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Radioactive Fatwas: The Growing Islamist Legitimization of Nuclear Weapons

September 17, 2013 2 comments

Despite concerns over the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, little attention has been devoted to the growing number of Muslim scholars, academics, and intellectuals who advocate the legitimacy and viability of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons for Arab governments. Through books, academic articles, dissertations, conferences, and direct fatwas, a vast and interconnected literature has forged a growing consensus among the region’s Islamist communities:

  1. WMD production is licit for purposes of deterrence;
  2. “Tactical” use of WMDs against military entities (though not civilians) is licit under “absolute necessity,” in order to maintain the independence and sovereignty of an Islamic state;
  3. While Muslims have an obligation to abide by international treaties, the “uneven implementation” of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), especially in relation to Israel, makes its authority untenable. Moreover, the “principle of reciprocity” inherent in international law and relations between states legally and morally justifies WMD proliferation;
  4. Theoretically, because Islamic law emphasizes equality in warfare, if a global consensus were to be reached on the reduction and elimination of WMDs, Muslim states would be obligated to abide by it.

However, these are not the voices of extremists or utopians: From the scholars of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, to professors holding deanships at state-controlled universities, and independent religious leaders — more often than not these Islamist intellectuals not only accept the legitimacy of their respective governments, but are also employed by them.

Islamic law holds little sway in the decision-making apparatuses of Middle Eastern governments, however the perception of tacit adherence to the Islamic tradition is often necessary. The growing nexus between Muslim scholars and Islamists, and universities and academia in the Middle East has given greater legitimacy to ideas that were once confined to religious institutions. Although functional nuclear industries are many years away in most Arab countries, the legitimization of WMDs among state-oriented, religious intellectuals demonstrates a new level of concern inherent in the region’s pursuit of nuclear energy.

This post will present a survey of the individuals, literature, and opinions that have emerged in this modern, Islamist defense of nuclear weapons, and WMDs. While the push for consensus on the issue is new, having emerged over the past decade — commentary on it is not, and defenses of nuclear weapons exist as early as the 1950s. While undoubtedly more voices exist, this post will just cover those who have been cited in modern treatments of the issue. This will be divided into three sections:

  1. Scholarship from Al-Azhar;
  2. Voices from academia;
  3. Works by independent Islamists.

This survey is only intended to show the scope of the individuals who advocate WMD possession, and their general conclusions — not the nuanced religious arguments used to reach them. With the exception of one “case study,” only rudimentary citations will be provided, and the original Arabic text not included. The sources cited herein are available on the Internet, and accessible through basic, Arabic-language keyword searches, and research.


The most well-known, state-oriented institute of religious learning in the Middle East, Al-Azhar is often perceived as a “bulwark” against extremism. In recent years, its leadership has sought to forge inter-Islamic unity, advocated for the non-obligation of face coverings for women; and recently ruled for the religious permissibility of peaceful protests. While Al-Azhar has been complicit in helping to propagate and maintain religious rulings related to Egypt’s “hisba” laws, which punish religious dissent, it is agreed that today it represents a moderate entity largely loyal to the Egyptian state. Moreover, its influence is particularly strong in the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan), where Azhar-trained scholars often hold positions within Ministries of Religious Affairs. Simply, in the eyes of many governments and religious intellectuals, Al-Azhar holds a position of legitimacy.

Given its longevity and history, however, clerics from Al-Azhar are also some of the earliest voices on record endorsing the religious permissibility of WMD possession, and use. From the 1950s, to the present day, its religious scholars and leadership have continually articulated a variety of viewpoints and justifications in favor of nuclear weapons, in the present day overwhelmingly coalescing on the opinion that nuclear weapons are licit if used for purposes of deterrence.

  • Taqiuddin al-Nabhani (d. 1977). Although best known for founding the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Palestinian Nabhani received his religious education from Al-Azhar. His foundational work Al-Shakhsiyya al-Islamiyya (“The Islamic Personality”), first published in 1953, advocates that nuclear weapons are not only licit, but can be used as a “first strike” option in conflict. As to objections that nuclear weapons are religiously forbidden (haram) because they cause harm to civilians (al-bashar) — Nabhani argues that jihad is meant to “revive/enliven” individuals to come to Islam, not bring about “humanism” (al-insaniyya).
  • Muhammad Abu Zahra (d. 1974). Best known for his in-depth biographies of early Islamic scholars and personalities, Abu Zahra, who was an “Egyptian intellectual” and “prominent member of the Al Azhar Academy of Islamic Research,” took a more stringent approach than Nabhani. In his work Al-‘Alaqat al-Dawliya fi Al-Islam (“International Relations in Islam”), first published sometime in the 1950s, Abu Zahra affirms that there is “no doubt” that the use of a “nuclear bomb” is “strictly prohibited” (amran muharramanmana’ bataa). Firstly, because of its destructive nature (takhreeb). Secondly, because it “goes beyond” the combatants that are being fought, to affect regular people (al-sha’b) — Islam does not fight “people,” only aggressors. And, third, because it targets women and children. “It is not lawful (laa yahullu) for Muslims to fight with these weapons,” Abu Zahra concludes … “Except if the enemy attacks by using these weapons, they are isolated in a limited area, and their use would prevent them from continuing their crimes.” Abu Zahra’s strict conditions upon WMD use, yet tacit approval in exceptional circumstances most closely resembles the modern Islamist defenses of WMD production, if intended for purposes of deterrence alone.
  • Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy (d. 2010). As “Grand Mufti” of Egypt from 1986 to 1996, Tantawy left the position upon his appointment by Hosni Mubarak as the “Grand Imam of al-Azhar,” a position he held until his death in 2010. As the head Egyptian religious authority for almost 25 years, the trust in Tantawy’s credentials by the Egyptian state cannot be doubted. However, at a November 1999 conference at Assiut University entitled “The Future of the Nuclear Option” (Mustaqbal al-Khiyar al-Nawawi), Tantawy endorsed nuclear weapons and claimed, “Islam calls for force, but a reasonable and just one that comes to the side of the oppressed, until there is victory…because force is one of the attributes of Allah.” Elaborating, Tantawy cited a purported narration detailing an exchange between first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, to the warrior Khalid ibn al-Walid, who advised, “If the enemy fights with a spear, then fight him with a spear. If he fights with a sword, then fight him with a sword.” Tantawy then stated, “If Abu Bakr was alive today, he would say, ‘If they fight with a nuclear weapon, then fight them with a nuclear weapon.'” Tantawy closed by saying that Egypt had the educational and scientific know-how to “surpass Israel.”
  • Ali Abu Hassan. As head of the “Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee” (Lajna al-Fatwa bi al-Azhar), in December 2002 Abu Hassan is on record in media reports exhorting “Islamic countries” to obtain “nuclear and non-nuclear” weapons, which “terrorize” the enemy, and “prevent them from being assaulted.” Abu Hassan went on to state that it does not matter whether a “friendly” or “hostile” nation possesses such weapons — “If any weapon is in the hands of a nation of the world…it is necessary for Muslims to possess the same weapons, or stronger, and this is the consensus of Islamic scholars.” In ending, Abu Hassan stated that if Muslim countries do not possess such weapons, they are considered “transgressors under Islamic law:” “Preparation against enemies requires all possible tools for self-defense, and this is a binding religious obligation, and it is not permissible under Islamic law to abandon it. Therefore, for Islamic countries to seek the possession of all modern, nuclear weapons is a religious obligation.”
  • Ali Gomaa. Although unaffiliated with Al-Azhar, from 2003-2010 Gomaa held the title of “Grand Mufti of Egypt,” having been appointed by Mubarak. As head of the Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah (“Egyptian Fatwa House”), Gomaa was tasked with overseeing the issuance of approximately 5,000 fatwas per week, for the benefit of the Egyptian people. In 2009, Dar al-Ifta issued a lengthy fatwa entitled, “The Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction Against Non-Muslim Countries” (Isti’mal Aslihah al-Damar al-Shamil Didda al-Dawal ghayr Muslimah). After describing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons as those which constitute “weapons of mass destruction,” the fatwa went on to state, “It is ‘religiously required’ (matlub shar’i) for Islamic countries to acquire such weapons for the purpose of deterring aggressors.” However, the fatwa went on to state that there is “a difference” between possessing these weapons “for intimidation and to deter aggressors,” and their possession for “first use” capabilities. While likely not personally authored, Gomaa later confirmed in media reports that WMD possession for purposes of deterrence is religiously lawful. Dar al-Ifta, however, on several occasions has confirmed the binding nature of international treaties which “bring international peace and security.”
  • Yusuf al-Qaradawi. A graduate of Al-Azhar, the Egyptian Qaradawi is one of the most well-known Islamist figures in the Muslim world. In 2009 Qaradawi authored a book entitled Fiqh al-Jihad (“The Jurisprudence of Jihad”), in which he endorsed the possession of nuclear weapons for purposes of deterrence: “The basic principle in Islam is to not fight those who do not fight…but it is obligatory to seek to possess these weapons for purposes of deterrence, so long as others own and threaten to use them — and this refers to the ‘Zionist enemy’ that has usurped our land…The major powers, led by America, own these weapons, while prohibiting others from possessing them — preventing them for Arab and Islamic countries, while giving this right to a state that artificially exists on the land of Palestine, and one which possesses more than 200 nuclear bombs. It is not permissible for a nation to use these weapons, except if it is exposed to risks against its existence, and it is in a state of extreme danger.” Qaradawi’s website has reported that Fiqh al-Jihad is now actively studied by scholars and students at Al-Azhar. Moreover, in a 2001 fatwa on chemical weapons by Faisal Mawlawi — a close confidant of Qaradawi, and deputy chairman of his Dublin-based “European Council for Fatwa and Research” — he stated that “Muslims” should not use such weapons on a “first strike” basis, but nonetheless affirmed that if other countries use them to the detriment of Muslims, then it is religiously permissible based on the “principle of reciprocity” in international law.


Growing access to Western-style higher education in the Middle East has significantly transformed the region for the better. However, one consequence that remains unexplored is the growing legitimacy of formal education in Islamist communities. Increasingly, the credentials of local Muslim scholars depend upon their acquisition of a master’s or doctorate in various fields of Islamic studies. While such degrees in the past have been awarded by religiously-themed “universities,” especially in Saudi Arabia, increasingly they are also being offered by mainstream, state-affiliated institutions, and attracting a greater number of seekers. As a consequence, academic defenses of WMDs in Islamic law have become not only more routine, but sometimes the most cited works in Islamist circles. However, in notable cases, these in-depth research pieces — appearing as theses, dissertations, and academic articles — appear to have received mainstream university acknowledgment and support, and, in turn, likely tacit approval by state authorities.

Case Study: Abd al-Majeed al-Salaheen and the University of Jordan

One of the most cohesive and in-depth defenses of WMDs in Islamic law is an academic article written by Abd al-Majeed Mahmud Al-Salaheen, a professor, and from 2004-2006 the dean of the University of Jordan’s “Faculty of Shariah.” Entitled “Weapons of Mass Destruction and its Rulings in Islamic Jurisprudence” (Aslihah al-Damar al-Shamil wa Ahkamuha fi al-Fiqh al-Islami), this 80+ page research article was published in 2005 by the “Journal of Sharia & Law,” (Al-Majallah al-Shari’ah wa al-Qanun) a quarterly publication printed by the UAE University Press, the oldest university in the United Arab Emirates. Intending his study to be a “guiding beacon for the Islamic state in determining the position of the production and use of weapons of mass destruction,” Salaheen provides an in-depth overview of WMDs, ancient precedents, and juristic views on warfare and weaponry in Islamic law. He ends with a reflection on how these historical precedents can be applied to modern WMDs, and extrapolates a religious ruling about their possession and use. In conclusion, Salaheen differentiates between “strategic” and “tactical” WMDs — the former of which can be used for deterrent purposes, and the latter used in theaters of war, against combatants alone. As Salaheen stated in his (poorly written) English-language abstract:

Stipulations covering production and utilization of modern weapons of mass destruction which can be divided into two types according to their effects:

A. Strategic weapons with terrific destruction power.

B. The tactical weapons with limited destruction power.

The research concluded that Islamic State may produce and develop the first one for the purpose of deterrence and keeping balance with the enemy in compliance with the Quranic verse : (Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power including steeds of war to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies of Allah and your enemies).

Islamic State may use these weapons if they were used by the enemy or in a strong possibility that they are about to use it in application of the equal treatment principal, as its destruction effects do not exceed to non-fighters.

In general, the production and utilization of these weapons falls under the interest of the country, the necessity and the nature of prevailing circumstances.

While extremely nuanced in places, and thoroughly researched, Salaheen’s language in advocating WMD possession appears to be less than impartial. Of concern, on the title page Salaheen noted that his research had been “supported by the Deanship of Scientific Research” (‘Imadah al-Bahth al-‘Ilmi) at the University of Jordan. The significance of this admission is not fully known, however possibly indicates broader university, and by deduction state acceptance of his research conclusions. It should be noted that similar endorsement of “chemical weapons” was made by University of Jordan professor Dr. Abdul Moiz Hareez in a 2002 fatwa, in which he claimed that they are “obligatory, and the right of an Islamic state.” He concluded, “We must strive to possess these weapons until we are a nation (ummah) that can intimidate the lands of the unbelievers, and the unbelievers do not (have power) over the Muslims.” Likewise, University of Muta (Jordan) professor Dr. Hani Ta’imat, in an academic article of unknown date, likewise argued for the necessity of WMD possession, in the same vein as the previous treatments.

The last five pages of the article, which includes Salaheen’s reflections on WMDs in Islamic law, and a summary of his findings are translated below.

“Weapons of Mass Destruction and its Rulings in Islamic Jurisprudence”
(أسلحة الدمار الشامل وأحكامها في الفقه الإسلامي)

By: Dr. Abd al-Majeed al-Salaheen (عبد المجيد الصلاحين)

Journal of Sharia & Law (مجلة الشريعة والقانون) — Issue 23, May 2005 (Rabi’ Al-Awwal 1426), Pages 95-183. Translation from pages 160, 166, 168, 169-174.

Full Text in Arabic
Abstract in English

إن الأصل في العلاقة بين الدولة الإسلامية والدول الأخرى هو السلم وليس الحرب، فالإسلام ليس متعطش ًا إلى سفك الدماء ولا متشوفا ً إلى قهر الناس وإذلالهم، بل إن هذا الإسلام الحنيف متشوف إلى هدايتهم وإخراجهم من عبادة العباد إلى عبادة االله الواحد القهار، وقد كان النبي وكذا الصحابة من بعده يحبون ويتمنون بل ويحرصون على أن يتم ذلك من خلال الوسائل السلمية المتمثلة في الدعوة والإقناع …

ومع ذلك فإن الشريعة الغراء تأمر المسلمين باستكمال كل أسباب القوة والمناعة من خلال أمرهم بإعداد القوة الكافية ولإرهابه وردعه عن الاعتداء على المسلمين ومن ذلك: قولـه سبحانه وتعالى: وأعدوا لهم ما استطعتم من قوة ومن رباط الخيل ترهبون به عدو الله وعدوكم وأخرين من دونهم لا تعلمونهم الله يعلمهم. وهذا يدل على أن المسلمين مطالبون بإعداد ما يدخل تحت دائرة الاستطاعة من قوة بمختلف أوجه هذه القوة وأضربها …

ولا شك أن في منع المسلمين من إنتاج أسلحة الدمار الشامل وتطويرها ونشرها في حين أن الدول الأخرى تقوم بذلك كله إلحاقا ً بضرر عام وعظيم وكبير بالمسلمين عموما ً، الأمر الذي يحتم على المسلمين دفع هذا الضرر من خلال تحقيق التوازن بين المسلمين وغيرهم، وهذا بدوره يؤدي إلى تحييد هذه الأسلحة، لأن العدو ساعة يفكر باستخدامه يعلم أن المسلمين قادرون على استخدامها أيض ًا مما يدفعه إلى تحييدها وعدم استخدامها …

ومن خلال ما تقدم فإنه يمكن القول بأنه يجوز للمسلمين أن ينتجوا أسلحة الدمار الشامل وأن يطوروها من أجل تحقيق التوازن المسلح بين المسلمين والقوى المعادية، وهذا التوازن قد ذكره القرآن الكريم وأرشد إليه في قولـه تعالى: وأعدوا لهم ما استطعتم من قوة ومن رباط الخيل ترهبون به عدو الله وعدوكم

 :ومع ذلك فإن إنتاج أسلحة الدمار الشامل وتطويرها واستخدامها لا بد أن يخضع لشروط وضوابط وتفصيلات يمكن إيضاحها في الآتي

:أ- إن أسلحة الدمار الشامل يمكن تقسيمها باعتبار مدى تأثيرها إلى قسمين رئيسين

.القسم الأول: الأسلحة الاستراتيجية، وهي ذات قوة تدميرية هائلة يمكن من خلال استخدامها تدمير مدن بل دول كاملة ومحوها من الوجود

القسم الثاني: الأسلحة التكتيكية، وهي ذات قوة تدميرية ومدى محدودين، ويمكن التحكم بمداها التدميري من خلال تقليل الشحنة التفجيرية وحصر مداها بكيلو مربع واحد أو أقل، ومن هنا يمكن استخدام هذه الأسلحة في قصف المعسكرات المعادية، أو لتدمير فرقة من الدبابات أو المدرعات وإبادة الجنود في هذه الفرقة أو في ذلك المعسكر

ب- وبناءً على ذلك فإنه يمكن للدولة الإسلامية أن تنتج وتطور وتنشر أسلحة الدمار الشامل الاستراتيجية من أجل أن يكون ذلك الإنتاج رادع ًا للعدو ومانعا ً له من استخدام هذا النوع من الأسلحة من خلال إيجاد ما يعرف بتوازن الرعب، والذي يمنع أي طرف من استخدام هذا النوع من الأسلحة لعلمه بأن الطرف الثاني يمكن أن يستخدمه أيضا إذا شعر بأن الطرف المعادي يهم باستخدامه، إن هذا التوازن يساهم بدرجة كبيرة في تحقيق السلم والأمن بين الدول تطبيقا ً لمقولة: ” إذا أردت السلم فاستعد للحرب “، وهذا ما أشار إليه القرآن الكريم في قوله تعالى: وأعدوا لهم ما استطعتم من قوة ومن رباط الخيل ترهبون به عدو الله وعدوكم، فإن العدو إذا علم بامتلاك المسلمين أسلحة الدمار الشامل وقدرتهم على إنتاجها واستخدامها منعه ذلك من التفكير في ضرب المسلمين بهذه الأسلحة، ولأن المسلمين إذا لم يمتلكوا هذه الأسلحة كانوا خاضعين لرحمة العدو غير قادرين على حماية مصالحهم، وكانت سياساتهم وقراراتهم مرتهنة لإملاآته وغطرسته

إن تحقيق التوازن الاستراتيجي مع العدو أمر مشروع بل واجب، كي تبقى الدولة الإسلامية قادرة على تحقيق مصالحها وحفظ أمنها وأمن رعاياها، مستقلة في سياساتها وقراراتها، غير مرتهنة في ذلك لسياسات الدول المعادية وهذا أمر مقرر في السياسات الدولية وهو ما يعرف بالسلم المسلح

ج- على أنه يمكن للدول الإسلامية استخدام هذا النوع من الأسلحة إذا استخدمها العدو أو غلب على الظن أن العدو يوشك على استخدامها، ويؤيد ذلك قولـه تعالى: فمن اعتدى عليكم فاعتدوا عليه بمثل ما اعتدى عليكم، وهذا هو مبدأ المعاملة بالمثل الذي تقره كل الشرائع السماوية والقوانين الوضعية على السواء، ابتداءً من شريعة حمورابي وانتهاًء بالقانون الدولي الحديث

د- وأما الأسلحة التكتيكية فيمكن استخدامها ضد جيوش العدو ودشمه واستحكاماته، وذلك لأن آثارها التدميرية محدودة ولا تتعدى إلى غير المحاربين من أشخاص العدو

هـ- غير أن القرار بوضع هذه الأسلحة في الخدمة الفعلية أو استخدامها ينبغي أن يخضع للتدقيق والتمحيص، وأن يبتعد عن التعجل والتهور، وأن يكون استخدامها ضمن الخيارات المتاحة للدولة الإسلامية، غير أن هذا الخيار ينبغي أن تحكمه المصلحة، وأن يكون استخدام هذا النوع من الأسلحة ذات الدمار الشامل هو الخيار الأخير الذي تلجأ إليه الدولة الإسلامية إما لتحقيق النصر على العدو بأقل كلفة عسكرية أو في إطار ضربة استباقية عندما يغلب على الظن نتيجة للمعلومات الاستخبارية الدقيقة والمحددة أن العدو يزمع على استخدام هذا النوع من الأسلحة


:لقد توصلت هذه الدراسة إلى جملة من النتائج فيما يلي أبرزها

١- إن الجهاد في الإسلام ليس غاية بحد ذاته وإنما هو وسيلة لتحقيق غايات ومقاصد نبيلة، وأهداف سامية

٢- إن شن الحرب وإنشاب العمليات القتالية في الإسلام هو بمثابة الحل الأخير الذي لا يلجأ إليه إلا بعد استنفاد سائر الحلول الأخرى

٣- إن التشريعات الحربية في الإسلام هي تشريعات أخلاقية إنسانية تسودها الرحمة والعدالة، وهي منبثقة عن الأنظمة الإسلامية في الجهاد ومحققة لمقاصد الشارع الحكيم فيه

٤- إن حماية الدولة الإسلامية لمصالحها ورعاياها هي من أوجب الواجبات، والتي يجب على الدولة الإسلامية أن توظف كل طاقاتها لتحقيقها

٥- إن تحقيق التوازن الاستراتيجي بين الدولة الإسلامية وسائر الدول المعادية هو هدف ينبغي توظيف كل الإمكانيات والطاقات لتحقيقه

٦- إن التشريعات الحربية الإسلامية التي تمنع استهداف غير المحاربين بالأعمال القتالية هي تشريعات محكمة وليست منسوخة

٧- إنه يجب على الدولة الإسلامية إنتاج أسلحة الدمار الشامل الاستراتيجية إذا كانت الدولة المعادية تنتج هذه الأسلحة من أجل ردع هذه الدول عن استخدام هذا النوع من الأسلحة، وحماية لأمن الدولة الإسلامية، وحفاظ ًا على استقلاليتها وسيادتها

٨- إنه يجب على الدولة الإسلامية إنتاج أسلحة الدمار الشامل التكتيكية، ويجوز لها استخدامها ضد الجهات العسكرية في الدول المعادية، لأن هذه الأسلحة يمكن التحكم بمداها، ويمكن حصر آثارها التدميرية على المقاتلة فقط

٩- إن استخدام أسلحة الدمار الشامل التكتيكية محكوم بشروط وضوابط تم بيانها في هذه الدراسة

١٠- فشل الجهود الدولية في الترع التام والشامل لأسلحة الدمار الشامل، والاستعاضة عنها بمعاهدات منع الانتشار، والتي فشلت هي الأخرى في منع الدول من عضوية نادي الرعب النووي، سواء كانت هذه العضوية علنية أو سرية

١١- إن المماحكات السياسية، وفقدان الثقة بالآخر، والرغبة في الهيمنة والاستحواذ كانت من بين الأسباب الكامنة وراء تعثر الجهود الدولية في نزع أسلحة الدمار الشامل أو تخفيضها

١٢- إن الازدواجية في التعاطي مع ملفات أسلحة الدمار الشامل شكلت سببا ً مهما ً إضافيً َا في فشل الجهود الدولية للتخلص من هذا النوع من الأسلحة

The origin of the relationship between the Islamic State and other states is peace, not war. Islam is not thirsty for bloodshed, nor conquering others or humiliating them. Rather, Islam seeks to guide others to worship of Allah, rather than the worship of other created beings. The Prophet, as well and the companions (sahaba) after him loved and hoped — and were even eager — to do daa’wa (proselytization) and persuade others (to come to Islam) through peaceful means…

However, Islamic law (shari’ah) orders Muslims to prepare for all possible types of force and defense by ordering them to have preparation in sufficient strength to terrorize (the enemy) and deter against an attack upon Muslims. This is the meaning of the saying of Allah: “Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know.” (Qur’an 8:60) This indicates that Muslims are required to make preparation concerning all types of possible force, and (methods of) attack…

There is no doubt that the prevention of Muslims from the production of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and their development and deployment/proliferation — while other countries (are allowed) to do all of this — causes general, great, and large damage upon all Muslims. This (state of affairs) requires Muslims to defend against this damage and achieve balance between them and others, which in turn will lead to neutralizing (the threat) of these weapons. This is because if the enemy thinks about using these weapons, but also knows that the Muslims are also able to use them, this will defend (the Muslims), neutralize (the enemy), and lead to them not being used…

It is permissible (yajuzu) for Muslims to produce WMDs, and develop them in order to seek balance in armed conflict between them and hostile forces, and this balance has been mentioned in the Qur’an: “Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies.” (8:60)

However, the production of WMDs, and their development and use must be subject to conditions, regulations, and details, clarified as follows:

A. WMDs can be divided (into groups) considering the extent of their impact: 1) Strategic weapons, which have enormous destructive power and can destroy whole cities, or even countries, and erase them from existence. 2) Tactical weapons, whose destructive power and range are limited, and can be controlled by reducing the explosive charge, and narrowing its range to one square kilometer or less. Thus, it is possible to use such weapons in the bombing of hostile encampments, to destroy a column of tanks or hostile vehicles, and to annihilate soldiers in a battalion or camp.

B. Accordingly, it is possible for an Islamic state to produce, develop, and deploy/proliferate “Strategic WMDs” so that this production deters the enemy, and prevents them from using such weapons, given knowledge that the other side can also use them. This balance contributes greatly to the achievement of peace and security between countries, according to the (general) saying, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” And, this is what is referred to in the verse: “Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies.” (Qur’an 8:60) If the enemy has knowledge that Muslims possess WMDs, and have the ability to produce and use them, it prevents them from thinking about attacking the Muslims with these weapons. And, because if Muslims do not possess these weapons, they are subject to the mercy of the enemy, and are unable to protect their interests. Therefore, their policies and decisions will be decided by their whims and arrogance.

The achievement of strategic balance with the enemy is not only legitimate (amr mashru’), but also religiously obligatory (wajib). That is, so the Islamic state remains able to pursue its interests, preserve its security and that of its citizens, and be independent in its policies and decisions — without depending upon the policies of enemy states. And, this is a matter established in international politics, known as “armed peace.”

C. It is possible for an Islamic state to use this type of weapon if the enemy uses it, or it is thought likely that the enemy is poised to use it. And, this is supported by the saying of Allah: “If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him.” (Qur’an 2:194) This is the “principle of reciprocity,” which is sanctioned in the laws of all divine religions, and man-made laws, starting with the Code of Hammurabi, to modern international law.

D. As for “tactical WMDs,” it is possible to use them against enemy armies, their fortifications, and bunkers, and this is because their destructive effects are limited and do not impact non-combatants from the “people of the enemy.”

E. The decision to put these weapons into active service should be subject to scrupulousness and scrutiny, and should be distanced from haste and recklessness. And, they should (only) be used under the options available to an Islamic state, which should be governed by its interests. Moreover, the use of WMDs should only be done as a “last option” resorted to by the Islamic state to achieve victory over the enemy at the lowest military cost. Or, in the context of a pre-emptive strike, when they have overcome conjecture, and have strategic, accurate, and specific intelligence that the enemy intends to use this kind of weapon.


This study has come to a number of notable findings:

1. Jihad in Islam is not an end in itself, but a means to achieve its noble purposes and objectives, and its sublime goals.

2. The waging of war and use of combat operations in Islam is a last resort which is only considered after exhausting all other solutions.

3. The legislation of warfare in Islam is a moral legislation, dominated by humanism, compassion, and justice…

4. The protection of the Islamic state of its interests and that of its citizens are obligatory duties, upon which it is necessary for the Islamic state to direct all its energies to achieve.

5. The achievement of strategic balance between the Islamic state and other hostile/enemy states is the (overall) goal/objective, and all capabilities and energies should be employed to achieve it.

6. The legislation of warfare in Islam forbids the targeting of non-combatants in military operations, and this legislation is (firmly) established, and has not been abrogated.

7. It is obligatory upon/necessary for an Islamic state to produce ‘strategic weapons of mass destruction,’ if a hostile state produces these weapons. This is in order to deter these states from using this type of weapon, to protect the security of the Islamic state, and preserve its independence and sovereignty.

8. It is obligatory upon/necessary for an Islamic state to produce ‘tactical weapons of mass destruction,’ and it is permissible for it to use them against military bodies in hostile states…because their destructive effects can be limited to combatants alone.

9. The use of “tactical WMDs” is governed by the conditions and regulations described in this study.

10. There has been a failure of international efforts to fully destroy WMDs, and replace them with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — which fails to prevent its members from threatening nuclear terror, whether overtly or covertly.

11. Political wrangling, and loss of confidence on the other hand, and the desire for hegemony and (nuclear) acquisition (on the other), are among the underlying causes of stumbling international efforts concerning the disarmament or reduction of WMDs.

12. The multiplication of cases dealing with WMDs is an important reason for the failure of additional international efforts to eliminate such weapons.

Dissertations and Theses

Beyond Salaheen’s journal article, one of the most common defenses of WMDs in Islamic law comes from dissertations and theses. While their contents all resemble the material adduced thus far, these have been cited in Islamist discourse on WMDs. Herein is a list for reference sake:

  • Muhammad Khayr Haykal (1992). Al-Jihad wa al-Qital fi al-Siyasah al-Shari’ah (“Jihad and Fighting in the Policies of Islamic Law”). Doctoral Dissertation, Al-Imam al-Ouzai University, Beirut.
  • Mahoshiza Hajj Abdallah (2004). Mada al-Mashru’iyah Aslihah al-Damar al-Shamil fi Daw Ahkam al-Shari’a al-Islamiyya (“The Legitimacy of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Light of the Rulings of Islamic Law”). Master’s thesis, Naif Arab University for Security Studies, Riyadh.
  • Mansur Khalid al-Mutalaqah (2005). Aslihah al-Damar al-Shamil: Dirasah Fiqhiyyah Qanuniyyah (“Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Jurisprudential and Legal Study”). Master’s thesis, University of Jordan.
  • Muhammad Sulayman Nasrallah al-Farra (2007). Ahkam al-Qanun al-Dawli al-Insani fi al-Islam (“The Provisions of International Humanitarian Law in Islam”). Master’s thesis, Islamic University of Gaza.
  • Mahmud Ibrahim Abd al-Rahman Shihab (2007). Al-Aslihah ghayr al-Taqleediyya fi al-Fiqh al-Islami (“Unconventional Weaponry in Islamic Jurisprudence”). Master’s thesis, Islamic University of Gaza.
  • Mariam Faris Isma’il (2013). Hukm Aslihah al-Damar al-Shamil fi al-Shari’ah al-Islamiyyah wa al-Qanun al-Dawli (“The Ruling on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Islamic and International Law”). Research article, University of Baghdad.
  • Unknown. Aslihah al-Tadmir al-Shamil wa Ahkamuha fi al-Shari’ah al-Islamiyyah (“Weapons of Mass Destruction and its Rulings in Islamic Law”). Master’s thesis, Yarmouk University, Jordan.

Although a few of these individuals have apparently gone on to become local religious leaders in their respective countries — after Al-Salaheen, the foremost academic among them is Muhammad Khayr Haykal. Although he only obtained his doctorate in 1992, Haykal — a Syrian national — earned a degree in law from the University of Damascus in 1965, and studied at Al-Azhar for several years, before teaching in Saudi Arabia. Most recently, he has taught at the University of Damascus, and also at “Abu Nour” — a Syrian-government run institute of Islamic studies. His dissertation on warfare in Islam reaches almost 2,000 pages, and in one chapter provides “unrestricted” justification for all types of WMD use. It has equally been cited among modern Islamist treatments of WMDs.

Independent Salafists/Islamists

From October 2-3, 2012, Muslim scholars from five Middle Eastern countries (Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, and Algeria) gathered at the Quality Suites Hotel in Amman, Jordan for a unique conference. Hosted under the auspices of the “Imam al-Shafi’i Center” (Markaz al-Imam al-Shafi’i al-‘Ilmi) — established in 2012 and partially overseen by the Jordanian Ministry of Religious Affairs — the two-day series of lectures was entitled: “The Ruling on Individual and Group Possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction” (Hukm Imtilak al-Afrad wa al-Jama’at al-Aslihah al-Damar al-Shamil). “There remain issues on which Islamic scholars need to address and issue statements concerning,” Center director Samir Murad al-Shawabikah stated at the opening of the conference. “We must clarify for the people of the government, those going forward in it, and those working in it…if not for scholars, who else could explain it?”

As Shawabikah’s opening statement demonstrates — in which he exhorted that the conference’s conclusions be adopted by those in the Jordanian government — there are a growing number of Muslim scholars, unaffiliated with popular religious institutions, or academia, who nonetheless believe in the legitimacy of their own governments. In fact, Al-Shawabikah is not only virulently against extremist groups, but in one press report has even termed the Arab Spring a “sin,” by undermining “Arab and Islamic unity.” It is likely that the entire establishment of the Al-Shafi’i Center is a move by the Jordanian government to solidify its religious legitimacy, through mosques and religious centers that are “loyal” to the state, but still espouse the public exercise and benefit of religion.

At the conference, participants displayed the flags of their home countries (which would have been anathema in more fundamentalist circles), and in attendance was even a representative from the Egyptian Dar al-Ifta (covered previously). It is these “independent” Muslim scholars, Islamists, and Salafists — who, beyond formal theologians or academics — have shown the greatest initiative in commentating on the issue of WMDs in Islamic law. However, like the theologians and academics, they have reached similar conclusions. Abdallah al-Sheikh Saeed al-Kurdi, one of the conference attendees from northern Iraq, opened his speech by stating, “This subject has great importance for us people as Kurds, as we have been victims of WMDs.” However, in ending, he left the door open for WMD possession and use, and even cast doubt upon the NPT: “If any international legislation outlaws the possession of such weapons, then it is obligatory upon states to comply with it…but if there is certainty that this legislation applies to one state, and not another, then non-compliance with the said legislation is not prohibited.” Al-Shawabikah ended his speech with similar vagueness: “The possession of weapons of mass destruction for individuals and groups is unconditionally prohibited,” he said. “And, if it can be said that it is permissible, then it is for the possession of states, and only for purposes of deterrence.”


Samir al-Shawabikah, often pictured on his Facebook page transposed against the Jordanian flag, or Royal seal

The following are other defenses of WMD in Islamic law, published by independent Islamists. For the majority of the individuals in question, little biographical information is immediately available.

  • Ahmad Nar (1968). Al-Qital fi al-Islam (“Fighting in Islam”).
  • Muhammad ibn Nasr al-Ja’awan (1983). Al-Qital fi al-Islam: Ahkamuhu wa Tashri’atihi (“Fighting in Islam: Rulings and Legislation”). Saudi Arabia.
  • Khayr al-Deen Mubarak ‘Uwayr (2008). Aslihah al-Damar al-Shamil wa Ahkamuha fi al-Fiqh al-Islami (“Weapons of Mass Destruction and its Rulings in Islamic Law”). Algeria.
  • Muhammad ibn Shakir al-Shareef (Unknown). Aslihah al-Damar al-Shamil Bayna al-Mana’ wa al-Wujub (“Weapons of Mass Destruction: Between Prohibition and Obligation). Egypt.

Although individuals from extremist groups (such as Nasr ibn Hamad al-Fahd and Ali ben Hajj) have published defenses of WMDs, these have been rarely cited in more mainstream discourse on the topic.


There are several limitations to the practical implications of how Muslim scholars and Islamists conceive of WMDs in Islamic law. However, as this information has never previously appeared in the public domain, knowledge of these voices can help contribute a new understanding to the challenges of WMD non-proliferation in the Middle East, one which is necessary as Arab governments push ahead with plans to develop sources of nuclear energy.

Categories: Miscellaneous

Nuclear Weapons in Iranian Religious Discourse

March 24, 2013 7 comments

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Violation of rights by the United States in this region is not limited to some isolated cases. In the case of our own country, they denied so many realities regarding our nuclear program…they twisted the truth beyond recognition and spread many lies…Our nation says that it seeks to achieve nuclear technology and that it seeks to have the capability to use nuclear energy for peaceful, civilian purposes. They say that the Iranian nation is trying to develop a nuclear bomb. Why do they tell these lies?

On numerous occasions, the Iranian people and government officials have announced that they do not seek to develop nuclear weapons and that nuclear weapons have no place in the needs of the nation and the military system of the country. We announced that it is haraam and prohibited to use nuclear weapons from an Islamic point of view and that having such weapons causes a great danger and needless trouble. We are not after nuclear weapons, and neither do we wish to have them…And they have been saying these things in order to justify their false claims. Is that not an injustice?

— Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. “Supreme Leader’s Address on the Anniversary of Imam Khomeini’s Demise.” June 4, 2009

The saga over Iran’s nuclear aspirations has lasted over ten years. And, as the above quote demonstrates — the dynamics on both sides are clear. However, throughout the debate on the issue, one thing has remained constant: The Iranian leadership, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have claimed the production, possession, and use of nuclear weapons (and all WMD’s) to be haram, or, prohibited in Islamic law. Because, as the reasoning goes, the use of such weapons indiscriminately harms civilians, and also land and property, which Islam prohibits.

While the veracity or non-veracity of this claim will never influence Western policy towards Iran, Khamenei has adduced this religious argument in several key venues, including in meetings with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradeiregional ambassadors, and at domestic conferences and international summits. Moreover, there are indications that Khamenei’s “nuclear fatwa” has been discussed among US government policy makers engaged in negotiations with Iran.

However, contrary to Khamenei’s claims, not only does Twelver Shia Islamic law — which serves as the basis of law in Iran, and the worldview of the Islamic Republic’s religious leadership — not prohibit the use of weapons, and tactics of warfare that kill indiscriminately, but high-ranking religious clerics, some with close ties to Khamenei, have issued fatwas specifically authorizing the possession and use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Case in point, below is a fatwa from a high-ranking Ayatullah based in the Iranian city of Qom:

Ayatullah Mohaqeq Kaboli (1928 – Present). “Ruling on Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Ahkam Sharai’

با عنایت به روایت شریفه «ان النبی(ص) نهی ان یلقی فی بلاد المشرکین» که در متون مختلف فقهی جهت حرمت استفاده از سم علیه بلاد مشرکین مورد استناد قرار گرفته است مرقوم فرمایید: آیا در خصوص تسلیحات کشتار جمعی مانند بمب های اتمی و شیمیایی و میکروبی هم همین حکم می تواند جاری باشد؟

نهی از القاء سم به بلاد مشرکین شامل عساکر حربی نمی شود، مراد از آن این است که القاء سم به بلاد مشرکین موجب قتل زنان و کودکان و پیرمردان می شود، و اما القاء سم به عساکر حربی و استفاده از تسلیحات کشتار جمعی مثل بمب های هسته ای و شیمیایی و میکروبی جهت شکست عساکر حربی بلامانع است

Question: With regard to the narration that the Prophet “prohibited the deployment of poison in the lands of the polytheists (mushrikeen),” which has been mentioned in various religious texts to prohibit the use of poison (in conflict)…in regards to weapons of mass destruction (today), such as a nuclear, chemical, or biological bomb, does the same ruling apply?

Answer: The prohibition on deploying poison in the lands of the polytheists does not include against hostile forces, it is meant to prohibit the killing of women, children, and old men…the use of weapons of mass destruction, such as a nuclear, chemical, or biological bomb, in order to defeat hostile forces, is permitted.

As alluded to above, the Twelver Shia religious tradition does address the use of weapons that cause indiscriminate harm — especially the use of poison (ilqaa al-samm), common during antiquity — which in the modern day has been analogized with WMD use. However, while limits were put on such tactics of warfare — they were never fully prohibited in scholarly literature, much less deemed a “sin” — as the Iranian leadership claims in Islam’s name today. The following anecdote — from an esteemed Twelver Shia scholar of the classical Islamic period — will better help to frame this reality:

إذا نزل الإمام على بلد، جاز له محاصرته بمنع السابلة دخولا وخروجا، وأن ينصب عليهم المنجنيق، ويرميهم بالحجارة، ويهدم الحيطان والحصون والقلاع وإن كان فيهم نساء أو صبيان للضرورة، ولو لم يحتج إلى ذلك فالأولى تركه، ولو فعله جاز. ولو كان فيهم أسارى مسلمون، وخاف الإمام إن رموهم على الأسارى جاز رميهم، ويجوز إلقاء النار إليهم وقذفهم بها، ورميهم بالنفط مع الحاجة، ويكره لامعها. ويجوز قتالهم بجميع أسباب القتل، من رمي الحيات القواتل والعقارب، وكل ما فيه ضرر عظيم، وتغريقهم بالماء وفتح الأنهار عليهم، ويكره مع القدرة بغيره. وهل يجوز إلقاء السم في بلادهم؟ الأولى الكراهية

If the leader (imam) descends upon a territory, it is permissible for him to surround it, to prevent means of entry and exit. He can train catapults on them, and launch stones, to destroy walls, fortresses, and castles. This can even be done if there are women and children inside, due to necessity. However, if these (methods) are not depended upon, then it is best to leave them, but it is still permissible. If there are Muslim captives inside, and the leader fears that they will be hit, it is still permissible to launch stones.

And, it is permissible to set fire, and launch it at them, and stones (covered with) oil. But, it is disliked. And, it is permissible to fight them with every means of killing, including launching poisonous snakes, and scorpions, and everything that brings great harm. And, flooding them with water, and opening rivers upon them. However, it is disliked if the ability exists (to accomplish the objective) otherwise. And, is it permissible to deploy poison in their lands? (The answer is), it is disliked.

— Allamah al-Hilli (d. 726 AH/1325 CE). Tahrir al-Ahkam

Despite the existence of this material, however, how modern religious clerics, and classical Shia Islamic law conceives of WMD use has never been thoroughly researched. Modern fatwas, which directly sanction nuclear weapons use — some by high-ranking religious figures in Iran, with close intellectual and physical links to Khamenei — have never been collected, translated, or analyzed. They were not easy to find. However, they demonstrate a clear consensus on the issue that has emerged in broad swaths of the Shia clerical community, and belie the claims by Khamenei that nuclear weapons are unconditionally “haram,” — seemingly one of his last remaining lines of defense with the world community.

What is this consensus? As will be seen — while the Iranian leadership no doubt considers the use of WMD’s against civilian populations to be religiously dubious (as Khamenei has articulated with confidence) — the same cannot be said for their use against military targets, including American and Western bases, troops, and strategic interests in the Middle East, and those of allies. Moreover, none of the modern or classical religious material addresses or prohibits the possession of weapons for purposes of deterrence. And, in fact, this unconditional use of weaponry for purposes of national defense was even expressed by Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, in his own fatwa:

Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989 CE). Tahrir al-Wasilah, Kitab Amr bi al-Maruf wa Nahi an al-Munkar, Fasl fi al-Difaa (1964)

مسألة 1 – لو غشي بلاد المسلمين أو ثغورها عدو يخشى منه على بيضة الاسلام و مجتمعهم يجب عليهم الدفاع عنها بأية وسيلة ممكنة من بذل الأموال والنفوس
مسألة 2 – لا يشترط ذلك بحضور الإمام عليه السلام وإذنه ولا إذن نائبه الخاص أو العام، فيجب الدفاع على كل مكلف بأية وسيلة بلا قيد وشرط

1. If a Muslim country is invaded or overtaken by the enemy, and the territory of Islam and its society are feared for, it is obligatory to defend it through any means possible, from wealth and lives.

2. This does not depend upon the presence of an Infallible Imam, or the permission of his deputy — defense is obligatory upon every capable person, through any means, without restriction or condition.

Finally, the nuclear weapons debate has also been manifested in the Islamic Republic’s intellectual history, and was addressed even prior to the 1979 Revolution. And, through understanding this historical rhetoric, we can better contextualize contemporary Iranian government statements on their nuclear intentions. In 1972, Ayatullah Morteza Motahhari — a populist and highly revered religious personality, close confidant of Khomeini, and one of the “intellectual forefathers” of the Islamic Revolution — explicitly stated that Muslims should work to possess an “atomic bomb.” Despite this, in a 1970 work — published just two years earlier — Motahhari denounced the American bombing of Hiroshima, and warned against the consequences of nuclear proliferation.

Therefore, we can deduce that the Iranian religious establishment (including Khamenei) conceives of and addresses WMD’s on different “tracks:” Approving of them for defensive purposes against perceived military aggressors, while disapproving of them against cities and civilian populations (helping to explain the IRI’s prolific rhetoric against the American bombing of Hiroshima, the Cold War arms race, and Iraq’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War). And, in fact, this “dual-level” use of rhetoric is a key finding that helps to reinforce the consensus — already articulated directly in the religious rulings — that the IRI religio-political establishment believes WMD’s to be licit, so long as they are used in defensive postures, against military entities alone. Therefore, we can conclude that Khamenei is indeed seeking to deceive the world community — but through language that is very much a part of the Islamic Republic’s historical, intellectual discourse.

Ayatullah Morteza Motahhari (d. 1979 CE). Islam va Muqtaziyat-i Zaman (“Islam and the Circumstances of the Time”) (1351/1972)

مثال ديگر : قرآن مى گويد : (( اعدوا لهم ما استطعتم من قوة و من رباط الخيل )) در مقابل دشمن تا آخرين حد امكان نيرو تهيه كنيد زمانى بود كه چهار تا آهنگر مى توانستند آن وسائل نيرو را با همان معلومات تجربى زمان خودشان تهيه كنند , ولى يك زمان ديگر انجام اين وظيفه معلومات بسيارى مى خواهد , علم ساختن بمب اتمى هم لازم است , پس براى آنكه آن وظيفه انجام داده شود واجب است كه اين[ مبحث] هم خوانده شود[ شايد بگوييد] مگر پيامبر گفت (( ايها الناس ! برويد اتم شناسى ياد بگيريد )) تا ما امروز ياد بگيريم ؟ مى گوييم پيغمبر چنين چيزى نگفته , لازم هم نبوده بگويد ولى پيغمبر چيزى گفته كه اگر بخواهيم به آن عمل كنيم , بايد اين مقدمه را هم انجام بدهيم , چون روح اين حكم آن است

The Koran states: Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies. (8:60)

The use of force against the enemy is required as much as possible. There was a time when a few blacksmiths could build the tools needed, using the empirical knowledge of their time. But, today it takes more knowledge. The knowledge to build an atomic bomb is necessary. You may say, the Prophet didn’t say, ‘O people, go, learn about atoms!’…But, we should do this, because it is in the spirit of that rule.

Ayatullah Morteza MotahhariSayri dar Sirah-i Aimmah-i Athar (“A Glance at the Biographies of the Pure Imams”) (1350/1970)

روزى نيست كه وسائل مخرب به صورت نيرومندتر , مهيب تر و وحشتناكتر پيدا نشود . از حدود بيست سال پيش , از وقتى كه بمب اتمى در هيروشيما افتاد تا امروز نگاه كنيد ببينيد قدرت تخريبى صنعتى بشر چند برابر شده است ؟ رسيده به مرحله اى كه مى گويند دنياى امروز ديگر غالب و مغلوب ندارد , اگر جنگ سوم جهانى پيش بيايد , صحبت اين نيست كه آيا آمريكا غالب است يا شوروى , يا چين . اگر جنگ سومى پيش بيايد آنكه مغلوب است زمين و بشريت است , و آنكه غالب است هيچ است

Everyday, worse and more destructive weapons have appeared. It was only about 20 years ago when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, but look today at how the destructive power of human industry has multiplied…If there is a Third World War today, the loser will be earth and people, and the winner no one.

Clearly, these excerpts that sanction the development and use of WMD’s — including fatwas from modern Iranian clerics; rulings from classical Shia Islamic law; statements from Khomeini, the founder of the IRI; and leading intellectual figures of the Iranian Revolution — significantly contextualize and challenge Khamenei’s assertions about Islam’s alleged nuclear weapons ban, and Iran’s military intentions. And, throughout this post, I will attempt to continue to contextualize these statements by Khamenei, and offer an intellectual rebuttal to a topic that has not been adequately challenged.

In this post, I will present and analyze all of the modern fatwas that sanction the use of weapons of mass destruction and their implications for gauging Iran’s nuclear ambitions; explore how nuclear weapons have been manifested in the worldview and history of the IRI, including how Khomeini addressed them; and also further explore how Shia Islamic law conceives of warfare, and by extension, modern WMD use.

Modern Fatwas, and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Ayatullah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei (d. 1992 CE). Minhaj al-Salihin

يجوز قتال الكفار المحاربين بكل وسيلة ممكنة من الوسائل والادوات الحربية في كل عصر حسب متطلبات ذلك العصر ، ولا يختص الجهاد معهم بالادوات القتالية المخصوصة

نهى رسول الله ( صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم ) أن يلقى السم في بلاد المشركين . نعم ، إذا كانت هناك مصلحة عامة تستدعي ذلك كما إذا توقف الجهاد أو الفتح عليه جاز ، وأما إلقاؤه في جبهة القتال فقط من جهة قتل المحاربين من الكفار فلا بأس به

It is permissible to fight “disbelieving war makers” (al-kuffar al-muharibeen) with every possible means and tools of warfare, in every age, according to the requirements of that era. Jihad with them is not limited in the tools of warfare…

Yes, the Messenger of Allah prohibited deploying poison in their lands, but if there is a public interest which requires it, such as to stop aggression, or achieve victory, then it is permissible. As for deploying it on the battlefield, on the front of the “disbelieving war makers,” then there is no harm in it.

As has been demonstrated, commentary upon warfare in Islamic law is not limited to the past, and figures within the modern Shia clerical structure have also addressed the issue. And, as aptly articulated above, a consensus has emerged: It is not the “tools of warfare” (such as nuclear or chemical weapons in and of themselves) that are subject to religious regulation — but rather, the “population” that weapons target. And, while the targeting of civilians is considered religiously impermissible (or, haram) by most clerics (though, it can be done as a “last resort” in order to “halt conflict” or “achieve victory”), their use against military targets has been deemed unconditionally permissible.

This understanding has been articulated by several contemporary Ayatullahs, some with close ties to the Iranian leadership (as will be explored). Presented below are the remaining, extant fatwas from modern Shia clerics that implicitly and explicitly sanction WMD’s (however, undoubtedly, there are many more that are not published or in works that are not easily accessible). These fatwas — beyond their literal meanings — are significant for the diversity of the clerical figures that articulated them. Whether from Najaf or Qom; traditionalists or reformists; or independents or regime loyalists — the same religious dynamics have been expressed, which shows the degree of clerical consensus on the issue, beyond the statements of Khamenei.

Ayatullah Muhammad Sadiq Rohani (1926 – Present). Istifta’at

س 1026 : با عنايت به روايت شريفه «ان النبي(صلي الله عليه وآله) نهي ان يلقي السم في بلاد المشركين» كه در متون مختلف فقهي جهت حرمت استفاده از سم عليه بلاد مشركين مورد استناد قرار گرفته است ،آيا در خصوص تسليحات كشتار جمعي مانند بمب هاي هسته اي و شيميايي و ميكروبي هم همين حكم مي تواند جاري باشد؟

باسمه جلت اسمايه
بما ذكرناه جواز استفاده از همه اموري كه فتح متوقف بر آن ها باشد ظاهر مي شود; و به واسطه، در جنگ مسلمين با اسراييل از من استفتا شد; من همه اين امور را در صورت توقف فتح بر آن ها اجازه داده ام

Question: With regard to the narration that the Prophet “prohibited the deployment of poison in the lands of the polytheists (mushrikeen),” which has been mentioned in various religious texts to prohibit the use of poison…in regards to weapons of mass destruction (today), such as a nuclear, chemical, or biological bomb, does the same ruling apply?

Response: As we have said before, the permission is given for all things on which victory depends. Through a mediator, I was asked for my decree about the Muslims’ war with Israel, and I have permitted all such things if victory depends on them.

Ayatullah Hossein Ali Montazeri (d. 2009 CE). “On Nuclear Weapons.” October 14, 2009 (22 Mehr 1388)

‏ ‏به كارگيرى اين گونه سلاح ها اگر تنها در برابر نظاميان متجاوز نباشد و مردم‏ ‏بى گناه – هرچند از نسل هاى آتى – را قربانى نمايد، عقلا و شرعا جايز‏ ‏نيست . و با توجه به وسعت دامنه كشتار و تخريب سلاح هاى هسته اى ،‏ ‏مصداق اهم و مهم بودن در مورد سوال روشن نيست

Employing nuclear weapons is rationally and religiously impermissible — if used against innocent people, even those in future generations — (though) not if against an invading military. However, due to the extent of destruction and massacre caused by nuclear weapons, the “priority of importance” in this question is unclear.

Ayatullah Muhammad Taqi Bahjat (d. 2009 CE). “Methods of Fighting the Enemy,” Jami al-Masa’il

جايز است محاربت دشمن به هر قسمى كه اميد فتح يا نجات در آن باشد از آنچه اهون از قتل نفس باشد از اموال؛ و اگر در بين آنها كسانى باشد كه جايز نيست قتل آنها مثل زنها و اطفال ، خوددارى از مهلكات آنها مىشود مگر آنكه متوقّف باشد فتح بر آن . و در القاء سموم در بلاد كفّار، شبهه حرمت است ، و آن شبهه آكد است در غير صورت اختصاص بلد به كسانى كه جايز است قتل آنها و متوقّف است فتح بر القاء سمّ

It is permissible to fight the enemy with every kind (of warfare) in order to secure victory, or save lives and property. And, among those who it is not permissible to kill, such as women and children, these (methods) should be refrained from, unless victory depends upon it. As for deploying poison in the lands of the unbelievers, it is highly disliked, but permissible in order to stop killing, or achieve victory.

Ayatullah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (d. 1999 CE). Ma Wara al-Fiqh

استعمال السم وغيره
قد ورد النهي عن استعمال المبيدات العامة حتى ضد الجيش المقاتل، فضلا عن الاخرين، كالماء والنار والسم وغير ذلك مما هو متوفر احياناً
ففي معتبرة السكوني عن ابي عبد الله عليه السلام: قال: قال امير المؤمنين عليه السلام: نهى رسول الله (ص) ان يلقى السم في بلد المشركين
اقول: النهي دال على التحريم، ما لم تحصل مصلحة عظيمة، لا تكون الا نادراً. والرواية وان كانت دالة على خصوص السم، الا انها شاملة لكل المبيدات العامة، بحيث يذهب البرئ بذنب المجرم والاعزل بذنب المسلح، حتى لو كان مسلحاً كالذري او غيره، وذلك بالتجريد عن الخصوصية فقهياً

It has been stated that it is prohibited to use hazardous weaponry, whether against an aggressive army, or others. This includes (flooding) with water, (launching) fire, poison, and other means that might exist.

This is because of the hadith that the Messenger of Allah prohibited the deployment of poison in the lands of the polytheists.

I say: This prohibition indicates it is haram, except if there is a great public interest (maslaha adheema) — but that is rare. While the hadith only specifies poison, its meaning includes all kinds of hazardous weaponry — including nuclear or others — because they kill the innocent along with the guilty, and the unarmed with the armed.

Ayatullah Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi (1945 – Present). Al-Wajiz fi al-Fiqh al-Islami

يجوز استخدام كل الاسلحة التي يرجى بها الفتح إلاّ مـا يُستثنى
يستخدم من الاسلحة بقدر ما يحقق الفتح ، وبأقـل قدر من الدمـار والقتـل
لا تُستخدم الاسلحة التي تفسد الأرض او تبيد الأبرياء ، وتُتَجَنَّب اسلحة الدمار الشامل ؛ كالاسلحة الذرية والبيولوجية والكيماوية ، إلاّ عند الضرورة مثل
أ- ما إذا استخدم العدو تلك الاسلحة
ب- اذا استوجبت الضرورة ذلك ، كأن يكون عدم استخدامها أشد ضرراً وفساداً ، ولم تكن مندوحة للمسلمين غيرها

1. It is permissible to use all weapons in order to secure victory, with exceptions.
2. The use of weapons should be done as much as possible to achieve victory, while minimizing destruction and killing.
3. Weapons that corrupt the earth or kill the innocent should not be used. And, weapons of mass destruction, like nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, should be avoided, except due to necessity, (such as): A. If the enemy uses those weapons. B. If it is judged that there is a necessity for it, for instance if (such weapons) would not be used, then it would increase harm and corruption (against Muslims), which would not have been inevitable otherwise.

Although some of these fatwas only implicitly sanction WMD use — one Ayatullah stands out from among the rest: Muhammad Sadiq Rohani. Rohani is widely respected, and viewed as an independent and academically-minded jurist. Despite some political differences, he is known to ideologically support the Iranian regime, though is intellectually independent from them. Based in Qom, his modern jurisprudential work, a 26-volume tome entitled Fiqh al-Sadiq, is highly regarded. Given his perception as an independent, traditionalist, and intellectual — but also a tacit IRI supporter — it is likely that Rohani has been approached by IRI figures for religious rulings about nuclear weapons. And, indeed, this is what his fatwa intimates. It is notable that Rohani stated he had been “approached by an intermediary,” (due to his political, but not intellectual fallout with the regime, this likely indicates contact with a regime member) and framed his answer in regards to Israel — clearly within the IRI’s political purview (and not a typical answer within the purview of Islamic law alone). Moreover, he intimates that he has issued several past, similar fatwas on the issue. While it cannot be known for certain, the best estimate is that this fatwa was issued between 2007-2009. Along with the fatwa’s content and context, Rohani’s clerical and intellectual status almost certainly belies the notion that Khamenei is unaware that one of Qom’s most respected clerics has sanctioned WMD use — against Israel no less, which would certainly include civilians as well.

The biographies of the other scholars, and their links to the Iranian leadership, are also telling:

  • Abu al-Qasim Al-Khoei — until his death in 1992 — served as the primary marja al-taqlid (scholar of imitation) for the world’s Twelver Shia Muslim community. He was based in Najaf, Iraq, rather than in Iran, and was only loosely affiliated with the Iranian religious hierarchy. However, his religious verdicts are still highly regarded, studied, and relied upon in Shia clerical circles. His risalah — which includes the above ruling — has been endorsed by Ayatullah Vahid Khorasani, the most senior Iranian religious scholar, and one of among six clerics whose religious credentials have been approved by the Iranian leadership.
  • Muhammad Taqi Bahjat — prior to his death in 2009 — was similarly on the list of “approved clerics,” and upon his death, was eulogized by Khamenei, who called himself a “devotee of this great personality,” and allegedly visited him often in Qom.
  • Hossein Ali Montazeri was a close disciple of Khomeini and his potential successor, until he later fell out with him, and subsequently Khamenei, and became a self-styled religious reformist and critic of the regime. His fatwa is significant given his former prominence, close ties to Khomeini, and access to clerical circles — not to mention his insistence on the permissibility of nuclear weapons use, despite being a reformist. Although Montazeri oscillated about the jurisprudential details of the ruling (the “priority of importance” in deducing a religious ruling, while weighing competing interests), the verdict is clear: Nuclear weapons are religiously permissible so long as they are used against a military force, but not against civilians.
  • Mohaqeq Kaboli, an ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan, studied under Khomeini in Najaf during his exile, and currently teaches in Qom. While relatively unknown (comparatively speaking), he is one of many “grand Ayatullahs” who have emerged in recent years, is a regime loyalist, and clearly is aware of the juristic dynamics in Qom, which are undoubtedly reflected in his fatwa on nuclear weapons.
  • Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr — father of Iraqi cleric and politician Muqtada al-Sadr — was a highly-revered, populist Iraqi ayatullah, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999. Although he maintained intellectual and physical independence from the IRI, his ruling on WMD use — which states that it’s prohibited, except if there is a “great public interest” — simply demonstrates another religious dynamic in the nuclear weapons debate. What does a “great public interest” constitute? The saving of lives at war? The defense and maintenance of a country’s religious system? As demonstrated by this fatwa — the notion that WMD’s are unconditionally haram has caveats. Al-Sadr also pronounced a second fatwa authorizing WMD use, which will be explored in the last section of this post.
  • Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi is an Iraqi “Grand Ayatullah” that is broadly aligned with the “Shirazi school,” a familial, clerical dynasty that has come to be defined by their religious and political opposition to the Islamic Republic, and the leadership of both Khomeini and Khamenei. Al-Modarresi’s rationale for the possession of nuclear weapons — which endorses them as an “equalizer” in warfare, and a deterrent to minimize harm to the Muslim community — adds another dynamic to the theological justification for nuclear weapons. Moreover, given Al-Modarresi’s political allegiances (which put him in a camp separate from religious reformists, Iraqi traditionalists, or “quietists”) simply shows the degree of religious consensus on the nuclear weapons issue in Shia clerical circles, above and beyond any political posturing that might be present.

Khomeini, Khamenei, and Iran’s Shia Clerical Community

If Khamenei is seeking to deceive others about Islam’s posture towards WMD’s, then he is doing a good job. Despite the fatwas translated above — popular religious opposition to nuclear weapons remains very high. The nuclear weapons debate is not a “hush-hush” topic in Iran, and in the press, academia, and religious discourse, his rationale is supported. In short, despite offering key insights into the debate over Iran’s nuclear aspirations, the fatwas that permit the use of nuclear weapons are not popularly known.

Moreover, Khamenei’s rhetoric against nuclear weaponry is not a new phenomenon. As President of the Islamic Republic in the 1980s, Khamenei addressed both WMD’s, and nuclear energy on numerous occasions. And, in a September 1992 speech, as newly-minted Supreme Leader, Khamenei dismissed nuclear weapons on several grounds, with reasoning and rhetoric reminiscent of that today:

مدتى است كه بلندگوهاى آمريكايى و صهيونيستى در تبليغات جهانى دارند جمهورى اسلامى را به نظاميگرى و افزايش سلاح متهم ميكنند . ميگويند جمهورى اسلامى دارد سلاحهاى جمعى و اتمى درست ميكند واز فلان جا كلاهك اتمى آورده اند ! اينها حرفهايى است كه اگر هر عاقلى در دنيا تأمل كند مى فهمد دروغ است . آيا بمب اتمى چيزى است كه بتوان آنرا بى سر و صدا از كشورى به كشور ديگر منتقل كرد ؟ خود آنها مى فهمند كه دروغ است ولى شايعه درست ميكنند , براى اينكه چهره ء نظام اسلامى را بنحوى معرفى كنند كه گويى با صلح و استقرار آن در دنيا مخالف است . يكى از تلاشهاى خباثت آميز آمريكا و صهيونيزم عليه جمهورى اسلامى همين است . من عرض ميكنم شما اشتباه كرديد كه خيال كرديد قدرت جمهورى اسلامى در اين است كه بمب اتمى فراهم بكند يا در داخل بسازد . قدرت ما اينها نيست . اگر قدرت ما به اينها بود كه جمهورى اسلامى مثلا يك بمب اتمى درست بكند , صدها مثل آنرا كشورهاى بزرگ دارند . اگر كسى ميتوانست با بمب اتمى بر ديگران پيروز بشود , آمريكا و شوروى سابق و بقيه قدرتهاى خبيث دنيا بايد تا حالا صدبار جمهورى اسلامى را از بين برده بودند . چيزى كه به يك نظام قدرت ميدهد بمب اتمى نيست , قدرت نظام اسلامى كه امريكا و شوروى سابق و بقيه قدرتهاى ريز و درشت عالم تا به امروز نتوانسته اند و نخواهند توانست با او مقابله كنند , قدرت ايمان نيروهاى حزب ا . . . است . جمهورى اسلامى بايد اين نيرو و اين قدرت عظيم را حفظ كند , شما جوانها بايد دائم در صحنه باشيد . بايد بطور دائم نشان بدهيد كه جمهورى اسلامى آسيب ناپذير است

The loudspeakers of American and Zionist propaganda for some time have accused the Islamic Republic of seeking militarism and more weapons. They say the Islamic Republic is making weapons of mass destruction, atomic weapons, and has imported nuclear warheads from some country. These are things that any sane person in the world understands is a lie. Is an atomic bomb something that can be transferred from country to country secretly? They understand these are lies but make rumors so as to make it seem like the Islamic Republic is against world peace.

This is one of the evil campaigns of the U.S. and Zionism against the Islamic Republic. I say, you’re wrong to assume the Islamic Republic’s power depends on buying nuclear weapons or building them inside the country. Our power does not lie in that. If our power depended on making nuclear bombs, then great countries would have hundreds of such bombs. If someone could win with the atomic bomb, then the US and Soviet Union and other powers of evil in the world would have already destroyed the Islamic Republic many times over.

An atomic bomb does not give power to a regime. The power of the Islamic regime that America, the former Soviet Union, and other world powers, large and small, could never defeat and never will, is the power of faith among Hezbollahi forces.

The Islamic Republic must preserve this enormous power and energy. You, the young generation, must be aware and make your presence felt, you must constantly show the world that Islamic Republic is invulnerable.

— Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. “Ray of Light: Statements of the Supreme Leader in Urmia, West Azerbaijan.” Shahrivar 1371 (September 1992)

Moreover, in a 1987 speech as President of the Islamic Republic, equally reminiscent of today, Khamenei lauded domestic progress in nuclear energy as key to safeguarding the independence of the country:

ما در زمينه انرژى اتمى همچون ديگر زمينه هاى علمى و تحقيقاتى عقب نگاه داشته شديم و شايد فكر مى شد كه ملت ما به دليل وجود نفت و گاز فراوان نيازى به ساير منابع انرژى ندارد كه اين يك برداشت غلط بود . شايد نياز مصرفى ما به انرژى نسبت به ديگر كشورها بسيار كمتر باشد . اما در رابطه با انرژى اتمى اين نياز احساس مى شود كه براى رشد و شكوفايى در اين زمينه از علم در كشور ما تلاش شود و اين خواست امروزه ماست . بيش از يك قرن بر روى ملت ما كار شده بود كه ملت را از استقلال و روى پاى خود ايستادن منصرف كنند و اين ملت را به ناتوانى در همه زمينه ها بكشانند . اين خيانت بزرگى بود كه به ملت ما و تاريخ بشريت روا داشته اند چرا كه اگر اين تلاش ها براى نااميد كردن ملت هاى جهان صورت نمى گرفت شايد ما هم اكنون در اين سطح قرار نداشتيم . نياز ما به تكنولوژى هسته اى بيشتر از اين نظر مورد اهميت است كه ملت ما تلاش مى كند وارد صحنه صنعت مدرن و نو شود و ورود به اين مرحله نياز به كار مستمر و خستگى ناپذير همه برادران و اساتيد فن و سرمايه گذارى گسترده در همه زمينه ها دارد. كار علمى شما سلاح برائى است كه براى آينده سياسى علمى و فنى اين ملت فوق العاده اهميت دارد. يكى از وظايف مهم هر ملتى اين است كه ذخاير ارزشمند خود را حفظ و بهترين بهره بردارى را از آن بكند . از بارزترين ارزش هاى يك ملت شناخت استعدادها و خلاقيت هاست . ذخيره استعدادها و ذهنيت هاى خلاقى كه در هر جامعه وجود دارد جزو بالاترين و پرارزش ترين ذخاير يك ملت است .

We have been held back in the field of atomic energy, just like in other scientific and research fields. Maybe there used to be this mindset that since our nation is rich in oil and natural gas, there is no need for other energy sources, but this is a wrong assumption. Our need for energy consumption might be lower than many other countries, but we feel that atomic energy is needed for the growth and development of science in our country.

For more than a century, they worked against our nation to dissuade it from gaining independence and self-sufficiency, to make it weak in all fields. This is a big treason they committed against our nation, and human history, because maybe we would have been in a different situation today had they not made such efforts to dishearten world nations.

Our need for nuclear energy is important because our nation is trying to embark on the path to modern industries and such a move requires ceaseless effort of our brothers and experts, and a large scale investment in all areas. Your scientific work is like a very effective weapon which is of the utmost importance for the political, scientific, and technological future of this nation.

One of the important duties of every nation is to preserve its precious resources and to make the most of them. One of the most prominent values of a nation is its ability to discover human talents and creative minds. These are some of the greatest resources a nation can have.

— Hojjat al-Islam Ali Khamenei, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Speech to the Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI).” 29 Bahman 1365 (February 18, 1987)

ِHowever, it must be noted that despite this prolific rhetoric against WMD use, especially in the context of the Iran-Iraq War, throughout this period there is no record of Khamenei utilizing religious language or arguments — which has seemingly only begun in the last decade, with escalating international attention over Iran’s nuclear aspirations. All of Khamenei (and even Khomeini’s) rhetoric was purely secular and strategic in nature. For instance, in an April 1985 interview, Khamenei denounced the Iraqi use of chemical weapons as an “illegal action” — however, the secular term “ghayr qanuni” (lit. “not lawful”) was used, rather than religious phrases with equivalent meanings, such as “haram,” or the lesser “mamnu’.”

و اين بدان جهت است كه از پيش به كار بردن سلاح هاى شيميايى يك عمل غير قانونى و محكوم شده در سراسر دنيا است

The use of destructive, chemical weapons is an illegal action (amal ghayr qanuni) that has been condemned around the world.

— Hojjat al-Islam Ali Khamenei, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Interviews with Journalists After a Meeting with the Press Office of the High Defense Council.” 14 Farvardin 1364 (April 3, 1985)

However, as is known, since 2003 these same strategic arguments against nuclear weapons have remained — but Khamenei has increased the rhetoric through religious overtures as well. While, as noted in the introduction, the “religious argument” has been adduced in several key venues, such as in meetings with the UN and IAEA, in actuality the use of this religious language has not been all that prolific. In fact, a survey of Khamenei’s speeches indicates that since 2003, the “religious argument” against WMD’s — by labeling them as “against Islam,” “sinful,” or “haram” — has only been used roughly around a dozen times. However, Khamenei has indeed used it as leverage on the world stage, with his most extensive religious commentary provided in a 2010 speech:

اين حرف تكرارىِ از دهن افتاده‌ى مهملى كه راجع به ساخت سلاح اتمى به جمهورى اسلامى نسبت ميدهند، نشان‌دهنده‌ى نهايت ناتوانى اينها حتّى در زمينه‌ى تبليغات است. جمهورى اسلامى هيچ اصرارى هم ندارد كه در دفاع خودش در اين قضيه خيلى احساسات به خرج بدهد؛ نه، ما اعتقاد به بمب اتم نداريم، به سلاح اتمى نداريم؛ دنبالش هم نخواهيم رفت. برطبق مبانى اعتقادى ما، مبانى دينى ما، به كار بردن اينگونه وسائل كشتار جمعى اصلاً ممنوع است، حرام است؛ اين، ضايع كردن حرث و نسل است كه قرآن آن را ممنوع كرده؛ ما دنبال اين نميرويم

The old, idle talk about Iran making an atomic bomb shows that even in terms of propaganda the enemies of the nation have resorted to repeating themselves out of sheer weakness…We do not believe in atomic weapons, and would not go after them. According to our beliefs and religious principles, employing weapons of mass destruction is prohibited, and religiously impermissible (haram). They lead to the destruction of land and people, which the Koran forbids. We do not go looking for this.

— Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. “Speech for the Ceremony of the Launching of the Jamaran Destroyer.” 30 Bahman 1388 (February 19, 2010)

Based on this rhetoric and reasoning which has emerged over the past decade, Iranian-educated Shia scholars have also attempted to support Khamenei’s position, and have analyzed Islamic source material to prove the religious impermissibility of nuclear weapons, based on the concept of harm (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11). Further statements of prohibition have come from high-ranking Ayatullahs, among them Javadi Amoli, Fazel Lankarani, and Makarem Shirazi — all of whom have been part of the Iranian regime’s religious establishment.

And, it is actually Makarem Shirazi — an extremely close Khamenei confidant (who is also on the Iranian list of “approved” religious clerics, referenced previously) — who has been most prolific and consistent in the religious opposition to WMD use. His statements on the topic, which date back to the 1960s, appears to support the notion that within the high-ranking clerical community, there is a faction that truly, religiously opposes WMD use, and which existed even prior to the Islamic Revolution. If Khamenei does in fact believe in their blanket prohibition, it would not be a stretch to claim that he follows the “Makarem Shirazi school” of Islamic jurisprudence — which seemingly combines a mixture of feigned traditionalism and recourse to the Shia legal tradition, along with a heavy dose of political expediency, and pride in the foundations of the Islamic Revolution. For instance, Shirazi stated in a 1988 commentary of the Koran:

نَهَى رَسُولُ اللهِ اَنْ يُلْقَى السُّمُّ فى بِلادِ الْمُشْرِكينَ: «رسول خدا(صلى الله عليه وآله) نهى كرد از اينكه سمّ در شهرهاى مشركان افكنده شود.» بنابراين به كار بردن گازهاى سمّى، داروهاى سمّى و هر نوع سلاح شيميايى ممنوع است

The Prophet prohibited the deployment of poison in the lands of the polytheists, therefore employing poisonous gases, poisonous drugs, or any kind of chemical weapon is prohibited.

— Ayatullah Naser Makarem Shirazi (1924 – Present). Tafsir Payam-i Qur’an (1988)

Moreover, in a 1962 popular theological work, Shirazi expounded on mathematics and science, and discussed the development of nuclear weapons. After describing their use during World War II (and vividly citing death toll numbers and the scale of destruction), he then went on to state:

نمونه‌اى از قدرت اتم: متأسّفانه اين نيروى عظيم اتمى- كه منافع زيادى براى بشر در بر دارد- مورد سوء استفاده بشر بى‌خبر از آفريدگار اتم قرار گرفته و جاه‌طلبانه آن را در راههاى

اين بود اوّلين بهره بردارى انسان متمدّن از اين نيروى شگرف طبيعى! امروزه خدا مى داند كه دولت هاى زورمند عصر حاضر چه سلاح هاى مخرّب اتمى در انبارهاى خود در اختيار دارند؟! عجيب اين است كه با وجود اين وضع وحشتناك و تسليحات روزافزون، همه از استفاده مُسالمت آميز نيروى اتم، دم مى زنند و همواره شعارهاى مبتذلى (مانند: اتم در خدمت صلح) را تكرار مى كنند! در صورتى كه همه مى دانيم كه با اين مسابقه وحشتناك تسليحات اتمى، تحقّق اين آرمان انسانى، جز خواب و خيالى بيش نيست

Unfortunately, the power of the atom has been abused by humans in many ways…this was the first civilized, human exploitation of natural resources. Today, God only knows what destructive weaponry superpowers have in their arsenals. It is strange that despite this terrible situation, with the growing number of arms, they repeat slogans like, “Atoms for peace.” We all know that the nuclear arms race is a terrible realization of human aspirations, and (its claim to progress) is no more than an illusion.

— Ayatullah Naser Makarem Shirazi. Afaridgar-i Jahan (“Creator of the World”) (1341/1962)

Finally, Shirazi even addressed the topic of nuclear weapons with regards to “Imam Mahdi” — the “Shia messiah” who will return at the “end times” to implement ideal Islamic rule over earth. Throughout the Western debate over Iran’s nuclear intentions, some commentators have sought to implicate the Iranian regime by tying this messianic, eschatological belief into a possible quest for WMD development. However, regardless of the IRI’s nuclear intentions — this belief has little to do with their decision-making calculus. And, this was aptly expressed by Shirazi, who — instead of claiming that Iran needs to possess nuclear weapons in order to “lay the groundwork” for the Mahdi’s return — incredulously claimed that the Mahdi would possess superior weapons, and moreover be able to neutralize lesser weaponry. In one work, Shirazi even speculated that the Mahdi would possess “unknown and mysterious rays beyond all current weapons…which might operate in mysterious psychological or intellectual ways” that would “thwart the superpowers and leave them sterile.” Crazy? Yes. But it goes to show that the connection between the theological belief in the Mahdi and end times, and real world, strategic decision making, is tenuous at best.

سؤال 1508- امام زمان (عج) پس از ظهور، چگونه با سلاحهاى شيميايى و بمبهاى اتمى و سلاحهاى سنگين ديگر مبارزه خواهند كرد؟
جواب: از بعضى قرائن استفاده مى‌شود كه آن حضرت وسائل و ابزارى ما فوق سلاحهاى آنها در اختيار دارد، كه آنها را از كار مى‌اندازد

Question: How will Imam Mahdi, after His emergence, fight with chemical weapons, atomic bombs, and other heavy weaponry?

Answer: Some evidence suggests that His Eminence will have at his disposal tools and instruments which are superior to their weapons, and will disable them.

— Ayatullah Naser Makarem Shirazi. Istifta’at Jadid

Khomeini and Nuclear Weapons

However, much of Khamenei’s contemporary and historical rhetoric (and perhaps that of Shirazi as well) ultimately has its roots with Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Both during the 1980s as president, and today, Khamenei’s speeches and language highly mirrors that of Khomeini. Therefore, it is pertinent to understand Khomeini’s views of nuclear weapons, which can actually contextualize these above remarks. While these statements might seem progressive and non-threatening, as will be seen, the Iranian regime and religious establishment can often employ rhetoric on different “tracks” and “levels.”

While there is no fatwa on record, Khomeini — impacted by his experiences with the Soviet Union, and Iran-Iraq War — did not speak highly of nuclear rivalries, and chemical weapons (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7). In fact, based on official archives of his speeches and correspondence, Khomeini specifically addressed nuclear weapons, both before and after the Islamic Revolution, on no less than five different occasions. This does not include when he spoke about the US-Soviet arms race in general. Despite this, to my knowledge, his words on the subject have never been adduced in the public domain (although English translations do exist), nor even widely disseminated in their original Farsi.

In a 1983 speech to the Iranian parliament, on the independence day of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini denounced the “havoc and competition” between the United States and Soviet Union, and claimed that the race for nuclear weapons stems from a “satanic and unrestrained soul.” In ending, he called upon an “invisible hand to come out and save humanity:”

که علم و تخصص بدون تهذیب و تربیت، بلایی است که امروز بشر مبتلای به آن است و می رود تا عالَم را به آتش کشد. و مسابقه و رقابت دو ابرقدرت در مجهز شدن به سلاحهای مدرن اتمی و هسته ای که از مبادی شیطانی و نفسانی سرچشمه می گیرد، چه مصیبتهایی برای بشریت دارد؛ مگر آنکه دستی از غیب بیرون آید و بشریت را نجات دهد

Knowledge and specialization without self-purification and training is a blight that has afflicted humankind today, and is on the verge of setting the world on fire. What havoc can the competition and rivalry of the two superpowers and their arming themselves with modern atomic and nuclear weapons, that originate from a satanic and unrestrained soul, wreak upon humankind, unless some invisible hand comes out and saves humanity?

— Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini. “Six Reminders to the Nation, the Government, the Parliament, and the Judiciary.” 12 Farvardin 1361; April 1, 1983. English translation adapted from Sahifeh-ye Imam, vol. 17, p. 365

Khomeini is also on record lamenting the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War and their effect on Iranian youth; Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in Halabjeh; the dangers of a “third world war;” and the American bombing of Hiroshima, which “set fire to the world” and “turned it upside down,” despite the United States claiming nuclear technology as “progress” and an “achievement.”

However, in his most extensive commentary on the subject, a November 1982 speech to local religious leaders and war refugees, Khomeini denounces the production and potential use of nuclear weapons, but paradoxically also calls for the “destruction of America” as the solution to global nuclear proliferation:

The problem that threatens the world today is the problem of these two superpowers, that have kept the whole world under their wings, and are exploiting them. They are busy with plans to make certain weapons, which are dangerous to the future of humanity…

If, God forbid, there is a war between these two superpowers today, they will destroy the world. These are the problems of the world today…

Today, the masses, writers, and orators must think about the future of the world and enlighten people about this danger that threatens the whole of humankind. They must enlighten all the masses of the world that this great danger is looming ahead and if the superpowers are allow to remain in the current situation, in which they are busy making big atomic and conventional weapons, it is possible that they will bring destruction to the world, and nations will have to bear the major losses.

Every person, wherever he is, writers, intellectuals, and theologians…and scientists must enlighten people about this danger so that perhaps…they can confront these two powers and prevent the making of these weapons.

There are rumors making the rounds…(about) the elimination of these nuclear weapons, of wanting to arrive at a consensus to prevent the construction of these nuclear weapons, and these enormous missiles that have been produced recently…with a single press of the button the world can be destroyed.

Today, the people of the world must pay attention to this great problem…there are certain strata that are holding demonstrations against these weapons, but the entire people must revolt in order to be able to do something…

Moreover, if God forbid, something happens all of a sudden, then there will neither be any nation in place nor any human being — except a few. The world must think about it…

The world must destroy America; otherwise, as long as they are existing, these tragedies will be present in the world, if not here, then somewhere else. Right now, in many places all over the world, America has started fires and the wars that are now in progress…they are threatening the world. They will never halt the production of these weapons that they claim to halt and to limit. They are lying and they never speak the truth. Therefore, we must cry out against them as much as we can.

— Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini. “Superpowers, the Root of World Problems.” 13 Aban 1361; November 4, 1982. English translation adapted from Sahifeh-ye Imam, vol. 17, pp. 74-75, 79

However, there are indications that despite Khomeini’s rhetoric — like the modern fatwas — he was not opposed to types of weaponry in and of themselves, but rather the populations they targeted. For instance, in a 1982 speech Khomeini decried the use of “cluster and incendiary” bombs against Lebanese civilians. In a 1984 speech, he even equated the use of “incendiary bombs” to “weapons of mass destruction:”

مدعیان صلح طلبی و انساندوستی با تمام توان سعی در افروختن آتش فتنه و جنگ در همه جا بخصوص در ایران می‌نمایند و با اسلحه‌های کشنده و بمبهای آتشزا و شیمیایی به دشمنان اسلام کمکهای بیدریغ می‌کنند

Those pretending to love peace and defend human rights struggle to foment the fire of sedition and war everywhere, particularly in Iran. They unsparingly supply the enemies of Islam with weapons of mass destruction, and incendiary and chemical bombs.

— Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini. “Inauguration of the Second Term of the Majlis.” 7 Khordad 1363; May 28, 1984

However, in 1980, Khomeini authorized the use of napalm — an incendiary device — to save a battalion of Iranian troops under siege. Khomeini’s communication, a phone call with president Abolhassan Banisadr, which urged that the troops be saved “no matter what the consequences are,” is telling, and aligns with the modern fatwas permitting the use of all types of weaponry, if they are used to secure victory, save lives, or as a “last resort” in combat. This reasoning, and these gaps in his public statements, explain how — despite Khomeini’s seemingly harsh rhetoric against WMD’s — there could have been the nascent development of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons programs under his watch.

تلفن از آقای بنی صدر: «یک گردان (تقریباً سیصد نفر) از ارتش ایران، اکنون در یک گردنه کردستان در محاصره‌اند، و تا به حال ۶۵ نفر زخمی شده‌اند. دو راه وجود دارد: یا باید بمب ناپالم بزنیم – که تقریباً عواقب تبلیغاتی سوئی دارد – و یا اینکه در محاصره باشند – و احتمال از بین رفتن همه این گردان وجود دارد – تکلیف چیست؟ … – انصاری‌

بسمه تعالی
باید این محاصره شدگان را نجات داد؛ هر عواقبی دارد مانع ندارد

Banisadr: “A battalion of 300 soldiers is under siege in Kurdistan, and 65 of them are wounded. There are two options: We can drop napalm bombs, which will carry negative propaganda consequences, or the battalion can remain under siege and most likely perish. What should we do?”

Khomeini: “The besieged should be saved no matter what the consequences are.”

— Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini. “To Remove the Siege of the Armed Forces in Kurdistan.” Date unspecified (most likely 1980). English translation adapted from Sahifeh-ye Imam, vol. 9, pp. 336-337

This reasoning — which permits all types of weaponry for national defense — was also articulated by Khomeini in one of his most prominent legal works. It is notable that Khomeini authorized defense “through any means, without restriction or condition” — clearly setting a precedent which could allow for WMD development or use. And, in actuality, this articulation by Khomeini broadly aligns with historical Shia jurisprudence, and demonstrates the scholarly consensus on the issue:

مسألة 1 – لو غشي بلاد المسلمين أو ثغورها عدو يخشى منه على بيضة الاسلام و مجتمعهم يجب عليهم الدفاع عنها بأية وسيلة ممكنة من بذل الأموال والنفوس
مساءله 1 – اگربلاد مسلمين و يا حدود و مرزهاى آن تحت سلطه دشمن قرار گيرد به طورى كه خوف آن رود كه بيضه اسلام و مجتمع اسلامى از بين برود بر همه واجب است به هر وسيله اى كه ممكن باشد از قبيل بذل مال و جان از كيان وعظمت اسلام دفاع نمايند

مسألة 2 – لا يشترط ذلك بحضور الإمام عليه السلام وإذنه ولا إذن نائبه الخاص أو العام، فيجب الدفاع على كل مكلف بأية وسيلة بلا قيد وشرط
مساءله 2 – وجوب دفاع از اسلام مشروط به حضور امام معصوم عليه السلام و اجازه او و يا اذن نائب خاص و يانائب عام او نيست ، پس بر هر مكلف واجب است به هر وسيله كه شده بدون هيچ قيد و شرطى دفاع نمايد

1. If a Muslim country is invaded or overtaken by the enemy, and the territory of Islam and its society are feared for, it is obligatory to defend it through any means possible, from wealth and lives.

2. This does not depend upon the presence of an Infallible Imam, or the permission of his deputy — defense is obligatory upon every capable person, through any means, without restriction or condition.

— Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini. Tahrir al-Wasilah (Farsi), Kitab Amr bi al-Maruf wa Nahi an al-Munkar, Fasl fi al-Difaa

The Shia Clerical Community

Despite all of this evidence, however, clerics and politicians loyal to Khamenei have still sought to use religious arguments to bolster his stance on the nuclear issue. On the foreign policy level, in 2010 Iran hosted the “Tehran International Conference on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.” Moreover, internally, a Fall 2013 conference (although it has been delayed once already) entitled “The Conference on the Ban of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Islamic Jurisprudence” is scheduled in the “holy city” of Qom. However, smaller conferences have also been held, including one in May 2012, intended to advance and propagate the Iranian regime’s position that WMD’s are prohibited in Islamic law. One of the main presenters, a mid-ranking Iranian cleric and IRI apologist, offered deeper insights into how some regime supporters seek to publicly defend Khamenei’s religious verdict:

ضمن اینکه اساسا دلیل پیروزی ما تاکنون جنگ نامتقارن بوده است، دشمن چون خودش از سلاح های کشتار جمعی استفاده می کند، تصورش این است که ما بر اساس جنگ متقارن می خواهیم به این سلاح دست یابیم، در حالی که پیروزی و ماندگاری ما مرهون جنگ نامتقارن است، یعنی دشمن سلاح اتمی دارد، ما الله اکبر داریم، او سلاح میکروبی دارد، ما نماز شب داریم، او سلاح شیمیایی دارد، ما بسیجی مخلص داریم … در حالی که وقتی ما می گوییم مردانه می جنگیم، این تقیه نیست، اصلا اگر ما مردانه نجنگیم، چه تفاوتی با صدام و آمریکا و فاجعه آفرینان هیروشیما داریم؟

Our success has been due primarily to asymmetric warfare. The enemy has weapons of mass destruction, but we will win due to our asymmetric warfare. We have God, they have biological weapons. We have the evening prayer, they have chemical weapons. This has been shown by the 33-day war, and the 8-year war. Our approach is fighting asymmetric wars, it is not because of nuclear weapons, but because of ideology, morality, and spirituality in our school of thought. The spirituality of the debate is more than the destruction of an atomic bomb…How would (our possession of a WMD) make us any different than Saddam, or America, which caused the catastrophic (event) of Hiroshima?

— Hujjat al-Islam Mohammed Bagher Zadeh. “The Incompatibility of Nuclear Weapons in International Conflict with Religious Principles.” 4 Khordad 1391 (May 24, 2012)

Moreover, as demonstrated by the above remarks (which were only delivered to a group of Iranian clerics, not an international audience) — very little of the Iranian rhetoric has been “externally” focused. Rather, like Khomeini’s speeches, much has been geared towards internal, religious, Farsi-speaking audiences, and articulated by the establishment (not from reformists). Within much of the religious establishment, the sentiments expressed have been uniform, and clear:

بیشترین خشونتها در جنگ زائیده سلاح هایی است که نه تنها با کرامت انسان و اصول عدالت ناسازگار است بلکه عرف عام حاکمیت ها در عرصه شعار آنرا محکوم می کند. به کارگیری سلاح های غیرمتعارف همانند، هسته ای، میکروبی و شیمیایی، از منظر آموزه های اسلامی از جهات گوناگون ممنوع است

A higher level of violence in conflict, resulting from weapons, is not only against human dignity, but is inconsistent with principles of justice, and also common sense…the use of unconventional, nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, from the perspective of Islamic teachings in many facets, is prohibited.

— Mohammed Rahmani, Iranian Shia scholar and academic. “Prohibition of the Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Religious Law.”

Despite this, however, these propagandistic arguments have their limits, and their shortcomings and contradictions are readily apparent. Returning to the topic of “napalm” — despite its use in the Iran-Iraq War, and Khomeini’s explicit approval of it as a means of military defense — some high-ranking Iranian clerics, in their rhetoric on the nuclear issue, have derided its use. This simply goes to show that despite the existence of a “liberal faction” within the Iranian clerical establishment that employs rhetoric against WMD use, and advocates for Islam’s “peaceful” stance towards “harmful” weaponry — history shows that when pressed, the Iranian regime has felt no qualms using them:

و قال العلّامة الحلّي في تبصرة المتعلمين: «ويجوز المحاربة بسائر أنواع الحرب، إلّا القاء السمّ في بلادهم». ثمّ ها هو الإمام علي عليه السلام في صفين بعد الاستيلاء على المشرعة لا يمنع جيش معاوية عن الماء وإن كان معاوية قد فعل ذلك قبل ذلك. إلى هذه الدرجة الرفيعة من الرحمة والشفقة تبلغ رحمة الإسلام، بينما لا تتورع الدول الكبرى عن قصف الشعوب المقهورة، بقنابل النابالم، وغيرها من أسلحة الدمار الشامل. ومن الذي يمكن أن ينسى‌ ما فعلته الولايات المتحدة في الحرب العالمية الثانية حينما قصفت «هيروشيما»، و «ناكازاكي» بالقنابل الذرية، فأبادت ما يقارب نصف مليون نسمة وحذف ذينك البلدين من الخارطة الجغرافية، بذريعة التعجيل في إنهاء الحرب، كما قال «ترومن» رئيس الجمهورية الإمريكي الأسبق عام 1945 م

Allamah al-Hilli stated in Tabsirat al-Muta’alimeen: “It is permissible to fight with any tools of warfare, except the deployment of poison.” And, there is the example of Imam Ali, after his victory at the Battle of Siffin, he did not prevent Muawiyah and his troops from water, despite their actions.

This high degree of mercy and compassion conveys the mercy of Islam, however, the superpowers (today) have no qualms bombing oppressed people with napalm bombs, and other weapons of mass destruction. And how can it be forgotten what the United States did in World War II, when it bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, which wiped out nearly half a million people and deleted those countries from the map on the pretext of accelerating the end of the war, as Truman said in 1945?

— Ayatullah Jafar Sobhani (1930 – Present). Rasail wa Maqalat

While the Ayatullah above might have some misunderstandings about modern Japanese geography and history (Japan is in fact still “on the map”), this account also demonstrates the contradictions and half-truths advanced by many of Khamenei’s clerical supporters on the nuclear issue. Even this use of classical Islamic law is incorrect, and demonstrates the selective quoting often consciously employed in the writings of those who argue against WMD use, from an Islamic perspective. For instance, Al-Hilli (quoted above) did not consider the use of poison in conflict to be prohibited, but only “disliked” — the original excerpt at the beginning of this post, which sanctioned violent and indiscriminate methods of warfare (like flooding cities, or launching snakes and scorpions), was also from him.

Moreover, although high-ranking clerics like Makarem Shirazi seemingly denounced WMD’s, even prior to the Islamic Revolution — other, equally high-ranking religious figures did not. For instance, Morteza Motahhari — a highly-regarded and populist Iranian Ayatullah who was close to Khomeini, and a prolific writer whose works are considered to encompass the foundations of modern Iranian religious, Revolutionary thought — explicitly stated in a 1972 theological work that Muslims had an obligation to learn how to build nuclear weapons:

مثال ديگر : قرآن مى گويد : (( اعدوا لهم ما استطعتم من قوة و من رباط الخيل )) در مقابل دشمن تا آخرين حد امكان نيرو تهيه كنيد زمانى بود كه چهار تا آهنگر مى توانستند آن وسائل نيرو را با همان معلومات تجربى زمان خودشان تهيه كنند , ولى يك زمان ديگر انجام اين وظيفه معلومات بسيارى مى خواهد , علم ساختن بمب اتمى هم لازم است , پس براى آنكه آن وظيفه انجام داده شود واجب است كه اين[ مبحث] هم خوانده شود[ شايد بگوييد] مگر پيامبر گفت (( ايها الناس ! برويد اتم شناسى ياد بگيريد )) تا ما امروز ياد بگيريم ؟ مى گوييم پيغمبر چنين چيزى نگفته , لازم هم نبوده بگويد ولى پيغمبر چيزى گفته كه اگر بخواهيم به آن عمل كنيم , بايد اين مقدمه را هم انجام بدهيم , چون روح اين حكم آن است

The Koran states: Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies. (8:60)

The use of force against the enemy is required as much as possible. They (the Muslims during the lifetime of Muhammad) could do that with the same means and power that (the enemy) had at that time…but now, it takes more knowledge. The knowledge to build an atomic bomb is necessary. (You may say), the Prophet didn’t say, “O people, go and learn about atoms!” But, the Prophet has said something (about warfare) that if we want to follow it, we should do this, because it is in the spirit of that rule.

— Ayatullah Morteza Motahhari (d. 1979 CE). Islam va Muqtaziyat-i Zaman (“Islam and the Circumstances of the Time”) (1351/1972)

Despite this explicit pronouncement, however, in another work published just two years before in 1970, Motahhari denounced the American bombing of Hiroshima (as have Khamenei, Khomeini, and Shirazi), and warned against the consequences of nuclear proliferation. Therefore — we can see that despite rhetoric against WMD’s in Iranian discourse — there are contextual and ideological factors that constrain the true meaning of this rhetoric. Either Motahhari contradicted himself — or, the Iranian religious establishment conceives of and addresses WMD’s on different “tracks:” Approving of them for defensive purposes against perceived military aggressors in geographical theaters of war where civilians are unlikely to be present, while disapproving of them against cities and civilian populations, most pointedly manifested in the event of Hiroshima, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Cold War arms race.

روزى نيست كه وسائل مخرب به صورت نيرومندتر , مهيب تر و وحشتناكتر پيدا نشود . از حدود بيست سال پيش , از وقتى كه بمب اتمى در هيروشيما افتاد تا امروز نگاه كنيد ببينيد قدرت تخريبى صنعتى بشر چند برابر شده است ؟ رسيده به مرحله اى كه مى گويند دنياى امروز ديگر غالب و مغلوب ندارد , اگر جنگ سوم جهانى پيش بيايد , صحبت اين نيست كه آيا آمريكا غالب است يا شوروى , يا چين . اگر جنگ سومى پيش بيايد آنكه مغلوب است زمين و بشريت است , و آنكه غالب است هيچ است

Everyday, worse and more destructive weapons have appeared. It was only about 20 years ago when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, but look today at how the destructive power of human industry has multiplied…If there is a Third World War today, the loser will be earth and people, and the winner will be no one.

— Ayatullah Morteza Motahhari. Sayri dar Sirah-i Aimmah-i Athar (“A Glance at the Biographies of the Pure Imams”) (1350/1970)

In ending, however, some of the modern clerical class has been more direct in their discussion of Islamic law, and not minced words about how Islam conceives of WMD use. The following quotation, from a mid-level Iranian cleric, conveys the religious consensus on the issue:

در برخي روايات، به جنبه‌هاي ديگر تخريب محيط سالم زيستي انسان اشاره شده است. علي (ع) در زمينه به کارگيري سلاح‌هاي شيميايي براي مقابله با دشمن فرمود: «پيامبر از پرتاب سمّ در بلاد مشرکان نهي فرمود». در تعبير مشابهي از آن حضرت آمده است: «رسول خدا از انداختن سمّ در بلاد مشرکان نهي فرمود». با استناد به همين روايت، برخي از فقها به عدم جواز استفاده از سمّ (سلاح‌هاي شيميايي) براي مقابله با دشمن در بلاد مشركان فتوا داده‌اند. البته در ميدان کارزار، به‌ويژه اگر پيروزي مسلمانان در برابر محاربان منوط به استفاده از آن باشد، مانعي نديده‌اند

Concerning the use of chemical weapons to defeat the enemy, Imam Ali reported that the Prophet said, “It is prohibited to deploy poison in the lands of the polytheists.” According to this narration, some scholars do not permit in their fatwas the use of poison (chemical weapons) in order to fight the enemy in the lands of the polytheists. But on the battlefield, especially if its use ensures Muslim victory against the enemy, then there is no obstacle.

— Hujjat al-Islam Qasim Shabanniya. “Human Rights in Light of the Objectives of Islamic Government.”

WMD’s in Shia Islamic Law

Despite the clear possibilities of contextualizing some of the religious rhetoric on the nuclear issue — there are still apparent conflicts between the high-ranking Ayatullahs who have permitted WMD use, and popular perceptions among Khamenei’s clerical loyalists that denounce and dismiss them from the viewpoint of Islamic law. Therefore, is there religious evidence to support the perception that Islam bans weapons of mass destruction? The fact is that, unlike some of the treatments adduced thus far, there were some historical, Twelver Shia scholars who were not as incendiary, and did not sanction the indiscriminate use of weapons and tactics.

ويجوز قتال الكفار بسائر أنواع القتال الا القاء السم في بلادهم فان ذلك مكروه لان فيه هلاك من لا يجوز قتله من الصبيان والنساء والمجانين

It is permissible to fight the unbelievers with any means of warfare, except the deployment of poison in their lands, that is disliked. Because that can lead to destruction of those who it is not permissible to kill, including children, women, and the insane.

— Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Tusi “Sheikh al-Tusi” (d. 460 AH/1067 CE). Al-Iqtisad

ويجوز قتال الكفار بسائر أنواع القتل وأسبابه، إلا بتغريق المساكن، ورميهم بالنيران، وإلقاء السم في بلادهم، فإنه لا يجوز أن يلقى السم في بلادهم

It is permissible to fight the unbelievers with any means and causes of killing, except flooding their homes, launching fire, and the deployment of poison in their lands. It is not permissible to deploy poison in their lands.

— Ibn Idris al-Hilli (d. 598 AH/1201 CE). Al-Sara’ir

Therefore, there were some classical Shia scholars who did not consider it simply “disliked” to use such weapons and tactics, but haram. In this reading of Shia law, these tactics would be religiously impermissible, and sinful, as Khamenei has claimed. However, even the above treatments discuss the use of indiscriminate weaponry in targeting non-combatants — not hostile, military entities. Broadly, upon analysis, the only sentiment that can be gleaned is that it is best to avoid indiscriminate use of weaponry that has the potential to target civilians (the “flooding of homes,” for instance, is certainly within a civilian, rather than military context). However, even this is contentious, and the overwhelming attitude in classical Shia discourse is that under normal circumstances, it “disliked,” and best to avoid the use of weapons against civilians, but if military objectives can only be accomplished by employing them, then it is permissible:

ويكره بإلقاء النار ويحرم بإلقاء السم ، وقيل : يكره ولو تترسوا بالصبيان والمجانين أو النساء ولم يمكن الفتح إلا بقتلهم ، جاز . وكذا لو وأموالهم بأن لهم الجنة يقاتلون في سبيل الله فيقتلون ويقتلون

It is disliked to use fire, and haram to deploy poison. ِAnd some say it is only disliked (makruh). But if they use children, the insane, and women as shields, and there is no way to achieve victory without killing them, then it is permissible. “Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain.” (Koran 9:111)

— Ibn Fahd al-Hilli (d. 841 AH/1437 CE). Al-Muhadhab al-Bara

Classical Source Material

Ostensibly, classical and modern Shia scholars have deduced their rulings about warfare from hadith literature — which contains primary sayings from the Prophet Muhammad, and the 12 Shia Imams. Like their Sunni counterparts — the Twelver Shia also have their own books of hadith and law. And, two hadiths from Shia source material informed the classical debate on weapons use.

علي بن إبراهيم، عن أبيه، عن النوفلي، عن السكوني، عن أبي عبدالله عليه السلام قال: قال أمير المؤمنين عليه السلام: نهى رسول الله صلى الله عليه واله أن يلقى السم في بلاد المشركين

The sixth Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq — reported from the first Imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib — that the Prophet prohibited the deployment of poison in the lands of the mushrikeen (polytheists).

— Muhammad ibn Yaqub al-Kulayni (d. 329 AH/940 CE). Al-Kafi

As has been referenced, this account that the Prophet Muhammad prohibited the “deployment of poison” forms the backbone of the modern, clerical debate about WMD use. It was recorded in one of the earliest and most well-known books of Shia hadith. Moreover, it is considered to have a relatively strong isnad — or, chain of narrators — and has been referenced in classical Shia works on the subject. It also closely resembles a hadith from Sunni sources, with nearly similar wording:

حدثنا أحمد بن النضر العسكري ، ثنا مصعب بن سعيد ، ثنا بقية بن الوليد ، عن إسحاق بن ثعلبة ، عن مكحول ، عن سمرة بن جندب ، أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم ” نهى أن يلقى السم في آبار المشركين

Samurah ibn Jundub reported that the Prophet prohibited poisoning the wells of the mushrikeen.

— Sulayman ibn Ahmad al-Tabarani (d. 360 AH/970 CE). Musnad al-Shamiyin

However, in Shia jurisprudence, scholars have disagreed over the meaning of the word “prohibit” (nahi). Some consider it to be synonymous with haram (prohibited, and sinful), while others consider it simply to be “disliked,” (makruh) or “not optimal.” This explains the differences among classical Shia jurists as to whether enemy lands could be “poisoned” — despite the hadith on the subject that seemingly prohibits it.

Although Khamenei is by and large a politician, rather than a religious jurist (while he does show familiarity with Islamic source material, he has not even authored his own risalah), according to one account, he has explored the religious dynamics of WMD use (beyond simply articulating that they are haram, with no underlying jurisprudential explanation). According to Mohsen Esmaeili, a member of the Guardian Council — who wrote an article on the religious lessons (dars al-kharij) of Khamenei that he attended — allegedly, the issue of ilqaa al-samm (poisoning) was addressed, and Khamenei argued against its religious permissibility. This would conform with the earlier quotation from Shirazi, and be in opposition to the Ayatullahs who permitted it, and analogized it with WMD use today. However, unlike his contemporary statements on the subject since the Iranian nuclear issue rose to international prominence in the early-2000s — Esmaili claimed that Khamenei simply said WMD’s have “legal problems” (ishkal sharai’), not that they are “unconditionally impermissible” (haram) or “sinful.” In clerical parlance, this expression does not convey absolute religious prohibition, as will be explored below.

The veracity of this claim cannot be confirmed (because the complete text or audio of Khamenei’s religious lessons are not readily available, much less from 1990, the year in which Esmaeili claims Khamenei addressed the issue, which would in fact be Khamenei’s earliest mention of the nuclear issue in a religious context). A truncated record of Khamenei’s religious lessons does exist — even on the topic of warfare (jihad) — but it makes no mention of poisoning, as Esmaeili has claimed. A lengthy compilation of Khamenei’s speeches to military commanders in the 1980s contains no such reference either. However, Esmaeili’s explanation is telling. Not only does he concede that religious scholars might use the nuclear issue as a “political or social slogan,” but also limited himself to saying that Khamenei prohibited poison in “Muslim” lands — not the “land of polytheists” (i.e. non-Muslims) typically addressed in the jurisprudential debate on the issue. We must also note that Esmaeili, in seeking to adduce the support of clerics and classical Islamic law for Khamenei’s fatwa, clearly ignores the voices that permit the use of “poison:”

ایشان به كیفیت جهاد كه رسیدند (فقها مبحثی دارند راجع به بحث كیفیت جهاد ‌و این‌كه چه كارهایی در جهاد جایز است و چه كارهایی حرام) به بحث «إلقاء سمّ» در بلاد مشركین پرداختند كه بحث معروفی هم هست. در همان سال ۱۳۶۹ ایشان نظر خودشان را در بحث سلاح‌های هسته‌ای اعلام كردند و القاء سم در بلاد مسلمین و استفاده از سلاح‌های مخرب و كشنده‌ی شیمیایی و هسته‌ای را به دلایل فقهی دارای اشكال دانستند و همان موقع ادلّه‌ی فقها را كاملاً بررسی كردند و به عنوان یك نظر فقهی جدی و نه یك شعار سیاسی و اجتماعی آن را ارائه دادند. ما الان بعد از بیست سال ملاحظه می‌كنیم كه ایشان دوباره بر همان مواضع تأكید دارند و هر وقت بحثی در این باره پیش آمده، ایشان تأكید فرموده‌اند كه از دیدگاه فقهی و شرعی با مسأله‌ی سلاح‌های هسته‌ای مشكل داریم. این از جهت ثبات در تصمیم‌گیری‌های ایشان هم مهم است

When he (Khamenei) arrived at the topic of jihad (religious scholars research the characteristics of jihad, its meritorious actions, and forbidden actions in jihad), he talked about the issue of “deploying poison” (ilqaa samm) in the lands of the polytheists (mushrikeen), and this is a well known issue. In the same year, 1369 (1990), His Eminence declared his position on nuclear weapons, and deploying poison in Muslim lands. Based on the compelling jurisprudential (fiqh) evidence, His Eminence believed that to take advantage of destructive and deadly chemical and nuclear weapons, had problems/doubts (eshkal).

This has been analyzed and inspected by scholars looking at religious evidence, from a serious jurisprudential perspective, not as a political or social slogan. We now observe that after twenty years, the Supreme Leader has returned to the topic, and repeatedly emphasized that there are problems (moshkel) both jurisprudentially and religiously, regarding the ruling of nuclear weapons. The importance here is his consistency in decision making.

— Mohsen Esmaeili, Guardian Council Member. “Memories of the Religious Lessons of Ayatullah Khamenei.” 11 Azar 1391 (December 1, 2012)

On a further linguistic note, the Arabic translation of Esmaeili’s article (no longer extant), used the more specific “ishkal sharai’” to denote Khamenei’s alleged characterization of nuclear weapons. Others have translated the Farsi eshkal as “ambiguities,” rather than “doubts” or “problems.” Though, regardless, the meaning and intent are clear: Nuclear weapons occupy a religious category below that of being “haram” or “sinful.”

To better understand the meaning behind the concept of “legal problems,” a well established tenet of Shia Islamic law (usul al-fiqh) is that every conceivable action in life is by default halal — or lawful. That is, until there is definitive mention in the Koran, or other textual evidence (like in a hadith), that an action is haram (prohibited). One of the foremost Shia scholars of the classical Islamic period stated:

اعتقادنا في ذلك أن الأشياء كلها مطلقة حتى يرد في شئ منها نهي

Our belief is that all things are permitted, until there is evidence of its prohibition.

— Ali ibn Babawaih al-Qummi “Sheikh al-Saduq” (d. 381 AH/991 CE). Al-Itiqadat fi Deen al-Imamiyyah

For an Ayatullah, the default state of affairs in the world is that everything is permitted for a human to do — unless religious texts specifically and unconditionally prohibit it (such as murder, or the drinking of alcohol). Therefore, in the minds of Shia jurists — given that all actions have originally been sanctioned as halal by God — strong evidence must exist to declare something to be haram, or else they are unjustly prohibiting something that God has deemed licit. This is especially true with a modern issue of ijtihad, such as nuclear weapons — as its religious ruling would rest upon human interpretation, rather than a clear legal text from the Koran, or a hadith.

Moreover, in Islamic law, when there is a conflict between this principle, and unclear legal texts that might be hinting an action to be haram (like the disagreement that exists in the scholarly texts about the use of indiscriminate weaponry), most modern Shia jurists resort to saying that the action should be abandoned out of precaution (ihtiyat) for committing that sin. Commonly, this concept is known as “obligatory precaution” (ahwat wujuban or ihtiyat wajib). And in fact, this is what Khamenei’s assertion that nuclear weapons have “legal problems” alludes to. It is a statement of precaution, not prohibition. The precaution, in this case, being that one must be absolutely certain that such weapons are not directed towards innocent civilians. If that can be ensured — as the fatwas have made clear, such as against a military entity alone — then their use is permissible. However, by labeling an action as something which is doubtful, and should be avoided based on precaution — it is impossible for a religious scholar to then deem such action as haram — or sinful, as Khamenei has sought to articulate (at least in the past decade) with nuclear weapons.

And, this understanding of WMD’s in Shia jurisprudence has been explicitly expressed. Iraqi Ayatullah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr — whose fatwa, translated in the first section of this post, authorized the use of nuclear weapons if there is a “great public interest” — also addressed WMD’s in another fatwa, this time deeming them “haram based on precaution…except if there is an absolute necessity:”

يجوز قتال الكفار بكل وسيلة ممكنة من الوسائل، وبالاسلحة الحربية المناسبة مع أي عصر، ولا يختص الجهاد معهم بالاسلحة القديمة، بل يحرم استعمالها تجاه الجيش المسلح بالسلاح القوي، لانه يعني عدم المكافئة بين الطرفين أو الفشل الذريع للمسلمين

يحرم على الأحوط إلقاء السم على الكفار، ويلحق به على الأحوط إلقاء المرض فيهم بالقنابل الجرثومية أو غيرها ما لم تدع الضرورة القصوى إلى ذلك

It is permissible to fight disbelieving war makers (al-kuffar al-muharibeen) with every possible means, and with the weapons of war appropriate to any era. Jihad with them is not limited to “old weapons.” It is prohibited (to use old weapons) against an army that is armed with powerful weapons, because this would mean there is lack of equivalence between the two sides, which would be an utter failure for the Muslims.

It is prohibited based on precaution (haram ala al-ahwat) to deploy poison against the disbelievers (kuffar), and this precaution includes deploying disease among them, with germ/biological bombs, or other (weapons) — except if there is an absolute necessity (darurah) to do so.

— Ayatullah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (d. 1999 CE). Fiqh al-Mawduat al-Hadithah. See also Minhaj al-Salihin, vol. 2

Simply, from the standpoint of Islamic law alone, in multiple facets — which Khamenei has adduced time and again — the declaration of WMD’s to be unconditionally haram is a juvenile and highly dubious claim to anyone acquainted with Shia Islamic legal methods. And, as the fatwas translated previously demonstrate — it seems the Shia clerical community knows this as well.

Finally, there is one further hadith in the Shia canon that has been adduced in classical treatments of warfare. While it is considered to have a weak chain of narrators, and is thus considered of disputable “authenticity” in religious circles — seemingly, it has nonetheless informed scholarly opinion.

علي، عن أبيه، عن القاسم بن محمد، عن المنقري، عن حفص بن غياث قال: سألت أبا عبدالله عليه السلام عن مدينة من مدائن أهل الحرب هل يجوز أن يرسل عليهم الماء وتحرق بالنار أو ترمى بالمجانيق حتى يقتلوا وفيهم النساء والصبيان والشيخ الكبير والاسارى من المسلمين والتجار فقال: يفعل ذلك بهم ولا يمسك عنهم لهؤلاء ولا دية عليهم للمسلمين ولا كفارة

The sixth Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, was asked about a city, from the “cities of war,” is it permissible to flood it with water, burn it with fire, and use catapults, until it causes the death (of its inhabitants) — even though inside are women, children, old men, Muslim captives, and traders?

He replied: “Do those things to them, and do not withhold (the assault) because of them, and there is no blood money (diyah) for the Muslims among them, nor any compensation (kaffarah).

— Muhammad ibn Yaqub al-Kulayni (d. 329 AH/940 CE). Al-Kafi

The rationale in the above hadith — which permits the indiscriminate use of weapons to achieve military objectives, even against cities with civilian and Muslim populations — was the exact rationale articulated by the Shia clerical community in 2006, to sanction Hezbollah’s use of unguided ordinance in targeting civilian areas. If they kill “the enemy,” then great…if they hurt Muslims, well…they will go to paradise. Such concerns have been discussed among Shia clerics, and these religious arguments have been adduced. Theoretical arguments about WMD’s — from a religious perspective — can only be considered within the same context.


After translation of this modern and classical religious material, is there any saving grace for Khamenei? Clearly, the claim that nuclear weapons are unconditionally haram — employed time and time again by Iran’s political and religious leadership — was not only never seriously considered by the world community in the first place, but is also demonstrably false. Not only is this claim tenuous based on classical Islamic law and jurisprudence, but even living religious clerics within Iran’s borders, and with close ties to the Iranian leadership (not to mention historical personalities), have explicitly advocated for the production and use of WMD’s. Simply, it is impossible to take Khamenei’s rhetoric at face value. In other parlance: Khamenei lied.

However, there might be one consolation: Religion is not the final determinant of Iran’s politics. Pragmatism is the name of the game in Iran, and religious rulings can be openly flaunted and violated when political considerations call for it. As the quotes from Khomeini demonstrate, the Iranian political experience after 1979 is rooted in factors beyond Islamic law — including experiences and outcomes from the Cold War, the Iran-Iraq War, and Iranian culture. Iranian politics is rooted as much in these sources and contexts, as it is in Islamic law. To believe that every political decision in Iran is based on recourse to Islamic legal precedent is simply not the reality. We might note that “anti-colonialism” — a pillar of the IRI’s worldview — has no basis in Islamic law or history, as Islam, for the better part of a millennium, was one of the most hegemonic and “colonistic” forces the world has ever known. Simply, there exists little religious precedent for many political, social, and legal occurrences in modern Iran. However — the fatwa issue does not seem to fit into this mold, by paying lip service to Islam or seeking to appease an internal audience. Khamenei has used this religious argument with the international community, and there does not seem to be any discernable motive behind his use of this rationale. Simply, there is no conceivable explanation for why Khamenei would be seeking to deceive the world community through religious rhetoric — unless he was really seeking to do so.

Moreover, even if Khamenei and the Iranian leadership are truly opposed to the production and use of WMD’s, and religiously, politically, economically, and rationally oppose them in every way, shape, and form — as has been claimed many times — the disconcerting truth is that this case has not been made as strongly as it could have. As the quotes from Khomeini demonstrate (which have never been adduced in English before, and rarely even discussed in Farsi), Iran does have a unique history and outlook, that in many ways is not broadly rooted in Islamic law. A convincing historical narrative could be made to argue that since the inception of the Islamic Republic, its religious leadership has confronted the reality of nuclear weapons, and found them to be dangerous to the security of the world. Past condemnations about weapons use at Hiroshima, Halabjeh, and in the Iran-Iraq War, from the IRI’s founder, could form not only a compelling national story, but also narrative to pitch to the world community. However, strangely, Khomeini’s statements, by and large, have been neglected in internal and external Iranian discourse on their nuclear program. The same holds true for Khamenei’s denouncements of WMD’s during the 1980s (which have not even been cited in Farsi on the Internet, much less adduced by Khamenei or the Iranian government themselves). Rather, the only consolation the world community has been given is flimsy assurances of a “fatwa” from Iran’s contemporary leader, Khamenei (which actually turns out to have little basis or support). And, this lack of desire to put in a full effort is telling.

In the end, as has been seen, it is clear that there is more behind Iran’s religious claims about nuclear weapons than meets the eye. However, Khamenei has stated with conviction time and again that Islam prohibits these weapons, against civilian populations. In a 2006 speech, he stated emphatically:

يعنى ممكن است يك كشور از لحاظ رفتارهاى اجتماعى اش منضبط، مؤدب و با اخلاق باشد، ثروت و علم را هم به دست بياورد، اما در عين حال همين ثروت و علم، و همين انضباط مردمى خودش را براى نابود كردن يك ملت ديگر به كار گيرد. اين غلط است؛ اين در منطق ما درست نيست. علم خودش را به كار بگيرد براى ايجاد سلاحى مثل بمب اتم كه وقتى يك جايى فرود افتاد، ديگر با گناه و بى گناه و مسلح و بچه ى كوچك و شيرخوار و انسانهاى مظلوم را نگاه نمى كند و فرقى نمى گذارد و همه را نابود مى كند. علمى كه در اين راه به كار بيفتد و كشورى كه اين را داشته باشد و تحولى كه بخواهد به اينجا منتهى شود، مورد تأييد ما نيست و ما چنين تحولى را دوست نمى داريم

How can a country whose social behavior is disciplined, which is courteous and has proper etiquette, and wealth and knowledge (i.e. science), at the same time use this wealth and science, and the discipline of its people, to work to destroy another nation? This is wrong, and not true in our logic. (Why would) science be used to create a weapon like a nuclear bomb? When it falls, it lands where there are (equally) the innocent and the guilty — both the armed, and also children, infants, and oppressed people. It does not consider what it destroys. For science to be used in this way is a failure, this is not the kind of change we want as a country. We do not approve of this and do not want such developments.

– Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. “Address at Semnan University.” November 9, 2006

And, to this assertion, I have my own response to Khamenei: There is no doubt that you consider the use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations to be inhumane. Iranian culture; broad religious themes; and some readings of classical Islamic law are on your side. But what about their use against militaries, or for purposes of deterrence? As classical Shia law and legal reasoning demonstrates, and as has been articulated by high-ranking religious scholars within your own country — with clear intellectual and physical ties to yourself and your religio-political establishment — it is clear that you do not consider the use of WMD’s against American bases, troops, strategic interests, and allies in the Middle East to be haram. Even if you do know these religious dynamics, but don’t endorse them, your blanket use of religious rhetoric — which is not only demonstrably false, but was also never taken seriously by the world community — simply shows another side of your dangerous incompetence and ineptitude. Now the world community knows the context and truth behind your rhetoric. And, as freedom-loving and rational citizens of the world have done time and time again in response to your regime’s irresponsible actions and discourse, many will undoubtedly be asking (to quote yourself): “Why do they tell these lies…is that not an injustice?”

We Can Do More: Challenges of Iranian Students Wishing to Study in America

March 6, 2013 9 comments

Please read the new and updated version of this report, published in February 2014 with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

I remember when I wanted to start the application process, my friend who was in USA at the time told me that you have to get shoes and nerve made of iron to start this process. Once I started the process I realized what he meant!

— An Iranian PhD student in America, specializing in materials science and engineering

Over 250,000 — a quarter million — American college students study abroad each year.[1] They apply for passports, and receive student visas. Parents transfer money to bank accounts for food and rent. Transcripts are sent, and new international phone plans are purchased. For students who have studied in foreign countries, these familiar activities are often tinged with excitement — mere formalities that exist between them, and a safe, fun-filled semester or year of living and learning thousands of miles away from home.

However, consider another scenario. What if significant impediments existed that hindered the ability of students to travel and study with ease, and in safety? What if they were unable to:

  • Obtain a visa — unless they travelled to an embassy in a foreign country, and spent several months of income for flights, lodging, and processing fees?
  • Submit applications, test scores, and transcripts to a foreign university — without illegally purchasing a debit card on the black market, and at exorbitant prices?
  • Depart for their study destination — except by paying over a year’s worth of household income to the government, or even turning over the deed to their car or house, as a “guarantee” to ensure they return?
  • Easily receive money from their parents in emergencies, or for living expenses and tuition?
  • Travel home for holidays, or the death of a loved one, because this tedious process would have to be repeated again, and with significant delays?

And finally, what if these students had to experience all this (and more), but were desperately seeking to study abroad — education being the sole means to not only leave their country and experience the broader world, but also escape political and social oppression?

The above scenarios are not fictional — rather, they have been faced by the nearly 7,000 students from Iran who currently study at American universities. While Iranians once constituted the largest group of foreign students in the United States (Iran held the #1 spot from 1975-1983, peaking at 51,000 students in 1980),[2] the severing of diplomatic ties after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and more recent economic sanctions, have provided Iranian students with unprecedented challenges on the road to American education. Nonetheless, their determination has prevailed: Enrollment at American universities has doubled since 2009, and in 2011-2012, there was a 24% increase in students over the previous academic year.[3]

The challenges of Iranian students have not been ignored, and are not unknown. Multiple entities — both within the United States government, and lobbying and student groups — have sought to ease them. In May 2011, in response to feedback from student and university organizations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed Iranian students directly, announcing that they would be eligible for multiple-entry visas — allowing easy departure from and return to the US for holidays, family emergencies, and academic conferences. Because, she said:

I want you to know that we are listening to your concerns…As long as the Iranian government continues to stifle your potential, we will stand with you. We will support your aspirations, and your rights. And we will continue to look for new ways to fuel more opportunities for real change in Iran.

— “Changes to Iranian Student Visa Validity.” U.S. Department of State. May 20, 2011[4]

Despite their small numbers (China, by comparison, has 200,000 students in the US), Iranian students bring a lot to the table, and hold several distinctions among the US foreign student population:

  1. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE) — over 80% of Iranian students in the United States study at the graduate level — the highest percentage of any country.[5]
  2. Similarly, over 75% (every 3 out of 4 Iranian students) are enrolled in the critical STEM fields (engineering, math and computer science, and physical and life sciences). Again, the highest percentage among the top 20 countries that send students to America.[6]
  3. Astoundingly, in a survey of nearly 1,000 Iranian PhD graduates in the STEM subjects and social sciences — conducted by the government-run National Science Foundation (NSF) — 89% indicated that they “intended to stay” in the United States (employment permitting). Known as the “stay rate,” this number is also higher than any other country.[7]

The implications of these statistics will be explored later — however, they demonstrate that Iranian students are highly motivated, study in critical fields, and wish to contribute to America. Despite this — a full accounting of the problems they face has never been given — limiting the ability of policy makers and university administrators to fully grasp the breadth of their challenges, provide understanding and help, and craft meaningful solutions. Moreover, although significant overtures have been made to ease their mobility experiences — like with multiple-entry visas — surveys of Iranian students indicate that this new directive is unevenly applied, and subject to broad inconsistencies.[8]

In short, We Can Do More: To engage these students; to provide them with the concern, care, and opportunities we would want for ourselves, our friends and classmates, and our family members; and to advance the human right of global mobility — in this age of technology and human interconnection — for students to travel and study with ease and peace of mind, wherever their educational aspirations take them.

To this end, this paper — based on extensive research of open source and historical material, personal interviews, and surveys — will present the challenges of Iranian students, along with positive avenues for reform. While not all of their challenges can be solved, it is hoped that a full accounting of them can prompt action on some level, and ease the mobility experiences of Iranian students wishing to study in America. In the end, this paper is not about Iran, or any country — but simply, it stems from a desire to ease global student mobility for all humans, and provide a voice, contribute knowledge, and help in an area where it has not been fully done.

Overview and Recommendations

In short, what are some concrete steps that can be taken to remedy the problems Iranian students face? In reference to the opening quotation by the PhD student — how can we soften the “nerves of iron” Iranian students are forced to forge as they attempt to study in America?

Although the totality of their problems cannot be solved, there are several, minimally invasive steps that American stakeholders can take, which would not only significantly help Iranian students and ease their experiences, but also contribute to positive change within Iran. These recommendations focus on four areas: University application fees and admissions, standardized testing, visa appointments and irregularities, and women.

By analyzing these four issues, we can understand not only the breadth and specifics of challenges Iranian students face, but also viable paths for reform. Although each section contains unique aspects of the Iranian student experience, they are structured independently and can be read individually. This will be followed by two further sections: A history of US-Iranian educational engagement — including current student trends, policies, and stakeholders — and a selection of student stories and quotations related to the issues above. And, a conclusion.

1. University Application Fees and Admissions

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) — the largest organization of admissions professionals, with a membership of more than 1,500 colleges and universities — can take concrete steps to implement an “admission application fee waiver,” not just for Iranian students, but all international students. This would be in addition to the waiver, created by the NACAC, that is already in place for disadvantaged American students.[9]

While application fees distinguish serious applicants, and serve as a source of revenue — due to economic sanctions against Iran’s banking sector, Iranian citizens cannot conduct online transactions, facilitated by Western banks. However, because application fees must be paid on university websites, Iranian students are forced to illegally purchase foreign, pre-paid debit cards, at marked-up prices, resulting in significant logistical and financial hardship.

One student, in response to a self-administered survey, conveyed his experiences:

I had two issues with application fees. First, I was not able to pay on my own since I did not have credit card in Iran and it was really hard to pay by credit card from Iran…Second issue is that the application fee is high for students which limits the number of universities that they can apply. At least this is what happened to myself.

— An Iranian PhD student in America, specializing in engineering

To demonstrate this reality — pictured below is a popular website Iranian students use to obtain debit cards. Purchased in neighboring countries, and smuggled into Iran, they are openly sold on the Internet at 20-30% premiums. Meaning, if an Iranian student purchases a $1000 pre-paid card, it is often sold for $1300. Other challenges exist: Although pre-paid, these cards must be obtained through banks, and registered with valid names and addresses. When used outside the country of origin (like by a student in Iran), they can be blocked by the issuing banks, necessitating the use of privacy software to mask computer location. Some students are unaware of this, and can incur significant financial loss. Simply, from the very start of their educational journey to America, Iranian students are forced to engage in broad illegality, and experience significant financial hardship.

Notice “TOEFL” and “GRE” listed as reasons to purchase a card. The reality is that such cards are necessary to pay for educational services, including application fees.

To add to this fact, due to deteriorating exchange rates between the Iranian rial and US dollar, the purchasing power of local currency has fallen — which has made Western goods and services three to four times more expensive than in recent years.[10] Simply, paying in dollars — which is necessary for application fees, standardized tests and score reports, and international travel — has become a very expensive process. As one student said:

We are not able to have international credit cards. We have to pay extra amount of money to people having credit card. Dollar is going up rapidly. For example: Two years ago one $ was about 1000 tomans, but now one $ is about 3500 tomans. Really, application fees take up a large percentage of our budget.

— An Iranian, engineering master’s student in America

Personal initiative to help Iranian students pay application fees is not a viable option either: According to Article 560.206 of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (ITSR) — developed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to regulate sanctions laws — the export of “goods, technology, or services” to Iran, from American individuals or entities, is subject to strict controls and licensure.[11] Charitable donations are similarly regulated. This broad article of the ITSR — originally promulgated into law in 1995, through Executive Order 12959 — also served as the impetus for Western banks to cease payment processing from Iran.[12] One student summed up the situation:

Because of the sanctions, Iranian students inside Iran cannot have and use international credit cards (such as Visa/Mastercard) for their payments, involving the application fees. They have a hard time doing this through some intermediate companies that provide them with virtual credit cards, with a very high price. By price, I mean the relative value of US Dollar with respect to Iranian Rials, which is getting worse and worse these days under the intense sanctions.

— An Iranian PhD student in America

Given their overwhelming desire to leave the country, however, Iranian students routinely apply to eight or even ten universities, with 15-20 not unknown. Coupled with the debit card and exchange rate issues, application fees — usually $50-$75 each — can easily amount to more than a month of average household income (which, in 2012, was reported to be 833,000 tomans — or, roughly $680 for an urban family).[13] To highlight this disparity between average income, and the cost of university application fees — the PhD student quoted above, who claimed that application fees limit the number of schools students can apply to, and that it “happened to himself” — indicated on the survey that he only applied to two universities.

This does not include costs for the translation and mailing of school transcripts, and other application materials, which presents problems for students.

Mailing admission documents to US is time and money consuming. I spent more than $70 for mailing each admission document from Iran to USA. Because of sanctions, mailing documents is so difficult and expensive from Iran to US and vice versa.

— An Iranian PhD student in America

To be fair — some American universities do have policies allowing exemption of international students from application fees. Others do not, while some charge international students more. In reality, however, despite these differences — such policies are focused on what schools can get from students. Waiving an application fee, for instance, will increase the pool of international applicants — ensuring a higher number of students who might eventually pay full tuition. Obligating an application fee, on the other hand (even at higher prices than domestic students) — assumes that international students have the means to pay more. Very little of the time is it considered what can be given to students, and rarely is disadvantage taken into account. There are notable exceptions, however.

The University of Chicago, for instance, specifies that international students can receive an application fee waiver, “If your family makes less than or around $75,000 a year” — well beyond average annual household income in the developing world.[14] On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, the University of Massachusetts obligates payment of application fees for international students — even if it necessitates a bank transfer.[15]

The notion that a desire to study in America is indicative of socio-economic status fails to properly understand the US international student population, as will be explored.

There is no doubt that some universities will accommodate disadvantaged international students — but the fact is that no standardized system exists. Without such a system — as exhibited above, not only will students experience greater logistical burden, but it enables university administrators to be complacent about the hardships international students face, and be less inclined to empathize with them. Challenges with application fees are faced by students from all over the world, as the below testimony from an Indian student, on the MIT website, demonstrates:[16]

"Why is it that internationals are always at a disadvantage?"

“Why is it that internationals are always at a disadvantage?”

Simply, a desire to study in America is not indicative of financial solvency. And, most application fee policies seem to be geared towards foreign, undergraduate students — who it is assumed have the means to pay full tuition. However, this is a very limited understanding of the US international student population.

In fact, of the 765,000 international students who studied at American universities in 2012 — only 310,000 (less than 50%) were undergraduates. 300,000 (almost the identical number) were graduate students — while the remainder studied intensive English, or participated in professional training programs.[17] In 2012, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE) — over 80% of foreign undergraduates personally funded their education. However, among graduate students, 50 percent (one out of every two students) received funding from scholarships, university departments, or their governments.[18] At the higher echelons of education — the numbers are starker: In a 2011 survey of over 13,000 foreign doctoral recipients in the STEM fields, conducted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), 96% reported their “primary source of financial support” as coming from grants and fellowships, or teaching and research assistantships, rather than “personal funding.”[19] As a corollary to these statistics, according to the NSF, over 85% of Iranian STEM doctoral recipients from 2007-2011 (a total of 645 out of 755 surveyed students) reported the same.[20]

However, funding received is not necessarily indicative of financial status — many international students, regardless of funding level, experience financial hardship. Moreover, many students who are disadvantaged pay full tuition. In a February 2013 survey of nearly 1,000 Iranian students, conducted by PAAIA — The Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans — only 40% of Iranian students were found to have received full-funding from American universities. Despite this — nearly all reported some kind of financial hardship during their studies. Simply, regardless of the funding international students as a whole receive — broad financial challenges can still affect them:

Over 90% of respondents noted that their finances were somewhat or extremely negatively impacted during 2012. Over two-thirds of the students said that the devaluation of the rial and restrictions on bringing money to the U.S. were the cause of their financial hardship. 62% of Iranians in the U.S. pay for their tuition and cost of living through support from their family in Iran or through a mix of scholarships and support from family in Iran.

A large majority (76.6%) of the students who took the survey indicated that they would accept any kind of financial help they could get, while 10% said that they were considering stopping their education and returning to Iran.

— “Iranian Students Facing Financial Distress in the U.S.” PAAIA. February 19, 2013[21]

In Iran, and many countries, higher education is provided free of charge. Therefore, high educational attainment, and a desire to study in America, are not indicative of socio-economic status — and by extension, the ability to pay application fees, or full tuition at American universities. In reality, lack of access to legal payment methods — coupled with the high cost of application fees — are some of the most pervasive challenges Iranian students face as they seek to study in America. While this fact cannot be changed — as it is the result of high-level, government-sponsored sanctions — by exempting Iranian students from application fees, its effects can certainly be eased.

Finally, to demonstrate all these points — below is a screenshot from an “application guide” produced by an Iranian student, and distributed online. Although the number of rejections might appear humorous, it demonstrates several poignant realities: The lengths that students will go to in order to leave Iran (the student below applied to 20 business schools in 4 countries); the central role of funding in university choice; and also the fact that paying application fees is simply the first step of the process, international students still have to be admitted to universities. Not only do students have to incur significant financial investment on the front end, but there is no guarantee of return (actual admission to a university).

Despite their logistical challenges — Iranian students must also invariably deal with the universal student experience of rejection from universities. However, in their case, it is particularly devastating news.

We can now better understand the “nerves of iron” that the PhD student was referring to. Given their physical inability to legally and easily conduct online transactions, the creation of an “international application fee waiver” — which is already in place for American students — could be an immediate, and painless step to significantly ease the financial, logistical, and emotional burdens of Iranian students on the path to American education.

Read Student Quotes About the Admissions Process

2. Standardized Testing

Although business relations between the West and Iran have been impacted by economic sanctions — American education testing companies have taken great strides to continue operating in the country.[22] In fact, the U.S. Department of the Treasury — which is tasked with sanctions regulation and compliance — specifically exempts universities (and by extension educational companies) from operating in Iran, and employing and paying local staff.[23] Simply, on some level — the United States government has indicated it has a vested interest in the education of Iranian students.

Article 560.544 of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (ITSR)

Therefore, the most common standardized tests are still offered in Iran: The TOEFL (English-language proficiency test) and the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). In fact, in 2012, nearly 7,000 Iranian students took the GRE — the fourth largest testing population, only behind the United States, India, and China.[24] 

Despite this, several tests are not: Among them, the GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, and SAT. While Iranian students take all of these tests — in this section, the GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test) will be specifically covered. For more than a decade, business programs have attracted the highest number of international students to America, surpassing engineering.[25] Moreover, looking at the challenges of GMAT takers will encapsulate the problems of standardized testing as a whole in Iran.

Iranian students who wish to take the GMAT must travel outside the country for testing, and at great financial expense. While the GMAT is offered in 110 countries[26] — among the top 20 countries sending students to America, Iran is the only one without a GMAT testing center. Not only does the lack of GMAT presence in Iran hinder student mobility, but it most likely also hurts entrepreneurship in the country. The numbers support this claim: Only 4% of Iranian students in America (roughly 280 students) study business or management — the lowest percentage among the top student-sending countries.[27] This is a two-thirds decline from 1979, when 12% (over 6,000 Iranian students) studied business at American universities.[28] Simply, the number of Iranian students who formerly studied business, is nearly equal to the total number of Iranian students in the US today.

This lack of GMAT testing in Iran does not just harm American-bound students (as is the case with the SAT, LSAT, or MCAT tests), but, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), over “1,500 universities…in 82 countries use the GMAT exam as part of the selection criteria for their programs.”[29] In 2012, a total of 734 Iranian students took the GMAT exam, among them 278 women. This is a significant increase from 2008, when only 449 students took the test.[30] While this number of test takers is actually higher than many European countries, it also shows (compared to US enrollment numbers), the global nature of the GMAT. All business students in Iran — destined for North America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania — are affected. The following account from a female, Iranian student on a GMAT message board accurately conveys the challenges Iranian business students face:[31]

Due to these financial and logistical challenges, the ability to “re-test” is also limited.

As it demonstrates, not only do Iranian students have to travel abroad to take the GMAT, and at great cost, but these challenges do not take into account if a student wants to re-take the test for a second time, in hopes of a higher score. According to GMAC, “repeat examinees” constitute “15 to 22 percent” of test takers.[32] Simply, if given the opportunity, 1 in 5 students chooses to retake standardized tests. The cost and logistical factors prohibit this for most Iranian students, and deny them an opportunity readily available to their peers in most other countries. Although, the above account does serve to exhibit the academic and personal determination of Iranian students.

Finally, the lack of standardized tests in Iran raises another complicated issue: The obligation of Iranian men, who have not served in the military, to submit a deposit to the government when exiting the country. Whether for tourism, standardized testing, an academic conference, a visa interview, or a study abroad opportunity — any time an Iranian male with no military exemption seeks to leave Iran, a letter from his university must be obtained, and an “exit security” (known as a vasighe) must be paid, in order to obtain an exit permit (khoruj az keshvar). The cost of this deposit varies based on the type of trip, and while they receive it back upon return to Iran, in all cases the cost is excessive and adds to the worry students face. In most cases, it is too much, and instead of a cash deposit, students must leave the deed to their house or car! For an “academic trip” (safar elmi), such as to an academic conference, it is 50 million rials ($4,000). For a “semi-academic trip” (safar nimeh elmi), to take a standardized test, it is 80 million rials ($6,500). And finally, a “non-academic trip” (safar gheir-e elmi) — which paradoxically includes study abroad to other countries — it is 150 million rials ($12,000), more than an entire year of household income.

This is not an isolated occurrence — Iranian universities have acknowledged this issue and provided guidance to students. Below is a screen shot from a PDF document on the “student affairs” website of the Islamic Azad University — the largest private university in Iran.[33] It displays not only the costs, but as can be seen in the midst of the Farsi letters — GMAT is clearly visible as one of the reasons why students would have to leave the country. The types of trip are in pink, with the costs in blue.

For easy viewing, two images from the PDF have been spliced together.

In addition to the challenges faced by students having to leave the country for testing — even TOEFL and GRE test takers inside Iran face problems. Not only are test costs sometimes prohibitive (and must be paid with a credit card, like application fees), but costly score reports must also be sent to universities. Every international student must take both the TOEFL, and a specialized test (GRE, GMAT, LSAT, etc.) for admission to American universities. Therefore, two tests must be taken, and two score reports need to be sent to each school. With the high number of schools Iranian students apply to — and an average of $20 to report a single test score — the costs adds up. However, unlike an application fee waiver, which already exists in some form, such a precedent does not exist to exempt students from these fees. Indeed, one student, in response to a self-administered survey, even noted that testing fees can hinder educational opportunities:

TOEFL is also kinda really pricy and many can’t afford it. The same for GRE. They cost $250…You can buy a motorcycle with that money.

—  An Iranian PhD student in America, specializing in electrical engineering

Simply, Iranian students are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to standardized testing. According to Education Testing Service (ETS) — which designs and administers the TOEFL and GRE, and describes itself as a “non-profit” — more than 50 million tests are administered annually.[34] While testing and score reporting fees help to fund test development, and the local staff and testing centers that exist worldwide — it seems clear that with a little philanthropic effort (a small dent, perhaps, in revenues from that 50 million number), Iranian students could be greatly helped. Testing fees for Iranian students would not have to be eliminated — but, taking into consideration their unique circumstances — they could certainly be lessened. Moreover, ETS already allows the free reporting of four initial TOEFL scores to universities (such an option is not available for the GRE, but could seemingly be implemented).[35] Extending this number of free reports could greatly benefit Iranian students. Another student expressed the financial burden of testing fees:

The prices are unbelievably high right now. When I was working as a full time civil engineer back home, my salary was 800,000 Toman per month. That time (2 years ago), registration fee for TOEFL or GRE was 250,000 Tomans. Right now the salaries are almost the same as before but the test fees are 900,000 Tomans. More than your 1 month income.

— An Iranian PhD student in America, specializing in civil engineering

In summary, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) can take a concerted step to administer the GMAT in Iran, which would not only ease student challenges, but also be a small, but important gesture in creating a positive culture of entrepreneurship, that as of now seems to be missing. And moreover, Education Testing Services (ETS) can significantly ease the financial burdens of Iran’s best and brightest, and expand access to educational opportunities, through a small price restructuring. With a few small steps, a lot of goodwill can be engendered, much suffering can be eased, and education in Iran can be promoted.

Read Student Quotes About Standardized Testing

3. Visa Appointments and Irregularities

To this point, a typical timeline in the life of an international student has been covered: Standardized testing, university applications, and admissions and funding. For Iranian students, as detailed, unfortunately these necessary steps are fraught with challenges. However, at the end of this process — for a select number of fortunate students — all of the financial and logistical challenges, hard work, and worry pay off: Not only do they receive a letter of admission to an American university, but many are also given full or partial tuition funding as well. After this process — it would be hoped that Iranian students can breathe easy, safe in the knowledge they will soon be studying a subject they love, in a free country. Unfortunately, however, for some it is only the start of even greater challenges and frustration.

More so than anything on the academic level (applications, testing, and admissions) — consistently, Iranian students report the greatest challenges during the visa acquisition process. Due to lack of diplomatic presence — after admissions to a US university, Iranian students must travel to an American embassy in a neighboring country (usually Turkey or the United Arab Emirates, among others) for a “visa interview.” While this in-person requirement can be waived in some cases — it is required for all citizens from countries considered “state sponsors of terrorism,” including Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Sudan.[36] Airfare and lodging costs make this the most expensive step for Iranian students. One student summarized the process:

After all those steps, application fee, taking the tests, finding professors for some funding (I still couldn’t get any funding for my PhD) it’s now the most important part which is visa application. For this part students and all the visa applicants that are from Iran should travel to other countries. Usually American embassy priority for accepting the application is the people of the country that embassy is located in…

They have our future in their hands…

And if you are too lucky and your application will be approved you should wait for unknown time, called clearance period, it is possible that the visa even will be rejected during this period.

After passing the clearance they have to travel again to that third party country to pick up their visa! So it goes without saying that it is such a big project.

— An Iranian PhD student in America, specializing in natural resources

Unfortunately, this cannot be changed. Simply, a lack of diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran will result in some challenges, on some level for Iranian students. A trip to an American embassy in another country — along with flights and lodging — is an unfortunate, but seemingly necessary part of that.

However, working within these strictures, the U.S. Department of State has taken concerted steps to streamline the visa process and ease experiences for Iranian students. Not only with the May 2011 decision to issue multiple-entry visas, but also the systemization of registration for visa appointments, and payment of consular fees, which came into effect throughout 2012.[37] In the past, students complained that Iranian-based travel agencies, in cooperation with local “brokers,” (or, “middlemen,” known as dalal in Farsi), often reserved visa appointment slots, and re-sold them to desperate students as part of expensive tour packages. Although students were routinely taken advantage of by such companies, some preferred it over the challenges of booking the appointments on their own. The situation became so dire that in 2010, an Iranian student designed a Firefox browser add-on, called the “Visa App Timer,” which would automatically register students for visa appointments when the form became available online. With the implementation of a new online system, — many of these challenges seem to have been recognized, and corrected.

However, to this day, some Iranian travel companies advertise “tours to the US Embassy in Ankara.” Even the website “” is a Farsi-language service promising visa interviews in Dubai, Armenia, and Cyprus. “,” the company above, sells packages “starting at $380,” not including a $140 “appointment fee,” along with lodging, and “invitation letters.”

Questions still remain, however. As referenced in the previous student quote — many Iranian students report having to travel not just once, but twice to regional US embassies. Visa clearance times — routinely between 1-2 months — mean that Iranian students must return home between their visa interview, and visa pick-up. Two trips must be made — two flights purchased — and, as covered, for Iranian men with no military exemption, two separate deposits to the Iranian government to exit the country. But, discussions with Iranian students indicate this policy varies by embassy. Allegedly, certain US embassies allow “friends” to drop-off passports, and pick-up visas for approved Iranian students, after the clearance process. Others do not allow this — or, students do not have “friends” travelling outside of the country at the time needed — necessitating a second, costly trip outside the country. In some cases, the same “middlemen” who book visa appointments also charge fees to transport Iranian passports out of the country, and employ local “brokers” for drop-off and pick-up. While there are similar, personal drop-off and pick-up requirements at US embassies around the world, standardization and easing of the visa pick-up process at regional embassies and consulates could greatly ease the logistical and financial burdens of Iranian students. As one student remarked — questioning why in-person pick-up is necessary after the visa interview and clearance process has already taken place: “We would be happy to pay the postage fees.”

Finally, on the same issue, because “visa interview at the US embassy” is not a valid reason for exiting Iran — most students (who have not served in the military) have to depart under the guise of an academic conference, significantly contributing to student stress. On top of this, it can be difficult for such students to even obtain a passport, or official copies of their transcripts (resulting in the need to pay a reshve, or bribe). Because many graduate students receive admissions decisions in the spring — coinciding with the official, month-long Nowruz new year holiday in March — receiving the forms and permissions necessary to leave the country for visa interviews and pick-up can be delayed, further frustrating students. In December 2011, the United States government established a “virtual embassy” in Iran.[38] Although there would be many impediments, student feedback was clear: In an era of Skype — perhaps this virtual component could be implemented in reality, and extend to visa interviews, as well.

Multiple-Entry Visas and Clearance Times

As covered — the American government has taken clear and concerted steps to ease the mobility experiences of Iranian students. In May 2011 — after nearly a year of lobbying by Iranian student groups, university and college graduate associations, and Iranian-American advocacy organizations — a high-level decision was made to begin issuance of multiple-entry visas to Iranian students, which would normally only result from “reciprocity” on behalf of the other country. In addition to the statement by Secretary Clinton, the rationale behind the change in visa policy was also articulated by the US “virtual embassy” in Iran:

As President Obama noted in his Nowruz (Iranian New Year) statement, on March 20, 2011, Iran’s young people carry with them the power to create a country that is responsive to their aspirations. He pledged U.S. support for Iran’s young people, and this is an example of that support. Making these adjustments to our visa policy reaffirms the President’s pledge and will help build new avenues for engagement with Iran’s youth, facilitate their ability to study in the United States, and allow Iran’s young people to better interact with the rest of the world.

— “Changes to Visa Validity for Iranian Student Applicants in F, J, and M visa categories.” U.S. Department of State.[39]

However, the push for multiple-entry visas began a year earlier, in 2010, by an engineering PhD student at Southern Methodist University (SMU) named Ali Moslemi. Having returned to Iran in 2009 over winter break, to visit family he had not seen in over four years — Ali’s application for a re-entry visa was delayed at the American consulate in Dubai. Weeks dragged on, and Ali consequently missed spring classes, graduation, and the chance at a valuable teaching assistant (TA) position. Upon intervention from Texas Senator John Cornyn, the process was expedited, and in September 2010 — nine months after he left SMU for a short vacation — Ali returned to Texas.[40] In response to his experience, Ali started (“Multiple-Entry Visa”), and compiled similar stories from Iranian students about the challenges of student life with single-entry visas.[41]

Additionally, MEVisa launched a petition, and conducted a survey of 1,100 Iranian students in the US. The response was unequivocal: Over 80% of students indicated that the “single entry visa policy affected studies or research in a negative way.” 60% indicated that a family emergency had occurred, but that they could not return home due to fear of re-entry complications. Moreover, 36% of students (every 1 in 3) reported that the “visa clearance” time to obtain their original visas had taken from “between 3-4 months” to “more than 6 months,” often resulting in university deferments by a semester or more.[42]

As the numbers demonstrate, the issuance of single-entry visas significantly impacted the well being of the majority of Iranian students in the US.

News of MEVisa spread throughout the Iranian student community, and made its way to NAGPS — The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students. In cooperation with Iranian-American lobbying groups, the issue was raised in Washington, and the notion emerged that helping Iranian students could not only alleviate mobility burdens, but also help advance positive change within Iran.[43] In May 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed Iranian students directly in a video, announcing the new change.[44] Although the decision was not retroactive (it could not be applied to students already in the US), Iranian students admitted to university programs in “non-sensitive, non-technical” fields became eligible for multiple-entry visas to be issued at American embassies and consulates in the region.[45] For reference, this delineation of academic fields into “sensitive” and “non-sensitive” is from the “Technology Alert List” (TAL), a U.S. Department of State guideline concerning “critical fields” pertaining to dual-use technologies, and used in the evaluation of visa applicants.[46]

Since May 2011, two things have happened: Ali has gotten married, his spouse has successfully immigrated to the US, and he has secured a stable job with an oil company in Texas — no small feat, given the challenges graduates face changing from a student to work visa. Also a big change given that he was almost barred from entering the United States. Secondly, Ali has also assumed leadership of the Iranian Students and Graduates Association (ISGA). And, in April 2012, a year after the multiple-entry visa decision — ISGA conducted a new survey of incoming Iranian students, to assess implementation of the multiple-entry visa policy.[47]

Despite being a major initiative, the survey results are decidedly mixed. Clearance times for Iranian students have decreased considerably. Rather than 36% — only 22% of students reported that visa clearance took “between 3-4 months” to “more than 6 months.” Visa clearances of “one month or less” also significantly rose, from 29%, to 45%. Although there are still considerable wait times for some students, the numbers indicate that the visa issuance process is being streamlined.

However, some shortcomings and inconsistencies were still found — not only in the issuance of multiple-entry visas, but in embassy implementation of the new directive. According to survey data, only 25% of students (1 in 4) received multiple-entry visas, despite entering the United States after May 2011. As covered in the introduction — STEM students, engineers in particular, constitute the majority of Iranian students in the United States. Despite this, the survey found that only 17% of “engineering and science” students received multiple-entry visas. Moreover, overall, only 29% of women surveyed received multiple-entry visas.

Additionally, the survey discovered wide discrepancies with the issuance of multiple-entry visas based on the embassy where the student applied, with similar discrepancies concerning clearance wait times.


The overall findings were succinctly summarized by the survey administrators. Simply, those posts with the longest clearance times also had the lowest issuance rates of multiple-entry visas. Those that granted the most multiple-entry visas, consequently also processed visas the fastest:

The survey results were filtered based on the place of interview and surprisingly it was found that the visa number of entrance is highly dependent on the visa issuing post. While near 100% and 70% of visa applicants who had interview in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan respectively received multiple-entry visas only 10% and 20% of visa applicants who went to UAE and Turkey respectively received multiple-entry visas. The average waiting time for visa clearance was 49 days which again was found to be dependent on visa issuing post. Students who went to the U.S. consulate general in Dubai for interview waited on average about 70 days while students who went to the U.S. embassy in Tashkent waited on average about 15 days.

— “Survey Report on the Multiple-Entry Visa Policy Implementation for Iranian Students and Scholars.” Iranian Students and Graduates Association (ISGA). April 2012[48]

Unfortunately lack of publicly available, concrete data impedes further discussion of these consular issues. However, there are several potentially concerning elements — particularly the low rate of multiple-entry visa issuance to women, and the theoretical connection between visa type (beyond the issuance or non-issuance of a visa), and propensity for technology transfer. However, it is clear that positive strides are being made. And, in one area (visa pick-up), a positive and proactive change can be made to ease the experiences of Iranian students.

The survey also noted that while only 17% of “engineering and science” students received multiple-entry visas, 74% of “arts and humanities” students did. As referenced, because of dual-use technology fears, STEM students — especially from countries considered state sponsors of terrorism — do face more scrutiny and longer visa clearance (“Visas Mantis”) times. However, it is clear that visa issuance authorities are still wary of Iranians who study in the STEM fields. And, this should not be the case for the vast majority of students. If anything could be done to normalize how Iranian engineers and scientists are perceived, it would be this:

  1. Engineering and science students from Iran are the “normal majority.” Every 3 in 4 Iranian students in the United States studies in the STEM fields, the highest proportion of any country.[49] Moreover, engineering has overwhelmingly been the #1 field of study for Iranian students, since the 1950s.[50] Historically, engineers have represented the largest percentage of foreign students from the Middle East, and until recently (as it was overtaken by business and management) most of the world.[51] Even today, among Saudi Arabian students (the largest Middle Eastern group in the US), after intensive English, the largest field of study is engineering. Today, 58% of Iranian students in the United States study engineering, dwarfing the next country, India, at 36%.[52]
  2. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), a U.S. government agency which conducts an annual survey of doctoral recipients in the STEM fields — in surveys from 2005-2011, on average 89% of Iranian students indicated they would prefer to stay in America after graduation, the highest number of any country.[53] By comparison, only 10% of Saudi students indicated the same — the lowest of any country. Fears of technology transfer by engineering and science students returning to Iran — which fuels the single-entry visa issuance policy — are not broadly supported by statistics.
  3. Finally, of the total Iranian PhD recipients in the STEM fields since 1990 (roughly 2,100 students) — only 329 have been women (an average of 16%). In 2011, of 186 overall STEM doctorates awarded to Iranian students — 41 were women (roughly 22%).[54] These statistics are not just for engineering, but all high-level STEM doctorates. The decision to deny multiple-entry visas to nearly 70% of surveyed women — while Iranian women overall represent a small number of STEM doctoral graduates — is not defensible given the facts.

On this note, it is also important to emphasize that the “stay rate” of a student community is not a value judgment. On the one hand, statistics make it clear that the “push-pull” factors are keeping Iranian students in the United States after graduation. This mitigates the perceived “threat” of technology transfer. However, it also means that these students are not returning home, to mentor and educate a new generation of students in Iran, and perhaps serve as catalysts for institutional reform and change. Moreover, in purely economic terms, massive “brain drain” is occurring. Simply, on many levels, the notion that student exchange will serve to “fuel change in Iran” is problematic. However, with the overwhelming concern at hand — fears of technology transfer — the numbers do not broadly support such a notion, necessitating the broad denial of multiple-entry visas to science and engineering students. Lastly, as mentioned, one of the largest questions is how type of visa issued (beyond issuance or rejection of a visa), has any correlation to the propensity for technology transfer. Rationally speaking, international student graduates with jobs in the United States could eventually return to their home countries with transferable skills beyond those learned in the classroom. And, even single-entry visa recipients return to their countries at the end of studies. Simply, the connection between visa type, and technology transfer, appears tenuous. There is no “right answer” — whether students stay in the United States after graduation, or return to their home countries, each produces a wide range of positive and negative effects, in different areas.

In closing, single-entry visas simply seem to cause hurt — they mitigate nothing, except the ability to easily return home for holidays to see loved ones, and to attend academic conferences (often important for career development). In interviews with Iranian students, those who had received multiple-entry visas expressed thankfulness, and indeed some have even gone home to visit family during the course of their studies. However, for single-entry visa recipients, the sentiments are clear:

This type of visa practically imprisons the person inside the US, because if the student exits the country, he/she should apply for a visa again, which is so risky that may prevent the student from continuing his/her education. That is why many students tend not to exit from US, causing lots of personal, emotional, etc. problems.

— An Iranian PhD student in America

Read Student Quotes About the Visa Process

4. Women

For many international students — education functions as their sole key to the world. For some, scholarships and university funding open the door to a global world that had previously been beyond financial means. For others — especially those from countries with broad visa and travel restrictions — the opportunity to study abroad serves as a means of legitimate travel, to experience an outside world that had been largely out of reach. And finally, for others — international study opportunities provide a means for social mobility and respect, previously denied to them, or thought impossible or untenable.

For women from the developing world, and especially traditional societies — higher education attainment encompasses all of these, and is a transformative force within families, and society. It promotes social tolerance and respect for diversity of opinion, forges notions of gender equality and meritocracy, and brings about changes in social relations and human rights. For women who study abroad — these effects are even more pronounced. It is for these reasons that educational exchange with women in the Muslim world should remain a top priority for educators, university administrators, and policy makers.

In the context of Iran — all of the above is true. However, Iranian women face unique issues when studying abroad, and are greatly impacted by the challenges Iranian students face as a whole. While many cannot be solved — by documenting them, it is hoped that student mobility for women, and general issues facing Iranian students, can come better into focus.


Iranian women have a long history of higher education in America. A 1946 survey of Middle Eastern students records the names of 117 Iranians at American universities — among them ten women.[55] They studied journalism, music, home economics, intensive English, and agriculture. However, from 1950-1980, Iranian women constituted only a fraction of the total Iranian student population. In 1979 — at the peak of Iranian student enrollment in the US — 80% of students were men. Only 20%, or one out of every five, was female. However, this rate was not much different from other countries.[56] Interestingly, women’s participation in study abroad actually increased after 1979. In 1990, the Institute of International Education (IIE) issued the last of its “Profiles” series of international student reports — which, unlike the “Open Doors” publications of recent years — reported the gender data of international students. In ten years, the percentage of Iranian women had increased to 33% — one in every three students.[57] Where does this put the number of Iranian women today?

Unfortunately, contemporary gender statistics on international students in the United States are unavailable — a significant shortcoming in public data collection, especially given the educational initiatives focused on women in the Muslim world. However, there are indications that this rate from 1990 has largely remained the same. The MEVisa survey, discussed in the previous section — which was distributed to 1,100 Iranian students in 2010 — had a response rate of exactly 66% men, and 33% women — identical to the 1990 “Profiles” data.[58] The ISGA survey, distributed in 2012 (only to a sample of 175, as it focused on incoming students alone), similarly had a response rate of 69% men, and 31% women.[59] Simply, based on this data, women seem to constitute roughly one-third of current Iranian students in America (from the 2012 total of 7,000 students, around 2,300). While this is not a statistically ironclad argument — it supports the assumption that the dynamics of Iranian female participation in American education have remained largely the same following 1979.

Therefore, what does the 1990 “Profiles” data tell us about what female students were studying? Unfortunately — the data presented is not direct, but it can be extrapolated.[60] Among Iranian female students in the United States — the most popular degree fields were Health Science (19%), Physical Sciences (17%), Math and Computer Science (13%), Engineering (12%), and Business (8%). However, this does not take into account disparities between males and females in certain fields. For instance, while 12% of women overall studied engineering, compared to fellow Iranian women in other fields — men accounted for 87% of overall Iranian student enrollment in it. Moreover, although statistically more Iranian women than men studied in the humanities (54% v. 46%), as a field of study humanities accounted for just 3% of total female student enrollment, and less than 1% of total overall enrollment. Due to the changing natures of these fields (especially computer science), it is likely that these numbers have shifted. However, overall, we can see how Iranian women have contributed to the fact that every 3 in 4 Iranian students studies in the STEM fields — simply, they are very scientifically minded.

Unique Issues Related to Women

All Iranians — whether male or female — face the same challenges during the study abroad process. They must pay prohibitive application and testing fees, negotiate high bureaucratic, financial, and logistical burdens, and travel outside of the country for visa interview and pick-up. However, knowledge of these steep hurdles often serves to dissuade women and their families that study abroad is an option, even before the application process occurs.

As will be covered in the next section — higher education in Iran has existed for less than 75 years. Prior to the establishment of primary and secondary schools in the mid-1920s, and into much of the mid-20th century, literacy rates hovered at around 20%. For women, this number was significantly lower. Simply, despite the fact that Iran has experienced massive social change and female educational attainment over the past 40 years — it is still a socially conservative country, that not long ago saw limited social mobility for women. Even in the US — if confronted with the prospects that Iranian students have to go through, most families would balk at the prospect of their children studying abroad. Many Muslim families in the developing world, under the best of conditions, hesitate in sending their daughters abroad for education. Given the well-known burdens involved in the process, simply, before many Iranian women even apply to American universities, their plans are dead in the water.

For women in the Muslim world, study abroad at an accredited institution serves as a legitimate means to travel and gain the experience, confidence, and feelings of self-worth and assuredness that come with living alone and negotiating daily affairs. Without the “excuse” of education to socially legitimize this process, such a prospect is largely impossible. Moreover, for many Iranian women, education is not only a means to leave home and experience the freedom of the outside world, but also escape the burden of social and religious conditions in Iran. With the impediments faced during study abroad, education has been limited as a means to do this. When foreign education is accompanied by significant challenges, like in the case of Iranian students — it loses its legitimacy to function as a force for social betterment and change. Education outside of the country can be derided by already skeptical family members — who might be willing to consider it under better conditions — and closed off as an option.

In addition to these realities — specific logistical issues do exist for Iranian women. In order to leave the country, women need the permission of a male guardian (usually the father), and in some cases, must be accompanied by him. In many cases, simply by choice, a male parent or sibling travels abroad with them, as any family might want. Therefore, testing, and visa interviews and pick-up, require that two flights be purchased — adding to the heavy financial burden incurred during travel abroad for the visa process, and the application process in general. As one female, PhD student expressed:

I went to take my visa with my dad because in Iran they will not allow you as a single girl to go out without your dad or brother or your husband. It cost me almost $2500 at that time but I am pretty sure it would be more expensive now because of Iranian currency depreciation.

— A female, Iranian PhD student in America, specializing in life sciences

Money Transfers

While many Iranian women do study in scientific fields, female students in general are known to predominate in many non-technical fields, including languages, arts, education, and humanities. In these fields, funding opportunities from universities, comparatively, are significantly less. Although statistics are not readily available, it is assumed that more female international students would need to pay partial or full tuitions. And, this introduces another problem referenced in the introduction: The inability of parents in Iran to easily send money to their children, for food, rent, tuition, and emergencies.

As will be discussed in the next section, Western-backed sanctions have effectively isolated Iran’s banking system from the world: Not only the ability to conduct credit card transactions facilitated by Western banks (such as on the Internet), but also traditional bank transfers between Iran and the US. Unfortunately, sanctions law is poorly understood even among experts, and conflicting information exists as to if bank transfers are actually illegal under US law. However, the fact is that American banks have hedged their bets, and rarely authorize transfers between individuals in Iran, and the US. Banks in third countries that authorize transfers from Iranian accounts, to be sent onward to the US (known as “u-turn” payments), are now also subject to sanctions laws.[61] Simply, many Iranian students (male and female alike), step off the plane in America with significant amounts of hard currency, in order to fund semesters, or years of tuition payments and living expenses. While other options for money transfer exist — such as “hawala,” an informal process which charges significant interest, and is more popularly known to be associated with criminal groups — simply, life is made very hard for Iranian students abroad. Alternatively, hard currency can be given to a friend or acquaintance who is travelling abroad, for further transport to the United States, or direct deposit in banks abroad, mitigating “u-turn” laws. This reality was even expressed by “EducationUSA Iran” — a government-funded educational support service tasked with helping guide Iranian students through the American university application process (as will be covered in the next section):

Iranian banks do not issue credit/debit cards nor facilitate wire transfers. Some students find a “middleman” who charges a commission to make the online payments for application fees on their behalf. These transactions are not issued through Iranian banks; rather they are done through banks in third countries or relatives and friends that are living outside Iran. Students without a “middleman” or contacts outside of Iran typically request that the U.S. institution waive their application fee. Later, when they have traveled to another country for their visa interview and stamp, they can transfer the money in order to pay the tuition and fees.

— “Finances.” EducationUSA Iran[62]

Many conveniences American students rely upon when studying in foreign countries — like the ability to receive rapid bank transfers from parents back home — are simply not options for Iranian students. Therefore, fathers must send their daughters abroad not only with significant amounts of dollars (which, as covered, are extremely difficult to obtain, and “expensive” to purchase with Iranian currency), but aware that in an emergency, there is little that can be done to quickly aid them. Also, the deteriorating exchange rate between the US dollar and Iranian rial means that even if families in Iran want to help, they often cannot afford to do so. One student tragically remarked:

My father lost his job and cannot afford the cost of my life in US anymore. His money has no value anymore because of the drop in our currency.

— “Iranian Students Facing Financial Distress in the U.S.” PAAIA. February 19, 2013[63]

Another Iranian student — a woman pursuing a master’s in engineering management at Duke University — conveyed her financial situation:

Duke is a very expensive university anyway…so it’s become a huge stress on my family, how they are going to provide this money for me. They have to buy really expensive dollars, and you can’t ever predict what will happen in Iran. Every day the exchange rates change.

— “Currency crisis hits Iranian students in the U.S.” Latitude News. October 19, 2012[64]

Similar sentiments were expressed by another student, in response to a self-administered survey:

As I am supported by my family, the current sanctions caused a significant drop in our currency (Rial). This increased about 3-4 times the amount of money that my family wanted to send for me. Now it is getting so difficult for them to support me here.

— An Iranian PhD student in America

One student expressed frustration about having funds in Iran — but being unable to gain access for tuition payments:

This decision is affecting me directly because I can’t transfer money from my country…I have money in my account back there, but it’s tied up, and I can’t do anything. It’s very frustrating.

— “Exchange Students Suffer from World Tensions.” Royal Purple News. February 8, 2012[65]

Seemingly, this also includes the often high and unexpected payments for medical bills or hospital stays that can stretch already frayed budgets. It is highly unlikely that an Iranian student in the US would experience a life threatening situation due to these financial restrictions. However, life is not made easy for them, either. And, for students — who have dreams, aspirations, and hopes like our own, and have already gone through years of significant expense and worry to come to America, leave an oppressive environment, and better themselves — this added detail (along with single-entry visas) ensures that their stays in the United States are also fraught with challenges. Though it is not likely, a system is needed that could allow the quick, and legal transfer of funds between parents, and Iranian students in good standing at American universities. PAAIA — The Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans — recently advocated a solution to the situation:

1) Grant special student relief for Iranians studying in the U.S. consistent with previous emergent situations, 2) ensure that applications for off-campus employment based on severe economic hardship are expeditiously processed, and 3) waive the application fee for these students when applicable.

— “Iranian Students Facing Financial Distress in the U.S.” PAAIA. February 19, 2013[66]

In closing, one Iranian student, in response to a self-administered survey, expressed his wishes:

For some students like me that are semi-funded by their advisers, sending money from Iran to the USA is almost impossible, and it is scary because I always think if I ran out of money what should I do? I think the USA government should enhance some facilities for transferring money for Iranian students.

—  An Iranian PhD student in America, specializing in life sciences

A History of US-Iran Educational Engagement, 1949-Present

Understanding the history of educational exchange and cooperation between the US and Iran has little bearing on the problems and issues faced by Iranian students today. However, it can impart an important lesson: The Iranian people have not changed. Governments have. Almost a century ago, the first Iranian students came to America. For nearly a decade in the 1970s and 80s — Iranians were the largest foreign student group on American campuses, and over 30 US universities had student and scholarly exchange agreements with Iranian counterparts. The desire for higher education and the acquisition of knowledge among students span the limitations and constraints of governments and politics. The history of educational engagement between the US and Iran can demonstrate this, and lend credence to the fact that student engagement should be treated separately from prevailing geopolitical conditions.

Educational Exchange, Literacy, and Development

Paradoxically, Western educational exchange with Iran began long before the establishment of higher education in the country. Throughout the 19th century, Iranian students traveled to Europe in pursuit of education.[67] In the United States, the earliest records indicate that 22 Iranian students were enrolled in American universities in 1924.[68] The University of Tehran, Iran’s first institution of higher learning, would not be established for another ten years.

Higher education in Iran is less than a century old. Although the University of Tehran was founded in 1935, it was not until 1949 that the Universities of Tabriz, Isfahan, Mashad, and Shiraz were founded. Primary and secondary schools were established in the mid-1920s, and in its second year of operation, the University of Tehran only enrolled 1,300 students.[69] Nationwide, the literacy rate was estimated to be 10 percent, a negligible proportion among women.[70] Simply, Iran was in dire need of development.

In the years following World War II — Iran joined the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), along with Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom — which was formed to contain Soviet expansion in the region. Concurrently, President Harry Truman authorized the Point Four development program in Iran, to be administered by the Technical Cooperation Association (TCA).[71] Quite rapidly, the process of development began, and the GNP increased by 10% annually. Moreover, Iran’s imperial government increasingly looked towards America as an ally. In 1960, Iran was one of the first countries to accept Peace Corps volunteers, who established libraries, and taught English-language programs to school children. Slowly, development began, and education was considered a central part of it.

Within this general development scheme, formal, educational exchange agreements between the US and Iran were also signed. In September 1949, the “United States Commission for Cultural Exchange Between Iran and the United States” was formed, which sought “to promote further mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States of America and Iran by a wider exchange of knowledge and professional talents through educational contacts.”[72] A staff of four Iranians and four Americans were assigned to “facilitate educational and cultural programs and activities.” Re-signed in 1963, it also allocated federal funds for student exchange — not only for Iranians, but for American students and scholars to study, teach, and do research in Iran. By 1969, 4,500 Iranian students were studying at American universities. And by 1976, 32 American universities and colleges had exchange agreements with 15 Iranian universities.[73]

However, the next 10 years would produce a dramatic rise the number of Iranian students in America. Within a decade, over 50,000 Iranian students would be studying on American campuses. In the 1979-1980 academic year — when the Islamic Revolution in Iran occurred — this number reached its peak, with 51,310 Iranian students at American universities. This was three-times that of Taiwan, the second largest student-sending country, with 17,000 students (though, more per capita given Taiwan’s population).[74]

What triggered this sudden rise in Iranian students? Evidence of an educational or diplomatic agreement which prompted this significant increase in students is hard to come by. Largely, the agreements of 1949 and 1963 — to generally promote student exchange — seem to have created an environment where educational exchange between the US and Iran was acknowledged, both diplomatically, and for development purposes. Interestingly, facts point to two reasons for this sudden shift in student numbers: Funding, and demographics.

According to a 1972 report by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), roughly 78% of Iranian students in America were self-supporting.[75] However, by 1977, this number had decreased to 50 percent.[76] Simply, at the peak of enrollment, one in every two Iranian students at American universities was being supported by the Iranian government. In 1958, Reza Shah Pahlavi established the Pahlavi Foundation — a self-described charitable, non-profit organization, which advanced social services inside Iran, and was the beneficiary of several hundred million dollars in direct investment. Starting in 1977, the Foundation began assisting exchange students with direct cash grants, and loan assistance — effectively financing the American educations of 12,000 students.[77]

Secondly, there is an issue unique to Iran in the 1970s: The spread of education that had occurred because of development efforts over the previous 30 years created a vast new, educated class of young people, eligible for university education on a scale never before seen in Iran. Although domestic universities had been established by this time, the influx of eligible participants guaranteed a higher proportion of students desiring education abroad. One report from 1976 made a seemingly prophetic prediction:

There are currently more Iranian students — estimates vary from 15,000 to 20,000 — in U.S. universities and colleges than from any other country. This demand for training in the U.S. is likely to expand over the next five years because of the explosive increase in the output of Iran’s secondary school system. For example, the number of secondary school graduates in Iran increased by 30 percent in 1976. Although the number of university openings is expanding in Iran, a large number of Iranians will pursue their academic training in the U.S. and Europe over the coming five to ten years.

— “An Analysis of US-Iranian Cooperation in Higher Education.” American Council on Education (1976), p. 134[78]

Indeed, from 1935-1965, enrollments in secondary education increased from just 16,000, to almost 500,000 students.[79] This also means that unlike today — the majority (75%) of Iranian students in 1979 studied at the undergraduate level.[80] While these factors fueled a desire for foreign education — it is now generally acknowledged that this rapid development led to significant alienation and social stratification, which, along with crackdowns on political dissent and personal liberties (variant political ideas themselves incubated in universities) by the Shah, led to the Islamic Revolution in 1979. And with that — Iran withdrew from CENTO, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini consolidated power around the idea of an Islamic theocracy, and diplomatic relations with America were permanently severed.

In the lead-up to and wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Iranian students in the US came under increasing scrutiny. Concerns over the pervasiveness of anti-Shah protests — a stalwart American ally — and Iranian opposition groups on American campuses, prompted President Jimmy Carter in November 1979 to authorize the “Iranian Student Registration Program.” In one month, from November-December 1979, Immigration and Nationalization Service (INS) agents conducted interviews, and confirmed the academic and visa standings of 56,694 Iranian students — several thousand above the enrollment number reported by American educational surveyors.[81] Indeed, this is the true number of Iranian students at American universities in 1979-1980. While nearly 7,000 were found to be out of status, and deported — others lost the government stipends which funded their studies, and experienced financial hardship. This even affected some educational institutions when in December 1978, Windham College, in Vermont, was forced to close when the tuition payments from Iranian students stopped. With only 150 American students, the college’s 75 Iranian students were a major source of revenue.[82] With the Iran-Iraq war occupying much of the 1980s, where university-age men were sent to fight, along with the ideological “cleansing,” restructuring, and closure of universities for several years following 1979, and travel restrictions — the tap of Iranian students was slowly turned off, which continued to be the case until relatively recently.

Current Policies and Sanctions

In the wake of the Islamic Revolution and Iran hostage crisis, sanctions quickly followed. Executive Orders 12205 and 12211 issued by President Carter in April 1980, prohibited commercial trade with Iran, and the importation of Iranian goods.[83] However, it was not until the mid-1990s, when President Bill Clinton signed two further executive orders, that virtually all transactions between the US and Iran came to an end, including banking and financial transfers.[84] In the mid-2000s, with growing concern for Iran’s nuclear aspirations, the United States Congress passed into law the “Iran Freedom Support Act,” which amended the “Iran and Libya Sanctions Act” (ILSA) of 1996. This was followed, in 2010, by the “Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act.” And, in 2012, the “Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act.”[85]

In addition to reaffirming broad financial sanctions, the Iran Freedom Support Act authorized “assistance to support democracy in Iran:”

The President is authorized to provide financial and political assistance (including the award of grants) to foreign and domestic individuals, organizations, and entities that support democracy and the promotion of democracy in Iran.

— Sec. 402, Iran Freedom Support Act, 2006[86]

Given the growing sanctions legislation and regulations, the “Office of Foreign Assets Control” (OFAC) at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, in 2010, promulgated the Iran Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (ITSR), which sought to systemize the limits of American financial and economic engagement with Iran.[87] However, given the mandate to support democracy in Iran, some activities were exempt from sanctions: Namely, university partnerships, and “academic and cultural exchange programs.” As noted in the title of the text — democracy, human rights, and student exchange had now been linked together.

Article 560.545 of the Iran Transactions and Sanctions Regulations (ITSR)

Pursuant to these general trends, in August 2007, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) at the U.S. Department of State, in cooperation with AMIDEAST, incepted the “EducationUSA Iran” program — now administered by the Institute of International Education (IIE). Although EducationUSA programs existed for a variety of countries, with local advising centers — through their website (, a concerted effort was made to engage Iranian students, and guide them through the university application, and immigration processes. Podcasts and information guides in Farsi were developed to offer accurate information about education in the US. Although not directly related to the establishment of EducationUSA Iran, it is at this time that student numbers from Iran began to slowly increase from their gradual fall after 1979. Simply, Iranian students were on the radar, and higher education in America was being actively promoted.

As exhibited in the Iran Freedom Support Act, democracy promotion in Iran was on the US government radar prior to 2009. However, after the summer 2009 election protests in Iran, and subsequent crackdown — the rhetoric and support were significantly ramped-up. Iranian students — dissatisfied with the political and social environment at home — not only had a greater desire to leave Iran, but the general will and acknowledgement also existed. This helps to explain the rising numbers of Iranian students since 2007, but which has been especially accelerated since 2009-2010, and is still occurring today. As mentioned, since 2008-2009, there has been a 100% increase — a doubling of students — from 3,500, to 7,000. Moreover, between 2008-2009, and 2009-2010 alone — roughly following the crackdown in Iran — there was a 34% increase in students.[88] Simply, Iranian students wanted to leave, the capacity existed to acknowledge and assist them, and their fate had become conflated with the fate of human rights and democracy promotion in Iran. However, there are indications that the number of Iranian students in the United States is higher than the “official” numbers reported by the Institute of International Education (which relies upon voluntary reporting of data, and only from specific types of schools). In 2012, the U.S. Department of State issued 3,024 F-1 student visas to Iranian nationals — which, when factored in with the numbers from previous years, puts the actual Iranian student population somewhere between 8,000-9,000 students, if not more.[89]

Therefore, given this level of general support, the significant financial, logistical, and consular challenges Iranian students have faced when seeking to apply and travel to American universities seems especially incongruous. And this is where we find ourselves today.


Numerous stakeholders have emerged in the push to engage Iranian students, both on the government level, and in the private sector. However, by and far, the largest stakeholder in Iranian student success — are Iranian students themselves. Despite their numerous challenges, Iranian students have navigated them, in the face of incredible financial, logistical, and bureaucratic impediments both at home and abroad, and have committed to furthering their futures in the West.

More so than any official programs designed to help them — Iranian students maintain one of the most vibrant online communities for support and guidance. Through and — both prospective students wanting to study in America, and those that have already made it — can trade advice and information. ApplyAbroad, specifically, has over 100,000 registered members, and is a robust resource and student community. Not only does it have a “Wiki” to guide students through the application process — along with all of the associated logistics for travel outside of Iran for testing and visas — but many students have also developed Farsi and English-language “admissions guides,” to help others through the process. Students update each other about their admissions statuses, and once admitted — can connect to others who will be attending the same schools, meet each other in Iran, and even arrange housing together. Additionally — it was an Iranian student, with the MEVisa initiative — who first sought change to the single-entry visa policy. Simply, Iranian students are the #1 stakeholders in their own success, and are significantly invested in the idea of education outside Iran.

A screenshot from an “application guide” developed by an Iranian business student, detailing an admissions timeline. Advice about testing, admissions, and visas are routinely traded between students online.

On the educational level, as mentioned, EducationUSA has emerged as a stakeholder in Iranian student success. Concurrently, the U.S. Department of State — in response to the mandate in the “Iran Freedom Support Act” — has also significantly sought to increase Iranian participation in cultural and professional exchange programs, such as the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Publicly available visa data indicates a marked increase in the issuance of J-1 exchange visas to Iranians in recent years. In 2010, 353 J-1 visas were issued — whereas, by 2012, this number had doubled to 708.[90] Simply, statistics indicate there has been a concerted effort to engage Iranian students and professionals, on multiple levels.

Along with this, Iranian-American lobbying groups, including the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), have also advocated on behalf of Iranian students. Although oriented towards the Iranian-American community, feedback from constituents in recent years has indicated that issues related to Iran, especially sanctions, are of growing concern. Many feel that sanctions policies affect the families and acquaintances of Iranian-Americans, and limit their ability to travel, do business, and maintain relations in Iran. Moreover, there are former international students who now constitute members of the Iranian-American community. Therefore, concerns related to Iranian students have become an advocacy priority. In February 2013, PAAIA published the results of a survey of nearly 1,000 Iranian students, detailing the extent of their financial hardships in the US.[91] Following this survey, in March 2013, in cooperation with the Institute of International Education (IIE), PAAIA secured a $100,000 “emergency student fund” for Iranian students facing financial difficulty.[92] NIAC, on the other hand, in 2010, played a large role in raising the issue of multiple-entry visas to policymakers in Washington, once the MEVisa initiative was started.[93] NIAC also played a role in advocating for Iranian students with lawmakers, and successfully had vague language removed from a draft of the 2012 “Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act,” which could have potentially impacted the ability of all Iranian engineers to obtain student visas (the final bill only limits those pursuing careers in energy and nuclear fields).[94][95]

Section 501 of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012

Other stakeholders have emerged in recent years as well — functioning as a counterweight and check on the overwhelming government presence in educational exchange, and visa policy. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has advocated for immigration reform — both with visa issuance, and also employment of skilled international graduates. Several books and reports have been authored by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP),[96][97][98] and NAS has also established an “International Visitors Office” (IVO) tasked with advocating for visiting scientists who experience visa delays, and other issues. In addition to Iranian students — scientists, from all countries, seeking to visit the US for academic conferences, or other engagements — have often faced difficulties obtaining visas in a timely manner.[99] According to the IVO, nearly 10,000 cases have been handled since 2002.[100] Just as businesses, and other special interest and stakeholder groups have the ability to drive government policy, NAS is carving out a niche for itself to do the same. Unfortunately, the pervasiveness of reports from the international scientific community make it clear that in many cases — both for students and professionals — often the world’s best and brightest are experiencing complications travelling to America. In turn, this is seemingly casting a pall upon the reputation and competency of America abroad.

In addition to their advocacy efforts, NAS has also directly engaged Iranian scientists. Since 2000, NAS has partnered with the Iranian Academy of Sciences to host 17 workshops, on subject areas including water resources, earthquake science and engineering, and scientific ethics. Despite the logistical impediments, more than 500 scientists at 80 universities in the United States and Iran have participated in the programs.[101] Additionally, NAS facilitated the visitation of four American Nobel Laureates to Iran, and established a 3-year program to monitor food-borne diseases.

However, overwhelmingly, the primary stakeholders in the debate over Iranian students — are the students themselves. And, this necessitates evaluation of how these students are perceived. Although student exchange experiences produce unique, tangible benefits which can serve to advance peace and progress in the world — international students must be treated with dignity and respect in their own rights — rather than as means to an end in the furtherance of geopolitical agendas. Without seeing their aspirations and challenges separately from geopolitical concerns, a disservice is done: Not only to these aspirations and challenges, but also their intelligence and educational attainment, and objective truth and reality. In the end, education functions best when it serves the ends of education, and not much more.

Student Stories and Quotations

Although research is limited overall, there are a few sources with first-hand accounts from Iranian students, detailing their challenges not only on the path to studying in America, but also once in the US (like with single-entry visas, and money transfers). MEVisa — which initiated the push for multiple-entry visas — has a selection of student stories on their website.[102] Additionally, the Council of International Students Australia (CISA) has extensively documented the financial challenges of Iranian students, resulting from banking sanctions.[103] The stories of Iranian students, regardless of country, are largely the same. Lastly, EducationUSA Iran has a selection of podcasts and interviews with Iranian students.[104]

However, in this section, student stories and quotations will be presented, which were submitted in response to a self-administered survey distributed to Iranian student organizations at US universities. In the survey, specific questions were asked about each stage of the admissions process — the same issues which were covered in this paper: Admissions and application fees, standardized testing, and visa difficulties. All respondents were Iranian students currently studying at American universities, mostly at the PhD level. The goal is not necessarily to highlight the extent of their suffering (MEVisa has a good selection of those) — but to present an accurate picture of the financial and logistical challenges Iranian students face, to support the hard evidence presented in this paper. Their testimonies and information can speak for themselves.

Overall Costs

Based on the results of the self-administered survey, Iranian students reported spending an average of $3000-$5000 (though there were wide fluctuations in estimated expenditures) during the process leading to study at US universities (application and testing fees, travel, and visas). This is roughly six months, to a year’s worth of income, and does not include the fees related to military exemption, as covered. Below are quotes of some respondents who chose to elaborate on the costs incurred. To preserve quote authenticity, as in the body of the paper, minimal editing has been done.

I did not have to pay the deposit to the army as I was exempted from military service. But I think I paid around 13000 dollar or more till I settled here. We also have to pay to Iran Universities where we studied to give us our certificates. We have to pay around 2500 dollars for both master and undergrad certificates.

— PhD, civil engineering

I can say overall it will cost around 10,000$ to try different university and attend exam and get visa. And with current currency it is really costly for us. I can never effort more to pay these money. It was really hard to find credit card. it was hard to find visa appointment and someone buy it around 500$.

— PhD, engineering

Travel expenses to get US visa in Cyprus: 1000$ per travel. Two times travel one for interview and second for visa pick-up cost 2000$. I applied for 18 schools with 75$ average fees and 17$ for TOEFL report and 23$ for posting documents: 2070$. I paid totally around 4000$ that now is lots of money in Iran.

— PhD, electrical engineering

I guess around 300 million Rials, which was (at the time I was doing it) around $25,000. It is about the THREE-YEAR whole salary of an average-to-high person in Iran!

— PhD, unspecified

Sending GRE and TOEFL for each university: $40 (times 9 because I applied for 9 universities)
Applying for each university: $100 (times 9 because I applied for 9 universities)
Travel for visa: $1000 (with the current exchange rate)
Total expense of translation of documents: $250 (with the current exchange rate)
GRE exam: $200
TOEFL exam : $200

— PhD, communications

There are too many costs and expenses in the way of pursuing the education in the US if you are an Iranian citizen, including TOEFL and GRE Test, application fees, posting the transcripts and recommendation letters, visa application fee, the expenses for traveling to other country for applying visa, and even putting deposit for the military service which used to be up to 15,000 $.

— PhD, natural resources

I came here about 5 years ago so I am not sure how much I exactly spent but I would say about $ 4000-5000 (considering the price of dollar to be 8000 Rial at that time).

— PhD, materials science and engineering

Almost 5000$ including VISA, Travel, Tests fees and application fee.

— PhD, unspecified

Can say if you apply to 6 school the total cost i.e. posting the doc, fees and traveling to another country for visa…will cost you around minimum 2000 $ which is really a big money in Iran, I mean it’s like the salary for 4 months for an average person.

— PhD, electrical engineering

I myself paid about $2000-2500 (fees, scores) for Fall 2013 but I’m not sure I’ll be admitted even in one of my application. That is, I paid with no result. So, next year I have to repay. Totally, for an Iranian coming to US it will cost about $5000-6000 at least, except the airline ticket and deposit for the army.

— Prospective PhD, sociology

Application Fees, Payment, and the Admissions Process

The application fee does not take up a large percentage of the budget but rather “paying” the fee in US dollars from Iran is a big problem. We don’t have access to international banking system, Iranians can not have Visa or Mastercard accounts when they live in Iran. This is worsened due to recent US sanctions. I remember that I had to pay a 30% fee to some company in Tehran that specialized in payment of such fees, to pay for my application fees!

— PhD, computer science

One of the problems we have is the price of the dollar in Iran! as you know because of the sanctions price of the dollar in Iran is getting more and more. For example last year 1$ costs 12000 Rials but now we should pay about 40000 Rials for it! It means we need more and more money to pay for tests or posting the documents and of course for registering for university!

— PhD, civil engineering

I had to ask my relatives to pay the bills, or purchase a credit card from someone. It was not the easiest thing to do. But this was not the most difficult step in the whole procedure.

— PhD, computer science

I personally faced too many problems and challenges in my way to apply for three American Universities. I had problem to buy a TOEFL and GRE test, I was not sure if I eventually will be able to take those tests or not. Besides I had problem to pay the application fee and finally I had to pay extra amount of money for each application fee because I asked a dealer to do this for me…It should have been about 200$ for three university that I wanted to apply but finally it happened to be 400$ because as I mentioned before I had to pay extra percentage to a dealer to pay for my application fee, and it was also a risk, and I have heard cases that the dealer didn’t pay the application fee at all and has been vanished. Fortunately I was not that unlucky!

— PhD, natural resources

There is no scholarship for Iranian students. Other students from other countries can use Fulbright scholarship, funding from World Bank and other things. Though because of the Iran’s sanction we cannot use World Bank fund and other sources of scholarship, they are for permanent residents or citizens of America.

— PhD, unspecified

Daily reducing our currency makes hard for us to afford our cost for application. We are under tough sanction and paying this fee is hard, we should ask someone in abroad to do it.

— PhD, environmental engineering

Finding someone who has debit card or credit card to ask him pay the fees for us. Even though they charge you for letting you use their card, finding such a person is a big problem.

— PhD, civil engineering

Lack of having credit card to pay for fees such as application fees and TOEFL report fees. I paid 10% more to use someone’s credit card outside Iran. I had to use DHL with 23$ for document post as regular post seemed to be unreliable, but I guess it was OK.

— PhD, electrical engineering

I bought a very expensive Mastercard because I needed it, It had credit for 250$ (card) but I paid almost 350$ (cash).

— PhD, life sciences

They can decrease the application fee for underdeveloped or developing countries, or postpone until if they get the admission.

— PhD, economics

It is impossible to transfer the money directly from Iran. You should either have a friend abroad with a credit card or pay a high commission to an agency to transfer the money for you.

— PhD, civil engineering

The process of coming to the US took more than a year for me. I started with taking TOEFL and GRE exams. Then searching universities that had my major (Mass Communications) at PhD level. Then checking their criteria for selecting prospective students. After that applying when I did not have a credit card. I borrowed others card, of course asked them to spend their time with me while applying. Their cards was out of service after three times using it in Iran. So we found another way. We found a bank that gave a credit card from a bank in Azerbaijan. But I have to say that right now it is not possible to get such a card because of sanctions.

My next challenge was applying with low speed Internet of Iran. I had to go to Coffee Net (centers that you pay money and use the Internet). Then I had to post my documents. We have to send by DHL which is expensive because otherwise it took forever that the destination receive the package or never will receive it.

After I got admission, I had to go to the Embassy in Dubai. Hopefully they said yes. I came back to Iran and after three weeks for background check, my father went to Dubai gave my passport and they issued my visa. In fact, my father stayed at hotel and the Embassy posted the passport to hotel. You will see that what a huge amount of money you have to have to spend in all of these steps.

I also had to translate all of documents I had to English for each university that I applied.

— PhD, communications

Universities should understand that now after the sanction it is impossible for us to pay the tuition on our own so at least they could give us some partial fund for our study. And more importantly separate the Iranian people from the government.

— PhD, natural resources

Because all banks and credit cards companies are not allowed to have connections with Iranian banks (because of sanctions), students should pay a percentage (in average 15%) of fees to other people who have somebody in other countries with credit card in order to pay all online fees. I think the expenses for travelling to other countries to get US visa is the main problem.

— PhD, electrical engineering

There is no credit card (such as Visa or Mastercard) in Iran. Even if you have a relative out of country who accepts to give his card number to you, you cannot pay the fee over Iran’s internet because the bank will block your money! You need to either find someone outside the country or use VPNs which are normally provided (fake VPNs) by government agencies to track activists and these VPNs are not safe at all and there is huge change of data theft. If you find somebody abroad who is willing to pay for you, the money transfer to him would be also a big challenge since it’s now considered illegal due to the US sanctions! There are small companies in Iran which sell US gift cards for an expensive price and you have no chance not to buy them! Considering the huge drop in Iranian currency after US sanctions, it makes it very hard to afford university application fees. For me even before sanctions, it was impossible to pay this money without my father’s support.

— PhD, electrical engineering

Standardized Testing

I had a problem for paying the money for my application, TOEFL and GRE fee. About the payment since the life level is different between Iran and US $150 maybe is not a big deal for an American but it’s a large amount of money for an Iranian, and this problem will be severe if the price of dollar goes up compared to the Rial.

— PhD, economics

There is no GMAT in Iran as I know. Also for GRE, it was only 2 times a year and not in my city (Shiraz).

— PhD, civil engineering

I had to take GRE and TOEFL, both of which are offered in Iran. GMAT tests, as far as I know, are not given in Iran, which can be very problematic to MBA students, etc. Even for the GRE and TOEFL tests which are held in Iran, the equivalent price in Iranian Rials is getting higher and higher, again because of the same reason, and if someone does not have a credit card to pay it in US Dollars, it will be a huge expense for the test takers to pay for the tests in Iranian Rials.

— PhD, unspecified

A problem about TOEFL is that, it holds in an limited area in Iran. For example I think just in a cities like Tehran and Isfahan! And it means people who live in other big cities like Tabriz and Mashad…should travel to Tehran an Isfahan…and they should spend a lot of money for ticket of plane, hotel…

— PhD, civil engineering

Finding a seat is disaster. If you want to enroll an exam you should wait at least 3 months and undoubtedly you will lose some deadlines.

— PhD, environmental engineering

Generally there are few test centers in Iran that a student can go and take the TOEFL and GRE test and most of the time they will be full very soon. Another thing is because of the sanctions the price of tests was and still is increasing every day, so students have real problem to buy those test and some times they should travel to Dubai for each test. However it doesn’t happen usually. One other problem is that there is no any computer based GRE Test and all we have is three times a year paper based test, so if you want to take that kind of test there is no way other than to travel to any neighbor country.

— PhD, natural resources

GRE exams are only held three times in a year in my country and they are paper-based, not computer-based.

— Master’s, engineering


Based on the stories that we hear from our friends, many people get rejected for non-sense reasons. We are always under stress when we are being interviewed for US visa. We do not know how long it would take them to issue a visa. We are not told that we are getting the visa or not after the interview. All these things has lead many of us to stay here after getting in. We do not risk going out of the country, since we would have to request for another visa and go through the difficult procedure again. Only recently an option of multiple entrance visa has been opened for Iranians, however, we still cannot rely on that since issuing a multiple entrance visa is totally dependent on the interviewer’s decision.

— PhD, computer science

I came here four years ago. My main problem which I think it is the main problem for most of us, is our single entry visa. This means that after we get to US with our visa, and we want to travel to somewhere, we need to apply again for the visa and go through clearance process which may take months. So it is really risky for us to go home or even attend conferences outside USA.

— Unspecified

The most proper way to get passport is to have military service certification. Then applying for another place like U.A.E. or Turkey and then applying for U.S. visa. Also you can get passport with some tricks.

— PhD, electrical engineering

I think this is the biggest issue for Iranian. There is no US embassy in Iran and people have to go to other countries to get visa. This is a big problem because you need to spend so much money to travel, you have a problem to get an appointment, and of course if you go to the embassy in your own country officer will treat you with respect but they don’t treat you in this way when you’re in foreign country. Also, after we get visa majority of them are single-entry visa not multiple-entry for your education period. This will cause that students afraid to go to visit their family in Iran because they afraid that they can get the visa again without any problem.

— PhD, economics

The appointment was given very fast after emailing the embassy. The clearance was fast but the number on my document was wrong and I waited 3 months until I found out that my visa was ready. I deferred a semester.

— PhD, civil engineering

Costly, traveling to other countries to get the visa and waiting for clearance sucks! On average my friends wait more than 45 days for clearance and getting a visa appointment time also not an easy job!

— PhD, electrical engineering

I think the most important problem is taking visa and having an embassy or virtual embassy would be very helpful, I think the USA government should enhance some facilities for transferring money for Iranian students.

— PhD, life sciences

The major problem, in my opinion, is the visa. First of all, we do not have the US embassy in Iran, which forces the applicants to go to nearby countries to apply for their visas, raising a huge cost. Apart from that, the more important problem is the type of the visa and the security clearance process. After applying for visas, Iranians should wait to be cleared. This process may take from 1 day to several months/years or may even never end! Its length is not determined a-priori, and this really is troublesome, because in many cases, it prevents the students to show up on time in the university. It may also prevent them totally from entering US if the process takes more than usual. The next problem is the type of visas issued for Iranian students. The US government started issuing multiple-entry visas for Iranian students two years ago. However, most of the issued visas up to now, to the best of my knowledge, have been single-entry. This type of visa practically imprisons the person inside the US, because if the student exits the country, he/she should apply for a visa again, which is so risky that may prevent the student from continuing his/her education. That is why many students tend not to exit from US, causing lots of personal, emotional, etc. problems. Also, in the multiple-entry case, the visa is valid only for two years, while a typical PhD lasts around 5 years, leading to the same aforementioned problems after the expiration of the visa.

— PhD, unspecified

The US embassy in Dubai provides students with appointments if they send a scan of I-20 via email to the embassy, but not everyone knows about this. The background check process is really frustrating, after the visa interview, most students have to wait for 1-2 months before they issue the visa and I’ve heard about cases that took more than that. But it does not end there, most students are issued a single-entry visa and if you want to visit your family during the summer, you have to apply for a visa again which takes longer for the second time! There is not even a guarantee that you get a visa, you might be rejected in the background check process. This is why most students simply don’t go back to visit their families. You can imagine how hard it is not to see your family for 5 years.

— PhD, computer science

The biggest challenge is people in States do not know Iran, Iranian, culture, race and many other things. So from the very beginning to start applying up to end, registration in school and start, they thing we are like Indian or maybe Arab, beard, dark skin and…The government mainly in embassy or so also think people of Iran are for their radical government, so serious security check and hard visa application process is usually needed.

— PhD, civil engineering

Well one way is to put a deadline for the clearance phase of the visa application. If we know that after 2 months we either get it or not, then at lease we know what to do next. I have seen my friend applying for visa and being held in the pending mode for 6 months or more.

— PhD, computer science

A virtual embassy for visa interviews, and also a limit for clearance process. All we can do during the clearance process (after the interview) is to wait. If we can have our interview here, get our visa and then go outside of USA. Or a third country, for example if they let us travel to Canada with out needing to renew our visa, it may solve a lot of our issues.

— Unspecified

The biggest problem is visa so maybe a virtual embassy is a good idea. Also there is not any direct way to pay the fees due to the sanction and limitations in Iran.

— PhD, chemical engineering

5 years ago, it was difficult to schedule appointment at the embassy. Yes travel agencies WERE booking time. It’s been some changes in recent years and I heard the appointment process is much better. Visa clearance the first time took more than 3 month and I had no information about how long it’s going to take. So I had to defer my admission which made a lot of problems in my PhD program as I missed a quarter and some requirement courses. I had to wait for the second year to take those courses, this delay makes me finish my PhD a year later than what I was supposed to do. Also because of the unknown delay for clearance process I won’t leave the country. As I’m not sure how early I can get my visa to get back I miss conferences, visiting family and any other opportunity outside of the US. (My adviser is OK if I can come back in 3 to 4 weeks but I can’t tell if that is possible at all). 150,000,000RLS for army deposit. $100-$150 fee for each application. The fees were not that bad as there is no difference between domestic and international students. Two trips to another country to get visa was a hassle.

— PhD, unspecified

First of all there is this embassy problem that students have to go to another country twice for interview and picking up visa. Virtual embassy is a good option but not doable because of all of the interference that we may see will happen by the government. It would be good to pay application fees after getting the admission. Giving the opportunity to students who are in the US to renew their visas in the US.

I emailed the embassy and set an appointment. So it was easy. There are tour agencies that reserve appointments and take a huge amount of money too but in my opinion when there is a way to get yourself why spending money? The visa clearance took almost 2 or 3 weeks. It was not long.

— PhD, communications

Tour agencies reserve visa appointments and sold students with higher price! Many students are forced to buy appointment from tour agencies. Because embassy usually don’t answer their Emails or late answer. Clearance is the worst part!

— PhD, engineering

After all those steps, application fee, taking the tests, finding professors for some funding (I still couldn’t get any funding for my PhD) it’s now the most important part which is visa application. For this part students and all the visa applicants that are from Iran should travel to other countries. Usually American embassy priority for accepting the application is the people of the country that embassy is located in, and let me tell you it used to be like this, that visa officers treated Iranians with prejudice and in a biased way. They accept and reject anybody that they wanted and not based on any thing reasonable, regardless of this fact that they have our future in their hands. I cant imagine how it would be bitter after all those hardships an officer wants to reject you and you cannot do anything. So I think if US has problem with Iranian government it has got nothing to do with Iranian students. We have always condemned any terrorist act and loved American people but this was not fully understood. And if you are too lucky and your application will be approved you should wait for unknown time, called clearance period, it is possible that the visa even will be rejected during this period. After passing the clearance they have to travel again to that third party country to pick up their visa! So it goes without saying that it is such a big project.

— PhD, natural resources

I set an appointment online and by chance! it is really big deal to find a time slot for applying for visa, but the main problem is the clearance process for Iranian people. It took 2 months for me to get visa and I had to travel twice to another country in order to apply for visa and pick it up. I got my visa 8 days before my I-20 date (which is the last day that an F1 can enter the US ). So, I had only 1 week to see my friends, prepare necessary staff for living in US, get ticket and visa for the country which I applied for US visa from there, buy ticket for US. Omitting clearance process for Iranian students: Most of applicants for F1 visa are from high level of our society and their purpose is to improve their knowledge, they are not terrorist or extremist and these kind of behavior are not appropriate.

— PhD, electrical engineering


The impetus for this paper stemmed from multiple friendships developed with Iranian students on the Internet, over the last two years. They went to the best universities in Iran, most had master’s degrees, and all of them were seeking to leave an increasingly oppressive environment in the country, and experience social freedom, and life in America through furtherance of their education.

They included a hard-working nurse, in her last year of residency at a hospital; an English teacher who wanted to pursue a PhD in ESL teaching, but whose parents disapproved of her leaving Iran; a young construction engineer and author of academic papers; and an extremely motivated and talented business student, who finally reached the US in fall 2012 to pursue doctoral studies. Through our friendships, I learned about the social, financial, and logistical impediments facing students in Iran, and their dreams of studying in America. I wanted to give a voice to their experiences and hardships, and pinpoint their problems, so others in the future would not have to face them.

One has achieved his dream, and is now successfully studying at a large American university with full tuition funding. Another was admitted with a full scholarship to a top university in his field, but has had to defer for a semester, due to a lengthy visa clearance process. And for the two women — the nurse and English teacher — the hurdles on the path to an American education, like those described in this paper, have meant that their dreams have been deferred — at least for the moment.

Based on my friendships and conversations with these students, not only could I empathize with them and put myself in their shoes, but I thought: We can do more.

And, this paper is an attempt to do just that.

Female Education: A View from Early Islam

February 8, 2013 Leave a comment

ويكره للنساء الحرائر الشباب أن يكون سكناهن في الغرف الشارعات، ويكره لهن تعلم الكتابة، وقراءة الكتب

It is hated for free, young women to live in rooms on the street level, and it is hated for them to learn how to write, or read books.

— Twelver Shi’ite scholar “Sheikh al-Mufid” (d. 413 AH/1022 CE). Ahkam al-Nisaa

Over the past half-century, no force has shaped progress in the Muslim world more than education. Universities have been established, schooling has become normalized, and recognition of the need for a knowledge economy has become a routine fact of life. Today, a girl in the Middle East is largely born into a society that acknowledges not only her ability and potential, but also her right to follow her passion, obtain an education, and even travel to other countries in pursuit of learning. Not only do women constitute the majority of students at most Middle Eastern universities, but in early 2013 it was reported that of the nearly 40,000 students from Saudi Arabia studying at American universities, 60 percent are women — a fact that a few generations ago would have been unfathomable. Simply, female education in the Middle East and Muslim world has become a reality of everyday life, which shows no signs of abating. In the process, it is serving to change societies for the better, forge notions of gender equality, and bring about changes in social relations, human rights, and even government. In short, female education in the Middle East is one of the greatest and clearest testimonies to the power of Western diplomacy, soft engagement, and technical assistance in altering perceptions, catalyzing change, and forging a more peaceful world.

However, this has not always been the case. Throughout much of Islamic history — and in some parts of the Muslim world today — women have faced an uphill battle for educational equality, and were often systematically denied the right to pursue formal education. As the above quote demonstrates — religious and cultural fears related to gender mixing, sexual morality, and public roles for women resulted not only in a limited social role outside the home, but also curbs on private and public learning.

Despite these religious and cultural pressures, however, public education did exist in early Islamic history, and across broad swaths of geography. And there are indications that — despite the odds — at least some women participated in it. The following story from the 10th century, for example, makes this clear:

وحدثني أحمد بن جعفر ، قال : حدثني أحمد بن الفضل الكاتب أن غلاما وجارية كانا في كتاب فهويها الغلام فلم يزل يتلطف بمعلمه حتى صيره قرينا لها ، فلما كان في بعض أيامه عند غفلة من الغلمان وقع في لوح الجارية : ماذا تقولين فيمن شفه أرق من جهد حبك صار حيرانا فلما نظرت إليه الجارية اغرورقت عيناها بالدموع رحمة له ، ووقعت في أسفله : إذا رأينا محبا قد أضر به طول الصبابة أوليناه إحسانا

A young boy, and a girl, were in a school (kuttab) together. The boy fell in love with her, and did not desist in being kind to his teacher (muallim) — until he partnered them together. One day, when the other boys were not paying attention, he came closer to the girl, and wrote on her writing tablet, “What do you think of a person who cannot sleep because of his love for you, and becomes confused?”

The young girl looked at him, her eyes overflowing with tears of mercy towards him, and wrote under it, “When I see a lover who is suffering from longing, I have pity for him.”

— Muhammad ibn Jafar al-Kharaiti (d. 327 AH/938 CE). Itilal al-Qulub (“The Illness of Hearts”)

Female education does have precedence in Islamic history. At the same time, there were also religious and cultural forces that tried to impede it. However, the nature of public schooling in Islamic history — and women’s participation in it — remains both a point of scholarly contention, and under researched. In this post, I will present quotations from Arabic legal and literary works that will shed light on not only the nature of this education, but also female participation in the public space. It will cover:

While it is largely irrelevant today (as female education is a success across much of the Muslim world), without understanding the past, not only do we do a disservice to history, and those who suffered from misogyny and ill-informed worldviews — but we are also unable to appreciate the evolution and successes that have taken place over the last half-century with women’s rights in the Middle East. Sometimes, understanding the attitudes that traditionally led to the curtailment of female education can be just as important as the subject itself. It is my hope that this post accurately conveys all of these dynamics.

Literacy and Writing: The Basis of Islamic Education

According to the Muslim historian Al-Baladhuri (d. 297 AH/892 CE), at the beginning of Islam, only 17 Muslim men knew how to write. However, significantly, five women did as well: Al-Shafaa bint Abdallah; Hafsa, the daughter of Umar, and wife of the Prophet Muhammad; Umm Kulthum bint Uqbah; Aisha bint Saad; and Karima bint al-Miqdad.

Significantly, one of the women on the list is Aisha bint Saad (d. 117 AH/735 CE) — the daughter of Saad ibn Abi Waqqas, one of the foremost of the Prophetic companions (sahaba). Her testimony (while perhaps not historically viable, is still valuable for its perceptions) is significant in highlighting not only the informal nature of schooling at the time, but also the rights afforded by her father:

وحدثني الوليد ، عَنِ الواقدي ، عن فروة ، عن عائشة بنت سَعْد ، أنها قالت : علمني أَبِي الكتاب

Aisha bint Saad said, “My father taught me writing.”

— Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Baladhuri (d. 297 AH/892 CE). Futuh al-Buldan

In a similar vein, another female Muslim — Al-Shafaa bint Abdallah — was known to have learned writing during the pre-Islamic time period (jahaliyya), and according to an authentic (sahih) account found in some of the major Sunni hadith books, was commended by the Prophet Muhammad himself for having taught writing to his wife, Hafsa:

وحدثني بكر بن الهيثم ، قال : حدثنا عبد الرزاق ، عن معمر ، عن الزهري ، عن عبيد الله بن عبد الله بن عقبة ، أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم ، قال للشفاء بنت عبد الله العدوية ، من رهط عمر بن الخطاب : ألا تعلمين حفصة رقية النملة كما علمتها الكتابة ، وكانت الشفاء كاتبة في الجاهلية

The Prophet said to Shafaa bint Abdallah al-Adawiyya: “Why do you not teach Hafsa the ruqya for ant bites, as you taught her writing?” And Shafaa knew how to write during the time of jahaliyya.

— Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Baladhuri (d. 297 AH/892 CE). Futuh al-Buldan

Slowly, even during the lifetime of Muhammad, writing became the sole skill of what could be considered “formal” education. It was taught not only to children, but also adults:

حدثنا عبد الله حدثني أبي ثنا على بن عاصم قال قال داود ثنا عكرمة عن بن عباس قال : كان ناس من الأسرى يوم بدر لم يكن لهم فداء فجعل رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم فداءهم ان يعلموا أولاد الأنصار الكتابة قال فجاء يوما غلام يبكى إلى أبيه فقال ما شأنك قال ضربني معلمي قال الخبيث يطلب بذحل بدر والله لا تأتيه أبدا

Ibn Abbas reported that the captives on the day of the Battle of Badr could not find money to ransom themselves. So, the Prophet made their ransom that they teach the children of the Ansar how to write.

— Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 241 AH/855 CE). Al-Musnad

حدثنا أبو بكر قال حدثنا وكيع وحميد بن عبد الرحمن عن مغيرة بن زياد عن عبادة بن نسي عن الأسود بن ثعلبة عن عبادة بن الصامت قال : علمت ناسا من أهل الصفة الكتابة والقرآن

Ubadah ibn Samit reported, “The people of Ahl al-Suffah were taught writing, and the Koran.”

– Abu Bakr Ibn Abi Shaybah (d. 235 AH/849 CE). Al-Musannaf

However, writing was not universally sought, and remained a skill largely applicable to the public domain: To draft business contracts, make treaties, safeguard genealogies and religious knowledge, and record inheritances and wills. It was an activity that was intimately associated with public roles. Moreover, not knowing how to write was not equivalent with not knowing how to read. It was reported that Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, knew how to read, but not write:

حدثني الوليد ، عَنِ الواقدي ، عَنِ ابن أَبِي سبرة ، عَنِ ابن عون ، عَنِ ابن مياح ، عن عائشة ، أنها كانت تقرأ المصحف ولا تكتب

It is reported that Aisha used to read the Koran, but she did not write.

— Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Baladhuri (d. 297 AH/892 CE). Futuh al-Buldan

In the socio-regional context of the early Muslim community, however — where writing was still not widespread — it would have been largely associated with prominent, public roles. Moreover, learning to write was seemingly the highest level of formal education at the time. Yet, the earliest reports indicate that women were not prohibited from learning it. If contextualized today — we could assume that this would not preclude women from higher education, such as universities. Indeed, even 500 years later, when writing had become prominent throughout the Islamic world, and recording of knowledge and literature in written form was widespread — it was still intimately associated with public roles. As one poet said:

ما للنساء وللكتا … بة والعمالة والخطابة؟

What do women have to do with writing? In it is employment (al-umalah), and public speaking (al-khatabah).

— Raghib al-Isfahani (d. 502 AH/1108 CE). Muhadarat al-Udaba

We can only imagine that this would have been the case, but much more so, during early Islamic history when the Prophet Muhammad and those around him sanctioned women learning how to write.

Slowly, a culture of writing and education began to take hold in the early Islamic community. This would give rise to a new type of formal education: The kuttab.

The Kuttab in Early Islamic Education

From early Islamic literature, a clear picture of education emerges. Much like today, schools existed, and parents paid tuition to teachers for education in subjects necessary for moral and material success: Koranic memorization, reading, writing, grammar, and arithmatic. These elementary forms of education took place in a type of school known as a kuttab (pl. katatib) — related to the words kitaab (book) and kataba (writing). Although the structure of the kuttab differed — in some cases, teachers taught for free as a gesture of good will, and out of respect for the knowledge they imparted — in some of the more formal settings, classes were held every day, except for Fridays. Students were even given vacations. The location of the kuttab varied — it could be in a neighbor’s house, or more formally, in a rented space. Sometimes, parents would even send their children away to learn with a teacher in another city. Sometimes, teachers in the kuttab could be from a non-Muslim religious minority (Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, or others), while other times the teacher was a Muslim, teaching to students of mixed backgrounds.

حدثنا أبو بكر قال حدثنا وكيع عن صدقة بن موسى الدمشقي عن الوضين بن عطاء قال : كان بالمدينة ثلاثة معلمين يعلمون الصبيان ، فكان عمر بن الخطاب يرزق كل واحد منهم خمسة عشر كل شهر

Al-Wadayn ibn Ataa (d. 149 AH/766 CE) said: “In Medina there were three teachers who taught the young people. So, Umar ibn al-Khattab gave them each 50 (dirhams or dinars) per month.”

– Abu Bakr Ibn Abi Shaybah (d. 235 AH/849 CE). Al-Musannaf

This report communicates the earliest possibility of a formal educational structure within the Muslim community. Although it was reported by a man who had not lived during the time of Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Islamic caliph — the perception of the state having a role in funding teachers and education is important. However, largely, what we see is that as Islam spread, education was the domain of private teachers, even if they operated in public.

We also know that the structure of the kuttab differed. In some cases, some Muslim scholars believed teachers should work for free — something untenable if schooling was a full-time activity. However, at roughly the same time, we know that there were teachers who taught full-time, and were paid. Therefore, there seemingly existed different types of schools: Some students went full-time, others went part-time.

Of those who believed that the teacher should not charge money, they held that if he was “gifted” something, then it could be accepted:

وقال الشعبي لا يشترط المعلم إلا أن يعطى شيئا فليقبله . وقال الحكم لم أسمع أحدا كره أجر المعلم . وأعطى الحسن دراهم عشرة

Al-Shabi (d. 100 AH/718 CE) said, “The teacher should not make salary a condition, but if he is given something, he should accept it.” Al-Hakam ibn Utayba (d. 115 AH/733 CE) said, “I have not heard anyone object to the earnings of a teacher.” And, Hassan al-Basri (d. 110 CE/728 AH) gave him 10 dirhams (per month).

— Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari (d. 256 AH/870 CE). Sahih al-Bukhari

The composition of the kuttab was diverse as well. It is reported that a teacher in Medina — Islam’s second holiest city — was a Zoroastrian:

حدثنا أبو بكر قال حدثنا وكيع قال حدثنا ابن مهدي عن مهدي بن ميمون عن ابن سيرين قال : كان بالمدينة معلم عنده من أبناء أولياء الفخام ، قال : فكانوا يعرفون حقه في النيروز والمهرجان

Ibn Sirin (d. 100 AH/728 CE) reported that in Medina there was a teacher who taught the children of nobility. They recognized his right (to celebrate) the spring festival (Nowruz) and the autumn festival (Mehrejan).

– Abu Bakr Ibn Abi Shaybah (d. 235 AH/849 CE). Al-Musannaf

The issue that arose was as to whether Muslims would be imitating other religions by taking non-Muslim religious holidays off from school, and if parents were obligated to pay the teacher for the day that was taken off. Similar issues and realities were mentioned in later writings about education, making it clear that since early Islamic history, religious diversity has been a central feature of schooling. Other times, the teacher would be a Muslim, but taught to a class composed of not only Muslims, but also Jewish and Christian children:

حدثنا يزيد ، عن حماد بن سلمة ، عن حبيب المعلم ، قال : سألت الحسن ، قلت : أعلم أولاد أهل الذمة القرآن ؟ ، فقال :  نعم ، أو ليس يقرأون التوراة والإنجيل وهما من القرآن ، أو قال : وهما من كتاب الله عز وجل

Hassan al-Basri (d. 110 AH/728 CE) was asked, “Are dhimmi children taught the Koran?” He said, “Yes, do they not recite the Torah and Gospel, and they are part of the Koran?” Or he said, “And they are from the Book of Allah.”

– Al-Qasim ibn Sallam (d. 224 AH/838 CE). Fada’il al-Quran

There are also indications that within the Islamic state, not only could teachers of different faiths teach Muslims — but minority religious communities maintained their own schools, which accepted Muslim children as students. In one educational text (to be discussed more later), reference is made to a “Christian school” (kuttab al-nasara):

وفي المَوّازِيَةِ : وكَرِهَ مالكٌ أن يَطرحَ المسلم ولَدَه في كُتَّابِ النَّصارى، ولسَحنون قال : ولا يَجوز لِلْمُعلم أنْ يُعلَّم أولادَ النَّصارى الكتابةَ ولا القرآن. وقل ابنُ حبيب قِيل لمالكِ : أيُعلَّمُ أبناءَ المُشركين الخطَّ دونَ القرآنِ ؟ فقال : لا، وعظّم فيه الكَراهيَةَ

It is narrated from Malik ibn Anas (d. 179 AH/795 CE) that he hated that a Muslim send his son to a Christian school (kuttab al-nasara). And Ibn Sahnun said: It is not permissible to teach the children of Christians writing, or the Koran. And Ibn Habib said, “I asked Malik, are polytheist children allowed to be taught handwriting, separate from the Koran?” He replied, “No, there is great dislike in that.”

— Abu al-Hassan al-Qabisi (d. 403 AH/1012 CE). Al-Risalah al-Mufassalah, p. 122

The above quote communicates the opinions of the Maliki school of Sunni Islamic law. However, it is notable that other early Islamic personalities, such as the previous quotation from Hassan al-Basri, did not object to non-Muslim children learning the Koran in schools (much less how to write in Arabic). As we will come to see, Muslim jurists operated in largely theoretical spaces, and throughout history have been forced to negotiate their ideals, with realities on the ground. Simply, this quote confirms the historical reality of not only Christian schools, but also Muslim children learning in them. If they did not exist — the idea and exhortation for them to be avoided would not contextually make sense. The reality existed — Islamic scholars simply sought to sometimes caution against the reality. And as will be seen with female education, this dichotomy often prevailed as well.

Finally, on the topic of school structure, it is often assumed that schooling took place in houses — but textual evidence of such practice is hard to corroborate. However, there is one narration from a Twelver Shia hadith book which lends support to the notion that private homes also served as schools at some point in early Islamic history:

عن العبد الصالح (ع) قال قلت: إن لنا جارا يكتب وقد سألني أن أسألك عن عمله فقال: مره إذا دفع إليه الغلام أن يقول لاهله إني إنما أعلمه الكتاب والحساب واتجر عليه بتعليم القرآن حتى يطيب له كسبه

Jafar al-Sadiq, the 6th Imam (d. 148 AH/765 CE), was asked, “We have a neighbor who can write, and he asked me to ask you about his work.” He replied, “If a boy is sent to him, then he should teach him writing, and arithmetic, and he should charge for teaching the Koran in order to purify his income.”

– Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Tusi (d. 460 AH/1067 CE). Tadhib al-Ahkam

Essentially, the kuttab imparted foundational skills that were necessary for life (and survival) — although, these skills seem to have been separate from job training. Today, it is what we would term “elementary education” — although it clearly had a moral component to it as well, as Koranic memorization was a central feature. Although forms of “higher education” did exist, these were largely relegated to the elite. Simply, while the kuttab imparted rudimentary skills, as an institution it was very much a public form of mass education, with goals very similar to education today.

Soon — from merely three teachers in Medina, the kuttab became ubiquitous across vast geographical areas. Even to the point where, according to the ninth-century literary icon Al-Jahiz — the phrase “stupider than a school teacher” (ahmaqu min muallim kuttab) came into vogue. However, Al-Jahiz goes on to explain himself — and in the process provides a unique portrait of teachers and education at the time:

والمعلِّمون عندي على ضربين: منهم رجال ارتفعوا عن تعليم أولاد العامّة إلى تعليم أولاد الخاصّة، ومنهم رجال ارتفعوا عن تعليم أولاد الخاصّة إلى تعليم أولاد الملوك أنفسِهم المرشحين للخلافة … فإنْ ذهبوا إلى معلِّمي كتاتيب القُرى فإنّ لكلِّ قوم حاشيةً وسَفِلة، فما هم في ذلك إلاّ كغيرهم

In my view, teachers are of two types: Those who have risen above teaching children of the masses, to teach children of the elite. And, those who have risen above teaching the children of the elite, to teach the children of kings, who will succeed them in (ruling) the caliphate…Even if you go to the school teachers in villages — with every people there are the superior, and the inferior — and they (teachers) are no different.

— Al-Jahiz (d. 255 AH/869 CE), Al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin

Females in Public Education

In Kufah, during the ninth century A.D., there is mention of several instances where maidens were seen in school. In the quarter of Banu ‘Abs at Kufah there was an elementary school, maktab, a member of which was a girl. Not only young girls, but apparently young women, attended school also, as is proved by the story of a certain man who made friends with a schoolmaster in Kufah, in order to be able to get a glimpse of his sweetheart who attended that school. Khalil al-Mu’allim taught boys and girls in the same place. It is told that al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik, an Umayyad Caliph, (715 A.D.) once passed a place where a schoolmaster was instructing boys, and among them was a maid, jariah, learning the Quran.

— Khalil A. Totah, p. 80, The Contribution of the Arabs to Education (1926)

There is no evidence to suggest girls joined the katatib.

— Eeqbal Hassim, p. 68, Elementary Education and Motivation in Islam (2010)

Where does the truth lie between these two statements? Do literary and legal texts from Islamic history tell us that girls participated in public education? Or, do they not? In this section, I will adduce and translate every reference that exists from Islamic historical literature (at least that I have been able to find) which speaks about female education in the public domain — for better or worse. Surely, however, more references exist which I missed, are in books that are either non-Arabic or are unpublished, or have been lost to history.

To start, the accounts of female, public education provided above can be corroborated. However, the author omitted some key context. For instance, it is true that an account exists where the Umayyad caliph Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik witnessed a girl learning the Koran in a public school. The problem that exists is — she was derided for doing so.

مر الوليد بن عبد الملك بمعلم صبيان فرأى جارية فقال ويلك ما لهذه الجارية قال اعلمها القرآن قال فليكن الذي يعلمها اصغر منها

Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik passed by a teacher of young boys (muallim al-sibyan), and saw a young girl. He said, “What is this young girl doing here?” The teacher said, “I am teaching her the Koran.” Al-Walid replied, “Ensure that the one who teaches her is younger than her.”

— Al-Jahiz (d. 255 AH/869 CE), Al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin

Therefore, while indeed the story in question concedes that a girl was learning in a public space — at the same time, the overwhelming focus was on the potential for gender mixing, and sexual temptation. Although she was learning the Koran, Al-Walid sought to ensure that only a boy younger than her be allowed to teach. Therefore, in this case, education did occur — but the attitudes are still not conducive to female empowerment. As will be seen, this is largely the case with other evidence of female education.

In another case recounted above — a man passed by a girl learning in a public school, and fell in love with her. Though, he was later rebuffed, and died from love.

حَدَّثَنِي مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ خلف بْن المرزبان ، قَالَ : حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو بكر العمري ، قَالَ : حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو صَالِح الأزدي ، قَالَ : حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ الحسين الكوفي ، قَالَ : حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ سماعة ، قَالَ : آخر من مات من العشق علي بْن أديم الجعفي ، مر بمكتب فِي بني عبس بالكوفة ، فرأى فِيهِ جارية تسمى منهلة

Another person who died from love is Ali ibn Adeem al-Jufi, he passed by a school (maktab) of Bani Abs in Kufah, and saw in it a young girl…

— Abu al-Farj al-Isfahani (d. 356 AH/967 CE). Kitab al-Aghani

Although this narration does provide an interesting insight — schools could be run and established by tribes — it is still not ideal in proving the widespread existence of female education. Moreover, both of these accounts rely on testimony from other people. Al-Jahiz, for instance, lived long after Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik. Similarly, Al-Isfahani above uses a chain of narrators in his story. Although surely these authors would not have included these stories had they not made contextual sense during their lifetimes (meaning, these stories would not have made sense had female education not existed), the fact is that their historical veracity is questionable. Surely, tribal maktabs existed — or else the story would contextually make no sense to a reader of that time period. And, surely, some people felt like chiding young girls who went to schools — as Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik is recorded as having done. But, did these events occur? It is doubtful.

However, regardless of the historical authenticity of these accounts — at the least, they provide a glimpse into how education operated at some point in Islamic history. For instance — the account of Umar ibn al-Khattab paying the salaries of teachers is probably not from his lifetime. But, it does show that at some point in early Islamic history, the issue of state subsidies for education arose, and became either so prevalent, or of concern for some people, that they sought to give justification to it through attributing the practice to a prominent early Muslim figure such as Umar ibn al-Khattab. Similarly, we cannot prove that the man in one of the narrations above actually asked the Shia Imam Jafar al-Sadiq about his neighbor who was a teacher. Though, what it does prove is that sometime near when the book in question was compiled — education in private homes was a normal phenomenon. Therefore, although there are sometimes difficulties in proving the historicity of Islamic source material, they nonetheless can yield clues as to the nature of early Islamic societies. Though, in some cases, there are chains of narrators that truly are reliable and can give us a glimpse into very early Islamic history. It is only with these facts that we can properly contextualize reports from Islamic history.

As for the story of “Khalil al-Muallim” — the man who allegedly “taught boys and girls in the same place,” another crucial detail is also missing. While he did teach boys the Koran — the girls he taught were slave girls, whom he instructed in singing, not in education.

كان خليل المعلم يلقب خليلان وكان يؤدب الصبيان ويلقنهم القرآن والخط ويعلم الجواري الغناء في موضع واحد

Khalil al-Muallim taught young boys the Koran, and writing — and he taught slave girls singing — in the same place.

— Abu al-Farj al-Isfahani (d. 356 AH/967 CE). Kitab al-Aghani

This brings up a rather uncomfortable fact — slave girls were often given opportunities for formal education more readily than “free” women. Note that here, there is no mention of equal female education — slave girls specifically are singled out (it is possible to ascertain this because singing was by and large only taught to slave girls). Because, culture and learning — especially singing and poetry — were seen as virtues for slave girls. Moreover, they were skills that — while it is difficult to fathom — increased their “value” in slave markets. Even the word for “young girl” (jariah) is the same word used for “slave girl.” So, while context might be able to tell us otherwise, there is no definitive way to prove that any of these accounts of female education involved “free” women, rather than slaves. Since they were “commodities” that could be bought and sold — the typical Arab penchant for guardianship and jealousy over slave women was significantly lessened, and with that, fears over gender mixing or moral corruption. Slave women, in classical Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, are also given significantly looser requirements in terms of modesty. They did not need to wear veils, and could display their breasts in public. Essentially, because they were viewed as objects — their masters sought to educate them, in order to sell them at higher prices and make a profit. Therefore, female education did exist — but seemingly often not in the way envisioned. This is also why Sheikh al-Mufid — the Twelver Shia scholar quoted at the beginning of this post — specifies that free women should not be allowed to learn to read or write. Clearly, slave women were exempted.

Moving on, of course, the quote above also references the story of the young boy in school (presented in the introduction), who went to great lengths in being kind to his teacher, so he could be “partnered” with the girl he liked:

وحدثني أحمد بن جعفر ، قال : حدثني أحمد بن الفضل الكاتب أن غلاما وجارية كانا في كتاب فهويها الغلام فلم يزل يتلطف بمعلمه حتى صيره قرينا لها ، فلما كان في بعض أيامه عند غفلة من الغلمان وقع في لوح الجارية : ماذا تقولين فيمن شفه أرق من جهد حبك صار حيرانا فلما نظرت إليه الجارية اغرورقت عيناها بالدموع رحمة له ، ووقعت في أسفله : إذا رأينا محبا قد أضر به طول الصبابة أوليناه إحسانا

A young boy, and a girl, were in a school (kuttab) together. The boy fell in love with her, and did not desist in being kind to his teacher (muallim) — until he partnered them together. One day, when the other boys were not paying attention, he came closer to the girl, and wrote on her writing tablet, “What do you think of a person who cannot sleep because of his love for you, and becomes confused?”

The young girl looked at him, her eyes overflowing with tears of mercy towards him, and wrote under it, “When I see a lover who is suffering from longing, I have pity for him.”

— Muhammad ibn Jafar al-Kharaiti (d. 327 AH/938 CE). Itilal al-Qulub

In reality, this is perhaps the strongest account to support the notion that public, equal, mixed-gender education existed in Islamic history. The fact that boys and girls could have been “partnered” together in school is an amazing insight.

Another indication is given by Muhammad ibn Sahnun (d. 240 AH/855 CE) — a Sunni jurist of the Maliki school, and author of the famous work Al-Mudawwana. However, little known is the fact that he also authored one of the earliest texts concerning the fiqh (Islamic law) of education. Entitled Adab al-Muallimeen (“The Conduct of Teachers”), it provides a useful portrait of some dynamics related to education in early Islamic history. It also alludes to the fact that girls were given public education. Though he discourages it:

قال السحنون: وأَكره للمعلَّم أَن يعلَّم الجواري و(لا) يخلطهنَّ مع الْغلمان لأَنَّ ذلك فساد لهم

Al-Sahnun said: It is hated for the teacher to teach young girls, and he should not mix them with the young boys, lest they (the girls) corrupt them.

— Muhammad ibn Sahnun (d. 240 AH/855 CE). Kitab al-Muallimeen, p. 117

If it was “hated” to teach girls — then this alludes to the fact that teaching them was a reality. Jurists employed this language to deride concepts that existed in reality. Note that Ibn Sahnun speaks of the scholarly ideal (that girls not be taught at all) — but then acknowledges the reality of them going to school, by at least cautioning that boys and girls be separated. Had it not existed, there would be no need to scholastically disapprove of it — and this sort of reasoning and paradigm, with divergences between the scholarly ideal and reality, exists with multiple jurisprudential issues in Islamic legal texts.

There is also the story of a slave girl who was allowed to write letters for her master, but was dissuaded from continuing her education:

هذي مقالة شيخ من بني أسد … يهدي السلام إلى العباس في الصحف
تخطها من جواري المصر كاتبة … قد طالما ضربت في اللام والألف
وطالما اختلفت صيفاً وشاتية … إلى معلمها باللوح والكتف
حتى إذا ما استوى الثديان وامتلأت … منها وخيفت على الإسراف والقرف

A letter from an elder of Bani Asad…With a gift of greetings to Al-Abbas

Written by a slave girl from our city…Who was often chastised for her L’s and A’s

And who often went in summer and winter…To her teacher, with writing slate and stylus

Until her breasts rose and became full…And it was feared she might transgress and be accused

— Ibn Abd Rabbih (d. 328 AH/940 CE). Al-Iqd al-Farid

Another interesting reference comes from Al-Jahiz (who was quoted in the previous section), who records a piece of poetry, composed in jest about the character of school teachers. It alludes to the fact that school teachers spent their time in the presence of children, and females. Was female education widespread enough in some areas, that popular stereotypes emerged about male teachers spending excessive time with women? In an Islamic cultural environment, that would be something of note, and this line of poetry — while perhaps a mix of jest and seriousness — might prove the existence of girls in schools. Moreover, it is one of the only accounts to specify “females” (untha) — rather than “young girls.”

ومن أمثال العامة : « أحمَقُ من معلَّم كُتَّاب » . وقد ذكرهم صِقلاَبٌ فقال

وكيف يُرجَّى الرأْيُ والعقلُ عند مَنْ        يَرُوح على أنَثى ويغدو على طِفْلِ

It is said about the school teacher (muallim kuttab): “How can understanding and intelligence be found … in one who alternates between females, and children?”

— Al-Jahiz (d. 255 AH/869 CE). Al-Bayan wa al-Tabyin

However, more likely, this is referring to the fact that teachers spent their days in the presence of children — and their nights with women (their wives and families). Therefore, how could someone who seemingly spends no time with grown men possess learning and intelligence? This was alluded to by some Islamic jurists, in questioning whether school teachers possessed the degree of intelligence (aql) needed to testify at trials. This rhetorical jab at teachers seems to have existed in various forms, from early Islamic history.

وسئل رحمه الله تعالى بما لفظه رأيت منقولا عن الخلاصة ما لفظه ولا تقبل شهادة معلم الصبيان فإن عقل ثمانين معلما لا يساوي عقل امرأة واحدة في الأيام مع الصبيان وفي الليالي مع النسوان

Ibn Hajr al-Haythami was asked, “What do you think about what is said…about not accepting the testimony of teachers of young boys (muallim al-sibyaan)…their intelligence is not even equal to a woman. They spend their days with young boys, and their nights with women.”

— Ibn Hajr al-Haythami (d. 909 AH/1503 CE). Al-Fatawa al-Fiqhiyah al-Kubra

To this point, largely the accounts given have been references from literature, and Islamic legal texts. However, other sorts of accounts exist, which could be termed “popular wisdom.” Although obscure, and sometimes demeaning, they do bolster the notion that girls learned in public schools. For instance, Al-Thalabi (d. 427 AH/1036 CE) gives a ficticious account of the reaction of a group of philosophers, when they came into contact with a girl learning in a school:

ونظر بعضهم إلى معلم يعلم جارية الكتابة، فقال: لا تزد الشر شرا

Some of them saw a teacher, teaching a young girl how to write. They said, “Do not increase evil with evil.”

— Abd al-Malik ibn Muhammad al-Thalabi (d. 427 AH/1036 CE). Al-Tamthil wa al-Muhadarah

Clearly, although incredibly misogynistic — such a quote could not be construed unless girls learning in school was an actual reality, at least in some cases. Sadly, while this quotation is unfortunate in its attitudes — an even more misfortunate account exists. This one, in actuality, is a hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Although it is disturbing, and most likely a forgery — it can still teach us about the role of women in schools.

حدثنا حميد بن علي مولى رسول الله قل : ثنا جعفر بن محمد الهمداني ، ثنا ابن مبارك ، عن حماد بن سلمة ، عن الزبير بن عبد السلام ، عن أيوب بن عبدالله الفهري ، عن عبدالله بن مسعود رضي الله عنه ، قال : قال رسول الله : مر لقمان على جارية في الكتاب ، فقال : لمن يُصقل هذا السيف؟

Abdallah ibn Masud reported that the Messenger of Allah said:

Luqman once passed by a young girl in a school (kuttab). He said, “Who will burnish this sword?”

— Al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. 320 AH/932 CE). Nawadir al-Usul fi Ahadith al-Rasul, p. 806, #1109. 2 vol., Dar al-Kutub al-Masriyya (Maktabah Imam al-Bukhari)

According to the 15th century Sunni, Shafi’i scholar Ibn Hajr al-Haythami — who wrote a fatwa on why women should not be allowed to learn to write — the above narration is intended to mean that Luqman wished to kill the girl who was in school. He saw the girl — and wished to “polish” his sword by “slaughtering” her.

وأخرج الترمذي الحكيم عن ابن مسعود أيضا رضي الله عنه أنه صلى الله عليه وسلم قال : ” مر لقمان على جارية في الكتاب فقال لمن يصقل هذا السيف ” أي حتى يذبح به

It is narrated from Al-Tirmidhi al-Hakim from Ibn Masud that the Prophet said, “Once Luqman passed by a young girl in school. He said, “Who will burnish this sword?” Meaning, that he slaughters with it.

— Ibn Hajr al-Haythami (d. 909 AH/1503 CE). Al-Fatawa al-Hadithiyah

Although disturbing in the utmost degree — and likely a forgery — it does prove that women took part in schools. The character of “Luqman” — a wise man from the Koran, who is sometimes considered a Prophet — was often used as a literary symbol throughout Islamic history, as a foil onto which to project common wisdom, or contemporary situations. He was a figure who the Muslim masses used to create elaborate stories around, in order to supplement the generally austere religious literature and exhortations that existed. There is no doubt that this is similar. Simply, the person who forged this narration took a contemporary situation — girls in schools — along with his displeasure of it within the Islamic cultural milieu, and attributed an imagined solution (or reaction as least) to Luqman. It is far fetched — but it is a logical answer to this disturbing account. Simply, it is unconceivable to imagine such an account existing, had female schooling not existed in the early Islamic centuries, and made some men very angry.

Other times, accounts of “popular wisdom” would be attributed to Umar — the second Islamic caliph — who was perceived to be a stern individual. One such account, intermixed with a contemporary one, informs us of another situation in which a girl learned in a school:

قال عمر رضي الله عنه: جنبوهن الكتابة. وقال دقنس الفيلسوف وقد رأى جارية تتعلم الكتابة: تسقى سهماً سمّاً لترميك به يوماً

Umar said: “Prevent women from writing.” And, a philosopher once saw a young girl learning writing and said, “It is like putting poison in a dart, one day she will shoot it (at you).”

— Raghib al-Isfahani (d. 502 AH/1108 CE). Muhadarat al-Udaba

Strangely, this seems to allude to the fact that women are empowered from being educated, and might “disobey” men.

Finally, in ending, another acknowledgement of the historical reality of public education for girls is a simple statement from the Maliki scholar Abu al-Hassan al-Qabisi (d. 403 AH/1012 CE) — who like his predecessor Ibn Sahnun, wrote a treatise on education, and commented upon the learning environment in the kuttab. His account is also unique for its neutral use of the term “male” and “female” — rather than “young boys” or “young girls.” This most likely indicates that women — free and slave alike — perhaps had equal access to education:

ومن صَلاحهم، ومِن حُسن النَّظرِ لهم، أنْ لاَ يَخلط بين الذُّكران والإناثِ

It would be better for them, and for their own goodness, to not mix males and females.

— Abu al-Hassan al-Qabisi (d. 403 AH/1012 CE). Al-Risalah al-Mufassalah, p. 131

Simply, the statement alludes that the reality was for girls and boys to learn together (at least in his native city of Kairouan, Tunisia). Despite the solution envisioned (the separation of sexes in schools), the exhortation, context, and advice would be meaningless if such a situation never existed. Moreover, even if Al-Qabisi advocates gender separation here, seemingly he does not oppose female education. In Al-Qabisi’s ideal world, it simply should not be with boys.

Frankly, I wish there were more references than these. But, from the entirety of Islamic literature, these are the references I was able to locate — both through recourse to previous scholarship, and my own effort — that allude to female education in the public domain. As can be seen, it becomes increasingly clear that despite attempts to limit female education in the public domain, it did indeed exist, even if on a limited scale. Female education does have a precedence from diverse time periods, and places in Islamic history. If anything can be drawn from these accounts, it should perhaps be thankfulness that this period of history is over, and female education in the vast majority of the Muslim world has become uncontested.

“Women Should Not Leave Their Rooms, or Learn Writing”

Although it has been documented that Muslim women during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad not only knew how to write — but were commended by Muhammad himself for learning it — as Islamic history dragged along, competing accounts came into existence. Over the course of time, some religious authorities claimed that not only should women not be allowed to be educated in the public domain — but even privately. Even private education inside the home — such as learning writing — came to be connected with the notion of sin, and sexual immorality. In this section, excerpts from Islamic scholarly works will be presented which attempted to prohibit women from learning writing. Essentially, from all forms of education.

The basis of this shift is a Prophetic hadith which alleges that Muhammad exhorted men, “Do not let women descend from their rooms, and do not teach them writing.” In actuality — this hadith has been recognized as mawdoo — or, forged — by some scholars. However, there were others who accepted it at face value, and sought to undermine the narrations that allowed women to learn how to write.

Al-Qurtubi, a well-known Maliki scholar from the 13th century — provides one of the most detailed, yet convoluted arguments against women learning how to write — and says:

وروى حماد بن سلمة عن الزبير بن عبد السلام ، عن أيوب بن عبد الله الفهري ، عن عبد الله بن مسعود قال : قال رسول الله – صلى الله عليه وسلم – : لا تسكنوا نساءكم الغرف ، ولا تعلموهن الكتابة

قال علماؤنا : وإنما حذرهم النبي – صلى الله عليه وسلم – ذلك لأن في إسكانهن الغرف تطلعا إلى الرجل ; وليس في ذلك تحصين لهن ولا تستر . وذلك أنهن لا يملكن أنفسهن حتى يشرفن على الرجل ; فتحدث الفتنة والبلاء ; فحذرهم أن يجعلوا لهن غرفا ذريعة إلى الفتنة . وهو كما قال رسول الله – صلى الله عليه وسلم – : ” ليس للنساء خير لهن من ألا يراهن الرجال ، ولا يرين الرجال ” . وذلك أنها خلقت من الرجل ، فنهمتها في الرجل ، والرجل خلقت فيه الشهوة ، وجعلت سكنا له ، فغير مأمون كل واحد منهما في صاحبه . وكذلك تعليم الكتابة ربما كانت سببا للفتنة ، وذلك إذا علمت الكتابة كتبت إلى من تهوى . والكتابة عين من العيون ، بها يبصر الشاهد الغائب ، والخط هو آثار يده . وفي ذلك تعبير عن الضمير بما لا ينطلق به اللسان ، فهو أبلغ من اللسان . فأحب رسوله – صلى الله عليه وسلم – أن ينقطع عنهن أسباب الفتنة ; تحصينا لهن ، وطهارة لقلوبهن

It is narrated from Abdallah ibn Masud that the Prophet said, “Your women should not descend from their rooms, nor should they be taught writing.”

Our scholars say: The Prophet warned against this because in their descending from their rooms, they will look at men, and this action is not (considered) safeguarding oneself, or concealment. And, they will be observed by men. The narration speaks of discord (fitna) and affliction. So, they are cautioned to stay in their rooms on the pretext of fitna. And this is because the Prophet said, “There is no good in women unless they do not see men, and they are not seen by men.” This is because she was created from the man, and the man was created with desire, and she provides him with comfort. So, they find comfort in each other.

And like that, writing can be a cause of fitna, for example, if she learns writing, and then writes (letters) to the one she loves. Writing is like an eye, it is seeing the one who is not present. And writing is from the effect of the hand. It is an expression of conscience; it is what cannot be told by the tongue, but starts with the tongue.

So, the Messenger of Allah sought to cut off all causes of fitna, safeguard women, and purify their hearts.

— Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Qurtubi (d. 671 AH/1273 CE). Al-Jami al-Ahkam al-Quran (Tafsir al-Qurtubi). For the identical wording see also Al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. 320 AH/932 CE). Nawadir al-Usul fi Ahadith al-Rasul.

Therefore, we see that even private learning has been intimately connected to the prospect of sin. However, even Al-Qurtubi did not go as far as one scholar — an historically influential Twelver Shia scholar, cited at the beginning of this post — who claimed that women should not only not be taught how to write, but also to read!

ويكره للنساء الحرائر الشباب أن يكون سكناهن في الغرف الشارعات، ويكره لهن تعلم الكتابة، وقراءة الكتب

It is hated for free, young women to live in rooms on the street level, and it is hated for them to learn how to write, or read books.

— Twelver Shi’ite scholar “Sheikh al-Mufid” (d. 413 AH/1022 CE). Ahkam al-Nisaa

The account of Muhammad prohibiting women from “leaving their rooms” and “learning how to write” also made it into Twelver Shia works of hadith and law — which informed Al-Mufid, above:

علي بن إبراهيم، عن أبيه، عن النوفلي، عن السكوني، عن أبي عبد الله (عليه السلام) قال: قال رسول الله (صلى الله عليه وآله): لا تنزلوا النساء بالغرف ولا تعلموهن الكتابة وعلموهن المغزل وسورة النور

Jafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Imam, reported that the Messenger of Allah said, “Women should not descend from their rooms, and do not teach them writing. But rather, teach them the spindle, and Surah al-Nur.”

— Muhammad ibn Yaqub al-Kulayni (d. 329 AH/940 CE). Al-Kafi

This advice was taken to heart by another Shia scholar:

ويعلمه الخط والسباحة ، ويؤمر بالصلاة لسبع ويفرق بين الصبيان في المضاجع لعشر ، ويعلم القرآن ، والصبية سورة النور لا سورة يوسف ، ولا الخط ، ولا تنزل الغرف

Boys should learn writing and swimming, they should be commanded to pray when they are seven, and separated (from females) when they are 10. And, teach them the Koran. As for girls, they should be taught Surah al-Nur, and not Surah Yusuf. And not writing. And they should not descend from their rooms.

— Yahya ibn Said al-Hilli (d. 690 AH/1291 CE). Al-Jami lil-Sharai

In their effort to seclude women — some Sunni and Shia scholars (based on a small number of Sunni and Shia hadiths) also prohibited them from learning certain chapters of the Koran. Usually, men were instructed to avoid teaching women Surah Yusuf — because it contained references to the unfaithful wife of “Pharaoh.” And, hence, might give them ideas. Rather, they were told to focus on Surah al-Nur, because it contains the verses related to female modesty, and punishments for adultery. If certain scholars were willing to censure what a Muslim woman could learn from the Koran — in their minds, the direct words of God, the Creator of the Universe Himself — then there were truly no limits to censuring anything else.

All this being said, what happened to the example of the women from early Islam who learned writing, such as Al-Shafaa bint Abdallah, who taught the Prophet Muhammad’s wife herself how to write? Scholars, and later narrations, sought to contextualize and limit the true impact of her account.

وسئل رحمه الله تعالى : ما حكم تعليم النساء الكتابة ففي وسيط الواحدي أول سورة النور ما يدل على عدم الاستجباب هل هو صحيح أو ضعيف ؟  فأجاب بقوله : هو صحيح ، فقد روى الحاكم وصححه عن البيهقي عن عائشة رضي الله عنها أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم قال : ” لا تنزلوهن في الغرف ولا تعلموهن الكتابة ” يعني النساء ” وعلموهن الغزل وسورة النور ” أي لما فيها من الأحكام الكثيرة المتعلقة بهن المؤدي حفظها وعلمها إلى غاية حفظهن عن كل فتنة وريبة كما هو ظاهر لمن تدبرها

واعلم أن النهي عن تعليم النساء للكتابة لا ينافي طلب تعليمهن القرآن والعلوم والآداب ؛ لأن في هذه مصالح عامة من غير خشية مفاسدة تتولد عليها بخلاف الكتابة فإنه وإن كان فيعا مصالح إلا أن فيها خشية مفسدة ودرء المفاسد مقدم على جلب المصالح

فإن قلت : أخرج أبو داود عن الشفاء بنت عبد الله قالت : دخل عَلَيَّ النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم وأنا عند حفصة فقال لي : ” علميها رقية النملة كما علمتيها الكتابة ” وهذا يدل على تعليم النساء الكتابة .
قلت : ليس فيه دلالة على طلب تعليمهن الكتابة ، وإنما فيه دليل على جواز تعليمهن الكتابة ونحن نقول به وإنما غاية الأمر فيه أن النهي عنه تنزيها لما تقرر من المفاسد المترتبة عليه ، والله سبحانه أعلم

It was asked to Ibn Hajr al-Haythami: What is the ruling for teaching women writing, and Surah al-Nur, and what has been narrated that it is not recommended. Is it authentic, or not?

He replied: It is authentic, Al-Hakim narrated, and in an authentic form from Al-Bayhaqi, from Aisha who said, “The Prophet said, ‘Women should not descend from their rooms, and they should not be taught writing, and teach them the spindle, and Surah al-Nur.'”

Because of the great number of provisions in them which lead them to safeguarding themselves from all discord (fitna) and uncertainty…

It should be known that prohibiting women from writing does not prevent them from learning the Koran, knowledge, or proper etiquette. Because, this a general right that has no fear of sin associated with it, unlike writing. The fear of sin and repelling it takes precedence over all other interests.

He was then asked, “Abu Dawud narrated from Al-Shafaa bint Abdallah that she entered upon the Prophet with Hafsa, and he said, ‘Why do you not teach her the ruqya for ant bites, as you taught her writing?’ Is this not proof that women should be taught writing?”

Ibn Hajr al-Haythami replied, “This is not proof that women should seek out how to write, it is only proof that they are permitted to learn it. But we say that this is a severe matter, and severely disliked for the sinful consequences that can arise from it.”

— Ibn Hajr al-Haythami (d. 909 AH/1503 CE). Al-Fatawa al-Hadithiyah

In addition to the flaccid response by Ibn Hajr, other accounts came into existence which tried to contextualize the type of writing that Al-Shafaa taught to the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Hafsa. Rather than teaching writing in general, it was claimed that she was only instructed in teaching it for the sake of making a ruqya — a type of “charm” that existed in early Islam, which was thought to cure disease or ward off evil, and upon which was written verses of the Koran or supplications. Presumably, as a quaint sort of cottage industry, the task of making the ruqya traditionally fell to women — who, hence would have had to learn how to write. Though, in this limited situation, writing would take on a very private role in the home — not on a public level — which, it seems, some men were much more comfortable with, and therefore sought to modify the original account of Al-Shafaa and her teaching of writing.

حدثنا بالحديث على وجهه أبو عمرو محمد بن جعفر بن محمد بن مطر الزاهد ، إملاء سنة سبع وثلاثين وثلاث مائة ، حدثنا محمود بن محمد الواسطي ، ثنا إبراهيم بن عبد الله أبو إسحاق الهروي ، حدثني عثمان بن عمر بن عثمان بن سليمان بن أبي حثمة القرشي العدوي ، حدثني أبي ، عن جدي عثمان بن سليمان ، عن أبيه ، عن أمه الشفاء بنت عبد الله ، أنها كانت ترقي برقى في الجاهلية ، وأنها لما هاجرت إلى النبي صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم قدمت عليه ، فقالت : يا رسول الله ! إني كنت أرقي برقى في الجاهلية ، وقد رأيت أن أعرضها عليك ، فقال : ” اعرضيها ” ، فعرضتها عليه ، وكانت منها رقية النملة ، فقال : ” ارقي بها ، وعلميها حفصة : بسم الله صلوب حين يعود من أفواهها ، ولا تضر أحدا ، اللهم اكشف البأس رب الناس . قال : ترقي بها على عود كرم سبع مرات ، وتضعه مكانا نظيفا ، ثم تدلكه على حجر ، وتطليه على النورة

Al-Shafaa bint Abdallah used to make ruqya during the pre-Islamic times (jahaliyya). When she made hijra to the Prophet, she came to him and said, “O Messenger of Allah, I used to make ruqya during jahaliyya, and wanted to show them to you.” He said, “Show them.” So, she showed him, and it was a ruqya for ant bites. He said, “Use this supplication for it, and teach Hafsa…”

— Al-Hakim al-Nishaburi (d. 403 AH/1012 CE). Al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahihayn

Notice that this contradicts the earliest accounts, where the Prophet commends Al-Shafaa on teaching Hafsa writing, and then instructs her to continue her teaching by imparting how to make the ruqya. According to the earliest sources, Hafsa did not originally learn writing by learning how to make the ruqya — rather she was instructed to learn ruqya making after Al-Shafaa had successfully taught her writing, and she was seen as a competent teacher. Indeed, the earliest versions of the Al-Shafaa story mention her coming to the Prophet after she had already taught Hafsa writing:

أخبرنا عبد الرزاق ، عن معمر ، عن الزهري ، قال : بلغني أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم قال لامرأة : ” ألا تعلمين هذه رقية النملة – يريد حفصة زوجته – ، كما علمتها الكتابة

Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (d. 124 AH/741 CE) said, “It has reached me from the Prophet that he said to a woman, ‘Why do you not teach this ruqya for ant bites — for his wife, Hafsa — as you taught her writing?'”

– Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE). Al-Musannaf

Similar wording — “taught her writing” (علمتها الكتابة) being in the past tense — is also found in the Musannaf of Ibn Abi Shaybah (235 AH), the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (241 AH), and the Sunan of Abu Dawud (275 AH). According to most hadith authorities, it has an authentic (sahih) chain of narrators (isnad).

It should also be noted that it is the same book — Al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahihayn, by Al-Hakim al-Nishaburi — which contains one of the versions of the hadith about prohibiting women from writing. Comparatively, it is one of the latest hadith books to be compiled (along with Sunan al-Bayhaqi, as well, which fits a similar mold), and objectively speaking, is filled with narrations that are not only implausible, but can be objectively seen to “correct” upon, offer more detail, or modify previously established narrations, often for ideological ends — similarly to what happened with this narration.

Lastly, these same themes of morality and corruption were used by Al-Qabisi, the Maliki scholar who advised that “males and females not mix” in schools, to limit women from learning writing:

وأما تعليم الأنثى القرآن والعلم فهو حسن ومن مصالحها. فأما أن تعلم الترسل والشعر وما أشبهه، فهو مخوف عليها. وإنما تعلم ما يرجى لها صلاحه، ويؤمن عليها من فتنته. وسلامتها من تعلم الخط أنجى لها. ولما أذن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم للنساء في شهود العيد أمرهن أن يخرجن العواتق ذوات الخدور أو العواتق وذوات الخدور، وأمر الحائض أن تعتزل مصلى الناس، وقال: يشهدن الخير ودعوة المسلمين. فعلى هذا يقتبل في تعليمهن الخير الذي يؤمن عليهن فيه، وما خيف عليهن منه، فصرفه عنهن أفضل لهن، وأوجب على متولي أمرهن

As for teaching females the Koran and knowledge, it is good and for their benefit. But as for being taught letter writing, or poetry, and what is similar to it, then that is feared for her. She should be taught that which brings her benefit, and safeguards her from temptation. It would be safer for her to be spared learning to write. When the Prophet permitted women to attend the Eid festivals, he commanded them to bring out adolescent girls and those who normally are secluded behind a curtain. At the same time he commanded menstruating women to avoid the place where people pray. He said, “Let women be present where there is blessing and at the prayers of Muslims.” On this basis it is acceptable to teach her good things that are safe; as for things from which harm to them can be feared, keeping such things away from them is preferable, and this is the duty of her guardian.

— Abu al-Hassan al-Qabisi (d. 403 AH/1012 CE). Al-Risalah al-Mufassalah, p. 95

Thankfully — as al-Qabisi’s earlier quote demonstrates, which alludes to mixed male-female public learning being a reality — scholars often operated in theoretical realms. They were forced to negotiate their ideals with reality. Simply because a Muslim scholar advocated a course of action does not mean that it actually happened in reality. And, there are numerous examples to prove this being the case.

In ending, there is perhaps no story better in illustrating this point than that of Aisha al-Qurtubiyya. A contemporary of Al-Qabisi, above, and from Andalus (modern Spain) — not only did she learn how to write — but she mastered the art of calligraphy, and even authored handwritten copies of the Koran. Simply, reality did not always accord with the scholarly ideal — legalisms, and the will of a small group of men, were unable to prevail over the lived reality of normal people. And to this day, it is overcoming this limiting, little, and legalistic force that has the greatest potential to drive prosperity and progress in the Muslim world.

عائشة بنت أحمد بن محمد بن قادم: قرطبية ذكرها ابن حيان وقال: لم يكن في جزائر الأندلس في زمانها من يعدلها فهماً وعلماً، وأدباً، وشعراً، وفصاحة، وعفة وجزالة وحصافة. وكانت تمدح ملوك زمانها وتخاطبهم فيما يعرض لها من حاجتها، فتبلغ ببيانها حيث لا يبلغه كثير من أدباء وقتها، ولا ترد شفاعتها. وكانت حسنة الخط تكتب المصاحف والدفاتر وتجمع الكتب، وتعنى بالعلم، ولها خزانة علم كبيرة حسنة، ولها غنى وثروة تعينها على المرؤة. وماتت عذراء لم تنكح قط

Ibn Hayyan (d. 469 AH/1075 CE) reported about Aisha bint Ahmad al-Qurtubiyya (in his book Al-Muqtabis):

“There was no one in her time, in the Andalusian peninsula, with her understanding, knowledge, etiquette, poetry, eloquence, abundance, and prudence…She petitioned the ruler of the time for her needs, and her testimony was given consideration, when that of many learned men was not. She mastered (the art of) handwriting, and wrote copies of the Koran (masahif), and books. She collected books, and was concerned with knowledge (i.e. science), and (served as) a great depository of it. She had richness and wealth from (her qualities) of magnanimity. She died a virgin, having never married (in the year 400 AH).”

— Ibn Bashkuwal (d. 578 AH/1183 CE). Kitab al-Sila


In the end, it can be seen that there are many challenges when looking at the topic of female education through the perspective of Islamic history and scholarship, and the cultural attitudes that accompanied them. However, there is also plenty of room to see the limited reach of such exhortations. Although it is mainly through written materials that we can know about Islamic history — at the same time, it is a severely limited medium. The fullness of past societies cannot be contained in writing — especially those that span such diverse geographies. There is no doubt that throughout Islamic history, there have been brave people — fathers, brothers, mothers, and teachers — who have sought to educate women, in the face of the forces that limited them. Written materials about an ancient society can never communicate their full diversity or nuance, and we get a sense of this in the material about female education in Islam. And, as can be gleaned, if anything can be taken from this accounting — it should be the utter contrasts between the status of women today and their prospects for educational attainment, and those of the past. The future for women in the Middle East and Muslim world is very bright — and this is serving to change these societies and their futures for the better. This is the real miracle, and what should really be pondered.

Further Reading

Al-Jamali, Muhammad Fadil. “Islamic Education.” Found in: Bouhdiba, Abdelwahab. The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture: The Individual and Society in Islam. Vol. 2. Unesco, 1998.

Cook, Bradley J, and Fathi H. Malkawi. Classical Foundations of Islamic Educational Thought: A Compendium of Parallel English-Arabic Texts. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2010.

Note: The above volume contains English translations of two foundational educational texts in Islamic history, Kitab al-Muallimeen by Muhammad ibn Sahnun (d. 240 AH/855 CE) and a partial translation of Al-Risalah al-Mufassalah by Abu al-Hassan al-Qabisi (d. 403 AH/1012 CE).

Dodge, Bayard. Muslim Education in Medieval Times. Middle East Institute, 1962.

Hassim, Eeqbal. Elementary Education and Motivation in Islam: Perspectives of Medieval Muslim Scholars, 750-1400 CE. Cambria Press, 2010.

Ibrashi, Muḥammad A., and Shawki Sukkari. Education in Islam. Cairo: Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, 1967.

Qadi, Wadad. Islam and Education: Myths and Truths. Ed. Victor Billeh. University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Shalabi, Ahmad. History of Muslim Education. Dar al-Kashshaf, 1954.

Tibawi, Abdul Latif. Islamic Education: Its Traditions and Modernization into the Arab National Systems. London: Luzac, 1972.

Totah, Khalil A. The Contribution of the Arabs to Education. Vol. 231. Gorgias Press, LLC., 2002.

Tritton, Arthur Stanley. Materials on Muslim Education in the Middle Ages. Luzac, 1957.

Country-by-Country Blasphemy Laws in the Middle East

December 19, 2012 1 comment

Blasphemy is the perceived reproach, insult, or degradation — whether verbally, written, or through art — of God, or historical religious figures. In the Middle East, a complex legal web exists to prevent individuals from challenging the social, political, and religious status quo, and silence religious and intellectual dissent. These include:

  • Direct laws against religious conversion (apostasy) or insult (blasphemy);
  • National security laws aimed at preventing social “dissension,” or the disruption of national “unity;”
  • Laws that limit the religious worship of minorities to government-approved “houses of worship” (which disenfranchise religious converts who might not be able to gather officially);
  • Laws that prohibit “undermining” the tenets or teachings Islam, or direct proselytization to “entice Muslims away from Islam;”
  • Press laws that criminalize journalism that offends “religious groups” or incites “schism;”
  • And, perhaps most insidiously, the system of Islamic family courts, where the marriages, inheritances, and property of alleged apostates or blasphemers can be nullified, or confiscated (and where civil marriage does not exist, limiting marriage options to within religious communities, and forcing otherwise secular individuals to identify on the basis of religion).

Despite all of these being important, in this post, only direct laws related to blasphemy will be presented. Firstly, because there are more direct laws in the Middle East concerning blasphemy than there are about apostasy — however, blasphemy laws are used against converts from Islam. Therefore, blasphemy laws are indicative of religious freedom in general. Secondly, because blasphemy laws are insidious in that they are often expressions of personal conviction by normal individuals, directed towards intangible entities such as “the Divine Being,” or historical figures like “Prophets” — not entities that exist in reality today, or are above critical inquiry and criticism. Blasphemous actions are not manifested through violence, or have any tangible repercussions in reality, other than the speech, writing, or art that it is conveyed through. Thirdly, given that the laws focus on speech and writing — academic criticism, analysis, and commentary of historical fact can also be construed as blasphemy. Also, blasphemy laws cannot be reinterpreted, as in the case of national security laws. Finally, blasphemy laws are striking in the directness of their wording — literally, in many Middle Eastern countries you cannot “challenge the Divine being.” What impact does this have on things like science education? Necessarily, logical outcomes are ignored. This is not only unhealthy for social affairs, but something which impacts economic outcomes, and innovation potentials.

It is a dilemma that has not been resolved. While the region is no doubt moving towards a greater state of tolerance due to the forces of globalization, knowledge of the Middle East’s blasphemy laws is a necessity. Country-by-country blasphemy laws have not been collected in a single place, and translated with their original text. Some, such as Article 291 — Libya’s blasphemy law — have not been written about or referenced in English ever (and hardly in Arabic). Therefore, while this post will not be comprehensive (because freedom of religion entails much more than just blasphemy, as detailed above), the directness of blasphemy laws compared across countries can be a sobering reality of the progress that still remains.

Presented below are laws relating to blasphemy, from the penal/criminal codes of every Middle Eastern country. These will be followed by a short historical background.


Art 144 bis 2: (Loi n 01-09 du 26 Juin 2001) Est puni d’un emprisonnement de trois (3) ans à cinq (5) ans et d’une amende de 50.000 DA à 100.000 DA, ou de l’une de ces deux peines seulement, quiconque offense le prophète (paix et salut soient sur lui) et les envoyés de Dieu ou dénigre le dogme ou les préceptes de l’Islam, que ce soit par voie d’écrit, de dessin, de déclaration ou tout autre moyen.

المادة 144 مكرر 2 : (القانون رقم 09-01 المؤرخ في 26 يونيو 2001) يعاقب بالحبس من ثلاث سنوات (3) إلى خمس سنوات (5) وبغرامة من 50.000 دج إلى 100.000 دج أو باحدى هاتين العقوبتين فقط كل من أساء إلى الرسول (صلى الله عليه وسلم) أو بقية الأنبياء أو استهزأ بالمعلوم من الدين بالضرورة أو بأية شعيرة من شعائر الإسلام سواء عن طريق الكتابة أو الرسم أو التصريح أو أية وسيلة أخرى

Article 144 (ratified June 26, 2001): It is punishable by imprisonment from 3 to 5 years, and by a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 Algerian Dinars — or, one of these two punishments only — whoever insults the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), any of the other Prophets, or denigrates the practices or rituals of Islam, regardless of whether it is through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means.


مادة 309
يعاقب بالحبس مدة لا تزيد على سنة أو بالغرامة التي لا تجاوز مائة دينار من تعدى بإحدى طرق العلانية على إحدى الملل المعترف بها أو حقر من شعائرها

Article 309: A punishment for a period not exceeding one year or a fine not exceeding BD 100 shall be inflicted upon any person who commits an offence by any method of expression against one of the recognized religious communities or ridicules the rituals thereof.

مادة 310
:يعاقب بالعقوبة المنصوص عليها في المادة السابقة
من أهان علنا رمزا أو شخصا يكون موضع تمجيد أو تقديس لدى أهل ملة
من قلد علنا نسكا أو حفلا دينيا بقصد السخرية منه

Article 310: The punishment provided for in the preceding Article shall be inflicted upon any person who commits in public an insult against a symbol or a person that is glorified or considered sacred to members of a particular sect; (or) upon any person who imitates in public a religious ritual or ceremony with the intention of ridiculing it.


The Egyptian penal code is also applied in the Gaza Strip.

مادة 98 ( و ) :- يعاقب بالحبس مدة لا تقل عن ستة أشهر ولا تجاوز خمس سنوات او بغرامة لا تقل عن خمسمائة جنيه ولا تجاوز الف جنية كل من استغل الدين في الترويج او التحبيذ بالقول او بالكتابة او باية وسيلة اخرى لافكار متطرفة بقصد اثارة الفتنة او تحقير او ازدراء احد الاديان السماوية او الطوائف المنتمية اليها او الاضرار بالوحدة الوطنية او السلام الاجتماعى

Article 98 (f): It is punishable by imprisonment for no less than 6 months, and no more than 5 years — or by a fine of no less than 500 pounds, and no more than 1000 pounds — anyone who makes use of religion in propagating, either by words, in writing, or by any other means, extreme ideas for the purpose of inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting a divine religion or religious community affiliated with it, or damaging national unity.


ﻣﺎدة 372 ﻳﻌﺎﻗﺐ ﺑﺎﻟﺤﺒﺲ ﻣﺪة ﻻ ﺗﺰﻳﺪ ﻋﻠﻰ ﺛﻼث ﺳﻨﻮات أو ﺑﻐﺮاﻣﺔ ﻻ ﺗﺰﻳﺪ ﻋﻠﻰ ﺛﻠﺜﻤﺎﺋﺔ دﻳﻨﺎر ﻣﻦ اﻋﺘﺪى ﺑﺎﺣﺪى طﺮق اﻟﻌﻼﻧﯿﺔ ﻋﻠﻰ ﻣﻌﺘﻘﺪ ﻻﺣﺪى اﻟﻄﻮاﺋﻒ اﻟﺪﻳﻨﯿﺔ أو ﺣﻘﺮ ﻣﻦ ﺷﻌﺎﺋﺮھﺎ ﻣﻦ اھﺎن ﻋﻠﻨﺎ رﻣﺰا أو ﺷﺨﺼﺎ ھﻮ ﻣﻮﺿﻊ ﺗﻘﺪﻳﺲ أو ﺗﻤﺠﯿﺪ أو اﺣﺘﺮام ﻟﺪى طﺎﺋﻔﺔ دﻳﻨﯿﺔ

Article 372: The following persons are punishable by a period of imprisonment not exceeding 3 years or by a fine not exceeding 300 dinars:

Anyone who publicly abuses the beliefs of any religious community, or insults any of its rituals…
Anyone who publicly insults a symbol or person who constitutes an object of sanctification, glorification, and respect to a religious community.


The Jordanian penal code is also applied in the West Bank.

المادة 273
من ثبتت جرأته على إطالة اللسان علناً على أرباب الشرائع من الأنبياء يحبس من سنة الى ثلاث سنوات

Article 273: Whoever summons the audacity to publicly speak out (lit. “extend his tongue”) against the heads of religion — the Prophets — is imprisoned from 1 to 3 years.

المادة 278
:يعاقب بالحبس مدة لا تزيد على ثلاثة أشهر او بغرامة لا تزيد على عشرين ديناراً كل من
1- نشر شيئاً مطبوعاً او مخطوطاً او صورة او رسماً او رمزاً من شأنه أن يؤدي الى إهانة الشعور الديني لأشخاص
آخرين او الى إهانة معتقدهم الديني ، او
2- تفوه في مكان عام وعلى مسمع من شخص آخر بكلمة او بصوت من شأنه ان يؤدي الى إهانة الشعور او المعتقد
الديني لذلك الشخص الآخر

Article 278: It is punishable by imprisonment not exceeding 3 months — or by a fine not exceeding 20 dinars — anyone who:

1. Publishes anything — whether it be printed, a manuscript, a picture, a drawing, or a symbol — that results in offending the religious feelings of people, or insult of religious belief.

2. Utters in a public place — that can be heard by others by words or voice — something that would lead to the insult of religious feelings or belief of others.


المادة 111
كل من أذاع، بإحدى الطرق العلنية المبينة في المادة 101 ، آراء تتضمن سخرية أو تحقيرا أو تصغيرا لدين أو مذهب ديني، سواء كان ذلك بالطعن في عقائده أو في شعائره أو في طقوسه أو في تعاليمه، يعاقب بالحبس مدة لا تجاوز سنة واحدة وبغرامة لا تجاوز ألف دينار أو بإحدى هاتين العقوبتين

Article 111: Whoever broadcasts (i.e. communicates)…views including ridicule, contempt, or belittlement of religion or religious doctrine — whether it is to challenge beliefs, practices, rituals, or teachings — is punished with imprisonment for a period of time not exceeding 1 year, and a fine not exceeding 1000 dinars, or either of these two punishments.

المادة 112
لا جريمة إذا أذيع بحث في دين أو في مذهب ديني، في محاضرة أو مقال أو كتاب علمي، بإسلوب هادئ متزن خال من الألفاظ المثيرة، وثبت حسن نية الباحث باتجاهه إلى النقد العلمي الخالص

Article 112: There is no crime if this communication constitutes research of religion or religious doctrine, in discussion or for a scientific article or book, in a calm and balanced manner free of exciting words, and the good intention of the researcher is proven for scientific exchange only.


المادة 317- معدلة وفقا للقانون تاريخ 1/12/1954 والقانون 239 تاريخ 27/5/1993 كل عمل وكل كتابة وكل خطاب يقصد منها أو ينتج عنها إثارة النعرات المذهبية أو العنصرية أو الحض على النزاع بين الطوائف ومختلف عناصر الأمة يعاقب عليه بالحبس من سنة إلى ثلاث سنوات وبالغرامة من مئة إلى ثمانمائة ألف ليرة وكذلك بالمنع من ممارسة الحقوق المذكورة في الفقرتين الثانية والرابعة من المادة 65 ويمكن للمحكمة أن تقضي بنشر الحكم

Article 317: Every action, writing, and speech intended to produce religious sectarianism, racial strife, or incitement between communities and elements of the nation, shall be punished by imprisonment from 1 to 3 years, and a fine from 100 to 800,000 pounds, as well as prevention to exercise the rights outlined in Article 65 (the right to vote, practice public service, or hold office).

المادة 318- معدلة وفقا للقانون 239 تاريخ 27/5/1993
يتعرض للعقوبات نفسها كل شخص ينتمي إلى جمعية أنشئت للغاية المشار إليها في المادة السابقة

Article 318: The same penalties apply to anyone belonging to an association established for any of the reasons outlined in the previous article.


مادة ( 291 ) إهانة دين الدولة
كل من اعتدى علانية على الدين الإسلامي الذي هو دين الدولة الرسمي بموجب دستور ليبيا أوفاه بألفاظ لا تليق بالذات الإلهية أو الرسول أو الأنبياء يعاقب بالحبس مدة لا تتجاوز السنتين

Article 291 (Insult of the State Religion): Whoever publicly abuses the Islamic religion — that being the official religion of the State under the Libyan constitution — with verbal terms not befitting for the Divine Being, the Messenger, or the Prophets, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years.


While Article 220 of the Moroccan penal code forbids someone to “shake the faith of a Muslim or convert him to another religion” (quiconque emploie des moyens de séduction dans le but d’ébranler la foi d’un musulman ou de le convertir à une autre religion), there is not a direct law concerning blasphemy. However, a 2002 amendment to penal code, concerning press laws, is the closest that exists, and probably reflects broad legal sentiment:

Le dahir n° 1-02-207 du 25 rejeb 1423 (3 octobre 2002) portant promulgation de la loi n° 77-00 modifiant et complétant le dahir n° 1-58-378 du 3 joumada I 1378 (15 novembre 1958) formant code de la presse et de l’édition, Bulletin Officiel n° 5080 du jeudi 6 février 2003 stipule dans l’article 41 ce qui suit :
« Est puni d’un emprisonnement de 3 à 5 ans et d’une amende de 10.000 à 100.000 dirhams toute offense, par l’un des moyens prévus à l’article 38, envers Sa Majesté le Roi, les princes et princesses royaux.
La même peine est applicable lorsque la publication d’un journal ou écrit porte atteinte à la religion islamique, au régime monarchique ou à l’intégrité territoriale.

Law 1-02-207, 25th of Rajab 1423 (October 3, 2002): It is punishable by imprisonment from 3 to 5 years, and a fine from 10,000 to 100,000 dirhams for each offense, whoever, (insults) His Royal Majesty, or the royal princes and princesses.

The same penalty is applied to whoever publishes a journal, or writing, that undermines the Islamic religion, the monarchical regime, or the territorial integrity (of the state).


مادة ١٣٠ مكررا ً : يعاقب بالسجن المؤقت مدة لا تزيد على عشر سنوات كل من روج ما يثير النعرات الدينية أو المذهبية ، أو حرض عليها أو أثار شعور الكراهية أو البغضاء بين سكان البلاد

Article 130: It is punishable by imprisonment for up to 10 years, whoever promotes or instigates religious or doctrinal sectarianism, or induces feelings of hatred between the country’s citizens.

المادة ٢٠٩ : يعاقب بالسجن من عشرة أيام إلى ثلاث سنوات أو بغرامة من خمس ريالات إلى خمسمائة كل من : ١- جدف علانية على العزة الألهية أو على الأنبياء العظام ٢- تطاول بصورة علانية أو بالنشر عن الأديان السماوية والمعتقدات الدينية بقصد تحقيرها

Article 209: It is punishable by imprisonment from 10 days to 3 years — or by a fine from 5 to 500 riyals — whoever:

1. Publicly blasphemes against the glory of God, or the great Prophets.

2. Targets, with public imagery or printing, divine religions and religious sanctities with contempt.


مادة 256
يعاقب بالحبس مدة لا تجاوز سبع سنوات، كل من ارتكب فعلاً من الأفعال الآتية: 1- التطاول على الذات الإلهية أو الطعن فيها باللفظ أو الكتابة أو الرسم أو الإيماء أو بأي وسيلة أخرى. 2- الإساءة إلى القرآن الكريم أو تحريفه، أو تدنيسه. 3- الإساءة إلى الدين الإسلامي أو إحدى شعائره. 4- سب أحد الأديان السماوية المصونة، وفقاً لأحكام الشريعة الإسلامية. 5- التطاول على أحد الأنبياء باللفظ، أو الكتابة، أو الرسم، أو الإيماء، أو بأي طريقة أخرى. 6- تخريب أو تكسير أو إتلاف أو تدنيس مبان، أو شيء من محتوياتها، إذا كانت معدة لإقامة شعائر دينية لأحدالأديان السماوية المصونة وفقاً لأحكام الشريعة الإسلامية

Article 256: It is punishable by imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years, anyone who commits the following acts:

1. Insulting or challenging the Supreme Being verbally or in writing, or with drawing or gesturing, or any other means.
2. Abusing, distorting, or desecrating the Holy Koran.
3. Offending the Islamic religion or one of its rituals.
4. Insulting any of the divine religions protected by Islamic law.
5. Insolence towards any of the Prophets verbally, or in writing, drawing, gesture, or any other means.
6. Sabotaging, breaking, damaging, or desecrating buildings, or their contents, if they are used for celebrating the rituals of any of the divine religions protected by Islamic law.

مادة 257
يعاقب بالحبس مدة لا تجاوز عشر سنوات، كل من أنشأ أو أسس أو نظم أو أدار جمعية أو هيئة منظمة أو فرعاً لإحداها، تهدف إلى مناهضة أو تجريح الأسس أو التعاليم التي يقوم عليها الدين الإسلامي، أو ما علم منه بالضرورة، أو إلى الدعوة إلى غير هذا الدين أو تدعو إلى مذهب أو فكر ينطوي على شيء مما تقدم، أو إلى تحبيذ ذلك أو الترويج له

Article 257: It is punishable by imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years, anyone who establishes, organizes, or runs an assembly, association, organization, or a branch thereof, with the aim of opposing or challenging the foundations and teachings underlying the Islamic religion. Or giving dawah (proselytization) to a religion other than Islam, or calling to other schools or ways of thought, concerning the preceding, or favoring or promoting it.

مادة 259
يعاقب بالحبس مدة لا تجاوز خمس سنوات، كل من ناهض أو أثار الشك في أحد الأسس أو التعاليم التي يقوم عليها الدين الإسلامي، أو ما علم منه بالضرورة، أو نال من هذا الدين، أو دعا إلى غيره، أو إلى مذهب أو فكر ينطوي على شيء مما تقدم، أو حبذ ذلك أو روج له

Article 259: It is punishable by imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years anyone who antagonizes, or casts doubt on the foundations or teachings underlying the Islamic religion, or proselytizes to another religion, or to other schools or ways of thought, favoring and promoting it.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has no written penal code, and relies on interpretation of classical Islamic law. Punishment for blasphemy varies according to the four Sunni madhabs — the Maliki and Hanbali schools view it as an offense distinct from, and more severe than apostasy. Death is mandatory, and repentance is not accepted. The Shafi’i madhab recognizes it as a separate offense, but accepts the repentance of blasphemers. The Hanafi madhab views blasphemy as synonymous with apostasy, and therefore, accepts the repentance of apostates. More can be learned in this post. In the wake of the Hamza Kashgari blasphemy case, it is clear that a more tolerant tone is prevailing in Saudi socio-religious discourse, with calls from many clerics to accept his repentance, and calls for “dialogue.” Shia Islamic views concerning blasphemy are in this post.


المادة 125
من يسب علناً أو يهين، بأي طريقة  أياً من الأديان  أو شعائرها  أو معتقداتها أو مقدساتها أو يعمل على إثارة شعور الاحتقار والزراية بمعتنقيها،  يعاقب بالسجن مدة لا تجاوز ستة أشهر أو بالغرامة أو بالجلد بما لا يجاوز أربعين جلدة

Article 125: Whoever publicly insults or humiliates — in any way — any of the religions, their rituals, their beliefs, their sanctities, seeking to raise contempt for them, and antagonize their followers, is sentenced to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 6 months, or a fine, or lashing not exceeding 40 strikes.

المادة 126
(1) يعد مرتكباً جريمة الردة كل مسلم يروج للخروج من ملة الإسلام أو يجاهر بالخروج عنها بقول صريح أو بفعل قاطع الدلالة
(2) يستتاب من يرتكب جريمة الردة ويمهل مدة تقررها المحكمة فإذا أصرعلى ردته ولم يكن حديث عهد بالإسلام، يعاقب بالإعدام
(3) تسقط عقوبة الردة متى عدل المرتد قبل التنفيذ

Article 126: He is guilty of the crime of apostasy, every Muslim who promotes (things) outside the pale of Islam, or professes them — by explicit, verbal expression, or by definitive indication. The offender in the crime of apostasy should have a period of repentance as mandated by the court, and if he insists upon his apostasy and does not accept Islam, he is punished with death. The punishment for apostasy is suspended when the apostate amends himself before the execution of the sentence.


المادة 307

1 ـ كل عمل وكل كتابة وكل خطاب يقصد منها أو ينتج عنها إثارة النعرات المذهبية أو العنصرية أو الحض على النزاع بين الطوائف ومختلف عناصر الأمة يعاقب عليه بالحبس من ستة أشهر إلى سنتين وبالغرامة من مائة إلى مائتي ليرة وكذلك بالمنع من ممارسة الحقوق المذكورة في الفقرتين الثانية والرابعة من المادة الـ 65.

Article 307: Every action, writing, and speech intended to produce religious sectarianism, racial strife, or incitement between communities and elements of the nation, shall be punished by imprisonment from 6 months to 2 years, and a fine from 100 to 200 lira, as well as prevention to exercise the rights outlined in Article 65 (the right to vote, practice public service, or hold office).

المادة 308

1 ـ يتعرض للعقوبات نفسها كل شخص ينتمي إلى جمعية أنشئت للغاية المشار إليها في المادة السابقة.

Article 308: The same penalties apply to anyone belonging to an association established for any of the reasons outlined in the previous article.


The Tunisian penal code does not appear to contain any reference to blasphemy by ordinary citizens. However, like most countries, Tunisia’s press code does contain prohibition of religious sectarianism.

Article 44: Est puni de deux mois à trois ans d’emprisonnement et d’une amende de 1.000 à 2.000 dinars, celui qui, par les mêmes moyens mentionnés à l’article 42, aura directement, soit incité à la haine entre les races, ou les religions, ou les populations, soit à la propagation d’opinions fondées sur la ségrégation raciale ou sur l’extrémisme religieux, soit provoqué à la commission des délits prévus à l’article 48 du présent code, soit incité la population à enfreindre les lois du pays.

Article 44: It is punishable by 2 months to 3 years imprisonment — and a fine from 1,000 to 2,000 dinars — whoever…incites hatred between races, religions, or populations, and spreads ideas based on racial discrimination or religious extremism.

United Arab Emirates

312 المادة
يعاقب بالحبس وبالغرامة أو بإحدى هاتين العقوبتين كل من ارتكب جريمة من الجرائم الآتية
1:الإساءة إلى أحد المقدسات أو الشعائر الإسلامية
2:سب أحد الأديان السماوية المعترف بها
3:تحسين المعصية أو الحض عليها أو الترويج لها أو إتيان أي أمر من شأنه الإغراء على ارتكابها
4:أكل المسلم لحم الخنزير مع علمه بذلك
فان وقعت إحدى هذه الجرائم علنا كانت العقوبة الحبس الذي لا يقل عن سنة أو الغرامة

Article 312: It is punishable by imprisonment and a fine — or one of these two punishments — whoever commits any of the following offenses:

1. Abuse towards any of the rituals or practices of Islam.

2. Insult of any of the divine, recognized religions.

3. Condoning or encouraging sin, publicizing it, or acting in a way that tempts other to partake in it.

4. A Muslim who knowingly eats pork.

If any of these are committed publicly, the punishment is imprisonment for no less than one year, or a fine.

315 المادة
يعاقب بالحبس وبالغرامة أو بإحدى هاتين العقوبتين كل من أساء إلى إحدى المقدسات أو الشعائر المقررة في الأديان الأخرى متى كانت هذه المقدسات والشعائر مصونة وفقا لأحكام الشريعة الإسلامية

Article 315: It is punishable by imprisonment and a fine — or one of these two punishments — whoever insults the rituals and practices of other religions, when they are protected by the rulings of Islamic law.

319 المادة
كل من ناهض أو جرح الأسس أو التعاليم التي يقوم عليها الدين الإسلامي أو ما علم منه بالضرورة أو نال من هذا الدين أو بشر بغيره أو دعا إلى مذهب أو فكرة تنطوي على شيء مما تقدم أو حبذ ذلك أو روج له يعاقب بالسجن مدة لا تزيد على خمس سنوات

Article 319: Whoever resists or defames the foundations or teachings of the Islamic religion, or what is essentially known of its doctrines, or vilifies it, preaches to other than it, or calls to a doctrine or (school of) thought related to these things, and favors and promotes it, is punished with imprisonment for a period not exceeding 5 years.


المادة(194): يعاقب بالحبس مدة لا تزيد على ثلاث سنوات او بالغرامة:ـ
اولا: من اذاع علنا اراء تتضمن سخرية او تحقير الدين في عقائده او شعائره او تعاليمه
ثانيا: من حرض علنا على ازدراء طائفة من الناس او تغليب طائفة وكان من شان ذلك تكدير السلم العام

Article 194: It is punishable by imprisonment not exceeding 3 years, and a fine, whoever:

1. Publicly broadcasts (i.e. communicates) views including ridicule and contempt of religion, in its beliefs, practices, or teachings.

2. Whoever publicly incites contempt for people or communities, thus disturbing public peace.

المادة(195): تكون العقوبة الحبس مدة لا تزيد على خمس سنوات او الغرامة اذا كان الدين او المذهب الذي نالته السخرية او التحقير او التصغير هو الدين الاسلامي

Article 195: The punishment shall be imprisonment not exceeding 5 years, or a fine, if the religion or doctrine that is the subject of ridicule, contempt, or belittlement is the Islamic religion.

المادة(196): لا يعد تحريضا او اغراء او تحسينا اذاعة بحث علمي في دين او مذهب في محاضرة او مقال او كتاب باسلوب علمي هادئ متزن خال من الالفاظ المثيرة وثبت اتجاه المؤلف الى النقد العلمي الخالص

Article 196: It is not considered incitement if such broadcasts concern scientific research of religion or doctrine, in the form of lectures, or an article or book, in a scientific manner that is calm, balanced, and free of exciting speech, and the intention of the author is confirmed as being sincere, scientific criticism.

المادة(259): كل من ارتد عن دين الاسلام يعاقب بالاعدام بعد الاستتابة ثلاثا وامهاله ثلاثين يوما ويعتبر ردة الجهر باقوال او افعال تتنافي مع قواعد الاسلام واركانه عن عمد او اصرار فاذا لم يثبت العمد او الاصرار وابدى الجاني التوبة فلا عقاب

Article 259: Anyone who apostatizes from the Islamic religion is punished with death, after a three day period for repentance. It is considered apostasy if statements are pronounced or actions done contrary to the rules of Islam, or its pillars, intentionally and with insistence. If intent or insistence is lacking, or if repentance is expressed by the offender, then there is no punishment.

Historical Background

Many of the blasphemy laws are found in sections of penal codes entitled, “Crimes Against Religion.” These include not just offense of religious sensibilities, but more often injunctions against disruption of religious services, and punishment for desecration of religious property. These can also include injunctions against disrespect for the dead, or graves. This organizational structure seems to have been borrowed from the Ottoman penal code (which influenced several modern Arab states). While the Ottoman code (promulgated in 1840, 1851, and 1858) does not overtly punish blasphemy, Articles 132-133 do cover interference with religious rituals. In this section, commentators on the Ottoman penal code have also included reference to blasphemy — despite the fact that the laws themselves do not reference it. It seems that despite not being in the legal text itself, the Ottomans did in fact punish blasphemy.

The following is a Greek translation of an Ottoman legal “circular” from 1886, instructing that blasphemers be secretly interrogated (rough and incomplete translation).


Othōmanikoi kōdikes, ētoi syllogē apantōn tōn nomōn tēs Othōm, Demetrios Nikolaides, vol. 3, pp. 2463-2464

Order from the Ministry of Justice

Because the confidential orders conveyed on 24th Rebi-ul-Akhir 1280 by the High Porte, about the secret conducting of the examinations/inquiries carried out against those who dare utter blasphemy, they are limited to the greatest blasphemy (the Highest/Utmost God preserve) which is rarely uttered except by unclean ones against the glorious Prophet.

It is good and prudent for the interrogation of those unclean ones who dare utter this abhorrent blasphemy to be carried out in secret in the courthouses, and the papers/documents regarding it to be sent to the High Porte.

Because otherwise it is required that the interrogations are carried out secretly by the courts of those despicable ones who, “mutually insulting,” utter insults/hubris against the religion, the faith and the dogma and various other evil/foul expressions, and that they are imprisoned and punished without it being reported to the High Porte, but pertaining to those who dare utter the greatest blasphemy against the Prophet, the hearing alone of the relevant witnesses is not enough for the sentencing.

20 Sefer 1304, 4 November 1302


As detailed in the introduction, a full accounting of laws related to religious freedom entails much more than just laws relating to blasphemy. Nonetheless, blasphemy laws are unique in the fact that they are related to offense against intangible figures. The perceived blasphemy offenses often take the form of speech, writing, or art — and do injury to no one, except perhaps in “hurt feelings” here or there. But hurt feelings — any action that is manifested in speech or writing alone — does not warrant physical punishment. Words can only be met with words, and violence can only be met with violence. Words cannot be met with violence — and that is what blasphemy laws encourage and are all about. They are incongruous punishments that are used to silence intellectual freedom, and as long as they exist in the Middle East, true progress and potential cannot.

Categories: Religious Freedom

Islam, Tolerance, and Globalization: What Study Abroad Research Can Tell Us About the Future of the Middle East

December 4, 2012 1 comment

As far as religion goes, I am more attached to Islam and deep in myself, I feel the need to follow the laws that God sent the Prophet Muhammad…but in a way I am more moderate. I accept everyone’s freedom to preach the religion he likes.

— A Libyan student reflecting on his American university experience.

Foerster, S. W. (1981). The Effects of a U.S. Educational Experience on the Traditional Cultural Values of Libyan Students, p. 162

As an observer of the Middle East, I have long sensed that the region is changing. The forces of globalization — modern communication and transportation; the Internet, mass media, and entertainment; and global mobility — seem to be indelibly moving societies towards a greater sense of tolerance and global inclusion. Despite these promising trends, however, challenges remain. While economic hurdles are chief among them, more so than any other region, the Middle East represents the greatest challenge to the ideals of the West — that is, the political, religious, and personal freedoms and liberties that have shaped the globalized and technological world we know today.

Part and parcel of this global reality is the ability of students to study around the world. Over 100,000 students from the Middle East attend universities in the US, Europe, and Oceania, where they can not only gain the hard skills and mindsets critical for development and innovation in the 21st century, but also interact with and understand others in this new global reality. Therefore, questions are raised:

  • Can study abroad — with its exposure of students to free society — serve as a vehicle to promote human rights in the Middle East?
  • Do foreign study experiences promote a tolerance of others and their opinions?
  • How does living in a new culture impact the religious and cultural identity of Middle Eastern students?

Unexpectedly, answers to these questions not only exist, but have been simmering for decades in academic journals, dissertations, books, and reports. American and Middle Eastern students and academics have also sought to understand the effects of student exchange, and have produced a vast and multidisciplinary literature related to it. Despite this, little information is available in the public domain, or synthesized to address the challenges of today’s world.

This post will present what I have learned from this research, to better inform not only questions about human rights, and Muslim identity in a globalized world, but also the role of student exchange as a tool to promote values. The insights learned are divided into broad themes, and summarized. These will be followed by a selection of quotations from study abroad literature that lend support to them. Lastly, based on this research, I have also compiled the largest bibliography related to Middle Eastern study abroad experiences.

Tolerance Begins at Home

Tolerance begins at home. This is a central lesson from the study abroad research. Students do not cease being who they are when they enter a new environment, they have a lifetime of experiences, impressions, preferences, and prejudices. Pre-existing attitudes shape student perceptions of the host country, and overall experiences. Introduction to a new culture can accentuate latent feelings or values, not necessarily create new ones. Students from the developing world who want to study in another country — whose quest for skills, knowledge, and advancement is so strong to want to move away from home — will necessarily represent a unique class of individuals within their society. Additionally, many of these students will already have a university education — itself a force that promotes changes in outlook. This is not to mention those who study abroad because of discontent with their society, and actively seek to gain broader experiences. All humans possess an orientation towards the world — study abroad experiences work with existing feelings, for better, or for worse. Family attitudes, demographic factors, global trends, and educational attainment shape personal values and outlook. The overall lesson being: Tolerance begins at home, not abroad.

New Mindsets and Personal Skills

Despite the above facts, study abroad and introduction into a new environment do shape students in key ways, often unconsciously. Students must confront new situations, and interact with new people. They slowly gain self-confidence, self-assurance in their own abilities, and feelings of self-worth. For women from traditional societies, new confidence is gained through living on their own. Interaction with strangers promotes a sense of trust and equality between humans (above theoretical notions of equality). Often these subtle forces — while not imposed — are great enough to affect perceptions towards traditional social structures and norms, and can be catalysts for change. Upon return home, the experience of self-reliance means that personal choices and aspirations take precedence over those of family or elders (while respect for them still remains). Cooperation and reaching out beyond social or family lines (a necessity during study abroad experiences) is normalized, which extends to friendlier and more egalitarian work relations between superiors and subordinates. Broad notions of social equality are formed. Based on this, favoritism (the reliance on family connections to procure a job) is lessened, and meritocracy is engendered. Therefore, in countries where wealth, social status, job prospects, and politics are determined by static, fixed conditions such as family or tribe (and concentrated in the hands of the few), these processes and new mindsets can culminate in discontent, and create desire for social and political change.

Democracy in the Classroom

Like the unconscious changes that take place simply due to a new environment, the Western educational experience functions similarly. The nature of student-teacher relationships, and classroom learning methods, differ markedly from the Middle East. A sense of equality with professors — even through routine mechanisms such as less stress on formal titles, office hours, and end-of-course evaluations — continue to build upon broad notions of social equality. A shift in learning from rote memorization, to critical thinking and questioning, have the potential to filter down to all areas of life. Group exercises and exchange of ideas in class foster collaboration and debate. The classroom builds upon general life experiences during study abroad to engender broad notions of democracy, equality, meritocracy, and critical inquiry that students wish to see replicated in their home countries.

Religious Identity

Despite these vast changes in personal habits, values, and outlooks — the religious identity of Middle Eastern students changes very little as a direct result of study abroad experiences. Counterintuitively, religion plays a negligible role within the entire scheme of personal improvement and social change. While fluctuations in religious practice can occur (and are largely dependent on pre-existing conditions and attitudes), overall identification with Islam remains the same, or can even increase. While by no means a uniform experience, the freedom to research, discuss, and question Islam in the West — combined with cultural juxtapositions with the home environment — can increase attachment to religious identity. Often, new attitudes of critical thought, meritocracy, and social equality are equated with a purer Islamic ideal. Simply, religion seems to be psychologically compartmentalized — new attitudes and outlooks can be engendered, while overall religious identification remains the same. Research confirms observable trends: Among traditional Muslims, we are seeing the emergence of an Islam that accepts questioning, inquiry, academic debate, gender equality, and some notions of social tolerance, but one that firmly recognizes its possession of a socio-moral high ground. While many of these transformative processes and perceptions have only come about due to Western contact, these same experiences often transform Islam into a moral and social force, above and beyond a religious one. Therefore, Islam as a personal, and by deduction state identity, does not seem to be lessened by Western or global experiences. Though, it is no doubt being modified — like faith and religious identity across the world — in response to the realities of science and technology, global interconnection, and modernity. Contentions in the Middle East that Western study abroad experiences are serving to subvert religious and moral attitudes (at least in the long-term) are not broadly supported. Changes are no doubt happening, and in the process these will modify and change existing power and social structures in the region. Though, religion plays little role in this, and are rather the result of the broader, unconscious forces previously outlined.

American Foreign Policy

Appreciation for Western technology, work ethic, or education does not equate to endorsement of Western foreign policy. Moreover, there is little evidence to support the thesis that study abroad “creates a more peaceful world.” Because, such a claim cannot inform questions about national and religious identity; personal and moral values; or political allegiance — all of which are the basis of human culture and conflict. Nonetheless, study abroad experiences do decrease misunderstanding. They forge friendships, and open realistic lines of communication between people and countries — which is the basis of business, scientific, and political cooperation and dialogue. Study abroad research shows us that political differences will exist in a globalized and interconnected world (contrary to popular perceptions). States still matter, and are the ultimate arbiters of peace. Study abroad experiences enable the processes of peaceful, mutual coexistence between nations — not a sublimation of national, cultural, religious, or political identity.

Removal, Return, and Readjustment

Despite the new mindsets engendered by study abroad experiences — they must necessarily survive and be transplanted back into the home environment. Often, practical and psychological factors make this a challenge. Ideals of equality and meritocracy can fall hard upon the realities of local culture. While successes surely occur, study abroad returnees can feel professionally and culturally marginalized, and focus on personal goals over social change. Moreover, those who do seek broad changes can face difficulties in finding outlets for reform. In this case, Islam can be a force not only for reform and dissent, but also cultural identity (previous outlets for identity, such as family or Arab culture, can seem untenable after study abroad experiences). Islam represents a familiar part of culture that has the flexibility, resilience, and depth to accomodate the changes in habits and outlooks brought on by study abroad experiences, while having the broad social support to function as a vehicle for reform. This can help in part to understand the political rise of Western-educated, Muslim technocrats in the Middle East.

Morality and Culture are Geopolitical Issues

If a country seeks to impart its values — whether they are political values such as democracy and liberty; personal and cultural values; or work values — necessarily, it must confront how those values are actually perceived by others. Study abroad research does that very well, by highlighting not only what aspects of American culture are appreciated and adopted by foreigners — but also those that were rejected and deemed unsuitable for themselves, or their societies. Student testimonies demonstrate that American political values, and American cultural values, are not perceived synonymously. Tolerance and freedom can have a lasting effect upon study abroad participants. American mannerisms do not. Research, dating back to the 1950s (a social period idealized by Americans), shows broad discontent with American cultural values among foreign students (not only those from the Middle East). Americans are perceived as friendly, egalitarian, and hardworking. But they are also shallow in personal relationships; lack knowledge of other countries; have a tendency to treat friends (and by extension, nations) as means to an end, rather than respecting them in their own rights; and have disastrous family relations. Most Americans would not disagree. Discontent with American morality and family life is a close second behind the racial discrimination sometimes faced by foreign students during the pre-civil rights era. Study abroad research makes it clear that foreign students seek to take the best of Western technological and scientific skills and mindsets — and some political values — but few cultural values. Therefore, the conflation between American culture and American values — often made by those who work in international capacities — is a mistake. Every society seeks to define itself by those traits that give it a sense of superiority and worth, especially compared to others. For Americans, these are freedom, liberty, innovation, and progress. Lacking these, Middle Easterners necessarily identify with religion, or morality. Study abroad research makes it clear that not only is the West losing a battle with “morals” — but that foreign students do not see “freedom” and “progress” as substitutes for personal or moral identity. They are taking the best of American processes, and melding them to their own moral and cultural frameworks and worldviews. This goes beyond outward manifestations of morality, and includes the emotional depth of bonds in family and personal relationships, psychologically engendered by religious faith. This is not a mere sociological observation, but can affect how study abroad is approached by educational practitioners, and — in the context of the Middle East — even geopolitical relations. In this sphere, student perceptions between short-term and long-term exchanges can differ considerably. A broad lesson that comes across — despite being a cliche — is that Americans and Middle Easterners have much to learn from each other, but in different ways. However, the perceptions of foreign students — and their melding of different values — show the need for a new, and more formalized moral structure in American society and Western thought. Without moral competition, traditional religion in the Middle East will remain not only attractive, but a psychological necessity. American political values such as tolerance and freedom cannot fill that void — for ourselves, or others.

Beyond Globalization: Why Study Abroad Research Is Still Pertinent

Beyond values, study abroad must continue to play a central role in international engagement. Firstly, for its main purpose — to impart the skills needed for innovation and development. These are processes that themselves can promote tolerance in the developing world. And secondly, because study abroad serves as a key to the world for people who would not be able to leave their countries any other way — especially women from traditional societies, and those from countries with visa restrictions. While other forces of globalization are changing how humans relate to each other, the Internet, entertainment, and vacations have their limits. Often, they increase familiarization, but not true understanding of a culture. These tools that bring people together — without “really” bringing them together — can mask and seemingly minimize inherent differences and disagreements that can exist between cultures. Study abroad research — because it looks at long-term, cross-national contact in real environments — presents a realistic picture of how cultures and nations might interact in a future globalized world, that is even more interconnected than today.

Selected Quotations

Many of the insights into these study abroad dynamics were gleaned from The Western Educated Man in India (1955), an in-depth sociological profile of Indians who had studied abroad in the US and England, by sociologists John and Ruth Hill Useem. While the exact impact of study abroad will differ based on nationality, era, and demographic factors — the Useems’ study broadly confirmed trends found in a Middle Eastern context. It is accessible and well-written, interesting, and provides an invaluable portrait of study abroad and its impact on individuals. I have chosen excerpts from it to frame and provide support for the accounts from Middle Eastern literature.

Tolerance Begins at Home

The individual life histories reveal that prior to their departure for a foreign education the persons tended to question things…the persons who went abroad had a better chance to discover something different from what they had known before, to try out new patterns of life, to crystallize their vague hopes, and to find substitute patterns and values. To sum up, for many of them the eagerness to change was present prior to a foreign education. The foreign education gave them greater power for change.

— Useem (1955). The Western Educated Man in India, pp. 25-26

It [my foreign experience] reaffirmed my belief that there was no use in having castes, communities, and races as a basis of social life. This was not a new idea to me but a fortification of my viewpoint. The foreign training did not change me; it gave me confidence in what I knew to be true.

— Useem (1955). The Western Educated Man in India, p. 32

When an international student comes to a host country with certain attitudes towards that country, these attitudes tend to predispose him to perceive and interpret certain clues and information from his environment which usually coincide with his initial attitude or tend to support it. For instance, if the international student likes American freedom, equality, and order, this attitude will predispose him to select and interpret certain information and clues from his American environment, (such as the freedom of the local paper to criticize the mayor of the town, the selection of students for part time jobs merely on the basis of their qualifications, and the smooth way in which the local library functions) which tend to strengthen his initial favorable attitude.

— Gezi, K. I. (1959). The acculturation of Middle Eastern Arab students in selected American colleges and universities, p. 43

New Mindsets and Personal Skills

Though self-advancement is ranked by the foreign-returned as the main purpose in studying abroad, self-improvement is rated as the most important reward from the period abroad. For most, the former was part of the motivation for going away to study, whereas the latter was largely an unanticipated result…even those who reacted negatively to their foreign experience, who were antagonistic to the alien culture, who rejected what they observed as unsuitable…return home with a changed outlook and changed habits.

— Useem (1955). The Western Educated Man in India, pp. 25, 30

Ninety percent found their stay in the United States had been highly fruitful, because of a happy change in their outlook on life, themselves, their country and the United States. The students felt that the greatest change was in their own personal philosophy. Again and again they reported a new appreciation of and tolerance for the differences of ideas and ways of living, a new sensitivity to their social environment, and a new respect for the dignity of labor and the laborer himself…and a recognition of the value of social interaction and cooperation.

— Rathore, N. G. (1958). The Pakistan Student, pp. 31-32

Those reporting changes in their personality emphasized that their “breadth of vision had increased;” that they had gained in self-confidence, learned to become tolerant, and to “appreciate the viewpoint of others”…they had become more independent and self-reliant, that they had learned to “think and speak more precisely,” to “admit their faults,” and had gained an appreciation of the value of time, sociability, and informality.

— Rathore, N. G. (1958). The Pakistan Student, p. 44

It is a great opportunity to come here. Also, being here also enhance my personality. I became more strong. I became more strong, because everybody is different. It enhance my ability to adapt with different people. Also, I learned to do things by myself, alone a lot. It changed me, going alone to the airport. I like it. It enhance my personality.

— McDermott-Levy, R. (2008). The lived experience of female Arab-Muslim nurses studying in the United States, 174

When I was home, always you have to follow a leader, but here you’re a leader yourself. There’s no one watching you and you have to make your own rules, organize your life, let’s see about the money – collect your money, save your money, when to spend it. You have to clean your room, and stuff like that. And especially when you don’t have like host brothers to help you out, you’re on yourself.

— Radomski, C. H. (2010). Youth Exchange and Peacebuilding Post 9/11: Experiences of Muslim High School Exchange Students, 332

Everyone respects the codes and the restrictions imposed by the elders in the family. I find this type of organization depressing, restricting on personal liberties, choices, and privacy, and not open to improvement.

— Foerster, S. W. (1981). The effects of a U.S. educational experience on the traditional cultural values of Libyan students, p. 161

I learned far more than one thing from my academic and living experience in the United States. One could write an essay describing what, how and why he was influenced: efficiency, organization, a sense of responsibility, self-discipline, ambition, all coupled with hard work and the free democratic system. I also learned from the negative aspects of American life what we should be careful not to acquire here in Saudi Arabia. If you asked me to limit myself to one single positive thing, I would say self-discipline, which unfortunately I believe we lack. I brought it back with me.

— Thomas, K. (1979). America as Alma Mater. Saudi Aramco World, 30 (3)

Being subjected to a new atmosphere is extremely important in the making of a man. A student gets away…from dependence on his parents. He rents a room…deals with a landlord…buys and cooks his food…deals with problems. Suddenly he finds himself…The contrast of two cultures! I feel I learned to look at things objectively, to act realistically, to appreciate the value of debate.

— Thomas, K. (1979). America as Alma Mater. Saudi Aramco World, 30 (3)

Democracy in the Classroom

Canadian teachers are very modest and friendly. They do not make you feel like they are teaching you…they treat you like their equal, not inferior…Canadian teachers respond to their students. They show interest in what students say or suggest in class regardless of whether they agree with what you say or not…I really like the relationship between teachers and students…not one is high up and the other is low…they are equivalent when they deal with each other.

— Abukhattala, I. (2004). Educational and Cultural Adjustment of Ten Arab Muslim Students in Canadian University Classrooms, pp. 72, 77

If they (Arabic teachers) say something and you disagree, they take as an insult. They take it personally and perhaps you will be in trouble…in other words, you are not allowed to express your opinions or contradict their views…In my home country, we regard a teacher as a saint or prophet…we give him all due respect…we do not argue with them…you don’t feel free when talking to them…when he enters class, everybody is silent, just listening and taking notes…no discussion, no dialogue, no questions at all…you do not dare to ask even if you did not understand.

— Abukhattala, I. (2004). Educational and Cultural Adjustment of Ten Arab Muslim Students in Canadian University Classrooms, pp. 73, 75-76

In my chemistry class, my Canadian teacher used “problem-solving approach” as opposed to memorization,” which was very new to me…Here, they encourage you to explore different perspectives and to question the validity of knowledge presented in textbooks…these textbooks are written by ordinary people like us and maybe they are right or wrong…Their learning  is all group discussion and presentations and everyone must participate…I like that and I think it is an effective way of learning…

— Abukhattala, I. (2004). Educational and Cultural Adjustment of Ten Arab Muslim Students in Canadian University Classrooms, pp. 90, 92

[What] I liked about it [study abroad] was the good atmosphere, the warm atmosphere, very motivating environment, obviously good teachers…it was a very warm, equal relationship, a lot of respect, encouragement…the encouragement, the fairness, their [professors] ability, their continuous presences and support, we like full time staff working there. That’s how good and how flexible and how inclusive the environment was…I can honestly say, I was very happy in the years I spent [there]…

We learnt a lot of things that now I’m passing to my students in Tripoli…so it was really other skills, I mean, interpersonal…it was not just the education, it was we learnt the personal skills from our professors…we acquired some lifestyles…it was much more than just the education programme.

— Abdulhamid, N. (2011). What is the impact of the Libyan study abroad scholarship programme on returning university-level English teachers?, p. 100

For the first time in my life, I was taught to think on my own…my professor said, “What do you think?” My mind was freed of restrictions, and I really started to think for myself.

— Useem (1955). The Western Educated Man in India, p. 46

To listen to each individual’s opinion with patience in class, to extend a helping hand to one another, to work in an organization with a friendly feeling towards all, and to think out each item of work in terms of improvement is my most valuable lesson learned in the U.S.

— Rathore, N. G. (1958). The Pakistan Student, p. 33

The teaching is different in our country. The teacher will teach you everything you learn. You will be given all the information. Here it is like, nothing like that. You have to search about the information….I learn more back home. They give us more information. They will teach us honestly…everything. Here, I don’t know…self-study.

— McDermott-Levy, R. (2008). The lived experience of female Arab-Muslim nurses studying in the United States, 163-164

I imagined the college classroom will be full of professor’s talk and real lectures where the professors give me a real opportunity to get from their science. This was the experience I was looking for when I thought of starting my studies here in the States…when I attended college in Saudi Arabia, the professors used to give us long lectures about the topics of the class. They talked for more than an hour explaining the details of the topic… then we had to go home and study our notes from the lectures together with the professor’s book that we buy specially for the class.

— Abdel Razek, A. N. (2012). An exploration of the case of Saudi students’ engagement, success, and self-efficacy at a mid western American university, p. 100

Back there, we buy the book that the professor writes…so the book is usually is the same as the lectures…but here the professor teaches something and the books may say something different…this gives me a lot of work to do because now I have to study the books and keep track of what the professor says in the lectures…double the work.

— Abdel Razek, A. N. (2012). An exploration of the case of Saudi students’ engagement, success, and self-efficacy at a mid western American university, p. 101

I had a beautiful time in the United States. I took my wife and two kids and all four of us went to school. The U.S. system really gets you to study; it’s in the atmosphere. A tremendous way of teaching. You never know when there will be a quiz, you always have a paper to write, you have to learn to use the library. You have 15 or 20 people in a class, not l,000 in one room like a big movie theater where if one person coughs you miss the lecture.

— Thomas, K. (1979). America as Alma Mater. Saudi Aramco World, 30 (3)

I like it here. I really like it. The professors are very nice people. You can talk to them often and they are really interested when you ask them questions or something; they understand what you are saying. They really understand when a student wants to understand something. They know when people are just trying to fool around…I like the academic system here. It is very, very good.

— Fawcett-Frain, P. (1989). Male Libyan Muslim students’ perceptions of their sociocultural and academic adjustment during their sojourn in Winnipeg, Canada in the 1980s, p. 156

Ninety-five percent of the students (or 59 students) were impressed by the use of democratic methods in conducting classes in their American colleges. Seventy-four percent of the students (or 46 students) mentioned that applying pressure on the students and motivating them to cooperate with each other on the one hand, and to compete on the other tended to stimulate the student to put forth his best efforts…these liberal and democratic methods of education were, without any doubt, the most impressive things which the majority of the students mentioned with great admiration.

— Gezi, K. I. (1959). The acculturation of Middle Eastern Arab students in selected American colleges and universities, p. 26

Religious Identity

The nature of the changes can best be envisioned as a process of personality reorganization rather than the simple process of adding or subtracting traits, as, for example, in acting according to Western standards and thereby being less Indian.

— Useem (1955). The Western Educated Man in India, pp. 28-29, 31-32

As far as religion goes, I am more attached to Islam and deep in myself, I feel the need to follow the laws that God sent the Prophet Muhammad…but in a way I am more moderate. I accept everyone’s freedom to preach the religion he likes.

— Foerster, S. W. (1981). The effects of a U.S. educational experience on the traditional cultural values of Libyan students, p. 162

The results of the interviews confirm the finding of the responses from the questionnaires. The students from Saudi Arabia have remained Muslims. They consider Islam to be the best religion. In fact, their experiences in America tends to convince them of the superiority of their own religious system. However, they are more liberal in their outlook towards religion as a result of their exposure to religious freedom in this country…

Many of the students expressed their appreciation of the freedoms they experienced in the United States. They enjoyed an open society, but are not convinced that their own country should be open. They see many dangers attendant with unlimited freedom; crime, corruption, the breakdown of the home being a few they listed. In the opinion of many of the students, the divorce of religion from government in the U.S. is the main reason for the disintegration of the society. They feel it is important that religion and government remain united.

— Kershaw, R. M. (1973). Attitudes toward religion of Saudi Arabian students in the United States, pp. 143-144

I have gained back my faith now and know that only the divine teaching can give us the things we want; I have realized my duty to show ourselves and the world that Islam is the source of a better life…I have come to understand my religion and what it means. It is the only way to live which will bring us prosperity and progress in the true sense of the word.

— Rathore, N. G. (1958). The Pakistan Student, p. 32

I learned a lot about my religion in this country. Media spread a lot of untrue interpretation of Islamic tenets and people ask you many questions about your religious practices. You can not say “I am just following God’s orders.” You have to find a convincing and rational response. You cannot do that without reading more and engaging yourself in debates with other Muslims.

— Abukhattala, I. (2004). Educational and Cultural Adjustment of Ten Arab Muslim Students in Canadian University Classrooms, pp. 116-117

Although I did not go to the mosque very often while I was in America, I never for a moment thought that I would not be a good Muslim when I returned to Libya. There is something that tells me that Islam is right.

— Foerster, S. W. (1981). The effects of a U.S. educational experience on the traditional cultural values of Libyan students, p. 161

In my country as far as religious beliefs are concerned, if someone embraces other religion rather than Islam within a Muslim family, it is a huge thing, not tolerated at all…I think this is an obstacle in our countries…I would say, because if you don’t question your religion you don’t really try to seek knowledge…but it is good to start question your religion, because if you don’t question your religion, you don’t really try to seek knowledge, but in my country they say it is Bud’a [sic]…we learned from our parents and read hadith, we were told this religion and taught and not learned it, we were raised in this way, not questioning religious beliefs.

— Mohammed Marzouk, M. R. (2011). Al rihla and curriculum theory: A qualitative comparative study of contemporary and historical Muslim travelers in search of knowledge, p. 134

Ahmed took his undergraduate work in another country of the Middle East. He experienced more culture shock there than when he came to the U.S. His practice of religion changed greatly, so that he was no longer as strict in keeping Muslim rules. He feels he has not changed much in his attitudes and actions towards his religion since coming to the U.S. However, he also states, “I am probably more committed to Islam now than before. Islam is the best religion. It is capable of revision. It is adaptable and is in the process of being revised today to meet changing situations. Islam is a complete system, dealing with all aspects of life. Because of this it is a superior religion.”

Ahmed sees Christianity as inferior because it is subordinate to the state, not able to deal with all aspects of life as Islam does. He has become more conscious of the differences between Christianity and Islam and has concluded that Islam is more democratic than Christianity.

While here, he has spoken with persons from many different religious backgrounds. He mentioned Jehovah Witnesses among persons who have called at his residence and spoken to him about religion. Such visits have not bothered him. In fact, he rather enjoys religious discussion and argumentation, stating that it has helped him in thinking more clearly about his own beliefs. He likes the religious freedom in America and thinks it is good for this nation, but he would not want Saudi Arabia to imitate it. “Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country, and it should be kept so, with some revisions.”

— Kershaw, R. M. (1973). Attitudes toward religion of Saudi Arabian students in the United States, pp. 129-130

During my process of my study in the graduate program he [a professor] mentioned his book as — damn book as a joke, but I respect his book and his knowledge. I thought books are books that keep the knowledge; I thought how he could say — damn on his own book…I think knowledge is so much respected in Islam.

— Mohammed Marzouk, M. R. (2011). Al rihla and curriculum theory: A qualitative comparative study of contemporary and historical Muslim travelers in search of knowledge, p. 139

The Canadian society is open and all topics can be tackled and discussed. There is no absolute right and absolute wrong. I think this is an advantage as we just discuss and at the end, I am free to choose what I am comfortable with.

— Mostafa, G. (2006). Learning and cultural experiences of Arab Muslim graduate students in a Canadian university. Journal of Contemporary Issues in Education, 1 (1), 36-53.

I don’t practice (Islam) I’m ashamed to say. I’m going to the bars and I’m going out with girls and stuff which my religion forbids. You should wait until you get married and stuff, but I can’t help it. It’s very difficult for me…I don’t feel good about what I’m doing but I can’t stop it. But I feel stronger about my religion. I respect the religious guys very much…they give me hope, and they make me proud of my religion.

— Fawcett-Frain, P. (1989). Male Libyan Muslim students’ perceptions of their sociocultural and academic adjustment during their sojourn in Winnipeg, Canada in the 1980s, p. 92

I think my religion now is much better than when I thought of it before I came here. When I came here I thought they (Canadians) are really modernized and everything is good here. But now I think it’s nice to have our religion to be very, very strong. You know what I mean? Like, no drinking, or drugs, or anything; that’s a clean society.

— Fawcett-Frain, P. (1989). Male Libyan Muslim students’ perceptions of their sociocultural and academic adjustment during their sojourn in Winnipeg, Canada in the 1980s, p. 95

American Foreign Policy

Does understanding of the West imply commitment to the political faiths that stem from the West? Does it mean loyalty to the country that helped the foreign-returned to get an education? …

The answer is “no” if loyalty to the West is defined as unqualified support for the official policies of the British Foreign Office or the American State Department….[most] do not subscribe to the notion that the West always knows what is best for mankind or that Western men of power have such a monopoly over the fundamental values of civilized life that they alone can interpret them properly in various parts of the world…

The answer is “yes” if the question is put in terms of such underlying values of Western culture as human liberty, the spirit of freedom, the rule of law, and the dignity of man.

— Useem (1955). The Western Educated Man in India, pp. 135-136

Knowledge about another society may help those who make decisions in a related society understand how to deal with others, but this alone does not assure amity. The Indian leadership before independent (including the foreign-returned) had substantial knowledge about the British; it would be a non sequitur to conclude that from this understanding came a sense of fellowship between the rulers and the ruled. Most of the foreign-returned from America may believe that the United States is not imperialistic, as are the colonial nations of Europe, but this, too, does not stop them from being critical of American military aid for Pakistan.

— Useem (1955). The Western Educated Man in India, pp. 178-179

The foreign-returned have a rudimentary grasp of the social forces at work and the motives of men in the United Kingdom and the United States. They have at their command substantial factual knowledge concerning the national character of the people and their styles of life. And, finally, even though this factor is the least significant, they are more sympathetic to the West after having been in it than they were before, and they are more sympathetic than are their associates who have not been in the West. For example, they foreign-returned may agree with the opinions of their associates on Western forms of behavior, yet the opinions of the foreign-trained are more balanced…the foreign-returned are less susceptible to the practice of overgeneralizing and oversimplifying a part of the world that they know from direct observation. They have a new frame of reference for thinking — not just a new set of beliefs about the Western world.

— Useem (1955). The Western Educated Man in India, p. 135

I think that like, by movies or anything, I wouldn’t be able to learn how people live here and what they live for, and like what are their goals and everything. So I think the best thing is you are learning the culture by living it. I had so many good friends. I hope that they will be like lifelong friends some of them.

— Radomski, C. H. (2010). Youth Exchange and Peacebuilding Post 9/11: Experiences of Muslim High School Exchange Students, 326

I’m going to ask them, “What do you think of America?” And if it’s in contrast with what I think or what I experience, then I will share with them my experiences – the way people were nice to me, the way people treated me, and how different things were done because they are different people.

— Radomski, C. H. (2010). Youth Exchange and Peacebuilding Post 9/11: Experiences of Muslim High School Exchange Students, 359

I don’t know any Saudi Arab who has studied in the United States who has come back with a feeling against it. As a matter of fact we’ve been accused here in Saudi Arabia of favoring America. One former ambassador of a European country called us the California Mafia because so many people in the decision-making process have studied at various California institutions…I don’t think that is necessarily true. Of course, there is no doubt that in a variety of fields America is the most advanced country.

— Thomas, K. (1979). America as Alma Mater. Saudi Aramco World, 30 (3)

Removal, Return, and Readjustment

We conclude from the assembled data that the nature of the changes that occur within the individual and the persistence of the changes in the life of a person depend on a matrix rather than on a single element. What the individual was before — based on social origins, position in society, temperament, ability, and future plans — governs what he selects out of a foreign environment. The personal changes that occur in the foreign environment are determined both by what the individual brings into that environment and by what he is offered by the environment — the social and intellectual setting, the training provided, the responses of the people with whom he interacts. What the foreign-educated are like thereafter is affected by what they were before they went, by what they experienced overseas, and by what happens to them in the subsequent years — their social position and opportunities, their roles in the social circles in which they move, economic and political conditions within the nation.

— Useem (1955). The Western Educated Man in India, p. 30

In some instances, basic changes may not come to the surface until the foreign-educated obtains a position that permits him to act in accord with his own preferences. This may occur many years after his return. For example, a woman who had developed a definite preference for democratic teaching practices while a student in America had to wait for fifteen years, until she advanced to the headship of a school where she was in authority, to introduce democratic procedures.

— Useem (1955). The Western Educated Man in India, p. 29

If a desire to evaluate each individual according to his merits rather than his relatives is expressed by the foreign-returned, he usually qualifies the statement by adding that he, as a person, can but imperfectly apply this principle in actual decisions. His private predilections cannot always prevail, nor can he ride roughshod over the existing social patterns.

— Useem (1955). The Western Educated Man in India, p. 55

The agents of social change in Saudi Arabia are principally American educated technocrats…the technocrats acquire different values in the United States, especially those related to discipline and organization. They have educational, managerial and even social formulas they would like to introduce. However they compete with the traditional elements for social influence. American educated technocrats are faced with the era of cultural nationalism. Alienated by the modernization process, Saudis are seeking refuge in their culture and religion. Consequently, US educated technocrats must make more of an effort to conform, lest they be labeled as non-nationalists. The technocrats’ behavior has changed as a result of their identity crisis in public and sometimes even in private when technocrats become Islamists. It can be deducted that the American educated Saudi technocrats have the capacity to institute social change, but they do not always have the will or the opportunity to do so.

— Salaam, Y. S. (2000). American-educated Saudi technocrats: Agents of social change?, p. ii

Students returning from a period of study in the United States face many problems of readjustment. Re-establishing relationships with their families and friends and adjustment to the current realities of their home cultures and economic situations are often difficult…

But certainly the major problem is finding suitable employment, often in the face of prejudices already referred to, and in the face of new ideas and attitudes all too readily acquired in America, but not readily accepted by the home folks…

The returner may find also that he is fighting a political and economic system which has long recognized bribery, influence, and status as prerequisites for action. As one cynical student in Pakistan remarked, “To get ahead here you need the three R’s — rupees, relatives, and religion.” The same situation applies, in far greater degree than we are used to, in many parts of the Middle East.

— Putman Jr., I. (1957). Eye on the Middle East. College and University 32 (3), pp. 330-331

Morality and Culture are Geopolitical Issues

Americans are known as individuals who are friendly, equalitarian, generous, and energetic. Americans are easy to meet, easy to mix with, and easy to get along with. Personable, informal, humorous, and enjoys life. “Everyone tried to make us feel at home.” “They talked freely with anyone.” “Americans at once see you as a person — I was received with open arms everywhere.”

— Useem (1955). The Western Educated Man in India, p. 143

They [Americans] really respect people a lot, for who you are no matter what is your cultural background…they are really polite…but you are weird to them unless you talk then they will engage with you…this is a major concept on a daily basis for me.

— Mohammed Marzouk, M. R. (2011). Al rihla and curriculum theory: A qualitative comparative study of contemporary and historical Muslim travelers in search of knowledge, p. 201

There are some aspects of Western society that remain enigmatic to the foreign-returned. Family life is one of these. To some it appears disorganized; to others, democratic. The instabilities of the home, especially in America, seem odd in contrast with the stability of the India home. Whereas fellow feeling among co-workers is admired by the Indians, the slim ties among relatives are frowned upon.

— Useem (1955). The Western Educated Man in India, pp. 156

The children are taught to be independent at a young age. This is a very good thing. But a person does not know the work his father is doing, where his sisters are, and whether or not his brothers will help him. It is a curse to be old. Old people get little respect, and they cannot maintain themselves…There is no love in family life. I found that affection is only skin-deep there. Family life is superficial and artificial. I conflict, the family falls apart. The attachment to the family is not real. Every man and woman is interested in himself, not in parents, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives. No one gets a happy home life.

— Useem (1955). The Western Educated Man in India, pp. 156-157

Yes technologically they are advanced but spiritually and morally they are bankrupt. I think we still can offer a lot to the West. We were and are superior in our family life. Morality has its roots in religion which they abandon. Look, the highest percentage of people who commit suicide is in the Western cities. Why is that happening although they are relatively rich and advanced? Because there is an imbalance between the body and soul.

— Abukhattala, I. (2004). Educational and Cultural Adjustment of Ten Arab Muslim Students in Canadian University Classrooms, p. 113

I have learned the “tools,” but I adhere to the basic ideas of my society, our outlook on life, our philosophy, now more than I did in Pakistan. The more I see the Western way of life, the more I am convinced that it would be a sad day for us if we took all the American ideas without change…it is the essence of my study of Western culture and civilization that it should not be tried in Pakistan.

— Rathore, N. G. (1958). The Pakistan Student, p. 34

In response to the question which dealt with “friendliness of Americans” all students felt that America differed in that respect from the Near East. Friendship in the Near East is a more highly idealized, mutually dependent, and highly emotional relationship than here. Syrian students in America complain of the lack of such ties. They further feel that Americans are friendly on a verbal level but unwilling to “do” very much for the foreigner.

— Williams, H. H. (1952). Syrians Studying Abroad, pp. 17-18

Family life and relations and sexual morals in the United States met with strong resistance…Only six (10.9 percent) of Egyptian students and six (6.5 percent) of the British students expressed the desirability of seeing American family life and relations adopted in their countries.

— Hegazy, M. E. (1968). Cross-cultural experience and social change: The case of foreign study, pp. 183-184

Many people [Americans] whom I met and talked to in the beginning of 2000 did not know much about my culture, most of them even did not know where my country is. I used to make jokes and ask them: do you know about other countries? They did not know this country or that and they laughed, sometimes I say Americans are not good in geography, it is understandable everyone knows about the U.S. but they don‘t know we know about Americans. I started talking about my culture.

— Mohammed Marzouk, M. R. (2011). Al rihla and curriculum theory: A qualitative comparative study of contemporary and historical Muslim travelers in search of knowledge, p. 137

The academic degree is only part of the experience of studying in America. You gain perspective. You find out you are only a small part of this big world. You learn about Americans’ work ethic and their forthrightness.

— Thomas, K. (1979). America as Alma Mater. Saudi Aramco World, 30 (3)

The Americans are really nice people. All of my relationships with Americans were very satisfactory…true, their friendship is rather superficial if it is compared with our concept of friendship, but it is still satisfactory if it is well-understood within the context of their own culture…

Friendship here is very superficial. I met many Americans in particular who asked me many questions and shook hands with me, then forgot even to greet me the following morning when they would see me.

— Gezi, K. I. (1959). The acculturation of Middle Eastern Arab students in selected American colleges and universities, p. 26, 28

We Libyans are very emotional people…when we say friend we mean it’s almost like a brother, or even more than a brother. So it maybe sounds like silly, but it’s not…I mean a friend is just like when you are not there it’s like you are there because your friend is there and there’s no problems. Everything he wants, (he needs is a better word), you are capable of, you should do. But I didn’t see this with a Canadian. I didn’t. Maybe I will, but I don’t know. I haven’t so far…

— Fawcett-Frain, P. (1989). Male Libyan Muslim students’ perceptions of their sociocultural and academic adjustment during their sojourn in Winnipeg, Canada in the 1980s, p. 105

Friendship here is just kind of materialistic friendship. There (in Libya) it’s much more than that. It’s everything. A friend is a friend…one who helps you in trouble, any kind of trouble; saves you from many things; advises you to do things, I mean, good things. Here, friendship is just you go together, maybe do an assignment together, but when it comes to trouble, they usually avoid it. They usually stay away from it.

— Fawcett-Frain, P. (1989). Male Libyan Muslim students’ perceptions of their sociocultural and academic adjustment during their sojourn in Winnipeg, Canada in the 1980s, p. 106


While research on study abroad is copious, often education students and practitioners are unaware of the vast literature that undergirds the field. This includes not only research related to all aspects of foreign student experience (from nearly all regions), but also theoretical literature — from fields as diverse as psychology, sociology, economics, and biology — related to cross-cultural contact, globalization, and value change. Having done the research, I can confidently state that the heyday of study abroad research — proliferating in the wake of World War II, and onset of the Cold War — is long over. Moreover, despite the massification of study abroad, its dynamics remain broadly the same as 60 years ago. For instance, the following quotation from 1955 could easily describe today’s world:

One of the most far-reaching changes, in a century of profound change, involves the relationship between the Western and non-Western worlds. Modern science and technology, acculturation and world markets, and redistribution of power are making the old East-West divisions obsolete…the more advanced countries are endeavoring to aid the development of the less well endowed. The latter, in turn, are actively seeking the knowledge and the means to develop along modern lines. In this historical context, the age-old custom of interchange of students between societies has taken on new significance.

– The Western Educated Man in India, John and Ruth Hill Useem, p.1

There are some foundational pieces of literature, however, that can provide an overview of the field, and its types of research. These broadly include sociological and country profiles; government surveys and literature; theory-based analysis of international student experiences; and bibliographies. Perusing any of these will necessarily lead to other sources, and then the entirety of the field. General sources will be listed; followed by the Middle East bibliography (and Arabic-language material at the end). Tracking down Middle Eastern sources proved difficult. While I have necessarily missed some, this represents the most comprehensive bibliography to date, with over 150 sources.

General Sources

Gezi, K. I. (1959). The Acculturation of Middle Eastern Arab Students in Selected American Colleges and Universities (Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University).

Klineberg, O., & Hull, W. F. (1979). At a Foreign University: An International Study of Adaptation and Coping. New York: Praeger.

Morris, R. T. (1960). The Two-way Mirror: National Status in Foreign Students’ Adjustment. University of Minnesota Press.

Near East College Association (1946). Register of Near Eastern students studying in the United States.

Rathore, N. G. (1958). The Pakistan Student: His desire to study in and preconceptions of the US; his problems and evaluation of his experience in the US and upon return to Pakistan. American Friends of the Middle East.

Spaulding, S., & Flack, M. J. (1976). The World’s Students in the United States: A Review and Evaluation of Research on Foreign Students. New York: Praeger.

Spencer, R. E., & Awe, R. (1970). International Educational Exchange: A Bibliography. National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA).

Selltiz, C., & Cook, S. W. (1962). Factors influencing attitudes of foreign students toward the host country. Journal of Social Issues, 18 (1), 7-23.

Tamblyn, K. Annotated Bibliography of Research on International Students in the U.S.

United States. Dept. of State. External Research Staff (1965). Cross-cultural Education: A Bibliography of Government-sponsored and Private Research on Foreign Students and Trainees in the US and in Other Countries, 1946-1964.

Useem, J., & Useem, R. H. (1955). The Western Educated Man in India: A study of his social roles and influence. Dryden Press.

Middle East Sources

Abu-Hilal, M. M. (1986). Foreign student’s interaction, satisfaction, and attitudes toward certain aspects of the American culture: A case of Arab students in Southern California (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Riverside).

Abukhattala, I. (2004). Educational and Cultural Adjustment of Ten Arab Muslim Students in Canadian University Classrooms (Doctoral dissertation, McGill University, Canada).

Abdellatif, R. A. (1978). A study of economic and social costs and benefits of Egyptians studying at American universities (Doctoral dissertation, George Peabody College for Teachers).

Abdel Razek, A. N. (2012). An exploration of the case of Saudi students’ engagement, success, and self-efficacy at a mid western American university (Doctoral Dissertation, The University of Akron).

Abdulhamid, N. (2011). What is the impact of the Libyan study abroad scholarship programme on returning university-level English teachers? (Master’s Thesis, Carleton University, Canada).

Abdalla, S. E., & Gibson, J. T. (1984). The relationship of exposure to American culture on the attitude of Libyan nationals toward the role of women in the workforce. Contemporary Educational Psychology 9, 294-302.

Addou, I. H. (1990) The relationship between selected status factors and certain educational difficulties of a sample of male Arab students in five selected universities (Doctoral dissertation, The American University).

Akka, R. I. (1967). The Middle Eastern student on the American campus. Journal of American College Health Association, 15, 251-253.

Alfauzan, A. M. (1992). The impact of American culture on the attitudes of Saudi Arabian students in the United States toward women’s participation in the labor force in Saudi Arabia (Doctoral dissertation, Mississippi State University).

Al-Akeel, S. A. (1992). The impact of modernization on Saudi society: A case study of Saudi students’ attitudes (Doctoral dissertation, Mississippi State University).

Al-Bishr, M. S. (1994) Communication among Saudi Arabian students studying in the United States during the time of the 1990-1991 Gulf crisis: An examination of perceived communication effectiveness (Doctoral dissertation, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale).

Al-Dakheelallah, D. A. (1984). Saudi Arabian students’ attitudes toward Americans (Doctoral dissertation, Michigan State University).

Al-Ghamdi, H. A. (1985). A study of selected aspects of the academic pursuits of Saudi Arabian government master’s degree scholarship students in the United States of America (Doctoral dissertation, University of Houston).

Al-Ghanim, A. A. G. (1983). A study of the academic, personal and social problems perceived by Kuwaiti undergraduate and graduate students in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, The George Washington University).

Al-Gorashi, M. K. (1987). Saudi Arabians’ perceptions of their doctoral degrees (Doctoral dissertation, Vanderbilt University).

Al-Harethi, Z. O. (1985). A Study of Attitudes and Attitude Change of Saudi Students in the United States Toward Some Social Issues (Doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota).

Al-Harthi, F. (1987). Saudi undergraduate students in U.S. universities: An exploratory study of their performance. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh).

Al-Hinai, A. T. (1978). Images, Attitudes and Problems of Middle Eastern Students in America (Doctoral dissertation, United States International University).

Al-Hussniyah, A. A. R. (1985). Perceptions of Saudi students of public administration curriculum in the United States and their perceptions of selected administrative practices in Saudi Arabia (Doctoral dissertation, University of La Verne).

Al-Janobi, A. H. (1984). The Perception of Saudi Arabian Students in the USA to Their General Secondary Education Certificate Examinations and Some Relationships to Selected Demographic Variables (Doctoral dissertation, University of Oregon).

Al-Jasir, A. S. (1993). Social, cultural, and academic factors associated with adjustment of Saudi students in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).

Al-Khedaire, K. (1978). Cultural perception and attitudinal differences among Saudi Arabian male college students in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, The University of Arizona).

Al-Issa, A. (2005). When the West teaches the East: Analyzing intercultural conflict in the classroom. Intercultural Communication Studies, 14 (4), 149.

Al-Madhy, A. A. (1983). The attitude and adjustment of Saudi-Arabian students in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, Humboldt State University).

Al-Mehawes, M. A. (1984). Saudi Arabian graduate returnees: Their readjustment, stress and coping to adapt and re-integrate into Saudi Arabia (Doctoral dissertation, University of Denver).

Al-Mekhlafi, A.A. (1999) A qualitative study of the social and learning experiences of two Arab LEP students in an American school: A sociocultural perspective (Doctoral dissertation, Florida State University).

Al-Otaiby, A. S. (1987). The impact of formal education upon Saudi male students’ attitude toward women’s participation in the labor force in Saudi Arabia (Doctoral dissertation, Michigan State University).

Al-Said, A. A. (1988). Saudi students’ attitudes toward fertility and family size (Doctoral dissertation, Michigan State University).

Al-Salem, S. (2005). The impact of the internet on Saudi Arabian EFL females’ self-image and social attitudes (Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University of Pennsylvania).

Al-Salim, M. H. (1984). The Impact of College on the Development and Social Attitude of Undergraduate Arab Students (Doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California).

Al-Shama, N. M. H. (1959). Problems of adjustment of Iraqi students in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University).

Al-Shedokhi, S. (1986). An investigation of the problems experienced by Saudi students while enrolled in institutions of higher education in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, Oregon State University).

Al-Shehry, A. (1989). An investigation of the financial and academic problems perceived by Saudi graduate students while they are studying in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, Oregon State University).

Al-Yassini, A. (1986). Easing the Cultural Adjustment of Arab Students. Arab Forum, 2 (2). Ottawa: League of Arab States Information Centre.

Albeialy, M. (2000). American-based Saudi Students Attitudes Toward Girls’ Physical Education in Public Schools in Saudi Arabia (Doctoral dissertation, Indiana State University).

Alhazmi, A., & Nyland, B. (2010). Saudi International Students in Australia and Intercultural Engagement: A Study of Transitioning from a Gender Segregated Culture to a Mixed Gender Environment. In The 21st ISANA International Education Conference (pp. 1-11). ISANA International Education Association Inc.

Alivand-Farsi, I. (1980). Leadership personality and political culture of Iranian university students in the U.S. (Doctoral dissertation, United States International University).

Almana, A. M. (1973). Attitudes of Saudi Arabian students toward working women and religion (Master’s thesis, Arizona State University).

Alreshoud, A., & Koeske, G. F. (1997). Arab students’ attitudes toward and amount of social contact with Americans: A causal process analysis of cross-sectional data. The Journal of Social Psychology, 137 (2), 235-245.

Alsabeeh, A. I. N. (1993). The attitude of male Saudi University students in Riyadh toward modernity, Islamization and Westernization (Doctoral dissertation, Howard University).

Alsamarraie, F. J. (1983). The Impact of the US Environment on the Iraqi Student (Doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh).

Alsawad, M. S. S. (1991). Acculturation and attitude change among male United Arab Emirates students in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, The George Washington University).

Althen, G. L. (1966). Arab Students Outside the Classroom (Master’s thesis, University of Pittsburgh).

Althen, G. L. (1978). Students from the Arab World and Iran. National Association for Foreign Student Affairs (NAFSA), Washington, DC.

Alyahya, K. A. M. (1981). Constructing a comprehensive orientation program for Saudi Arabian students in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh).

Alzamil, A. (2004). The impact of the September 11, 2001 tragedy on Saudi high school students’ attitudes toward studying in the United States of America (Doctoral dissertation, Indiana State University).

Andalib, A. A. (1975). The academic success of undergraduate Iranian students in selected Texas universities (Doctoral dissertation, East Texas State University).

Appleton, M. (2005). The political attitudes of Muslims studying at British universities in the post-9/11 world (Part I). Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 25 (2), 171-191.

Appleton, M. (2005): The political attitudes of Muslims studying at British universities in the post-9/11 world (Part II). Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 25 (3), 299-316.

Arasteh, H. (1994). Evaluation of Iranian Students in the United States and Their Returnability to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Aryan, B. (2010). From Kabul to the Academy: Narratives of Afghan women’s journeys to and through U.S. doctoral programs (Doctoral dissertation, University of Denver).

Ashraf, P. (1987). Contrasting elements of social interactions of Iranian students in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, The Claremont Graduate University).

Asmar, C. (2005). Politicising student difference: The Muslim experience. International perspectives on higher education research, 3, 129-157.

Atef-Vahid, M. K. (1987). Acculturation, psychological differentiation, and personality among Iranian student sojourners (Doctoral dissertation, Howard University).

Ayyash-Abdo, H. (1987). Lebanese College Students in the United States: An Assessment of their Academic, Personal and Social Problems (Doctoral dissertation, The George Washington University).

Azat, I. Y. (1974). The Non-returning Arab Student: A study in the loss of human resources (Doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California).

Bahrami, A. (1983). Communication difficulties of Iranian students in the United States: a case study (Doctoral dissertation, University of Missouri, Columbia).

Baqadir, A. B. A. (1976). A study of Saudi Arabian official examination in the sixth, ninth, and twelfth grades (Doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin).

Bavifard, J. M. (2008). Examining perceptions of experiences of Iranian college students in the post 9/11 context (Doctoral Dissertation, D’Youville College).

Blackman, B. I. (1979). Intercultural Communication Patterns of Iranian Students in Public Forums in the US. 65th Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association, San Antonio, Texas.

Borhanmanesh, M. (1965). A study of Iranian students in Southern California (Doctoral dissertation, University of California at Los Angeles).

Brabant, S., Palmer, C. E., & Gramling, R. (1990). Returning home: An empirical investigation of cross-cultural reentry. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 14(4), 387-404.

Brown, L. (2009). International students in England: Finding belonging through Islam. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 29 (1), 57-67.

Bu-Salih, R. M. (1985). The attitude toward physical recreation of male Saudi students studying in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, University of Oregon).

Bukhowa, A. A. (1978). The Attitudes of Arab Students in Colorado Toward Business and Industrial Firms in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, University of Northern Colorado).

Bulhan, H. A. (1978). Reactive identification, alienation, and locus of control among Somali students. The Journal of Social Psychology, 104 (1), 69-80.

Burkholder, J. R. (2010). Reflections of Single Turkish International Graduate Students: Studies on Life at a Midwestern University (Doctoral dissertation, Kent State University).

Charbaji, A. M. S. (1978). Academic and social problems facing Arab students on American campuses (Doctoral dissertation, University of Northern Colorado).

Clerehan, R., McCall, L., McKenna, L., & Alshahrani, K. (2012). Saudi Arabian nurses’ experiences of studying Masters degrees in Australia. International Nursing Review, 59 (2), 215-221.

Cole, D., & Ahmadi, S. (2003). Perspectives and experiences of Muslim women who veil on college campuses. Journal of College Student Development, 44 (1), 47-66.

Conference Board of the Associated Research Councils. Advisory Committee for the Near East, South Asia, & Conference Board of the Associated Research Councils. Committee on International Exchange of Persons. (1955).The exchange of scholars with countries of the Near East and South Asia: Report of the problems arising from cross-cultural differences in the Fulbright programs with India and Iraq.

Dahhan, O. E. (1975). A study of the factors influencing future plans and career goals of Arab Ph. D. students in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin).

Davis, F. J. (1960). Cultural perspectives of Middle Eastern students in America. The Middle East Journal, 14 (3), 256-264.

Demir, C. E., Aksu, M., & Paykoç, F. (2000). Does Fulbright make a difference? The Turkish perspective. Journal of Studies in International Education, 4 (1), 103-111.

Deraney, P. M. (2004). Saudi women’s society: Perceptions of Saudi Arabian women living in the upper Midwest (Doctoral dissertation, The University of North Dakota).

Diab, L. N. (1957). Authoritarianism and prejudice in Near-Eastern students attending American universities (Doctoral dissertation, The University of Oklahoma).

Diab, L. N. (1959). Authoritarianism and prejudice in Near-Eastern students attending American universities. The Journal of Social Psychology, 50 (2), 175-187.

Dumiati, S. I. (1986). An exploratory study of the educational behaviors, aspirations, and attitudes of Saudi wives who reside abroad with their husbands who are studying in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, Michigan State University).

Dwiraat, S. A. (1987). The perceived difficulty of communicative, religious, social, and academic experiences in the United States for students from Saudi Arabia (Doctoral dissertation, Virginia State University).

El-Banyan, A. (1974). Cross-cultural education and attitude change: A study of Saudi Arabian students in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, North Carolina State University).

El-Orabi, H. (1967). Culture Shock Among Saudi Arabian Students in the U.S. (Master’s thesis, University of Southern California).

El-Refaei, H. (1993). Selected nonacademic factors influencing the social adjustment of Arab and non-Arab Muslim students attending an American university (Doctoral dissertation, University of Houston).

El-Sharif, I. (1982). Professional occupational adjustment of Libyans educated in United States universities (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Maryland, Baltimore).

El-Sowygh, H (1981). Performance of a piagetian test by Saudi Arabian students in colorado colleges and universities in relation to selected sociodemographic and academic data (Doctoral dissertation, The University of New Mexico).

En-Nabut, I. (2007). The lived experiences of immigrant Arab Muslim women in the United States: Implications for counselors and other helping professionals (Doctoral dissertation, University of New Orleans).

Fadlalla, F. A. (1978). Integration of Sudanese students into the American society: An indepth analysis of the problem of alienation among students in California (Doctoral dissertation, Claremont Graduate School).

Faheem, M. E. (1982). Higher education and nation building: A case study of King Abdulaziz University (Saudi Arabia) (Doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).

Farjadi, G. (1980). Economics of Study Abroad: The Case of Iranian Students in the US (Doctoral dissertation, New York University).

Farzad, V. (1981). The measurement and analysis of Iranian student satisfaction in selected California universities (Doctoral dissertation, University of the Pacific).

Fasheh, M. (1984). Foreign Students in the United States: An Enriching Experience or a Wasteful One? Contemporary Educational Psychology, 9 (3), 313-20.

Fawcett-Frain, P. (1989). Male Libyan Muslim students’ perceptions of their sociocultural and academic adjustment during their sojourn in Winnipeg, Canada in the 1980s (Master’s thesis, The University of Manitoba, Canada).

Foerster, S. W. (1981). The effects of a U.S. educational experience on the traditional cultural values of Libyan students (Doctoral dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin).

Gezi, K. I. (1959). The acculturation of Middle Eastern Arab students in selected American colleges and universities (Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University).

Gezi, K. I. (1961). Arab students’ perceptions of American students. Sociology and Social Research, 45, 441-447.

Gezi, K. I. (1965) Factors associated with student adjustment in cross-cultural contact. California Journal of Educational Research,16, 129-136.

Ghaban, M. A. (1986). Education and individual modernity among Saudi students: A study of the impact of formal and cross-cultural education on modernizing attitudes and values (Doctoral dissertation, Michigan State University).

Habib, I. A. (1979). Change in expectations of Saudi Arabian students toward some selected aspects of the United States (Master’s thesis, Humboldt State University).

Hagey, A. R. (1968). Academic and social adjustment of Middle Eastern students attending Oregon colleges and universities (Doctoral dissertation, University of Oregon).

Haj-Yahia, M. M. (1997). Culturally sensitive supervision of Arab social work students in Western universities. Social Work, 42 (2), 166-174.

Halaweh, I. M. (1996). Perceptions of international Muslim students toward social and faculty interaction, intellectual development and personal growth (Doctoral dissertation, Ohio University).

Hardy, D. M. (2012). Crossing borders and confronting social boundaries: International students’ experiences in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo).

Harfoush, S. M. (1978). A study of adjustment problems and attitudes of United Arab Emirates undergraduate students in the United States during the fall of 1977 (Doctoral dissertation, The George Washington University).

Hassani, F. P. (1982) Social personality traits and styles of coping with stress among Middle Eastern and American students (Doctoral dissertation, United States International University).

Hegazy, M. E. (1968). Cross-cultural experience and social change: The case of foreign study (Doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota).

Hejri, F., & Sorenson, G. (1992). Life satisfaction among Iranian and American graduate students. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 5 (3), 291-297.

Helms, A. (1978). Cultures in Conflict: Arab Students in American Universities. Annual Meeting of the Southwestern Anthropological Association, San Francisco, California.

Hofer, V. J. (2009). The identification of issues serving as barriers to positive educational experiences for Saudi Arabian students studying in the state of Missouri (Doctoral dissertation, University of Missouri – Saint Louis).

Hojat, M. (1982). Psychometric characteristics of the UCLA Loneliness Scale: A study with Iranian college students. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 42 (3), 917-925.

Hopkins, P. (2011). Towards critical geographies of the university campus: Understanding the contested experiences of Muslim students. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36 (1), 157-169.

Horner, D. D. (1979). Iranian June examination as a predictor of academic success in Washington colleges (Doctoral dissertation, Washington State University).

Hosseindoust, B. (1975). The study of adjustment problems of Iranian students in the United States (Doctoral dissertation, United States International University).

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A Fiqh of Tolerance? Readings from the Hanafi Madhab

November 19, 2012 1 comment

While the contentions between Islamic law, tolerance and pluralism, and human rights are debated today — these questions have never been absent from Muslim scholarship or consciousness. Indeed, as Islam gradually spread to the East and West throughout its first centuries, and encompassed once diverse peoples and cultures, Islamic scholars were forced to confront the questions of tolerance, plurality, and coexistence. With the Koran, and other Islamic source material as their guides, they sought solutions for how to negotiate the religious, linguistic, ethnic, and intellectual pluralities of the newly-formed Muslim states. Often, the answers they came to had much more direct effect than they do in the world today.

Muslim jurists disagreed severely over how to interpret the diverse and often conflicting injunctions found in the Koran, the ahadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), and words and actions transmitted from early Islamic communities. From the conditions of prayer, to criminal punishment, scholars sometimes came to radically different conceptions of issues that are considered important today: Apostasy, blasphemy, sexual impropriety, the limits of social coexistence, among others. This phenomenon, which is the defining feature of classical Islamic law, is termed ikhtilaf (lit. “disagreement”), and has been subject to a wide ranging literature throughout Islamic history.

Within this mix of legal views and reasoning, however, the opinions the Hanafi madhab — the earliest formal school of Sunni Islamic law, founded by Abu Hanifa al-Numan (d. 148 AH/767 CE) — stand out. An ethnic Persian born in modern-day Iraq, Abu Hanifa’s legal opinions (and those of his students) would come to be endorsed by the Abbassid caliph Harun al-Rashid, which served to propel his ideas across much of the eastern Muslim world. Later, Hanafi law was also officially endorsed by the Ottoman Empire. Today, followers of the Hanafi madhab predominate in Central and South Asia (including Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan), Turkey and the Caucuses, the Balkans, and parts of the Arab world.

Although official schools of Islamic law have been endorsed by formal states in Islamic history — more often than not, scholars often operated in a theoretical and educational capacity. Rulers, by and large, did whatever they wanted — regardless of the formalities and minutiae of Islamic law. While the details are different, much is the case today — by and large (though, with notable exceptions), Islamic scholarship operates in a theoretical realm. However, understanding how early Islamic scholars negotiated the topics of tolerance and plurality can help inform individual Muslim opinion today.

Of note, the Hanafi madhab endorsed the following ideas:

While these might seem like strange or trivial details, they have the ability to impact how modern Muslims think about and conceive of tolerance, plurality, and respect in the world today, and the implications of each of these points will be explored.

While the Hanafi madhab does endorse notions such as the stoning to death for adultery, sexual intercourse with slaves, among many other issues that do not accord with modern conceptions of human rights, I believe it is important to highlight some of these notable opinions related to Islam, equality, and social tolerance, as this topic is very much a reality today. While the majority of Muslims do not relate to their faith through the lens of classical Islamic law — and indeed are tolerant individuals in their own right — for a minority, this legal history is an important source of meaning and identity through which they frame their relations to others and society, and the world as a whole.

The Language of Prayer

Hanafi jurists permitted all forms of ritual worship in local languages, if the individual did not have sufficient command of Arabic (or even if he did, according to Abu Hanifa). This included: The call to prayer (adhan); the opening of the prayer (takbir al-ihram); the recitation of the Koran during prayer; the tashahhud at the end of prayer; the khutbah during Friday prayer and on the days of Eid; the testifying to the shahadatayn when converting to Islam; and the talbiya during Hajj.

While this likely was driven by practical considerations, a number of theological proofs were also advanced, specifically surrounding the nature of the Koran, and whether its miraculousness lay in its meaning, its composition (in Arabic alone), or both. Hanafi jurists concluded that the miracle of the Koran lay both in its composition, and meaning. While a native Arab would be able to comprehend both miracles, a non-Arab (largely focused on speakers of Persian, as this is where most Hanafi jurists lived and it was the language that a large number of non-Arab Muslims spoke) would still be able to understand the miracle of the Koran’s meaning in his own language.

They argued, even Arabs could not reproduce the Koran — and therefore its miraculousness lay in its meaning as much as its structure. Moreover, during the life of the Prophet, he had allowed non-local Arab tribes to recite the Koran in different ahruf (the seven recitations), as not all could speak in the dialect of the Quraysh. This represented an early concession to recite the Koran in different dialects, if it brings ease. And naturally, the Hanafis assumed, this would come to include other languages in total, as Islam spread.

Once this fact was established, Hanafi jurists also allowed the meaning of phrases to be substituted during worship. For instance, instead of the takbir al-ihram needing to consist of “Allahu Akbar” — any phrase that denotes the meaning of God being great could be used. Some even conceded that this was permitted in the call to prayer (adhan).

Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Shaybani (d. 189 AH/804 CE)Al-Mabsut

وقال أبو حنيفة إن افتتح الصلاة بالفارسية وقرأ بها وهو يحسن العربية أجزاه وقال أبو يوسف ومحمد لا يجزيه إلا أن يكون لا يحسن العربية

Abu Hanifa said: If the opening of the prayer, or recitation, is said in Farsi, and the (person) is proficient in Arabic, then (the prayer) is valid. And Abu Yusuf and Muhammad said: “That is not permissible unless he is not proficient in Arabic.”

Muhammad ibn Ahmad Al-Sarakhsi (d. 490 AH/1096 CE). Usul al-Sarakhsi

أن النبي عليه السلام بعث إلى الناس كافة (وآية نبوته القرآن الذي هو معجز فلا بد من القول بأنه حجة له على الناس كافة) ومعلوم أن عجز العجمي عن الاتيان بمثل القرآن بلغة العرب لا يكون حجة عليه فإنه يعجز أيضا عن الاتيان بمثل شعر امرئ القيس وغيره بلغة العرب وإنما يتحقق عجزه عن الاتيان بمثل القرآن بلغته، فهذا دليل واضح على أن معنى الاعجاز في المعنى تام، ولهذا جوز أبو حنيفة رحمه الله القراءة بالفارسية في الصلاة، ولكنهما قالا في حق من لا يقدر على القراءة بالعربية الجواب هكذا، وهو دليل على أن المعنى عندهما معجز فإن فرض القراءة ساقط عمن لا يقدر على قراءة المعجز أصلا ولم يسقط عنه الفرض أصلا بل يتأدى بالقراءة بالفارسية، فأما إذا كان قادرا على القراءة بالعربية لم يتأد الفرض في حقه بالقراءة بالفارسية عندهما لا لانه غير معجز ولكن لان متابعة رسول الله (ص) والسلف في أداء هذا الركن فرض في حق من يقدر عليه، وهذه المتابعة في القراءة بالعربية

The Prophet was sent to all of mankind, and a sign of his Prophethood is the Koran, and therefore it must be a proof for all of mankind. It is known that the miracle of the Koran in the Arabic language is not a proof for the non-Arab…and for this reason Abu Hanifa permitted recitation in Farsi during prayer…this is proof that the meaning of the Koran is immutable. The obligation to recite the Koran is not dropped from the one who cannot understand the (original) miracle, as he can recite in Farsi. So, if he is able to recite in Arabic, then (it does not suffice) to recite in Farsi. Not because it is not (also) miraculous, but because he must follow the Prophet and the salaf, and perform this obligatory pillar according to its right, and that is recitation in Arabic.

Another issue that seems to have arisen very early in Islamic history was the question of whether it was permitted to recite the Torah, Pslams (zabur), and Gospel (injeel) during prayer. Although this was rejected by Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Shaybani, the student of Abu Hanifa, it was endorsed by later Hanafi scholars. The mere idea that someone could recite non-Islamic scriptures during prayer shows the degree to which the societies that were absorbed into the Islamic milieu sought to cope with (or maybe subvert?) the demands of Islamic law, language, and worship. The early date at which this was adressed by al-Shaybani is notable.

Muhammad ibn al-Hassan al-Shaybani (d. 189 AH/804 CE). Al-Mabsut

قلت أرأيت رجلا قرأ بالفارسية في الصلاة وهو يحسن العربية قال تجزيه صلاته قلت وكذلك الدعاء قال نعم وهذا قول أبي حنيفة وقال أبو يوسف ومحمد إذا قرأ الرجل في الصلاة بشيء من التوراة أو الإنجيل أو الزبور وهو يحسن القرآن أو لا يحسن إن هذا لا يجزيه لأن هذا كلام ليس بقرآن ولا تسبيح

I said to Muhammad, “What is your view if a man recites in prayer in Farsi, but he is proficient in Arabic?” He said, “His prayer is valid.” I said, “And supplication (duaa) is like this?” He said, “Yes.” And this is the view of Abu Hanifa.

And Abu Yusuf and Muhammad said, “If a man recites in prayer something from the Torah, Injeel, or Zabur, and he is proficient in the Koran, or even if he is not proficient, this is not permissible. Because it is speech, it is not the Koran, or tasbeeh (remembrance of Allah).”

Masoud ibn Ahmad al-Kasani (d. 587 AH/1191 CE). Badai al-Sanai fi Tartib al-Sharai

و لو قرأ شيئا من التوراة أو الإنجيل أو الزبور في الصلاة إن تيقن أنه غير محرف يجوز عند أبي حنيفة لما قلنا : و إن لم يتيقن لا يجوز لأن الله تعالى أخبر عن تحريفهم بقوله : { يحرفون الكلم عن مواضعه } فيحتمل إن المقروء محرف فيكون من كلام الناس فلا يحكم بالجواز بالشك و الاحتمال
و على هذا الخلاف إذا تشهد أو خطب يوم الجمعة بالفارسية و لو أمن بالفارسية أو سمى عند الذبح بالفارسية أولبى عند الإحرام بالفارسية أو بأي لسان كان يجوز بالإجماع

If (someone) recites something from the Torah, Injeel, or Zabur in prayer, and he is sure that it is not a corrupted (portion), then that is permissible according to Abu Hanifa. And we say, if he is not sure, then it is not permissible, because Allah spoke about their corruption, “They change the words from their places” (4:46). So, there is the chance that these are the words of people (not Divine language), so it is not ruled to be permissible because of doubt and likelihood.

And if (someone) says the tashahhud, or the khutba on the day of jumah in Farsi, or performs a ritual slaughter (dhabiha), or responds (says labbayk) while in ihram in Farsi, or any language, then it is permissible by consensus.

Of course, this brings up the uncomfortable fact that the Koran, in addition to Muslim scholars, misunderstand what the Gospel is: It is the biographical writing of men who recounted the life of Jesus. It is not “divine speech” in any sense of the word. And if the “Gospel” referenced in Islamic sources consists of the words of Jesus that were contained in those biographies, then Muslims must be forced to admit that the early Christian community’s memory of Jesus’ life had not been “corrupted.” And, historically speaking, it is not difficult to prove that early Christians (the generation that wrote and retained the gospels) indeed believed Christ to be the theological son of God, and retained distinctly Christian (non-Muslim, as Muslims claim that Jesus only promoted tawhid) practices from the apostles and their followers. How Muslims are to relate to the earlier Abrahamic revelations is fraught with logical inconsistencies. This dilemma was expressed quite clearly by second-generation Islamic personality and scholar Hassan al-Basri (d. 110 AH/728 CE):

حدثنا يزيد ، عن حماد بن سلمة ، عن حبيب المعلم ، قال : سألت الحسن ، قلت : أعلم أولاد أهل الذمة القرآن ؟ ، فقال : ” نعم ، أو ليس يقرأون التوراة والإنجيل وهما من القرآن ” ، أو قال : ” وهما من كتاب الله عز وجل

Al-Hassan was asked, “Are dhimmi children taught the Koran?” He said, “Yes, do they not recite the Torah and Injeel, and they are part of the Koran?” Or he said, “And they are from the Book of Allah.”

— Al-Qasim ibn Sallam (d. 224 AH/838 CE). Fada’il al-Quran

It is also not realistic to obligate all humans to pray in a single language — this is irrational, and prohibits true communion with God. Memorizing fixed portions of a holy book to recite in a foreign language, multiple times per day does nothing to further one’s spiritual development. Which is why many Muslims memorize the Koran and recite it in prayer without understanding its meaning — which leads to strange social and cultural outcomes. While the Hanafis can be praised for their efforts, it must also be seen that they are only a minority — not only did they disagree with others, but also went to extreme lengths in their legal reasoning that betrays the early spirit of Islamic law and practice. Unfortunately, their reasoning on some issues — despite perhaps being enlightened — does not hold up under independent scrutiny (at least those on prayer). Despite their opinions on prayer, such an opinion, if expressed today, will be met with dissent and discord. And this is one of Islam’s tragedies.

Salvation Within Reach for All: Maturidi Aqeedah

Muslim jurists did consider “the other.” What happened to those who lived in the expanses of time before Islam, and in lands that clearly had no Abrahamic religious influence? Such people were known as ahl al-fatrah (the people of the ‘intermission’), and were usually considered to be those who lived between the time of Jesus and Muhammad, and did not have a Prophet to guide them (as Christ’s message had been distorted and could not be followed). However, by reason, it also has to include people who lived before Islam.

There are two competing views. One — held by the Ashari school of Islamic theology — is that such people will be “tested” on the Day of Judgment by God, and rewarded with heaven or hell accordingly. However, the other — pioneered by Hanafi theologian Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d. 333 AH/944 CE) — holds that even if they had not been sent a Prophet or a religious message has not reached them, humans still have the capacity to contemplate existence, and come to believe in or reject God.

While this might seem harsh, if conceived of properly, this serves to imbue all humans with dignity and reason. Every human life is valuable, has the intellectual capacity to contemplate God, and the ability to make choices. The world is not simply divided into believers and non-believers, but rather is in a state of flux, and humanity is in a constant and everlasting battle to come to recognize God — even those humans who lived eons ago, and those on small islands or in jungles. Such a belief for the Muslim serves to theoretically connect humans together in new ways. According to al-Maturidi — the role of the Prophets was to work with such innate feelings, and make them externally clear to people.

Muhammad Amin ibn Abidin (d. 1252 AH/1836 CE). Radd al-Muhtar ala Durr al-Mukhtar

أصول الأشاعرة أن من مات ولم تبلغه الدعوى يموت ناجيا ، أما الماتريدية ، فإن مات قبل مضي مدة يمكنه فيها التأمل ولم يعتقد إيمانا ولا كفرا فلا عقاب عليه ، بخلاف ما إذا اعتقد كفرا أو مات بعد المدة غير معتقد شيئا

The foundation of law is that whoever dies, and the message of Islam has not reached him, is saved. However, the Maturidis said, whoever dies before he has time to contemplate, and does not have faith or disbelief, he is not punished. This is different from the person who disbelieves, or dies after sufficient time and (fails to) believe in anything.

Muhammad ibn Muhammad Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d. 333 AH/944 CE)Tawilat Ahl al-Sunnah

وفي الآية دلالة أن حجة التوحيد قد لزمتهم وقامت عليهم بالعقل، حيث قال: { وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولاً }؛ فلو لم تلزمهم لكان الرسل إذا دعوهم إلى ذلك يقولون: من أنتم ومن بعثكم إلينا؟ فإذا لم يكن لهم هذا الاحتجاج دل أن الحجة قد قامت عليهم، لكن الله بفضله أراد أن يدفع الشبه عنهم ويقطع عنهم عذرهم برسول يبعث إليهم لما أن أسباب العلم بالأمور ثلاثة: فمنها ما يعلم بظاهر الحواس بالبديهة، ومنها ما يفهم [ويعلم] بالتأمل والنظر، ومنها ما لا يعلم إلا بالتعليم والتنبيه

As for the verse “We do not punish until we send a Messenger” (17:15), it is proof that tawhid (monotheism) is obligated by reason. If it was not, then when a Prophet was sent to call the people, they would say, “Who are you, who sent you to us?”…but Allah wanted to remove doubts from them, and eliminate any excuses, by sending them a Messenger…this is because some of them understand the apparent meanings of the senses; and some who do not understand through contemplation and reflection; while others do not learn except through education, and warnings.

According to some conceptions of this, not only God’s existence, but also morality could be sensed by humans without divine revelation, leading to the possibility of an Islamic conception of natural law.

The Jizya — Coexistence With All Religions?

There is no doubt that the Koran is a limited book. Largely, it is framed within a Judeo-Christian context (a limited one at that, with fragments of stories that can only be understood by recourse to outside material), and smattered with stories of local, Arab prophets. There is no mention of Hindus, Buddhists, or any other non-Abrahamic religion that pre-dates Islam (the “Sabians” and Zoroastrians are the exception). To some, this is indication that — besides Jews and Christians — the rest of humanity are basically no-good polytheists who the Koran doesn’t deem deserving of mention (as they are lumped together with polytheists in general), and are analogous with the Arab idol worshippers (mushrikeen) who Muhammad (and the Koran according to some interpretations) commanded to be fought with force until eradication. Perhaps they had been sent a prophet at some point, but largely they escape theological and legal codification. While some Muslims today might show tolerance towards these other non-Abrahamic groups, largely this is divorced from theological terms.

The question of “the other” — in realistic, non-theological terms — arose relatively early in Islamic legal discourse. Islam spread by the sword, and offered tribes, villages, and states three options: Accept Islam; retain your religion, and pay a submission tax (jizya); or, fight. While none of these options are good, if entities paid the jizya, they were allowed to live in peace within the Islamic state — with some restrictions on religious and social behavior. However, they would not be killed.

Therefore, what happened when the Muslim armies encountered diverse religious groups that were neither Jewish or Christian, nor Arab polytheists? The question arose as to whether they could pay the jizya, and live in coexistence in Muslim states, or, if they had to be killed, like the Arab polytheists.

The Hanafi and Maliki madhabs took the former opinion: Any non-Abrahamic religion, including non-Arab polytheists (and even those “with no religion”), could be offered the jizya, and live in peace within a Muslim society. The other madhabs, however, disagreed and claimed that only Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians would be eligible for the jizya. Everyone else would be forced to live in a theoretical state of war with the Muslims.

أخبرنا عبد الرزاق قال : أخبرنا ابن جريج قال : حدثنا جعفر بن محمد ، عن أبيه ، أن عمر بن الخطاب ، خرج فمر على ناس من أصحاب النبي – صلى الله عليه وسلم – فيهم عبد الرحمن بن عوف ، فقال : ما أدري ما أصنع في هؤلاء القوم الذين ليسوا من العرب ، ولا من أهل الكتاب ؟ يعني المجوس ، فقال عبد الرحمن بن عوف : أشهد لسمعت رسول الله – صلى الله عليه وسلم – يقول : سنوا بهم سنة أهل الكتاب

Umar ibn al-Khattab left (his house), and passed by a group of the companions of the Prophet, among them Abd al-Rahman ibn Auf. Umar said, “I do not know what to do with these people — the Magians (Zoroastrians) — who are niether Arabs, nor People of the Book.”

Abd al-Rahman said: “I testify that I heard the Messenger of Allah say, ‘Do with them what you do with the People of the Book.'”

— Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE). Al-Musannaf

According to this account, it was not until well after Muhammad’s death that Umar — the second Muslim caliph — knew how to intellectually relate to people of non-Abrahamic faiths. According to the Hanafis and Malikis, the Zoroastrians do not possess any type of book — therefore, by analogy, any group that does not have a “book” can nonetheless attain their legal status. However, the other madhabs — including the Twelver Shias — believe on the basis of other narrations that the Zoroastrians do have a book. Thus, they are legally protected, while other non-Abrahamic faiths are not. However, the more inclusive view was held by some early Muslims.

أخبرنا عبد الرزاق قال : أخبرنا معمر قال : سألت الزهري : أتؤخذ الجزية ممن ليس من أهل الكتاب ؟ فقال : ” نعم ، أخذها رسول الله – صلى الله عليه وسلم – من أهل البحرين ، وعمر من أهل السواد ، وعثمان من بربر

Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri (d. 124 AH/741 CE) was asked, “Is the jizya taken from those who are not People of the Book (ahl al-kitab)? He said, “Yes, the Messenger of Allah took it from the people of Bahrain, and Umar from the people of al-Sawad, and Uthman from the Berbers.

— Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE). Al-Musannaf

This historical notion was supported by Abu Yusuf, the student of Abu Hanifa:

Yaqub ibn Ibrahim al-Ansari (Abu Yusuf) (d. 182 AH/798 CE)Kitab al-Kharaj

وأما العجم فتقبل الجزية من أهل الكتاب منهم والمشركين وعبدة الأوثان والنيران من الرجال منهم . وقد أخذ رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم الجزية من مجوس أهل هجر والمجوس أهل شرك وليسوا بأهل كتاب وهؤلاء عندنا من العجم ولا تنكح نسائهم ولا تؤكل ذبائحهم
ووضع عمر بن الخطاب رضي الله عنه على مشركي العجم بالعراق الجزية على رءوس الرجال على الطبقات المعسر والموسر والوسط
وأهل الردة من العرب والعجم الحكم فيهم كالحكم في عبدة الأوثان من العرب : لا يقبل منهم إلا الإسلام أو القتل , ولا توضع عليهم الجزية

As for the non-Arabs, accept the jizya from the People of the Book, the polytheists, and the idol worshippers among them. Because the Messenger of Allah accepted the jizya from the Zoroastrians of Hijr, and the Zoroastrians are polytheists (ahl al-shirk), and they do not have a book. And their women cannot be married, and their meat cannot be eaten.

And Umar ibn al-Khattab accepted the jizya from the non-Arab polytheists in Iraq…but as for the apostates, whether they be Arab or non-Arab, their ruling is the ruling of Arab idol worshippers: Nothing is accepted from them except Islam, or the sword, and they are not given the (option of) the jizya.

According to the Maliki jurist Ibn Abd al-Barr, this even extended to any type of disbeliever in Islam — even those with “no religion.”

Ibn Abd al-Barr (d. 463 AH/1071 CE). Al-Istidhkar

وقال الأوزاعي ، ومالك ، وسعد بن عبد العزيز إن الفرازنة ومن لا دين له من أجناس الترك والهند ، وعبدة النيران ، والأوثان ، وكل جاحد مكذب بدين الله عز وجل يقاتلون حتى يسلموا ، أو يعطوا الجزية ، فإن بذلوا جزية قبلت منهم ، وكانوا كالمجوس في تحريم مناكحهم وذبائحهم وسائر أمورهم

It was the opinion of Al-Awzai (d. 157 AH/774 CE), Malik (d. 179 AH/795 CE), and Saad ibn Abd al-Aziz…that whoever has no religion, from the races of the Turks (al-Turk) and the Indians (al-Hind) — and the fire worshippers and idol worshippers — and everyone who denies the religion of Allah, must be fought, until they convert, or they pay the jizya. If they offer the jizya, it is accepted from them. And they are like the Zoroastrians, in the prohibition of marrying their women, eating their meat, and other prohibitions.

This really gets to some fundamental questions: Are Muslims and Hindus — or Muslims and atheists — going to be studying together, and working together in mutual tolerance? Or, will they be theoretical enemies that there can be no peace between?

Hanafi jurists also maintained that it was possible to engage with non-Muslims within society, and partake in learning of the Koran, and even Islamic law. This is not only for dhimmis, but also warmakers (al-harbi) — which shows that such labels could be merely legal classifications, not indications of how people acted, or should be treated in reality.

في تعليم الكافر القرآن والسنة ذكر محمد عن أبي حنيفة أنه لا بأس بتعليم الحربي والذمي القرآن والفقه ولم يذكر خلافا

About teaching the non-believer (al-kafir) the Koran and sunnah, Abu Hanifa said, “There is no harm in teaching the harbi and the dhimmi the Koran, and fiqh,” and he did not mention any disagreement.

— Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Tahawi (d. 321 AH/933 CE). Mukhtasar Ikhtilaf al-Ulama

This also shows the dangers of classical Islamic law, and the phenomenon of ikhtilaf. Very basic theological disagreements — the question as to whether the Zoroastrians possess a “book” — can have an enormous effect on not only how Muslims conceive of “the other,” but how action is manifested towards others. The chasm between these two views is enormous, but rests upon minute theological differences. And that is not fair, and does not vouch for Islam’s truth. There are innumerable similar issues.

In the modern day — where there are Muslim-majority states such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, but notable religious minorities — this question has pertinence. While the jizya no longer exists, the example of the Hanafi madhab shows that Muslims, Jews and Christians, and people of all or no faiths, can theoretically live together in coexistence and with social tolerance, and that not only did scholars from the inception of Islam believed this to be possible, but it was the reality for early Muslim communities.

Equality in Qisas (Retribution)

In 1811, Arthur William Hodge — a British slave owner from the Virgin Islands — was hanged for the murder of one of his slaves. He is thought to be one of the only British subjects to have been sentenced for the murder of a slave — something that the law, and society, considered to be his own property. Such legal concerns must have been commonplace in the cultures where slavery was practiced — and this is also the case with Islamic law.

Overwhelmingly, Muslim jurists concluded that if a freeman killed his slave — he might be liable to pay blood money (diyah) in compensation to the next of kin, and (in some limited cases) might even go to jail, but he could never receive qisas (retribution in return). Not only was this inequality present between free men and slaves, but also between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Hanafi madhab, however, served as the sole dissenting voice.

Ahmad ibn Ali al-Jassas (d. 370 AH/981 CE)Sharh Mukhtasar al-Tahawi fi al-Fiqh al-Hanafi, vol. 5, p. 360

مسألة : القصاص بين العبيد والأحرار
قال أبو الجعفر : والعبيدُ والأحرار في القصاص في الأنفس سواء
قال أبو بكر : الدليل على ذلك قولُ الله تعالى : يا أيها الذين آمنوا كتب عليكم القصاص في القتلى ، وذلك عموم في الكل

Issue: Retribution (al-qisas) Between Slaves, and Free Persons

Al-Tahawi said: Free and slave men are equal in retribution.

Al-Jassas said: The proof for this is the saying of Allah, “O ye who believe! the law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder” (2:178). And this is general for everyone.

Ahmad ibn Ali al-Jassas (d. 370 AH/981 CE)Sharh Mukhtasar al-Tahawi fi al-Fiqh al-Hanafi, vol. 5, pp. 350-351

مسألة : وجب القصاص بين المسلم والكافر
قال أبو جعفر : والقصاص بين الرجل الأحرار العقلاء البالغين في الأنفس وما دونها، مسلمين كانوا أو كافراً، غير الحربيين
قال أبو بكر : أما الحجة في وجوب القصاص بين المسلم والكفر الذمة، فهو قوله تعالى : يا أيها الذين آمنوا كتب عليكم القصاص في القتلى

Issue: The Obligation of Retribution (al-qisas) Between the Muslim and the Non-Believer (al-kafir)

Al-Tahawi said: (There is) qisas for the taking of a life — between the free, sane man, and a Muslim, or non-believer — as long as they are not warmakers.

Al-Jassas said: The proof for the obligation of qisas between the Muslim and the non-believer who is a dhimmi is the saying of Allah, “O ye who believe! the law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder” (2:178).

Hanafi scholars relied largely on the general text of the Koran — which they claimed did not differentiate between the free, and slaves. They also relied to a lesser degree on earlier scholarly precedent, largely through the opinions of the Kufan predecessor to Abu Hanifa, Ibrahim al-Nakhai (d. 96 AH/715 CE) — who provides nearly the sole voice of dissent on these issues in early Islamic legal opinion:

عبد الرزاق ، عن أبي حنيفة ، عن حماد ، عن إبراهيم قال يقتل به إذا كان عمدا قال الثوري إن قتل عبده أو عبد غيره قتل به ، وهو قولنا

Ibrahim said: Kill him (the free man) if he intentionally (kills a slave). And Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161 AH/778 CE) said, “If he kills his slave, or another’s, then he is killed.”

— Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE). Al-Musannaf

عبد الرزاق ، عن الثوري ، عن منصور ، عن إبراهيم : ” أنه كان يرى قود المسلم بالذمي

Ibrahim believed in the retribution between a Muslim, and a dhimmi.

— Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE). Al-Musannaf

This also seems to have been the practice of the Umayyad caliph Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (d. 99 AH/720 CE):

عبد الرزاق ، عن معمر ، عن عمرو بن ميمون بن مهران ، قال : شهدت كتاب عمر بن عبد العزيز قدم إلى أميرالجزيرة أو قال : الحيرة  في رجل مسلم قتل رجلا من أهل الذمة أن ادفعه إلى وليه فإن شاء قتله ، وإن شاء عفا عنه  قال  فدفع إليه فضرب عنقه ، وأنا أنظر

Umar ibn Mihran said: I testify that Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz wrote to his deputy about the Muslim man who kills a man from the people of dhimma, “Give him to his guardian (wali), and if he wants, he can kill him, and if he wants, he can forgive him.” So, he turned him over to them, and they struck his neck, and I was watching.

— Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE). Al-Musannaf

While these prior precedents could perhaps serve as proof on their own — despite the more enlightened outlook of Hanafi scholars, their use of the Koranic verse in sanctioning “equality for all” is problematic. Despite this claim, the Hanafis still did not accede to qisas when a father or mother killed their own child. While this might seem obscure, all Islamic schools of law addressed this notion, and agreed upon it. This has pertinence today when we question the phenomenon of honor killings.

While the Hanafi view on these issues can show equality between Muslims and non-believers, there must also be a cognizance that the Hanafi treatment on retribution and murder has fallen short in some ways as well.

Non-Muslims Can Enter Mecca and Medina

Ahmad ibn Ali al-Jassas (d. 370 AH/981 CE)Ahkam al-Quran

وقوله تعالى : فَلا يَقْرَبُوا الْمَسْجِدَ الْحَرَامَ بَعْدَ عَامِهِمْ هَذَا سورة التوبة آية 28 قد تنازع معناه أهل العلم , فقال مالك ، والشافعي : لا يدخل المشرك المسجد الحرام
وقال أصحابنا : يجوز للذمي دخول سائر المساجد

About the saying of Allah, “O ye who believe! Truly the Pagans are unclean; so let them not, after this year of theirs, approach the Sacred Mosque” (9:28), there is a conflict between scholars. Malik and Shafi’i said: The polytheist (al-mushrik) does not enter the Masjid al-Haram. However, our companions (the Hanafis) say: It is permissible for a dhimmi to enter any masjid.

This was also the opinion of the Prophetic companion Jabir ibn Abdallah al-Ansari:

أخبرنا عبد الرزاق قال : أخبرنا ابن جريج ، أخبرنا أبو الزبير ، أنه سمع جابر بن عبد الله ، يقول في هذه الآية : إنما المشركون نجس فلا يقربوا المسجد الحرام : ” إلا أن يكون عبدا أو أحدا من أهل الجزية

Jabir said about the verse, “Truly the Pagans are unclean; so let them not…approach the Sacred Mosque” (9:28): Except if they are a slave, or anyone from the people of jizya.

– Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE). Al-Musannaf

Clearly, this has very little practical application, but it shows that some early Muslims accepted social diversity, even in their holiest cities. Moreover, Jabir’s saying affirms that mushrikeen were afforded dhimmi status and lived within the Muslim state during his lifetime.

Non-Muslim Blasphemers Are Not Liable to Be Killed

I have covered this topic extensively in my post here. Hanafi authorities conceived of blasphemy as a type of unbelief and apostasy. Given that non-Muslims were already unbelievers and could not apostatize from Islam, they therefore could not be punished for the offense of insult or blasphemy. However, according to Hanafi scholars — if the ruler were to make it a condition of their contract of dhimma (aqd al-dhimma), that the Prophet or Islam not be insulted, then that would be valid and a punishable offense. However, in countries where there is equal citizenship (like in Pakistan and Afghanistan today), this notion no longer applies.

Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Tahawi (d. 321 AH/933 CE)Mukhtasar Ikhtilaf al-Ulama, vol. 3, p. 504, #1652

قال أصحابنا فيمن سب النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم أو عابه وكان مسلما فقد صار مرتدا ولو كان ذميا عزر ولم يقتل

As for insult or reproach of the Prophet, our companions (the Hanafis) say: If he is a Muslim, then he has become an apostate, and if he is a dhimmi, then he is given a tazir, and not killed.

Female Apostates From Islam Are Not Killed

I have also covered this extensively in the same post. Acting on legal precedent from some early Muslim scholars, the Hanafis did not kill female apostates from Islam. If the reasoning for the death penalty for apostasy was due to merely changing one’s religion — then both men and women would be equally liable for punishment. However, the Hanafis conceived of apostasy as being linked to warfare, which exempted females from being killed.

Abu al-Layth al-Samarqandi (d. 373 AH/ 983 CE)Mukhtalaf al-Riwayah, vol. 3, pp. 1298-1299

وعن ابن عباس – رضي الله عنهما – أنه قال : «لا تقتل المرتدة» ، ولأن كفر المرأة لا يساوي كفر الرجل في كونه داعياً مفضياً إلى الخراب فلا يساويه في استحقاق القتل لما عرف

It is narrated from Ibn Abbas that he said, “The female apostate is not killed.” This is because the unbelief of the woman is not equal to the unbelief of the man — which leads to (physical) devastation. So, she is not equal in the liability to be killed, as is known.

While the Hanafis ultimately did not take this reasoning all the way to allowing complete freedom of religion (as detailed in the post) this reasoning can help somewhat contribute to a modern understanding of Islam and freedom of belief.


I have studied Islam for the past 10 years, however, I have effectively stopped studying it. The posts on this website represent what I wanted to contribute to the public, state of knowledge with what I had learned. I felt this information might help people better see not only issues of Islam and tolerance — but also, the real and troubling contentions, shortcomings, and contradictions in Islamic scholarship. There are many more issues and a lot that could be said, but I think this is an effective sampling to communicate that, within a framework that can also advance tolerance.