Collectors of the Hadiths: Muhammad al-Tabari

Islamic manuscript

Muhammad al-Tabari was a prominent scholar, historian, expert in Islam, commentator of the Quran and collector of the hadiths in the third century after Hidjra (815-912). His legacy in the interpretation of the Quran was so tremendous that some even listed him among the mujaddids of the 3rd century of Hidjra (the ‘renovators of faith’ who according to the Prophet emerge every hundred years, the ones for the 3rd century are normally defined to be al-Bukhari and al-Ashari)

Imam al-Tabari was born in Persia in 839. His father was a wealthy land owner. After his father’s death, Muhammad inherited hos estate and could afford to travel. Since childhood the boy exhibited outstanding abilities. At 7, he knew the whole of the Holy Quran by heart, at 8 directed collective prayer of his fellow Muslims, at 9 went about collecting and writing down the noble hadiths of Prophet Muhammad.

Al-Tabari was keen tobecome a student of the famous Islam teacher imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, however by the time he got to Baghdad, imam Ahmad was dead. Nonetheless, imam al-Tabari had prominent scholars as teachers, such as the revered imam al-Razi.

Muhammad Ibn Jariral-Tabari is famous first and foremost for his two main works – the interpreteation of the Quran called ‘Tafsir al-Tabari’ and the history of the Islamic world called ‘Tarikh al-Tabari’.

Tafsir al-Tabari is an extensive body of writing which lists interpretations and commentary of the verses of the Holy Quran listed in a certain order. The imam begins by giving the meaning of the verse, then relays the opinions of the Prophet’s companions and their clients, the tabiun, and also lists the sharia rulings pronounced on the basis of this or that verse. This was the first ever wwork in the history of Islam that attempted a systematic interpretation of the Quran. It became the canonical tafsir used by all subsequent interpreters. The great theologian imam an-Nawawi would say in 400 years that ‘The umma is unanimous in believing that nobody has put together a tafsir excelling the one by al-Tabari.’

Imam al-Tabari’s other major work was the ‘Tarikh al-Tabari’ (‘The History of the Prophets and Kings’), which earned him the fame of the ‘father of Muslim historiography’. This is a universal history from the Creation to the 9th century, the most complete and detailed book among other such histories which holds its authority up until this day. The book was completed in 914.

Finally, the last famous work of imam al-Tabari was the collection of the hadiths ‘Tahdhib al-Athar’, which, unfortunately, he did not have time to finish. This book was a work of particularly meticulous diligence in selecting the hadiths and contained, same as the imam’s Tafsir, detailed commentary of each hadith. The collection was made up of the hadiths from each o the ten companions whom the Prophet promised Paradise (asharaa al-mubasharun), the hadiths from the members of the Prophet’s famil and their clients (Ahl al-Bayt), as well as the hadiths stemming from the Prophet’s cousin and companion ibn Abbas. Each hadith was supplemented with the full chain of narrators, the opinions of all the scholars and their rationale, as well as the explanations of any terms which featured therein, including references and allusions.

Unfortunately, this monumental work which obody can boast to have equaled in excellence was never completed and stopped with the death of imam Muhammad al-Tabari in 922.