Tabari was born in Amol, Tabaristan (some 20 km south of the Caspian Sea) in the winter of 838–9. He memorized the Qur'an at seven, was a qualified prayer leader at eight and began to study the prophetic traditions at nine. He left home to study in 236AH (850–851AD) when he was twelve. He retained close ties to his home town. He returned at least twice, the second time in 290AH (903AD) when his outspokenness caused some uneasiness and led to his quick departure.
He first went to Rayy (Rhages), where he remained for some five years. A major teacher in Rayy was Abu Abdillah Muhammad ibn Humayd al-Razi, who had earlier taught in Baghdad but was now in his seventies. While in Ray, he also studied Muslim jurisprudence according to the Hanafi school. Among other material, ibn Humayd taught Jarir Tabari the historical works of ibn Ishaq, especially al-Sirah, his life of Muhammad. Tabari was thus introduced in youth to pre-Islamic and early Islamic history. Tabari quotes ibn Humayd frequently, but little is known about Tabari's other teachers in Rayy.
Tabari then travelled to study in Baghdad under ibn Hanbal, who, however, had recently died (in late 855 or early 856). Tabari possibly made a pilgrimage prior to his first arrival in Baghdad. He left Baghdad probably in 242 A.H. (856–7) to travel through the southern cities of Basra, Kufah and Wasit. There, he met a number of eminent and venerable scholars. In addition to his previous study of Hanafi law, Tabari also studied the Shafi'i, Maliki and Zahiri rites. Tabari's study of the latter school was with the founder, Dawud al-Zahiri, and Tabari hand-copied and transmitted many of his teacher's works. Tabari was, then, well-versed in four of the five remaining Sunni legal schools before founding his own independent, yet eventually extinct, school. His debates with his former teachers and classmates were known, and served as a demonstration of said independence. Notably missing from this list is the Hanbali school, the fourth largest legal school within Sunni Islam in the present era. Tabari's view of Ibn Hanbal, the school's founder, became decidedly negative later in life. Tabari did not give Ibn Hanbal's dissenting opinion any weight at all when considering the various views of jurists, stating that Ibn Hanbal had not even been a jurist at all but merely a recorder of Hadith.
On his return to Baghdad, he took a tutoring position from the vizier, Ubaydallah ibn Yahya ibn Khaqan. This would have been before A.H. 244 (858) since the vizier was out of office and in exile from 244 to 248 (858–9 to 862). There is an anecdote told that Tabari had agreed to tutor for ten dinars a month, but his teaching was so effective and the boy's writing so impressive that the teacher was offered a tray of dinars and dirhams. The ever-ethical Tabari declined the offer saying he had undertaken to do his work at the specified amount and could not honourably take more. That is one of a number of stories about him declining gifts or giving gifts of equal or greater amount in return.
In his late twenties, he travelled to Syria, Palestine and Egypt. In Beirut, he made the highly significant connection of al-Abbas b. al-Walid b. Mazyad al-'Udhri al-Bayruti (c.169-270/785-6 to 883–4). Al-Abbas instructed Tabari in the Syrian school's variant readings of the Qur'an and transmitted through his father al-Walid the legal views of al-Awza'i, Beirut's prominent jurist from a century earlier.
Tabari arrived in Egypt in 253AH (867), and, some time after 256/870, he returned to Baghdad, possibly making a pilgrimage on the way. If so, he did not stay long in the Hijaz. Tabari had a private income from his father while he was still living and then the inheritance. He took money for teaching. Among Tabari's students was Ibn al-Mughallis, who was also a student of Tabari's own teacher Muhammad bin Dawud al-Zahiri; Ibn al-Mughallis lavished Tabari with almost excessive praise. He never took a government or a judicial position.
Tabari was some fifty years old when al-Mu'tadid became caliph. He was well past seventy in the year his History was published. During the intervening years, he was famous, if somewhat controversial, personality. Among the figures of his age, he had access to sources of information equal to anyone, except, perhaps, those who were directly connected with decision making within the government. Most, if not all, the materials for the histories of al-Mu'tadid, al-Muktafi, and the early years of al-Muqtadir were collected by him about the time the reported events took place. His accounts are as authentic as one can expect from that period.
Tabari's final years were marked by conflict with the Hanbalite followers of Al-Hasan ibn 'Ali al-Barbahari, a student of the students of Ibn Hanbal. Tabari was known for his view that Hanbalism was not a legitimate school of thought, as Ibn Hanbal was a compiler of traditions and not a proper jurist. The Hanbalites of Baghdad would often stone Tabari's house, escalating the persecution to the point where Abbasid authorities had to subdue them by force. The Baghdad chief of police tried to organize a debate between Tabari and the Hanbalites to settle their differences. While Tabari accepted, the Hanbalites did not show up but instead came later to pelt his house with stones again. The constant threat of violence from the Hanbalites hung over Tabari's head for the rest of his life.
Tabari finally died on February 17, 923. Abbasid authorities actually buried Tabari in secret as they feared mob violence by the Hanbalites. Regardless, Tabari was remembered positively by contemporaries such as Ibn Duraid, and the Hanbalites were condemned by Abbasid authorities in their entirety for persecuting opponents, roughly a decade later.
He is described as having a dark complexion, large eyes and a long beard. He was tall and slender and his hair and beard remained black until he was very old. He was attentive to his health, avoiding red meat, fats and other foods he deemed unhealthy. He was seldom sick before his last decade when he suffered from bouts of pleurisy. When he was ill, he treated himself (to the approval of physicians). He had a sense of humour, though serious subjects he treated seriously. He had studied poetry when young and enjoyed writing, reciting and participating in poetic exchanges. It is said that he was asked in Egypt about al-Tirimmah and was able to recite this 7th century poet's work for Egyptians who had merely heard al-Tirimmah's name. He was witty and urbane, clean and well mannered. He avoided coarse speech, instead displaying refined eloquence. He had a good grounding in grammar, lexicography and philology. Such were considered essential for Qur'anic commentary. He knew Persian and was acquainted with the origins of various foreign loan words in Arabic from a number of other languages.
He died in Baghdad on February 17, 923.
Al-Tabari wrote history, theology and Qur'anic commentary. His legal writings were published first and then continued to appear throughout his life. Next were his commentaries on the Qur'an. Lastly, his history was published. His biographers stress his reverence for scholarship and his keen intent to offer his readers hard fact.
He did not hesitate to express his independent judgement (ijtihad). He stated his assessment as to which of the sources he cited was accurate. This was more understandably an aspect of his theology than of his history. This does not mean he saw himself as innovative. On the contrary, he was very much opposed to religious innovation. The story goes that when he was near death ibn Kamil suggested he forgive his enemies. He said he was willing to do so, except for the person who had described him as an innovator. In general Tabari's approach was conciliatory and moderate, seeking harmonious agreement between conflicting opinions.
Initially he identified as a Shafi'ite in Fiqh law and Shafi'ites were happy to have him so considered. He was later seen as having established his own school. Although he had come to Baghdad in youth to study from Hanbal, he incurred the vehement wrath of the Hanbalites. Tabari's madhhab is usually designated by the name Jariri after his patronymic. However, in the keenly competitive atmosphere of the times, his school failed to endure.
While we still lack a satisfactory scholarly biography of this remarkable scholar, interested readers now have access to a meticulous and well-annotated translation of the sections from al-Tabari's chronicle, which constitute the most important primary source for the history of his reign. Anyone familiar with al-Tabari's chronicle knows what a formidable challenge it poses for a translator, especially for one attempting to make it accessible to an audience that includes non-specialists. There is, first of all, the obstacle of al-Tabari's Arabic prose, which varies greatly in style and complexity according to the source he is using (and apparently quoting verbatim). The sections in the McAuliffe translation, drawn mostly from al-Mada'ini and 'Umar ibn Shabba, do not represent the most obscure passages to be found in al-Tabari, but they are nonetheless full of linguistic ambiguities and difficulties for the translator.
He wrote extensively; his voluminous corpus containing three main titles:History of the Prophets and Kings – (Arabic: تاريخ الرسل والملوك, Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk, commonly called Tarikh al-Tabari)
The first of the two large works, generally known as the Annals (Arabic Tarikh al-Tabari). This is a universal history from the time of Qur'anic Creation to 915, and is renowned for its detail and accuracy concerning Muslim and Middle Eastern history. Tabari's work is one of the major primary sources for historians.The Commentary on the Qur'an – (Arabic: جامع البيان عن تأويل آي القرآن, Jami` al-bayan `an ta'wil 'ay al-Qur'an, commonly called Tafsir al-Tabari)
His second great work was the commentary on the Qur'an, (Arabic Tafsir al-Tabari), which was marked by the same fullness of detail as the Annals. Abul-Qaasim Ibn 'Aqil Al-Warraq (رحمه الله) says: " Imām Ibn Jarir (رحمه الله) once said to his students: “Are you all ready to write down my lesson on the Tafsir (commentary) of the entire Holy Quran?" They enquired as to how lengthy it would be. "30 000 pages"! he replied. They said: "This would take a long time and cannot be completed in one lifetime. He therefore made it concise and kept it to 3000 pages (note, this was in reference to the old days when they used ink and hard-paper which was a bit long format today). It took him seven years to finish it from the year 283 until 290. It is said that it is the most voluminous Athari Tafsir (i.e., based on hadith not intellect) existent today so well received by the Ummah that it survived to this day intact due to its popularity and widely printed copies available worldwide. Scholars such as Baghawi and Suyuti used it largely. It was used in compiling the Tafsir ibn Kathir which is often referred to as Mukhtasar Tafsir at-Tabari.Tahdhīb al-Athār (تهذيب الآثار) was begun by Tabari. This was on the traditions transmitted from the Companions of Muhammad. It was not, however, completed.
A persual of Tabari shows that in fact he relied on a variety of historians and other authors such as Abu Mihnaf, Sayf b. 'Umar, Ibn al-Kalbi, 'Awana b. al-Hakam, Nasr b. Muzahim, al-Mada'ini, 'Urwa b. al-Zubayr, al-Zuhri, Ibn Ishaq, Waqidi, Wahb b. Munabbih, Ka'b al-Ahbar, Ibn al-Matni, al Haggag b. al-Minhal, Hisham b. 'Urwa, al-Zubayr b. Bakkar and so forth, in addition to oral accounts that were circulating at the time. In recounting his history, Tabari used numerous channels to give accounts. These are both channels that are given by the same author in a work, such as for example three different accounts that start with the isnad al-Harita.
It is thus an extremely early witness to the reception of al-Tabari's text-indeed much earlier than the sources that are customarily pressed into service to improve our understanding of the Ta'rikh al-rusul wa-l-muluk, e.g., Miskawayh, Ibn 'Asakir, Ibn al-Athir, and Ibn Khallikan. Second, since al-Azdi was writing in the decades following al-Tabari, his Ta'rikh can say something about the reception of al-Tabari's Ta'rikh among those who immediately followed the great master. That al-Tabari's history was immensely significant we can all agree; but as to precisely how he became so significant there is no clear consensus.8 Third-and returning to Forand's insight-al-Azdi frequently drew on the same authorities tapped by al-Tabari, but whose works are for the most part now lost, such as Abu Ma'shar (170/786), Abu Mikhnaf (157/774), al-Haytham ibn 'Adi (207/822), al-Mada'ini (around 228/843), and 'Umar ibn Shabba (262/878).
In 78.29 the Qur'an says "each thing we enumerate as [or in] a kitab", and al-Tabari appends to the verse by way of elaboration "its number, its amount, and its extent-the knowledge of (any) thing does not escape us" (XXX: 10). This might suggest that al-Tabari considered kitab merely as a metaphor for Allah's knowledge. However, from al-Tabari's comments elsewhere on Allah's knowledge it is quite evident that he is not speaking metaphorically. For example, in 35.11 where the Qur'an states that the length or shortness of a person's life is in a kitab is explained by al-Tabari as "it is in a kitab with Allah, written (maktab) which he computes and knows" (XXII: 71-2).
Al-Tabari reports that al-Mahdi was just about to promote Harun as heir apparent ahead of Musa when he died, and adds by way of corroboration another report that al-Mahdi set off for Masabadhan in a great hurry. However, it may be doubted that al-Mahdi at the time shared the reporter's subsequent knowledge of his imminent demise there, and none of the other reported circumstances of his death suggest that he was in a hurry to go anywhere. On the contrary, the sources in general make it clear that he had gone to Masabadhan for recreation, and they occasionally say so explicitly. Al-Tabari does say explicitly that envoys were sent to the provinces, where they obtained the oath of allegiance not only to al-Hadi as caliph but also to Harun as heir apparent (wali l-'ahd) (38). This was probably the first occasion on which Harun was so acknowledged. Harun himself, with the advice of al-Rabi', sent out these envoys, and all of this must have been presented to his brother on his return as a fait accompli.
After so many exchanges of recrimination with his own men, and after various attempts to regroup what was becoming a progressively disorderly army, 'Ali is reported by Tabari in a most revealing passage to have explained his acceptance of the arbitration as such: "It is no sin but only a failure of judgement." Nothing sums up the moral and religious complexity of the situation better than this sentence. The group that made a big issue of 'Ali's dilemma were the Kharijites, who for reasons of their own could see clearly the religious and political issues involved, who agreed neither with 'Ali nor with his opponent but were in turn incapable of administering a polity of their own. Tabari's account also brings that out very clearly when he relates (p. 115) how the assembled Kharijites, who were quite willing to expound the reasons for their recession from 'Ali's forces, would one by one refuse to take the leadership of their own group, a situation quite characteristic of religious purists when confronted with "dirty" politics.
Realistic depictions alternate with formalized and archetypal narrative. Tabari is careful to give his reports of these conquests a religious frame (expressions such as "Nu'aym wrote to 'Umar about the victory that God had given him" [pp. 25–26] abound), though it is worth noting that Tabari describes the initiation of the campaign in pragmatic rather than ideological terms. He states that 'Umar's decision to invade came as a result of his realization "that Yazdajird was making war on him every year and when it was suggested to him that he would continue to do this until he was driven out of his kingdom" (p. 2). The religious frame in Tabari's account is therefore not inflexible or exclusive.