Chapter 1: Principal Characteristics of Iranian Textbooks | Freedom House

Chapter 1: Principal Characteristics of Iranian Textbooks

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This chapter defines important characteristics of textbooks used in the Islamic Republic. These principal characteristics will assist in gaining a better understanding of the types of discrimination and intolerance that exist in the textbooks.

The law upon which the educational system after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran is based mandates a curriculum in which students’ “religious education” and “purification” are given priority over training. “Religious education” and “purification” must take place within the framework of Shi’a Islamic culture and traditions. Iran’s curriculum bears the responsibility for realizing this goal in addition to carrying out its religious and political agendas. Much of the research carried out on Iranian textbooks used after the 1979 Revolution notes this ideologicalviii and religious approach in the curriculum as well as in other educational activities.ix

Discussing the world from a religious perspective and perceiving social and individual experiences from the Shi’a-Islamic viewpoint are perhaps the most important characteristics of Iranian textbooks. Islam appears as a full-fledged universal, social and spiritual plan, which is not time- or place-specific and which has eternal credibility. Among its principal subjects of study, the educational system is searching for a form of dual legitimacy for its political regime. The first dimension of this legitimacy refers to the “divine” and “sacred” essence of this discourse. Its second dimension concerns the credibility and functionality of Islamic discourse in the present age.

Another characteristic that sets Iran’s educational system apart is the regular intrusion of religious learning. Topics about religion, Islamic history, ethical principles, religious practices, and topics related to religious and Islamic thought are not presented only in books on religion or the Koran. The social studies, history, Farsi and sciences textbooks discuss religious, Islamic, and political-ideological issues either directly, by insinuation, or by using metaphors.

An important result of this approach is the large-scale blending of religious beliefs with scientific and secular knowledge. The “sacred” is mixed with the “profane” in the curriculum persistently. The coexistence of these two signifies a belief in the connection and unity of different fields of knowledge. One of the developmental characteristics of modern education is the independence of the natural sciences and “non-religious” fields of knowledge from religious subjects. This separation is particularly important because the methodology and epistemology of development are very different.

In Religious Studies and Koran textbooks, numerous scientific debates about geology, medicine, biology, and other natural sciences appear. The students are presented with issues related to religious knowledge and beliefs via scientific means. In an effort to prove that no chasm exists between religious and “non-religious” knowledge. “It would be difficult, perhaps, to find another book in the world in which reasoning, thought, and love of knowledge are emphasized as much as in the Koran…” (Grade 11 Religion and Life textbook, p. 46) For example, the Grade 10 Religion and Life textbook, after providing a detailed explanation of the human body and the world surrounding us from the perspective of various sciences, quotes a passage from the Koran, “considers the interconnected world order to be God’s creation.” (p. 25) An organic relationship—such as that between the links of a chain—exists between “what is man-made, human science, the creative order, and eternal divine science.”

The Grade 11 Religion and Life textbook contains several references to the connection between religious texts and natural sciences: “As God has said in the Koran, an important benefit of the creation of the honey bee is the production of honey. God has endowed the honey bee with special capabilities in order for it to produce this most beneficial product.” (Grade 11 Religion and Life textbook, p.14) In the Grade 7 Koran textbook (p. 37), a lesson dedicated to scientific explanation of space travel concludes, “You may find it interesting to know that the Holy Koran spoke of the problem of shortage of oxygen in high altitudes and the resulting shortness of breath around 1,400 years ago.”

The curriculum exists in harmony with natural sciences so long as they do not contradict religious beliefs and sacred texts. For example, textbooks are silent on the Theory of Evolution but occasionally mention the “creation of man.”

On occasion, scientific textbooks (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Mathematics) present religious issues in lessons and exercises. The following appears in the Grade 3 Mathematics textbook (p. 87): “Thirty-five people take part in the group prayer at the mosque in a small village and seven people stand in each row. How many rows do all the participants form?” In a section on homework assignments, a Social Studies textbook tells students, “In order to gain a better understanding of the concept of order, find a hadith [a saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammad] relevant to the subject at hand with the help of your teacher and parents and analyze its meaning in class.” (p. 37)

Social Studies textbooks play an active role in discussing religious topics and Islamic viewpoints. The Social Studies textbooks of all grades discuss a number of social topics (e.g., family, social groups, and socialization) and political topics (e.g., various political systems) with an Islamic bent. The Grade 3 Social Studies textbook tells the story of a family’s travels to cities in Iran and to religious monuments and shrines, such as, Shah-Cheragh in Shiraz, the shrine of Her Holiness Ma’soumeh in Qom, the shrine of the 8th Imam in Mashhad, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s shrine near Tehran. The Grades 4 and 5 Social Studies textbooks discuss the divine prophets, the birth of Islam, the Prophet Mohammad’s hejrat (flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D. to escape persecution), battles fought by the Prophet (Badr, Ahad, and Khandagh), enfagh (almsgiving), the mosque, ommat (community of Muslims), the prerequisites for becoming an Islamic leader, the caliphate (exercising the authority of a caliph), be’sat (the mission of the Prophet Mohammad), revelation, vaghf (pious legacy or bequest), the people’s responsibility in the Islamic society, and Khavaredj (rebellious sect of Islam’s early years). In the Religious Studies textbooks of Grades 6 and 8, religious viewpoints appear strongly in discussions about family, social groups, and the ruling regime.

History textbooks analyze the transformation of human society through the lens of religion and religious movements. A consequence of this viewpoint is that opinions on historic events are formed based on their connection with religion and religious timelines. The lives of prophets such as Noah, Solomon, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad are topics in history textbooks. The curriculum interweaves historic and religious perspectives, and categorizes and appraises historic personalities and events. The transformation of the history of human society is written in the form of the constant struggle between sacred “Truth” (the message of the prophets) and the enemies of the “divine order.” Religious historic personalities (prophets, imams) and clergy have a more determinant presence in the historic events covered and, as representatives of absolute and eternal “Truth,” spearhead the fight against “falsehood.”

Reading history from a religious approach can lead to partial and unilateral views of events. In this type of historicism, all events are simplified and linear and are placed under the heading of either black (False) or white (True). The attitude towards Iranian history reflected in the textbooks is a good example of the contradictions inherent in an ideological worldview. An example is the depiction of the Arab invasion of Iran in the beginning of Islam and the disintegration of Iran’s ancient civilization. The textbooks present the historic defeat of the Sassanid Empire by Muslim Arab invaders and the end of one of the important periods of ancient Iranian civilization from a positive angle, remain silent on the subject of the resulting destruction, and consider it a form of victory for Iran. “By accepting Islam, the Iranian people, who had grown tired of injustice and suppression at the hands of the Sassanid kings and who had heard Islam’s message of justice and deliverance from suppression, began a new era. Thus, a new era, known as the “Islamic era” started in Iranian history.” (Grade 6 History textbook, p. 73)

This type of partial recounting exists in accounts of Iran’s history of the last two centuries as well. According to history textbooks, religious personalities have always played important and positive roles in all events. From this reductionist approach, all historic defeats and failures are blamed on laypersons and the “Westernized” elements of society, and, of course, as the vigilant conscience of society, the clergy are depicted as faultless heroes in key events.

For example, one such depiction is the case of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and the opposition of a group of clerics to the Western orientation of the ruling regime and the emergence of modern institutions. Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri—the well-known cleric who was tried and executed because he defended the despotic regime—is depicted as the hero of constitutionalism and the defender of its authenticity in the face of “Western tendencies.” “After the victory of the Constitutional Revolution, when he observed that certain Westernized individuals had gained influence in the Majles [Parliament] and within the ranks of the leaders of the revolution, Sheikh Fazlollah expressed his opposition and called for the establishment of constitutionalism based on Sharia (Islamic law). In his view, the Constitutional Revolution had deviated from its original course and the opponents of Islam were striving to replace Islamic values with Western thoughts under the guise of constitutionalism and, therefore, by accepting his proposals, constitutionalism must be Islamicized…” Later, when he observed the growing influence of the proponents of Western thought in the Majles, he felt that there was a conspiracy to negate Islam and propagate western beliefs and culture. Therefore, he became more intransigent in his opposition and officially declared that the ratification of laws in such a parliament and system is against Sharia.” (Grade 11 Contemporary Iranian History textbook, p. 68)

The history textbooks’ accounts of historical events are selective. For example, they mention the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States but completely ignore the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany under Hitler. Another example is the elimination of non-religious political forces in Iran in the period after the Constitutional Revolution (1906) and assigning negative roles to them in the course of the events of the last century.

Another book that plays an active role in discussing religious and political issues is the Farsi textbook. In these textbooks, certain subjects are connected with religious topics and the Islamic Revolution. This research conducted a separate statistical and content analysis of the Farsi textbooks from Grade 1 to 11. The results of the statistical analysis of 412 lessons show that many lessons discuss the lives of important religious figures and historical events related to various religions. As Diagram 1 shows, religion in general (God, the lives of the prophets, and religious and historical personalities) and Islamic topics appear in 38 percent of the lessons. For example, the Farsi textbooks of Grades 2 to 5, “Reading” and “Writing,” have numerous passages and poems praising God and religious personalities (the Prophet of Islam, Noah, Jesus, Solomon, and the 3rd, 8th, and 12th Imams), prayer, pilgrimage, religious trips and visits, the birthday of Imam Ali (now celebrated as Father’s Day in Iran), Hussein Fahmideh (a young boy “martyred” during the Iran-Iraq War – see picture below), zakat (a form of tax in Islamic Sharia for wealthy Muslims), the month of Ramadan and fasting, fetrieh (the Islamic practice of giving alms at the feast at the end of Ramadan), Eid-e Ghorban (the Islamic feast of sacrifice), Djashn-e Taklifx (Celebration of Duty), etc.

‘Reading’ literature textbook, Hussein Fahmideh, Grade 3, p. 48


A direct reflection of discussing religious subjects in lessons exists in the case of recognized historical and contemporary personalities. For example, the topics of 50 lessons (out of 412) on poetry, literary subjects, and classical Persian literature are about God. An additional 65 lessons discuss the Prophet of Islam, Shi’a imams and other historical and contemporary Islamic personalities, while nine lessons mention the prophets of other religions.

Diagram 1. Topics Presented in 412 Lessons in Farsi Textbooks (Grades 1 to 11)


*Some lessons contain more than one topic, therefore, the percentage adds to more than 100.

The statistics of the images demonstrate a strong and consistent presence of religious and ideological topics. Of the 3,115 images analyzed, 645 are those of well-known individuals (religious, cultural, political, social, and scientific figures). As Diagram 2 shows, most of these images depict figures from post-1900 Iranian political history and religious figures. In keeping with Islamic tradition, textbooks avoid having images of the Prophet and the imams. However, despite the fact that Shi’a law forbids displaying images of revered religious figures,xi 147 religious figures and 102 saints are depicted.

Diagram 2. The number of well-known figures in images



In providing a religious explanation of the world and perceiving social issues from the Shi’ite perspective, the textbooks do not limit themselves to the public sphere of life. At times, religious and social studies textbooks interfere in the private lives of individuals, render an opinion on them, and seek to justify coercive norms and religious rules. Religious textbooks generally explain official viewpoints on the private relations of men and women in society. This form of interference in the personal and private spheres of life is an effort to extend the application of social control—from the government—to the behavior of individuals. The Grade 8 Social Science textbook defines “norm” this way: “Some of these norms are based on religious rules. For example, all members of society are duty-bound to observe modesty and chastity in public.” (p. 17)

“Usually, a boy asks a girl for her hand in marriage and it is up to her to accept his offer. This approved tradition speaks of the girl’s honor, self-respect, and modesty, and is a sign that the boy should ask the question and the girl could accept or reject his proposal… This is appropriate in order to show proper respect for the girl. Naturally and instinctively, a girl chooses as her spouse a man who seeks her out and declares his love for and loyalty to her.” (Grade 11 Religion and Life textbook, p. 186)

“The Holy Koran does not accept any path other than that of chastity, humility, and control of one’s carnal desires, because God, who gave man his sexual instinct, also endowed him with the capacity to have faith and the will to control himself and not sin. To facilitate the achievement of modesty and controlling one’s sexual desires, the following are also recommended:

1. Valuing oneself and having self-respect;

2. Planning each day so that there will be no aimlessness and idleness;

3. Not socializing with persons who are not bound by any standards and who lack self-control;

4. Going to the mosque and participating in group prayer;

5. Controlling one’s glances at those who are namahram (any persons of opposite sex, except parents, siblings, children, and spouses);

6. Attending meaningful religious functions;

7. Participating in social and cultural activities that are productive and that assist in developing one’s character and abilities;

8. Avoiding provocative films, programs, and books; and

9. Exercising at regular intervals.”

(Grade 11 Religion and Life textbook, p. 187)

Generally, methods and strategies used in presenting religious and ideological issues vary greatly, depending upon the students’ levels of education. In Grades 1 through 5, there are many lessons on “non-religious” subjects that are about religious issues. Keeping in mind the degree of knowledge of adolescents, religious issues are not discussed in any depth, are designed to engage students only at an emotional level, and are rarely justified “ideologically.” The choices of the forms of stories, narratives, and other materials compiled for presenting religious and political issues in the Farsi and Religious Studies textbooks are a reflection of such a pedagogic strategy and approach to learning. In higher grades, especially in high school, there is a decrease in the volume of religious subjects; but, conversely there is an increase in their ideological density. In other words, high school textbooks express the religious and philosophical tenets of religious subjects to the students.