ṬABĀṬABĀʾĪ, ʿALLĀMA . Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī (1903–1981) 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.
Ṭabāṭabāʾī 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 (ḥawza) 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.
Ṭabāṭabāʾī 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.
Ṭabāṭabāʾī 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 Uṣūlī thought, tafsīr was still strongly influenced by the rival Akhbārī school, which places primary stress upon the narration of traditions (aḥādīth or akhbār, pl. of khabar, "report"). Thus, tafsīr was not given very much importance. Ṭabāṭabāʾī 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 Ṭabāṭabāʾī 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 Ṭabāṭabāʾī 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.
Ṭabāṭabāʾī 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 Ṣadrā's philosophical school, al-ḥikmah al-mutaʿāliyah (transcendent theosophy), he avoided the mixing of philosophy with the traditional, transmitted sources, the Qurʾān and ḥadīth, that characterizes the works of Mullā Ṣadrā's school of philosophy. Ṭabāṭabāʾī insisted on maintaining a clear distinction between these two disciplines, as is clearly expressed in his philosophical works Bidāyat al-ḥikma (The beginning of philosophy) and Nihāyat al-ḥikma (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 Muḥyī 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.
Ṭabāṭabāʾī 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. Ṭabāṭabāʾī devoted several books and articles to discussing key issues arising out of these confrontations between modernism and tradition—such as the status of religion in the modern world, the rights of women, and the weakness of materialistic philosophy. Between 1958 and 1977 Ṭabāṭabāʾī 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 Murtaḍā Muṭahharī and Muḥammad Ḥusayn Bihishtī, who went on to play important roles in Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979.
The influence of Ṭabāṭabāʾī 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 Ḥasanzādih 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 Ṭabāṭabāʾī's students, and it was through Nasr that Ṭabāṭabāʾī was introduced to the English-speaking world, with his translation of Ṭabāṭabāʾī's Shīʿa dar Islam, as Shiʿite Islam, in 1975. Ṭabāṭabāʾī died on November 15, 1981.
Works by Ṭabāṭabāʾī
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 Ṭabāṭabāʾī'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. 1–7. Translated by Syed Saeed Akhtar Rizvi. Tehran, 1983–1992.
Al-Awsī, ʿAlī. Al-Ṭabāṭabāʾī wa Manhajuh fī Tafsīrih al-Mīzān. Tehran, 1985.
Miṣbāḥ, Muḥammad Taqī. "Naqsh ʿAllāma Ṭabāṭabāʾī Dar Nihḍat Fikrī Hawzah ʿIlmiyyah Qum." In Yādnāmih Mufassir Kabīr Ustād ʿAllāma Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī, edited by A. Mīyānajī, pp. 135–144. Qum, Iran, 1982.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. "Ṭabāṭabāʾī, Muḥammad Ḥusayn." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, vol. 4, edited by John L. Esposito, pp 161–162. Oxford, 1995.
Qurʾānic Research Quarterly 9–10 (1997). Issue devoted to Ṭabāṭabāʾī.
Mohammad Jafar Elmi (2005)
Reza Shah-Kazemi (2005)