In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section al-Tabari

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • General Works
  • Biographies
  • Major Published Works by al-Tabari in Arabic
  • Translated Works by al-Tabari
  • Works about al-Tabari’s Taʾrīkh
  • Theoretical Examinations of Al-Tabari’s Taʾrīkh
  • Works about Al-Tabari’s Tafsīr
  • Theoretical Examinations of Al-Tabari’s Tafsīr
  • Works Comparing Al-Tabari and Ibn Kathir
  • Al-Tabari’s Sources and Peers
  • Al-Tabari as Author or Compiler
  • Al-Tabari’s Other Works

Islamic Studies al-Tabari
Rebecca Williams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0223


Perhaps no other scholarly figure of the 9th and 10th centuries CE has the widespread reputation enjoyed by al-Tabari (b. c. 829–d. 923). Well known for his works in history, Qurʾan exegesis, tradition, and Islamic law, al-Tabari continues to remain a central figure in the understanding of classical/medieval Islamic civilization. He is known to have traveled widely in search of knowledge and studied under various scholars in his Iran, his birthplace, but also in such other places as Baghdad, Kufa, Basra, Egypt, and Syria. He established his own legal school of thought, but this did not long survive his death. He wrote and worked during a period in which the tenets of Sunni orthodoxy were still being worked out, and so some of his views would be troubling to later Sunni authorities. During his own lifetime, he came into conflict with the proponents of the Hanbali school over such issues as God’s attributes, and he often had to be careful not to appear too critical of the ruling ʿAbbasids, nor too favorable toward the ʿAlids. His reputation, however, was mostly positive, both among medieval Muslim and modern Western scholars, but the centrality of his work has begun to be questioned when compared to other sources that have only recently been published. Regardless, one simply cannot effectively study the historical or religious outlook of Islamic civilization in the medieval period without recourse to at least one of his works. The major controversy about al-Tabari among modern scholars is the role he played in the creation of his works, especially his universal history, Taʾrīkh al-rusul wa’l-mulūk (History of prophets and kings), and his Qurʾan exegesis, Jāmiʿ al-bayān fī tafsīr al-Qurʾān (Compendium of the explanation in the exegesis of the Qurʾan) (the title to this work varies slightly). Many early modern scholars of the 19th and early 20th centuries accepted al-Tabari’s insistence that he was a mere transmitter of received reports, but other scholars from the same and, more so, later periods questioned this, and claimed instead that al-Tabari’s actions in producing these works were sufficiently creative to dub him as their author. This view is by no means universally accepted, however, and many scholars continue to see al-Tabari’s main contribution as a compiler of earlier works that have since been lost.

Reference Works

Entries on al-Tabari are to be found in numerous reference works, and most of these focus on the details of his life, where he traveled, and his important works. Perhaps the most complete is Robinson 2005, since it not only provides the basic details of al-Tabari’s life and works, but also includes discussion of al-Tabari as author/compiler/editor and the popularity of these works after his death. Rippin 1987, too, provides a detailed entry and declares that al-Tabari played a more creative role in his Tafsīr than in his History and discusses his madhhab (legal school of thought). Riddell 2006 focuses on al-Tabari as exegete and discusses the discovery of the first complete manuscript of this work. Melchert 2004 is geared toward the nonspecialist, but points out the distinctions between al-Tabari’s reputation as a jurisprudent among his peers and that as a historian among modern scholars. Bosworth 2000 is definitely intended for the specialist in Islamic studies, and Bosworth notes that while al-Tabari followed the approved pattern of relying on respected authorities, he also occasionally used individual judgment in the creation of his works.

  • Bosworth, Clifford E. “Al-Ṭabarī, Abū Djafar Muḥammad b. Djarīr b. Yazīd.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Vol. 10. Edited by P. J. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel and W. P. Heinrichs, 11. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000.

    Bosworth organizes this article by detailing what is known about al-Tabari’s life, his methodology, and his works. He argues that al-Tabari followed what would become traditional Sunni patterns of belief, and that he engaged in ijtihad while relying mostly upon written source material.

  • Melchert, Christopher. “Tabari, Al- (839–923).” In Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Vol. 2. Edited by Richard C. Martin, 671. New York: Thomson Gale, 2004.

    Points out the differences between al-Tabari’s reputation among his peers and among modern scholars. Notes that he made more use of reason in his works of law than in those of theology.

  • Riddell, Peter G. “Al-Tabari.” In The Qurʾān: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Oliver Leaman, 622–623. New York and London: Routledge, 2006.

    Notes that the first manuscript copy of the Tafsīr was not discovered until 1881 and not published until 1903. Places al-Tabari within the ranks of the ahl al-hadith, and states that his Tafsīr is especially important for its inclusion of numerous variant readings of the Qurʾan.

  • Rippin, Andrew. “Al-Ṭabarī.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 14. Edited by Mircea Eliade, 231–233. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

    Discusses al-Tabari’s methodology and importance; argues that al-Tabari’s madhhab was too close in its tenets to the Shafiʿi school to survive, and claims that al-Tabari was more active in the creation of his Tafsīr than of his History, but emphasizes his overall importance as a scholar.

  • Robinson, Chase F. “Al-Tabari (839–923).” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 311, Arabic Literary Culture, 500–925. Edited by Michael Cooperson and Shawkat M. Toorawa, 332–343. New York: Gale Thomson, 2005.

    Contains the most complete list of al-Tabari’s works found in any reference entry. Describes al-Tabari as “emphatically Sunnī” (p. 335). Notes that he likely identified himself more as a jurist than a historian or exegete.

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