Ṭabāṭabāʾī, ʿAllāma

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ABĀABĀʾĪ, ʿALLĀMA . Muammad usayn abāabāʾī (19031981) was arguably one of the most prominent Shīʿī Muslim scholars of the twentieth century; he was given the honorific title ʿAllāma, a testimony to the extent and depth of his knowledge in the Shīʿī tradition of Islamic scholarship.

abāabāʾī was born into a family of Shīʿī ʿulamāʾ (Islamic scholars) in Tabrīz, northwest of Iran, in 1903. In 1918, after finishing his primary education, he entered the field of religious studies and, until 1925, he studied Arabic grammar, logic, principles of Islamic jurisprudence, Islamic law, theology, and philosophy. In 1926 he settled in Najaf, the most famous Shīʿī seminary (awza) in Iraq at that time, in order to complete his higher studies, attaining a license to perform ijtihād independent reasoning and deduction based on the principles and sources of Islamic law.

He returned to Tabrīz, his birthplace, in 1934. In 1946, due to the political situation in the northwest of Iran, which at that time was under the influence of the Soviet Union, he went to the city of Qum, where he resumed his scholarly research. In Qum he taught Islamic philosophy and Qurʾanic studies for the rest of his life and became one of the greatest contemporary masters in these two disciplines.

abāabāʾī was a prolific writer in both Arabic and Persian. His work had a profound impact on contemporary Shīʿī thought, principally through his contribution to four areas: Qurʾanic commentary and interpretation, philosophy, mysticism, and sociocultural debate.

abāabāʾī successfully revitalized the discipline of Qurʾanic exegesis (tafsīr), making this one of the core subjects of the curriculum within the seminary of Qum. His own monumental commentary on the Qurʾān, al-Mīzān fī Tafsīr al-Qurʾān, is ample evidence of his mastery of all the sciences required for in-depth Qurʾanic interpretation. Al-Mīzān appeared at a time when standards of scholarship in Shīʿī seminaries were determined by the discipline of jurisprudence (fiqh). Those who were involved in other fields, such as tafsīr, were considered weak both in scholarly and social terms. The reason was that although in the seminaries the discipline of fiqh was dominated by Uūlī thought, tafsīr was still strongly influenced by the rival Akhbārī school, which places primary stress upon the narration of traditions (aādīth or akhbār, pl. of khabar, "report"). Thus, tafsīr was not given very much importance. abāabāʾī succeeded in radically changing this state of affairs, such that tafsīr is now considered one of the major disciplines within Shīʿī seminaries. The key interpretive principle applied by abāabāʾī in his commentary is that of interpreting verses of the Qurʾān through other verses of the Qurʾān. According to him, in order to obtain an understanding of the objective meaning of the Qurʾān, the interpreter must set aside all personal ideas and opinions and make an effort to understand and interpret the verses of the Qurʾān only in the light of other Qurʾanic verses. Although this method was used in part by various schools of interpretation, it was abāabāʾī who articulated and employed this method most successfully, making it the very cornerstone of his interpretive hermeneutic. He wrote al-Mīzān over a period of eighteen years, from 1954 to 1972. Originally written in Arabic in twenty volumes, it has been translated into Persian, and the first six volumes have been translated into English.

abāabāʾī also played a significant role in elevating the status of Islamic philosophy in Shīʿī circles, and particularly within Iran; he contributed to the process by which philosophy became once again a major focus of teaching and research. Although he was a master in Mullā adrā's philosophical school, al-ikmah al-mutaʿāliyah (transcendent theosophy), he avoided the mixing of philosophy with the traditional, transmitted sources, the Qurʾān and adīth, that characterizes the works of Mullā adrā's school of philosophy. abāabāʾī insisted on maintaining a clear distinction between these two disciplines, as is clearly expressed in his philosophical works Bidāyat al-ikma (The beginning of philosophy) and Nihāyat al-ikma (The ultimate end/goal of philosophy).

His contribution to Islamic mysticism, known in its Shīʿī form as ʿirfān, consisted in his teaching of one of the principal sources of this approach, that is, the school of Muyī al-Dīn Ibn al-ʿArabī. He succeeded in his efforts, despite strong opposition from many exoteric Shīʿī scholars of his time. The emergence in the Shīʿī seminary of Qum of a new generation of scholars well-versed in the mysticism of Ibn ʿArabī is in large part due to his influence.

abāabāʾī was also actively involved in sociocultural debates about Islam. After World War II, the influence of modernism and Marxism on traditional Iranian society was increasing. abāabāʾī devoted several books and articles to discussing key issues arising out of these confrontations between modernism and traditionsuch as the status of religion in the modern world, the rights of women, and the weakness of materialistic philosophy. Between 1958 and 1977 abāabāʾī had an important series of scholarly and philosophical debates with Henry Corbin, the renowned French scholar of Islamic thought. He also encouraged his students to participate in sociocultural debates; among those students, one should mention such figures as Murtaā Muahharī and Muammad usayn Bihishtī, who went on to play important roles in Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979.

The influence of abāabāʾī on Shīʿī thought generally remains very strong; at present most of the masters of Islamic philosophy, mysticism, and interpretation of the Qurʾān in the seminaries of Iran were his students. In addition to the above-named students, one should also mention such towering figures as S. J. Āshtiyyānī, Ayatollah Javādī Āmulī, and Ayatollah asanzādih Āmulī, who are now known as the leading experts in Iran in interpretation of the Qurʾān, Islamic philosophy, and ʿirfān. Seyyed Hossein Nasr was also one of abāabāʾī's students, and it was through Nasr that abāabāʾī was introduced to the English-speaking world, with his translation of abāabāʾī's Shīʿa dar Islam, as Shiʿite Islam, in 1975. abāabāʾī died on November 15, 1981.

See Also

Ibn al-ʿArabī; Mullā adrā.


Works by abāabāʾī

Al-Mīzān fī Tafsīr al-Qurʾān. 20 vols. Beirut, 1974.

Shiʿite Islam. Translated and edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. London and Albany, N.Y., 1975. Includes abāabāʾī's biography and bibliography.

The Qurʾān in Islam: Its Impact and Influence in the Life of Muslims. Translated by A. Yates. Blanco, Tex., and London, 1987.

Islamic Teaching: An Overview. Translated by R. Campbell. New York, 1989. Includes a translation of the author's brief autobiography.

Al-Mīzān: An Exegesis of the Qurʾān. Vols. 17. Translated by Syed Saeed Akhtar Rizvi. Tehran, 19831992.


Al-Awsī, ʿAlī. Al-abāabāʾī wa Manhajuh fī Tafsīrih al-Mīzān. Tehran, 1985.

Mibā, Muammad Taqī. "Naqsh ʿAllāma abāabāʾī Dar Nihat Fikrī Hawzah ʿIlmiyyah Qum." In Yādnāmih Mufassir Kabīr Ustād ʿAllāma Sayyid Muammad usayn abāabāʾī, edited by A. Mīyānajī, pp. 135144. Qum, Iran, 1982.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. "abāabāʾī, Muammad usayn." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, vol. 4, edited by John L. Esposito, pp 161162. Oxford, 1995.

Qurʾānic Research Quarterly 910 (1997). Issue devoted to abāabāʾī.

Mohammad Jafar Elmi (2005)

Reza Shah-Kazemi (2005)