Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī (سید محمدحسین طباطبائی), also known as ‘Allama Tabataba’i (b.1321/1904 – d.1401/1981), was the most influential Shi’a scholar in the context of Iran in the 14th century. He was an expert in philosophy, exegesis, theology, jurisprudence, principles of jurisprudence and mysticism.
Allama Tabataba’i is the author of Tafsir al-Mizan (a Quranic exegesis), and the famous books of philosophy, Bidayat al-Hikma, Nihayat al-Hikma, and Usul Falsafih va Ravish Ri’alism.
Among his students are Mutahhari, Jawadi Amuli, Bihishti and Misbah Yazdi – some of the most well-known Shi’a clerics of Iran in the 14th century.
‘Allama introduced the Shi’a school of thought to Europeans through his discussions with Henry Corbin, a French philosopher and an expert in Shi’a studies.
‘Allama was born in Shadabad, a village in Tabriz, on the last day of Dhu al-Hijja in 1321/1904(1282 solar). His previous 14 ancestors were well-known scholars of Tabriz. His paternal ancestors were descendants of Imam al-Hasan (a), while his maternal ancestors were descendants of Imam al-Husayn (a). ‘Allama’s mother passed away when he was five, and his father passed away when he was nine. He had one younger brother, Sayyid Muhammad Hasan ‘Ilahi Tabataba’i.
‘Allama’s wife, Qamar al-Sadat Mahdavi (a Sadat Tabataba’i), played an important role in the course of his spiritual progression. Their first three children died in Najaf in their childhood. The pious mystic, Ayatullah Sayyid ‘Ali Qadi Tabataba’i, ‘Allama’s teacher and a relative of his wife, once came to their home and expressed his sympathy to them. When he was about to leave he said to ‘Allama’s wife, “This time your child will be a son, and he will survive; name him ‘Abd al-Baghi so that he will remain for you.” ‘Allama, who did not even know about his wife’s pregnancy at the time, was astonished. The prediction came to light, and after the birth of Sayyid ‘Abd al-Baghi, they were also granted a daughter, Najma Sadat.
In 1385/1965 ‘Allama’s first wife passed away and he married Mansura Ruzbih.
For six years (1329/1911-1335/1917) of his childhood, ‘Allama learned how to read Qur’an and how to read Ghulistan, Bustan, etc.. In addition to studying literature, he learned the art of calligraphy from Mirza ‘Alinaqi Khattat. He then entered the Talibiyya School of Tabriz (1336/1918-1343/1925), where he studied in fields such as Arabic literature, intellectual sciences, jurisprudence and principles of jurisprudence. He then immigrated with his brother to Najaf, where he continued his seminary education and developed his moral and spiritual perfection for ten years (1343/1925-1354/1935). After settling again in Tabriz (1354/1935-1365/1946), he moved to Qom (1365/1946), where he was teaching and writing till the end of his life.
‘Allama took his last breaths on Sunday morning (3 hours before noon), Muharram 18, 1402 / November 16, 1981. On the following day his body was carried from Imam Hasan ‘Askari’s (a) mosque to the courtyard of Holy Shrine of Lady Ma’suma (s). There, hundreds of people performed his Salat al-Mayyit along with Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Reda Gulpayghani. His body is buried in the Balasar mosque of the Holy Shrine.
After completing the first stage of his education in Tabriz in 1344/1925, ‘Allama headed to Najaf – the central Shi’a seminary of the time. For the next ten years, he developed his knowledge in various fields of Islamic studies. He studied under well-known teachers such as: Muhammad Husayn Na’ini, Shaykh Muhammad Husayn Isfahani (in jurisprudence and its principles), Sayyid Husayn Badkubi – a student of Abu l-Hasan Jilva and Aqa ‘Ali Mudarris – (in philosophy), Sayyid Abu al-Qasim Khwansari (in mathematics) and Mirza ‘Ali Qadi (in ethics and mysticism). He also studied a complete course of ancient mathematics from “Euclid’s Elements” to “Ptolemy’s Almagest”. ‘Allama attained the stage of “ijtihad” in philosophy, theology, mysticism and Qur’an interpretation.
Due to the poverty that he was suffering in Najaf, ‘Allama moved back to Tabriz where he had some agricultural land from which he was not receiving funds. He then farmed for ten years in Shadabad village.
‘Allama’s fame began spreading to other seminaries and cities after he immigrated to Qom (1365/1946). In the Qom seminary he was able to revive the study of intellectual sciences and tafsir (Qur’an interpretation). He held tafsir and philosophy classes unpretentiously, and gradually began teaching fundamental books of philosophy such as Shifa(by Avicenna) and Asfar (by Mulla Sadra).
His distinctive moral character, in addition to his close and beautiful relationships with his students, attracted more and more talented pupils to his classes every day. Hundreds of seminarians participated in his philosophy classes in the latter years, and many reached the stage of ijtihad in this field under his supervision.
It can be said that the most important contribution of ‘Allama Tabataba’i – even more so than the expansion of philosophy – is the special attention he gave to his students’ spiritual purification. In fact, ‘Allama established a school of developing knowledge and morality hand-in-hand, an Islamic principle that is almost forgotten in present educational systems.
While living in Qom ‘Allama attended philosophical and scientific discussions in Tehran. During these frequent trips he made contact with those interested in philosophy and Islamic studies, and sometimes debated with opponents in philosophy and religion. Scholars like Henry Corbin, Sayyid Hussein Nasr and Daryush Shaygan participated in these sessions and discussed various issues with ‘Allama Tabataba’i.
His sessions with Henry Corbin were held every fall for 20 years (1378/1959-1399/1979) in the presence of other scholars and seminarians. Vital issues about religion, philosophy, and also the challenges of the present world for those who seek truth and spirituality were discussed.
According to Dr. Sayyid Hussein Nasr: “Such sessions with that high level and wide horizon are unique and matchless in the present Islam world, even it can be said that after Middle Ages when the intellectual and spiritual connection between Islam and Christianity was broken, such connection between Islamic east and west has not been made.”
Some of ‘Allama Tabataba’i’s well-known students are:
Some of the important books and treatises he wrote are:
Before writing al-Mizan, ‘Allama started writing a tafsir with a focus on narrations. “Tafsir al-Bayan fi al-Muwafaqat Bayn al-Hadith wa al-Qur’an” was written in Tabriz in 1364/1945-1369/1950. It covers only the first ten chapters of the Qur’an, and was likely left incomplete due to the Russian military invasion of Tabriz. Tafsir al-Bayan was published a few years after ‘Allama’s demise.
‘Allama Tabataba’i believed that Bihar al-‘Anwar is the best Shi’a compilation of narrations. However, since ‘Allama Majlisi(author of Bihar al-‘Anwar) was not familiar with philosophy, ‘Allama Tabataba’i did not agree with the explanations of some narrations. He therefore began to write a gloss to Bihar al-‘Anwar containing his critical comments. Some scholars were not pleased with his criticisms and only 6 annotated volumes of the work were published.
‘Allama Tabatab’i had great talent in poetry. He had composed many poems which he has eliminated them. Some of his poems have been quoted in the book “Zi Mihr Afrukhti” (alighted from love). ‘Allama has written some poems which are completely in Persian and do not contain words from any other language – including Arabic. Perhaps his most famous poem is a ghazal named “Kish Mihr” (creed of love).