Review: How Baha'is helped bring modern education to Iran

In Brief: 
  • Iran scholar Soli Shahvar says the role of Bahá'ís in the modernization of Iran has been vastly overlooked
  • His new book tells the story of dozens of pioneering Bahá'í schools established in Iran before being closed in 1934 by government decree
  • Their progressive methods, academic excellence and openness to the followers of all religions had a wide ranging but previously unacknowledged impact on Iranian society at large

The Forgotten Schools: The Bahá'ís and Modern Education in Iran 1899-1934
By Soli Shahvar
I.B. Tauris, London

The role of the Bahá'í Faith in the modernization of Iran remains a history largely waiting to be written, according to the author of a new scholarly work about Bahá'í schools that once existed and flourished throughout the country.

"What I have learned from doing this is that there are a lot more studies to be done on the role of the Bahá'ís," said Soli Shahvar, author of The Forgotten Schools: The Bahá'ís and Modern Education in Iran, 1899-1934. "This book is just one example."

His new work tells the story of the establishment by Bahá'ís of dozens of schools in Iran - in cities, towns, and villages - starting around the turn of the 20th century. In 1934, the Shah ordered most of the schools closed.

Other religious minorities, including Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, also operated schools, but those of the Bahá'ís were different, said the Iranian-born Dr. Shahvar, who is senior lecturer in the department of Middle Eastern history and director of the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel. He is not a Bahá'í.

One way the Bahá'í schools were different is that they welcomed students from all religious backgrounds, including Muslims. This most likely made these schools one of the few places in Iran where people of different faiths mixed as a community, he said.

And unlike the other religious schools, which used the academic setting for religious training, the Bahá'í schools did not offer instruction in the Bahá'í Faith itself.

The main distinguishing feature of the Bahá'í schools was their excellence, said Dr. Shahvar during a recent interview.

"Because education was part of [the Bahá'í] belief, they did it the best they could. That's why their schools were better," he said, adding that the teachers were not well paid but were extremely devoted.

Progressive Bahá'í beliefs - the equality of women and men, democratic ideals, the importance of science - spilled over into education. Bahá'í schools had maps and blackboards, and in some localities, they were the only schools available to girls or to children of certain backgrounds, he said.

Most schools in Iran at the time were what Dr. Shahvar called the "old type." The traditional educational system was based on teaching by local religious leaders who usually had no training in educational methods. They often held classes in their homes, focusing on memorization of the Qur'an and poetry.

The excellence of the Bahá'í schools drew many non-Bahá'í students, said Dr. Shahvar, including children of high government officials and the aristocracy.

The fact that Bahá'í schools were owned and run by individuals rather than by Bahá'í institutions could be one reason they are virtually unmentioned in histories of education in Iran, he said.

But the Bahá'í connection was never secret. Dr. Shahvar believes a key factor in their obscurity has been government coercion aimed at preventing historians from talking about the Bahá'í Faith.

"The Iranian government made it taboo to talk about [the Bahá'í Faith]. If a scholar wants cooperation from the government, he has to go along," he said, noting that what little has been written tends to be by Bahá'ís themselves. "Nobody else wants to touch it."

The Bahá'í emphasis on education had broad ramifications, Dr. Shahvar said. "Everything stems from education," he said. "It is more important than money. … The Bahá'ís excelled in everything they did. And it benefited the whole society, not just the Bahá'ís."

As well, Bahá'ís were well integrated into Persian society. "The Jews, the Christians, the Zoroastrians tended to have their own neighborhoods, even whole towns. But the Bahá'ís were everywhere - villages, towns, cities."

The influence of the Bahá'ís could be attributed in great measure to the model they provided, he said.

For example, in the 19th century, the intellectuals in Iran were beginning to read about reformist ideas. "But the ideas from Europe - of equality, democracy - were more theoretical... The Bahá'í community was an actual model, right there in Iran. The [Bahá'í] idea of democratic elections probably had a major effect on the population," he said.

He believes the lack of scholarly material goes beyond the role of the Bahá'í community in modern Iran, extending even to basic information about the religion and its founders.

"Why, in the intellectual history of 20th century Iran, is there no mention of Bahá'u'lláh and ‘Abdu'l-Bahá?" he said. "They were talking about globalization and international security before anyone. How can you call yourself a scholar and not mention them?"

Other academicians have agreed that there has not been much scholarly work to date in this field.

Farhad Kazemi, professor of Politics, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, wrote: "[Shahvar's] fine scholarly book on the development of modern primary and secondary education in Iran through the efforts of the Bahá'ís fills an important gap in scholarly literature of the Islamic world."

- By Sally Weeks