Al-Allamah al-Sayyid Muhammad Husayn at-Tabataba’i (1892-1981) is one of the greatest and the most original thinkers of the contemporary Muslim world. He was a prolific writer and an inspiring teacher, who devoted whole of his life to Islamic studies. His interests were varied and the scope of his learning was vast. His books number about forty-four, three of which are collections of his articles on various aspects of Islam and the Qur’an. His major contributions are in the fields of tafsir, philosophy and history of the Shi’ah faith. In philosophy the most important of his works is Usul-e falsafah wa rawish-e-riyalism (The Principles of Philosophy and the method of realism), which has been published in five volumes with explanatory notes and commentary of Martyr Murtadha Mutahhari. It deals with the Islamic outlook of the world, which is not only opposed to idealism that negates the reality of the corporeal world, but is also opposed to the materialistic conception of the world, which reduces all reality to ambiguous materialistic myths and fabrications. The point is established that while the Islamic world-outlook is realistic, both the idealistic and materialistic outlooks are unrealistic. His other major philosophical work is a voluminous commentary of al-Asfar al-‘arba’ah, the magnum opus of Mulla Sadra, the last of the great Muslim thinkers of the medieval age. Besides these, he wrote extensively on philosophical issues. His humanist approach is underlined by his three books on man – before the world, in this world and after this world. His philosophy is overloaded with sociological treatment of human problems. His two other works, Bidayat al-hikmah and Nihayat al-hikmah, are considered among works of a high order in Muslim philosophy.
He wrote several treatises on the doctrines and history of the Shi’ah. One of these books comprises his clarifications and expositions about Shi’ah faith in reply to the questions posed by the famous French orientalist Henry Corbin. Another of his books on this topic Shi’ah dar Islam was translated into English by Sayyid Husayn Nasr under the title The Shi’ite Islam. These books serve as a good means of removing popular misconceptions about the Shi’ah and can pave the way for a better inter-sectarian understanding among Muslim schools.
If a single work is to be named as his masterpiece, al-Mizan can be mentioned without hesitation, which is the outcome of the ‘Allamah’s lifelong labor in the sphere of Qur’anic studies. His method, style and approach are uniquely different from those of all other exegetes of the Qur’an.
Among the aspects of ‘Allamah Tabataba’I’s personality is his unprecedented success as a great teacher. Among his pupils we find a group of such luminaries and thinkers of eminence in their own right as Martyr Murtada Mutahhari, Martyr Beheshti, Hasan Hasanzadeh Amuli and Husayn Nasr.
The ‘Allamah was also a good poet. He composed the poetry mainly in Persian, but occasionally in Arabic also.
The History of Al-Mizan:
‘Allamah Tabataba’I, who came to the Hawzah of Qum in 1325 A.H., wrote and lectured extensively on different branches of Islamic sciences. Commentary and exegesis of the Qur’an was one of the topics of his discussions, which he held with the scholars and students of the Howzeh-ye ‘Ilmiyyah of Qum. About the motive of writing al-Mizan, ‘Allamah Tabataba’I himself states that when he came to Qum from Tabriz, he tried to evaluate the requirements of the Islamic society as well as the conditions prevailing in the Howzeh-ye ‘Ilmiyyah of Qum, and after due consideration of the matter he came to the conclusion that the school was badly in need of a commentary of the Qur’an for a better understanding and more effective instruction of the sublime meanings of the purest of all Islamic texts and the highest of all Divine gifts. On the other hand, since materialistic notions were gaining prevalence, there was a great need for a rational and philosophical discourse to enable the Howzah to rise to the occasion for elaborating the intellectual and doctrinal principles of Islam with the help of rational arguments in order to defend the Islamic position. He thus considered it his duty to make efforts in fulfilling these two urgent needs with the help of God., the Most High. The lectures on exegesis of the Qur’an were planned according to this scheme. Perhaps ‘Allamah Tabataba’I might have delivered lectures on the entire Qur’an for his students for several times, and in the meanwhile he might have written a commentary. During these sessions of well-thought out discourse he might have rendered these lectures into his terse and eloquent prose, which was later printed in a number of volumes.
The first edition of al-Mizan in Arabic was printed in Iran and then it was printed in Beirut. Till now more than three editions have been printed in Iran and in Beirut in large numbers, and very few of the public and private libraries will be found without a complete set of it. All other libraries, too, at least have some of the volumes of this commentary on their shelves.
The original text of al-Mizan is written in Arabic, consisting of twenty volumes, and each volume has about four hundred pages of big size. It was intended that all those interested in reading the exegesis of the Qur’an may be properly benefited from this treasure of the Qur’anic teachings. Some of the pupils of ‘Allamah Tabataba’I have translated this book into Persian under his able direction and supervision, and each one of the Arabic volume was translated in two volumes of the Persian, making a total number of forty. The share of this responsibility was shouldered by Aqa Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Musawi Hamadani. With the view that the entire Persian translation of al-Mizan should not appear in different styles, which would have affected the book’s readability, ‘Allamah Tabataba’I gave him the beginning volumes of al-Mizan also for retranslation. Twelve volumes of al-Mizan, corresponding to 6 Arabic volumes, have so far appeared in English, translated by the late Mawlana Sa’eed Akhtar Ridwi, and it is hoped that the other volumes would be rendered into English by another translator in the near future. We also hope that this fine exegesis of the Divine words of the Qur’an will be translated into other living languages of the world.
Biography of Late Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai By: Mohammad Yazdi
Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i was born in Tabriz in A.H. (lunar) 1321 or A.H. (solar) 1282, (A.D 1903) in a family of descendants of the Holy Prophet, which for fourteen generations has produced outstanding Islamic scholars. He received his earliest education in his native city, mastering the elements of Arabic and the religious sciences, and at about the age of twenty set out for the great Shiite University of Najaf Ashraf to continue more advance studies.
Most students in the madrasahs follow the branch of transmitted sciences” (al-‘ulum al-naqilyah), especially the sciences dealing with the Divine Law, fiqh or jurisprudence and usul al-fiqh or the principles of jurisprudence. Ayatullah Tabataba’i, however, sought to master both branches of the traditional sciences; the transmitted and the intellectual he studied Divine Law and the principles of jurisprudence with two of the great masters of that day, Mirza Muhammad Husayn Na’ini and Shaykh Muhammad Husayn Isfahani.
In addition to formal learning, or what the traditional Muslin sources “acquired science” (‘ilm-i husuli), Ayatullah Tabataba’i sought after that “immediate science” (‘ilmi-I-hudari) or gnosis through which knowledge turns into vision of the supernal realities. He was fortunate in finding a great master of Islamic gnosis, Mirza Al-Qadi, who initiated him into the Divine mysteries and guided him in his journey toward spiritual perfection.
Ayatullah Tabataba’i returned to Tabriz in A.H (solar) 1314 (AD 1934) and spent a few quiet years in that city teaching a small number of disciples, but he was as yet unknown to the religious circles of Persia at large. It was the devastating events of the Second World War and the Russian occupation of Persia that brought ‘ Ayatullah Tabataba’i from Tabriz to Qum in A.H. (solar) 1324 (A.H. 1945) Qum was then, and continues to be, the centre of religious studies in Persia. In his quiet and unassuming manner Ayatullah Tabataba’i began to teach in this holy city, concentrating on Qura’nic commentary and traditional Islamic philosophy and theosophy, which had not been taught in Qum for many years. His magnetic personality and spiritual presence soon attracted some of the most intelligent and competent of the students to him, and gradually he made the teachings of Mulla Sadri, once again a cornerstone of the traditional curriculum.
The activities of Ayatullah Tabataba’i since he came to Qum have also included frequent visits to Tehran. After the Second World War, when Marxism was fashionable among some of the youth in Tehran, he was the only religious scholar who took the pains to study the philosophical basis of Communism and supply a response to dialectical materialism from the traditional point of view. The fruit of this effort was one of his major works, UsuI-i-falsafah Wa rawish-i ri’alism (The Principles of Philosophy and the Method: of Realism), in which he defended realism in its traditional and medieval sense against all dialectical philosophies. He also trained a number of disciples who belong to the community of Persians with a modern education.
Ayatullah Tabataba’i has therefore exercised a profound influence in both the traditional and modern circles in Persia. He has tried to create a new intellectual elite among the modern educated classes who wish to be acquainted with Islamic intellectuality as well as with the modern world Many among his traditional students who belong to the class of ulama have tried to follow his example in this important endeavour Some of his students, such as Sayyid Jalal al-Din Ashtiyan’i of Mashhad University and Murtada Mutahhari of Tehran University, are themselves scholars of considerable reputation Allamah Tabataba’i often speaks of others among his students who possess great spiritual qualities but do not manifest themselves outwardly
In addition to a heavy program of teaching and guidance, ‘Ayatullah Tabataba’i has occupied himself with writing many books and articles which attest to his remarkable intellectual powers and breadth of learning within the world of the traditional Islamic sciences.
The grave of Allamah Tabatabai