(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: The premier historian on the first century of the Islamic empire and a renowned commentator on Koranic tradition, al-Tabarī established a model of universal history and a corpus of religious tradition crucial to the development of later Islamic theology and scholarship.

Early Life

Abū Jaʿfar Muhammad ibn Jarīr al-Tabarī was born to a moderately wealthy family. He demonstrated all the traits of a child prodigy and began formal study at an extremely early age. Legend has it that he memorized the entire Koran by the time he was seven. Al-Tabarī’s father, realizing the extent of his son’s talents and the limitations of his hometown, provided financial support for the travel so crucial to a broad education in those days.

After visiting centers of learning in northern Iran, al-Tabarī, while still a teenager, set out for Baghdad in hopes of studying under the great Muslim jurist Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who, unfortunately, died just before al-Tabarī’s arrival in the city. Nevertheless, the youth remained briefly in Baghdad and also visited the important traditional Iraqi Muslim centers of Basra and Kufa. There followed a trip to Syria to study hadith, the traditions attributed to Muhammad. Al-Tabarī also spent some time in Egypt before returning to Baghdad around 872, where he would pass the remaining half century of his long life as an increasingly renowned scholar, teacher, and writer.

Al-Tabarī’s Baghdad career was one of modest means and stupendous productivity. Despite his family’s largesse in providing travel money in his early life, al-Tabarī endured what some have described as a life of extreme poverty in Baghdad. There is a story that he was once reduced to selling the sleeves of his shirt in order to buy bread. To some extent, al-Tabarī placed himself in these dire straits by rejecting several lucrative offers of government posts and commissions. His independence may have helped free him from official drudgery, making possible his voluminous literary output. Some early writers claim that al-Tabarī customarily wrote or copied forty manuscript pages each day.

There was, however, one brush with politics and notoriety. After breaking with the uncompromising literalism of Hanbali religious law, al-Tabarī attempted to form his own school of Muslim jurisprudence. This enterprise brought a pro-Hanbali mob to his door and required police intervention to ensure his safety. Little of the nature of al-Tabarī’s legal essays is known, since these works are among a considerable number of his writings which have been lost. (Some scholars have concluded that his proclivity for iconoclastic thinking and the catholic nature of his works—a quality that probably made them less attractive to specialists—may have been responsible for the disappearance of so much of his output.)

Life’s Work

Al-Tabarī’s career spanned many fields of study, including history and Koranic commentary, poetry, lexicography, grammar, ethics, mathematics, and medicine. He was an unparalleled collector of hadith, devoting most of his early years to gathering and copying material wherever he went. His commentary on the Koran was the first to bring together sufficient material from different regions of Islam to make it a standard work, upon which later generations of commentators could draw. Even for modern scholars, al-Tabarī is an important source of information on Koranic tradition. Although he was concerned with the structure and syntax of oral traditions, al-Tabarī seldom introduced his own conclusions or opinions on religious or historical questions.

The most important surviving work of al-Tabarī is his world history, Tarikh al-rusul wal-muluk (annals of the apostles and the kings; partial translation as Selections from the Annals of Tabari, 1902). It is an enormous work; a late nineteenth century edition fills thirteen volumes, and numerous authorities assert that in its final form...

(The entire section is 1654 words.)