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20 March 2024

Mirza Hasan Roshdiyyeh: The Architect of Modern Education in Iran

Vahid Qarabagli explores the remarkable life of Mirza Hasan Roshdiyyeh, who revolutionized Iranian education by challenging religious norms to establish modern schools and promote public mother-language-based education.

Mirza Hasan Roshdiyyeh: The Architect of Modern Education in Iran

Images from mirzahassanroshdieh.com

Every year on 21 February, UNESCO commemorates International Mother Language Day, urging governments to embrace linguistic and cultural diversity. This day highlights the importance of accommodating various languages in multilingual contexts, especially within educational settings, to foster inclusive societies. 

This day also offers an opportunity to honour those who advocated for mother-tongue-based education in multilingual environments. Mirza Hasan Roshdiyyeh, a visionary educator from over a century ago, envisioned mother tongue education as a model for Iran. Despite his significant contributions, his work is often overlooked.

Mirza Hasan, later known as Mirza Hasan Roshdiyyeh, was born in Tabriz in 1851 into a prominent clerical family. Initially intending to follow in his family's footsteps and become a Shi'a cleric, he became aware of the stark contrast in literacy rates between Iran and Europe. This realization prompted him to seek a secular education. 

Mirza Hasan Roshdiyyeh with his family.

In 1881, Mirza Hasan travelled to Beirut, where he enrolled at Daar ul-Mu'allimeen (teacher school). For two years, from 1881 to 1883, he immersed himself in modern educational principles, heavily influenced by French methodologies. He gained expertise in innovative teaching techniques, particularly in alphabet instruction, mathematics, geometry, history, and geography.

Mirza Hasan visited Istanbul and Cairo to broaden his understanding of modern schooling. During his travels, he encountered a school called Rüşdiye, meaning “growth,” in the Ottoman Empire. This experience left a profound impact on him.

In 1883, driven by his experiences and fueled by a desire to implement his acquired educational knowledge, Mirza Hasan moved to Yerevan, Armenia, and founded the first modern school for ethnic Turks of Azerbaijan. Here, he introduced a new teaching method that prioritized the concept of sounds over traditional alphabetic instruction, particularly for the Turki and Farsi languages. 

Roshdiyyeh's education abroad and experience running a modern school equipped him with innovative teaching methods. In 1888, he founded Iran's first modern elementary school in Tabriz, challenging traditional religious education norms. This move made education accessible to the masses, a radical concept in 19th-century Iran, earning him the title “the Father of Public Education.”

Roshdiyyeh's revolutionary educational initiatives faced immediate and significant resistance from the clergy, who perceived his departure from traditional norms as a direct challenge to their monopoly over education and established values. This opposition resulted in the repeated closure of his school, accompanied by accusations of leading students away from Islam and physical assaults. Tragically, one of his students lost his life amidst these tensions. Additionally, a fatwa[1] was issued against his approach, ultimately leading to his departure from Tabriz to Mashhad. Nevertheless, Roshdiyyeh persisted in his educational mission even in exile, establishing a school in Mashhad. Yet, once again, his endeavours were met with hostility from clerics, resulting in the under pressure from religious authorities.

Undeterred by the challenges he faced, Roshdiyyeh persisted in his efforts. After some time, he returned to Tabriz and continued establishing modern schools despite harassment and threats. His dedication earned recognition from reformist Prime Minister Amin al-Dowleh during the reign of Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar. Over the following decade, he established similar institutions, notably in Tehran in 1898 and other cities. The Roshdiyyeh School in Tehran had nine classes, each with twenty-five to thirty students, and it became Tehran's second modern school after Dar al-Fonun, established by the royal vizier to Nasereddin Shah in 1851 by Amir Kabir. Roshdieh's approach notably differed by broadening education and its accessibility to the wider public, departing from the existing exclusive and elitist model.

These schools were the foundation for Iran's public education system, marking a major leap forward in spreading modern education. From 1890 to 1906, about 23 modern schools were built in Tehran, 20 in Tabriz, and 16 in other major cities.

Teachers and pupils at one of Mirza Hasan Roshdiyyeh's schools.

Roshdiyyeh's commitment to reform and modernization extended beyond the confines of his school; he was also responsible for producing Iran's first modern textbooks. While residing in the Caucasus, Roshdiyyeh came across a significant influence in the form of the first educational text published in the region in 1881. This text, titled “Veten Dili” in Azerbaijani Turkish, was authored by the educator A. O. Cherniaevskii. It served as a source of inspiration for Roshdiyyeh, inspiring him to create his own textbook in 1894 in Azerbaijani Turkish, also titled “Veten Dili,” upon his return to Tabriz.

The textbook marked a significant departure from traditional religious educational materials. Instead, it drew from Azerbaijani Turkish literature and folklore. It comprised two sections: one focusing on the alphabet and the other on examples. The alphabet teaching utilized Azerbaijani Turkish oral literature, employing proverbs and sayings. This approach not only facilitated comprehension but also provided valuable cultural insights. It represented a notable shift towards a more secular education and democratization. Moreover, offering instruction in the native language made learning accessible to a wider population.

Roshdiyyeh also supported the women's education movement in Iran, for instance, by contributing to the “Namus” (Honour) school founded by Tuba Azmudeh for Muslim girls in 1907 in Tehran. This involvement was significant, especially given the opposition from conservative factions.

Roshdiyyeh established the “Maktab” school and magazine in 1904. After years of dedication to education and politics, he retired in 1927 and later passed away in 1944 in Qom, where he is buried.

Mirza Hasan Roshdiyyeh revolutionized Iranian education, challenging religious and elite norms to establish modern schools and promote public learning. His pioneering efforts in mother-tongue-based education and Azerbaijani Turkish textbooks should inspire policy changes towards multilingual education, addressing the educational challenges faced by millions of minoritized Azerbaijani Turk and non-Persian children in Iran who are currently deprived of learning opportunities in their native language.


[1] A religious legal decree issued by a senior Islamic authority interpreting Sharia law.