Praise for Tafsir al-Tabari from Great Scholars of the Past

In his handbook to the Qur’anic sciences, Jalal al-Deen al-Suyooti concluded an overview of the famous scholars of tafsir of the past and their books by writing the following high praise for the great mufassir, Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (died 310AH/932CE) and his famous book of tafsir commonly referred to as Tafsir al-Tabari or Tafsir ibn Jarir:

فِإِنْ قُلْتَ : فَأَيُّ التَّفَاسِيرِ تُرْشِدُ إِلَيْهِ وَتَأْمُرُ النَّاظِرَ أَنْ يُعَوِّلَ عَلَيْهِ ؟ قُلْتُ : تَفْسِيرُ الْإِمَامِ أَبِي جَعْفَرِ بْنِ جَرِيرٍ الطَّبَرِيِّ الَّذِي أَجْمَعَ الْعُلَمَاءُ الْمُعْتَبَرُونَ عَلَى أَنَّهُ لَمْ يُؤَلَّفْ فِي التَّفْسِيرِ مِثْلُهُ . قَالَ النَّوَوِيُّ فِي تَهْذِيبِهِ : كِتَابُ ابْنِ جَرِيرٍ فِي التَّفْسِيرِ لَمْ يُصَنِّفْ أَحَدٌ مِثْلَهُ .ـ

If one were to ask, “Which book of tafsir would you recommend for someone looking for something to rely on?” then I would say: the Tafsir of the Imam Abu Ja’far ibn Jarir al-Tabari. All the scholars worth any consideration agree that there hasn’t been anything else like it written in the field of tafsir.

al-Nawawi said in al-Tahdheeb, “The Tafsir of ibn Jarir – no one has authored anything like it.”

[al-Itqan 2/476]

al-Suyooti highlighted one of the reasons for the great merit of ibn Jarir and his tafsir earlier in the same discussion when he wrote:

وَبَعْدَهُمِ ابْنُ جَرِيرٍ الطَّبَرِيُّ ، وَكِتَابُهُ أَجَلُّ التَّفَاسِيرِ وَأَعْظَمُهَا ، ثُمَّ ابْنُ أَبِي حَاتِمٍ ، وَابْنُ مَاجَهْ ، وَالْحَاكِمُ ، وَابْنُ مَرْدَوَيْهِ ، وَأَبُو الشَّيْخِ ابْنُ حَيَّانَ ، وَابْنُ الْمُنْذِرِ فِي آخَرِينَ ، وَكُلُّهَا مُسْنَدَةٌ إِلَى الصَّحَابَةِ وَالتَّابِعِينَ وَأَتْبَاعِهِمْ ، وَلَيْسَ فِيهَا غَيْرَ ذَلِكَ إِلَّا ابْنُ جَرِيرٍ ، فَإِنَّهُ يَتَعَرَّضُ لِتَوْجِيهِ الْأَقْوَالِ وَتَرْجِيحِ بَعْضِهَا عَلَى بَعْضٍ ، وَالْإِعْرَابِ وَالِاسْتِنْبَاطِ فَهُوَ يَفُوقُهَا بِذَلِكَ .ـ

… after that generation came ibn Jarir al-Tabari, whose tafsir is the greatest and most wonderful of the genre. Then came ibn Abi Haatim, ibn Majah, al-Hakim, al-Mardawayh, Abu al-Sheikh ibn Hayyaan, and ibn al-Mundhir at the end of this cohort.

All of their works were composed of chains of narration going back to the Sahabah, the Tabi’oon and the following generation without containing anything else besides narrations – all of them except for ibn Jarir. Ibn Jarir took these narrations and organized them according to the different interpretations they presented and weighed their relative merits, as well as discussing grammatical points and benefits that could be extracted. So in this way ibn Jarir surpassed all of the others.

[al-Itqan 2/474]

In the introduction to his own book of Asbab al-Nuzool, a sub-field of tafsir, al-haafidh ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalaani also discussed the evolution of the genre and highlighted the following outstanding features of Tafsir al-Tabari:

الذين اعتنوا بجمع التفسير المسند من طبقة الأئمة الستة أبو جعفر محمد بن جرير الطبري ويليه أبو بكر محمد بن إبراهيم بن المنذر النيسابوري وأبو محمد عبد الرحمن بن أبي حاتم بن إدريس الرازي ومن طبقة شيوخهم عبد بن حميد بن نصر الكشي فهذه التفاسير الأربعة قل أن يشذ عنها شيء من التفسير المرفوع والموقوف على الصحابة والمقطوع عن التابعين وقد أضاف الطبري إلى النقل المستوعب أشياء لم يشاركوه فيها كاستيعاب . القراءات والإعراب والكلام في أكثر الآيات على المعاني والتصدي لترجيح بعض الأقوال على بعض وكل من صنف بعده لم يجتمع له ما اجتمع فيه لأنه في هذه الأمور في مرتبة متقاربة وغيره يغلب عليه فن من الفنون فيمتاز فيه ويقصر في غيره .ـ

Those who focused on collecting the transmitted statements of tafsir in the generation following the six great scholars of hadith included Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, followed by Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn al-Mundhir al-Naysaboori and Abu Muhammad ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Abi Haatim ibn Idris al-Razi, and also from the cohort of their teachers was ‘Abd ibn Humayd ibn Nasr al-Kashi.

These four books of tafsir very rarely diverge from either explanations directly from the Prophet or from the Sahabah or the Tabi’oon, but al-Tabari, in addition to acting as a repository for transmitted statements, added things that none of the others had, such as seamlessly incorporating the qiraa’aat, grammatical inflections, and in most ayaat including discussions of the meanings and tackling how to weigh the strengths of different interpretations. And no other author after him was able to put together the likes of what he put together in his book. That is because he had similar levels of expertise in all of these areas while others would be much stronger in some areas than in others, thus producing works that excelled in certain aspects while being deficient in others.

[al-‘Ujab fee Bayan al-Asbab pg. 11-12]

In his massive biographical encyclopedia, Imam al-Dhahabi included the following words of praise which further highlight ibn Jarir’s distinction:

وقال الخطيب محمد بن جرير بن يزيد بن كثير بن غالب : كان أحد أئمة العلماء ، يحكم بقوله ، ويرجع إلى رأيه لمعرفته وفضله ، وكان قد جمع من العلوم ما لم يشاركه فيه أحد من أهل عصره ، فكان حافظا لكتاب الله ، عارفا بالقراءات ، بصيرا بالمعاني ، فقيها في أحكام القرآن ، عالما بالسنن وطرقها ، صحيحها وسقيمها ، وناسخها ومنسوخها ، عارفا بأقوال الصحابة والتابعين ، عارفا بأيام الناس وأخبارهم ، وله الكتاب المشهور في [ ص: 270 ] ” أخبار الأمم وتاريخهم ” ، وله كتاب : ” التفسير ” لم يصنف مثله ، وكتاب سماه : ” تهذيب الآثار ” لم أر سواه في معناه ، لكن لم يتمه ، وله في أصول الفقه وفروعه كتب كثيرة واختيار من أقاويل الفقهاء ، وتفرد بمسائل حفظت عنه .ـ

al-Khateeb said:

Muhammad ibn Jareer ibn Yazeed ibn Katheer ibn Ghaalib [al-Tabari] – He was one of the leaders of the scholars. His position carried authority, and his opinions were referred back to due to his knowledge and virtue.

He amassed such a great amount of knowledge that none of his contemporaries matched him in that, for he had memorized the Qur’an, was well-acquainted with its various recitations, insightful into its meanings, expertly versed in the legal rulings of the Qur’an, knowledgeable of the sunnah and its chains of narration – whether they be authentic or otherwise, abrogating or abrogated -, familiar with the positions of the Sahabah and the Tabi’oon, and well-informed of historical facts and biographies.

He wrote the famous book “The News of the Nations and Their Histories”, as well as his Tafsir – the likes of which have not been replicated -, and also his work entitled, “Tahdheeb al-Aathaar” – which I have not seen anything like it in terms of its contents, however he did not complete it. He also had many written works in the fields of the fundamentals of Fiqh and its subsidiary branches in which he would sometimes select the opinions of other scholars and sometimes provide his own independent positions, and those opinions of his were later adopted by others.

قلت : كان ثقة ، صادقا ، حافظا ، رأسا في التفسير ، إماما في الفقه والإجماع والاختلاف ، علامة في التاريخ وأيام الناس ، عارفا بالقراءات وباللغة ، وغير ذلك . ـ

I [al-Dhahabi] say: He was a reliable and trustworthy narrator with an excellent memory. He was a leader in the field of Tafsir as well as in Fiqh and knowing where there was ijmaa’ and where there was differing among the scholars. He was a tremendous scholar in the field of history, and well-versed in the qiraa’aat, linguistic matters, and other fields as well.

قَالَ الْخَطِيبُ : وَبَلَغَنِي عَنْ أَبِي حَامِدٍ أَحْمَدَ بْنِ أَبِي طَاهِرٍ الْإِسْفَرَايِينِيِّ الْفَقِيهِ أَنَّهُ قَالَ : لَوْ سَافَرَ رَجُلٌ إِلَى الصِّينِ حَتَّى يُحَصِّلَ تَفْسِيرَ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ جَرِيرٍ لَمْ يَكُنْ كَثِيرًا .ـ

al-Khateeb said: I’ve been told that Abu Haamid Ahmad ibn Abi Taahir al-Isfaraaniyi said, “If someone were to travel all the way to China just to obtain a copy of the tafsir of Muhammad ibn Jarir, that would not be considered very far.”

قَالَ أَبُو مُحَمَّدٍ الْفَرْغَانِيُّ : تَمَّ مِنْ كُتُبِ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ جَرِيرٍ كِتَابُ : ” التَّفْسِيرِ ” الَّذِي لَوِ ادَّعَى عَالَمٌ أَنْ يُصَنِّفَ مِنْهُ عَشَرَةَ كُتُبٍ ، كُلُّ كِتَابٍ مِنْهَا يَحْتَوِي عَلَى عِلْمٍ مُفْرَدٍ مُسْتَقْصًى لَفَعَلَ . ـ

Abu Muhammad al-Farghani said: Out of the books of Muhammad ibn Jarir, what a complete book his tafsir is! It is such that if a scholar were to claim that he could make ten books out of it, each one for a different field or subject area using only the material found inside this tafsir, he could indeed accomplish such a task!

[Siyar al-‘Alaam al-Nubalaa’ 14/270-275]

Learn more about al-Tabari and his tafsir here: Mufassir Profile for ibn Jarir al-Tabari

See also: Ibn Taymiyah on the Books of Tafsir

See also: Those who do not witness al-Zoor: Tafsir al-Tabari

Read more excerpts from Tafsir al-Tabari here

One thought on “Praise for Tafsir al-Tabari from Great Scholars of the Past

  1. Pingback: The Great Status of Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari: al-Dhahabi | Tulayhah

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