Al-Tabari

Muhammad ibn Jarir ibn Yazid ibn Kathir, Abu Ja`far al-Tabari (d. 310), one of the major mujtahid Imams and the founder of a school of Law which remained for 150 years after his death, then disappeared. He is the author of a massive commentary on the Qur’an; an equally large universal history; a biographical history entitled Tarikh al-Rijal; an encyclopedia of jurisprudence entitled al-Basit and a medium-sized work entitled Latif al-Qawl fi Ahkam Shara’i` al-Islam, which he abridged into a smaller work; a book on the dialects and sciences of the Qur’an entitled al-Qira’at wa al-Tanzil wa al-`Adad; the unfinished book of al-Fada’il on the immense merits of the Companions; al-Manasik on the rituals of Pilgrimage; Sharh al-Sunna (“Explanation of the Sunna”); al-Musnad (“Narrations With Uninterrupted Chains”); the unfinished Tahdhib al-Athar (“Classification of Transmitted Reports”); Tabsir Uli al-Nahi (“Admonishment for the Wise”) for the people of Tabaristan; Ma`alim al-Huda (“Sign-Posts of Guidance”); Ikhtilaf al-Fuqaha‘ (“The Differences Among the Jurists”); Tartib al-`Ulama‘ (“Classification of the Scholars of Knowledge”) etc. Al-Dhahabi praises the latter book and mentions that al-Tabari begins it with the rules of conduct for the purification of the self and the sayings of the Sufis.

In one of his classes al-Tabari asked: “What is the status of one who says: Abu Bakr and `Umar are not two Imams of guidance?” Ibn al-A`lam replied: “He is an innovator.” Al-Tabari said: “An innovator? Just an innovator? Such a person is put to death! Whoever claims that Abu Bakr and `Umar are not two Imams of guidance is definitely put to death!”1

Al-Tabari limited his Tafsir of the Qur’an and his great history to thirty volumes each out of compassion for his students, as he originally intended to write three hundred volumes respectively. Al-Khatib heard the linguist `Ali ibn `Ubayd Allah al-Lughawi say: “Muhammad ibn Jarir spent forty years writing forty pages a day.” Abu Hamid al-Isfarayini the faqih said: “If a man travelled all the way to China in order to obtain the Tafsir of Muhammad ibn Jarir it would not be too much.” This alludes to the hadith narrated from the Prophet — Allah bless and greet him –: “Seek knowledge even as far as China.”2 Husaynak ibn `Ali al-Naysaburi said the first question Ibn Khuzayma asked him was: “Did you write anything from Muhammad ibn Jarir?” Husaynak said no. Why? came the reply. Husaynak said: “He would not show himself, and the Hanbalis forbade people from going in to see him.” Ibn Khuzayma said: “You did poorly. To write from him alone would have been better for you than all those from whom you wrote.” Ibn Khuzayma himself had read al-Tabari’s Tafsir in seven months, after which he said: “I known not, on the face of the earth, anyone more knowledgeable than Abu Ja`far [al-Tabari], and the Hanbalis were unjust towards him.”3

The Caliph al-Muktafi requested al-Tabari to write a certain book for him. When it was finished, a gift was produced for him but he refused to take it. He was told: “You must ask for some need, whatever it is.” He replied: “I ask the Commander of the Faithful to forbid panhandling on the day of Jum`a.” This was done as he requested.4

In Ikhtilaf al-Fuqaha’ al-Tabari mentions the differences of opinion between Malik, al-Awza`i, Sufyan al-Thawri, al-Shafi`i, Abu Hanifah, Abu Yusuf, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan, and Abu Thawr. He mentions some of the jurists among the Companions, the Successors, and their Followers until the second century. When he was asked for the reason why he did not mention Imam Ahmad in his book he replied that Ahmad was not a jurist (faqih) but a hadith scholar (muhaddith). The followers of the Hanbali school disapproved of this and reportedly roused the people against him, preventing visitors and students from visiting him in the daytime, and he died and was buried in his house.

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