OF AL-TABARI, THE
Prophets and Patriarchs
Translated by William M. Brinner
207 pages Paperback
This volume records the lives and efforts of some of the
prophets preceeding the birth of Mohammad. It devotes most of its message to two
towering figures--Abraham, the Friend of God, and his great-grandson, Joseph.
The story is not, however simply a repetition of Biblical tales in a slightly
altered form, for T sees the ancient pre-Islamic Near East as an area in which
the histories of three different peoples are acted out, occasionally meeting and
intertwining. Thus ancient Iran, Israel, and Arabia serve as the stages on which
actors such as Biwarasb, the semi-legendary Iranian king, Noah and his progeny,
and the otherwise unknown Arabian prophets Hud and Salih appear and act.
In the pages of this volume we read of the miraculous birth and early life of
Abraham, and of his struggle against his father's idolatry. God grants him
sons--Ishmael from Hagar and Isaac from Sarah--and the conflicts between the two
mothers, the subsequent expulsion of Hagar, and her settling in the vicinity of
Mecca, all lead to the story of Abraham's being commanded to build God's
sanctuary there. Abraham is tested by God, both by being commanded to sacrifice
his son (and here T shows his fairness be presenting the arguments of Muslim
scholars as to whether that son was Ishmael or Isaac) and by being given
commandments to follow both in personal behavior and in ritual practice. The
account of Abraham is interlaced with tales of the cruel tyrant Nimrod, who
tried in vain both to burn Abraham in fire and to reach the heavens to fight
with God. The story of Abraham's nephew Lot and the wicked people of Sodom also
appears here, with the scholars once again arguing--this time over what the
exact crimes were for which the Sodomites were destroyed.
Before proceeding to the story of Joseph, which is recounted in great detail, we
linger over the accounts of two figures associated with ancient Arabia in Muslim
tradition: the Biblical Job, who despite his trials and sufferings does not rail
against God, and Shu'ayb, usually associated with the Biblical Jethro, the
priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses. Finally we meet Joseph, whose
handsome appearance, paternal preference, and subsequent boasting to his
brothers lead to his being cast into a pit and ending up as a slave in Egypt.
His career is traced in some detail: the attempted seduction by Potiphar's wife,
his imprisonment and eventual release after becoming able to interpret dreams,
and his rise to power as ruler of Egypt. The volume ends with the moving story
of Joseph's reunion with his brothers, the tragi-comic story of how he reveals
himself to them, and the final reunion with his aged father who is brought to
Egypt to see his son's power and glory.
This is proto-history told in fascinating detail, of us in different contexts,
as well as of others completely unknown to Western readers.
A volume in the SUNY series in
Near Eastern Studies
hardcover ISBN 0-87395-921-3 November 1986
paperback ISBN 0-88706-313-6 August 1987
Full List of the of 39 Volumes of
History of Al-Tabari in English