Publication of the

The publication of al-ṭabarī’s massive work provided a historical narrative both for Muslims and for students of Islamic history. It also marked the advent of one of the great works of world historiography.

Summary of Event

Much of what is known of the first three centuries of Islamic history is the result of the publication of al-ṭabarī’s Ta՚rīkh al-rusul wa al-mulūk (872-973; The History of al-ṭabarī, 1985-1999, 39 vols.). The chronicle covers the period from the history of the early Semitic patriarchs, prophets, and rulers through the reign of the caliph al-Muqtadir, a period ending in the year 915. It does so in the dominant idiom of early medieval Muslim historiography, as an assemblage of reports, or akhbar, ostensibly passed down through oral and written retellings and then fashioned into an overarching narrative by al-ṭabarī. [kw]Publication of the History of al-Ṭabarī (872-973)
[kw]History of al-Ṭabarī, Publication of the (872-973)
[kw]Ṭabarī, Publication of the History of al- (872-973)
History of al-Ṭabarī (al-Ṭabarī)[History of al Tabari (al Tabari)]
Ṭabarī, al-
Iraq;872-973: Publication of the History of al-Ṭabarī[1030]
Cultural and intellectual history;872-973: Publication of the History of al-Ṭabarī[1030]
Historiography;872-973: Publication of the History of al-Ṭabarī[1030]
Literature;872-973: Publication of the History of al-Ṭabarī[1030]
Philosophy;872-973: Publication of the History of al-Ṭabarī[1030]
Religion;872-973: Publication of the History of al-Ṭabarī[1030]
ṭabarī, al-

The narrative so fashioned by al-ṭabarī is that of a community instituted on earth by the God of Abraham and his last Prophet, Muḥammad, but one also frequently torn by factionalism and individual ambition. This was the narrative with which premodern Muslims would reckon the history of their community and the narrative that, with minor alterations, was taken over as Western scholars began to compose their own histories of the early Islamic world. Despite this, the Ta՚rīkh al-rusul wa al-mulūk was not published in English translation until the last two decades of the twentieth century, this the result in part of its imposing dimensions—the English translation consists of thirty-nine volumes.

Much of the information that was to find its way into al-ṭabarī’s work was collected by the scholar during wide-ranging travels made as a young man to various parts of the Islamic world. Travel by land;al-Ṭabarī[Tabari, al] Prior to the advent of the madrasa system of education, and to a lesser degree thereafter, such travels were an expected part of a young Muslim intellectual’s training. To “go in search of wisdom” was reminiscent of the hijra or “setting out (from home)” enjoined on Muslims by the Prophet, and students customarily traveled to such intellectual centers as Baghdad in search of teachers with whom they might study traditions of the Prophet and his companions (Hadith), the elements of Islamic law and jurisprudence (shariah), or Qur՚ānic commentary (tafsir). In so doing, they would listen to lectures and take copious notes, thus collecting books of tradition and knowledge. It was during travels to Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, and throughout his extended period of residence in Baghdad that al-ṭabarī collected much of the information he would craft into his historical text. Education;Muslim

Just as al-ṭabarī roamed a wide portion of the medieval Muslim world in order to collect material for his history, his work should be understood as a product of its author’s voracious intellect and prodigious creative capacity and as a text informed by the central scholarly and religious concerns of his culture. Al-ṭabarī himself produced a corpus of work that modern scholars have estimated would have required an output of fourteen handwritten folios per day during a period of fifty years of literary activity. In addition to his history, al-ṭabarī produced a massive and magisterial work of Qur՚ānic commentary, texts on topics ranging from ritual purity to various forms of prayer to the firing of arrows and works of poetry and biography.

For medieval Muslim intellectuals, the wide range of interests manifested in al-ṭabarī’s corpus represented less discrete disciplines than mutually dependent bodies of knowledge, all of which, ideally, supported and cast light on the others. The history of the early Muslim community, for example, was indispensable for formulating law and understanding the Qur՚ān, while one’s day-to-day actions and comportment helped to maintain a link with the community’s foundational moments, in which it was believed God instituted a polity that was to rule the world in his name. For al-ṭabarī and his contemporaries, to understand the past meant to better understand the present and future, and indeed to better understand human relations with the divine and eternal.

The importance for modern readers of al-ṭabarī’s work resides in part in the mix of materials with which it was composed, and also in part for the brilliance of the composite whole. Al-ṭabarī frequently preserves information that does not otherwise survive. This is due in part to the success of the work itself: Al-ṭabarī’s history supplanted many of the works on which it relied for material. Demand for copies of these earlier works slackened with the advent of al-ṭabarī’s work, and those earlier books were no longer copied or collected. For later medieval and early modern Muslim historians, al-ṭabarī’s history exercised influence at second or third hand as these historians crafted their own works relying on earlier histories that in turn owed their central narrative and information to al-ṭabarī. Historiography;Muslim

The work itself is, as necessitated by its subject matter, a sprawling narrative that shifts in focus from the dramas of cosmic creation to the tensions and passions that guide the actions of individual men and women. At the work’s outset, al-ṭabarī informs his reader that he shall pass on information he has attributed to an original source only, preferring eyewitness testimony because, he says, no knowledge of the past is available to those who did not witness the events of that past except through the reports of those who did. This notion of the past and its recovery in works of history, with which many modern empiricist historians would readily assent, was in accord with evolving practices among Muslim traditionalists who specialized in collecting and analyzing “sayings” of the Prophet as models for Muslim behavior and law.

Al-ṭabarī will thus frequently provide several reports describing the same event. Often subtle differences occur among these individual reports, and occasionally they vary considerably in both content and implication. In such cases al-ṭabarī will sometimes indicate one version that he prefers, while elsewhere he will conclude with an ambiguous “but God knows best the truth of the matter.” In addition to his pledge to rely on eyewitness reports as the basis for his history, al-ṭabarī also assures his reader that he will only rarely exercise his own judgment in arranging his material. The plausibility (or even desirability) of such practice may be regarded with skepticism by modern readers, of course, and in any case a distinct authorial voice is detectable throughout al-ṭabarī’s chronicle.

Given al-ṭabarī’s pledge to witness “statements of fact,” and the sheer volume of information he assembles, it might be assumed that the knowledge of the early Islamic centuries is fairly complete owing to his efforts. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Among medieval Muslims, the dependability of the sources available to al-ṭabarī or any other historian were subjected to rigorous scrutiny and frequently found wanting. Among modern historians, unease has been prompted by the fact that the earliest of the sources on which al-ṭabarī depended for the events and personalities of the primordial Muslim world (the Qur՚ān excepted) date from around 150 years after the hijra. The so-called eyewitness reports on which al-ṭabarī relies cannot be accounted for before the middle of the second century.

In any society at any time, there may be any number of reasons for historians and storytellers to amend, revise, or otherwise distort the historical narratives they pass on. In addition to simple variances of perspective or writing style, individual biases, personal or communal prejudices and other agendas will inevitably help to shape the ways in which different historians edit and interpret their material. In societies such as early Islam, where questions of political and religious authority were predicated on questions of history, the engines historians know to shape and even distort historical information churn incessantly. Partisan concerns and sectarian chauvinism have thus colored the narratives with which al-ṭabarī was to construct his history. The question that has bedeviled medieval and modern scholars alike has been how much and in what ways the surviving material in al-ṭabarī’s book may have been affected.

In addition, as suggested previously, medieval and modern scholars have debated endlessly the merits of al-ṭabarī’s individual sources. Among these sources are Ibn Isḥāq Ibn Isḥāq (c. 704-767), author of the earliest extant biography of the Prophet, and the historians al-Wāqidī Wāqidī (747-823), Abū Mikhnaf Abū Mikhnaf (d. 774), and the notorious Sayf bin ՙUmar Sayf bin ՙUmar , whose dependability was doubted by both medieval Arab scholars and modern Western Arabists, but who has been generally rehabilitated in recent research. What one finds reported in al-ṭabarī’s history concerning the very early Islamic community is therefore less dependably “what really happened” than “what was imagined to have happened” as the Muslim community began to circulate and record stories about the initial decades and centuries of its history.


Despite these concerns, however, the consensus among historians of the early Muslim world is that al-ṭabarī’s history represents the single most valuable repository of information regarding the formation of the first Islamic empires. Indeed, whether it is al-ṭabarī’s depiction of the crucial battles of the conquest period or his close and nuanced study of persistent struggles of the Khāijite movement or the Zanj revolt or the slow but sure ascendancy of Turkish military elites over their ՙAbbāsid Dynasty masters, the stories contained in The History of al-ṭabarī are the stories that medieval historians and modern historians alike have told and will continue to tell about the early Muslim world. In this sense, al-ṭabarī is and will likely remain, as one nineteenth century German admirer put it, “the father of Arabic history.”

Al-ṭabarī’s history thus allows modern scholars to understand, if only imperfectly, the birth and early development of the Islamic polity. Perhaps more important, however, al-ṭabarī’s work has provided generation upon generation of Muslims an essential core of stories and ideas with which to craft their communal selves. Alongside the most important Islamic works of religion and law, then, al-ṭabarī’s history has proven one of the Islamic world’s foundational documents.

Further Reading

  • Donner, Fred M. Narratives of Islamic Origins: The Beginnings of Islamic Historical Writing. Princeton, N.J.: Darwin Press, 1998. A crucial study of the process whereby the narratives one finds in the works of al-ṭabarī and other early Islamic historians evolved as well as the role these narratives played in the formation of the community itself. Extensive bibliography, index.
  • Hibri, Tayeb el-. Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography: Hārūn al-Rashīd and the Narrative of the ՙAbbāsid Caliphate. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Argues that past historical accounts of the eighth and ninth century caliphate were not written as portraits of the time, but instead as a means to convey the religious, political, and social issues that were then prominent. Bibliography, index.
  • Khalidi, Tarif. Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Traces the history of Muslim historiography, especially its focus on the documentation of scholars, scholarship, and learned society. Quotes historians and historical texts of the time period. Bibliography, index.
  • Noth, Albrecht, and Lawrence Conrad. The Early Arabic Historical Tradition: A Source Critical Study. Princeton, N.J.: Darwin Press, 1994. A revision of the author’s pioneering study of early Islamic historiography.
  • Robinson, Chase F. Islamic Historiography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A concise guide to early Islamic historiography suitable for both the specialist and nonspecialist. Bibliography, index.
  • Rosenthal, Franz. “General Introduction.” In The History of al-ṭabarī: Volume I: General Introduction and From the Creation to the Flood, translated by Franz Rosenthal. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. This lengthy introduction is one of the most concise and focused studies yet available in English of al-ṭabarī as an author.
  • Rosenthal, Franz. A History of Muslim Historiography. 2d rev. ed. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1968. One of the foundational studies of the early practice of Islamic history and its composition. A broad survey with a bibliography.
  • ṭabarī, al-. The History of al-ṭabarī, translated by Franz Rosenthal. 39 vols. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985-1999.
  • Tayob, Abdelkader I. “ṭabarī on the Companions of the Prophet: Moral and Political Contours in Islamic Historical Writing.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 119, no. 2 (April-June, 1999). An examination of an early motif in the writing of Islamic history, that of the status and roles of the Prophet’s companions. Shows how al-ṭabarī considers the companions as moral, and not political, beings.