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Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Jarir at-Tabari

By A.I. Makki

In the ninth century A.C, Islamic learning was at its peak. Muslim scholars and scientists excelled in their learning and achievements in different fields. Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Jarir at-Tabari surpassed them all. Learned in hadith literature, he also studied many other subjects to further his knowledge of the Holy Qur'an and the religion of Islam. During the end of his days, he was known as a commentator on the Holy Qur'an, an expert in Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh), and as a famous historian. He was also the author of many books; the most famous of them was his Tafseer of the Holy Qur'an and the other was his encyclopedia on Islamic history.
At-Tabari was born in the city of Amul, in Tabaristan, a mountainous region lying south of the Caspian Sea in the year 839 A.C. Amul had been built on the banks of a river, and the nearest port was a place called Humm, which was at the mouth of the river.

Amul was a walled city with a huge population. There were several hospitals in the city for the care of the sick. Schools had been built for children and there were mosques for people to pray. Merchants would trade their goods in the market place. Silks, carpets, vegetables, and animals exchanged hands between the traders and the buyers.


At a very young age, he was sent to a school to learn the Holy Qur'an and calligraphy. In his student days, at-Tabari had developed a talent of mastering long and complex subjects. By the age of seven, he could recite the Holy Qur'an from memory. It was a great achievement, and his parents were extremely proud of him.

In the second stage of his education in the city of Amul, he began to study the Hadith Literature. The books taught him the sayings of the Holy Prophet (saws), his actions, and his approval and disapproval of things. He took care to study them along with the chain of narrators who had reported them to others.

When he had learnt all that was needed to know on the subject, he set his heart on settling down in the city of Rayy to further his knowledge. Rayy was a large, beautiful city that lay on the caravan route to China. Many great scholars of that period had made it their home. At Rayy, he studied Hadith under ar-Razi and two other scholars. Ar-Razi was a hard taskmaster and he took care to crosscheck with his students to make sure that they had learnt the hadith from him properly. At-Tabari managed to learn one hundred thousand hadiths from him.

In this period, at-Tabari took a keen self-interest in learning poetry, for it was the way to master the intricacies of the Arabic language. He learnt many of the poems and recited them from memory. He amazed his friends and teachers with the progress he had made in the study of Arabic literature.

His stay in the city of Rayy was fruitful and had served his purpose. He had been fortunate to learn under the greatest of teachers in those times. He wanted to acquire more knowledge and for that he had to travel to a different place and study under different teachers. In the end, he decided to travel to Baghdad.

His teachers were sorry to see him go. He had been a brilliant student during his entire academic career. Ar-Razi offered him a job of an assistant teacher in order to persuade him to stay at Rayy, but at-Tabari wanted to study hadith under the guidance of Imam Ahmed bin Hanbal in Baghdad, who was an authority on hadith and Tafseer. With this thought in his mind, he set out for Baghdad with one of the caravans that traveled from China along the Khurasan road.

At-Tabari was one of the rare scholars who studied without the help of a patron to finance his studies. He did not depend on others to help him out during the course of his studies. He studied and lived on what he earned and spent it on traveling and studying. He accepted only those gifts from his friends, which he was able to match and throughout his life, he was proud of this fact.

It is said that at-Tabari once refused a gift of 10,000 dirhams from a minister in the King's court. He returned the gift with a letter of thanks. The servant returned with the gift with a message from the minister saying that if he did not want it for himself; he could give it to the poor. At-Tabari refused to accept it and replied that the minister should know the poor people in the land better than he did. He wished that the minister distributed the money himself. He did not want anybody to say that he accepted money from a minister even to distribute it to the poor. It is also said that one day some of his students presented him with a carpet. He accepted the carpet from the student but insisted on paying its cost.


On his way to Baghdad, at-Tabari visited the city of Sawa a famous center for business and learning. It had fine buildings that housed many libraries. Astronomical observatories had been built there to study the movement of the stars and the planets. His next stop was in the city of Hamdhan and from there he headed towards Hulwan. The city of Hulwan divided the mountainous regions of Persia and the plains of Iraq. It was a city of gardens with fruit trees growing in it and the surrounding mountains with its snow-capped peaks made the town a scenic place.

At Hulwan, at-Tabari came to know that Ahmad bin Hanbal, the famous scholar of Hadith had died some months ago. He was extremely disappointed at this news, but he made up his mind to continue with his journey to Baghdad as he felt that he would gain much by studying at this city which was famous throughout the Muslim world for its fine libraries, academies, and scholars.


Baghdad in those days was one of the largest cities in the world with a population of two and a half million people. It was also the center for trade and business. People from all occupations converged on the city to earn their livelihood. It had hospitals, mosques, and public baths.

One of the first places visited by him was the academy. The director was a kind man who showed at-Tabari around the entire campus and graciously allowed him the use of the library whenever he wished. At-Tabari was also able to talk to other scholars who studied there. He discussed with them their fields of study and got firsthand knowledge of the progress of education.

He spent several years in the city studying hadith, fiqh, and tafseer with the religious scholars who worked there. At the age of 30, he had become a famous scholar in his own right and except for two short trips to Tabaristan, he spent his entire life in the city of Baghdad.


At-Tabari soon became popular as a teacher in Baghdad. Students from distant lands traveled to Baghdad to study under him. He gave lectures and encouraged them towards research work. He advised them to gain knowledge of medicine and mathematics also. He followed a daily program of lecturing and writing. He would start writing from noon until it was time for the afternoon prayers. After that, he lectured his students on tafseer until the Maghrib prayers. After Maghrib prayers, he would lecture them on law. He would retire to his room for the night and spent a good deal of it writing on different subjects. He wrote at an average of forty pages a day.

He was very kind to his students and helped them during their studies. He would share meals with them. He advised them to develop the body along with their mind. On his part, he would always be clean and well dressed and won the respect of all with his good behavior.


At-Tabari had for a long time deliberated writing a commentary of the Holy Qur'an, but he always kept putting off the task. It would take years of hard work, preparation, and study. His students and other scholars started pressurizing him to take up the task. They were willing to extend all help for him to complete the task for they felt that there was a need for a comprehensive commentary on the Holy Qur'an in Muslim literature. But when at-Tabari told them that he wanted to write a commentary of 30,000 pages, they were stunned. They could not believe that anybody could complete such a task within his lifetime.

When the work began on the commentary, the house of at-Tabari became a studio. Each of his students was entrusted with a specific task. They traveled to bookshops and libraries to search for specialized information. Others copied his works, and some worked on abridging his long comments. As the news began to spread, there was a steady stream of visitors to his house daily to see how he was progressing on the task. He worked slowly and carefully and it took several years to complete the job that he had set out to do. In the commentary, he made an in-depth analysis of the Qur'anic verses, along with its aspects of style and meaning. The result was an encyclopedia that was 30 volumes long.

Orders began to pour in from libraries and academies of the Muslim world. Everyone wanted to have copies of it. His fame spread far and his commentary of the Holy Qur'an was well received everywhere and it became a reference book for the serious student of the Holy Qur'an. Its translations are popular today as it was in those days.


For a long time, at-Tabari had wanted to visit Amul - his birthplace. He remembered the days of his childhood and treasured happy memories of that period of his life. He joined a caravan of merchants traveling to the east who were delighted to have the great scholar with them. They spent hours in his company discussing religion. Always ready to share Islamic knowledge with others, he would entertain the merchants with tales from Islamic history.

After reaching the city of Kirmanshah, he headed towards the city of Dinawar. At-Tabari hoped to meet a scholar there by name Abu Hanifa Addinawari who had also written a commentary of the Holy Qur'an and books on Islamic science. At Dinawar, he learnt that Abu Hanifa whom he had hoped to meet, had left Dinawar on a journey as the caravan of at-Tabari had arrived in the city.

In those days, the ability of a scholar to memorize ahadith was an important part of learning and was much admired in a person. Regular contests were held among scholars on their ability to memorize the texts of ahadith. The scholars competing in this contest were expected to not only learn the text of the hadith, but also narrate from memory the chain of narrators who had transmitted the Tradition of the Holy Prophet (saws). It was a daunting task for even the best of scholars as there were 100,000 hadith to learn and memorize.

In one such gathering, at-Tabari was challenged by ibn Hamdhan who claimed there was no other scholar better than him in memorizing the Traditions of the Holy Prophet (s). At-Tabari accepted his challenge and in the ensuing contest was able to narrate completely from memory the long list of narrators to every text of tradition quoted by ibn Hamdhan. Ibn Hamdhan had met his match and had to concede that at-Tabari was better in memorization of ahadith than he was. He stayed in Dinawar for a month.


At last, the caravan reached Amul, the city of his childhood. He had not seen his family and friends for a long time. They were all overjoyed at his visit. It was a happy homecoming for him. The city of Amul had changed a lot since his childhood. It was a great deal larger and grown since he had last seen it. Many new people had moved into the city and inhabited by them. The number of mosques, schools, and hospitals had also increased

His fame had reached the city of Amul before him. Its people were proud that the famous scholar of the Muslim world was born and brought up in this city. Every day there was a group of people gathered to hear his lectures and they sought his advice on religious matters. He also visited the various schools of the city to talk to the teachers and the students studying there. For him, it was a delightful reunion with the past.

His heart was however set upon returning to Baghdad. The place of a scholar was among his students and books. Sadly, he said goodbye to all his friends and relatives who had made his visit to Amul the most enjoyable moments which he would cherish for a long time to come. He set off on his return journey to Baghdad. He had been away from the city of Baghdad for four months.


At-Tabari was 65 years old when he returned to Baghdad. He continued to teach the students that came to him in search of knowledge. At the same time, he was eager to begin work on another writing project.

The success of his Commentary of the Holy Qur'an encouraged him to undertake another encyclopedic work. This time he decided to write an encyclopedia on the History of Islam. Before starting on the project, he spent a good deal of time in its planning and preparation. His students and friends were also enthusiastic about this new project and promised to extend all help that he required from them.

He spent the next 12 years writing his encyclopedia on Islamic history. His job was not easy for he had to collect and compile the material from different sources. He had to rely on oral reports as well to complete his encyclopedia. Much of the material would have been lost if at-Tabari had not bothered to include it in his work on the History of Islam.

His encyclopedia, "Annals of the Apostles and Kings", chronicled the History of Islam year by year; an attempt to categorize history from creation till the year 915 A.C. By the time he had finished his work, he had gathered all the historical traditions of the Arabs in his voluminous work. The Muslim world was not slow in showing its appreciation, and this work became more famous than his Commentary of the Holy Qur'an, for there was no other works like that in existence at that time.

It is reported that there were at least 20 copies of his encyclopedia in all great libraries in the Muslim world of those days. Hundreds of copyists earned their living copying his work for use of individuals and libraries. Many of his original works were lost over the passage of time. It was only in the end of the last century that modern scholars pieced together his work so that it could be studied by students in modern times. History of al Tabari is now also Available in English 

At-Tabari was now an old man. His latest work on the History of Islam had taken a toll on his health and it began to fail gradually. He suffered from pleurisy. The doctors attending him did their best to restore his health and were unsuccessful in their attempts. He had reached the end of his road of a long and busy life. Finally, at-Tabari died at the age of 85 in the year 923 A.C.

This article comes from Muslim Writers Society

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