Imam at-Tabari methodology in writing his Tarikh at-Tabari=The History of Imam at-Tabari Book

Imam at-Tabari methodology in writing his Tarikh at-Tabari=The History of Imam at-Tabari Book

Mohamad Mostafa Nassar


Imam al Tabari began his academic journey by studying hadith. Thus, the ways of the muhaddithin was imprinted upon him through collecting historical narrations and focusing on its chains of narrations. He would gather narrations and codify them with their chains of narration till their respective source;

for instance, to a teacher whom he sought knowledge from, or to one who was involved in an event, or to one who had knowledge of an incident, or to a book which he had studied with its complete chain of narration and had been given authorization to narrate.

He would, by and large, adhere to the ways of the muhaddithin in paying special attention to recording and preserving the chains of narration. This is the condition of a majority of the narrations and historical records in his book.

He indicates towards this in the forward to his book:

وليعلم الناظر في كتابنا هذا أن اعتمادي في كل ما أحضرت ذكره فيه ، إنما هو على ما رويت من الأخبار التي أنا ذاكرها فيه والأثار التي أنا مسندها إلى رواتها فيه دون ما أدرك بحجج العقول واستنبط بفکر النفوس … إلا القليل اليسير منه

The one studying this book should know that my reliance in all that I have presented herein is upon the incidents that I have narrated and sayings that I have sourced. It is not through logical conclusions except for a little that is far and few. (1)

In this manner Imam al Tabari has established his fervour in sourcing each saying to its origin in codifying and gathering material. He would not tolerate conclusions and explanations that are based solely on logic or mental gymnastics. This was due to his intense desire to gather all or a majority of the material that was available and thereafter present it for study, assessment, and elucidation. Either acceptance would follow or rejection.

Since the history of the early Islamic years—especially the time of the fitnah—is more sensitive than other eras, the complexity of the opinions and views garnered cannot be understated. The narrations that pertain to that era are at times influenced by political views, differing opinions, and differing levels of understanding. Besides, forgetfulness, inclinations, and conflict have an impact on the narrations as well. All the above render passing a judgment on the narrations a seriously complicated matter.

This is why Imam al Tabari, whilst discussing the differing views of his narrators and sources, by following in the way of compiling and codifying leaves the question mark of veracity on the narrators and historians.

He says:

فما يكن في كتابي هذا من خبر ذكرناه عن بعض الماضين مما ينكره قارئه أو يستشنعه سامعه ، من أجل أنه لم يعرف له وجها في الصحة ولا معنى في الحقيقة ، فليعلم أنه لم يؤت في ذلك من قبلنا ، وإنما أتی من قبل بعض ناقليه إلينا ، وأنا إنما أدينا ذلك على نحو ما أدى إلينا

Some of the narrations that lay in this book of mine which I have sourced from those of the past would be unacceptable and appalling to one reading or listening to it as it cannot be reconciled nor does it hold any intrinsic correct meaning. Know well, that such narrations do not emanate from us, it is from those whom we have narrated from. We presented it just as we received it. (2)

Neutrality and impartiality forms part of his methodology. He presents differing views without bias or prejudice. If he does hold an opinion of his own, it becomes apparent when he presents some narrations whilst neglecting others. Yet, he still remains impartial by not passing a judgment on the event at hand. It is very seldom that he will give preference to one narration over another.

This methodology is a result of his aspiration to compile differing narrations regarding a single event. When drawing a comparison between narrations he uses the phrase, ‘There has been a difference in this…’ he then presents an opposing narration by saying, ‘And some have said…’ ‘And some have said…’ ‘And Hisham al Kalbi says…’(3)  sometimes he says, ‘It has been mentioned from so and so that he said…’ ‘And so and so has narrated to us…’ ‘And others have said…’ ‘And some have said…’ (4)

Critique and comparison becomes quite evident in many of the traditions that are presented at the end of the year under discussion when commenting on dates of death, summer raids, identifying the governors and leaders of hajj, and so on. For example, he says, ‘In such and such year Abu ‘Abbas passed away the day… due to smallpox.’ ‘

And Hisham ibn Muhammad al Kalbi says he passed away the day…’ And there has been difference on the age he reached…’ ‘Some have said…’ ‘And others have said…’ And al Waqidi says…’(5) He says, ‘So and so took part in the summer raids in such and such year…’ And al Waqidi says, ‘That year’s summer raids were undertaken by so and so…’(6)

In this manner if there are differing narrations regarding one particular event, Imam al Tabari deems it necessary to present both opinions in order to have a complete overview of the incident. He tried his utmost to compile all the possible narrations and sayings regarding one event. When coming across a lengthy article in which there is difference, he breaks it into sections indicating to the differences at points of difference.(7)  After mentioning the difference, he reverts back to the main article, continuing from where he left off by saying, ‘Returning to the narration of so and so…’(8)

It ought to be noted that this manner of citing differences can, at times, confuse the reader, thinking it to be part of the main article as it comprises of details that pertain to the very article. Perhaps it would be better to present the complete narration and then follow it up with another complete, opposing narration.

Presenting it in this manner allows the reader to have a better understanding of the incident and the differences, thus allowing one to compare and critique between views and ultimately give preference to one over the other. This would result in a constructive review of the incident.

Imam al Tabari has followed a chronological order in his book when detailing events. He discusses year after year from the hijrah up to the year 302 A.H/ 914 A.D. He details the significant events of each year per his discretion.

The discussion of each year differ in length depending on the amount of events, their significance, and the information reaching him. Therefore, the discussion of some years are shorter than others. Some years barely make up a few lines (9), some a few pages(10) , and some go over one hundred pages. (11) And if the incidents spans across more than one year he will break it up according to the years.

His method in presenting the events of a year differs. Sometimes, he will mention a historical incident and then present the details and narrations regarding it.(12) At times, he will mention all the incidents of a particular year and then revert to detailing each one.(13)  And at other times he will merely mention the events of a year in a few lines.(14) At the end of each year he will, at times, mention the dates of death of renowned personalities.(15) 

What he generally will not miss mentioning at the end of every year though, are the names of the governors or leaders of hajj, or both.(16) In the event of a year preceding a conquest, he will endeavour to mention the clashes of the border patrol guards(17), just as he mentions the winter and summer raids(18) together with the forts and castles that had been conquered by the Muslims.(19)

As for those events that aren’t confined to one particular year, for example, life profiles of the Khalifas, he discusses these at end of their rein. After discussing the details of their rein in chronological order, he will at the end profile their life as a whole. (20)

It should be noted that a yearly chronological order has not been maintained throughout the book by Imam al Tabari. He has followed this style in recounting the events specific to Islamic history.

In the first part, from creation to the hijrah, he has adopted a different methodology. In this portion he has not followed the chronological order of years, as it would be nigh impossible. He has adopted the way of the old historians in this regard by beginning with the issue of creation thereafter discussing the Prophets, their lives and times.

He then goes on to discuss the lives of Kings and nations that lived during the eras of these Prophets up to the emergence of Islam and deputation of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam as the chosen Messenger. (21)

Many a time, Imam al Tabari will reproduce historical texts from correspondences(22), orations(23) , sermons(24), and especially poems(25) in order to give credibility to historical events or garner the reader’s attention. He attempts to reproduce these texts verbatim to the extent of leaving many non-Arabic words in its native language.(26)

In sourcing material, he does not generally mention the book name. rather he relies on mentioning the authors name saying, for example, al Waqidi said, or Abu Mikhnaf said and so on(27). If he had heard the material directly, he will say, so and so narrated to me. If others had heard the same from his teacher he will say, so and so narrated to me and said… so and so together with so and so narrated… and so on till the source.(28)

At times he relies on Mursal(29) narrations saying, Sariyy wrote to me — from Shu’ayb — from Saif(30)… Generally he has endeavoured to procure complete connected narrations, except in a few places when he will then say, It has been said… or It has been mentioned regarding so and so…(31)

He foreshadows the significant events under the chapter of a new year. He says, for example, ‘Then was the thirty-fifth year’… he then indicates to the significant events of that year or reproduces texts that mention such events.(32)

Events that aren’t heralded as so significant and do not take up more than a few lines are mentioned without any specific title dedicated to it. He will simply mention it under its corresponding year. (33)

Regarding the reliability of the narrators, Imam al Tabari did not adhere to the guidelines that the muhaddithin had adhered to in relation to the weak narrators. He included the traditions of narrators that were weak, and some, accused of lying and fabricating such as al Kalbi, Hisham, al Waqidi, Saif ibn ‘Umar, Abu Mikhnaf, and others.

This was in line with the methodology of the scholars of hadith in gathering and codifying all that that reached them by including the chain of narration; a mechanism that allows the weak to be sifted from the authentic by placing the narrations on the barometer set out by the scholars of narrator criticism.

Thus, Imam al Tabari was not oblivious nor ignorant in compiling hundreds of narrations from the weak and discarded narrators. Rather, he was following a well-known method of compilation that was accepted by the scholars of narrator criticism which spoke of narrating ahadith of the weak and discarded narrators whilst at the same time not using them in legal discourse. They would use these narrations to analyse, and corroborate, at times explicitly allowing such only for the masters and only for analysis.(34)

Regarding this al Hafiz ibn Hajar has stated whilst profiling al Tabarani(35), “The early masters of hadith would relate fabricated narrations, not comment on its veracity but include the chain of narration. They believed that relating a narration with its chain of narrators frees one from responsibility, leaving the veracity to be checked against the chain.(36)”

As established, Imam al Tabari was a scholar of hadith(37) and as such treaded their path in his work. He does not simply relate views and opinions as done by other historians. He introduces, includes, and backs each statement with its chain of narrators thereby absolving himself of responsibility. Yes, the narrators are of different calibres and the academic significance of their narrations are worlds apart. Some are authentic, some are weak, and yet others are fabricated.

This is all a result of their own competence or lack thereof. The truthfulness, reliability, integrity, and memory of the narrators have an impact on each narration. It is therefore imperative to study the sciences that pertain to the text and chain of narrations as set out by the scholars.

Based on the above discussion, it should be noted that by merely referencing the Tarikh of Imam al Tabari or other such books without studying the text and chain goes against true academic integrity.

Consideration should be given too, to the reasons that Imam al Tabari did not stay within the bounds of accepted and reliable sources. He wished to convey to the reader different perspectives, take from weaker narrations and add details to the stronger ones, complete missing information, and strengthen the narrative itself.

Imam al Tabari and other erudite scholars of his calibre would approach relating weak narrations as a judge would when looking at a case. They would relate all the possible material, primary, authentic, corroborations, and such, that pertained to an event knowing well the differing levels of reliability of each relying upon compiling rather than verifying. And thus, Imam al Tabari would not disregard any information, no matter how weak.

This was out of fear of discounting the benefit that may be gained from such information. However, he was sure to source every piece of information so that the reader would be able to verify the authenticity or inauthenticity based upon the reliable and weak narrators; thus passing on all that came his way.

This methodology works wonders in placing before the academic the different chains of narrations and their texts. Ibn Taymiyyah attests to the benefit of doing so. He says:

إن تعدد الطرق مع عدم الاتفاق في العادة يوجب العلم مضمون المنقول – أي بالقدر المشترك في أصل الخير – لكن هذا ينتفع به كثيرا في علم أحوال الناقلين – أي نزعاتهم والجهة التي يحتمل أن يتعصب لها بعضهم وفي مثل هذا ينتفع برواية المجهول والسيئ الحفظ … ونحو ذلك ، ولهذا كان أهل العلم يكتبون مثل هذا ويقولون : إنه يصلح للشواهد والاعتبار وما لا يصلح لغيره ، وقال أحمد : قد أكتب حديث الرجل الأعتبره

Relating differing chains of narrations even though they may not generally agree, gives strength to the narrative itself. It also aids in profiling the narrators. One can gleam from it their bias and prejudice. It also allows one to benefit from narrations of unknowns or those of weak memory and so on.

It is for this reason that the scholars would relate such narrations and then say, ‘It is permitted solely for corroboration (Shahid) and consideration (I’tibar).’ Imam Ahmed says, ‘Sometimes I write the hadith of a man for consideration.’(38)

It would be befitting here to note the academic integrity of the scholars of hadith like Imam al Tabari in relating traditions of those that opposed their creed; the shia and such. This goes to prove their profound understanding and desire to relate every thread of information that came by them to the readers.

This was done relying on the academic ability of the reader in recognising the prejudice and bias of narrators such as Abu Mikhnaf and Ibn al Kalbi and thus being able to sift out the wheat from the chaff and come to conclusions that were authentic and true.

As for those who collate narrations in order to serve their own dubious ends or out of sheer ignorance, claiming the methodology of Imam al Tabari, or by merely referencing his work without authentication, thinking themselves to be absolved of responsibility, are in fact sewn from the same cloth as autocrats. Adopting such unscrupulous methods is akin to oppressing and maligning Imam al Tabari.

He holds no sin after presenting his sources. It is up to them to sift through and profile the narrators of these sources in order to determine the veracity of the statement as per the reliability of its narrators.

This methodology cannot be assumed without a deep insight into the science of narrator criticism and accreditation (‘Ilm al Jarh wa al Ta’dil) which provides the tools to appropriately profile narrators and help create a capacity to benefit from their narrations.

It is also just as important to adhere to the barometers set out by the scholars in critiquing the text of narrations together with taking into consideration the broader outlines of the essence that permeated Islamic civilization. All the above are an essential requirement when taking up the study of Islamic history. (39)

Allah knows Best.

Critical information: About the methodology Muslim historians followed in documenting Islamic history – How Reliable is “The History of Imam at-Tabari= Tarikh at-Tabari”?

The History of Imam at-Tabari= Tarikh at-Tabari

Paul the False Apostle of Satan

The status of the Musannaf of ibn Abi Shaybah

(1) Al Tabari: Tarikh al Rusul, vol. 1 pgs. 7-8.

(2) Ibid, vol. 1 pg. 8

(3) Ibid, vol. 8 pg. 61.

(4) Ibid, vol. 4 pg. 417.

(5) Ibid, vol. 7 pg. 470.

(6) Ibid, vol. 8 p. 241.

(7) Ibid, vol. 4 pgs. 466, 468, and 469.

(8) Ibid, vol. 4 pg. 470.

(9) Ibid, for example the years 25, 274, and 298.

(10) Ibid, for example the years, 29, 48, and 70.

(11) Ibid, for example the years, 35 and 36.

(12) Ibid, vol. 442.

(13) Ibid, vol. 4 pg. 317.

(14) Ibid, vol. 4 pg. 250.

(15) Ibid, vol. 4 pg. 113.

(16) Ibid, vol. 4 pgs. 145, 263, vol. 5 pg. 308.

(17) Ibid, vol. 8 pg. 313.

(18) Ibid, vol. 5 pgs. 226-231.

(19) Ibid, vol. 4 pgs. 35, 37, and 178; vol. 8 pg. 254.

(20) Ibid, vol. 4 pg. 415.

(21) Ibid, see vol. 1-2.

(22) Ibid, vol. 4 pgs. 452 and 548.

(23) Ibid, vol. 4 pg. 500; vol. 5 pg. 74.

(24) Ibid, vol. 5 pgs. 5 and 7.

(25) Ibid, vol. 4 pgs. 423 and 564.

(26) Ibid, vol. 2 pgs. 51, 54, and 62.

(27) Ibid, vol. 5 pgs. 105 and 125.

(28) Ibid, vol. 4 pg. 369.

(29) A mursal hadith is when a transmitter cites someone or the Prophet salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam without actually having met him.

(30) Ibid, vol. 4 pg. 462.

(31) Ibid, vol. 4 pg. 417; vol. 5 pg. 172.

(32) Ibid, vol. 4 pg. 250 and 258.

(33) Ibid, vol. 5 pg. 231.

(34) Al Dhahabi: Al Mizan, vol. 3 pg. 17 and 666. See the annotations on Al Du’afa wa al Matrukin of al Daraqutni, pg. 253.

(35) He is Sulaiman ibn Ahmed ibn Ayub ibn Mutir al Lakhmi. Abu al Qasim al Tabrani. A Hafiz of hadith.

  • Al Dhahabi says, “He was the pinnacle of hadith scholars in sheer amount and high chain of transmission.”

From amongst his books are, the three MaajimAl Kabir, Al Awsat and Al Saghir. He also written, Al Tafsir, Al Awa’il, and Dala’il al Nubuwwah. He passed away the year, 360 A.H/839 A.D. His life has been recorded by, Ibn al Jawzi: Al Muntazam fi Tarikh al Muluk wa al Umam, vol. 7 pg. 45; Ibn Khallikan: Wafayat al A’yan, vol. 1 pg. 215; Al Dhahabi: Al Mizan, vol. 7 pg. 45.

(36) Ibn Hajar: Lisan al Mizan, vol. 3 pg. 75.

(37) See, pg. 125.

(38) Ibn Taymiyyah: Majmu’ al Fatawa, vol. 13 pg. 352.

(39) Due to the importance of this methodology in an academic study of Islamic history and in correctly understanding its purport, studying the Principles of Hadith should be introduced and considered absolutely necessary as a foundation course for those wishing to study Islamic History.