Grand Historian And Jewel Of Islam's 'Golden Age' - Muhammad Al-Tabari

Grand Historian And Jewel Of Islam's 'Golden Age' - Muhammad Al-Tabari
Muhammad al-Jariri al-Tabari was one of the brightest jewels of what is often known as the “Islamic Golden Age.” That period of history produced a galaxy of scholars in sciences, medicine, philosophy and theology, mostly in the erstwhile Khorasan region and Muslim Spain. The work of some of these thinkers and researchers has been pioneering and much acclaimed. Tabari is one of those jewels whose ‘History’ – one of his many scholarly accomplishments – will always remain relevant as it is the only comprehensive and reliable record of the early Muslim period from the life of the Prophet till the year 915 AD, where the narrative terminates.

Tabari was a polymath and pursued several areas of learning. He wrote a voluminous tafsir of the Quran, collected Hadiths, became an expert grammarian of Arabic, was skilled in various readings of Quran, wrote on many aspects of Islamic laws, compiled a comprehensive history and was proficient in theology. He was well versed in Arabic and Persian, and also had working knowledge of Syrian, Greek, and Yemeni-Arabic, Coptic and Omani-Arabic. He was, therefore, well prepared to consult a wide pool of available written records to compose his history and tafsir books.

Though the full details of Tabari’s life are not known, many aspects of his career were recorded during his lifetime. Franz Rosenthal, a renowned Arab scholar and one of Tabari’s translators, has put together his biography from available sources and placed it at the beginning of volume 1 of the English translation of the ‘History.’ This article is mainly based on his work.

Tabari was born in 839 AD in Amul, the capital of Tabaristan, 20 kilometers off the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. To take a full measure of our scholar’s life, it would be useful to understand the prevailing political and scholarly environment at the time of his birth. The House of Wisdom, the famed center of Abbasid learning, was active and thriving at the time. The reigning Caliph was al-Mutasim, the third and the last son of Haroon al-Rashid to assume the caliphate. Imams Abu Hanifa, Jafar Sadiq, Malik and Shafi’i had died in the recent past. Imam Hanbal was alive and the most popular religious leader in Baghdad. Hadith scholars Bukhari and Muslim, as also polymath al-Khawarzmi, were alive and at the peak of their career. This was also a time when there was an intense – sometime sanguinary – tussle between a more orthodox faction as represented by Imam Hanbal and a ‘progressive’ camp as represented by Caliph Mamun. Fierce doctrinal debates between Sunni and Shi’i sects were taking place with the two falling apart decisively and their differences being crystalised. It was, therefore, an invigorating but precarious scenario for a young, inquisitive, gifted mind.

Tabari’s father was a prosperous businessman with sufficient property to sustain his son for the rest of his life, allowing him to travel and seek knowledge without having to worry for his livelihood. The father realized that his young son had an aptitude for scholarship and got him enrolled with local private teachers and madrassahs. As Tabari recalled later in life that he knew the Qur'an by heart when he was seven, served as prayer leader when he was eight, and wrote down traditions of the Prophet (PBUH) when he was nine. This indicated his exceptional industry and maturity. At a time when the land of Khorasan gave birth to several geniuses, he was a rare prodigy.

At that time, there were not many organised schools or institutions of learning in the Caliphate as would be established later in the 11th century AD during the Seljuk period. After finishing his studies at local schools, his father sent Tabari at the age of twelve to Ray, at a distance of 150 kilometers from Amul, where he would have stayed, as was the norm, with acquittances or even with his teacher. It is one of the signs of a quest for knowledge during the Islamic Golden Age that it was not uncommon for young boys to travel to larger cities, and reside there alone for extended periods, to attain education.

Tabari stayed in Ray for five years. Here he was introduced to al-Sirah by Ibn Ishaq, the first book on the life of the Prophet (PBUH) and which has served as the source for every subsequent book on his biography. Thus, the seeds of the great history book that he would write later in life were planted at Ray in his teen years. Tabari left for Baghdad at the age of seventeen for further education, arriving there shortly after the death of Imam Hanbal. Little would he know then that the followers of the late Imam would stalk him all his adult life – and even in death.

Having stayed in Baghdad for a few years, he travelled to Kufa, Basra and Wasit, all bustling cities in those days and where many great scholars resided. In between, he got his first employment as a teacher to the son of a wazir. He travelled to Syria, Palestine and Egypt, returning in 903 AD. He didn’t, thereafter, venture out of Baghdad, where he indulged in delivering lectures and writing.

Tabari led a very disciplined life. He rose early for morning prayers and worked the whole day till after the night prayers. His diet was simple and he insisted on good table manners. While eating, he would constantly wipe clean the sides of the bowl. While taking a morsel to his mouth, he covered his beard with the other hand lest it was smeared. He would use the napkin often to clean his hands and mouth. He was always dressed in clean but simple clothes and is not known to have any social flaws. He didn’t swear by God to prove his point, as was the norm in those days. He slept in short sleeved shirt that was perfumed with rose water and sandalwood oil. His life, in short, was well regulated and organised.

Tabari never got married. He spent most of his life at his home, where he did much of his writing, or in the mosque, where he gave lectures and recited Quran. It is said that very few people could recite the Quran as he did. Despite many offers from those in power, he neither accepted any position in the government nor any expensive gifts. He derived his income from his inheritance, tuition fees and by rendering legal advice.

Tabari has produced a prodigious amount of written work. He wrote at a formidable rate, completing forty pages per day for forty years, or fourteen folios every day from his puberty till his death at the age of eighty-six. It is said that he wrote 350,000 folios (handwritten pages) in his life. When he started his tafsir of the Quran, he thought it would extend to about 30,000 folios. It now comprises about 7,500 typed pages in Arabic. The English version of his ‘History’ has forty volumes (all volumes are present in this author’s e-library). His tafsir extends over 30 volumes in the Cairo compilations of 1902-03 and 1984, and 12 volumes in Beirut version of 1997. Arabic scholar J. Cooper undertook to publish a 5-volume abridged version of tafsir in English but, unfortunately, he completed only the first volume (which is in this author’s e-library).

It is a sad reflection that not many in the current Muslim world – certainly none in Indo-Pakistan – have had the capacity to produce this kind of academic output. The beacon of scholarship has passed on to the Western civilisation where we have such historians – to highlight one area of study. There is Toynbee who wrote A Study of History in 12 volumes (a favourite of this scribe}, Will Durant who wrote The Story of Civilisation in 11 volumes spread over 11,000 pages, and even Winston Churchill, who found time from his intense political occupations to write a 4-volume History of the English Speaking People and a 6-volume The Second World War. Alas, Muslims are often not interested in even reading – let alone writing – this kind of work.

Tabari was a great proponent of Ijtihad, something that brought him in conflict with the orthodoxy, especially followers of Imam Hanbal, who insisted on a literal meaning of Quranic text. His translator Franz Rosenthal gives examples of his explanation of verse 6 of Sura al-Maidah and verse 79 of Sura al-Isra. The former verse relates to ablution and there was fierce debate on differentiation between ‘washing’ and ‘wiping’ in relation to feet. The latter verse species ‘Muqam-e-Mahmooda’ for the Prophet (PBUH). The orthodox Muslims interpreted this literally, whereas the progressive elements, including Tabari, thought it was more allegorical. In fact, there were fiery debates in those days on a number of such doctrinal issues, some of which were speculative, divisive and futile in nature, and served no useful purpose for glory of Islam.

Throughout his long writing and teaching career, Tabari tended towards moderation. He spoke against the Hanbalites as well as the Mutazilites, who had become entrenched in their own ideology and intolerant of independent application of intellect. He wrote on the grace of all of the first four Caliphs that earned him the ire of Shia. Yet he also wrote on the soundness of the tradition of Ghadir Kumm, inviting the wrath of Sunnis. Tabari steered clear of political and sectarian issues of his time. However, as he expressed his views on many aspects of law, religion and society, he inevitably made many enemies. He had as many detractors among the orthodox elements of Baghdad as he had faithful followers

His constant detractors were the followers of Imam Hanbal. His house was besieged and pelted by them for interpreting some Quranic verses at variance with Imam Hanbal. Tabari earned their opposition for labelling Hanbal as merely a ‘collector of Traditions’ and not an ‘interpreter of the Quran’. The Hanbalites declared him an apostate for this. It is said that when he died in 923 AD, he had to be buried at in the middle of the night at his own home in Baghdad for fear of attacks by the orthodox elements of the city.

Tabari’s tafsir is a very comprehensive commentary on the Quran. It survived in original form and was printed in 1978 in 12 volumes. He went to extraordinary details to explain each word of the Holy Book. At times, he has given twenty or more explanations of a single Quranic word, including differences between authorities and also between traditions from same authority. He devoted four pages just to explain the meaning of Rahman and Rahim, citing four opinions by different Hadiths. His tafsir gave birth to the Islamic school known as Jarriri, which was relevant for about two centuries but then became obsolete.

His most enduring work is his history titled The History of Prophets and Kings. In this massive work, he included all available knowledge on the Biblical era, pre-Islamic Iran and Arabia, early Islam, and a year-by-year history of the Umayyad and Abbasid periods up to his own time. The first four volumes of his history cover the ancient world, one volume depicts the Byzantine, Sassanid and Lakhmid dynasties, one volume is devoted to an index while the rest of the 35 volumes record the Islamic era up to 915 AD. His task was very difficult as he had to gather data from all possible sources including written records as well as oral testimonies. It took him twelve years to complete this monumental work. Today, each volume in English translation with translator’s notes extends to an average length of 300 pages – the whole series expands to over 12,000 pages; a remarkably long narrative.

The ‘History’ became popular even in his lifetime because there was no comparable work in existence at that time. There were about 20 copies of the entire work in different libraries of the then Muslim world. Hundreds of copyists earned their living producing duplicates of parts of the ‘History’ for their patrons. It was first translated into Persian a hundred years after his death. Then in 1504 at the zenith of the Renaissance, it was translated into Latin, and later either in part or in whole to German (17 volumes), French (4 volumes), Dutch (several volumes) and English (3-, 17- and 40-volume versions). The book has always been seen as a reliable source of events of that era.

What is commonly called the ‘Islamic Golden Age’ was indeed a remarkable period in world history. After the barren interregnum since the breakup of the Greco-Roman civilisation and the passage of a partially barren Umayyad Caliphate, there was a flowering of scholarship during the five centuries spanning the Abbasid Caliphate, and a little beyond. Perhaps it was the result of harmonious intermingling of Zoroastrian, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islamic religions, and the Arab, Persian and Turkish cultures. Tabari was a radiant product of that very age and continues to be celebrated in our day.


Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: