Before the establishment of a modern educational system in Persia in the early 20th century children received their early and intermediate education in the maktab (or maktab-ḵāna, lit., “place of writing”) under the tutelage of an āḵūnd, mulla (clerical teacher), or moʿallem (teacher), who worked alone or occasionally with one or two assistants. Women often served as instructors (zan āḵūnd, zan āqā, or mollā bājī) in maktabs. From about the age of five or six to nine or ten years girls and boys studied together. Subsequently girls whose parents favored further education were sent to separate girls’ maktabs, though in fact the education of most girls ended at this point.

This article is partly based on information obtained from people who as children attended maktabs(for the best available description of the maktab in premodern Persia, see Chardin, IV, pp. 224-37). In 19th- and 20th-century Persia there were two kinds of maktabs. The first, “in-house maktabs,” met in the homes of wealthy people and were attended by the children of the households and their dependents. Classes were held in one or several rooms in the house or in a separate building. The teacher was employed by the head of the household and often became a resident as well. Children from other families sometimes attended these classes, with the permission of the head of the household and paying a fee to the teacher (maktabdār). “Common maktabs” catered to the children of middle-class families; the classes met in mosques, takyas (religious places for passion plays, etc.), or teachers’ homes. Pupils paid their fees in cash or kind, supplemented by gifts to the āḵūnd (see below; Mostawfī, Šarḥ-e zendagānī I, pp. 218-21; cf. Šahrī, IV, pp. 447-56).

For children up to the age of ten years the curriculum consisted, first, of learning the Arabo-Persian alphabet, with emphasis on phonetics and vocalized consonants, then of reading and writing in Persian, the rudiments of mathematics, and, particularly, readings from the Koran and various prayer books. Teachers placed great emphasis on rote learning and rewarded with special recognition pupils who memorized and verbally repeated their lessons. To acquaint pupils with scripture, the āḵūnd first taught ʿAmma jozʾ, an extract of the shorter suras (78-114) of the Koran. This instruction was followed by a study of Persian and Arabic vocabularies and the meters and forms of Persian poetry. To this end, books like ʿObayd Zākānī’s Mūš o gorba (The mouse and the cat) and Abū Naṣr Farāhī’s Neṣāb al-ṣebyān were included in the curriculum. The latter work provided such useful information as the Arabic lunar, Persian solar, and Syriac calendar months. Additional sections of the Koran were taught at the same time.

After the age of ten years upper-class children who continued their maktab education at home studied the elementary madrasa texts, for example, Jāmeʿ al-moqaddamāt, compiled by Mollā Zayn-al-ʿĀbedīn Ḵᵛānsārī; Moḥammad-Reżā Kalhor’s compilation Maḵzan al-enšāʾ; ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Soyūṭī’s commentary al-Bahja al-marżīya, on Moḥammad Ebn Mālek’s versified grammatical treatise Alfīya; and ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Jāmī’s commentary Šarḥ-e Jāmī, on ʿOṯmān Ebn Ḥājeb’s Šāfīa and Kāfīa (on conjugation of verbs and syntax, respectively). Books like Amṯala (examples of Arabic verbs) and Ṣarf-e Mīr, both by Mīr Sayyed Šarīf Jorjānī, and Šarḥ-e amṯala by Moḥammad-Ḥosayn Ḥosaynī, which were included in Jāmeʿal-moqaddamāt, were commonly, though not always, used to teach Arabic grammar. Persian texts included selected ḡazals of Ḥāfeẓ. extracts from Jalāl-al-Dīn Rūmī’s Maṯnawī and Neẓāmī’s Ḵamsa; and Ḵolāṣat al-ḥesāb by Shaikh Bahāʾ-al-Dīn ʿĀmelī. Most often Saʿdī’s Golestān was taught, though not in its entirety. In provinces like Azerbaijan, where the children’s mother tongue was usually not Persian, the Golestān was at least initially learned by rote, without understanding of its meaning. Pupils also received moral lessons and lessons in Islamic modes of conduct from Jāmeʿ-e ʿabbāsī by Bahāʾ-al-Dīn ʿĀmelī. The study of calligraphy, for which a separate teacher was often engaged, also began at this stage. It was much emphasized, particularly for sons of notables who were trained for careers as mīrzās (secretaries) and mostawfīs (financial officials) in the state administration (Mostawfī, Šarḥ-e zendagānī I, pp. 218-21).

Because of the scarcity and cost of paper, maktab pupils at first practiced penmanship with thick reed pens on tin tablets (lawḥ). After the novice’s writing had been criticized by the āḵūnd or an older student acting as teaching assistant (ḵalīfa), the tablet was washed and dried for the next exercise. Paper, thin reed pens, and pencils were used later, when the pupil had made sufficient progress to reduce his or her consumption of essential materials (Šahrī, IV, p. 451 n. 1).

Pupils were not categorized by age or scholastic progress, and there was no gradation in the levels of instruction. The teacher called each child to him or her in turn for individual attention in reading and writing. The teacher also sent groups of children of the same age and level to one of the older and more advanced pupils, who would oversee their exercises and help them with their lessons. It was common for a pupil or group of pupils to recite lessons aloud in singsong fashion, though not in unison. The resulting noise often carried far beyond the maktab walls.

The maktab offered pupils no room for movement or physical play and activity. They spent their entire school day sitting on cushions, felt mats (jol), or pieces of sheepskin. Their attention was supposed to remain focused on their books or writing. Maktab hours lasted from early morning until sunset. Pupils brought their own lunch packets, called čāštabandī. Each pupil was required to offer a portion of his food to the āḵūnd or the servant of the maktab (bābā, if a man, or nana, if a woman). Sometimes, when a pupil had reached a certain level of scholastic achievement, especially in the study of the Koran, his or her family was obliged by tradition to offer the āḵūnd a gift.

Corporal punishment was common in the maktab. The āḵūnd or his assistant chastised the disobedient, the recalcitrant, and the unstudious by beating their hands with a cane or, in more severe cases, subjecting them to the bastinado (falak). He also used threats to bring disobedient pupils to heel. In Kermān, for instance, students were threatened with being thrown into the kata-ye mār o mūš (an imaginary place crawling with snakes and rats; Saʿīdī Sīrjanī, pp. 389-97).

Maktabs catering to commoners closed at noon to allow children to spend the rest of the day helping with the family trade or household chores. Reportedly even poorer laborers could send their children to a maktab. In most cases, however, maktab teachers were semi-literate, and only able to teach pupils how to recite the Koran, with no comprehension of its meaning, and to read simple Persian texts. Talented students, therefore, continued their education in the madrasa (for accounts of deplorable conditions of ordinary maktabs see Kasrawi, Mašrūṭa3, pp. 18-21; Saʿīdī Sirjānī, pp. 384-97; Sīāsī, pp. 5-10).

The Neẓām-nāma (regulations) for modern elementary and intermediate schools approved by Ḥasan Mošīr-al-Dawla in 1331/1912 specified that for girls “the place of the school should not be in a private residence unless no man lives in that house” (p. 24). As a result of such restrictions, maktabs continued to provide relatively larger proportions of girls than boys with rudimentary education and tended to have higher ratios of female to male teachers.

Traditional education (maktabdārī) endured long after the advent of the modern educational system (Table 1), continuing unofficially and sporadically in a few towns and many villages even into the reign of Moḥammad-Reżā Shah (1941-79). With the formalization and reform of the educational system, an attempt was made to bring maktabs under government control. Neẓām-nāma-ye makāteb-emaḥallī (Rules for local maktabs), adopted by the High Council of Education (Šūrā-ye ʿālī-e maʿāref) in 1303 Š./1924, were intended to regulate the management of these traditional institutions, particularly their safety, their hygienic standards, and the qualification of their teachers (Taʿlīm o tarbīat 2, 1304 Š./1925, p. 37). Devoutly religious families who viewed the new educational institutions as borrowings from westerners and “infidels” continued to favor maktabs for their children’s education. Others sent their preschool-age children to maktabs to study the fundamentals of the Koran before enrolling them in modern schools. In the last few decades the maktab has all but disappeared (for the rise and decline of maktabs after modern educational reform, see Table 1, above).



(For cited works not found in this bibliography, see “Short References.”) H. Brugsch, Reise der K. preussischen Gesandtschaft nach Persien. 1860 und 1861 I, Leipzig, 1862, pp. 216-17.

Ḥ. Mošīr-al-Dawla, Neẓām-nāma-ye madāres-e ebtedāʾīya wa motawasseṭa, Tehran, 1331/1913.

J. de Roche-chouart, Souvenir d’un voyage en Perse, Paris, 1867, chap. 6.

J. Šahrī, Tārīḵ-e ejtemāʿī-e Tehrān dar qarn-e sīzdahom, 6 vols., Tehran, 1369 Š./1990.

ʿA.-A. Sīāsī, Gozāreš-e yak zendagī, London, 1987, pp. 5-10.

ʿA. A. Saʿīdī Sīrjānī, Dar āstīn-e moraqqae, Tehran, 1363 Š./1984.

(Jalīl Dūstḵᵛāh and Eqbāl Yaḡmāʾī)

Originally Published: December 15, 1997

Last Updated: December 9, 2011

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Vol. VIII, Fasc. 2, pp. 180-182