Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (839-923) was a Moslem historian and religious scholar whose annals are the most important source for the early history of Islam. He is also a renowned author of a monumental commentary on the Koran.
Al-Tabari was born in Amol in the province of Tabaristan south of the Caspian Sea. His family was probably of Persian origin. Gifted with a prodigious memory, he knew the Koran by heart at the age of 7. After receiving his early education in the religious sciences at Amol, he continued his studies in Rayy and Baghdad, which he reached about the year 855. Not later than 857 he visited Basra, Wasit, and Kufa to hear the famous scholars there. After his return to Baghdad he studied religious law according to the doctrine of al-Shafii, which he followed for some time before establishing his own doctrine.
After visiting several towns in Syria al-Tabari went to Egypt in 867, where he, already a famous scholar, was honored by a splendid reception. After revisiting Syria he returned to Egypt for a second stay in 870. In Egypt he defended his own independent legal doctrine in disputations with the prominent Shafiite scholar al-Muzani. He returned to Baghdad to stay there for the remainder of his life, though he made at least two trips to Tabaristan, the second one in 903.
Fully devoted to writing and teaching, al-Tabari refused an appointment as judge in 912. His lectures attracted large flocks of students. However, after his second trip to Tabaristan, he aroused the hostility of the Hanbalite school, which was predominant in Baghdad, by refusing to recognize its founder, Ibn Hanbal, as a scholar of the law. The Hanbalites accused him of heresy in minor doctrinal points, attacked him and his house, and, even after he apologized to them, continued to prevent students from attending his lectures. Al-Tabari died on Feb. 15, 923. His school of legal doctrine survived for only a few generations.
In his numerous books on all fields of religious learning al-Tabari summed up the work of the earlier generations of Moslem scholars. His enormous commentary on the Koran, which he completed in 883/884, gathers the statements of all famous early exegetes concerning the circumstances of the promulgation of the Koranic verses and their meaning. His own comments are mostly concerned with lexical and grammatical questions. Sometimes he points out theological or juristic implications favoring traditionalist doctrine.
Al-Tabari's universal history, completed in 915, begins with the age of the prophets, patriarchs, and early kings, followed by Sassanian history, the age of Mohammed, and the era of Islam to the year 915. After the hijra (622) it is arranged annalistically. Al-Tabari scrupulously states his sources, most of which are lost, and reproduces them without changes. Often he quotes two or more conflicting reports on the same event. With few exceptions he shows remarkable discrimination in the choice of his sources. Particularly valuable are the sections on Sassanian and Umayyad history. Al-Tabari's other works are lost except for some fragments and minor treatises.
A small section of al-Tabari's history was translated into English by Elma Marin as The Reign of al-Mutasim, 833-842 (1951). Information on al-Tabari is in Reynold A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (1907; 2d ed. 1930), and H. A. R. Gibb, Arabic Literature: An Introduction (1926; 2d rev. ed. 1963).