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Heroes of modernity: Rushdiyh

Posted by Sen on December 10, 2009

Mirza Hasan Rushdiyh – the father of modern Persian education

(contributed by Ahang Rabbani)

Mirza Hasan was born on 5 July 1851 in Tabriz, which one year earlier had seen the tumult associated with the execution of the Bab and which had emerged as a stronghold of Shaykhi faction of the Twelver Shiites. As a young seminarian, he studied the principles of Shiite religion and theology, and soon learned basic Persian and Arabic, though his main language continued to be his mother tongue, Azeri. His early plans to go to Najaf to study with religious masters did not seem so attractive after Mirza Hasan read about the hardships of education in the Persian language in the Akhtar newspaper and he soon abandoned those plans.

Through his father’s encouragement, he left for Beirut in 1880 and studied for two years in its Daru’l-Mu’allimin (teachers’ training college). He made periodic visits to Istanbul and Egypt, both important centers of learning and culture. In the course of his travels and discussions with educators, he learned about modern methods of education (as opposed to seminary training which was the only method available in Iran) in teaching languages, arithmetic, geometry, history and geography.

In 1883, he left for Yerevan (perhaps better known as Tiflis) and founded the first modern school in that region. He devised a new method of teaching in which he used the concept of sounds instead of alphabets to teach Persian and Azeri Turkish, which used the same characters. During the four years in which he managed this school in Yerevan, Rushdiyh wrote Vatan Dili (the language of the homeland) in Azeri. This was used as a primer in several schools of the Caucasus until the October Revolution.

It was during his years in Yerevan that Rushdiyh met Nasiri’d-Din Shah, who was returning from his travels to Europe. The Shah encouraged him and took him to Nakhjavan, and also wanted him to come to Tehran and implement the same educational methods, but before long the monarch had a change of mind and postponed his invitation.

In 1889, Mirza Hasan returned to his birthplace in Tabriz, where he established the first modern primary school in a mosque in Shishkalan district of that town. Instruction was given in both Azeri and Persian. He would use a blackboard and teach simplified Persian to young students. It seems that it was about this time that he became known by the name, Rushdiyh, after the word for primary schools in Ottoman Turkish, rushdiy, because he had established the first such schools in Iran.

The school established by Rushdiyh soon fell under considerable suspicion and criticism by more conservative Tabrizis, especially the clerical establishment, who alleged that Rushdiyh was trying to make students leave Islam. They pointed out that the school bell was similar to church bells. The clerics also proclaimed that those who sent their children to these schools were heretics. Soon seminarians attacked the modern school, pulled down its sign, burned the blackboards and expelled Rushdiyh from the mosque.

Some time later, Mirza Hasan renovated the courtyard and a few rooms in Masjid Shaykhu’l-Islam in Tabriz and started using it as a new school. Once again, people eagerly welcomed the new school and traditional seminaries lost their appeal. However, the clerics did not take this turn of events too kindly and issued a fatwa proclaiming him a heretic and ordering the destruction of the new facility. This resulted in seminary students attacking and destroying his school, and a few students being killed or injured. But while the attack and vandalism was taking place, Rushdiyh was seen smiling and saying, “These ignorant men do not realize that with these doings they cannot forestall the flood of knowledge. I am certain that every brick of this school will create a new school. I will witness that day.”

However conditions in Tabriz became intolerable and Mirza Hasan once again moved to Caucasus, where he renewed his educational efforts. When the Aminu’d-Dawlih was appointed governor of Azerbaijan, he asked Mirza Hasan to return to Tabriz and resume his school, which he did at the same location, Shishkalan. This school had a longer period of training and the students wore a standard uniform and were served lunch.

When Muzaffaru’d-Din Shah appointed the Aminu’d-Dawlih as his Prime Minister, the latter invited Mirza Hasan to Tehran where he started the Rushdiyh School with the help of the government.

In Tehran, he became a member of the political party Ma‘arif and active in struggle for freedom and constitution during the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11. On several occasions he was banished from Iran or chose to flee.

When he eventually returned to Iran for the last time, in 1914, Rushdiyh established a new school and a magazine, both called Maktab. He finally quit his political and educational activities in 1927 and moved to Qum, where he passed away on December 10, 1944, and where he is buried.

Rushdiyh is acknowledged to be the first Iranian to have written poems for children. He also had plans for education of the blind and helped establish girl schools in Iran. He wrote several books and articles in Persian and Azeri. The educational methods he pioneered are still used to some measure in Iran in teaching reading and writing in primary schools.

Sources: “The Memory of Some People” (in Persian)

The Persian Encyclopedia, article on Rushdiyh, vol. 1, pages 1085 and 1086.

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