’Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i was born in Tabriz in A.H. (lunar) 1321 or A.H. (solar) 1282, (A.D. 1903) 20 in a family of descendants of the Holy Prophet which for fourteen generations has produced outstanding Islamic scholars. 21 He received his earliest education in his native city, mastering the elements of Arabic and the religious sciences, and at about the age of twenty set out for the great Shi’ite University of Najaf to continue more advanced studies. Most students in the madrasahs follow the branch of "transmitted sciences" (al-’ulum al-naqliyah), especially the sciences dealing with the Divine Law, fiqh or jurisprudence, and usul al-fiqh or the principles of jurisprudence. ’Allamah Tabataba’i, however, sought to master both branches of the traditional sciences: the transmitted and the intellectual. He studied Divine Law and the principles of jurisprudence with two of the great masters of that day, Mirza Muhammad Husayn Na’ini and Shaykh Muhammad Husayn Isfahani. He became such a master in this domain that had he kept completely to these fields he would have become one of the foremost mujtahids or authorities on Divine Law and would have been able to wield much political and social influence.
But such was not his destiny. He was more attracted to the intellectual sciences, and he studied assiduously the whole cycle of traditional mathematics with Sayyid Abu’l-Qasim Khwansari, and traditional Islamic philosophy, including the standard texts of the Shifa’ of Ibn Sina, the Asfar of Sadr al-Din Shirazi and the Tamhid al-qawa’id of Ibn Turkah, with Sayyid Husayn Badkuba’i, himself a student of two of the most famous masters of the school of Tehran, Sayyid Abu’l-Hasan Jilwah and Aqa ’Ali Mudarris Zunuzi. In addition to formal learning, or what the traditional Muslim sources call "acquired science" (’ilm-i husuli), ’Allamah Tabataba’i sought after that "immediate science" (’ilm-i huduri) or gnosis through which knowledge turns into vision of the supernal realities. He was fortunate in finding a great master of Islamic gnosis, Mirza ’Ali Qadi, who initiated him into the Divine mysteries and guided him in his journey toward spiritual perfection. ’Allamah Tabataba’I once told me that before meeting Qadi he had studied the Fusus al-hikam of Ibn ’Arabi and thought that he knew it well. When he met this master of real spiritual authority he realized that he knew nothing. He also told me that when Mirza Ali Qadi began to teach the Fusus it was as if all the walls of the room were speaking of the reality of gnosis and participating in his exposition. Thanks to this master the years in Najaf became for ’Allamah Tabataba’i not only a period of intellectual attainment but also one of asceticism and spiritual practices, which enabled him to attain that state of spiritual realization often referred to as becoming divorced from the darkness of material limitations (tajrid). He spent long periods in fasting and prayer and underwent a long interval during which he kept absolute silence. Today his presence carries with it the silence of perfect contemplation and concentration even when he is speaking.
’Allamah Tabataba’i returned to Tabriz in A.H. (solar) 1314 (A.D. 1934) and spent a few quiet years in that city teaching a small number of disciples, but he was as yet unknown to the religious circles of Persia at large. It was the devastating events of the Second World War and the Russian occupation of Persia that brought ’Allamah Tabataba’i from Tabriz to Qum in A.H. (solar) 1324 (A.D. 1945) Qum was then, and continues to be, the center of religious studies in Persia. In his quiet and unassuming manner ’Allamah Tabataba’i began to teach in this holy city, concentrating on Quranic commentary and traditional Islamic philosophy and theosophy, which had not been taught in Qum for many years.
His magnetic personality and spiritual presence soon attracted some of the most intelligent and competent of the students to him, and gradually he made the teachings of Mulla Sadra once again a cornerstone of the traditional curriculum. I still have a vivid memory of some of the sessions of his public lectures in one of the mosque-madrasahs of Qum where nearly four hundred students sat at his feet to absorb his wisdom.
The activities of ’Allamah Tabataba’i since he came to Qum have also included frequent visits to Tehran. After the Second World War, when Marxism was fashionable among some of the youth in Tehran, he was the only religious scholar who took the pains to study the philosophical basis of Communism and supply a response to dialectical materialism from the traditional point of view. The fruit of this effort was one of his major works, Usul-i falsafah wa rawish-i ri’alism (The Principles of Philosophy and the Method of Realism), in which he defended realism-in its traditional and medieval sense-against all dialectical philosophies. He also trained a number of disciples who belong to the community of Persians with a modern education.
Since his coming to Qum, ’Allamah Tabataba’i has been indefatigable in his efforts to convey the wisdom and intellectual message of Islam on three different levels: to a large number of traditional students in Qum, who are now scattered throughout Persia and other Shi’ite lands; to a more select group of students whom he has taught gnosis and Sufism in more intimate circles and who have usually met on Thursday evenings at his home or other private places; and also to a group of Persians with a modern education and occasionally non-Persians with whom he has met in Tehran.
During the past ten or twelve years there have been regular sessions in Tehran attended by a select group of Persians, and in the fall season by Henry Corbin, sessions in which the most profound and pressing spiritual and intellectual problems have been discussed, and in which I have usually had the role of translator and interpreter. During these Years we have studied with ’Allamah Tabataba’i not only the classical texts of divine wisdom and gnosis but also a whole cycle of what might be called comparative gnosis, in which in each session the sacred texts of one of the major religions, containing mystical and gnostic teachings, such as the Tao Te-Ching, the Upanishads and the Gospel of John, were discussed and compared with Sufism and Islamic gnostic doctrines in general.
’Allamah Tabataba’i has therefore exercised a profound in fluence in both the traditional and modern circles in Persia. He has tried to create a new intellectual elite among the modern educated classes who wish to be acquainted with Islamic intellectuality as well as with the modern world. Many among his traditional students who belong to the class of ulama have tried to follow his example in this important endeavor. Some of his students, such as Sayyid Jalal al-Din Ashtiyani of Mashhad University and Murtada Mutahhari of Tehran University, are themselves scholars of considerable reputation. ’Allamah Tabataba’I often speaks of others among his students who possess great spiritual qualities but do not manifest themselves outwardly.
In addition to a heavy program of teaching and guidance, ’Allamah Tabataba’i has occupied himself with writing many books and articles which attest to his remarkable intellectual powers and breadth of learning within the world of the traditional Islamic sciences.
Today at his home in Qum the venerable authority devotes nearly all of his time to his Quranic commentary and the direction of some of his best students. He stands as a symbol of what is most permanent in the long tradition of Islamic scholarship and science, and his presence carries a fragrance which can only come from one who has tasted the fruit of Divine Knowledge. He exemplifies in his person the nobility, humility and quest after truth which have characterized the finest Muslim scholars over the ages. His knowledge and its exposition are a testimony to what real Islamic learning is, how profound and how metaphysical, and how different from so many of the shallow expositions of some of the orientalists or the distorted caricatures of so many Muslim modernists. Of course he does not have the awareness of the modern mentality and the nature of the modern world that might be desired, but that could hardly be expected in one whose life experience has been confined to the traditional circles in Persia and Iraq.