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Ṭabarī, Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-

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Rizwi Faizer
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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Ṭabarī, Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-

One of the most remarkable scholars of the medieval Islamic world, the Persian Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (839–923) built his reputation on his scholarly lectures and writings in the Arabic language. He was born in Āmul, the capital of the province of Tabaristan which lies just north of the Caspian Sea, around 839 CE during the reign of the ʿAbbāsid caliph Muʿtaṣim (d. AH218/833 CE). He was fortunate in that his father, a landowner, not only encouraged his scholarship but, at his death, left him the means to a modest financial independence, thus enabling the considerable integrity that a reputation such as his required. Al-Ṭabarī was extremely hardworking and focused: by age seven, he knew the whole Qurʿān by heart; at age eight, he led the community in prayer; at age twelve, he left home in search of more qualified teachers abroad.

He traveled to Iraq, Syria, and Egypt seeking traditions about the Prophet. In Rayy, Iraq, he met perhaps the most significant of his teachers, Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Humayd al-Rāzi (d. 248/862), who introduced him to the books of Ibn Isḥāq (d. 150/767), the Mubtadāʿ and Maghāzī of the Prophet Muḥammad, as well as other writings on history. Next he arrived in Baghdad, only to be told that Aḥmad ibn Hanbal (d. 241/855), the muhaddith or traditionist whom he hoped to meet, had just died. After making a pilgrimage to Mecca, he finally settled down in Baghdad to build a reputation as a scholar and teacher of law. He never married.

Since al-Ṭabarī was a Sunnī Muslim by birth as well as conviction, his models were the legal scholar al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820) and the previously mentioned Aḥmad ibn Hanbal. He was not content, however, simply to acknowledge what he learned from them, but proceeded to enunciate legal positions of his own. He founded a madhhāb legal school named Jarīrī, after his father, which, unhappily, could not stand the test of time.

Al-Ṭabarī's importance as a scholar and participant in contemporary affairs was largely due to his interest in legal and religious matters. He wrote several books in these fields—on how the pilgrimage to Mecca should be performed, on the different ways the Qurʿān may be recited, and many more—that were clearly used by later scholars in whose books they have been cited.

Today, the only two works by al-Ṭabarī that are extant in their entirety are his Tafsīr (Qurʿānic exegesis) and History. The first, entitled Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan taʿwīl āyā al-Qurʿān, is now recognized as the first major work in the development of tafsīr methodology. Here he informs the reader of the significant traditions regarding the verses concerned, presents his criticisms and analysis of what has been stated, and then explains his own view: first looking to the Qurʿān itself for clarification, then bringing in variant readings and grammatical points to elucidate the meaning of the verse. The second, originally entitled Tārīkh al-rusul wa-al-mulūk wa-akhbārahum, is also known today as Annals by the Western world. Here al-Ṭabarī approaches Muslim history not as an Arab, but as a Persian linked to Iran and Mesopotamia. The first section is an introduction in which he tells of the creation, biblical peoples and prophets, and the legends and history of ancient, Sassanian, Iran. Then follows an annalistic arrangement of the years encompassing the life of Muḥammad, the birth of Islam, and the history of the first four caliphs; the Umayyads; and finally the ʿAbbāsids to the year 302/915. The entire narrative is comprised of traditions accompanied by the names of those who transmitted them, together with his own fearless expressions of independent judgment or ijtihād. A supplement concerning his authorities concludes the work. It won high praise as “superior to all other historical works because of the wealth of information it contains,” (Rosenthal, p. 135) and to this day continues to be a significant source for early Iranian and Islamic history. Al-Ṭabarī died on Monday, Shawwāl 27, 310/February 17, 923. He was buried in his house in Baghdad.

See also ḤADīTH; HISTORIOGRAPHY; QURʿāN, subentry on COMMENTARIES ON THE QURʿāN; and SUNNī ISLAM, subentry on HISTORICAL OVERVIEW.

Bibliography

  • Lawrence, Bruce. The Qurʿān: A Biography. Vancouver, 2006.
  • Rosenthal, Franz. “General Introduction.” In The History of al-Ṭabarī, 39 vols. Edited by Ehsan Yar Shater; Vol. 1, General Introduction and From Creation to the Flood, translated by Franz Rosenthal, pp. 5–154. Albany, N.Y., 1989.
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