Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn
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
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.
THE BRILLIANT STUDENT
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
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.
JOURNEY TO BAGHDAD
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
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.
THE POPULAR TEACHER
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.
COMMENTARY OF THE HOLY QUR'AN
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.
JOURNEY TO AMUL
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.
A JOURNEY INTO THE PAST
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.
THE GREAT HISTORIAN
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
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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