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Allama Tabatabai – Part I

Purchasing the land for the new school had been easy. Finding the correct architect was more difficult. One by one, Ayatollah Hujjat had rejected every design proposal given for the project. As he and a few advisers sat exasperated, they finally noticed the proposal by a Sayyid from Tabriz. This one seemed perfect in every way! Naturally, it was quickly approved, and construction began shortly thereafter. As an afterthought, however, Ayatollah Hujjat and the advisors were curious to find who this Sayyid was. To their shock, their search led to none other than one of their contemporaries in the seminary, a frail, ascetic scholar who wore a blue turban and parched clothes and was better known for his interest in philosophy and mysticism rather than the intricacies of architecture!

He was born Sayyid Muhammad Hussain Tabatabai in a small village near Tabriz, Iran, in 1321 AH. Upon completing his initial education in the seminary of Tabriz, he traveled to the holy city of Najaf for his higher education. In Najaf, he studied under such eminent scholars as Shaikh Muhammad Hussain al-Gharawi, Mirza Hussain Naini, Sayyid Abul Hassan al-Isfehani, Sayyid Muhammad Hujjat Kohkamri, and Sayyid Ali Qadi Tabatabai. Although he was by all means a competent and qualified jurisprudent, Allama Tabatabai’s main areas of interest were philosophy, spirituality, and Gnosis. He was also quite knowledgeable in astronomy, mathematics, engineering, and several occult sciences (i.e. numerology, Ilm Jafr, etc.).

Upon completing his education in Najaf, he returned to Tabriz. However, due to political instability in the region caused by the star of World War II, he shortly thereafter moved to the seminary of Qom, where he spent the rest of his life teaching and researching. In an age of new political ideologies, Allama Tabatabai stood as the bulwark of traditional Islamic thought. Much to the chagrin of other teachers in Qom, he took up the study of materialist philosophy and wrote several refutations to it. When he was challenged by some Marxists, he immediately responded to their challenges and once even traveled from Qom to Tehran to hold an eight-hour debate with a Marxist.

Instead of large classes of jurisprudence, Allama preferred to hold small philosophy and Gnostic discussions with a close circle of students, which included such notables as Martyr Sayyid Muhammad Hussain Beheshti, Martyr Shaikh Murtada Mutahhari, Martyr Shaikh Ali Quddusi (his son-in-law), Shaikh Muhammad Fadil Lankarani, Shaikh Nasir Makarem Shirazi, Shaikh Ibrahim Amini, and Shaikh Ja’far Subhani.

Allama Tabatabai’s arguably greatest contribution to Shia academia came in the form of his exegesis of the Qur’an. When he arrived in the Qom seminary, he found that teaching Tafsir was viewed as a sign of incompetence. Therefore, he took it upon himself to revive that field. After several years of devoted scholarship, he completed his acclaimed Tafsir al-Mizan, considered the greatest commentary on the Qur’an written in the last few centuries. Whereas previous commentators, such as Shaikh Tabarsi and Shaikh Qummi, had used narrations of the Infallibles (peace be upon them) as the primary mode of interpreting the Qur’an, Allama Tabatabai used the unique method of exegesis by using one verse of the Qur’an to explain the other or, as he called it, “permitting the Qur’an to speak for itself”. The 20-volume Arabic work has since been translated into many languages, and a partial English translation is also available online.

In addition to Al-Mizan, Allama Tabatabai authored a series of books on Shia Islam, which made him an internationally-recognized authority on the Shia faith. The trilogy of books was translated by Sayyid Hossein Nasr and Professor William C. Chittick and consists of Shi’ite Islam, A Shi’ite Anthology, and The Qur’an in Islam.

Part Two on Allama Tabatabai

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