The History of al-Tabari | Volume XVIII | Book Review

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Book Cover | Tabari is well loved and respected as a scholar by the Muslim world.

Who is Tabari?

It is important for me to briefly write about Tabari because I have read many of his books and I intend to read many more of his books. As a result, I’ll be doing many more of his book reviews on my website.

Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (224 – 310 AH; 839 A.D–923 A.D) was a prominent and influential Persian scholar, historian and exegete of the Qur’an from Tabaristan, modern Mazandaran in Iran. Even if today he’s better known for his expertise in Islamic sciences (Qur’anic commentary and law) or history, he has been described as “an impressively prolific polymath. He wrote on such subjects as poetry, lexicography, grammar, ethics, mathematics, and medicine.”

His most influential and best known works are his Qur’anic commentary known as Tafsir al-Tabari and his historical chronicle Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk (History of the Prophets and Kings), often referred to Tarikh al-Tabari. Al-Tabari founded his own madhhab which is usually designated by the name Jariri. – Goodreads

Tarikh al-Rusul wa’l muluk ‘Annals of the Apostles and Kings’ , by Abu Ja’far Muhammad b Jarir al-Tabri (839-923), is by common consent the most important universal history produced in the world of Islam.

This monumental work explores the history of the ancient nations, the prophets, the rise of Islam and the history of the Islamic World down to the year 915 AD / 302 AH i.e The Return of the Caliphate to Baghdad: (The Caliphates of al-Mu’tadid, al-Muktafi and al-Muqtadir)

It is divided here in 40 Volumes (Including Index) each of which covers about two hundred pages of the original Arabic text.

Imam at-Tabari spent 12 years writing this encyclopaedia on Islamic history. His job was not easy for he had to collect and compile the material from different sources. He had to rely on oral reports as well to complete his encyclopedia. His encyclopedia, ‘Annals of the Apostles and Kings’, chronicled the History of Islam year by year; an attempt to categorize history from creation till the year 915 A.C. By the time he had finished his work, he had gathered all the historical traditions of the Arabs in his voluminous work. The Muslim world was not slow in showing its appreciation, and this work became more famous than his Commentary of the Holy Qur’an, for there was no other works like that in existence at that time.

It is reported that there were at least 20 copies of his encyclopedia in all great libraries in the Muslim world of those days. Hundreds of copyists earned their living copying his work for use of individuals and libraries. Many of his original works were lost over the passage of time. It was only in the end of the last century that modern scholars pieced together his work so that it could be studied by students in modern times.

Statue of Imam Tabari – One of the most prolific scholars in the history of Muslim civilization

What is the book about?

The crux of the book really is about the caliphate of Caliph Muawiyah, not his biography but the events that has taken place during his reign. Tabari particularly focuses on what took place at the eastern half of the caliphate, in Iraq. A huge part of the narrations are focused on what happened there. This is because of the fact that Iraq was the most unstable of all provinces under Umayyad rule and so Tabari focuses the story there. The book starts from the period right after (literally) Al Hasan (ra) renders allegiance to Caliph Muawiyah (ra) and therefore some very interesting stories and conversations take place that we are able to see. The book ends with the death of Caliph Muawiyah (ra) and in between there are many interesting stories about his long 20 year reign. – Muaad Sucule

My Review of the Book

Tabari has always been one of the great scholars of the Islamic tradition that I have respected and admired. I was very interested in reading about this highly controversial period of history, so I did skip many of his earlier books and went straight into the caliphate of Muawiyah. The book was essentially a series of narrations, compiled under headers, following a timeframe, which would form a story. Of course, it is important to remember that some narrations are weak, others Hasan and others strong & authentic. It’s also important to remember that Tabari’s job here, as a historian, is to narrate and transmit every story that he hears and to allow the scholars to sift through the right ones when they are reading. The book was very fun and exciting to read and this definitely was one of the highlights of the 2020 summer for me. 

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What was the book like?

The book began (literally) right after Al Hasan (ra) rendered allegiance to Caliph Muawiyah (ra) and I was able to see, from the book, the interesting conversations that took place right after the civil war was over. Especially the conversations that took place between the neutral ministers like Mughira (ra) and his friends. Nowhere else in the world would anyone have let me in on some of the most exciting conversations that took place in history. It is near impossible for Tabari to record everything that was going on in the entire Umayyad caliphate but he focused the story on the eastern half of the caliphate since Iraq and its neighboring provinces were the most chaotic and most difficult to govern.

Despite what I initially thought, the reign of Caliph Muawiyah (ra) was not a controversial period at all. After Al-Hasan (ra) pledged allegiance he just disappeared and went off-grid and I don’t think any mention of him is made again until he dies which is very interesting of course. I did really admire this interesting 20 year period where Caliph Muawiyah (ra) reigned excellently and because the Muslim world was enjoying peace, the interactions between different political factions were fun to watch. Throughout the book, Caliph Muawiyah (ra) showed an excellent ability to govern. Perhaps he is a genius.

What did I like about the book?

I liked how the book was incredibly insightful. Insightful is the word that I think about most when I remember Tabari’s history series, this is because of the fact that the book is composed of so many different private conversations that important people who lived during that time period had. As a result, I was able to develop a good idea of what that time period looked like. Another thing that I liked about the book was how unbiased it was. It’s true that everyone has biases and there is nothing wrong in truly believing in something you believe is the truth. There are, for example, many different sects that are operating within the Islamic faith, all believing that they are correct. However, Tabari, swiftly comes in and just transmits everything that he has heard not caring about who it would offend and who it wouldn’t offend.

This was important to me because I was someone who (at the time) just wanted to see the raw historical truth of what was going on in that time period and because of Tabaris great ability to transmit history I was able to get an insight as to how the Umayyad dynasty looked like during Caliph Muawiyah’s 20 year reign. I also liked how Tabari didn’t include any nonsensical ‘waste of time’ narrations. This is what happens a lot of the time when I am reading history works, because sometimes some authors will get sidetracked. For example if a goat falls of a cliff in the middle of nowhere, no one wants to read about that. Tabari clearly understood that which is why the book was full of some of the most exciting narrations and stories of that time period.

Another thing that I really liked about the book was how juicy and exciting it was. Of course, when Tabari was writing the book he wasn’t actively looking to write a drama but the book was like one big drama and full of so many juicy stories that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself. That is such an important aspect of any good book, it is the enjoyment side of it. Sometimes you can read for the sake of just getting knowledge and information but with Tabaris work, you can read to gain information and enjoy yourself at the same time which is truly a unique blessing.

What did I dislike about the book?

I am not sure if there was anything that I disliked strongly about the book. The introductions to some of the books are incredibly long and there have been moments where I have skipped some of the long messages at the start of some of his books. Furthermore, sometimes in the middle of the book, Tabari will go through battle after battle and skip areas and I won’t know where the story is placed right now. At some points there can be confusion in the middle of some of these history books. Another small dislike about the book is how sometimes some words will not get translated which is an issue for me because I won’t really know what the word is. That is why I am reading a translation of Tabaris work. His original translation was written in the Arabic language, a language which I have started working on.

This is a problem because at times I’ll have to go do a google search or some private searches to find out what the words mean. At some points I would just give up and skip the word completely so I don’t know what the translators are doing there. It would have definitely been better if they just translate the entire book in one go. Furthermore, other times I knew what the word meant but only because I know some Arabic words myself and so I would think to myself that other people who don’t know these words would essentially be confused at the words.

One last thing that I didn’t like about the book was how the writing style for the book isn’t as great as I hoped it would be. Tabari did a great job to include a general structure which contained chapters, headings etc. but the book was essentially narrations compiled on top of other narrations and so on. This was unnecessary because I felt like Tabari could have just mentioned the story in an organised way and left the references elsewhere but this is just a small editing point and Tabari is a prolific writer. Lastly, the chain of narrators being placed there for every single narration can be something that is unnecessary. Again, I understand why the great scholar, Tabari, would do this because he wants to show where the story came from but for me, he could have simply mentioned who narrated this story and from where. That would have saved me the time and energy from reading so many names that I didn’t want to read at all.

Conclusion

The book had many good points about it as well as many minor negative points about it as well. For me, the good points about the book outweighed the negative aspects of the book and the book was one that really opened up my eyes as to what was going on during the reign of Caliph Muawiyah (ra). For me, I am really yet to see a history series that is as good as Tabaris history series when it comes to the 7th century of course. Other great history series have been written like the works of the popular Tom Holland.

Every historian has approaches their work with an element of bias as well but the most important thing that all of these successful historians do is transmit everything and they don’t hide anything. That is the mark of a great historian. Even if what they are transmitting might be against them, they transmit it anyway. That way, future generations can read the work, admire it, and use it as a legitimate source of history but a history book that is written with absolutely no care about accuracy and a completely bias approach will not be looked at twice but anyone of any academic worth. Tabari makes sure that to narrate everything which shows that he is an excellent historian. Even now as I read his works on the 20 year reign of Caliph Muawiyah (ra), I wonder what his personal views on that time period was.

Overall, the book was very exciting and I remember reading this book in the summer of 2020 enjoying the narrations that I was reading whilst trying to piece together an image in my head of what the Umayyad dynasty looked like. Imagination is key when it comes to reading history books. This series (which took the author 12 years to complete) is one of the best historical writings that I have seen. For me the book is a clean 5/5 stars and any person interested in history should read it.

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Published by Muaad

20. Enjoy reading, travelling, meeting people and living life to the fullest. Follow me on twitter: @LibraryEx Befriend me on Good Reads: Muaad Sucule

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