Baghdad, the metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphs and the dreamland of the Arabian Nights was the highest seat of learning in the world during the Mediaeval times. It had attracted within its portals some of the greatest minds of the age. There lived on one of its suburbs an old man of Turkish blood with sparse beard and good physique. One evening, a stately procession, followed by a large retinue, stopped at his humble cottage. Soon after the highest dignitary of the state, the Grand Vizier of the Abbasid Caliphate was brought into the presence of the old man, who was absorbed in his study.
This old man was Tabari, one of the greatest historians of Islam. The Caliph had offered him a handsome pension and sent costly presents in recognition of his contribution to Islamic learning. The celebrated historian refused to accept anything for his services to learning as he did not want to sell his pen.
The advent of Islam paved the way for the growth of historiography in Arabia. Arabs had a great attachment for their past. They even maintained the lineage of horses and camels. The abundance of historical data in the Holy Qur'an provided a practical incentive for the study of history for the followers of Islam.
The learned discourses of the Holy Prophet of Islam were always punctuated with historical references to the past, which awakened an interest hitherto unknown, for historiography among the adherents of the new faith. History is one of the most copious sections of the Arabic literature.
The German Orientalist Tenfeld collected more than 590 historical works in Arabic written during the first thousand years of the Islamic era. The writing of history commenced during the Umayyad period and was developed during the Abbasid times. The author of "Kashf-uz-Zunun" gives a long list of 1,300 historical books written in Arabic during the first few centuries of Islam. Only a few historical works of the Umayyad period have survived.
The third century of the Islamic era is a period of great intellectual attainment. It was in this period that some of the highest intellectual luminaries had risen on the horizon of Islamic learning, whose light guided the later writers in diverse branches of knowledge. Muhammad Ibni Jarir Abu Jafar Al-Tabari (838-923 AD), was one of them and is today recognized as the father of Islamic History and one of the greatest historians that the world has produced.
Born at Amol in Tabaristan the mountainous district of Persia, situated alongside the Capsian sea, Tabari is said to have learnt Qur'an by heart at the age of seven. He received his education at Rayy, Baghdad, Waist, Basra, Kufa and Furstat (Old Cairo). He made extensive study tours of Persia, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in quest of knowledge and for collecting information for his monumental historical works. After his father's death, he was reduced to great poverty. On one occasion, he had to sell the sleeves of his shirt in order to buy bread. Later he was appointed a tutor to the son of the Vizier Obaidullah Ibni Yahya. His finances then improved slightly. He journeyed to Egypt, but soon returned to Baghdad where he remained until his death as a teacher of Tradition and Islamic Law. According to Yaqut, for forty years Tabari wrote forty pages a day. Yaqut states that Tabari was contemplating to write two books --- a history and a commentary of the Holy Quran of 30 thousand leaves (60 thousand pages) each, but his friends dissuaded him that human life would not be sufficient to undertake as well as go through such gigantic works. Hence, he reduced the two books to 1/10th of the original size, ie 3,000 leaves each.
Tabari lived for 85 years, died in 933 AD and was buried at Baghdad. Among his pupils was Ahmad Ibni Kamil, the person to who Miskawayah owed his guidance in history.
Among his works, the two most outstanding which influenced the later writers are (1) "The Exhaustive Commentary on the Qur'an" and (2) "Tarikh-ur-Rasul wal Maluk" (Annals of Apostles and Kings) which is his universal history. His commentary on the Qur'an comprising about 3,000 leaves is a standard book, have the largest collection of exegetical traditions. `All the books were eclipsed by the Annals of Tabari' adds Encyclopaedia Britannica, `whose fame lasts up to the present time. The value of the book is very great. The author's selection of tradition is usually happy and most important episodes were treated with most fulness of detail'. Several translated and abridged editions of the Annals of Tabari have been published. One of these in 13 volumes was published in Lyden. His History (Annals) begins with the creation of the world and costliness up to 302 A.H (915 A.C.). This History which is renowned for details and accuracy was edited by M. J. de Geoje and published in three series consisting of 13 volumes excluding two extra volumes meant for Indices, Introduction and Glossary. The Samanid Minister, Al-Balami had published an abridged Persian Edition of it. This was translated into French by H. Zotenberg.
Tabari's favourite method of presenting narrative is through Isnad. His chief sources of information where the earlier historical works of Ibni Ishaq, Kalbi lbni Saad and Moqaffa and Persian translations.
Writing about the `Annals' of Tabari, in his "A History of Muslim Historiography" Franz Rosental states: `Al Tabari's world history was incomparably more important than Al Yaqubi's who soon was all but forgotten. Tabari brought to his work the scrupulousness and indefatigable longwindedness of the theologian, the accuracy and love of order of the scholarly and the insight into political, justice affairs of the practising lawyer politician. All those where qualities which commended enduring and ever-increasing respect in the intellectual circles of orthodox Islam. It was therefore, only natural that his historical work never ceased to exercise a tremendous influence upon future historians as a model of how history should be written. The story of Muhammad (sws) follows the sirah "pattern".
The Arabic historical composition reached its zenith in Tabari and Masudi, who were pioneers in this branch of learning until the birth of lbni Khuldoon.
His second great work is his Commentary on the Holy Qur'an which comprising about 3,000 pages, is a standard book, having the largest collection of exegetical traditions. it is like "Annals", known for the same fulness of details. This monumental work of Tabari was published in 30 volumes, excluding extra Index volume at Cairo in 1902-03. The size of this work and spirit of independence pervading it, provided a check to its popularity and wide circulation. This commentary has much influenced well-known scholars like Baghawi and Suyuti. An account of it with brief extracts has been given by O. Loth in the "Zeitschrift der Deutscher Morgenlendischen Gesellschaft". Persian and Turkish translations of the commentary exist in manuscript.
His other works include his voluminous legal work "Ikhtilaaf" comprising 3,000 leaves, his "Tahzibul Athar", dealing with the traditions of the Prophet of Islam and "Al-Basit" a juristic treatise. he had projected a third voluminous book, dealing with the traditions of the Companions of the Prophet of Islam, which could not be completed. A list of Tabari's minor works is given in the "Fihrist" of Ibni Nadeem.
This influence of Tabari's historical works and commentary on Qur'an may be traced in later writers. The well-known historian Miskawayh is indebted for his historical knowledge to lbni Kamil, the biographer and disciple of Tabari. His Annals was the greatest source of information and the most outstanding historical work till the birth of lbni Khuldoon. This was the chief source of guidance for such famous historians as Abul Fida, Ibni Atheer, Miskawayah and lbni Kamil. His annalistic method in the writing of History was followed by Al-Waqidi, Miskhawayah, lbni Atheer and Abul Fida. His commentary on Holy Qur'an was studied and followed by Allama Suyuti and Baghawai. Thus Abu Jafar Al-Tabari, known as `Livy of Arabs' and the father of Islamic History is one of the greatest historians of the Mediaeval times who paved the way for the gigantic growth of Muslim Historiography in the world.