Speaker’s Corner: “al-Tabari and I: a female academic’s desire for the immortal scholar of Baghdad” by Ulrika Mårtensson

By Myriam Francois|April 20, 2016|Uncategorized|0 comments

Al-Tabari and I: a female academic’s desire for the immortal scholar of Baghdad

by Ulrika Mårtensson


In my worldview, death and child rearing are intimately connected, and I therefore seek immortality by proxy only. Immortality has a name: Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310/923), another childless academic. Tabari produced vast, detailed, precise, and analytical scholarship in law, Qur’an interpretation, the Prophet’s tradition, and history, which transcends time and place: he wrote about ‘natural rights’ in a language evocative of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):


Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world;

Article 1:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Compare this with Tabari’s exegesis of the Qur’an, al-Nisa’ (‘Women’), verse 1:

O people, fulfil your obligations towards your Lord Who created you by cleaving asunder one person and thereby creating from it its other half.

Tabari explained:

God means by His speech (O people, fulfil your obligations towards your Lord Who created you by cleaving asunder one person): (…) He described Himself as the One Who has created all the diverse beings from one individual (shakhs) to let His worshippers know how He issued forth (all) that from one person. Thus He informs them that since they are all offspring of one man and one mother and are therefore all from one another, they are obliged to uphold each others’ rights as brothers. (… They are obliged to) act kindly, not oppressively, towards each other, so that the strong uphold the rights of the weak, in accordance with what God has commanded them. (…)

Tabari and the UDHR share a theory of ‘natural law’, i.e. the idea that there are universal rights, which are innate to the human being and conform to principles that humans can infer through reason.

Tabari did not belong to the so-called rationalists in Islamic law, who are the ones usually accredited with natural law theory.[1] Yet it is clear in his famous History of the Messengers and the Kings that he conceived of rights-based law and social contract as ‘natural’ principles, which God had implanted in human reason and which they consequently did not need divine scripture to know. Indeed, at Creation, God had concluded the Covenant of mutual trust (mithaq) with humanity, by which they committed themselves to serve God alone and no other lords. From Tabari’s exegesis of the Qur’an, Al ‘Imran, verse 79, it is clear that he equated servitude to God with upholding justice:

It is impossible that any human vessel of the divine word, who God has given the writing, the ruling, and the prophecy, would say to the people: “Be servants to me instead of to God!” Rather, [he would say]: “Be masters by virtue of the writing that you used to teach, and by virtue of what you used to study.”

Tabari explained:

[By ‘masters’ is meant] the scholars of jurisprudence and legal wisdom, who promote the common good, and manage the people’s affairs by teaching them the good and inviting them to that which is in their common interest. [This kind of scholar] is wise in judgement and fulfils his duties towards God, and is the governor who governs the people’s affairs according to the methodology of those among the promoters of the common good who promote justice (…) Thus, the ‘masters’ are the people’s support in jurisprudence, scholarship, and matters of the legal order and the material life.

Since Tabari also ruled that women have equal rational capacities to men and are fit to serve as judges, his natural law theory appears to include a concept of men and women as equal in nature, if not in social practice.

In Tabari’s history, he expressed his natural law theory through the outline, which begins with Creation, continues with the prophets and rulers from the ancient Persian empires, through the Israelites and the Arab kingdoms to the Prophet and the Caliphate until the year 302/915. This scheme allows Tabari to scrutinise each ruler according to how well he upheld rights and contractual obligations, regardless of whether he belonged to the pre-Islamic or Islamic period. He refused to moralise, even as he assessed the moral strengths and weaknesses of each ruler. He also refused sectarian polemics: while a Sunni, he defended the ‘Alids’ rights to apanage against Umayyad and ‘Abbasid administrative arbitrariness, and he sided with the vizier ‘Ali b. ‘Isa who favoured peace treaties with both Ismailites and Byzantines over war and its unavoidable destruction. When analysing armed uprisings, he showed both the propaganda and the material circumstances that justified violence, even when he did not sympathise with the methods of the rebels.

Tabari’s history should be mandatory reading for all would-be politicians, jurists and religious leaders across the world.



[1] Anver Emon, Islamic Natural Law Theories (Oxford University Press, 2010).

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About Myriam Francois

This is the official blog for the SOAS-CIS. It aims to encourage scholars to debate and engage with the wider public on the basis of their research and will foster discussions about mainly UK and also European Integration discourse as relates to Islam and British Muslims. We tweet @SoasCis

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