ṬABARĪ, AL- (ah 224/5–310; 839–923 ce), fully Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī, was an Islamic religious scholar and historian. Born in Āmul in Ṭabaristān, northern Persia, just south of the Caspian Sea, al-Ṭabarī reports that by the age of seven he had learned the Qurʾān by heart, by the age of eight had qualified as a prayer leader (imām ), and by the age of nine was studying traditions from Muḥammad. At the age of twelve he set off on the proverbial Muslim quest for knowledge, first by attending school in Rayy (in what is now Tehran) and then, in 855, setting off for Baghdad, likely in hopes of studying with the famous traditionist Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, who, however, died in that same year just before al-Ṭabarī's arrival. After a number of sojourns in other cities in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, he settled in Baghdad and devoted his life to scholarly pursuits involving teaching and writing. Al-Ṭabarī is reported to have written over twenty works, although differentiating individual books is sometimes problematic because of the suspicion that some works may be known under a variety of titles. According to various anecdotes, al-Ṭabarī avoided taking any positions of administrative responsibility, despite the urging of government officials and colleagues, and devoted his energies purely to his work. Stories are told of him writing forty pages a day for forty years, and while the accuracy of the numbers is doubtful given their symbolic value, his dedication to his work is apparent in the level of his output.
Al-Ṭabarī was an impressively prolific polymath. He wrote on such subjects as poetry, lexicography, grammar, ethics, mathematics, and medicine, although none of his works on these topics has survived. His fame today rests primarily upon his writings in the fields of history, the Qurʾanic sciences, and law. The scope of his accomplishments in the first two fields is especially significant given the unique value of his two main works, the world history entitled Ta ʾrīkh al-rusul wa-al-mulūk (The history of the prophets and the kings) and the commentary (tafsīr ) on the Qurʾān entitled Jāmiʿal-bayān ʿan ta ʾwīl āy al-Qur ʾān (The gathering of the explanation of the interpretation of verses of the Qurʾān).
Al-Ṭabarī's Jāmiʿal-bayān ʿan ta ʾwīl āy al-Qur ʾān is, at least superficially, a voluminous compendium of traditional matter concerned with the meaning of each verse of the Qurʾān, presented in sequence following the text of scripture. Some 35,000 traditions (with a significant degree of duplication present in actual interpretational material) going back to the first Islamic century (seventh to eighth centuries ce) are cited. Al-Ṭabarī was also a creative scholar, however, and his editorial function in compiling this type of information cannot be ignored. Any reports of Qurʾanic interpretation attributed to Muqātil ibn Sulaymān (d. 767), for example, are omitted, presumably because of his tarnished reputation as a reliable source. In general, al-Ṭabarī omits any information that was rejected by the consensus of the community at his time. In addition, al-Ṭabarī virtually always notes which interpretation of a given verse he prefers, and he is given to supporting his contentions with philological analysis or poetical evidence not necessarily connected with any report from a traditional authority. He also discusses matters of dogmatics and law, in some instances in a detailed manner and on a sophisticated level. The theological outlook in his work is in keeping with the mainstream of Baghdad thought at the time, following in the legacy of Ibn Ḥanbal, although his opinions did, on occasion, evoke some protest among local rival scholars. His theological position is also evidenced in two independent works, Ṣarīḥ al-sunnah (The essence of correct practice), a brief profession of faith (ʿaqīdah ) written in response to accusations of incorrect belief on al-Ṭabarī's part by his contemporaries; and a fragment of his work on the "principles of religion," uṣūl al-dīn, entitled Tabṣīr fī maʿālim al-dīn (An instruction concerning the characteristics of religion), which was directed to the inhabitants of his hometown of Āmul regarding sectarian opinions that were emerging in the area.
Each section of Jāmiʿ al-bayān commences with a quotation from the Qurʾān, generally a verse or a thematic unit. Traditions are then cited, complete with their chains of authority (asānīd; singular: isnād) substantiating the transmission of the report; the traditions are grouped according to different possibilities of interpretation for the passage in question. The citation of these groups of traditions is frequently preceded by a statement such as, "Interpreters differ concerning the meaning of God's having said that.…" Following the enumeration of all attested interpretations, al-Ṭabarī usually gives his own preference, saying, "In my opinion, the best of the statements is the following…," and he argues the case on the basis of parallel Qurʾanic passages, grammar, poetry, theology, or whatever seems appropriate to make his point.
Al-Ṭabarī also appended a fairly extensive introduction to Jāmiʿ al-bayān entitled Risālat al-tafsīr (The epistle on interpretation), in which he sets forth some principles of interpretation along with a discussion of the standard disputed issues concerning the Qurʾān (the language of the Qurʾān, the notion of the seven readings of the text, and the collection of the Qurʾān). He argues for a concept of the "obvious" (ẓāhir ) meaning of the Qurʾān, rather than metaphorical or figurative renderings, as the only legitimate mode of interpretation. This "obvious" meaning of a text can be overridden only by a positive indication of the necessity to do so, as by a tradition that is fully authoritative and convincing. Otherwise the ẓāhir meaning, defined as "what predominates in practice," al-ghālib fī-al-istiʿmāl, must be accepted. Al-Ṭabarī also compiled as a separate work a massive collection and evaluation of textual variants to the Qurʾān, Kitāb fī-al-qirā ʾāt (A book on the variant readings), which still exists today in manuscript form.
As a historian, al-Ṭabarī equaled his accomplishments as a Qurʾanic exegete. His Ta ʾrīkh al-rusul wa-al-mulūk, which exists today in fifteen printed volumes, is said to be a greatly abbreviated version of al-Ṭabarī's original plan. The work commences with the creation and the era of the biblical patriarchs, details some early rulers of Israel and Persia, and then moves on to Sassanid history. As might be expected, the text becomes far more detailed after this portion. For the life of Muḥammad, the first four caliphs of Islam, the Umayyad dynasty, and the Abbasid rulers up to 915, it is organized year by year. The aim of the work was to document world history leading up to Muḥammad, and then to trace the continuity of the experiences of the Muslim community in the following years. Like his Qurʾān commentary, this work is traditionally oriented in structure, although here al-Ṭabarī's editorial role is more clearly limited to selection, arrangement, and documentation of the material cited; rarely do the editor's own words intrude.
Al-Ṭabarī's respect for his method of simple presentation results in much duplication, such that historical records conveying similar material are found frequently. This results from the inclusion of reports that stem from different sources, all of which were judged by al-Ṭabarī to be trustworthy in the isnād of their transmission and thus intrinsically valuable. His history telling, therefore, is not linear but a conjunction of varying accounts. Al-Ṭabarī's editorial role does at least allow him to support his own regional and partisan positions within the broad scheme of Islamic history. Ta ʾrīkh al-rusul wa-al-mulūk quickly became famous in the Islamic world, with later writers using it as the basis for even more comprehensive works and others working at extending its chronological dimensions and also translating it into Persian and Turkish.
Al-Ṭabarī attempted to strike out on his own in the juristic field. He formed a school of law (called the Jarīrīyah after his father), but it quickly fell into obscurity after his death, since it was not substantially different from the school of al-Shāfi ʿ ī, to which al-Ṭabarī originally belonged. Fragments of a large work that al-Ṭabarī wrote on law, Ikhtilāf al-fuqahā ʾ (The disagreement among the jurists), which details the opinions of great jurists of early Islam, as well as of a collection of ḥadīth entitled Tahdhīb al-āthār (The revised compilation of the traditions), still exist, but those works represent only a small portion of his overall scholarly output in the area.
Al-Ṭabarī is considered a master of historical writing and of tafsīr, and in subsequent generations he was seen as the most important intellect of his age, a mujtahid. He gained this stature not only because of his prodigious output but also because of his critical acumen, especially as displayed in Jāmiʿ al-bayān. The tafsīr is also the earliest complete and extensive work of its type available today (although other briefer but earlier works do still exist), and the history has been a major source for all reconstructions of events in early Islam, since it is, like the tafsīr, the earliest comprehensive compilation of historical reports for the Islamic period. Considering the importance and value of the works, it is somewhat surprising that few complete manuscript copies have survived to the present (scattered single volumes are available in numerous libraries, however) and that, until the end of the nineteenth century, the complete work of the tafsīr was believed lost. Perhaps because of the voluminous nature of the texts, they remained works suitable only for other scholars; later summaries and translations of the works became particularly important and, in some ways, eclipsed the original work, even though al-Ṭabarī's fame as a historian and religious scholar remained intact.
Ta ʾrīkh al-rusul wa-al-mulūk was published under the general editorship of M. J. de Goeje with the title Annales quos scripsit Abū Djafar Moḥammed ibn Djarīr aṭ-Ṭabari, 15 vols. (Leiden, 1879–1901). Other editions were printed in Cairo in 1909 and in 1960–1965. The entire work has been translated into English in thirty-nine volumes, The History of al-Ṭabarī (Albany, N.Y., 1985–1999), volume 1, General Introduction, and From the Creation to the Flood, translated and annotated by Franz Rosenthal (1989), provides a detailed survey of al-Ṭabarī's life, works, and accomplishments. For an understanding of the scope of al-Ṭabarī's history, see Claude Gilliot, "Récit, mythe, et histoire chez Tabari: Une vision mythique de l'histoire universelle," Mélanges de l'institut dominicain d'études orientales du Caire 21 (1993): 277–289; and Chase F. Robinson, Islamic Historiography (Cambridge, U.K., 2003). A full treatment of al-Ṭabarī's history and studies about it is found in Franz-Christoph Muth, Die Annales von aṭ-Ṭabarī im Spiegel der europäischen Bearbeitungen (Frankfurt, 1983).
Al-Ṭabarī's commentary (tafsīr ) on the Qurʾān, Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan ta ʾwīl āy al-Qur ʾān, was first published in Cairo in 1903 and again in 1905; a new Cairo edition was begun in 1954. A summary translation has been published in French by Pierre Godé, Commentaire du Coran (Paris, 1983), in five volumes, and a portion, through sūrah 2, verse 103 (including the introduction), is available in English as The Commentary on the Qur ʾān, by Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī, Being an Abridged Translation of Jāmiʿ al-bayān ʿan ta ʾwīl āy al-Qur ʾān, with an introduction and notes by J. Cooper, edited by Wilferd Madelung and Alan Jones (Oxford, 1987). A fundamental study on this work is Otto Loth, "Tabari's Korancommentar," Zeitschrift der Deutsche morgenländischen Gesellschaft 35 (1881): 588–628. Harris Birkeland, The Lord Guideth: Studies on Primitive Islam (Oslo, 1956), provides a detailed study of the structure of the traditions cited by al-Ṭabarī. Herbert Berg, The Development of Exegesis in Early Islam: The Authenticity of Muslim Literature from the Formative Period (Richmond, U.K., 2000), uses al-Ṭabarī's tafsīr as a source of data to discuss the issue of the reliability of the ascription of material to early authorities. Claude Gilliot, Exégèse, langue, et théologie en Islam: L'exégèse coranique de Tabari (m. 311/923) (Paris, 1990), is a masterful study of al-Ṭabarī's exegetical approach; it is supplemented by Gilliot's articles "Exégèse et sémantique institutionelle dans le commentaire de Tabari," Studia Islamica 77 (1993): 41–94, and "Mythe, recit, histoire du salut dans le commentaire coranique de Tabari," Journal Asiatique 282 (1994): 237–270.
On al-Ṭabarī's ḥadīth work, see Claude Gilliot, "Le traitement du Ḥadīṯ dans le Tahḏīb al-āṯār de Tabari," Arabica 41 (1994): 309–351. Al-Ṭabarī's creed is translated in Dominique Sourdel, "Une profession de foi de l'historien al-Ṭabarī," Revue des études islamiques 36 (1968): 177–199.
Andrew Rippin (2005)