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FaithSpiritualityTheology

The “Perfect Man”: A Reflection on the Beautiful Life and Character of Allamah Tabatabai

About two months before Allamah passed away, his eldest son asked him to summarize everything he had learned of the sacred Islamic tradition in just one word. In response to this momentous query, Allamah repeated the word that had become the very essence of his being: love, love, love.

About two months before Allamah passed away, his eldest son asked him to summarize everything he had learned of the sacred Islamic tradition in just one word. In response to this momentous query, Allamah repeated the word that had become the very essence of his being: love, love, love.

As human beings, we often experience a transformative moment in our youth that shapes who we aspire to be for the rest of our lives. When I was about 15 years old and was diving into a more passionate study of Islam, I experienced such a moment the day I came across the book ‘Eternal Manifestations: 80 Stories from the Life of Allamah Tabatabai’ by Ahmad Luqmani for the very first time.

That simple, unassuming book had a deeper impact on my journey toward God than years of attending religious lectures, conferences, and Sunday school classes combined. In comparison to many great tomes of Shi’a literature, ‘Eternal Manifestations’ is easily overlooked; it can be read in less than an hour and comprises a simple series of paragraph-length stories from the life of Allamah Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai.

Allamah was one of the most renowned scholars in contemporary Shi’a history, and is best known for penning the brilliant Qur’anic exegesis ‘Tafsir al Mizan’. Luqmani’s book provides firsthand accounts of how Allamah treated his loved ones, students, and those around him, as well as the depth of his relationship with God, the Ahlulbayt (as), and the Holy Qur’an.

As a young teenager living in America, it astounded me that a man who was alive in modern times could have succeeded in becoming so pure that his loved ones described him with qualities befitting an angel. What stunned me most about Allamah was that he embodied humility, compassion, patience, and genuine, profound goodness to a degree that I used to believe could only exist in prophets and imams. Even if someone doubted the existence of God Himself, the character of a man like Allamah would be enough to make even an atheist think twice- for how could a man so pure not make you curious about the Lord he worshiped and why he worshiped Him?

In addition to his innumerable spiritual merits, Allamah embodied a rare understanding of masculinity that filled me with admiration and awe. He was certain yet soft, passionate yet patient, decisive yet flexible, resolute yet open-minded, intellectually brilliant yet humble, courageous yet gentle, and endlessly, unapologetically tender toward those whom he loved and respected. Above all else, he was a profoundly authentic man. It was as if a Divine inner calling directed everything he pursued in life, leaving a permanent sense of integrity and resonance at the heart of everything he did.

Until I read about Allamah, I had never seen a practical, modern-day example of a person who had embodied Islam to an extent that so thoroughly completed and beautified them. It wasn’t until I learned of his existence that I truly began to understand what Islam was calling on us to become; he was the missing puzzle piece that deepened my grasp of the purpose behind human existence and the existential necessity of religion.

In reading about him, my eyes opened up to new dimensions of possibility for the depth of goodness one could attain through dedicated self-building and God-consciousness. Allamah was one of the lights who made me fall more deeply in love with the path of the Prophet (pbuh) and Ahlulbayt (as), because I found myself wanting to love them the way he loved them- so deeply and absolutely that his character became a reflection of theirs.

Part One: Allamah the Man

In an infamous hadith qudsi, God once told Prophet Musa (as) that He is nearest to the broken-hearted. As I reflect on the stunning rarity of Allamah’s character, it strikes me that only profound heartbreak could have shaped such a God-conscious soul- and indeed, every chapter of his life was replete with tragedy.

Allamah’s mother passed away when he was five, and his father died when he was nine, leaving him and his younger brother orphaned in childhood. As an adult, he and his wife experienced the deaths of three of their children under the age of two. Amid the strenuous heat and cold of Najaf, they experienced such severe poverty due to political circumstances, that they had to sell a majority of their belongings in order to repay their debts.

Then, at the height of his life as a student of Islam, Allamah and his family were forced to move back to Tabriz so he could work as a farmer to support them. Distanced from his greatest passion, he spent a decade of his life in this manner – a period he painfully described as being spiritually barren compared to his life before. 

When I imagine Allamah in the different stages of his life – the sensitive, gentle boy who lost both parents before the age of 10, the broken-hearted father who lost multiple children in infancy, the insatiable seeker who spent ten years in the prime of his life at a distance from his greatest passion – I begin to understand why he sought God so hungrily and why God, in turn, seemed to seek him.

Every chapter of Allamah’s existence encompassed depths of pain that would shatter any human being, yet each trial seemed to only propel him upward on the ladder of spiritual ascension. Allamah never allowed suffering to embitter or destroy him- it was as if he perceived every setback as an invitation to deepen his connection with God. When the heart is softened in such a manner, it becomes permeable enough for Divine love to take root, yielding permanent and unfathomable wonders.

Part Two: Allamah the Scholar

As a scholar, Allamah was defined by an unparalleled depth of spiritual insight, boundless philosophical brilliance, and a seemingly insatiable degree of intellectual curiosity. He corresponded with a diverse range of thinkers from across the world, and audaciously dove into the study of a vast array of belief systems and ideas – a tendency that reflected the remarkable depth and complexity of his mind, yet made him the target of many staunch critics.

Though he was often subjected to high levels of ideological opposition, Allamah conducted himself with respect and reverence even toward those whom he differed with – an approach rooted in the akhlaqi examples of the Aimmah (as).

When the respected Ayatullah Borujerdi expressed disapproval of Allamah’s public teaching of philosophy in Qom, Allamah reflected at length before responding – turning to the Divan of the beloved poet Hafez for insight – and then responded in the most balanced, respectful manner imaginable. After passionately explaining why he regarded the open teaching of philosophy as an existential necessity for his students, Allamah stated that he would not voluntarily abandon these teachings, but that if Ayatullah Borujerdi asked him to do so, he would respect his authority and listen.

Another unique dimension of Allamah’s scholarly identity was the subtle manner in which he taught and influenced those around him. Though his perception was marked by an acute level of intuitive discernment that allowed him to perceive areas where others could improve, he never presented these critiques in an aggressive or hostile manner; instead, his approach was marked by optimism, gentleness, and inexhaustible patience.

A striking example of this is recounted in the English edition of Ayatullah Tehrani’s Kernel of the Kernel. In his respective introduction, Seyyed Hossein Nasr notes an instance in which Allamah sought to advise one of his most beloved friends and students, Shaheed Murtadha Mutahhari. While both Seyyed Nasr and Shaheed Mutahhari were in Allamah’s presence one day, Allamah turned to Nasr and asked him to advise Mutahhari to “make fewer speeches and devote more time to introspection”. According to Nasr, “despite his closeness to his teacher, Mutahhari showed little interest in a more contemplative life and in his master’s esoteric teachings.” 

Years later, however, Shaheed Mutahhari was imprisoned for a few months due to his political activism. The prisoners were permitted to request books from their families, and the first literary work he requested was the Mathnawi of Maulana Rumi, widely regarded as one of the greatest wellsprings of mystical inspiration. Mutahhari later told Nasr that this period of time led to an opening in his soul for philosophical contemplation and ‘irfan.

Thereafter, he experienced an ever-deepening attraction toward the mystical teachings of Allamah, and by the end of his life, Ayatullah Tehrani notes that Shaheed Mutahhari “fully realized that one cannot find inner peace without reaching the inward and without connecting with the Munificent Lord.” Through this example, we find that Allamah understood the wisdom of planting seeds and allowing them to bloom in their own time. It was as if he were an endlessly patient gardener, cultivating the souls of his students and loved ones with utmost reverence and attentiveness.

This rare blend of humility, integrity, passion, and respect reveals that Allamah was never motivated by a desire for personal glory, but was driven solely by an internal devotion to Haqq and an unyielding desire to please the Creator he was ceaselessly in love with. Allamah thus exemplified a truth that is ill-understood amid the artifice of the modern era: scholarly excellence is not rooted in oratorical skill, wit, or the number of followers, views, or accolades a scholar receives – true scholarly brilliance blooms at the intersection of humility and God-consciousness. It is the ink of such a scholar that carries more merit than the blood of a martyr, and it is the work of such a scholar that endures across generations.

I must thus contend that the greatest miracle of Allamah Tabatabai’s life was not that he wrote Tafsir al Mizan, arguably the most brilliant Qur’anic exegesis ever written. The greatest miracle of his life was that he wrote Tafsir al Mizan, and yet remained unrivaled in his humility. Humility formed the bedrock of his being; it was the lifeblood and essence of his spiritual ascension, the aperture through which the light of God permeated his being.

Allamah actualized this virtue in every aspect of his life and behavior. He was a teacher not merely in the lofty wisdom he imparted within his books and treatises; his every moment and gesture contained profound lessons in human elevation. He was a soft-spoken man with a meandering cadence, but his primary mode of teaching needed no rhetorical splendor; his akhlaq itself was the most exquisite propagation of Divine truth.

Many scholars throughout history have written extensively about the centrality of Tawhid, but Allamah actively embodied this centrality, understanding Tawhid to be a holistic undertaking that must be actualized in every aspect and every moment of one’s life. He thus viewed every breath, every interaction, and every experience for what it truly was: an opportunity to more deeply fulfill his life’s central aim of attaining nearness to God. 

Part Three: Allamah the Lover

When I began writing this piece five years ago, I must confess that the earliest drafts contained very little mention of Allamah’s achievements as a scholar. A purely intellectual approach to my subject would have been dishonest, as it was not the brilliance of Allamah’s scholarship that initially drew me to him and kept me enthralled. It was, and always has been, the depth of his love for God and the Ahlulbayt (as) – and the way this love expressed itself in every facet of his character – that captivated me.

I have often been awestruck by Allamah’s wondrous intellect and the astonishing complexity of the grammatical and philosophical analyses woven into his tafasir, but it is the softness of his heart and the beauty of his akhlaq that still leave me breathless. Brilliant minds can be found in every field and time, but the brilliance of the heart is a rarity in any era. This is the quality that makes a true lover of God irreplaceable amongst billions, and it is the singular reason I have spent half my life missing a man I have never met. This aspect of Allamah’s magnetism was perhaps best conveyed by Shaheed Mutahhari.

When he was asked why he respected Allamah so deeply, Shaheed Mutahhari acknowledged that he had seen many philosophers and mystics, and his respect for Allamah did not stem from these areas, despite his brilliance in both. Rather, it was the depth of Allamah’s love for the Ahlulbayt (as) that had enamored Mutahhari and merited his undying respect. He then cited one of the most visceral examples of this love: in Shahr Ramadhan, Allamah would open his fast not with food, but by kissing the dharih of Lady Masuma (as). This love remained the cornerstone of Allamah’s being until the very end of his life, when he was buried within the vicinity of that very shrine.

In Sermon 221 of Nahjul Balagha, Imam Ali (as) describes the people of remembrance, stating that God “whispers through their wits, speaks through their minds,” and “with the help of the bright awakening of their ears, eyes, and hearts, they keep reminding others of the remembrance of the days of Allah and making others feel fear for Him like guide-points in wildernesses.” Such people, he says, are “emblems of guidance and lamps in darkness”.

Within the depths of my own soul, Allamah produces exactly such an effect. Every time I find God’s beauty reflected so exquisitely within a person, I feel a surge of love for the Divine that overtakes my entire being. It is as if mortal human lights like Allamah cast their rays upon God’s unknowable face and draw us to Him with the quiet persuasion of a flame enrapturing stray moths. And I can’t help but wonder: do such unassuming souls ever recognize what power they wield? Are they ever conscious of the moments in which they themselves become a living, breathing tafsir of His sublime truth?

Looking at Allamah, I realize that the answer must be no; someone so deeply lost in the Beloved would never choose a mirror over the Beloved’s face. This secret, which eluded shaytan after 6,000 years of worship, became manifest in the still waters of that gentle, intoxicated soul. Because of Allamah, I have come to understand why God deemed human beings superior to the angels and granted us the potential to become His khulafa on earth. Within the glory of Allamah’s character, I find glimpses of the vindication of humankind.

One of Allamah’s most well-known poems includes the electrifying lines, “my path is the path of the lovers, worship is intoxication in the path of love. Excluded from this house are the sober ones.”

The intoxication he spoke of comes from the wine of Divine love, which is the deepest, most intrinsic yearning of every human soul, yet is rarely consumed to the point of intoxication. The sober ones may experience a fleeting taste of it amid moments of deep worship and reflection; we may even find ourselves aching for its sweetness, but we remain at the precipice of intoxication, unable to lose ourselves long enough to step over the edge. Caught within the web of our frailties, sins, and egos, we linger at the periphery of the elevation that is our fitrati birthright. But intoxicated souls like Allamah venture among us in order to illuminate the path of Love, allowing us to witness the glorious transformation of one who has crossed the boundary of self and bathed in the waters of self-annihilation.

About two months before Allamah passed away, his eldest son asked him to summarize everything he had learned of the sacred Islamic tradition in just one word. In response to this momentous query, Allamah repeated the word that had become the very essence of his being: love, love, love.

Many years have passed since my first glimpse into Allamah’s character, but no one has ever captivated me quite like that humble man from Tabriz. The very mention of his teachings still floods my heart with affection, and the very utterance of his name still brings a smile to my face. Though he died long before I was born, his influence remains a living presence in my life. Within the rare balance of his existence, I find answers to the unbidden secrets of my soul.

The battle with my unruly nafs remains a never-ending struggle, but pondering the complexities of Allamah’s being grants me fuel for my own inner journey, and reflecting on his life inspires me to continue learning and working to improve myself so I can attain deeper levels of awareness and submission. For as long as I live, I will always be grateful that someone like Allamah existed.

In a sea of ordinary people, he was a radiant example of human goodness at its highest potentiality. He was al insan al kamil, the embodiment of virtues that elevate humankind above all other beings; a finite mirror reflecting the glorious attributes of the Divine. Beings like Allamah Tabatabai transcend the designation of mere human and become luminous, timeless signs that point us endlessly to God and our infinite need of Him.

If you find this essay beneficial, please recite a Fatiha for my beloved brother, Ammar Zaidi, and remember the youth of the Dallas community in your duas.

Part IV: A Brief Addendum Regarding Contentious Spiritual Perspectives

In light of contemporary online rhetoric regarding esoteric matters of mysticism, philosophy, and spirituality, it may be worth noting that the mystical understanding that was championed by Allamah and many of his colleagues remains subject to disagreement to this day, and the unique commitment these scholars exhibited to analyzing, teaching, and proliferating such ideas despite prevalent opposition is a highly thought-provoking stance.

While many respected scholars have viewed the likes of ibn ‘Arabi as problematic, for example, Allamah and his like-minded contemporaries often taught and referenced ibn ‘Arabi’s works – acknowledging credal differences, yet lavishing lofty praise on the latter’s understanding of Tawhid. This remains a contentious stance, yet it is a bold perspective that bespeaks profound spiritual understanding that exceeds the conceptual grasp of many.

If ibn ‘Arabi’s works are taken at face value, for example, one can almost sympathize with the allegations of heresy that are frequently leveled against him; the language he utilizes is heavily allegorical, and is thus highly subject to misinterpretation by the uninitiated. But if understood through the lens of noble ‘urafa like Allamah Tabatabai, Sayyid Ali Qadhi, Ayatullah Khomeini, and others, ibn Arabi’s works may be seen as a nonpareil ocean of Divine love, and one can appreciate the reverence he inspired in many of our greatest scholars.

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