Allameh Tabataba’i: Bridging Islamic philosophy and Western thought

SHARE

SHAFAQNA – Allameh Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i is one of the most prominent contemporary philosophers in Shia Islam. He was born in 1903 in the Shadabad province of Tabriz. Tabataba’i was born into a well-known family of scholars and nobles of Iran. By the age of nine he lost both his parents and was left with his younger brother, Muhammad Hassan. One of his relatives, known as Haj-Mirza Baqer Qazi, adopted the young Allameh and his brother. About his childhood and youth Allameh says: “In anyone’s life, there are sweet and sour moments; I especially tasted the bitterness of becoming an orphan in early age. I felt with all my being the hardship of life as an orphan and came across many painful incidents in my life, but the merciful God did not forget me, and did not leave me on my own accord even for a moment. With His divine breath he carried me through slippery moments in my life. I felt as if a hidden power absorbed me and eliminated all barriers from my path.” His early study of Arabic and religious sciences in Tabriz led him to Najaf where he continued his seminary studies. He studied the core Shia education, jurisprudence and theology, but his main interest was philosophy, the intellectual sciences and Islamic mysticism. His life as a scholar and a teacher was devoted to irfan (gnosis) and philosophy. Allameh recalls the early stage of his education: “…four years passed and I did not understand what I should be studying. One day, all of a sudden I felt an inner peace. I became certain, as if I was not the same person anymore…I left all the past incidents- good or badbehind me, I cut off myself from anything and anyone, except the learned people. I became content with the basic daily needs and gave my life for the sake of study, teaching and spreading Islamic thoughts, through teaching to Islamic students… Many nights I spent studying till morning, especially during spring and autumn, I solved many methodical questions during these times! I studied the lessons before class, so when I am face to face with my teachers, I would not have any difficulties.” While in Najaf, Allameh was under financial adversity due to not receiving money from his farm in Tabriz. He had no choice but to return and for ten years in Shadabad he engaged in farming and agriculture. His son, Seyyed Abdolbaghi recalls the time: “I remember very well, my late father constantly engaging himself with work, be it in the cold winter with a coat on his shoulder in snow digging out dirt and soil. During this time due to his extensive work, most of the Qanats (underground water reservoirs) and run down farms were restored, renewed and maintained. Some new farmhouses were built and he even built a summer house within the village for family use.” In 1946, he headed to Qom. In the beginning he was known as Qazi, after his stepfather. However as he was from the Tabataba’i family, he preferred to be called Tabataba’i. In Qom he started teaching in Hawza Ilmiyya (known also as the Theological College, or Divinity School); he invited and encouraged talented students of Islamic seminaries to contribute to the improvement and increase of knowledge by studying and conducting research.

[Allameh’s] impact on Islamic philosophy and Shi’ite thought has been profound. During his teaching years he trained a number of philosophers, who have continued in his footsteps. The most notable of these are Seyyed Murtaza Motahari, Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Willian Chittick.

In 1951, when there was no scientific journal and article which met the religious needs of the Iranian people, Allameh Tabataba’i established an association to conduct research and write papers on different topics in philosophy and Islam. “…he breathed new life into the Shi’a seminaries by establishing courses on the interpretation of the Qur’an and by introducing a novel method of Quranic interpretation. He was a master of Islamic philosophy and a model of spir- ituality.” – Tihrani, (2011), Shining Sun Tabataba’i belonged to the school of Sadr al-Din Shirazi (Mulla Sadra). Mulla Sadra stipulated that since everything is preceded in its being by nonexistence in time, then there is no individuality of any kind, every form of existence is renewed and is therefore impermanent. The universe is continuously renewed, ending and originating. Only God, who is infinite and exists separate from all beings, is permanent and unchanging. Tabataba’i can be considered as a master of the Sadrian school. Allameh was also gravely concerned with the marginalisation of Islam and its minor role in defining national culture and personal identities and shaping intellectual discourse during the reign of the Shah of Iran. He believed Islamic philosophy had the tools to appeal to educated Muslims and preserve the national Islamic identity against the onslaught of Western thought. In 1958 he began correspondence and personal discussions with the French scholar of Islam, Henry Corbin. Within two decades of discussion, Allameh successfully created an Islamic approach to comparative philosophy as the basis for dialogue and debate with Western thought. Allameh Tabataba’i soon concluded that the most important element of Western philosophy is its rooting in realism and its reliance on the realist method. It was this conclusion that led to his influential works on realism in philosophy. ‘Foundation of Realist Philosophy’, first published in 1976. Tabataba’i used the Western method of logic to legitimise Islam to westernised Muslims.

Allameh was also gravely concerned with the marginalisation of Islam and its minor role in defning national culture and personal identities and shaping intellectual discourse during the reign of the Shah of Iran. He believed Islamic philosophy had the tools to appeal to educated Muslims and preserve the national Islamic identity against the onslaught of Western thought.

His impact on Islamic philosophy and Shi’ite thought has been profound. During his teaching years he trained a number of philosophers, who have continued in his footsteps. The most notable of these are Seyyed Murtaza Motahari and Seyyed Hossein Nasr and William Chittick. Among the numerous undertakings of Allameh Tabataba’i ‘Tafsir al-Mizan’, the Qur’anic exegesis, is one of most important. Other works include ‘Comprehensible and Practical Interpretation of the Glorious Quran’, ‘Discussions and Interlocutions with Western Philosophers’, and ‘Fighting the Philosophy of Materialism. After a life spanning approximately 80 years, thriving in academic and scientific endeavours, Allameh left the material world for the everlasting one. The last time that he fell very ill, before going to hospital, he told his wife that he would not be coming back. His son Abdulbaghi recalls his father’s last few days in this world: “Eight days before his death, he would not talk to anyone, all he did was to whisper ‘La elaha ellallah’. His last few days were the most difficult ones, looking after him became much harder, he would not eat, talk to respond. He would – similar to his mentor the late Ayatollah Qazi – recite this verse of Hafiz and would cry for an hour; ‘The caravan had departed, and you are still asleep while the desert is in front of you. When will you go? Who do you ask for direction? What will you do? How would you be?’ He passed away in 1981 and filled the hearts of the people, scientists, philosophers, and the academic community with sorrow. Allameh Tabataba’i was laid to rest near the tomb of the Hazrat Masumeh(sa) in Qom.

Reading suggestion:
Tihrani, S. M. H. H. (2011). Shining Sun: In
Memory of ‘Allamah Tabataba’i. London:
Islamic College for Advanced Studies Publicat.

This article was made available courtesy of the Islamic Centre of England and Islam Today.

 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here