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Iran: Legislators, Clerics Angered By Prophet Test

A student at a school in Tehran (file photo) (Fars) February 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Legislators and conservative clerics in Iran have expressed outrage over a government-sponsored test for teachers that they say insults the Prophet Muhammad.

Some have likened the controversy to the violent protests that accompanied Western depictions of Islam's holiest figure. Iran's education minister has apologized. But senior clerics want the drafters of the test punished, and some lawmakers want senior dismissals.

At the root of the uproar are about 40 questions that were administered to teachers throughout Tehran Province.

Mocking or insulting the Prophet Muhammad is considered a serious offense by Muslims.

The questions were part of an educational course for undergraduate- and graduate-level teachers.

Respected Source

Shirzad Abdollahi, a Tehran-based education expert, tells RFE/RL that the questions were reportedly based on information in a book by a well-respected Islamic philosopher, Ayatollah Mohammad Tabatabai.

"The source for formulating the questions is a book by Allameh Tabatabai titled 'The Traditions Of The Prophet,'" Abdollahi says. "Apparently the book contains many [details] about the way of life of the Prophet. The book is available in the market and it has been approved [by censors]."

But some questions were deemed so offensive that newspapers have refrained from publishing them. Others are available on news websites.

Several questions concerned Muhammad's appearance -- including the color of his hair and his beard. Others explored his sleep and eating habits.

One question asked teachers how Muhammad compared himself to the Prophet Joseph, with the answers focusing on who is "more beautiful" or "cuter." The choices were: "I am more beautiful than Joseph"; "Joseph is more beautiful than me"; "I am cuter than Joseph"; or lastly, "Joseph is more beautiful than me, but I am more beautiful than him."

Another asked what properties a rooster has that were not characteristic of Muhammad. Answers included references to punctuality and male pride, insatiability, scavenging food, and walking quickly.

Poorly Formulated?

Abdollahi says it is that tone that has prompted the controversy.

"What is being emphasized is that the person who formulated the questions has -- whether mischievously or unintentionally -- extrapolated four choices from the book in a way that makes them insulting," Abdollahi says. "The way the questions were formulated is the problem. In these type of [multiple-choice] questions, one answer is correct but three answers are wrong. And placing these next to each other has created the perception that they are probably insulting."

Several Iranian legislators have described the questions as rude and indecent attempts to degrade Muhammad.

Lawmaker Emad Afrough (Fars file photo)

The head of the parliament's Culture Committee, Emad Afrough, asked explicitly what the difference is between these questions and the "caricatures that were drawn against the prophet in Denmark."

The Danish cartoons later appeared in other publications in Europe and elsewhere. They prompted outrage in many Islamic countries -- including in Iran, where the government sponsored protests.

Mocking or insulting the Prophet Muhammad is considered a serious offense by Muslims.

A number of legislators have argued that Education Minister Mahmud Farshidi should be held responsible. Farshidi apologized in a letter to clerics in Qom. He has said the official in charge of the test was dismissed and a judiciary investigation begun.

A Farshidi adviser, Ali Zoelm, has said the Education Ministry is monitoring the case to determine whether it was the result of deliberate action or ignorance.

Several clerics have condemned the test. Radio Farda quoted Ayatollah Mohammad Fazel Lankarani as claiming that "all people should react because this is a very big insult."

'Their Mistakes'

Reformist groups have also expressed anger. Some accuse conservatives -- who are often quick to condemn acts by the former reformist government -- of turning a blind eye to miscues under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

But others warn against drawing such religious issues into political disputes.

A demonstrator prepares to throw a rock at the Danish Embassy in Tehran during the cartoon controversy in February 2006 (epa)

Many allege that the Education Ministry is increasingly dogmatic and hypocritical.

Cleric Mohammad Taghi Fazel Meibodi recently wrote in an article in the daily "Etemad Melli" that Iran's largest cultural institution "butchers the truth of Islam through such questioning."

Education expert Abdollahi says religious thinking within the Education Ministry has hardened since Farshidi took charge in 2005.

"Those who see this tendency as insulting and say [this is not real] Islam should take a deeper approach, and action should be taken," Abdollahi says. "Unfortunately, many of the directors who have been dismissed from the [Education] ministry were accused of having a [modern] and intellectual interpretation of religion."

Abdollahi says he expects "the storm" over the test to die down soon. But he warns that the real problem is likely to remain.

Radio Farda's Persian-Language Website

Radio Farda's Persian-Language Website

UPDATED CONSTANTLY: Visit RFE/RL's Persian-language website, featuring news, analysis, features, streaming audio, and more, in Persian, from Radio Farda.


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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.