|Jamia Tuz Zahra is Iran's largest women's seminary and houses 800 of its 3,000 students
Deep within the theological heartland of Iran lies the city of Qom, also known as the "Shia Vatican".
Situated 100km southwest from Tehran, the city is renowned for its seminaries, or hawzas, which are home to about 60,000 clerical students who come from across Iran and elsewhere to train in everything from religion and jurisprudence to modern political thought and the Greek Classics.
While many of the female students attend the hawza solely to attain the status of Aalima (a senior preacher), some also choose to take courses as part of a 'gap year' before beginning university.
Zahra Merali, a 21-year-old Kenyan Muslim, has been living and studying at Jamia Tuz Zahra, Qom's largest women's hawza, that houses 800 of its 3,000 foreign and local students.
|Zahra Merali lived and studied at the hawza for over two years
She describes the campus, which has been her home for more than two years, as a "spiritual oasis".
With lush greenery encircling a pool-blue fountain and a gazebo-like pavilion situated in the middle of a massive courtyard, the Jamia looks more like the back garden patio of a five-star hotel than a campus ground for Islam's future clerics.
Nestled covertly behind one of Qom's busiest main roads, the hawza's doors are closed to males and non-students.
Visitors are required to register at the front desk, where a chador-cloaked woman approves your "liaison" with a staff member or student within the seminary.
As we walk towards some towering white doors past the reception, Zahra informs me that we are now entering the hawza's private quarters.
Feel free to take photographs, she says, but not of the students - as the government's imposed Islamic dress code for women is not required in the all-female environment.
Beyond the doors lies a remarkable four-level open-air building circling the central courtyard. Several girls sit perched on the edge of the fountain chatting amongst themselves or reading.
Each floor is made up of the students' living quarters, a study hall and classrooms.
"There is also an underground kitchen and eating area - catering three meals a day, a fully-equipped library with internet facilities, and a crèche nursery for mothers," Zahra says.
To one side of the courtyard, lies a smaller court equipped for students to play table tennis and volleyball; separate indoor facilities have also been set up for basketball games.
The school has plans to expand both its campus and recreational facilities; a gym, an indoor swimming pool and two more living complexes are under construction.
"They're aiming to accommodate 10,000 students in total," Zahra says.
|The Jamia Tuz Zahra library
The courses offered at Jamia Tuz Zahra are diverse and always include an element of religion; ethics, philosophy, history, Quranic study - even feminism and Islam.
Political science courses are also offered and the 1979 Iranian revolution is frequently a hot subject within classrooms.
"We had people who were for and against it. We watched some DVDs about it - what Iran was like in the pre-revolution years," Zahra said.
But the religious mindset she found within the hawza and Qom itself is not often always reflected in other Iranian cities or people.
"Before the revolution you had people who were very modern and religious so when I met some of these people in Tehran or when I was traveling, it was really interesting understanding them. They were driven by Islamic rule in an Islamic republic.
"If you were to live in the hawza, you would think Iran is a perfect example for the rest of the Islamic world," she adds. "But you realise it's not where you live that matters the most - it's your upbringing."
Zahra, like most of her schoolmates, often attends classes from 7am to 7pm, with a three-hour break at noon allowing for the Dhuhr (the afternoon) prayer and lunch.
The students are also responsible for cooking their own meals and doing the laundry.
Time for social activities outside the hawza is permitted - for a limited number of hours per week. "We were allowed to go out once a week for three hours," she says.
Usually these would include visits to other hawzas, shops, parks or trips to the cities of Isfahan, Kashan or Mashad.
Zahra says at times she felt confined because of the sheer number of rules and restrictions enforced at the hawza.
"But then you think about it ... and it's for my betterment. You want to come out as a worthy individual that's able to serve the community at large."
"Overall it was an amazing experience but it was like a rollercoaster ride at first ... or like learning how to walk all over again. Not only learning a new language, but a different culture and way of life altogether."
'More to life'
|Non-resident students often take a bus to and from the grounds
A few months after I toured the Jamia, Zahra returned to her home in Kenya.
She later said the experience at the hawza left her with a stronger religious foundation despite the materialism of the outside world.
"It changed me in a way that I never thought possible. I didn't realise it until I returned home ... that I had become more spiritually involved in prayer," she said.
"You realise there's more to life. I mean I had prayed and everything before ... But now you have a stronger connection with the holy infallibles (the successors of the Prophet Muhammad according to Shia theology). You feel like you can really connect with them."
Zahra is now pursuing a marketing course and is considering studying at another hawza – this time in the UK. She also gives lectures to women at mosques in Mombasa and Arusha, in Tanzania.
It seems that while her spiritual journey in Iran has come to an end, her soul-searching has not. In an essay she wrote during her stay, entitled My Journey, Zahra writes that she now has a responsibility to impart her newfound understanding.
"Qom, a place of knowledge, a fountain of never-ending 'ilm (wisdom), is where students seek to find themselves, do endless soul-searching, and are then given a responsibility to depart that very knowledge to others," she wrote.
"Truth surrounds me here, and so do personalities with great wisdom. This was the holy place I had a chance of studying in."
Source: Al Jazeera