He received his earlier education in his native Tabriz city, mastering the elements of Arabic and the religious sciences. and at about the age of twenty set out for the great Shiite university of Najaf to continue more advanced studies. he studied at Najaf, under masters such as Mirza ‘Ali Qadhi (in gnosis), Mirza Muhammad Husain Na’ini, Sheikh Muhammad Hossein Qaravi Esfahani (in Fiqh and Jurisprudence), Sayyid Abu’l-Qasim Khwansari (in Mathematics), as well as studying the standard texts of Avicenna’s Shifa, the Asfar of Sadr al-Din Shirazi, and the Tamhid al-qawa’id of Ibn Turkah. Along with Sayyid Husayn Badkuba’i, he was a student of two of the most famous masters of the time, Sayyid Abu’l-Hasan Jilwah and Aqa ‘Ali Mudarris Zunuzi.
In his later years he would often hold study sessions with Henry Corbin and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in which not only the classical texts of divine wisdom and gnosis were discussed, but also a whole cycle of what Nasr calls comparative gnosis, in which in each session the sacred texts of one of the major religions, containing mystical and gnostic teachings, such as the Upanishads, Tao Te Ching, the Gospel of John, were discussed and compared with Sufism and Islamic gnostic doctrines in general.
Tabataba’i, was a philosopher, a prolific writer, and an inspiring teacher to his students who devoted much of his life to Islamic studies. Many of his students were among the ideological founders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, namely Morteza Motahhari, Muhammad Beheshti, and Mohammad Mofatteh. Others like Hossein Nasr and Hassan Hassanzadeh Amoli remained and continued their studies in the intellectual non-political sphere.
It was in Najaf where Tabataba’i developed his major contributions in the fields of Tafsir (interpretation), philosophy, and history of the Shi’a faith. In philosophy the most important of his works is Usul-i falsafeh va ravesh-e-realism (The Principles of Philosophy and the Method of Realism), which has been published in five volumes with explanatory notes and the commentary of Morteza Motahhari. If Ayatollah Haeri is considered the reviver of Qom’s hawza in an organizational sense, Tabataba’i’s contributions to the field of tafsir, philosophy and mysticism represent the intellectual revitalization of the hawza with lasting implications for the curriculum.
His other major philosophical work is a voluminous commentary of Asfār al-‘arba’eh, the magnum opus of Mulla Sadra who was the last of the great Persian (Iranian) Muslim thinkers of the medieval age. Apart from these he also wrote extensively on philosophical topics. His humanist approach is underlined by his three books on: the nature of man – before the world, in this world, and after this world. His philosophy is focused upon the sociological treatment of human problems. His two other works, Bidāyat al-hikmah and Nihāyat al-hikmah, are considered among works of high order in Islamic philosophy.
Several treatises on the doctrines and history of the Shi’a remain from him as well. One of these comprises his clarifications and expositions about Shi’a faith in reply to the questions posed by the famous French orientalist Henry Corbin. Another of his books on this topic Shi’ah dar Islam was translated into English by Seyyed Hossein Nasr under the title Shi’a Islam, with the help of William Chittick as a project of Colgate University. These books are claimed to serve as an excellent conduit by which popular misconceptions about the Shi’a faith may be removed further paving the way for a better ecumenical understanding amongst the various Muslim schools of thought.
His written books number forty-four titles overall; three of which are collections of his articles on various aspects of Islam and the Qur’an.
List of publications
- Shi’a Islam (Persian: Shi’ah dar Islam)
- The Principles of Philosophy and the Method of Realism (Persian: اصول فلسفه و روش رئالیسم Usul-i falsafeh va ravesh-i ri’alism) in five volumes, with the commentary of Murtada Mutahhari.
- Glosses al-kifayah (Persian: Hashiyahi kifayah). Glosses upon the new edition of the Asfar of Sadr al-Din Shirazi Mulla Sadra appearing under the direction of ‘Allameh Tabataba’i of which seven volumes have appeared.
- Dialogues with Professor Corbin (Persian: Mushabat ba Ustad Kurban) Two volumes based on conversations carried out between ‘Allameh Tabataba’i and Henry Corbin of which the first volume was printed as the yearbook of Maktab-i tashayyu’, 1339 (A.H. Solar)
- Risalah dar hukumat-i islami, (Treatise on Islamic Government).
- Hashiyah-i kifayah (Glosses upon al-Kifayah).
- Risalah dar quwwah wafi'(Treatise on Potentiality and Actuality).
- Risalah dar ithbat-i dha~t (Treatise on the Proof of the Divine Essence).
- Risalah dar sifat (Treatise on the Divine Attributes).
- Risalah dar ata (Treatise on the Divine Acts).
- Risalah dar wasa’il (Treatise on Means).
- Risalah dar insan qabl al-dunya (Treatise on Man before the World)
- Risalah dar insan fi al-dunya (Treatise on Man in the World).
- Risalah dar insan ba’d al-dunya (Treatise on Man after the World).
- Risalah dar nubuwwat (Treatise on Prophecy).
- Risalah dar wilayat (Treatise on Initiation).
- Risalah dar mushtaqqat (Treatise on Derivatives).
- Risalah dar burhan (Treatise on Demonstration).
- Risalah dar mughalatah (Treatise on Sophism).
- Risalah dar tahlil (Treatise on Analysis).
- Risalah dar tarkib (Treatise on Synthesis).
- Risalah dar i’tibarat (Treatise on Contingents).
- Risalah dar nubuwwat wa manamat (Treatise on Prophecy and Dreams)
- Manza’mah dar rasm-i- khatt-i-nasta’liq (Poem on the Method of Writing the Nasta’liq Style of Calligraphy).
- Ali wa al-falsafat al-ilahiya (Ali and Metaphysics)
- Qur’an dar Islam (The Qur’an in Islam).
Allameh Tabataba’i was also an accomplished poet. He composed his poetry mainly in Persian, but occasionally in Arabic as well. He was also the author of numerous articles and essays.