Abu Ja`far Muhammad b. Jarir b. Yazid al-Tabari, the most important universal historian and the Qur’an commentator of the first three centuries of Islam was born in the winter of 224-5 at Amul in Tabaristan where his father Jarir was a landowner. He died in 310/923 at Baghdad.
By the time he was seven, he had memorized the whole Qur’an; within the next two years, he had finished all classical works of Hadith and he left home at the young age of twelve in pursuit of knowledge, fi talab al-`ilm. He went to Rayy, then the intellectual capital of northern Persia, where he stayed for five years. His most significant teacher in Rayy was `Abd Allah b. Humayd al-Razi (d. 248/862), who was an authorized transmitter of Ibh Ishaq’s Kitab al-Maghazi through Salama b. Al-Fadl (d. after 190/805-6). This was the most important formative period of Tabari’s life but following the well-known tradition of his time, he did not stay in Rayy for long; he left Rayy before reaching the age of seventeen for the metropolis Baghdad where he hoped to study with Ahmad b. Hanbal who died shortly before his arrival. Al-Tabari stayed in Baghdad for a year and then went to southern Iraq, to the leading scholars of Wasit, Basra and Kufa. In Basra, he studied with Muhammad b. `Abd al-Ala al-San`ani (d. 255/869) and Muhammad b. Bashshar, known as Bundar (d. 252/856) and with Abu Kurayb Muhammad b. al-`Ala (d. 247 or 248/861-2) in Kufa. He returned to Baghdad and stayed there for eight years.
He made a second journey, seeking knowledge, this time to Syria, Palestine and Egypt. We know with some degree of certainty that he entered Egypt in 253/867. Around 256/870, al-Tabari returned to Baghdad to spend the next fifty years in the capital with only two short trips to his native Tabaristan, the second in 289-90/902-3. He also went for Hajj during these fifty years though we cannot pinpoint the date of his pilgrimage.
It was this long duration of half a century in which al-Tabari produced his best known works which were admired even in his own age which was extraordinarily rich in scholarship. His writings were to embrace all the classical subjects of Islamic tradition: history, tafsir, hadith and fiqh and, like so many learned me of his time, he was drawn to Arabic poetry. He was also interested in medicine and possessed a copy of the medical encyclopaedia, the Firdaws al-hikma of his older contemporary and compatriot, `Ali b. Rabban al-Tabari (d. ca. 850s or early 860s) and prescribed medicines for his friends and students.
Al-Tabari wrote his universal history, Mukhtasar ta’rikh al rusul wa’l muluk wa’l khulafa. The adjective mukhtasar, meaning “short or concise” must be taken as a sign of modesty of the author of this work which fills twelve and a half volumes in the printed Leiden edition, edited by a team of scholars brought together by M.J. de Goeje (Annales quos scripsit Abu Jafar Mohammed ibn Jarri at-Tabari, 1879-1901, 15 vols. including Introduction, Glossarium, Addenda et corrigenda, Indices, etc.). This universal history begins with the Creation, gives details of the Old Testament Prophets, and provides a detailed account of the life of the Prophet of Islam. Thereafter, it is arranged annalistically, up to 22 Dhu’l Hijjah 902/6 July 915, eight years before his death.
Al-Tabari was not only a prolific writer, he was intimately connected with the intellectual life of his time and seem to have debated with Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Dawud, the son of the founder of the Zahiri school of Law. His Ikhtilaf al-Fuqaha, brought sharp criticism from the Hanbalis because he did not consider Ibn Hanbal a jurist and this may have been the reason behind the riots around his house. In any case, his commentary of the Qur’an, Jami` al-bayan `an ta’wil al-Qur’an, simply known as Tafsir, was published between 283/896 and 290/930. This tafsir par excellence was to become one of the most highly praised works of tafsir and to this day, it remains an important work. Like the History, it is said to have been much longer than its present 3,000 closely printed pages.
It is in his commentary that al-Tabari expressed views about issues that pertain to Islam and science discourse. His position is close to the classical commentators on a host of issues, including creation, God’s role in the created universe and the relationship between the created beings and the Creator. A 30 volume edition of the tafsir was published at Cairo in 1321/1903; a 1954-68 sixteen volume edition, edited by Mahmud Muhammad Shakir and A. M. Shakir, remains incomplete; the best complete edition is now that of A. S. Ali Mustafa al-Sakka et al, Cairo, 1954-7. An English translation has been recently published though it lacks the subtlety of the original.
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