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Al Tabari: A life dedicated to history and law

Al Tabari never compromised on his independence as a scholar, yet he enjoyed unprecedented access to sources preserved by rulers

Gulf News

Abu Ja‘far Mohammad Ibn Jarir Al Tabari (AD839-923) composed an unparalleled historical chronicle, the “Tarikh al-Rusul wal-Muluk” (History of the Prophets and Kings), which, over time, came to simply be known as the “Tarikh Al Tabari”. Besides this monumental work, the prominent Persian scholar also authored a critical interpretation of the Quran, which also withstood the test of time. His tafsir (Exegete) is still referred to today, just as the “Tarikh”, which attests to its longevity and intrinsic value.

Early life and times

Al Tabari was born in the city of Amol, near the Caspian Sea, in today’s Mazandaran province (Iran), less than 200 kilometres north of Tehran. A precocious pupil, Al Tabari memorised the Quran when he was 7 years old and, according to several sources, became a qualified religious figure in his teenage years. Even if somewhat exaggerated, his preference for scholarship was quickly noticed, which was why his parents saw to it that in the year 850 he moved to Baghdad, then the capital of Muslim power and knowledge, and where leading ‘Ulamah (doctors of law) held court. On his way to Baghdad, Al Tabari stayed for five years in the Tehran suburb of Ray, or Rayy (Rhagae in Greek). It was in Ray that he studied under Abu ‘Abdillah Mohammad Ibn Humayd Al Razi, by then well advanced in age. Al Razi introduced the young man to Muslim jurisprudence — “usul al-fiqh” — according to the Hanafi school. Whether Al Razi’s teachings tweaked his interest in the life of the Prophet (PBUH) is impossible to know, although it was in Ray that Al Tabari first thought of the idea of a major historical work. Al Razi introduced his protégé to pre-Islamic and early Islamic history, and it was no coincidence that he is frequently quoted in Al Tabari’s writings.

In Baghdad, Al Tabari intended to study under Ibn Hanbal, who, unfortunately, passed away just as the young scholar reached the city. What happened next is sketchy. Suffice it to say that while Al Tabari added the Shafi‘i, Maleki and Zahiri schools of jurisprudence to his Hanafi repertoire, he voluntarily skipped the equally valid Hanbali school. Most of the known scholars of the time engaged with him and exchanged notes, which made Al Tabari one of the more learned men around — certainly well-versed in four of the five Sunni legal schools — with Hanbali law being mysteriously absent in his writings. What is known is that in various debates with fellow scholars and classmates, Al Tabari demonstrated a degree of independence in his thought process (ijtihad), which displeased Hanbalite ‘Ulamah. Al Tabari’s adopted a negative view of Ibn Hanbal, the school’s founder, over time as he rejected the austere Syrian’s dissenting opinions. His harsh criticisms, going so far as to assert that Ibn Hanbal was not an accepted jurist but merely a Hadith recorder, did not endear him to the Hanbalites.

This perception soured Al Tabari’s ties with fellow ‘Ulamahs, though youth and bravura dominated his impeccable credentials. In his late twenties, he travelled to Egypt, Palestine and Syria, where he met ‘Abbas Bin Al Walid Bin Mazyad Al ‘Udhri Al Bayruti (785—883), one of the most enlightened thinkers of his times. In Beirut, then a prominent centre of jurisprudence, Al Tabari honed his legal skills in the Syrian school, before returning to Baghdad, where he devoted the rest of his life to writing.

Apart from a modest income, which was supplemented by a tidy inheritance, Al Tabari made some money from teaching as well. Interestingly, he never took a government or a judicial position, and never married. Instead, he devoted his life to prayers, studies, teaching and writing. He died in Baghdad on February 17, 923, but ‘Abbasid authorities buried him in secret for fear that mob violence by many Hanbalite foes would ensue.

History of the prophets and kings

Though prominent Hanbalite scholars were condemned by ‘Abbasid authorities because of what Baghdad officials determined was intolerant behaviour, Al Tabari commanded their respect throughout his life not only for his important tafsir work but, more importantly, for his monumental “Tarikh al-Rusul wal-Muluk”, which took several decades to compose and was completed when the historian was in his early seventies. Even a partial reading of any one section of this work reveals the reason it became a standard reference text for generations that followed him.

Indeed, the books assembled and analysed hitherto unknown details, which shows that while Al Tabari was a relatively independent scholar, he enjoyed unprecedented access to sources of information in Baghdad and throughout the Muslim world. No peer could match his standards. Even more remarkable were his many connections with senior officials, whose inputs he digested with rare expertise, especially since he was an outsider to the decision-making process in the ‘Abbasid dynasty. Most of the information, particularly on Al-Mu‘tadid and Al Muktafi‘ and the early years of Al Muqtadir, could only have been assembled with inside knowledge, which he apparently enjoyed.

The commentary on the Quran

In addition to his “Tarikh”, Al Tabari penned an equally important opus, the “al-Musamma Jami‘ al-Bayan fi Ta’wil al-Qur’an”, commonly called “Tafsir Al Tabari”. Like his “Tarikh”, the “Tafsir” was detailed, certainly more than many similar works at nearly 3,000 handwritten pages. It took the author seven years to complete this key work, which leading ‘Ulamah refer to even today.

What made this work stand out was the use of sources to attain specific information about older commentaries that were no longer available elsewhere because they were lost in the intervening years. This tafsir, therefore, displayed unique contents that encompassed historical notes, legal precedents, recitations attributed to the Prophet (PBUH), theological nuances that were debated by various scholars, epistemological definitions of words, as well as a solid reliance on Arabic literature that added value to Al Tabari’s detailed analyses.

Unfortunately, Al Tabari’s intellectual conflicts with Baghdad’s Hanbalite scholars, coloured his prose, which advanced the assertion that Ibn Hanbal could not have possibly proposed a legitimate school of thought because he was a mere compiler of traditions and not a proper jurist. At a time when such accusations drew the ire of beholden followers, Al Tabari became an easy target for Hanbalite supporters, who often stoned the scholar’s house. This, regrettably, necessitated official interventions. Efforts to take the dispute to a higher level and organise scholarly debates between Al Tabari and Hanbalite scholars came to naught. Such intellectual disputes notwithstanding, Al Tabari’s legal writings earned widespread praise, and though he relied on oral sources — certainly the most common method used by his contemporaries — he gradually introduced written materials as original references. In fact, his frequent use of such citations earned him accolades, which certainly strengthened his scholarship.

Legacy to Arabs and Muslims

Al Tabari was one of the earliest ‘Ulamah who relied on ijtihad (independent judgment) to compose his “Tafsir”. Still, it would be an error to conclude that he perceived himself as an innovator, since he was very much opposed to religious innovation. Rather, he leant towards conciliation and moderation, as he sought appropriate solutions to existing controversies. In his view, conflicting opinions could only be resolved by accurate assessments of all available sources, which scholars relied upon to cite their conclusions. Whether this was a feature of his historiography rather than his theology was difficult to assess. Suffice it to say that while he identified himself as a Shafi‘i scholar, in fact, Al Tabari’s major contribution to usul al-fiqh was to accept the other legal schools. That, in and of itself, was a unique asset as he attempted to overcome dogmatic differences.

His legacy was etched for ever on account of the meticulous and impeccably well-annotated chronicles that constituted the most important primary source of the period with which they dealt. Even a cursory reading of Al Tabari’s “Tarikh” reveals a depth of knowledge that, certainly for his times, was somewhat inimitable.

Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently of, “Legal and Political Reforms in Sa‘udi Arabia”, London: Routledge, 2013.

This article is the twenty-second of a series on Muslim thinkers who greatly influenced Arab societies across the centuries.

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List of works

Between 1989 and 2007, the State University of New York Press commissioned several expert translators to render into English a complete annotated version of Al Tabari’s “Tarikh”, arguably one of the most celebrated chronicles produced by a Muslim scholar. The result was a 40-volume endeavour that will delight any reader. Because of their various contents, whose broad titles are reproduced below, the reader can concentrate on items of interest instead of going through the book chronologically.

1. General Introduction and From the Creation to the Flood

2. Prophets and Patriarchs

3. The Children of Israel

4. The Ancient Kingdoms

5. The Sasanids, the Byzantines, the Lakhmids, and Yemen

6. Muhammad at Mecca

7. The Foundation of the Community: Muhammad At Al-Madina A.D. 622-626/Hijrah-4 A.H.

8. The Victory of Islam: Muhammad at Medina A.D. 626-630/A.H. 5-8

9. The Last Years of the Prophet: The Formation of the State A.D. 630-632/A.H. 8-11

10. The Conquest of Arabia: The Riddah Wars A.D. 632-633/A.H. 11

11. The Challenge to the Empires A.D. 633-635/A.H. 12-13

12. The Battle of al-Qadisiyyah and the Conquest of Syria and Palestine A.D. 635-637/A.H. 14-15

13. The Conquest of Iraq, Southwestern Persia, and Egypt: The Middle Years of ‘Umar’s Caliphate A.D. 636-642/A.H. 15-21

14. The Conquest of Iran A.D. 641-643/A.H. 21-23

15. The Crisis of the Early Caliphate: The Reign of ‘Uthman A.D. 644-656/A.H. 24-35

16. The Community Divided: The Caliphate of ‘Ali I A.D. 656-657/A.H. 35-36

17. The First Civil War: From the Battle of Siffin to the Death of ‘Ali A.D. 656-661/A.H. 36-40

18. Between Civil Wars: The Caliphate of Mu‘awiyah A.D. 661-680/A.H. 40-60

19. The Caliphate of Yazid b. Mu‘awiyah A.D. 680-683/A.H. 60-64

20. The Collapse of Sufyanid Authority and the Coming of the Marwanids: The Caliphates of Mu‘awiyah II and Marwan I and the Beginning of The Caliphate of ‘Abd al-Malik A.D. 683-685/A.H. 64-66

21. The Victory of the Marwanids A.D. 685-693/A.H. 66-73

22. The Marwanid Restoration: The Caliphate of ‘Abd al-Malik A.D. 693-701/A.H. 74-81

23. The Zenith of the Marwanid House: The Last Years of ‘Abd al-Malik and The Caliphate of al-Walid A.D. 700-715/A.H. 81-96

24. The Empire in Transition: The Caliphates of Sulayman, ‘Umar, and Yazid A.D. 715-724/A.H. 97-105

25. The End of Expansion: The Caliphate of Hisham A.D. 724-738/A.H. 105-120

26. The Waning of the Umayyad Caliphate: Prelude to Revolution A.D. 738-745/A.H. 121-127

27. The ‘Abbasid Revolution A.D. 743-750/A.H. 126-132

28. ‘Abbasid Authority Affirmed: The Early Years of al-Mansur A.D. 753-763/A.H. 136-145

29. Al-Mansur and al-Mahdi A.D. 763-786/A.H. 146-169

30. The ‘Abbasid Caliphate in Equilibrium: The Caliphates of Musa al-Hadi and Harun al-Rashid A.D. 785-809/A.H. 169-193

31. The War between Brothers: The Caliphate of Muhammad al-Amin A.D. 809-813/A.H. 193-198

32. The Reunification of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate: The Caliphate of al-Ma’mun A.D. 813-833/A.H. 198-218

33. Storm and Stress along the Northern Frontiers of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate: The Caliphate of al-Mu‘tasim A.D. 833-842/A.H. 218-227

34. Incipient Decline: The Caliphates of al-Wathiq, al-Mutawakkil, and al-Muntasir A.D. 841-863/A.H. 227-248

35. The Crisis of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate: The Caliphates of al-Musta’in and al-Mu‘tazz A.D. 862-869/A.H. 248-255

36. The Revolt of the Zanj A.D. 869-879/A.H. 255-265

37. The ‘Abbasid Recovery: The War Against the Zanj Ends A.D. 879-893/A.H. 266-279

38. The Return of the Caliphate to Baghdad: The Caliphates of al-Mu‘tadid, al-Muktafi and al-Muqtadir A.D. 892-915/A.H. 279-302

39. Biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and Their Successors: al-Tabari’s Supplement to His History

40. Index

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Selected readings

Joel L. Kraemer, Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam: The Cultural Revival During the Buyid Age, Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1992.

Devin J. Stewart, “Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari’s al-Bayan ‘an Usul al-Ahkam and the Genre of Usul al-Fiqh in Ninth Century Baghdad,” in James Montgomery, ed., Abbasid Studies: Occasional Papers of the School of Abbasid Studies, Cambridge, 6–10 January 2002, Leuven: Peeters Publishers and the Department of Oriental Studies, 2004.

Christopher Melchert, The Formation of the Sunni Schools of Law: 9th–10th Centuries C.E., Leiden: Brill Publishers, 1997.

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