An Opening

For centuries, Iran was renowned for its arts and culture, but under the Qajar shahs, schooling had largely been confined to the mullahs’ religious teaching. As a result, Iranian society was falling behind the European powers. Several intellectuals and ministers pressed the new king, Mozzafar al-Din Shah, to reform the educational system to ensure Iran’s future. Much of the public wanted schooling for their children, too.

The clergy were divided over the issue. Conservative mullahs flatly opposed the calls to open new schools. Leading progressive clerics, including Mirza Sayyid Muhammad Tabataba’i, argued that if Iranians were educated, then they would no longer tolerate injustice – which they said was an essential component of Islamic belief.

To satisfy the demand for change, the Shah’s top minister, Mirza Ali Khan Amin Al-Daulih, recruited a reform-minded Muslim scholar, Haj Mirza Hasan Rushdiyyih, to establish Tehran’s first private elementary school in 1898. During the first term, 400 students enrolled; 50 were from poor families and received state assistance to attend.

For years, ever since he had learned that only 10 out of 1,000 people in the West were illiterate, Rushdiyyih had been campaigning to reform Iran’s schools. He was dismayed that in his country, once known for its scholarship, only 10 out of 1,000 could read. His school opened a new chapter in Iran’s history.

The First School

The Baha’is, with their emphasis on universal education and learning, joined the drive to improve Iranians’ education. A Baha’i school for boys opened in Tehran in 1899; later, the Baha’is’ groundbreaking Tarbiyat (“Education”) School, also in Tehran, was recognized by the government. Forty more Baha’i schools would open in the coming decades.

The lessons were secular and often noted for their excellence. Baha’i and Muslim teachers were employed, as well as foreign education experts. The schools adopted the official state curricula, but they also went further, offering extra classes in music, drama, and life skills.

Because the Baha’i schools were open to all, prominent Muslim Iranians also sent their children to them. Future government ministers, diplomats, and chiefs of industry were products of the Baha’i education experiment; so too was the last of the Iranian kings, Muhammad Reza Shah.

Although other groups – Christian missionaries, foreign organizations, and other minority religions – also had their own schools, the mullahs resented the Baha’is’ success. Since the founding of the Baha’i faith, Muslim clerics had derided the Baha’is as apostates whose “blood can be shed with impunity.” Baha’i schools were yet another affront to the clerics’ authority in Iranian society.

The Constitutional Revolution

By the turn of the 20th century, the ruling Qajar dynasty had been weakened by poor governance, crippling foreign debt, and endemic corruption. To maintain his personal wealth, the king, Mozzafar al-Din Shah, had started granting special concessions over state contracts and territorial rights to the British and Russian governments. The economy buckled under the pressure of this sell-off of resources.

The Shah increased taxes in 1905 to try to stabilize the country’s finances. Merchants, political reformers, and even a number of clerics responded with demands for an elected parliament, an independent judiciary, a free press, and economic independence from the West. The Baha’is joined this constitutional revolution – the first of its kind in Asia.

Mass protests quickly erupted, and were met with violence. When some protestors took refuge in one of Tehran’s mosques, the Shah’s soldiers invaded the house of worship. Skirmishes broke out around the country and dozens of protestors were killed.

The Shah, who was growing old and weak, eventually relented. Elections were held for the first parliament, called the Majlis. On 31 December 1906, Mozzafar al-Din Shah signed Iran’s first constitution. He died five days later.

Nearly all Iranians celebrated this political watershed, but one community read the new constitution with concern. The charter recognized Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews as religious minorities deserving of protection, but the Baha’is were excluded. The new constitution laid the foundation for decades of discrimination against the Baha’is.