the headdress of a Shiite cleric. "What's supposed to happen now is that humanity must stop firing the bullets; the language itself has to change. We must fix the Iraqi before we can fix Iraq."

Quzwini began changing the language in 1999 as a student at the Hawza, the Shiite seminary, in Najaf. With a penchant for discussions that made many in the Hawza orthodoxy cringe - most of all, veiled challenges to the regime - Quzwini set out to develop an experimental curriculum that challenged the orthodoxy.

The problem with much of Islamic teaching, he says, is that it is too introverted. Muslims needed to learn from other faiths and be exposed to other ideas in order to better understand their own faith and avoid the sectarian squabbles that have been taking over the faith in recent years.

"Islam, in our view, embraces all education," Quzwini says. "Islam is humanity and humanity is Islam. That's not the Islam we have come to know, but a far broader idea of what the faith is."

It was the kind of talk neither the regime nor the Hawza could tolerate for long. Quzwini was arrested by Saddam's Fedayeen and held for several weeks in 2001, he says. The authorities attempted to assassinate him shortly after but ended up killing Quzwini's father and brother. In his darkest hour, he claims, none of the Hawza elders came to his rescue. "Millions were spent to destroy this idea," Quzwini insists. "They see me as crossing their boundaries. They want people to see the differences between Sunni and Shiite."

When the regime fell, Quzwini and his students seized on the recently completed Saddam mosque and moved in. Townspeople welcomed the school, Quzwini says, though none would comment on the matter.

"I came to Hilla and removed Saddam's name," Quzwini says. "We called it the Hilla School of Religion because we aim to speak to all faiths."

The school's curriculum ranges from Arabic to science, ethics, philosophy, and, of course, comparative religion. The school is largely funded by Quzwini's earnings from a family farm as well as by donations. Students pay a nominal tuition.

"Some employees, mainly from Kut, started putting aside part of their salaries for this university and we receive about 900,000 Iraqi dinars [$450]."

The school has dormitories nearby and also runs a program for young children.

Most of the students are men; but Quzwini says women will soon be accepted at the university. In all, the school has 120 new students from the governorates as well as 50 students who left Najaf because the school could "supply them with things that Hawza could not."

Seyed Maitham al-Hashim was one of those students who graduated from the program in Najaf and jumped at the opportunity to teach at the school. "The gave me an organized way to think about faith and to teach," says Hashim. "If there really is a clash of civilizations [going on], then all the sides need to learn each other's commonalities and understand their differences."

As a sign of the stature the school has built, Quzwini point to visits by Paul Bremer, Iraq's civilian administrator, and Sergio Vieira de Mello, head of the United Nations Iraq mission killed in a suicide truck bombing in August.

"Through my writings and through my students, I think I can change this place one person at a time," Quzwini says. "You will one day hear about this school as a leader of peace. And we will raise the banner of peace by raising new ideas; that is basically what Islam itself is about."