ṬABĀṬABĀʾI, Sayyed MOḤAMMAD-ḤOSAYN (b. Šādābād, a village near Tabriz, 29 Du’l-ḥejja 1321/17 March 1904; d. Qom, 18 Moḥarram 1402/16 Nov. 1981, Figure 1), eminent Twelver Shiʿite philosopher and author of the famous exegesis, al-Mizān.  His esteem amongst Shiʿites is such that they often refer to him solely by the honorific title, the ʿAllāma (erudite scholar).  Ṭabāṭabāʾi came from a distinguished lineage that included a number of prominent religious scholars and dignitaries in the history of Tabriz (Algar, pp. 326-27; Ḥosayni Tehrāni, 2004, pp. 32-35).  Both of his parents died before he was a teenager, and he and his brother were entrusted to a guardian and raised by two servants.

In 1925, after completing the elementary and intermediate levels of the ḥawza (Shiʿite learning community, seminary; see EDUCATION v;  IRAQ xi SHIʿITE SEMINARIES) curriculum in Tabriz, like many seminary students (ṭollāb) of the time, Ṭabāṭabāʾi went to Najaf to complete his religious education.  There he studied advanced jurisprudence and its principles (ārej-e feqh wa oṣul-e feqh) with the leading scholars of the day, Āyatallāhs Abu’l-Ḥasan Eṣfahāni (d. 1946) and Mirzā Moḥammad-Ḥosayn Nāʾini (d. 1936).  Although Nāʾini granted him permission (ejāza) to practice ejtehād (ʿAwsi, p. 43), Ṭabāṭabāʾi only wrote one work dedicated to traditional jurisprudence, a book of glosses on a major text of legal theory, the Kefāyat al-oṣul by Āḵund Ḵorāsāni (1839-1911).

In philosophy, the field in which Ṭabāṭabāʾi would spend most of his life formally teaching, he studied the works of eminent Islamic philosophers such as Avicenna, Shaikh Mollā Hādi Sabzavāri (d. 1289/1873) and Mollā Ṣadrā Širāzi (d. ca 1045/1635-36) for six years with Sayyed Ḥasan Bādkubāʾi (d. 1358/1939), who made a strong impression on the young ʿAllāma (Algar, p. 329; Ṭabāṭabāʾi, 1976, p. 9).  The teacher who had the greatest impact on Ṭabāṭabāʾi's overall persona, however, was a relative, Sayyed ʿAli Qāżi Ṭabāṭabāʾi (d. 1366/1947), popularly known as ʿAllāma Qāżi.  Ṭabāṭabāʾi always spoke of Qāżi with great reverence, and the two developed a relationship that could be characterized more as master and disciple than teacher and student (Dabashi, pp. 290-92).  Ṭabāṭabāʾi was known to say privately that everything we have is from Qāżi, and this very likely included Ṭabāṭabāʾi’s enthusiasm for mystical poetry as well as his dedication to self-purification (tahḏib al-nafs).  Perhaps the most significant teaching Qāżi bequeathed to Ṭabāṭabāʾi was the method of using some verses of the Qur’an to interpret others, which Ṭabāṭabāʾi later made the basis of his own exegesis, al-Mizān (Ḥosayni Tehrāni, 2004, pp. 26-32).  

Because of financial difficulties, Ṭabāṭabāʾi left Najaf in 1935 and returned to his native Tabriz, where he mainly attended to the family farmland but also taught small classes. His written output of this period was rather meager, but noteworthy are a series of essays in theology and philosophical anthropology that were posthumously collected and published as al-Rasāʾel al-tawḥidiya (Beirut, 1991). These essays are an early indication of ʿAllāma Ṭabāṭabāʾi’s pedagogical concern with “separating” subject matters.  While he believed that it was senseless to study theology without the aid of philosophy, and that mysticism would never conflict with revelation, at the same time he was adamant that their methods should never intermingle (Ḥosayni Tehrāni,2004,p. 43).

Since his commitments to farming left him insufficient time for teaching and writing, Ṭabāṭabāʾi was very dissatisfied with life in Tabriz, later calling the period one of “spiritual loss” (ḵosrān-e ruḥi; Ṭabāṭabāʾi, 1976, pp. 9-10).  When Soviet-backed forces took over the city in December 1945, he needed little incentive to leave Tabriz and relocate to Qom, then already secure under the directorship of Āyatallāh Ḥosayn Ṭabāṭabāʾi Borujerdi (d. 1961) as the premiere seminary city in Iran.  Aside from summer excursions to Mashhad, occasional trips to Tehran, and a journey to London for eye surgery, Ṭabāṭabāʾi remained in Qom from March 1946 until his death on 16 November 1981.

Once in Qom, Ṭabāṭabāʾi assessed the intellectual state of the ḥawza and concluded it was imperative to revive the comparatively neglected fields of philosophy and exegesis.  When Ṭabāṭabāʾi started teaching Mollā Ṣadrā’s al-Asfār al-arbaʿa in private, high demand forced him to make the class public, which in turn caused a stir among anti-rationalist seminarians.  Āyatallāh Borujerdi personally did not object to the private teaching of philosophy, but agreed that its public teaching could prove harmful to unsophisticated students (ṭollāb) and consequently he suspended the monthly payment of stipends (šahriya) to Ṭabāṭabāʾi’s students. Ṭabāṭabāʾi wrote Borujerdi a widely-quoted and insightful letter in which he explained that he came to Qom solely to teach philosophy and thereby unpack “the few suitcases of  [intellectual] objections and problems” that the seminary students brought with them to the ḥawza; accordingly he would not stop unless Borujerdi gave a religious order (ḥokm-e šarʿi) to do so (Dabashi, pp. 281-84; Ḥosayni Tehrāni, 2004, pp. 103-6). While the standard version of the incident concludes with Borujerdi deferring to Ṭabāṭabāʾi and allowing him to continue teaching the Asfār, an alternate version provided by Ḥosayn-ʿAli Montaẓeri, a common student of the two scholars, reports that Montaẓeri intervened and persuaded Ṭabāṭabāʾi (who apparently was considering leaving Qom over the issue) to compromise and instead teach the Šefāʾ of Avicenna, which was relatively less objectionable (Ḥosayni Tehrāni, 2008,III,pp. 351-53).

Another issue highlighting the challenges Ṭabāṭabāʾi faced in Qom was his scholia (taʿliqāt) in a new edition of the Beḥār al-anwār of Moḥammad-Bāqer Majlesi (d. 1699 or 1700).  Ṭabāṭabāʾi admired Majlesi as an eminent transmitter of Hadith (moḥaddeṯ) and appreciated his care in organizing the Beḥār al-anwār, yet he diverged sharply from the Safavid-era scholar on a number of points. He rejected Majlesi’s facile interpretations of theological hadith, in particular the meaning and nature of ʿaql (intellect).  He also opposed Majlesi’s unwarranted suspicion (suʾ al-ẓann) of the philosophers and his contempt for philosophizing.  When Ṭabāṭabāʾi castigated Majlesi on these points (Majlesi, I, p. 100, n. 1, p. 104, n. 1), it again upset some seminarians, and the publishers of the new edition pressured Ṭabāṭabāʾi to tone down his criticisms.  Ṭabāṭabāʾi replied defiantly, “in Shiʿism [Imam] Jaʿfar b. Moḥammad al-Ṣādeq is more esteemed than ʿAllāma Majlesi… I will not change one word” and stopped writing glosses with the seventh volume of the new edition (ʿAlawi; Ḥosayni Tehrāni, 2004, pp. 55-56).   

Ṭabāṭabāʾi’s magnum opus is al-Mizān fi tafsir al-Qorʾān, a twenty-volume exegesis written in Arabic between 1955 and 1972. Tafsir al-Mizān, as it is commonly known, is not only Ṭabāṭabāʾi’s masterpiece, but arguably also the most significant Shiʿite exegesis authored in modern times (see Awsi; Medoff).  It was written partly in response to the commentary of Moḥammad ʿAbdoh (d. 1905) and Rašid Reżā (d. 1935), commonly known as Tafsir al-manār, an influential exegesis that Ṭabāṭabāʾi found objectionable in its hasty rejection of miracles and other modernist tendencies. Each section of the Tafsir al-Mizān begins with a series of verses followed by the exegesis proper (bayān), in which Ṭabāṭabāʾi comments on how the pericope is related to the previous one, if at all, then elucidates each verse of the pericope starting with its key words (using Rāḡeb Eṣfahāni’s lexicon Mofradāt al-Qorʾān), and finally presents his view of the most likely meaning of the verses.  Following the exegesis proper is a number of excursions (boḥuṯ, lit. “discussions”), starting with one on the relevant Hadith followed by others on pertinent historical, philosophical, or social issues.  Tafsir al-Mizān’sfame lies both in the encyclopedic breadth of its topics, in particular those covered in the excursions, as well as its distinctive hermeneutics, interpretation of the Qurʾan by the Qurʾan (tafsir al-Qorʾān be’l Qorʾān).  Since the Qurʾan declares itself a light and guidance to the world it should be expected to be a light and guide to itself and act as its own interpreter, especially in its foundational teachings (Ṭabāṭabāʾi, al-Mizān I, p. 14). A corollary of Ṭabāṭabāʾi’s hermeneutics is his special understanding of the controversial topic of exegesis by personal opinion(tafsir be’l raʾy).  In opposition to the literalist understanding of tafsir be’l raʾy as commentary that does not regard Hadith as the foremost exegetical source, Ṭabāṭabāʾi interprets it to mean commentary that fails to rely primarily on the Qurʾān. Qurʾanic intertextuality does not mean that each and every verse possesses a corresponding explanatory verse; rather, the exegete relies on prominent verses (āyāt al-ḡorra) that have wide scope in the manner they capture the spirit of the Qur’anic teachings.  One important prominent verse is “Nothing is like him [God]” (42:11), which illuminates many Qur’anic teachings about God and his nature.  Ṭabāṭabāʾi believed that his hermeneutics had important antecedents in the history of exegesis but that its implementation in the Tafsir al-Mizān was “unprecedented” (raveš-e bi-sābeqa; Ṭabāṭabāʾi, 1976, p. 12). 

Next to the Tafsir al-Mizān,Ṭabāṭabāʾi’s most famous work is the Oṣul-e falsafa wa raveš-e reʾālism, which was the result of biweekly classes held in the 1950s and 1960s concerning the challenge that Islam faced from Western philosophy prevalent at the time, in particular dialectical materialism.  Based on the discussions, Ṭabāṭabāʾi wrote fourteen essays in defense of philosophical theism, and his close student Mortażā Moṭahhari (d. 1979) provided an introduction and detailed notes (Dabashi, pp. 313-14; Ḥosayni Tehrāni, 2004, pp. 61-62).  Salient features of the work include the authors’ categorization of certain forms of idealism and materialism as non-philosophy, or “sophism” (the first and second essays), the necessity of identifying mental constructs (eʿtebāriyāt) and separating them from extra-mental realities (ḥaqāʾeq; the sixth essay), and the exposition of a novel formulation (taqrir) of the “demonstration of the veracious” (borhān al-ṣeddiqin), a celebrated proof for the existence of God (the fourteenth essay; also Mollā Ṣadrā Širāzi, VI, pp. 14-15, n. 3). The Oṣul-e falsafa is significant as it is the first work written by traditional Iranian philosophers engaging extensively with topics of modern Western philosophy; it has also been an important catalyst for increased interest in comparative philosophy in Iran in recent times.  Other well-known works by Ṭabāṭabāʾi in philosophy include Bedāyat al-ḥekma and Nehāyat al-ḥekma, a two-part summary of Islamic (mostly Sadrian) philosophy intended to serve as a textbook for aspiring seminarians, and his scholia on Mollā Ṣadrā’s Asfār al-arbaʿa.  Ṭabāṭabāʾi was a staunch but not uncritical supporter of Mollā Ṣadrā’s metaphysical system, called Ḥekmat (lit, wisdom) in the Iranian seminaries, deeming it “closest to the truth” (Ḥosayni Tehrāni, 2004, pp. 43-45).

Ṭabāṭabāʾi was one of the first seminarians who actively fostered relations with European and American professors of Islamic studies, most notably the French orientalist Henry Corbin (1903-78).  For nineteen years, Ṭabāṭabāʾi went to considerable trouble to meet Corbin in Tehran and discuss divers historical, theological, and philosophical questions related to Shiʿism.  Some of the transcripts of these meetings were edited with notes and published as Šiʿa: majmuʿa-ye moḏākarāt bā Prof. Hānri Korban and Resālat-e tašayyoʿ dar donyā-ye emruz (Algar, pp. 341-45; Ḥosayni Tehrāni, 2004, pp. 74-78). Ṭabāṭabāʾi also accepted a proposal from the American professor Kenneth W. Morgan (1908-2011) to write introductory texts on Islam for the purpose of translation. The result of this project wasthe widely-read works Šiʿa dar Eslām (tr. by Sayyed Hossein Nasr with extensive notes as Shiʿite Islam) and Qorʾān dar Eslām.

As appropriate for an ostād (master-teacher), Ṭabāṭabāʾi was known not only for his vast knowledge but also his exemplary behavior.  He was very mindful of the sanctities of Shiʿite Islam, showed courtesy to all regardless of one’s personal belief and opinion, and lived a modest life in small quarters (Bidhendi, pp. 62-77; Dabashi, pp. 301-02). Ṭabāṭabāʾi was typical of the seminary culture in terms of his general quietism; he had no noteworthy participation in the events leading up to the Islamic Revolution, and he apparently regarded a religious scholar’s involvement in political affairs as an unwelcome distraction. He exhibited a certain amount of interest in various socio-political questions, however, as both the Tafsir al-Mizān and his collected essays (Barrasihā-ye eslāmi) attest (Algar, pp. 345-46).  Noteworthy in this regard is “Welāyat wa zaʿāmat dar Eslām,” an essay written around the time of the death of Āyatallāh Borujerdi, in which he draws the broad outlines of a Shiʿite political theory.  Written in his characteristic philosophical-theological style, Ṭabāṭabāʾi identifies welāya (charismatic authority and the allegiance owed to it) as the supreme principle of Islamic government.  He is rather noncommittal regarding the contentious question of precisely who should be the political leader in the absence of an infallible Imam, but he stipulates that the leader should be religiously observant (taqwā-ye dini), possess effective administration skills (ḥosn-e tadbir), and be aware of current events (Ṭabāṭabāʾi, 1976, p. 192).

Ṭabāṭabāʾi’s contribution to modern Shiʿism, particularly its Iranian dimension, lies squarely in the revival of philosophy and exegesis.  His legacy has been secured through his numerous students, many of whom are well-known figures in the contemporary ḥawza scene, and quite a few of whom have had significant involvement in the post-Revolution order (Bidhendi, pp. 81-82).  Whether it is possible to call the largely apolitical Ṭabāṭabāʾi one of the intellectual architects of the Islamic Republic, however, is a debatable matter (Algar, pp. 347-48; Dabashi, pp. 276-77).


Works (a selection).

al-Mizān fi tafsir al-Qorʾān, 20 vols., Beirut, 1970-74.

Qorʾān dar Eslām, Tehran, 1974, tr. Alaedin Pazargadi, as The Quran in Islam, Tehran, 1984.

Nehāyat al-ḥekma, Qom, 1975.

Šiʿa dar Eslām, tr. Hossein Nasr, as Shiʿite Islam, Albany, 1975.

Barrasihā-ye eslāmi: Majmuʿa-ye maqālāt wa rasāʾel,ed. Hādi Ḵosrowšāhi, Qom, 1976.

ʿAli wa’l-falsafa elāhiya, Beirut, 1980.

Ẓohur-e Šiʿa, Tehran, 1982.

Bedāyat al-ḥekma, Qom, 1984, tr. Ali Quli Qarai, as The Elements of Islamic Metaphysics, London, 2003.

Oṣul-e falsafa wa raveš-e reʾālism, 5 vols.,Qom, 1985.

Resālat al-welāya, Beirut, 1987, tr. Fāżel Asadi Amjad and Mahdi Dasht Bozorg, as The Return to Being: The Treatise on Friendship with God, London, 2009.

Sonan al-Nabi, Beirut, 1988, tr. Tahir Ridha Jaffer, as Sunan an-Nabi: A Collection of Narrations on the Conduct and Customs of the Noble Prophet Muhammad, Kitchener, Ont., 2007.

Ḵolāṣa-ye taʿālim-e Eslām, tr. R. Campbell, as Islamic Teachings: An Overview, New York, 1989.

Resālat-e tašayyoʿ dar donyā-ye emruz: Goftoguyi digar bā Hānri Korban (Henry Corbin), Tehran, 1990.

Šiʿa: Majmuʿa-ye moḏākarāt bā Prof. Hānri Korban, ed. Hādi Ḵosrowšāhi, Qom, 1991; al-Rasaʾel al-tawḥidiya, Beirut, 1991.


Ebrāhim Sayyed ʿAlawi, “Taʿliqāt-e ʿAllāma Ṭabāṭabāʾi bar Beḥār al-anwār,” Keyhān-e andiša 38, 1991, pp. 12-30; 39, 1992, pp. 49-61.  

Hamid Algar,  “ʿAllāmah Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī: Philosopher, Exegete, Gnostic,” JIS 17/3, 2006, pp. 326-51.  

ʿAli Awsi, al-Ṭabāṭabāʾi wa manhajohu fi tafsirehi al-Mizān, Tehran, 1985. 

Nāṣer Bāqeri Bidhendi, “Mofasser wa ḥakim-e elāhi  ḥażrat-e Āyat-Allāh Sayyed Moḥammad-Ḥosayn Ṭabāṭabāʾi,” Nur-e ʿelm 3/9, 1989, pp. 45-87. 

Hamid Dabashi, Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, New York, 1993.  

Moḥammad-Ḥosayn Ḥosayni Tehrāni, Mehr-e tābān: Yād-nāma wa mosāḥabāt-e talmiḏ wa ʿAllāma, ʿālem-e rabbāni ʿAllāma Sayyed Moḥammad-Ḥosayn Ṭabāṭabāʾi Tabrizi, Mashhad, 2004; tr. Tawus Raja, as Shining Sun: In Memory of ʿAllamah Tabatabaʾi, London, 2011.

Idem, Allāh-šenāsi, 3 vols., n.p. (Mashhad?), 2008 (online at http://motaghin.com/fa_books_3.aspx, accessed 12 June 2017). 

Qanbar-ʿAli Kermāni, Ketāb-šenāsi-e ʿAllāma Ṭabāṭabāʾi, Tehran, 1994. 

Moḥammad-Bāqer Majlesi, Beḥār al-anwār al-jāmeʿa le-dorar aḵbār al-aʾemma al-aṭhār, 110 vols., Beirut, 1983.

Louis Medoff, “Ijtihad and Renewal in Qurʾanic Hermeneutics: An Analysis of Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī’s al-Mīzān fī Tafsīr al-Qurʾān,” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2007. 

Rāḡeb Eṣfahāni, Mofradāt fi ḡarāʾeb al-Qorʾān, 2 vols., Beirut, 1961.

Mollā Ṣaḍrā Širāzi, al-Ḥekma al-motaʿāliya fi’l-asfār al-ʿaqliya al-arbaʿa, 9 vols., Beirut, 1990.

(Louis Medoff)

Originally Published: June 13, 2017

Last Updated: June 13, 2017

Cite this entry:

Louis Medoff, “ṬABĀṬABĀʾI, MOḤAMMAD-ḤOSAYN,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2016, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/tabatabai-mohammad-hosayn (accessed on 30 April 2017).