Al-T?abari, Abu’L-H?asan ‘Ali Ibn Sahl Rabban

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(b. Marw, Persia, ca. 808: d. Baghdad,ca. 861)

medicine, natural science, theology, government.

Tabarī was born into a prominent and religious Syriac Christian family living in Marw in the region of Khurāsān (near present-day Tehran). His father, Sahl, was a highly placed government official who was learned in medicine, philosophy, theology, and astrology. His scholarship and his religious and philanthropic activities won him the prestigious Syriac title of Rabbān, meaning “teacher”. Sahl took a special interest in the upbringing of his son ʿAlī. Besides giving him a good education, Sahl taught him religion, medicine, and philosophy. The fatherly exhortations and advice led young ʿAlī to an appreciation and love of learning. When ʿAlī was ten years old he was taken to Tabaristān by his father, who was probably sent there on an assignment for the state. Because of their residence in Tabaristān, ’Alī became known as al-Tabarī. There, he devoted his time to the study of medicine, religion, philosophy, and the natural sciences. because Tabarī excelled in learning and as a counselor to the ruler of Tabaristān, he was summoned in 840 to the Abbasid capital to serve in the palace of Caliph al-Muʿtasim and his successor, Caliph al-Wāthiq (842–847). Under al-Mutawakkil (847–861), Tabarī’s position was raised to that of companion to the caliph, who “urged and encouraged” him not only to embrace and confess openly his adherence to Islam, but also to defend his new faith against other religions.

In 850 and 855 Tabarī wrote his two best known books, Firdaws al-hikma and A;-Dīn wāldawla, respectively. He dedicated both to his patron and benefactor, al-Mutawakkil.

In Firdaws (“Paradise of Wisdom”),Tabarīcompiled, extracted, and digested information on all aspects of medicine from Greek, Syriac, and Indian medical compendiums. He also added his own observations and interpretations throughout his medical encyclopedia, the first of its kind in Arabic with such scope and comprehensiveness. In addition to medicine, embryology, and surgery, Tabarīwrote on toxicology, psychotherapy, cosmogony, and astrology. Tabarī also made reference to the outstanding contributions of two of his contemporaries, YŪhannā ibn Māsawayh (d. 857), a pioneer Arabic medical educator and author, and Hunayn ibn Ishāq, the indefatigable translator of medical texts from Syriac and Greek, and one of the foremost Arabic scholars of his time.

Tabarī’s polemics in Al-Din Wā’l-dawla (“On Religion and Government”) shed considerable light on his life, religious beliefs, and philosophy, and reflect on religio-philosophical thought in ninth-century Islam.

It has been erroneously reported that Tabarī was a Jew and that he taught the physician Abü Bakr Muhammad al-Rāzī (865–925). In fact, Tabarīmust have died in Baghdad before Rāzī was even born. But Rāzīand other medical educators and authors in medieval Islam did benefit from Tabarī’s works, ingenuity, and ideas, since. through his foresight, industry, and genius, Tabarī contributed materially to ninth-century Arabic learning and scholarship.


I. Original Works. Muhammad Z. Siddiqi of India, a former student of the late Edward G. Browne, edited Tabarī’s Firdaws al-hikma (“Paradise of Wisdom”), with a useful introduction (Berlin, 1928). Since then other manuscripts–besides those cited in the Berlin and British Museums–have been discovered. Tabarī’s Al-Dīn wā’l-dawla (“On Religion and Government”) was edited with an English translation by Alphonse Mingana from a unique manuscript at the John Rylands Library (Cairo–Manchester, 1922–1923).

An Arabic manuscript entitled Hifz al-sihha (“On the Preservation of Health”) at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, catalog 1:578, is attributed to Tabarī. Other works listed for him by Ibn al-Nadīm in Al-Fihrist (completed 987) (Cairo, 1929), p. 426, are Tuhfat almulük and Kunnāsh al-hadra (two medical compendiums dedicated to the Muslim Caliph al-Mutawakkil) and a book on the benefits of solid and liquid diets and drugs.

II. Secondary Literature. Several Arabic medieval texts besides Al-Fihrist mention Tabarīand his works: Zahīr al- Dīn ’Alī Baythaqī (d. 1170), Tārīkh hukamā al-Islām, Muhammad Kurd ’Alī edition (Damascus, 1946), 22–23: Yāqüt al-Hamawī (d. 1229), Dictionary of Learned Men, D. S. Margoliouth, ed., VI (London, 1931), 429, 460. The report by Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qiftī (d. 1248), Tārīkh al-hukamā, Julius Lippert. ed. (Leipzig, 1903), 187, errs concerning his religious background and his relation to Rāzī (865–925). Ibn ‘Abī Usaybi‘a (d. 1270), ‘Uyūn al-anbā (Cairo, 1882), 309, quotes both Ibn al-Nadīm and Ibn al-Qiftī concerning Tabarī.

Tabarī was mentioned by F. Wüstenfeld, Geschichte der arabischen Aerzte und Naturforscher (Göttingen, 1840), 21, and Lucien Leclerc, Historie de la mêdecie arabe. I (Paris, 1876), 292–293. Much attention was paid to Tabarī, especially in relation to Firdaws, by Edward G. Browne, Arabian Medicine (Cambridge, 1921), 37–44: Max Meyerhof, “Alī at-Tabarī’s paradiese of Wisdom”. in Isis. 16 (1931), 6–54: and “Ali-at-Tabarī, ein persischen Arzt”. in Zeitschrift der deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 10 (1931), 38–68: J. M. Faddegon, “Notice critique sur le Firdausu’lhikmat de ’Ali b. Rabban al-Tabari”. in Journal Asiatique, 218 (1931), 327–352: Alfred Siggel, “Gynäkologie, Embryologie und Frauenhygiene aus dem Paradies der Weisheit über die Ali b. Sahl at-Tabarī”, in Quellen Studien Geschichte der Naturwissenschafte Medizin, 8 , pts. 1–2 (1941), 216–272; Die indischen Bücker aus dem Paradies der Weisheit über die Medizin des Ali b. Sahl Rabban al-Tabari (Wiesbaden, 1950): and Die propädeutischen Kapitel aus dem Paradies der Weisheitüber die Medizin des Ali b. Sahl Rabban al-Tabari(Wiesbaden, 1953).

See also Carl Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Literatur (Leiden, 1943), 265: and supp. I (1937), 414–415: Fuat Sezgin,Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums, III (Leiden, 1970), 236–244, with a valuable bibliography: George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, I (Baltimore. 1927), 546–549, 574: and S.Hamarneh, “Contributions of Ali al-Tabari to Ninth Century Arabic Culture,” in Folia Orientalia (Cracow), 12 (1970), 91–101. On particular subjects, see D.V. Subba Reddy, “Indian Medicine in Firdausu’l-hikmat of ‘Alīb. Rabban al-Tabari”, in Bulletin of the Department of the History of Medicine (Hyderabad), 1 (1963), 26–49: W. Schmucker, Die pflanzliche und mineralische Materia Medica in Firdaus al-hikma des Tabari (Bonn. 1969): and S. Hamarneh, Index of Mss. on Medicine and Pharmacy in the Zahiriyyah Library(Damascus, 1969), 77–82 (Arabic text).

Sami Hamarneh

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Al-T?abari, Abu’L-H?asan ‘Ali Ibn Sahl Rabban

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Al-T?abari, Abu’L-H?asan ‘Ali Ibn Sahl Rabban